Back on the Block

Sarah Spillane’s low-budget feature, Around the Block, points to inventive business models as it seeks to capitalise on the success of indigenous films says Ed Gibbs.

Although noticeably absent during Encore’s set visit, the shadow of the film’s Hollywood star, Christina Ricci, can be felt in the two-storey house in Sydney’s inner west where production is underway for the micro-budget feature Around the Block.

Ricci, who declined to do any press ahead of the film’s release, agreed to sign on to the project after writer/director Sarah Spillane’s producers, Sue Armstrong and Brian Rosen of Tree Films, inked what’s becoming an increasingly popular deal for features from first time filmmakers.

An undisclosed share of the profits, should they be forthcoming, will make up for the modest remuneration received up front.

Sarah Spillane on set

Ricci’s input – filling the role of the arts teacher who bonds with a troubled student, played by 19-year-old rising star Hunter Page-Lochard of The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae fame – should ensure the feature generates festival interest ahead of an expected theatrical release post Oscars.

Rosen, a veteran producer and former head of Screen Australia’s predecessor, the Film Finance Corporation, has several other projects in production. They include Ernie, a feature with animator Adam Elliott and Makeup, a romantic comedy. Despite not usually taking on a project like Around the Block – his background is kids films – he’s upbeat between takes on a key scene, he says, after seeing Spillane work during week one. In the scene, Page-Lochard’s character is watching the news in the front room of the house, his anger rising at the media’s reporting of the 2004 Redfern riots when indigenous residents clashed with Police in Sydney’s Redfern following the death of 17-year-old Thomas ‘TJ’ Hickey.

He storms out as his mother appears to check on him.

“What’s happened is, they’ve knocked all the houses down,” explains Rosen. The once notorious Redfern hotspot where the riots took place is now a vast expanse of grass owned by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation. There are plans to build low-cost housing in the space and the situation meant producers had to find an alternate location to shoot. Rosen was able to source a house that wasn’t being lived in several kilometres from Redfern in Sydney’s inner west.

“The owner was renovating upstairs and hadn’t reached the ground floor yet, so it worked fine,” he says.

The authenticity of the piece goes further, since Spillane based the story – in which the troubled youth is inspired to rap Shakespeare, in a Dangerous Minds vein – on her own time spent living near the infamous street.

“About 10 years ago, I was living in Redfern, about 100 metres from the Block,” Spillane explains. “I was this broke writer, trying to get a few scripts on the page, living across the road from an Aboriginal arts college – a sort of Aboriginal TAFE. I went across there one day to use their photocopier and this guy came out. He saw I was copying a script, and said, ‘Oh you work in the film industry. We’ve got a class upstairs that needs a teacher, a sort of introduction to video production. Can you come up and teach them?’ I said no, since I didn’t teach. A few days later he came and knocked on my door and said, ‘We really need a teacher, can you just come up and tell them what you do?’

“So I ran through an old crew list, asking them if they knew what a gaffer was. These 15, 16-year-old Aboriginal kids were just sitting there, staring back at me, bright eyed, shaking their heads. I ended up teaching there one or two days a week for the next five or six years. And I ended up learning just as much as they did: the basics of script writing and acting, and the film industry. So a lot of it is based on, or inspired by, personal experience.”

First time feature

Although Spillane is new to the feature format, she has a respectable portfolio of music clips and commercials under her belt. The script was something she had been working on throughout her time in Redfern. Her agent thought Rosen and his wife and business partner Armstrong should read it and take a meeting. The pitch, evidently, went well.

“I was really impressed with her vision for the film,” Rosen says. “I’d met a lot of filmmakers coming in, looking for money, and when she walked in and pitched it to me, it was one of the best I’d heard. She had strong ideas about casting, too. Again, that’s crucial.”

Haggling with distributors over content – some complained it was too familiar, Rosen insists that is its strength – followed meetings, he says, where he’d seen a rejection of fresh ideas that were untested. “Distributors will say, ‘we want something different’. And when you give them something different, they say ‘but we haven’t seen this before’. So you’re betwixt and between. It’s the old catch 22. So in the end you say ‘fuck it’ and move forward anyway,” he says.

Comparisons to Billy Elliott, 8 Mile, Good Will Hunting and, in Rosen’s own language, “going right back to To Sir with Love” abound. The familiarity of the story – a troubled teen has to overcome his surroundings via mentoring and music – is juxtaposed with a unique setting: a troubled Aboriginal community.

“If you look at the success of Australian films recently, the standouts have been indigenous films,” Rosen says. “I know Red Dog was in there, but if you look at Bran Nue Dae, Samson and Delilah, Ten Canoes a few years earlier, even Mad Bastards in some way, and now with The Sapphires, indigenous film is working well with an audience. So I go ‘boo’ to all those people who said no to indigenous Shakespeare. That’s precisely why it should work.”

Banking on a star

The micro-budget structure of the film coincided with star Ricci’s much-anticipated new show Pan Am failing to make the cut on US television.

“It’s a film that can help her career, in the same way that Jacki Weaver did with Animal Kingdom. It can throw her into the awards arena,” Rosen reasons. “She has a strong cult following. I’m amazed how many young people know her. She’s very professional, actually, for a young 32-year-old. She’s been doing it for 24 years. I respect that. But I believe she’s done this film because she really liked the screenplay.”

Rosen’s partner and wife, Su Armstrong, believes it’s a local story with broad global appeal. “It could happen anywhere,” she says. “This could be in the Algerian section of Paris. This could be in downtown east LA. This could be in East End, the Mile End area. It’s actually quite global in its potential. It just happens to be from here, from Sarah’s experience. All the indigenous stories are really powerful at the moment. Is there a confluence of the stars for it? I have no idea. But it’s certainly good timing, on our part.”

Production specs

Around the Block – shot on the Red Epic camera in just 21 days – is now in post production with the picture scheduled to be locked by early November. The producers are hopeful for an international festival screening with Sundance or Berlin particularly in their sights.

Rosen points to The Sapphires, which (like Samson and Delilah in 2009) screened at Cannes, and is now travelling towards projected $15 to $20m takings, should the local box-office continue on par with current predictions. Greenlight will handle Around the Block’s domestic release with Hopscotch, while Arclight look after foreign sales.

A new filmmaking model

Rosen, who was based in LA with Armstrong for a decade prior to returning in 2006, is so upbeat about his new feature that he points to the business model as a means of getting other features made while local government agencies play catch-up.

“There’s great opportunity at the moment,” he says.

“The producer offset is working well. The industry is changing but the agencies need to move quickly – they’re not moving quickly enough. There’s a real opportunity to build on what we have, to make a lot more films at certain budget levels, in that $6 to $25m mark, which the studios simply aren’t making any more, but are buying when they’re finished. That’s an area we should be moving into. But it needs the right government incentive programs for that to happen. If we can get that right, we can actually have a thriving feature film industry here. ”

Spillane, meanwhile, who had to fly back to LA immediately after the shoot wrapped for further TVC work, is optimistic about her film’s chances in a crowded marketplace strangled by studio product.

“I don’t mind the comparisons, to be honest,” says Spillane of the film’s narrative similarities.

“My access to this world in Redfern gave me this really interesting window to this community, and a wealth of interesting characters. It’s about whether it is actually possible for someone to break through the cycle and create a change in their lives, despite their environment and circumstances. I don’t think we could have made this film three or four years ago, because the Block was a very different place back then. Things have changed a lot since.”

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