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Podcast – Bunya Productions: David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin

The producers behind the highest-rating Australian adult TV drama of 2020 – Mystery Road series 2 – discuss new frontier film High Ground and creating stories with something to say.

Greer Simpkin and David Jowsey with Aaron Pedersen on the set of Mystery Road

Greer Simpkin and David Jowsey with Aaron Pedersen on the set of Mystery Road

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

A year ago producers David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin were preparing for the 2020 Berlinale, with two of their projects selected for the top tier film festival.

One of those – the second season of Mystery Road – would go on to top the ratings charts at home, sell across the world, and was named by The New York Times as one of the ‘best TV shows of 2020’.

The other - feature film High Ground - has just released in Australian cinemas through Madman Pictures amid the Summer of Cinema campaign, which has seen local audiences flock to theatres to watch The Dry and Penguin Bloom.

Now after a year spent focusing on these two releases and knuckling down into development as COVID-19 stalled production in the industry, 2021 is shaping up to be busy.

There’s production on the SBS series Copping It Black, which is planned to shoot in Alice Springs mid-year, as well as the release of two more films – Leah Purcell’s highly-anticipated feature directorial debut The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, which is being handled by Roadshow Films, and a new Ivan Sen feature Loveland, which Bunya will be distributing themselves.

“I’m one of those people who sees chaos as opportunity,” Jowsey says.

“You can easily look at it as a really tough year and clearly it was. We haven’t made anything for a while and a lot of people haven’t, so it’s tough, but… change is always an opportunity and that’s what I see coming down the pipeline.”

On the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast Jowsey and Simpkin talk about managing various changes to Bunya Productions since it was first founded by Ivan Sen and Jowsey in 2009, including the decision to start a television arm, and with the help of Screen Australia Enterprise funding hire a development executive, look into starting a boutique distribution side, and have a more global focus.

Throughout the episode, the pair also speak to their approach to developing ideas, the significance of international sales, and what it is they love about working as producers.

“We’re in this because we care a lot about what we do,” Simpkin says. “And it makes it easier for us in a way to choose projects that have something to say.”

On that note, High Ground is already generating conversations and positive reviews, but Jowsey says it’s the kind of film that’s thought-provoking, yet “not didactic”.

Directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson, it’s set in 1919 and stars new talent Jacob Junior Nayinggul as a young Aboriginal man who in a bid to save the last of his family teams up with an ex-soldier (played by Simon Baker) to track down his Uncle, the most dangerous warrior in the Territory. It also stars Jack Thompson and Witiyana Marika, who was also a cultural advisor on the film, and produced alongside Johnson, Maggie Miles, Simpkin and Jowsey.

“It’s a really enjoyable thriller rollercoaster ride, but also you will have a heart response to the film,” Jowsey says.

Please note for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners that the following interview may contain references to the names of deceased people.

High Ground is in Australian cinemas now

For feedback about this episode, please email Podcast.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

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 producers Greer Simpkin and David Jowsey from Bunya Productions, whose latest feature is the frontier film High Ground, which is out now in Australian cinemas having released on the 28th of January through Madman Pictures. Directed and produced by Stephen Johnson, High Ground is set in 1919 and stars new talent Jacob Junior Nayinggul as a young Aboriginal man who, in a bid to save the last of his family, teams up with an ex-soldier (played by Simon Baker) to track down his uncle, the most dangerous warrior in the territory. It also stars Jack Thompson and Witiyana Marika, who is also a producer and cultural adviser on the film. Throughout the episode, which was recorded in late 2020, David and Greer speak to working with Witiyana and Stephen on High Ground, as well as the challenges of shooting remotely and about producing more broadly: topics like how they approach developing ideas, the decision to expand into television, the significance of international sales and what it is they love about working as a producer. But a bit of background about Bunya Productions, first founded by David Jowsey and filmmaker Ivan Sen in 2009, Bunya has worked on features including Iven's 2013 film Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone, as well as Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country, the adaptation Jasper Jones and feature documentary The Leadership. Then there's also their work in television. Many would be familiar with the ABC TV series adaptation of Mystery Road, with season two being the highest rated Australian television drama in 2020. In fact, both seasons were awarded Best Drama Series at the 2018 and 2022 AACTA Awards. Before we get to the chat with David and Greer, remember you can find all the latest from the local screen industry in the fortnightly Screen Australia eNews. You can also subscribe to this podcast through places such as Spotify or iTunes. And while you're there, please feel free to leave a rating and review. If you have any feedback, send it to [email protected] . Also please note for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners that the following interview may contain references to the names of deceased people. Now here's producers David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin from Bunya Productions.

[00:02:32] Caris Bizzaca So David and Greer, welcome to the Screen Australia podcast.

[00:02:35] Greer Simpkin Thank you.

[00:02:36] David Jowsey Thank you.

[00:02:36] Caris Bizzaca And first of all, can you just tell me a little bit about your background in the industry prior to Bunya Productions? David?

[00:02:46] David Jowsey Yeah, I started out at Television New Zealand and worked at TVNZ for about four years. I was the first male 'continuity girl', as they called them back then, and had a really good hands-on experience in making television, which stood me in good stead for many years, then came to Australia, started a production company and ended up working at CAAMA, which is the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, and developed some really great relationships there that have become friendships and we've worked together ever since. So that was sort of a formative time in Alice Springs back in the mid 90s. And then I did about 10 years at the ABC as a commissioning editor and executive producer and again, got a really good hands on, you know, touching television every day, being an edit suites every day. And I think that that grounding in production is a really, really handy thing for anyone, really.

[00:03:42] Caris Bizzaca And Greer?

[00:03:44] Greer Simpkin So I too am a New Zealander, but haven't actually ever worked in New Zealand. I came over here and went to Macquarie University and then the day I did my last exam jumped on a plane to London and worked with an acclaimed photographer/filmmaker Brian Duffy, for many years. And then at Mentorn films, which was at the time the second biggest production company in the UK, and I ended up being head of production there. And I learnt a lot again about television from a producer point of view. Then I went to Channel 4 as a programme finance executive there and moved back to Australia and was at the ABC for 12 years, starting out in the documentary department, then moving to factual entertainment, and finally learnt a lot by being in the drama department for many years with Scott Meek, Miranda Dear, and Amanda Higgs - just some fantastic creatives that I learnt a lot from and then joined Bunya five years ago.

[00:04:42] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, brilliant. And so Bunya Productions - David, can you tell me how the production company actually came about in the first place?

[00:04:50] David Jowsey Yeah, I'd been at the ABC. I was making some documentaries with Ivan Sen, you know, one of our most talented Indigenous filmmakers. And, you know, Ivan had made a film some years before called Beneath Clouds, which had won a Silver Bear at Berlin and was a terrific film. And he just felt it was time for him to make another movie. And as it happens, we decided to make a sci fi in Nevada for virtually no budget. And I thought, yeah, I'll leave the ABC and go and do this with Ivan. So we set up Bunya and we went off to Nevada and we thought, 'God, it's a sci fi. We're just going to be so successful with this.' And then it ended up being this sort of metaphysical poem that was black and white and had no dialogue. So it was effectively unreleasable. But we sort of bonded over that process and the sort of madness of what we were doing. And so it's been a wonderful journey with Ivan over the years and we made a lot of films together. And that really is the genesis of Bunya until such time as Greer joined.

[00:05:52] Greer Simpkin Yeah. And I joined five years ago from the ABC and was grateful, very grateful to be supported by Screen Queensland with an enterprise grant to come to Bunya and start developing the TV arm. And that is where we started, you know, adapting some of our IP. So clearly the first one was Mystery Road. And so that's been really fun. We've got some other TV drama coming up that we're shooting this year, like Copping It Black for SBS that we're doing with the writers Erica Glynn, Danielle MacLean and Stephen McGregor, and Erica and Stephen are going to direct. So that's sort of one of the second TV shows that we've done. But I guess Mystery Road was primarily what I guess I joined Bunya to do, and it's been great.

[00:06:49] Caris Bizzaca And so that choice then - because it feels like it was a conscious decision to move into television because when Bunya was first started, there was (films) Toomelah, Mad Bastards, Satellite Boy, Goldstone and then you've moved into the TV space, and very successfully with Mystery Road series one and two. Can you talk through the decision to to branch out into television?

[00:07:16] David Jowsey Yeah, well, Greer had had a long time at the ABC and there comes a point with the ABC, which as much as I loved my time there and Greer loved her time there, you feel that it's time to move on and do something else. You know, you've really given your soul to the ABC and they take it with pleasure. So I think there was for me, I was very, very keen to get Greer to come and join us because I knew her skills and I knew how lacking mine were-

[00:07:42] Greer Simpkin That's not true-.

[00:07:42] David Jowsey I wish I could you know... we were we were making a feature a year, but a very independent feature. And you can't just stay the same forever. You've either got to do something different or grow or, you know, you've got to expand your horizons a little bit. And we'd been making a feature a year. And so I just was really keen to get Greer out of the ABC and get her working with us, because I knew that her skills and her talent would allow us to be something new and beautiful and shiny.

[00:08:13] Greer Simpkin I would say, though, you know, like maybe this is only for the older listeners, but Marie and Donny Osmond used to say, 'I'm a little bit country. You're a little bit rock and roll'. You are definitely still - you love cinema, you're features. That's your love, you know, and you've continued to do that. And when I came in, I came straight out of the ABC and literally a month later I was living in a tent in the middle of nowhere, shooting Goldstone. And I'd quickly gone over to Series Mania, the French beautiful TV festival. And I always remember going to this dinner and this French producer was saying, 'so tell me what you're doing'. And I was kind of joking going, 'well, yeah, I left the ABC and now I'm living in a tent in the desert'. And he just looked at me really shocked and was kind of looking at me all night, really worried. And at the end of the night he went, 'it must be very hard to be a producer in Australia'. He thought I literally had no money and I was living in a tent. I hadn't been quite specific enough. But I think in some ways what I've loved about television and working with David and all the amazing creators we work with in the television spaces - unlike cinema where you only have a couple of hours at most, on a TV series if it's six hours, we treat it like it's a very long film, but there's an opportunity to really delve into story a lot more than you can get in two hours. So I've really enjoyed that kind of process. But I mean, you're still very steadfastly in the feature film camp wouldn't you say?

[00:09:55] David Jowsey Yes, people just humour me and pat me on the head and say, look, it's OK. Film's still relevant. It is getting tougher, I think, with film. And obviously at the moment it's pretty hard with globally cinemas and the rise of streaming. But I'm ever hopeful and ever optimistic that features: they're going to make a comeback.

[00:10:17] Greer Simpkin But, you know, we've been part of the golden age of television all around the world. And it's kind of amazing because I think maybe ten years ago, people were really worried (that) was long form drama going to still exist? And, you know, look, it's just had this amazing comeback and I'm really excited about that. And there's some amazing work being done all around the world. So, you know, I think it's an exciting space.

[00:10:41] Caris Bizzaca Do you find just with television that the gestation period for an idea is a lot faster than film? I mean, it can be quite a lot longer than a film, but it is episodic, so...?

[00:11:00] Greer Simpkin Yeah, I think what tends to happen with television, I guess, is that you have a broadcaster usually relatively early on in the process that want to develop it with you because developing a six-part or an eight-part TV series costs a lot more. So you really have to have a partner. So that kind of helps to drive the process along, as it were, I think. And, you have writers' rooms, where there can be a lot more voices, but people writing simultaneously, so that process can actually happen a lot quicker than maybe if you've got an auteur filmmaker who's a director who's writing as well. I think feature films often take a lot longer to finance, really, because with broadcaster involvement, that that sort of changes things. That triggers other finance.

[00:11:51] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And then you also work in factual. It's not just the drama space, with say Bluewater Empire. Can you talk through then also being in the factual space and how you kind of balance that across features and TV?

[00:12:09] Greer Simpkin Yeah, I've made a few little documentaries. I've made two films with director Kaye Harrison: Sanctuary that I made with her is on DocPlay right now actually. And then The Leadership was a film I made with Ile Bare, which has had a theatrical release and is also on DocPlay right now. Docos are hard. I think David would say that's probably not our focus. Yeah, it's been great. But, you know, The Leadership took four years. So they're tough, those films and I really admire everybody in the documentary and factual space. But I think from now on, we'll be focusing on drama.

[00:13:01] Caris Bizzaca And in the last couple of years as well, it feels like the company has expanded further in terms of, you know, getting a CEO, executive vice president in LA. Can you talk us through the expansion of Bunya in that way?

[00:13:17] David Jowsey Well, we have to thank Screen Australia very much. We got Enterprise from Screen Australia, which I think there's no way we could have expanded without that support. And I think I just want to acknowledge that that has allowed us to expand and take on more projects and have a more global perspective. And what that really did was underpin us having some more staff. So we were able to have a development executive. We've also had ambitions for many years, we released our film Mystery Road quite a few years ago, and we really caught the bug of wanting to be in distribution and, you know, distribution's sort of at the pointy end where the money is. And look, as much as I love distributors and I really do love them, I really admire what they do, it's just a natural tendency to not want to share. So we can see that while most of our films, whille not usually huge, most of them actually do quite well at the box office. So we've been really, really keen. So we've taken on a sales and marketing to actually set up our own distribution organisation, which is a very, very boutique. It's really just releasing our own films. And it allowed us, as you said, to get an executive in the in the US who's very, very well connected to the industry there. And obviously, you know, to have a CEO as well. And so that's given us just a scale that's been really useful. Obviously, as that geared up the pandemic hit. And so we were like a lot of companies ended up moving more to focus on development during that period. And so to have a development executive that we got supported to have really made that work. Really, really made that work. And so we ended up developing quite a lot of projects over the course of this year. And so it's been a terrific process. It's been a real eye opener in what you can do in terms of scale and what can be achieved.

[00:15:09] Caris Bizzaca Well, speaking on development then, so when you're looking for ideas to go forward with, do you have people pitch you in regards to development? Are you wanting to work with a certain creative that you might have met and said, what kind of ideas do you have? I mean, does it start with the person or an idea or maybe, you know, it depends on the circumstances?

[00:15:33] Greer Simpkin Yeah. Creatives are so important and we really value the writing teams that we work with, the people that come up with ideas, the directors. So it's a mix of both really. Some people that we've worked with before will come back to us with ideas. We sometimes come up with things ourselves. We're really interested in adaptations. We've done that a bit. We did Jasper Jones from the novel. Obviously Mystery Road and Goldstone that we've adapted into TV series and plays like The Drover's Wife that we've worked with Oombarra Productions on developing Leah Purcell's film, which has just completed.

[00:16:15] Caris Bizzaca Feature film directorial debut?

[00:16:17] Greer Simpkin  Yes. And so I mean, that was really from my years at the ABC when you could see that where you had something that was already out in the market - that's not a great word for it, but, you know, something like The Slap, for instance, or Jack Irish, when we commissioned those and we were adapting into a TV series something that was already known, it really did make a difference. People knew what The Slap was about. You know, people knew about the Jack Irish story. So I thought that's a really good idea. So we've done that a lot.

[00:16:54] David Jowsey Yeah. And we've obviously, you know, we set up our business with Ivan Sen. And so a lot of the projects, and especially in the early days, were really built around us producing and Ivan creating those works. And so we had a string of films that did that. And I guess we like the idea of working with friends and with people we know. So we certainly have a group of people that we work with, both as directors and writers, you know, and one person that comes to mind is Stephen McGregor, who really does a lot of the writing that we do. Was involved in Sweet Country, Mystery Road. Blue Water Empire - a lot of our stuff. You've got to acknowledge that that source, that sort of creative writing talent of high quality is really what underpins a production company. And I guess people like Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and those sorts of people that we've worked with over the years, you know, just really talented creatives. It's always good to have those people as people that you work with again and again. We really love that.

[00:17:56] Caris Bizzaca Hmm. And what kind of ideas do you feel like Bunya as a production company is drawn to?

[00:18:04] Greer Simpkin I mean, I would say we're in this because I guess we we care a lot about what we do. And it makes it easier for us in a way, to choose projects that have something to say. And that's actually a really easy way to make a decision when something is sent to us. Will we want to work on this for, you know, if it's a feature film, sometimes that's seven years to get something up? Are we wanting to continue to work on something if it really doesn't have something that we feel passionate as a theme in it? And that is actually a really easy way for us to distinguish what we'll do and what we won't.

[00:18:45] David Jowsey Yeah, and I think, look, you know, to acknowledge Ivan again, he sort of brought an ethos to our company, which was to run a very low overhead, to be really frugal in our spending patterns, but also to have a very strong sense of the identity of Australia, about acknowledging Indigenous Australia, about the journey that is still to come and that acknowledgement and he's very passionate about that. And most of the people we work with, you know, obviously the Rachel Perkins and Steve McGregor's and the Warwick Thornton's and all of those people, that's sort of a core thing of what they do. So, that ethos that's come out of Ivan's sort of statement of intent and we've certainly, that's given us something to go to work for. It's a really important thing we feel. And we love telling those stories. We love working in the Outback. And we hope we can do some more. And still talking about ideas and going forward with ideas, a lot of the projects that Bunya is involved with have really resonated with international audiences. And I'm wondering how significant are those international sales for the projects that you're involved in?

[00:20:00] Greer Simpkin I think it's really significant, especially when they're stories that are saying something about Australia but also have universal themes. And I would speak to Mystery Road, really, you know, the second series got rated by The New York Times as one of the top 20 international shows of the year. And it was pretty incredible to to get that. Aaron Pedersen was on the cover of the digital culture section, a whole big article about Aaron Pedersen. That for me is really significant and important. And Mystery Road has sold all around the world. It's been on the BBC, both series. It's on ACORN in America. It's sold all over Europe. Arte had the first series and it was their highest rating, international drama of the year. So I think that's really important and I feel very satisfied with that. And how great that a show that's really, you know, originally created by Ivan Sen with something to say, using the genre of the Western to bring audiences in. They kind of know the world they're getting into, but then have this Trojan horse in the middle of it that's actually revealing something about Australia's identity. I'm just so happy that it's had that kind of impact. And equally here - this year, Mystery Road is the highest rating drama on any network. It got 1.7 million viewers if you count iview for each episode. So I think that's something to be really happy about. And so for me, having that kind of international reach is really important. (To David) Features?

[00:21:41] David Jowsey Yeah, well, we don't want to forget features, as much as we love TV. The feature film business is, you know it's a tough time at the moment. We've literally just finished Leah Purcell's The Drover's Wife, which we're very, very excited about. It's an awesome film. And Leah has done an amazing job with her partner, Bain Stewart and Oombarra Productions. We're just putting the finishing touches to Ivan Sen's sci fi film that was shot in Hong Kong.

[00:22:09] Caris Bizzaca Is that Loveland?

[00:22:10] David Jowsey Loveland. Yeah, which is really, really exciting. And it's made a big sale to a very large US company, which I can't say what it is, but that's a super exciting theatrical sale. So we're very excited about that. And obviously, we've you know, we've got Simon Baker starrer Jack Thompson starrer High Ground, which Madman are releasing in January. That's been delayed by the pandemic and all of the films are sort of pushed back a little bit, but we're super excited to have three films, even though it's a crazy time to be releasing films.

[00:22:41] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, and there's also an element of like, you know, you think about Sweet Country and its premiere at Venice, where it picked up awards and then something like High Ground, which had a release at Berlin earlier this year. How important are those international festival selections for feature films in terms of getting them then off into their release?

[00:23:07] David Jowsey  I think they're really important. I know that you'll find some Australian distributors, some of the bigger ones, see it as sort of tending over to something that really doesn't matter at the box office here. And I know that it's more of a marketing exercise. But what I have found and look, a lot of our films have been to the A-list festivals. Pretty much all of them really have been in the big four festivals. And that means that they all sell. You know, for me, it actually translates into sales. You know, that profile, that sort of certification of quality that you've got into the best festivals in the world means that people buy them, because simultaneous to those festivals, there are markets. As you know, there's big markets at Berlin, in Cannes and Toronto. Not so much at Venice, but there's still a market there. And Sundance, more of a local American market, but you can still sell films out of Sundance. And so I think it's actually critical to get that. With an Australian film, you don't have that immediate studio recognition. You are by nature an independent film, obviously, unless you're funded out of the studio system. But the majority of Australian films aren't. So to get that international recognition, to get that platform, I actually think it's critical. With the decline in revenues from ancillaries, you've really got to try and get those sales to the smaller territories around the world to actually beef up your income. And festival exposure is one really, really good way to do that.

[00:24:35] Greer Simpkin And, you know, in the television sector, Berlin now has a whole TV series section and Mystery Road was it this year, which was fantastic and so was Stateless, which is really terrific for two Australian TV series to be in that. There's Series Mania. That's the French (TV) festival, which is huge and is really prestigious. So I really love it if we get accepted into them because it really does give a kind of mark of quality and distinctiveness.

[00:25:06] Caris Bizzaca Especially because those film festivals and I know Toronto is starting to have some television series there as well. It's kind of like to be a TV series selected for a festival means you're one of a very, very few number?

[00:25:20] Greer Simpkin Yeah, like Total Control was at Toronto. That's fantastic. All these Australian TV shows getting into those festivals is really brilliant and it's testament to the productions that are happening here and the broadcasters really pushing for distinctive content.

[00:25:37] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of a general question around the Australian industry at the moment, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges for Australian production companies right now?

[00:25:47] David Jowsey Yeah, look, I'm one of those people who sees chaos as an opportunity. And I think that's the way that I always am sort of foolishly optimistic, which is why I'm still making films. But yeah, I think always when there's a disruption and chaos comes into a fairly established industry, then there's an opportunity for new people to come in, there's an opportunity for people to step in, there's an opportunity for people to change what they're doing because what they're doing doesn't work anymore. So we have really tried to look at a more international sort of focus on what we're doing. We've tried to see a way forward by looking to distribute our own works. And so I think that's the way to look at it. You can easily look at it as a really tough year. And clearly it was - we haven't made anything for a while and a lot of people haven't. So it's tough. But I think the way to do it is to see it as change is always an opportunity. And that's what I see coming down the pipeline.

[00:26:45] Caris Bizzaca And another thing that I thought was interesting that Bunya does is workshops or there's the Talent Hub LA programme with Netflix happening at the moment. And then there was a genre workshop that was through Gender Matters a number of years ago. Could you talk a little to that and kind of being involved either workshops, or targeted initiatives or these kind of things?

[00:27:11] David Jowsey Yeah, we were always a great believer in renewal and bringing people through. We got opportunities. It always takes a while. And in particular, you know, to see young Indigenous filmmakers coming through. When we started years ago, there weren't so many people given opportunity. Now, there is a sort of a growing cohort of young, talented Indigenous creators coming through, and that's a very, very exciting thing to see. The Netflix thing was a very specific thing that's been affected by the pandemic. So that was a bunch of Indigenous filmmakers going to LA to pitch to Netflix. And we just saw that as an opportunity where we were able to pull that together in consultation with Netflix. But to Netflix's credit, obviously we couldn't go to LA. So to Netflix's credit, what they have done is put some extra money into the project to actually allow those 10 Indigenous creators to actually develop their projects in the absence of going to LA. So it's worked out really well and I think that's a bit of a tribute to Netflix. We're very happy that they've done that and put extra money in to support that initiative.

[00:28:18] Greer Simpkin And just going back to Gender Matters. And I was really lucky to have got some funds to develop that genre workshop. For me, also on top of what David's just spoken about. I'm really interested in helping younger women, and I've done that most of my career because I was given great opportunities when I was young. And I know how tough it can be. And, you know, a film like The Leadership dealt with those issues. And it's something that is very dear to my heart, actually. So I'm always excited to help younger women and particularly younger Indigenous women, if I can, so that we do that as a matter of course, through our productions anyway. We may have initiatives, but it's something that we try and do on almost everything we do is bring in people to work with us and give them opportunities.

[00:29:08] Caris Bizzaca And that's in terms of like the creatives or the crew or-.

[00:29:13] Greer Simpkin Yeah the attachments that we bring on. Something like Mystery Road, we hired local people. In the last series of Mystery Road, we hired a young local woman to become the extras coordinator. She's absolutely fantastic. And we would hire her again. And she she'd never done it before, but that's the kind of... I mean, I think that's one of the best ways to learn is to actually be thrown in the deep end with support and just get on and do it. So I think that's something that we do as a matter of course, on every production.

[00:29:43] Caris Bizzaca Mm hmm. And then that might have been someone who might not have known that they could have had a pathway in the industry.

[00:29:48] Greer Simpkin Exactly.

[00:29:50] Caris Bizzaca And so one of the projects that we were talking about just before was - feature film, David - is High Ground. For anyone that isn't familiar with the film as of yet, which does release in Australia on the 20th of January 2021. Could you give us a bit of an idea of what it's about?

[00:30:09] David Jowsey Yeah, look, it's a terrific film. As I say, it stars Simon Baker and Jack Thompson. And it has a whole range of Indigenous actors from the Top End, but in particular, Jacob Nayinggul Junior and Witiyana Marika, who are the two sort of Indigenous leads who are just both fantastic, neither of them really actors, previously, but have done just this amazing job. And really what High Ground speaks to is the forgotten war. It really is that there was actually resistance. There tends to be, again, this history of Australia that people didn't defend their country, that Aboriginal people weren't the first warriors that defended their country against invaders. That's just a lie. You know, there was actually resistance all over the country. And this tells that story. So it just writes that falsehood about, you know, the forgotten war. And in that story, it's a very, very powerful story of friendship and bonds and how the frontier was formed and how the frontier played out in Australia. And so, you know, it's also a really great action film. So it's got a lot of action in it. And just the landscapes are just stunning. And it's a beautiful, beautiful film to look at. So, you know, it's a really great experience to watch. And I hope that people get to come and see it.

[00:31:33] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of the creative team that is working on High Ground, so I read that it was 20 years in the making in terms of when the ideas were first talked about and things like that. Could you talk to that a little bit, David and Stephen Johnson's involvement, the director?

[00:31:50] David Jowsey Yes, yes. I mean, you know, Stephen Johnson has led this idea and he started that journey with the lead singer of Yothu Yindi, who's passed away, M Yunupingu, who's passed away. He and Witiyana Marika and Stephen were the integral people who sort of formed this idea many years ago. And it was many, many years ago. And, Stephen worked on the script for quite a long time. Chris Anastassiades is the writer of the film. And so, it's just the way that sometimes features happen. They just, they evolve over many, many years. And that really was the case, and Stephen grew up - his parents taught up there in the early days, and so he had those connections and he'd made all the Yothu Yindi video clips and made some specials with them and documentaries with them. So he had a really close-knit bond with the that Yothu Yindi team. And it was really great that Witiyana was a producer of the film. He also had a leading, starring role in the film. He also undertook to produce all the music, the traditional music for the film. So it's easy to underestimate a creative partnership like that between Stephen and Witiyana. But that's really what it is. And Witiyana's very proud of that. They had some community screenings up in the territory. They had to wait for Covid to end, so it was quite a tricky process. But the pride with which the community, where they saw themselves because there were a lot of participants in the film and the young people, particularly Jacob Junior, having the lead role in the film, it's just an extraordinary sort of story of that coming together. And I know it's not always the most politically correct thing to say that there's a partnership. But I think that that is the truth of it, the partnership between Stephen and Witiyana made this film, and made this film have the authenticity and the access to the communities, to the language, to the culture up there that that the film has. And that's why the film is a good film.

[00:34:03] Caris Bizzaca And I think there was also a statement that described as a both-ways film in that respect.

[00:34:10] David Jowsey Yeah, look, and again, you have a lot of filmmakers and production companies say that, 'oh, you know, it's all very, very difficult to do the consultation process. And it's hard.' But actually, that's not true. The consultation process with the communities up there is one of the most beautiful, joyous things that you could possibly experience. And I would say to people, it's a privilege to do that. I would spend a lot of time with Witiyana talking through songline connections, dreaming connections about why they would shoot in a certain place and how that connected to the story and to participate in that was just so beautiful and so joyous. And it shows very much a living culture. The beauty of it is that and the traditional owners there very much gave the blessing, you know, because you're in Country that is very much run by Traditional Owners, you need to bring them with you on the journey and involve them in it. And Witiyana had a tremendous role in doing that. And as I say, being part of that is one of the things I'll never forget. It's just such a beautiful thing. So I encourage people to really see that consultation process as different to how it can be seen as a burden, rather, that it's a privilege.

[00:35:32] Caris Bizzaca And an opportunity.

[00:35:33] David Jowsey An opportunity to expand your own mind, it's true.

[00:35:36] Caris Bizzaca And something that you mentioned earlier Greer when you're talking about leaving the ABC and going and living in a tent on location, is both of you are very experienced in filming in very remote locations. You know, whether that was for Sweet Country or Mystery Road or whatever it might have been. Could you talk to some of the challenges then of filming High Ground in particular, which also had the the added challenge of period sets and costumes?

[00:36:05] Greer Simpkin Well we were shooting relatively late in the year, weren't we? So it was very hot for a start. Every day to get to set, we had to cross Cahill's Crossing, which is a notorious river crossing where all around you, you are driving through the water on a bit of concrete road. But you can only do it at a really, really low tide, because if you don't, you'll get washed away and surrounding you a huge saltwater crocodiles, all around you. Sometimes you're driving through and there's one on the road. And so that was, I mean for our first assistant director working out the schedule for that was horrific because every day we could only cross when it was low tide, back and forth on the day.

[00:36:53] Caris Bizzaca Which changes, doesn't it, in terms of timing?

[00:36:57] Greer Simpkin Yeah, it changes every day. I learnt a lot about river tidal systems, but it was absolutely incredible and a privilege to be filming where we were. Absolutely incredible. I saw and experienced some things, seeing paintings on on cave walls and ceilings that were just profound. And I just felt like it was a real privilege.

[00:37:25] David Jowsey Yeah, no, it was amazing. I actually had to stop and toot my horn to get a very large saltwater crocodile off the crossing. One of the key people on set was the croc spotter who weirdly didn't have a gun, he had a stick, but a very big stick. So, yeah. And, you know, Arnhem Land really is, there are a lot of crocodiles there. So it's quite an odd sensation shooting around water. But, yeah, it was tough because it's really hot and really remote and so it's very hard to get stuff. You know, if you want to buy screws or things for sets you've got to go into Darwin, which is a couple of hours away. So it makes it logistically difficult to film. It can be tough, but the thing about working in those remote places, it really bonds you together as a crew and a team. And you feel like you've been through some sort of magical experience, even if it's tough and you never forget it.

[00:38:22] Greer Simpkin And I would say that just again to credit the crews that we've worked with, particularly many of the regulars that have worked on Sweet Country and Mystery Road, we have some loyal crew and they come on these journeys with us. And I have enormous respect because it's always tough, but it is like family in a way. We're away for so long. Something like Mystery Road, we're away for five months. And you do get to feel like you're part of a family and they want to come and tell those stories. So, it's a big, big credit to them that we make the things we do.

[00:39:01] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. It sounds like very challenging but there's great payoff.

[00:39:04] Greer Simpkin Rewarding, yeah.

[00:39:05] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And you know if you could give a message then to Australian audiences, what you hope they take away from the film or anything like that, what would you say in terms of High Ground.

[00:39:18] David Jowsey Well, look, I think it's very much delivered on the promise that Stephen and Witiyana talked about, which was a really great action film that looks terrific and that has a rollercoaster of action that you can enjoy as a piece of cinema, but that it has a great story that says something about who we are as a nation. And it talks about how two people came together. It does have this two way sort of element to it. And I think that it's not a didactic film. It's a really enjoyable thriller rollercoaster ride that you will really, really enjoy. But also you will have a heart response to the film. And so you're really going to get your money's worth.

[00:39:56] Greer Simpkin I would just say that it's always lovely to see your film with an audience. And really the first time we did that was at the Berlin Film Festival in February, the last film festival of the year that was with people and an audience. So it was great that that happened. And we had a gala, it was in the Friedrichstadt-Palast, which had like 2,000 people capacity. It was absolutely full and people were clapping all the way through the film they were so excited. And that was really exciting. And I just hope that Australian audiences will respond the same way. But it looks beautiful. It's really worth seeing on a big screen.

[00:40:34] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, those landscape shots are incredible. And do you have any advice then for Australian producers, or people wanting to get into producing?

[00:40:44] David Jowsey Look, I think it's a tough road. I think both Greer and I were lucky in that we worked in television. So we actually got paid to learn how to make stuff. And that's a really good way in, where if you can find a way to get paid what you're learning and doing lots of different things in the industry. So you get a sort of a plurality of views about how the how the myriad of roles come together. But I again, would reiterate what I said earlier is that there is no better opportunity than now. You know, the cost of production, just literally with an iPhone or shooting a multi camera with two or three friends with the latest model iPhone, should you be able to afford them, the quality and what you can do at home now with software is just phenomenal. So the way that you can get into production, the barriers are much lower. The fact that there is disruption in the industry, major disruption now due to Covid is an opportunity, presents an opportunity for you to move straight in. So I think, you know, I would really encourage people to, if you want to express yourself, you want to be in the business, let nothing stop you. Give yourself permission to make your films.

[00:41:57] Greer Simpkin And I would say just you know, what we've learnt, David and I from working in broadcast is where every morning you'd wake up to the ratings. So you know, it really is that shows can live and die on those ratings. So I learnt for many, many years to be audience focused. And I think whatever, whether it's a film or, you know, you're making something on your iPhone testing audiences, seeing what they like. So if you're a young filmmaker getting stuff out on social media and YouTube is, you know, it's a really great way of working out one, what you want to say, but whether people are interested. I mean, you don't have to make something that's popular, but it's a great way of kind of connecting and working out what connects with audiences. So that was something that I'm grateful that I had those years observing that.

[00:42:49] Caris Bizzaca And just lastly, what do you feel like you love about producing?

[00:42:55] David Jowsey Well, for me, it's really that you are across the entire process of making a project. So you start at the beginning and you talk about ideas or you talk about, you know, optioning something and you have this idea of what it might be. And quite a number of years later, usually, you have a piece of harddrive in your hand with the film on it and you have been involved in every step of the way through development, casting, financing, through production, through marketing, and also the long tail of films. They're like children, they never go away. So that sort of holistic, whole range of that full immersion in the process of making things is really what I love. I love every bit of it.

[00:43:41] Greer Simpkin And I love collaboration. I really enjoy - I think the best creative moments happen often when there's, you know, a little bit of friction and discussion and passion. And I love that part of the process. And as a producer, as David says, you're across it from beginning to end and you therefore work with all sorts of people. You know, like if I look at a crew list at the end of a production like Mystery Road, it's just hundreds and hundreds of people and it's just a privilege to be part of that collaboration. I love that - people, working with people.

[00:44:17] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. Well, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I really appreciate your time.

[00:44:24] Greer Simpkin Pleasure. Thank you.

[00:44:24] David Jowsey Thank you.

[00:44:26] Caris Bizzaca That was David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin from Bunya Productions. And a reminder that High Ground is out now in Australian cinemas, having released on the 28th of January. Remember to subscribe to this podcast through iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter for the latest updates from the local industry. Thanks for listening.