REEVES, ANNA - OYSTER FARMER
REEVES DOES THE RIVER
Anna Reeves’ debut feature, Oyster Farmer, captures an Australian ethos that rings true – but is fast disappearing, an engaging melodrama which she was prompted to make for her very critical brothers, she explains to Andrew L. Urban on a slow boat along the Hawksbury River.
Writer/director Anna Reeves prefers to call her debut feature, Oyster Farmer, a melodrama rather than a romantic comedy with drama, but she’s concerned that the melodrama genre has been given a bad name. A vivacious Australian blonde with a down to earth approach, Reeves wrote the script for her brothers, after they complained her short films were too ‘arty’ for them.
“They came along to my shorts and they’d say things like, ‘good arthouse … what sort of drugs are you on…’ that sort of useful family comment. Why don’t you write something we’d like to go and see.”
Visiting the beautiful Hawkesbury River region - an hour’s drive North of Sydney but empty, extensive and oozing with the ambience of remote, ancient and underdeveloped land – Reeves was first seduced by the oyster farmers who had built a community over several generations. The boats, the physicality and the community spirit inspired her, after many visits over a three year period, to write a fish out of water story about a young man who lands in this community – and of course learns all about himself.
We’re talking on the river, during an unusually overcast day, with showers interrupting the shoot. Producer Anthony Buckley and his English counterpart, Piers Tempest, are seated on the small top deck of the bobbing launch, wearily eyeing the clouds.
Reeves is standing at the back of the motor launch that serves as floating base and catering centre. A buffet lunch is being prepared by the caterers and Reeves is concerned that the afternoon may be washed off the schedule. There is a big scene to be shot with police interviewing the oyster farmers after the security vehicle taking money from the Sydney fish markets had been robbed. (We know who did it, and that a frozen lobster played a key role…)
“I found the river, the people, and oyster farming itself fascinating, but it took me a while to work out what the main plotline would be. I just sort of percolated it, while I was working on some other scripts. And eventually, I thought I’d do a fish out of water story, bring an outsider into the community.”
Appropriately enough, Reeves based the fish out of water character on one of her brothers. “I think you have to love all your characters equally – and some surprised me as I discovered them more…”
"crime, love, comedy, drama and a handful of colourful
There is crime, love, comedy, drama and a handful of colourful characters, as well as some previously unfilmed locations captured by New Zealand’s acclaimed cinematographer, Alun Bollinger (who shot The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures for Peter Jackson, and more recently, Perfect Strangers for Gaylene Preston).
The film introduces two relative newcomers, Alex O’Lachlan as the 23 year old hero, Jack, and Diana Glen as his love interest, Pearl. Reeves has also hired some of the locals, the genuine articles who rugged faces add authenticity and depth to the look of the film.
Jack Flange (Alex O’Lachlan) has left Sydney and taken a job with down to earth Hawksbury River oyster farmer Brownie (David Field) and his crusty dad Seamus (Jim Norton) so he can be closer to his sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison) who’s recovering after a car accident at a nearby hospital. Brownie’s wife Trish (Kerry Armstrong) has temporarily moved out and is working for a competing oyster farmer, a cause of friction. In a desperate (and bizarre) attempt to pay off the medical bills, Jack steals the Fish Markets takings and posts the cash in an express satchel to himself, but the package is lost. Meanwhile, Jack has met the attractive Pearl (Diana Glen) and is getting to know her, along with other locals including Vietnam Vet Skippy (Jack Thompson) who gives him curt advice about love and revenge. When it’s time for Nikki to transfer to the bigger hospital at Gosford, Jack has to decide whether to stay on the river – and maybe with Pearl – or head off again.
But if you ask Reeves to reduce the film to the typical Hollywood pitch, 25 words or less, she’s at a loss. “I’m useless at that … and I can’t do one film meets another! It is a romantic comedy, I guess, but there have been so many shocking ones I hate using that term. I actually think it’s a melodrama, but melodrama in Australia seems to have become a dirty word…I don’t know why. But it’s a melodrama because it’s taking a lot of risks with emotion, and really going for the jugular with emotion.
“Also there are some farcical moments: either they’re believable or they’re just embarrassing; and they have to work.”
Trained at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, Reeves also studied at a French film school. “I learnt a lot from French filmmakers – especially subtlety. They use techniques that are not so obvious.”
"who fundamentally fascinates"
Casting was a long hard slog: “It took a year and a half to find Jack Flange … I just couldn’t find that kind of male – yet they were all around me but they weren’t coming to audition for me!”
The actor she was looking for “someone who fundamentally fascinates you… on and off the screen. They have to have enough going on intrinsically in their personality to interest you. As far as synching with the character, I was looking for a larrikin who was also able to have the range to do the soft, sensitive side to him, who wasn’t afraid of that. And obviously somebody sexy. He couldn’t be a wimp – he had to be an alpha male. The oyster farmers wouldn’t employ a wimp.”
Reeves, who had lived in London with her French husband for a while, was introduced to English producer Piers Tempest, who immediately optioned the screenplay on reading it. He began to package the project, and was delighted that there wasn’t a single negative response to the script.
“We wanted to make this an English-Australian co-production,” says Tempest, “and we chose Anthony Buckley as our Australian producer because he was the only one out of half a dozen we approached who started talking about the script before talking about the money.”
Buckley, best known for producing the controversial film, Bliss (1985), says “it’s the best script I’ve read since Bliss. It’s Australian without being ocker, it’s not a quirky comedy and the characters jump off the page. It’s not a half baked script like so many I’ve read.”
Perhaps the most impressive and haunting element of Oyster Farmer is its perfectly captured mood of an Australian ethos no longer found in any city. From the economically written but complex characters who live and work on the Hawksbury River, physically up the road from Sydney but socially in a different world, to Alun Bollinger’s wonderful cinematography, the film reminds us of how the Australian character is forged by circumstance and attitude.
"a tiny slice of Australian life that was never before
Shot at the end of 2003, Oyster Farmer opens in Australia (June 30, 2005) shortly after the worst disaster to hit the Hawksbury River oyster farmers in decades, with the loss of all the leases to a virus. In a strange sort of fatalistic way, the film has thus become an ode, a celebration and a wake, all in one – and has at least captured a tiny slice of Australian life that was never before seen, and may never be seen again.
Published June 30, 2005
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Anna Reeves and actor David Field at Sydney Film Festival Premiere
... with producer Tony Buckley