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Podcast – Robert Connolly: Blueback and the drive to create cinema

Director, producer and writer Robert Connolly on the making of Blueback and Arenamedia’s commitment to empowering emerging voices.

Ariel Donoghue in Blueback

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

It was after producing the 1998 feature film The Boys that Robert Connolly first optioned Tim Winton’s novella Blueback.

“[But] like many projects, the gestation period – it’s really hard to pin down how it happens and when films happen,” Connolly says. “We explored Blueback for several years and weren't… able to get it to a point where we could finance it. It was too big really, in lots of respects as a film for where our careers were at and so we parked it and let it go.”

In the time since Connolly moved from solely producing into directing and writing feature films such as The Bank, Balibo, Paper Planes, and The Dry. He adapted a different Tim Winton work for the big screen with The Turning and along the way made connections with people who would work on Blueback – actress Mia Wasikowska, cinematographer Andrew Commis ACS and more.

“It's fascinating to think that 23 or 24 years ago, we optioned this book and tried to explore it, and here we are on the 1st of January 2023, launching it as a finished film,” Connolly says. “Certainly we weren't developing it over that time, but it was a project we kept returning to with a great love.”

In Blueback, marine biologist Abby (Mia Wasikowska) returns home to spend time with her mother (Radha Mitchell) and begins reflecting on her childhood, including a friendship with a wild blue groper. The film dips between present and past, as a young Abby (Ilsa Fogg) learns the groper and its home is under threat, and takes inspiration from her activist Mum to save it.

“It’s the biggest film of my career,” Connolly says. “We shot it on massive, large format cameras; we have a big orchestral score from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and (composer) Nigel Westlake; big movie stars. And as I found with The Dry, Australian audiences really loved seeing our stories made in this way.”

Throughout the podcast, Connolly also talks about filming Blueback in Western Australia, working on the previous Tim Winton feature adaptation The Turning, and starting the company Arenamedia, who have a commitment to empowering emerging voices (upcoming features include Jub Clerc’s debut Sweet As, set for release in 2023).

Our company tries to gravitate between working with kind of some of our big established creatives and also new emerging and diverse voices,” he says. “The mix of those two is just a kind of delightful way to live a creative life. And for our company to get a real energy out of the work that we're creating, particularly in these tricky times, post all the challenges we faced during the pandemic.”

Distributed by Roadshow Films, Blueback is in Australian cinemas on 1 January 2023.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher 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. I'd like to firstly acknowledge the various countries you're all listening in from - the unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This podcast has been created on the lands of the Gadigal people of the larger Eora Nation, and I've had the great privilege to be a visitor and be able to work on these lands during my years at Screen Australia. Always was, always will be. For this episode of the podcast, which marks our final episode for 2022, we are joined by producer, writer and director Robert Connolly. Robert has produced films such as The Boys and Romulus, My Father, and written and directed on the likes of The Bank, Balibo, Paper Planes, The Dry and more. His latest feature film, Blueback, is distributed by Roadshow Pictures and in cinemas on January 1st. Written by Robert with additional writing from Tim Winton, who created the novella Blueback, the film follows Abby, a marine biologist who returns home to spend time with her mother while she's unwell. She finds herself reflecting on her childhood and a friendship with a wild blue groper who, along with her activist mum, first sparked her interest in protecting the oceans. It stars Radha Mitchell and Eric Bana, as well as newcomer Ilsa Fogg as the young Abby and Mia Wasikowska, who plays Abby as an adult. Throughout the podcast, which was recorded while Robert was in post-production on The Dry sequel Force of Nature, Robert talks about filming Blueback in Western Australia, working on the previous Tim Winton feature adaptation The Turning and the many collaborations that was sparked by that, starting the company Arenamedia and their vision as well as why he's drawn to creating feature films. Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes where you can leave a rating and review. Any feedback send to [email protected] and don't forget, you can also subscribe to Screen Australia's Industry News for the latest funding announcements, opportunities, videos and more. Now here's Blueback director, producer and writer Robert Connolly.

[00:02:11] Caris Bizzaca Just first of all, can you tell me about your role in the industry and some of the projects that you've worked across?

[00:02:18] Robert Connolly Yeah. Hi Caris, lovely to chat to you. So I've been making films since I produced with John Maynard in my second year at film school Gerard Lee's debut feature film All Men Are Liars and as an associate producer. And then I went on to produce with John, The Boys and The Monkey's Mask with Samantha Lang and then started my directing career with The Bank. So I've kind of juggled producing and directing across 25 years and find myself here in a really interesting opportunity really to make movies, having done The Dry and then Blueback, which is in cinemas Jan 1 and I'm in the final stages of post-production on the sequel to The Dry - Force of Nature. So, you know, it's been a really exciting time actually in recent years, particularly with a lot of anxiety about what cinema is, to get a chance to make these these big films. But no, I've kind of been very lucky over that career. I've worked with some amazing creative people: actors, writers, crews, you know, in all aspects, composers. It's been a great journey.

[00:03:25] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And I mean, you, as you mentioned, you began your career principally in feature films as a producer. Like why producing and was the goal always to move into more directing and writing?

[00:03:37] Robert Connolly Yeah, I came out of independent theatre where I had an entrepreneurial production bent and put on plays that I directed, and I think I always had a sense of the necessary role you have in self generating. I didn't really feel like I was going to kind of get tapped on the shoulder and be told I was a genius and everyone was going to run around and help me make stuff. I felt that, you know, I was going to have to take my career and shake the tree, really. You know, I was curious because I was at film school and I watched Jane Campion's short films. And one of them, particularly Peel, is such an astounding short film. And, you know, I realised that there's kind of a level of genius really in some filmmakers like Jane that I admire. And I never really felt that same sense of my own capacity to be a filmmaker. I felt like I was on a journey and I was going to grow and evolve as a filmmaker. But I didn't come out of the gates in the same way. So I think producing was a wonderful way of empowering myself and also, you know, getting to work with other filmmakers. You know, I have had such delightful creative journeys on films that I haven't directed, that I've produced with some amazing filmmakers.

[00:04:56] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of your company, Arenamedia, when did you start that and what prompted it?

[00:05:02] Robert Connolly Well, I joined John Maynard in 1996 in his company Arena Film, and we became partners and work for a long period of time together. And the culmination of that was the film Balibo, which is a film I know for John and I we're both incredibly proud of, and that the experience of going to Timor-Leste and making that film with the Timorese people was incredible. And then I relocated to Melbourne and set up my own business and Arenamedia was like an extension of that, I guess, you know, that work I'd done with John on Arena Film. And John and I both moved in different directions creatively with the work that we've made and John is doing this incredible body of work and, you know, returning to a lot of the very bold ideas he had from his early career in the visual arts. And so I think Arenamedia was born after Balibo in Melbourne.

[00:05:54] Caris Bizzaca And do you kind of feel like Arenamedia has a specific goal with that company or vision?

[00:06:01] Robert Connolly Yeah, I think we are a kind of collective of creative producers. Liz Kearney and I, you know, worked together on Paper Planes and The Turning and you know, she's one of the most extraordinary producers. And her film Sweet As that was made through the company, is one that I really commend to people and have a look at - Jub Clerc's first film. It's amazing. But I kind of built an ensemble really of creative producers under the banner of the company, and we are primarily driven by cinema. And I guess because of the changing way people consume cinema, the company's kind of polarised its ambition between the bigger films that we're making, many of which I'm directing, and some that other filmmakers are directing, like Frances O'Connor's Emily, and then a kind of agenda for new talent and diverse voices that has meant the company has made quite a strong focus on a whole range of bolder, smaller films. You know, we've got Sari Braithwaite and Chloé Brugalé's amazing Because We Have Each Other. It's a feature doco. We've got to Alena Lodkina's wonderful follow up to Strange Colours, Petrol. In recent years we did Thomas Wright's Acute Misfortune and Stephen Page's Spear. We really love that space and we find that space, you know, is just so invigorating for the company.

[00:07:36] Caris Bizzaca Yeah the culmination of those points that you were talking about, I think was really interesting with Toronto International Film Festival because you had Blueback, one of the big films that you're talking about. You also had Sweet As, the other film you mentioned, Jub Clerc's directorial debut and also Emily. So the kind of culmination of all of those different aspects of the company, you can actually see at a film festival with three features there. But with Blueback from what I understand, you first read that story in 1997 and that seems to be around the time that you directed your first short Rust Bucket and were maybe gearing up to produce your first feature, The Boys, is that correct?

[00:08:19] Robert Connolly Yeah, actually it was after The Boys we first optioned Blueback to explore and we'd made The Boys. And Rowan is an incredible filmmaker and was interested in that book too, and we were looking for a further project to do and we developed it and explored it. And like many projects, the gestation period is really hard to pin down, how it happens and when films happen and the timing of them and The Boys was a great success for all of us and had set our careers in motion and we explored for several years Blueback and weren't able to get there. We weren't able to get it to a point where we could finance it. It was too big really, in lots of respects as a film for where our careers were at. And so we parked it and let it go. And I think over the years other people have optioned it and I have a really good agreement with Tim Winton with optioning his work. I made The Turning from his other book and have explored various projects with him, including The Riders, which is if I can't get them financed, we let them go. Like we're not in the business of locking up rights in films and not allowing other filmmakers to explore them if we don't know how to do them ourselves. And so we let Blueback go back then. And but, you know, it's fascinating to think that there's 23, 24 years ago, we optioned this book and tried to explore it. And here we are, you know, on the 1st of January 2023, launching it as a finished film. But certainly we weren't developing it over that time. But it was a project that we kept returning to with a great love. And I guess I'd made the family film Paper Planes and, you know, Eric [Bana] and I and the team, you know, just talking about other family films we could make. And that audience is such a wonderful one to reach. It's just so exciting to have that audience respond to your work. I've kind of got some of my favourite memories in my career are some of the big screenings of Blueback and we've had some great audience reactions to the different performances from the young kids in these films too.

[00:10:22] Caris Bizzaca And I mean a lot of the film is kind of underwater shots shot on location in Western Australia's Bremer Bay - was there like a level of needing technology to catch up so that you could film the film that you wanted to make?

[00:10:38] Robert Connolly Not really, because we embraced a very analogue way of making Blueback. So we decided to shoot in the oceans. We went to the Ningaloo Reef and Bremer Bay to have underwater camera teams, to train our actors to swim in the ocean. And these incredible [actors] - Arial Donoghue and Ilsa Fogg, who played the two younger versions of Abby, who's played as an adult by Mia Wasikowska. You know, they both learn how to free dive and they're doing all their own work under the water without stunt performers and, you know, some incredible days out in Bremer Bay, you know, with a shark mitigation drone circling and then you get the thumbs up "there's no sharks". And then you're asking a ten year old to jump in the water and swim to the bottom of the the bay. I mean, it's all pretty tricky, but exciting and visceral. And even with our blue groper, you know, exploring ways to create that that incredible character and fish in the film without needing VFX.

[00:11:39] Caris Bizzaca Because it's mechanical, right?

[00:11:41] Robert Connolly Yeah. We worked with an incredible puppet. I love the tradition of puppetry from Yoda in Star Wars to, you know, E.T. or even Jaws has got a pretty good puppet too. But I think that analogue approach to storytelling is one that, you know, I kind of liken it to in my own personal interest to putting on a record and listening to the music and kind of enjoying hearing a little bit of the way a valve amplifier plays the music and not being so worried if the needle jumps on the on the record because it's part of what makes it feel visceral and real and truthful. And so I think the technology we use, we actually use a lot of technology that has existed for a long time. I think it's the biggest film of my career. It's a massive film. We shot it on massive, large format cameras. We have a big orchestral score from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Nigel Westlake. Big movie stars. Like it was about making a really big film. And as I found with The Dry, Australian audiences kind of really loved seeing our stories made this way. And you know, our friends at Roadshow who are distributing it, they release these films like a big Hollywood studio film. They don't discriminate. They don't go "Oh it's a little Australian film." They go, "No, it's a massive big Australian film." And so I think what had changed was our capacity to finance films at a much bigger level. And I think The Dry opened a lot of doors in that regard. I think for the company in our partnership with Made Up Stories, it it certainly kind of helped lay the foundations for the biggest cinema that we're working on now.

[00:13:29] Caris Bizzaca And in talking about, you know, that Blueback is based on a Tim Winton novella. You know, you mentioned The Turning the anthology feature that you were involved with and you directed a chapter in. Do you feel like that in any way prepared you to make Blueback working on another Tim Winton project?

[00:13:51] Robert Connolly Yeah, I think The Turning was a big experimental film, you know, 17 different filmmaking teams and Jub's film was one of them. And Mia Wasikowska's was one of them too. And David Wenham and Steven Page. And we're now going on to make feature films with a lot of these filmmakers. And it was a big experiment and it allowed, I think, a dynamic that Tim and I have developed. As you know, one of Australia's great authors and there's just a lot of trust there. Like he gave us The Turning and we did a big experiment with it and he really responded and loved what we'd done. And you know, the novella Blueback is very precious for Tim. You know, it's a really important, incredibly important work in his body of literature. So I think that trust. And look, I've always loved the mix of working with established relationships and new talent. So, you know, I think our company tries to gravitate between working with kind of some of our big established creatives and also new emerging and diverse voices. And the mix of those two is just a kind of delightful way to live a creative life, I think. And for our company to kind of get a real kind of energy out of the work that we're creating, particularly in these tricky times. Post, you know, all the challenges we faced during the pandemic.

[00:15:11] Caris Bizzaca And you mentioned that, you know, that Jub directed a chapter on The Turning. And Mia Wasikowska also wrote and directed a chapter. But cinematographer Andrew Commis worked on two of those chapters and he is working on Blueback. Can you talk about the look that you wanted to achieve with Blueback and working with Andrew on that?

[00:15:32] Robert Connolly Yeah, he's, he's incredible. I worked with Andy on the first thing I did [with him] was the TV show The Slap actually directed two episodes of that. And then I worked with him on Underground The Julian Assange story, which was a telemovie that kind of punched above its weight and played at Toronto and had a life as a feature film. And he and I had a great time working together. And it's been great in recent times because he also shot the sequel to The Dry, Force of Nature, which I can't wait to show people next year and look forward to chatting to you about when that's finished. And look, he's a big humanist storyteller, Andy. He prioritises the kind of philosophy really that the camera is applying the microscope to the human condition. You know, it's looking into the characters, into their very nature, into the emotional.... I guess when I think of humanist storytellers, you know, my favourite filmmaker of all time is Peter Weir. And I look at his body of work and I feel like each of the films has illuminated something about how we live and exist and interact, and that I'm richer for the experience of having watched all those films. That they have somehow created a greater breadth to my own view of of the human experience. And I think Andy, as a cinematographer, kind of lives that life, too. I think of that amazing work he did on Babyteeth in recent years, which is a stunningly directed and short film. And so he and I are very simpatico on set, and I have a very open, creative relationship with him. Whereas, you know, sometimes you might feel like you need to be quite restrictive as a director. With Andy, I give him free rein that if something happens when the cameras are rolling, that is surprising, he can use the camera to go down that rabbit hole and explore that. He doesn't have to just go 'Oh no, but Rob wanted me to do this.' So, yeah, so there's a lot of trust in it too. And so it does, you know, fulfil kind of a philosophical thing for me of like 'how do you go to set every day?' And it's this massively industrial process and how do you make it feel like you're splashing paint on the canvas every day? How do you make it feel really creative and alive and energised within such an industrial model? And particularly on something like Blueback, we've got people above and beneath the water. We've got boats and safety boats and safety divers. And, you know, the scale of Blueback at times was just extraordinary as a filmmaker. Like I had to pinch myself that I was out there in this amazing part of the world. But Andy really helps everyone, all of us as a creative team to find the art in the work and the risk in the work. I think he's kind of a genius, and I'm looking forward to working with him again.

[00:18:29] Caris Bizzaca And I mean, another pointof similarity between, say, like The Dry and Blueback and, you know, you produced Romulus, My Father, that these are all based on books. Why do you feel like you maybe drawn to adapting books? Is it like a business choice because of existing IP audiences are familiar with or is it something else?

[00:18:49] Robert Connolly Yeah, that's really interesting question. You know, and I feel that there is a real power in both completely and truly original works and works that are adapted and involve some form of further exploration of a great underlying creative work. And I think we've looked with great kind of rigour, I guess at the canon of, of the great Australian literature, because why wouldn't you like it tells our story in such a profoundly idiosyncratic and personal and detailed Australian point of view. But you look at some of these books like Blueback, for example, it's been published all over the world. You know, it's published in I don't know how many different languages. It's everywhere. And so there's a universality without it losing its deeply and profoundly Australianness. And so I think that's what we find in a lot of these Australian books. You look at them and there's such a great underlying work, like The Dry is a great example. Jane Harper's book, The Dry, a New York Times bestseller. You know, there's a version of The Dry where you could relocate that and, you know, set in middle America and, you know, apply the same narrative structure to it. And that might work. But what I loved about The Dry was that it is a very Australian part of the world that we went to, lived in, explored on camera, and then took the film back to the world and Blueback's the same, you know, filming in on the Ningaloo Reef and in Bremer Bay and then showing those incredible places to the world from such an Australian point of view is something that I'm really proud of achieving with these films. So I think, you know, it does make sense that filmmakers would look to the canon of Australian literature and new voices, new books that are published. Erik Jensen's incredible book on his experience with Adam Cullen that became Acute Misfortune. You know, great book. Like when Thomas M Wright brought that to us, it was like you just devour that book and you go, 'Yeah, okay. It's a recent new creative voice with a really striking point of view, like, let's let's adapt that.'

[00:21:02] Caris Bizzaca And some of the television projects that you've directed, you know, The Slap, Barracuda also based on books. But I was wondering, yeah, you have directed in television and executive produced The Warriors and Gallipoli but as you mentioned earlier you primarily, you work in features and features is a challenging space in some ways. What is it about feature film that draws you back every time?

[00:21:28] Robert Connolly I feel like as a director that the feature film format is one where the ambition for works of cinema is that they transcend narrative and that you're looking for ways the stories can transcend the specific kind of detail of plot. Now, we know movies soak up a lot of plot, and really good storytelling is so critical. But cinema has to be something more than that now because television does plot really well. So, you know, I've directed television and the mechanics of plot, its capacity to absorb it, to need multiple threads and to have cliff-hangers and to work around, you know, a different narrative aesthetic. I think that it's absolute and utter mistake for people to say they're one and the same. If you make a film for a smaller screen, its narrative aesthetic will be different. You know, it's like Netflix passing on buying The Dry because they thought the first 30 minutes was too slow and you go, 'Well, that's a decision Netflix can make.' But you go, 'Does that mean the aesthetic of films that Netflix want need really fast openings?' Whereas we know that a film like The Dry worked really well in the cinemas because it took a bit more time. So for me, I think as a filmmaker, I love being liberated from the mechanics of plot to go for all the other stuff that I love about storytelling. And, you know, I think it's Fellini talked about the idea of cinema creating a dreamlike state for an audience that transcends narrative. And I have never achieved that - he was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and I think only at the rare genius end of the spectrum do filmmakers quite achieve that. But when they do, I think we all know that experience where you've been in the cinema for 2 hours, in that incredible collective space in the darkness, and you come out and you forgot you were in the cinema. You come out and you lost yourself for 2 hours in that film. And I just have such a passion for that. And I think audiences do, too. And even though it's a big challenge for filmmakers now, because television is so good and there is so much exceptional work on television and on the small screen, I think that cinema is up to the challenge, and I think filmmakers will find ways to create works that can only be consumed on the big screen.

[00:24:07] Caris Bizzaca  I was also wondering, so yeah, you're in post on Force of Nature at the moment, The Dry sequel. You're promoting Blueback, but you're also, as you mentioned, working with people who emerging voices, people like Santilla Chingaipe on her feature debut, how do you kind of balance empowering emerging creatives to tell their stories while also working on your own projects?

[00:24:36] Robert Connolly I think the broader team that I've created or, you know, brought together - it sounds like I'm putting myself on the back but not really - I should say that fate has allowed me to collaborate with, share the load. We've got an amazing team at Arenamedia and as I mentioned, Liz Kearney and an emerging producer, Screen Australia has supported Tara Bilston who came through the Enterprise People program there and is an associate producer and Blueback and Force of Nature. Robert Patterson, who joined us after his time at ABC Commercial and has really toughened up the kind of business acumen and more robust shape really for the company to be able to do more work than we have in the past. And then, you know, incredible producers like Chloé Brugalé and Kate Laurie and, you know, like I look at the team that we have and the different points of view and it's really exciting. I think we've got a big issue in an ageing industry about empowering emerging and younger voices. I think when we talk about diversity, our company's obviously always had a very strong First Nations agenda and and gender, of course, with the spread of our filmmakers. But I think that we're looking down the barrel of a time when cinema could be forgotten by a generation who feel like they have no place in it. And I think that's a pity. You know, I produced The Boys when I was 27 and I feel like there are great stories to be told by younger voices, and that's part of what Tara's brought into the company. And certainly that's probably been a key engine room that the Originate initiative that Arenamedia's partnering with SBS and Vicscreen on, which is very, very exciting and that's been an outreach for diverse voices. And we're now in the process of shortlisting the films for production through that initiative. But there's challenges, of course, like the path to audience is the one that we talk about a lot. And how do we find a really edgy, interesting path to audience for younger audiences? It's something that Madmen, it's been a great partner on our film, Emily, which Frances O'Connor directed, the Emily Bronte story. But Emma Mackey, who's the most extraordinary actress people would know from Sex Education, who plays the lead, is much loved by a younger audience. And yet here is a film that's a period drama and, you know, which is typically seen in cinemas to be for an older audience. And so it's a really exciting challenge of how you attract a different demographic to the cinemas. So I think they're all the many different things that is a long winded way of saying that I guess I manage to do it by having other people that I work with and empowering them to kind of run with a creative agenda that might be very simpatico in a holistic sense, but is very, very personal to the interests of each of those individuals. So like Liz is producing Adam Elliott's stop motion animation Memoir of a Snail at the moment, and they're well into production on that. And that's exciting. And that's her interest. And she's always had a great passion and interest in stop motion animation. Whereas I wouldn't necessarily go down that creative path myself, I can't tell you how exciting it is to to see what Liz and Adam are up to on that project.

[00:28:10] Caris Bizzaca And just lastly is an advice question, you know, for any of those kind of emerging creatives who are coming through, what advice would you have for them?

[00:28:22] Robert Connolly Look, I feel that what the world needs more than ever and creatively needs more than ever is more idiosyncratic and personal and eccentric points of view. I think the danger is with such a massive volume of stuff being made for the small screen, is that you have a generation that are trained and learn how to copy the style guide that's been set on shows and to come in and do it. And that's a really good craft skill and there are creative elements to that. But what I've always loved and say let's talk about music, for example. If you listen to music, what you're listening for is not a homogenised generic type of music. You're listening for that music that kind of pokes through because of the the personality of the creative voice. And so I always say to emerging filmmakers, where is your own personality in your work? Do not hide it, be courageous and show it. What are your experiences of the world? How does that inform the stories that you want to tell? Why do you want to tell those stories? And why are you the person to tell them? It's the challenge of our moment, I think, with such a volume of content, the biggest volume of content in my entire career, there is more narrative work that you can watch on any day/night than ever before. And yet there are always globally only a few projects that really poke their head above the parapet and declare themselves. And I feel like that is a great example of how an eccentric and individual point of view is so important. So that's my advice, I would say to people kind of be courageous, know who you are, and show it to the world through your creative work.

[00:30:09] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, fantastic. Well, we will leave it there, but thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and talking to us all about your career and Blueback.

[00:30:18] Robert Connolly No problems at all. Thanks for talking to me.

[00:30:23] Caris Bizzaca That was Robert Connolly. And remember, you can catch Blueback in cinemas on New Year's Day. If you're enjoying this podcast, you can subscribe to it through places like Spotify and iTunes, and you can also subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. Thanks for listening.