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Rachel Perkins leads a creative team of filmmakers to tell a story in music (21 tracks) and pictures (57 minutes) that stretches them all, bringing with it lessons in harmony and filmmaking, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

You could call it fate, if you believed in that sort of thing, or you could just say itís coincidence: a few years back and wearing a producerís hat, Rachel Perkins had commissioned a documentary about a respected 1930s black tracker, Riley Ė when the story was being considered for a special film-with-music, Perkins was called in when the original director fell ill.

"I came to the project late," says the director whose indigenous ancestry gives her a particular interest in the subject. One Night The Moon has been described as a musical, an opera, a ballad opera and Perkins introduced it at the Sydney premiere as a "tragic musical" Ė an unusual genre for Australian filmmaking, she admits. Itís not easy to categorise, with its music elements woven through the cinematic language. For example, th film opens with singer/songwriter Ė and now impressive actor - Paul Kelly singing the haunting ballad, I Donít Know Anything Anymore. The song returns at the end, and is a dramatic as well as musical device, a powerful bookend piece that Kelly himself suggested, much to Perkinsí relief. "By putting that song right up front, itís a clear signal to the audience that theyíre in for something Ö. differentÖ" But Perkins says it with a deferential tone; she is not being arrogant or boastful.

Perkins is candid about her film, which is only 57 minutes long (a tv length, as originally intended, but so striking itís ended up on the big screen) critical of the middle section; "it has a few problems, but I love the first 10 minutes and the last 15Ö" But the limitations and restrictions of working with pre-written music was a challenge. The whole project was a challenge, a risk in both creative and commercial terms.

"The creative risk comes off"

The creative risk comes off; whether the commercial risk will pay off is hard to say. But Perkins has great admiration for all the cast and crew in what was an unusual and exceptionally collaborative exercise.

The story itself is quite simple, and is based on an incident involving Albert, a black tracker who is part of the local police team. In early 1932, Emily (Memphis Kelly) the only daughter of a farming family in outback Australia, steps out of her bedroom window, fascinated by the full moon beaming down on a dramatic landscape. Distraught and terrified, her mother (Kaarin Fairfax) and father (Paul Kelly) call the police to search for her, but when Albert (Kelton Pell) the black tracker police constable turns up to help, the father refuses to let him Ė or any other blackfella - on his property, despite the Sargeantís (Chris Haywood) insistence that Albertís the best tracker around. When the search party fails to find Emily and the days stretch to weeks, her mother seeks out Albert for his help.

Whatís not so simple is the telling of it. "Itís hard to develop character and get information across," says Perkins, while constrained by the musical structure. Especially as the film has so little dialogue. "But it was the music that appealed, and when I heard the demo tape, I thought, wow! You could do something amazing and very powerful and really interesting."

The process of making the film taught Perkins a great deal about working with music. "I learnt a lot about the importance of music at the beginning of the process. Itís important to think about the spaces between action; itís an extra dimension. It can create and add emotion and if youíve got the music as you write the screenplay, you can use it. I will definitely bring music in early on my next film."

Much of the music was pre-recorded and then played back during the filming so the actors could hear and feel the music and the songs. Then in post production, the music was re-recorded and the actors sang the songs Ė not singers. "It was a long argument," Perkins says, "about whether the actors or singers should be used. I felt it would be better for the actors to sing, otherwise, with professional singers, it would be setting the bar higher." Paul Kelly was never going to be dubbed, of course, and as it turned out, everyone had a great voice, says Perkins with a big grin.

"there is no Australian film quite like this..."

One Night The Moon is distinguished by actors like Chris Haywood and David Field in small supporting roles, both men lending weight to their characters and fleshing out the filmís humanity. Although the story is a tragic tale of a white manís arrogance and racism, it holds within it certain elements that balance this with the tolerance and friendship shown by the Haywood and Field characters. Itís not a sermon or a polemic, there is no finger wagged.

There is no Australian film quite like this, and that should be an attractor, not a deterrent.

The idea of the mdTV (Music Drama Television) series was born in 1997. The recently appointed head of ABC Arts & Entertainment, Paul Grabowsky wanted to bring the arts to the screen by developing a series of opera-films in collaboration with Opera Australiaís R & D division, OzOpera. Award winning producers of music and dance documentaries, production company MusicArtsDance (MAD) Films seemed the perfect match to produce an opera project, and the three parties met.

A commissioning team was headed up by a representative from each of the funding companies: Kevin Lucas from MusicArtsDance Films, Paul Grabowsky from the ABC and Lindy Hume from OzOpera. The initial thought was to approach a number of artists directly, to create a series of new, innovative music dramas, but in the end, they thought of doing it in a completely different way.

Says Producer Aanya Whitehead of MAD Films: "We decided to advertise and say you form your own creative team, and develop an idea, and then we will help fund that development and act as mentors. The artists didnít have to be connected to film, but had to create a film project that had music especially commissioned for it. The music had to be developed exactly along the lines of a script in order to drive the story. We wanted the music to completely influence the story and vice versa."

The advert was a great success, with 270 submissions from artists all over Australia. The commissioning team chose 10 ideas, which were developed to a treatment stage, before 4 were finally selected and gradually developed to final compositions and scripts. One Night The Moon is the first to be produced.

Published November 8, 2001

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Rachel Perkins
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