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MAKING OF: THE SUM OF US (1993)

Broken City is Russell Crowe’s latest film, releasing next week (March 7, 2013). It’s 20 years since Crowe’s last Australian movie – The Sum of Us - before his Hollywood debut; he co-stars with the great Jack Thompson in a film that was to make an indelible mark on Australian cinema. Andrew L. Urban went on set for this report.

A nice suburban Australian house; rather tasteless, it resembles any one of a million others, its kitchen the heart of it, where its occupants conduct the day to day business of personal relationships. Jack Thompson, his physique belying his age (just over 50), eyes sparkling with humour, stands at the sink wearing a funny little apron over shorts.


Russell Crowe and John Polson

He has just made some lazy looking lasagne for dinner for himself and his son Jeff, played by Russell Crowe, arguably Australia's most promising young male actor (he goes to Hollywood for his next movie, co-starring with Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone in The Quick and The Dead).

In this scene, we learn that Jeff is gay, that he is going out on the town tonight with his new boyfriend, needs clean socks (for stuffing down his jeans, not to put on his feet) and that dad is a lone father, who adored his late wife.

"an intimate, relationship film"

The teaming of the almost legendary Thompson with the fast rising Crowe is in itself an important marketing element for what producer Hal McElroy believes to be a "funny, bit rude and terribly honest film", adapted from his own play by David Stevens, working with Kevin Dowling, who is co-directing the film with cinematographer Geoff Burton (Dead Calm, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Frauds).

It is an intimate, relationship film, which finds a widowed ferry master and his gay son surprisingly open with each other, each trying to find a new partner, but finding their very openness a bit off-putting for their prospects.

Thompson remarked about the script that it attracted him instantly, but for no simple reason. "You know instinctively ... it doesn't pontificate, but tells something about the human condition." For Crowe, who recently played a horseman in Silver Brumby and a vicious, neo-Nazi punk In Romper Stomper, the role was a chance "to keep my edge - to play a gay man and deal with all that this involved. I wanted to confront the notion - especially in certain quarters where I'm seen as somewhat macho - of playing a gay character."

"the film is not about sexuality, but about relationships"

Stevens points out that the film is not about sexuality, but about relationships, and McElroy enthusiastically concurs: "It's sad, profound, quite shocking - and also very normal, intimate and working class. So it's unexpected, it touches everyone. The essence of the story is 'accept me for what I am'."

McElroy first worked with Stevens when shooting a tele-feature, Which Way Home, starring Cybil Sheppard. "He couldn't direct it because he'd got a play going on in New York - it turned out to be The Sum of Us. A friend of mine had read the play and suggested it to me for a film, and when I asked David about that he told me Kevin was already working on it. In the end we agreed it would be good to have Kevin and Geoff co-direct."

Originally with a larger budget and a Chicago financier, the film was reworked at a lower budget on the financier's untimely death. Southern Star, with whom McElroy has a long relationship, came in as distributor, which triggered the rest of the finance from the Film Finance Corporation for the A$3.6 ($2.4) million budget.

To be completed in time for Cannes 1994, The Sum of Us has had 30 stage productions in the US alone, another 10 elsewhere in the world.

Directors Dowling and Burton are working together in a "positive relationship, well within expectations" says Burton. "We use a lot of planning, so shooting is putting it into place. The rehearsals were crucial, and it was helpful to draw on Kevin's experience with the stage play. Despite a few inefficiencies, it's working out well."

Burton says it proves his notion that film makers should be more flexible in the way they work, coupling diverse experiences for fuller understanding. He would like to work with selected actors in the same sort of way.

"it's more complex and more enjoyable to direct"

Dowling says the film is notably different from the play, offering a wider view of all the characters. The film story, he says, "is much stronger, and the love interest of both the central characters is fully fleshed out. This means you care more for them, and you really have several other stories...four love stories, in fact. So it's more complex and more enjoyable to direct."

NOTE: This article first appeared in London based film trade weekly, Moving Pictures (November 1993); Urban was its Australian bureau chief at the time.

* The Quick and the Dead [1995]: dir: Sam Raimi. Also stars Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio

Published February 28, 2013

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Making of series, includes:
Making of 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU

Making of THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Making of ANGEL BABY

Making of THE BIG STEAL

Making of BLACK ROBE

Making of BLOOD OATH

Making of CAPPUCCINO

Making of THE CUSTODIAN

Making of DATING THE ENEMY

Making of DEADLY

Making of GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD

Making of HERCULES RETURNS

Making of MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART

Making of MURIEL'S WEDDING

Making of THE PIANO

Making of PROOF

Making of ROMPER STOMPER

Making of STRICTLY BALLROOM

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