The Boys Are Back: the long way home

The Boys are BackScott Hicks’s filmmaking magic still shines in South Australia, and he brought Clive Owen along to engage audiences in one of the most heart-warming films of the year. Miguel Gonzalez writes.

 The Boys Are Back based on a memoir by Simon Carr was first offered to Hicks by British production company Tiger Aspect (Billy Elliott) back in early 2004. He loved it and started thinking about the casting for protagonist Joe Warr, the English sports journalist living in South Australia who must face the grief of losing his wife and the challenge of raising his young son Artie and the recently arrived Harry, product of his first marriage in the UK.

Having recently seen his Oscar-nominated performance in Closer, Hicks approached Clive Owen, who also loved the script.

“Stars can be difficult to reach, but that’s been an incredible thing in my world, post Shine, I’ve been given access to talent and scripts. Things are available to me and I appreciate that because for years, as a filmmaker, I knew how difficult it was to break through.

“When Clive accepted I thought ‘Whoopee, here we go, we’re off!’” said Hicks. “Five years later we’ve just finished the film because of the vagaries of scheduling.”

Hicks and Owen were the major building blocks for financing the $16 million film, but scheduling became an issue as Owen, although committed to the project, found himself in high demand as a rising star in Hollywood. Their availabilities clashed on two occasions, which didn’t make life any easier for producer Tim White.

“The project was funded twice before and we never finally locked off any agreements, because ultimately it came undone when we didn’t have Clive or Scott available,” he recalled.

BBC Films remained committed to this official co-production through the different financing structures. The FFC/Screen Australia were also behind the project through its many incarnations. Another key component was added at Cannes in 2007: a distribution deal with Miramax, covering North America, the UK and a number of European territories including Germany, Italy and Scandinavia, as well as DVD rights. Hopscotch Films MD Troy Lum picked up the film for distribution in Australia and New Zealand (scheduled for November 12).

The final financing structure was not completed until a few weeks before the shoot in late 2008, which forced White to personally fund a substantial amount of preproduction in Australia, including the construction of the house. The process was frustratingly complex, with the amount of players involved – and their lawyers.

“We always believed these were legitimate players committed to the film, but all parties want to be last in and they want everything else in a line, but the truth is you have to do everything concurrently. As a producer you start day one of the shoot exhausted,” he said.

It was also a matter of ‘playing the states’, with Queensland, NSW and South Australia all being considered for production until Premier Mike Rann’s government offered $1 million – part equity, part to cover the gap on the producer offset QAPE – that the final decision was made.

“He was able to step up and make us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We were wrestling creative issues, in terms of the look and what kind of world we had in our minds, which changed from something of a subtropical nature, through  to areas like the northern rivers of NSW and then finally South Australia,” explained White.



Although he’s been splitting his time between Adelaide and Los Angeles, Hicks has not shot a film in Australia since Shine (1996). The director believes the local industry is “hugely more professional” than it used to be.

“It’s the whole organisation of production and shooting. In the 1970s it was a more haphazard process, and now there’s a big machinery,” he said.

Hicks has also followed the debate about the local films’ disconnection with audiences. He believes that the ones that find a connection with people, even if some of the material is quite challenging, like Samson & Delilah or Beautiful Kate, give the audience room to breathe.

“Some others have been relentless; they can actually drown the audience, who come out numb and not really challenged, just suffocated. It can happen, even with really good minds and talent at work,” he explained.

That’s why The Boys are Back was a balancing act for Hicks and his editor Scott Gray.

“I told him ‘let’s be careful and not go too Australian and force people down too far, or they’ll never come back’. I was very conscious about this,” Hicks admitted.

But in the real world, a connection with the audience is not enough to make a film work. Hicks admits he’s gotten used to the Hollywood studios “colossal marketing machines”, but a “boutique” film such as this one requires the international treatment that only a specialist like Miramax can offer.

“They have a proven ability to take a film that appears to have just a specialist audience and cross it over into a more mainstream audience. That’s what one can hope might happen,” Hicks said before the film’s limited US release on September 25 and a further expansion to108 screens nationwide.

Miramax is committed to push the film – and Clive Owen’s performance in particular – for awards recognition, through a consistent screening process for members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, BAFTA and the American Academy. But the box office results have been modest at US$691,000, and White believes the film was affected by staff cuts at Miramax.

“We opened the week that 60 of their 80 staff were terminated. Something like that creates an unsettled atmosphere and a level of caution in terms of the expenditure. It’s such a competitive market, and the film has struggled to be in that frontline of attention. The numbers are respectable, but it’s hard for these films to do it just off their own word of mouth,” he admitted.

In Australia, Hicks feels confident about Hopscotch’s strategy and enthusiasm for the film. “We’ve done our work. The film works and it’s there, and now it’s up to them to market it well.”



It was never Hicks’s intention to be absent from the Australian film scene for so long, but his return had to happen with the right project. In this case, the Australian setting was authentic both for the story and for the co-production structure. The filmmaker believes that when a co-production is forced, “you can feel the machinations, like gears graunching”, but the elements in The Boys are Back were authentic in terms of casting and locations.

“It made sense in terms of our story; otherwise it would just be a false premise for a film,” he said. White has extensive experience with co-productions – his most recent, UK/Korea The Warrior’s Way is currently in post – and The Boys are Back was “one of the easiest” with its 60/40 Aus/UK split.

“So often you’re manipulating the creative elements to fit with the finance structure, but this one was quite neatly aligned in terms of the creative, spend split, and fundraising, added the producer, who found the relationship with Tiger Aspect “very rewarding”.

“These things can be ruined with distrust and poor communication, but none of that was the case.”

The nine-week Australian shot was complemented with one week in London. The editing, grading and visual effects were done mostly here at Spectrum and Oasis Post, with the Foley done at Soundfirm. This is not fortuitous, rather a move calculated by Hicks to turn his relationship with Hollywood into a two-way street.

“It’s part of my contract with American studios. I have the right to do my director’s cut and as much postproduction as I can manage in Australia. That’s giving back, putting good hard-earned Hollywood money right back into the South Australian industry.

“I aim to make it a commitment, and it’s worked. The hard part is bringing a shoot here. The infrastructure is there in terms of rebates and investment; the tools are there to use and try to make things work.”

According to White, having Hicks and Australia’s other international filmmakers working in the country, is in itself a contribution to the industry, which he defines as “perennially young”.

“It’s one of its great attributes, but also a deficiency. Some films by new directors are tremendous, but there’s not necessarily a maturity in terms of subject matter or filmmaking, so it’s a great opportunity for crews and cast to work with directors like Scott who build up a skill, who can impart some of that back to the industry.

“It was an exciting challenge to find a team of the next generation in editor Scott Gray, DOP Greig Fraser, costume designer Emily Seresin and production designer Melinda Doring. It was gratifying to see these talented people work with someone of Scott’s experience, on a film that had the resources for them to be able to stretch their own talent.” ■


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