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Scribbled notes during a Melbourne stage performance of Man of La Mancha, a vague idea - and a woman who could dance but not walk; these are some of the ingredients that prompted David Parker to write Amy, and his wife Nadia Tass to direct it. Andrew L. Urban visited the Melbourne location for this report.

David Parker and his wife Nadia Tass were seated at the front of the balcony for the premiere of the stage musical Man of La Mancha in 1987, in Melbourne, and Parker was getting fidgety. Watching the musical, he had a vague idea about someone who could only communicate by song. “Instead of walking out,” he says, “I started working through the idea and by interval I had a rough sketch of it - so I went back to finish it off.”

“I built on the idea of a girl being deaf mute but able to sing,” David Parker

Nadia Tass kept jabbing him in the ribs as he scribbled notes, as people around them - many of whom they knew - were looking at Parker, wondering what he was doing.

He was writing the first draft of Amy, about an eight year old girl who can only respond to song - and which is finally shooting in Melbourne until the end of May, ten years later.

“I built on the idea of a girl being deaf mute but able to sing,” Parker explains on set, on an autumn day in Melbourne, which boasts four seasons in one day. “I did some research into ‘hysterical deafness’ or ‘elective mutism’, devices the mind uses for coping with trauma. I first pitched it at Cannes in 1989 when we were there with The Big Steal, to a woman who looked at me oddly and said, ‘My mother can dance but she can’t walk…’ Of course, that line is in the film.”

Amy’s story begins when at the age of three she watches horrified as her rock star father is electrocuted to death on stage, the shock rendering her deaf mute. Her mother, Tanya (Rachel Griffiths), has given up finding a solution after extensive attempts.

“..to have in the one frame comedy and drama side by side" Nadia Tass on one of her challenges

Moving to suburban Mercer Street three years later, Robert (Ben Mendelsohn), a musician neighbour discovers one day that Amy (Alana De Roma) can hear him singing, as he strums his guitar on his doorstep. Tanya has gone out and Robert takes Amy for a walk in the park; when Tanya returns, Amy seems missing and she frantically calls the cops.

A part of an abandoned defence establishment in North West Melbourne has been dressed as Mercer Street, with flats filling in the gaps between real buildings. Two genuine Melbourne police cars are parked in the street, and the neighbours are hanging around. Tanya, refusing to believe Robert and still furious, watches as the three cops make a weak attempt to test Robert’s theory by singing to Amy.

This scene is an example of what director Nadia Tass regards as one her challenges, “to have in the one frame comedy and drama side by side. Tanya is standing there looking fraught, and a foot away her neighbour Sarah watching it all. And we see the grief but if we look at Sarah we could break out laughing.”

"the advantaged can learn from the disadvantaged.” David Parker

Gradually, Tanya discovers that Amy can hear only singing, and anyone who wants to communicate with her has to sing.

“This girl comes into this street,” Parker explains, “and starts to sing. All the houses have their own traumas and through her, their condition is improved. I suppose we like telling stories about how the advantaged can learn from the disadvantaged.”

The big task was to find their Amy: Parker and Tass searched all over Australia, New Zealand and England, testing hundreds of hopefuls, many of whom had London stage experience. None quite measured up.

“We finally rang Brent Street Kids in Sydney again, to see if they had a young girl join up recently who could sing like a bird. They thought one of their new kids was worth a try, and I flew to Sydney. Alana was in the room two minutes when I called David in Melbourne to tell him we’d found her. We were so relieved.”

"Alana not only sings like a bird, but takes direction so well" Nadia Tass

Tass says Alana not only sings like a bird, but takes direction so well. “And she understands grief…I look at her and I think I’m looking at the Mona Lisa; she opens her mouth and Edith Piaf is with us. She’s very special.”

The film will have broad appeal, says Alan Finney of Village Roadshow, which has acquired Australian and New Zealand rights. “It’s an unusual premise that needs the audience to take a leap of faith, and I have high regard for Nadia’s skills… she will bring a special element to it.” The Roadshow deal was in place first, followed by commitment from the Commercial Television Fund’s allocated theatrical feature funding pool, with Beyond Films capping off the deal for international sales rights.

Parker says the film is “less comedic than our other films . . . but there is obviously something odd about a film where people sing a lot but it isn’t a musical.”

August, 1998

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CAST: Rachel Griffiths, Ben Mendelsohn, Alana De Roma, Nick Barker, Kerry Armstrong, Jeremy Trigatti, William Zappa, Torquil Neilson, Sullivan Stapleton, Mary Ward, Susie Porter, Frank Gallacher, Jan Fridl, Malcolm Kennard

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