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It’s amazing what a glass (or two) of vintage Hungarian Imperial Tokaji will do to a man’s recall …. in Dean Spanley, it helps shake loose his memories of his life as a dog. Sam Neill and producer Matthew Metcalfe explain the inexplicable to Andrew L. Urban.

When producer Matthew Metcalfe first came in contact with it some 10 years ago, it was a 45 page screenplay for a short film by Alan Sharp, called, My Talks with Dean Spanley (adapted from Lord Dunsany’s novella), handed to him by New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthen, something of a mentor to Metcalfe. “I read it and loved it straight away,” says the New Zealand born, Australian raised filmmaker, then a fledgling producer “who didn’t know much at all about film producing.”

Fast forward about six years, and Metcalfe is about to go to sleep one night; “I suddenly sat bolt upright, remembering the script and thinking I really want to make that movie.” It took him four months to even locate the script and several more years to talk Sharp into writing a feature length version. “He likes to say I used ruthless flattery to convince him,” Metcalfe says, but Sharp did the job and Metcalfe spent most of 2007 financing it.

The result, like the short film version, is based on the novella by Lord Dunsany, set in Edwardian England where upper lips are always stiff and men from the Colonies are not entirely to be trusted. Fisk Senior (Peter O’Toole) has little time or affection for his last remaining son Henslow (Jeremy Northam), whose brother was killed in the Boer War – soon to be followed by his mother’s untimely death, heartbroken with grief. But when the pair casually visit eccentric Indian Swami Prash (Art Malik), lecturing on reincarnation, they meet Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and a knockabout Australian bloke called Wrather (Bryan Brown) - and inadvertently start a strange journey that involves them all as the Dean’s recollections, oiled by rare bottles of Hungarian Imperial Tokaji, reveal amazing and cathartic connections from the past. Dean Spanley, it turns out, seems to believe he is a reincarnation of a much loved pet dog ….

"whimsical, charming and entertaining"

Slightly surreal – or fantastical - whimsical, charming and entertaining, the film has divided critics; some are baffled by it, others are enchanted. “It was never going to be a Dark Knight,” quips Metcalfe. But financing it was easier than we might imagine, specifically because it was so different. Unique even. “I used to say to people that it would stand out because there were no other reincarnated dog movies around,” he says with a wry smile. “We made a virtue of its oddity.”

Metcalfe then brought director Toa Fraser into the project, after seeing Fraser’s film, Number Two. “That all takes place over a meal in a single backyard,” says Metcalfe, referring to the lengthy dinner scene in which Dean Spanley tells his own tail … er tale, “and Toa understands family, which is a major theme…”

The film is adorned with quite an extraordinary cast; “ah yes, we were very fortune with the cast,” he says with some understatement. “Bryan Brown committed to it quite early, and then Peter O’Toole came in, then Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill … I always felt it was a film for actors,” he adds.

"a real gift for an actor"

Yes, agrees Sam Neill, “particularly my role … I’m really playing two parts, but he only had to pay for one. I guess it’s too late to renegotiate,” he quips. “It’s a real gift for an actor, but the film would be nothing without a sense of the ensemble.”

The ensemble was glued together by genuine friendship; “We all became good friends if we weren’t already,” says Neill, who was friends with many of cast and also with production designer Andrew McAlpine; “We’ve been friends since the 70s … he also designed The Piano.” [Jane Campion’s famous hit, which starred Neill] “That always helps enormously.

Playing a human reincarnation of a dog was not really such a stretch for Neill, who is a dog lover and owner, always keen to take his beloved Staffordshire Bull Terrier for a walk. “Can’t do that with a cat,” he sneers. But he admits he was – and still is – at a loss how to describe the film to other people without giving too much away. “I just tell them to trust the film and go and enjoy it.” And that’s pretty much what Neill himself did.

Unaware until now of Lord Dunsany and his works, Neill pays special tribute to screenwriter Alan Sharp, “who is one of the greatest screen writers around. It was Allan who is responsible for the father-son element in the script, which has become the core of the film.”

With a busy year ahead, Neill is hoping to indulge his relatively new hobby of collecting 20th century photographs – a change from his previous pastime of paintings. “It’s still relatively affordable,” he adds, and owns up to owning a Diane Arbus shot, Portrait of a Patriotic Young Man.

Published March 5, 2009

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Sam Neill & Matthew Metcalfe


Matthew Metcalfe onset with Bryan Brown

Sam Neill

Imperial Tokaji Aszu:
Made from hand picked botrytised grapes which have attained maximum concentration. It is an explosion of engaging and intense aromas which enchant both the palate and nose. It has an extraordinary potential to age - 50 yrs or more. Grape varietals: Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat. A sweet wine served as an aperitif, with desserts or to accompany a meal. Alcohol: 11.5%. Serve 10- 12C.

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