Tomorrow, When the War Began: birth of the Aussie blockbuster

Tomorrow, When the War Began delivers a nearly seamless transition from print to screen, with just the right amount of Hollywood-style gloss. Georgina Pearson spoke to its creators about the challenge of making Australia’s first teenage blockbuster.

Adapting a book into a film is one thing, but taking an internationally acclaimed, award-winning novel of ongoing popularity and turning it into a potential movie franchise is a completely different ball game. Such was the case with John Marsden’s Tomorrow series; set in a remote area of rural Australia, the books tell the story of a group of teenagers and their struggle for survival when their lives are suddenly and violently upended by war. With no one to lean on but each other, they must learn to escape and fight back against a hostile military force.
First published in the 1990s with more than 2.5 million copies sold, it would seem this Aussie epic was crying out to be visually translated – and it was.
Marsden received more than 120 offers from different film companies, all of which he turned down. Speaking of his decision to finally relinquish the film rights he said: “In the end I got talked into it by people who really had a commitment to the books, who really loved the stories, loved the characters and talked about the books with passion.”
Those people were executive producer and Omnilab Media managing director Christopher Mapp, Ambience Entertainment’s Michael Boughen, producer Andrew Mason and director/screenwriter Stuart Beattie.

Initially drawn to the project by its literary success, Boughen recognised the potential of an inbuilt audience: the huge following the books already had. With Mapp on board from the get-go he set about
recruiting Mason to co-produce, and was subsequently introduced to Beattie by Mapp, who had known him since childhood.
Mason (Dark City, the Matrix trilogy, Scooby Doo) brought valuable expertise in visual effects and big budget films: “The production needed someone who had been down that path before, and that suited me rather well.”
For first-time director Beattie – whose successful writing career is full of crowd-pleasing blockbusters such as Australia, G.I.Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Collateral and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – the decision to join the team was easy, but not without hesitation. “I loved the books so much I was hesitant to let someone, even myself, ruin them. When I finally came to a place in my personal life where I felt I was ready to direct, this was being offered to me so I said to them, ‘I’m going to write it but I’ve got to direct it as well’.”
According to Beattie, the skill in adapting a book successfully comes from the knowledge of which scenes will translate visually, and which will not.
“It’s always difficult, deciding what to leave in and what to throw out. You have to be extremely ruthless and if something is not serving the story, it’s got to go. You have to know when to let go.” He explained.
He explains that another aspect of directing he found a challenge was balancing all the responsibilities.

“It’s all these people coming up to you all day long asking questions and you have to have answers for them. You just have to stay calm.”
With its action-packed war genre, Tomorrow… reads like an American blockbuster however, as far as Beattie was concerned, there was never any question of following the big bucks and filming in the US.
“Absolutely not! I always saw it as a very Australian film; set in Australia, about Australians,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the filmmakers weren’t thinking about the international markets. In fact, the film was extensively tested offshore to make sure that it would stand up on a world stage and with American audiences.
“From day one we set out to not compromise the quality. We made sure that we got the right budget so that the story, when being delivered to the international market as a finished product, would be the best it could be,” Mapp told Encore.
Even though the budget – a reported $25m provided largely by Omnilab Media, with support from Screen Australia, Screen NSW, the NSW Government and distributor Paramount Pictures – is almost pocket change in comparison to many US productions, it is one of the largest, attached to any Australian film.
Asked about the financial limitations, Beattie explained that sometimes a smaller budget isn’t actually all bad “You’re always going to feel limited by your resources and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Sometimes when the options are limitless you don’t make the best choice; you make the grandest choice because no one is saying ‘you can’t do that’ – and that’s not always best for the story. Restrictions to an extent are a good thing. Sure, I would have liked twice the money and twice the time but I didn’t have it and as a result, we had to come up with more creative and intriguing ways to tell the story. That is always a positive.”

Visually, Tomorrow… is stunning and this is perhaps a defining feature. With such a varied range of landscapes described in the book, the production was able to find all of the locations in New South Wales. Originally set to shoot in Victoria, the lack of accessibility and dry scenery caused producers to look closer to home, settling on the Hunter Valley and Blue Mountains, with Dungog providing the setting for the fictional town of Wirrawee.
The location of ‘Hell’, pivotal to the story, was surprisingly easy to find. “I had a paradise in my head, and I actually found it only 45 minutes from Sydney. I looked around at 20 or 30 different places but this was one of the first ones we saw. I remember finding it and going ‘oh my god!’ I mean, you would not know this place was where it was. I said ‘this is it; it’s perfect!’”
Beattie told Encore.
The breathtaking aerial views showcase Australian scenery at its finest. Mason adds “In the end, the most important thing was to try and make sure we really made use of the big frames; that we really made it feel like a big movie.”
With 10 weeks of preparation, the shoot was 48-days long and finished on schedule and on budget. Just.
“We couldn’t have made it with a cent less,” Beattie said.

During post-production, the VFX necessary to create a commercial action film finally came to life.

“There were more than 400 VFX shots; we just kept adding them” Mason explained. “We always planned to have a lot of visual effect work; really you can’t make a big action adventure film without it. But the fact that Omnilab had both Iloura and The Lab as visual effects resources made it easier to add them as I went along.”
The result speaks for itself. This is not an ‘Australian film’; it’s a movie the way audiences around the world understand that word; the kind many are willing to pay their hard-earned money to watch.  Take out the Aussie accent and it could be an action flick made in Hollywood.
Still, Beattie tried to add elements that would set Tomorrow… apart from the average action flick. Underneath the spectacular shooting/chase scenes and general pyromania, the storyline runs deeper revealing a coming-of-age story suitable for the masses.
Mapp agrees: “It’s a great story; it’s got wonderful moments of drama, action, and romance – everything that a wide cinema-going audience will appreciate”.
It is this balance that allows Tomorrow… to have such a wide scope.
“I think it has huge international potential,” Beattie enthused. “The story is very universal; it’s about a bunch of teenagers who want to get away from their parents, I mean who doesn’t want that?”
The international sales agent is Inferno Entertainment, and although Mapp said they’ve “certainly had interest”, there is no confirmed deal for a US release.
“What we’re trying to create is a franchise; three films and a TV series,” Mapp explained. “To create that opportunity we need to see the Australian audience embrace it, and we need the international marketplace to recognise the strength of the film. If they do, we’re ready to go on building and expanding the series.”
While the future of the franchise will be defined by its box office, home entertainment and international sales results, Beattie’s own future is far more certain. Looking at the outcome of his first foray into directing, it’s safe to say he hasn’t just dipped his toes in the pool – he’s dived right in, headfirst, and he will certainly continue to explore this new facet of his career.
“It’s the best job in the world. There’s just nothing like it!”
Tomorrow, When the War Began will be released by Paramount Pictures on September 2.


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