On Location: Bran Nue Dae

Even before it became a stage hit, Bran Nue Dae seemed destined for success. Peter Galvin reports from Broome, Western Australia.

Producer Robyn Kershaw (Looking For Alibrandi) knew the story’s potential ever since the first workshop, when she was a part of the West Australian Theatre Company, in 1987.“It was a wonderful discovery…you’re just so full of life after seeing the play, people were bouncing in their seats and the WATC jumped on it and produced it. The play ended up premiering at the Perth festival in 1990,” she recalls.

Bran Nue Dae then toured the east coast and more than 200,000 people saw it: “That was a fantastic result for a stage show,” adds Graeme Isaac (Dhakiyarr vs. The King), who is producing the film adaptation with Kershaw. Director Rachel Perkins (First Australians) is sharing the screenplay credit with Reg Cribb (Last Train to Freo).
Perkins describes it as a “rites of passage” film. “It’s about a young guy, Willie (Rocky Mckenzie, from Broome, in his acting debut), who has to stand up and choose his own way forward in life, and about the people he meets on his journey who enable him to do that.” According to Isaac, the stage play – which draws heavily on the missionary past of Broome – was more like a revue in form: “It was accessible and irreverent, and it had the feeling of coming from a real time and place while having a strong sensuality.” Bran Nue Dae “sent up everyone” Issac says, “black and white, the Church, etc., and the lyrics were playful.”
“There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine,” one character sings. The screenplay, says Isaac, is taut but it keeps the “joyous, free-wheeling atmosphere” of a show where, in the end, everyone is forgiven. Other key cast includes Geoffrey Rush, Ernie
Dingo, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman and Tom Budge.
The producers and director all have a long relationship with the author of the stage show, Jimmy Chi, and the band with which he composed the music, The Kuckles. Isaac met Chi around 1980, back when the Broome-born songwriter was talking about making a movie out of the story told in the songs. A number of earlier attempts to produce a film stalled; Issac acquired the screen rights originally nearly a decade ago, only to have them lapse and then renewed. For a while, when Kershaw was head of TV drama at the ABC, the Perkins/Issac team looked at the possibility of a telemovie. “That ABC involvement, in terms of a license fee, ended up triggering the money for a theatrical feature,” Kershaw says.
The film was finally financed though Screen Australia, Omnilab Media, ABC, ScreenWest, Film Victoria, and the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund.


Australian cinema history does not have a long or complex tradition of movie musicals, says Kershaw, which made the conception and development of the film particularly challenging. “There’s only been about three, and that’s if you include Billy’s Holiday!” Added to  the complication of production contingencies was that the film was not destined to be supported by a ‘blockbuster’ style budget and the genre is, at least in its Hollywood incarnation, a notoriously expensive one. “We made up our process; we had no idea what and how other people do musicals,” Perkins says.
When we started no one – not even Hollywood – was doing musicals… and then there was Moulin Rouge! (2001), then Chicago (2002) and Hairspray (2007).” Perkins was not a particularly a fan of the genre and her previous experience with a ‘music film’ was One Night the Moon (“a kind of ‘down beat’ operetta,” she says ruefully). The Coen Brothers O, Brother Where Art Thou became a stylistic touchstone: “It was kooky and heightened and the songs came out of the drama,” says Perkins, “whereas Chicago had the conceit of a theater setting.”
Shooting the songs to playback was uncomplicated; Perkins said there were no ear-pieces and no miming.
“We played it loud through a PA and the vocalists sang along…I didn’t do enough takes to send anyone hoarse.”
From a production point of view and unlike a ‘conventional’ film, a musical involves multiple companies of performers, adding layers to the degree of difficulty: “There’s a company of singers and dancers, as well as the actors. You’re working with a choreographer, a
composer and, of course, the songs have to be recorded first!” The production was based in Broome, which was the key setting for both the stage show and the film. The seven weeks of preproduction began in September last year (“to help us get acclimatised to the heat”). The Bran Nue Dae team was based at the offices of the Indigenous company Goolarri Media.
Some of the music was recorded in Melbourne, but the main vocals were done in Broome a month before shooting: “David Bridie (Curtin) is the music producer; he used a mix of The Kuckles and other musicians,” says Isaac. Coordinating the schedules of the
shoot and touring of the working musicians amongst the key cast – including Missy Higgins, Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy-, says Issac, was a major issue.

The choice of Broome itself proved problematic from a production stand-point, but Kershaw says that there was “no way” they could replicate the experience of the remote West Australian town in any way, by virtue of its unique ethnic mix and architecture, and the fact that, culturally, Chi’s story comes directly from that place.
Many locals were used in the film as extras; including the dance numbers, choreographed by the artistic director of the Bangarra dance company Stephen Page. Complicating production further was the film’s 1967 setting: “This meant all period artefacts had to be
found in Perth or elsewhere and shipped in,” Kershaw says.
When Encore visited the set in Broome in November last year, during week two of the seven-week shoot, DOP Andrew Lesnie and the camera team were setting up in the city’s Chinatown for an exterior night shoot featuring The Chooky Dancers. Famous for their interpretation of “Zorba the Greek” via a video shot at the Ramingining Festival in September 2007 by Frank Djirrimbilpilwuy, in Bran Nue Dae they play footy players.
“They’ve danced from when they were in the womb,” says Page. “Even when they’re fishing they look like they’re dancing.” Perkins and Lesnie shot most of the action on two Arricam LT cameras with Zeiss lenses on film, often with one as steadicam: “We used the Super-35 frame to really emphasise the environment and we’ve kept the camera moving to keep up the energy,” Perkins says. Page had the cast and major company dancers rehearse at the Bangarra Dance Theatre in Sydney before the shoot; but he still found himself working on many of the numbers the day before they were shot.
“The choreography in the film is about staying honest to the story, and not stopping the movie for a dance routine…it’s weaved into everything,” he explains. Each community shapes its own style of language in dance. “Cultural protocols and negotiation were a crucial
part of the dance, music and location choices for the film, and Stephen and Rachel have spent their entire creative lives in such a negotiation,” says Kershaw. For one number, “Listen to the News”, Page had to stylise a traditional stomping dance.
“I had to talk to elders and draw inspiration from a certain movement that was not going to interfere with the sacredness of it.” Bran Nue Dae will be released later this year.


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