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Filmmaker Alec Morgan’s Lousy Little Sixpence (1982) was the first film to explore the stolen generations; his latest film, Hunt Angels, explores elements of 1930s Australia that were effectively self-censored out of the news, including the exploits of rakish filmmaking duo, Rupe Kathner and Al (as in Alma) Brooks.

Writer and director, Alec Morgan, first stumbled upon the existence of Rupert Kathner when he was working on a television history series seven years ago. He chanced upon an archived true crime film called ‘The Pyjama Girl Murder Case’. Made in the 1930s, it grabbed his attention because “most of the films I’d seen made at that time were very dull government travelogues, and this was about a true crime, I had never seen that in Australian cinemas, it was topical and racy and whilst it had a roughness about it, it had enormous energy and it was about a real subject. I was quite fascinated about who had made this film.”

Shortly after, Alec stumbled across another archived film “it was a short comedy scene of this director in a studio trying to direct this hopeless actor and the other actors complaining and the director saying well, we have to use him because it’s his father that is giving us the money to make this movie, and I actually found that incredibly funny”. The discovery that it was made by the same filmmaker as ‘The Pyjama Girl Murder Case’ inspired Alec to investigate further into Rupert Kathner, clearly a maverick filmmaker, yet relatively unknown in Australian filmmaking history.

He discovered a few mentions of Kathner in some film books but any reference was always scathing and attacking, labelling him a B grade director, yet that wasn’t the impression Alec had from the two films he had seen of his. The discovery of Kathner’s filmmaking partner, Al Brooks, cemented for Alec that these were unusual talents. Al Brooks was, in fact, Alma Brooks and female, and women were not found working on film crews in those days.

Alec then started to research in greater detail, trying to contact any Kathner’s in Australia, as it is an unusual name, and making contact with people who had worked on their films. “I rang one guy called Bren Brown and I said ‘I want to find out more about this guy called Rupert Kathner’ and he laughed for 10 minutes, he just laughed and laughed, and he said ‘you’ll have to excuse me but no one has said that name for some years and it was the best time in my life’.”

"enduring spirit"

Everybody had a Kathner story of some description because Rupert and Alma had continued making films against all odds. All through the industry, even from people in film labs that they might have ripped off, remembered them in a fond way, that they were battlers and they battled to make Australian films when everybody else had given up, they kept going right to the end when he died in 1954.”

As Alec discovered, part of the charm of Kathner and Brooks was their enduring spirit that frequently led them into money raising ventures of less than honest means, often resulting with them on the run, trying to shoot their films and being chased by the police at the same time. But that all added to a fascinating story that Alec then spent the next five years writing and researching before sending a draft of the script to producer, Sue Maslin.

When Maslin saw the script she was instantly interested. Despite having never worked directly with Alec before, she knew of his considerable documentary work, so, although never normally reading unsolicited scripts, she made this an exception. Her first reaction to the film was that it was a film about “passion, it’s at the heart of it, a passion for cinema and a passion between the two characters, Rupert Kathner and his mistress Alma Brooks who was also his off-sider, his muse, his camera operator and his stunt woman. There was nothing that Alma couldn’t do.”

Alec could have made the film as a traditional drama feature or as a straight documentary. However, he felt that by combining archived stills and footage with newly shot footage with actors it would enable him to give audiences a clearer sense of what life was really like in those times.

He came to this realisation because most Australian cinemas in those days were owned by Hollywood. The images that were shown then (and what people are familiar with these days) are unrealistic. As Alec says, all audiences saw was a “white washed Sydney, a sunny happy place, where everybody is happily going to the beach and surfing and that’s very nostalgic now”. He felt that audiences today would have no visual or historical context to buy into a gritty, crime infested, poverty stricken Sydney unless he could show the actual images from that time.

Rather than re-enact all this it would be more exciting to have actors wandering through these archives, and cast Ben Mendelsohn and Victoria Hill in the lead roles.

Not having worked on anything this technical before, Alec discussed the possibilities with a few digital compositors who said that it would be feasible to do this although it hadn’t been done on an Australian film to this extent before. As Alec says “sometimes it’s good to do things out of ignorance because if I had known the amount of technical problems we faced when we actually got into production, particularly with these background images, and how we would have to shoot this film… it was enormous.”

"a fascinating, witty and compassionate film "

There are many elements involved - archival film footage, live action footage, animation and graphically created items that have to be built up together to create the world that Kathner and Brooks exist in. The result is a fascinating, witty and compassionate film that plays like drama, supported by genuine artefacts of the era.

Published November 30, 2006

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Hunt Angels Australian release November 30, 2006

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