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Podcast – Gregor Jordan: Directing Dirt Music

Dirt Music director Gregor Jordan on returning to Australian feature film, and reflecting on his debut feature Two Hands.

Director Gregor Jordan is kneeling down on the beach. A large film camera is to his left

Gregor Jordan on the set of Dirt Music

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It’s no surprise that music plays a pivotal role in new Australian feature film Dirt Music.

Based on the acclaimed Tim Winton novel of the same name, director Gregor Jordan says it was front of mind from the start.

“We were always cognisant of the fact that we needed people who could sing playing those key roles,” he says.

He found that in Garrett Hedlund (who plays the co-romantic lead opposite Kelly Macdonald) as well as actor George Mason and singer-songwriter Julia Stone.

In the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast Jordan talks about the process of bringing Julia Stone on board and the music choices in the film. He also discusses how Dirt Music marks his return to Australian feature film for the first time since 2003’s Ned Kelly; how he worked with cinematographer Sam Chiplin on the exterior-heavy shoot; and reflects on making Two Hands, his 1999 debut feature film starring Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne.

Dirt Music stars Garrett Hedlund and Kelly Macdonald in a haunting love story set against the backdrop of Western Australia. An Official Co-production between Australia and the UK, it’s produced by Wildgaze Films and Australia’s Aquarius Films.

Dirt Music releases in Australian cinemas through Universal Pictures on 8 October, with preview screenings at select theatres from 2 October.

For feedback about this episode, please email [email protected]

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Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast, we're joined by Gregor Jordan, the director of the new feature film Dirt Music, which releases in Australian cinemas on October 8th through Universal Pictures, with sneak previews in select theatres from the first of October. Throughout the podcast, Gregor talks about returning to Australian feature films for the first time in 15 years with Dirt Music, how he worked with cinematographer Sam Chiplin on the exterior-heavy and physically demanding shoot in Western Australia and the process of bringing Australian singer songwriter Julia Stone on board. He also reflects on making Two Hands - his 1999 debut feature film, which starred Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne, and his takeaways from that experience. A bit about Dirt Music: based on the acclaimed novel by Tim Winton, it stars Garrett Hedlund and Kelly Macdonald in a haunting love story set against the backdrop of Western Australia. It's also an Official Co-production between Australia and the UK and is produced by Wildgaze Films and Australia's Aquarius Films. Remember, you can subscribe to the Screen Australia podcast through Stitcher, Spotify and iTunes, where you can also leave a rating and review and for all the latest funding announcements, opportunities and Screen New videos and articles, remember to subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter. Now here's Dirt Music director, Gregor Jordan.

[00:01:38] Caris Bizzaca So, Gregor Jordan, welcome to the Screen Australia podcast.

[00:01:43] Gregor Jordan Thanks for having me.

[00:01:44] Caris Bizzaca And your new film is Dirt Music, and it marks your first Australian feature film in more than 15 years since Ned Kelly in 2003. Can you talk through being away from Aussie features for that period of time? And why was it this story that brought you back?

[00:02:03] Gregor Jordan It's a tricky question to answer. It's not like I ever intended to be away. I guess, you know, the world of filmmaking is a bit like joining the circus in that you just have to sort of keep moving until you find a job or, you know, you find someone who will pay you to do your thing. So, it's not like I ever had any intention to sort of be away from Australia. It's just, that's the way it ended up. But, I guess over time, I'm realising that probably my strength as a filmmaker is telling Australian stories. Mostly because I know Australia and understand the culture better than other countries. And, there's a sensibility at play that I seem to get. So, I guess I'm sort of drawn to Australian stories. Cause they speak to me as an Australian.

[00:03:03] Caris Bizzaca And so many people would be familiar with Tim Winton's book Dirt Music, but for those that aren't, can you give us a bit of an idea of what the story is?

[00:03:15] Gregor Jordan Yeah, well, it's a very unusual love story. The actual novel is a big, sprawling epic, that travels all around Western Australia. It starts in a little fishing town, and it's a love story between a woman who's an outsider in the town and this guy who's been through a terrible tragedy. And it's about how they sort of have this forbidden love that ends up turning the town against them. And the story then kind of goes on the road. The man called Lu, he gets sort of attacked by the townspeople and ends up running away and going up to these very remote islands right off the coast of north Western Australia. To sort of try and find peace and solitude from this tragedy that's happened. And then she eventually goes looking for him. So there's some pretty sort of unusual ideas in there. But I guess it's a story about the love between these two, but it's also very much related to the land and the landscape and the ocean and things that Tim Winton really writes about a lot and has a very visceral understanding of and puts into all his books. But Dirt Music is probably one of the most profound in that way.

[00:04:37] Caris Bizzaca And as far as I understand, you were approached, because Dirt Music is an Australian-UK Official Co-production that you were approached by producers in the UK originally with the script from UK screenwriter Jack Thorne. Is that correct?

[00:04:53] Gregor Jordan Yeah, that's right. I just sort of coincidentally met the producer through a mutual friend.

[00:05:00] Caris Bizzaca Is that Finola Dwyer?

[00:05:01] Gregor Jordan Yeah Finola Dwyer and we just sort of got talking and then she asked me if I was a fan of Tim Winton and had ever Dirt Music. And it turned out that I was a huge fan of Tim Winton and knew Dirt Music pretty well. And so she asked me if I'd like to take a look at Jack's script. And I guess having read the book and seen what a big, unruly, abstract piece [it was], I didn't know how to adapt it into a coherent shootable screenplay. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I first read Jack's script that he'd somehow nailed it, and he'd managed to corral this massive book into this shootable, makeable document. And I was very excited about that and got in touch with Finola and said, I'd really like to be considered for this and sort of pitch myself for the job and ended up getting it. Finola was, and is based in the UK, she's been based there for many years, but she's actually a Kiwi. So has spent a lot of time in Australia and really understands the place well. And also has good relationships with Screen Australia and a lot of the distributors and financiers in Australia. So it seemed like a really great fit.

[00:06:25] Caris Bizzaca And so filmed in Western Australia. And, a lot of times people talk about locations being a character in films and particularly you can see that with the Tim Winton's adaptation. You've called it one of the most physically demanding experiences as a filmmaker shooting across those vast landscapes in West Australia. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What was demanding about it?

[00:06:53] Gregor Jordan Well, yes. I mean, look, the pure size and scale of the actual landscape is just mind blowing. I mean, at one point we did a calculation because we were shooting down south in Esperance and then also shooting right up north in the islands off the Dampier Peninsula. And we looked at the distance and it was roughly the same distance of London to Moscow. So the space between our locations was as big as Europe. So that kind of gives you a sense of the distances that you're dealing with. And, look, Western Australia is a very remote place and it's very wild generally. And the film is set mostly outside in some pretty harsh landscapes in the water and on islands and in some sort of very rugged terrain. So to go and shoot in these places obviously involves a huge amount of logistics. And it's incredibly challenging and I guess credit to our production team that they're able to make it all work for the money that we had and get that money up on the screen. But it's just a very physically demanding shoot. And that's not to mention all the travel that we had to do to just get out to these locations. But, we're going to very remote places and we're dealing with really extreme heat and sharp rocks and sharp plants and water that was full of crocodiles and insects and heat stroke. And then down south, we're dealing with plagues of flies and suddenly freezing cold temperatures. So we really had the lot.

[00:08:45] Caris Bizzaca And from like a directing point of view, when you're faced with shooting so many exteriors and having such an exterior heavy shoot, how does that kind of change your approach? How do you work with the director of photography, Sam Chiplin in this case to film all of that? Do you need to be really flexible with weather conditions and changes in the sun? How does it work?

[00:09:10] Gregor Jordan Yeah, well, logistically, as I said, it was a real challenge. And our 1st AD, Chris Webb, was really great in terms of managing the production and working our way around all those incredibly diverse locations, and especially when you're up north. There was obviously transporting a whole crew out to these very remote places, but there was all these other things to consider, like the tides, for instance. Up there they have these incredibly massive tides, like 14 metres tides, so literally, the difference between high and low tide would be - maybe two kilometres of coast would suddenly come out of the water at low tide. And the whole place would look completely different at low tide, as it did at high tide. So there was incorporating those sort of logistics was a massive thing. But in terms of the DP, Sam Chiplin, I guess I was very fortunate because he's not just a skilled DP, he's actually very young and very fit, which is what I needed - because we couldn't take a lot of equipment out to the islands, big chunks of it were actually shot using an easy rig, which is sort of, I guess, somewhere between a Steadicam and a handheld. And it has a very particular look. But put it this way, you've got to be pretty young and fit and strong to be able to use one. And to keep the camera still and capture all the shots so that DP being young and fit and that rig really was what enabled us to shoot a lot of stuff. And we realised that it became a little bit of a defining look for the film. So we just used it a lot.

[00:11:05] Caris Bizzaca And with a film title like Dirt Music, it's no surprise that music plays an important role in the feature. And there's also, you know, Australian singer songwriter Julia Stone plays a role in the film. Can you talk through that aspect of the project, particularly getting Julia Stone involved as well?

[00:11:24] Gregor Jordan Yeah, well, it was a really interesting process. I mean, I guess you have a family band in the film. And so I guess we were always cognisant of the fact that we needed people who could sing playing those key roles. And, we were lucky when we cast Garrett Hedlund because he's got a beautiful voice and he's done a lot of singing and actually did a whole movie playing a country and Western singer. But then, casting the role of his brother and his brother's wife. We sort of, I guess, realised that we needed either actors who could sing very well or singers who could act very well, and what we ended up with was one of each. George Mason is a good actor who just happens to have a beautiful singing voice. And Julia Stone is a very experienced singer, and a well-known singer who happens to have really great acting chops. But then, the process of working out the music was interesting because we sort of I guess, with the music producers and chose a bunch of songs that we thought were appropriate and then got them cleared. But we had sort of more than we needed, if you like. And then at Julia's suggestion, her and George and Garrett actually went and lived together for a week in a little AirBnB in Melbourne and just sang and played all day and night for a week. So, not only did it sort of get them all knowing one another and being completely familiar with one another, but it also got them able to practise all the songs. And so really sort of I guess choosing the songs came down to what worked for them and what suited their voices. And what just sounded the best and what they were happiest singing. So in a way, they sort of chose the music just via these practise sessions.

[00:13:22] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, okay. And with Dirt Music you're directing something that you haven't written - as you were talking before, Jack Thone wrote the screenplay. And then if we look at something like, say, Two Hands your debut feature where you wrote and directed that, does it affect your process as a director when you're directing something that you've written compared to when you're taking on a screenplay that someone else has created?

[00:13:51] Gregor Jordan Yes, it does. I find it different in many ways. I guess one of the key differences is that your power dynamic as a director is very different if you're the creator of the material. I guess people defer to you more if you're the one who's written it because they sort of go, well, it's in your head. You're the one who's created this document that we're all gathering around to shoot. It makes you much more central, I think, to the filmmaking process. Whereas when you're directing someone else's writing, you're really interpreting their work in a way. And as a result, and especially when you're a director for hire as well, which I was on Dirt Music, you're sort of brought in to do a job. Which may sound like a cynical way of looking at it, but I guess it is a difference. You're still obviously very passionate about the material, but it's a different thing to when it's something that you've actually generated yourself. But, you know, in terms of how you realise it, I guess that's fairly similar. You're still out there looking for locations, and when you read the script, you see pictures in your head and you get an idea of how you want the film to look. And then when you're casting, you have an idea of what kind of performances you want to get out of these actors. And that effects your choice of actors and all the other different elements in the film making process are fairly similar.

[00:15:33] Caris Bizzaca And I suppose just lastly, I did mention Two Hands. It has been, I think, something like 21 years since that film was made and still is very special to a lot of people that that have seen it. But I'm wondering, like looking back on that experience as your debut feature, what are kind of your biggest takeaways when you reflect on that time?

[00:16:01] Gregor Jordan Well, funnily, I've actually had a lot of opportunity to reflect on it recently because I've been approached to actually do a television series of Two Hands. So we put a writers room together. And it was very bizarre because we had a bunch of writers all analysing Two Hands, sort of basically breaking it down into tiny little pieces to sort of see what might work for TV. But, I answer your question 'what do I take away from it?': I mean, it was a very special thing for me. I guess everyone's first film is, every filmmaker's first film is and the fact that it turned out well and seemed to strike a chord, I think was a product of the fact that, look, I think there's luck involved in every film. I think I had a lot of good luck in that one to fin someone like Heath and someone like Rose right at the start of their career. And just also be able to work with such fantastic crew and and all those fantastic actors and a lot of these people, I'm still in touch with and still really close friends with. And then I guess something about it just went right. And it's not always the case. And just as easily things can go wrong. So I guess I'm just sort of thankful that it turned out well and that people liked it then and seem to still like it now.

[00:17:38] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. Well, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for chatting today. Congratulations on Dirt Music. And really appreciate your time.

[00:17:48] Gregor Jordan Yeah, no worries. Thanks so much.

[00:17:52] Caris Bizzaca That was Gregor Jordan, the director of Dirt Music, which releases theatrically in Australia on the 8th of October. Remember, you can subscribe to the Screen Australia podcast through Stitcher, Spotify and I tunes. And if you have any feedback, feel free to email [email protected]. Thanks for listening.