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CROSSING, THE (1989) - PAIN DISTILLED

Featuring Russell Crowe in his first starring role, the 1989 drama, The Crossing, brought together Crowe with acclaimed director George Ogilvie and his co-stars Robert Mammone - and Danielle Spencer, who Crowe married in 2003. Andrew L. Urban reported on the making of the film from the set on November 13 & 14, 1989.

No railway crossing will be the same again for those who see this film: although it's still in the making, The Crossing promises to be a piece of cinema that becomes another benchmark in Australian film history.

Brave prophesy, perhaps, but the elements and the enthusiasms are propulsive. After some years of doing the rounds, Ranald Allan's script was picked up by producer Sue Seeary and offered to the Beyond International Group, which had been reading dozens of scripts in search of their first feature film. (Beyond has grown to prominence world wide, first as producers of Beyond 2000, and latterly an expanded programme catalogue.)

Beyond's head of film development, Al Clark, ran with it, as they say. Or rather, he walked: he wanted to be sure, and some re-writing was commissioned. Arguably the most critical change that was made concerns the ending: in the final sequence, as the heart stopping car chase nears the railway crossing, two cars and the train are on a collision course -at the crossing.

In the original script, the story ended in grand tragedy; now, the ending offers emotional lift.

The story is set in a small country town in the early 60s, somewhere in NSW. We pick up the threads as Sam returns after a year or more in the big city, having left suddenly, never wrote, never rang. His girl, Meg, waited a while, broken hearted, but soon their common childhood friend, Johnny, dared to step across that line and the relationship has moved to romance.

And then Sam comes back.

Sam's return is motivated by his love for Meg: he has come back for the girl he can't get out of his mind. His arrival is a catalyst, and the film is a study in how three young people cope with the effects of an unstoppable yearning, a love that divides as well as unites. Meg, torn by the wrench of Sam's return, finally submits to that sweeping love, but not before the whole town has shuddered in its shadow. It is a classic, universal story, told within the perspective of a single day - an Anzac Day, at that - at a time when the 60s revolution was but a stir in San Francisco and Carnaby Street, and not even contemplated in Sam's home town.

Clark, as joint executive producer with Beyond's managing director, Phil Gerlach, spent fifty per cent of his time on location - Junee and environs - with an enthusiasm only equalled by Gerlach, who is pretty well convinced The Crossing deserves to be in Competition at Cannes this year.

They have reason: in director George Ogilvie, they have a guiding force that actors universally admire - and to whom they respond. Ogilvie and director of photography Jeff Darling work like Siamese twins, conscious of an identical objective.

And finally, the film has brought together a team of actors capable of giving Ogilvie all they have. In the lead roles, the three youngsters have very little track record, no instantly recognisable name, and no formal training from any major acting school. Yet, there is a buzz....


Russell Crowe

Ogilvie stays very close to the actors, coaxes and guides them privately, never shouts, never gets angry: his sensitivity builds trust, the trust builds confidence, the confidence generates effort - and energy.

And all the while, Junee watches in wonder as the crew manipulate time - both the micro-time of Anzac Day, and macro time, as production designer Igor Nay, with costume designer Katie Pye, recreate a subtle blend of 40s, 50s and early 60s, often seamless with the town's reality.

"We are saying 1962," says Nay, "but it's an Australian country town, and a lot of the fashions, and styles are still of the 50s. Some of the cars are even from the 40s ... they haven't rushed out to buy the latest models, and country people tend to hang on to their cars a bit longer."

But there is another reason: "It's a style thing; there's more of an austerity about the earlier era," says Nay.

American painter Edward Hopper was a reference point, his expressionist style echoed in the uncluttered approach. "And shadows are important...It's strong but simple," says Nay. "I basically covered up all the advertising hoardings and made it plain, and unspecific in place."

Street signs were cut down, and the local hotels used variously for interiors and exteriors. The Hollywood Cafe was refurbished, with black and white Hollywood pin ups on the wall above the tables, and an aged look of the 50s wondering into the 60s.


Russell Crowe & Danielle Spencer

The day after the art department had finished its work, the location manager, Hugh Johnston, found a concerned owner scrubbing the aged floor; "I don't know what they've done to it, but it hardly comes off," she gasped.

Johnston persuaded the lady it was intentional, and Junee learnt another lesson in movie-making.

(Junee was in fact most helpful and generous: the money spent in town was most welcome, and there was a genuine interest in the process. Nobody complained, even when the town was effectively shut down for the Anzac Day march, with 350 extras in 33 degree heat standing around until take 6.)

Nay wanted to "give the town an attitude - it gives the characters strength," he says. And it is the quiet strength that Ogilvie saw in Robert Mammone which alerted him to the young actor. Mammone, Adelaide born, had been in Sydney for five years, where his most satisfying work had been with Not Another Theatre Company.

"George gives you everything," he says, "that's the beauty of it. It's a bit of a worry sometimes...you want to come up with something yourself, and he says it before you can. He's steps ahead. He sees it all."

Mammone, with the sort classic dark looks that could earn him a place in Hollywood's brat pack, speaks quietly, directly, honestly, openly - but sparingly. "The most important thing George has said is that this character, Sam, comes from the heart. He loves. When most people are confronted by things, they block them, but he absorbs it - and loves."

What about Sam's leaving: why did he just up and go? "We never actually settled on why he originally left. If we had, it would have taken away from it. So, there were different reasons possible ... often in life you find yourself doing things without knowing why. He just had to go. His perception of what he wanted from life was so different from everyone else's, he would have hated everybody if he stayed."

Playing their childhood friend, Johnny, Russell Crowe had just come from a smaller role in Blood Oath [d: Stephen Wallace, 1989], and was in Melbourne when he heard he had the role. He had already photocopied a borrowed script, and was anxious to work with Ogilvie.

Asked what it's like, now that he IS, he grins and breaks into the verse of an old pop tune, quietly singing: "Heaven ... I'm in heaven ...." (from "Dancing Cheek to Cheek"). The answer is indicative of Crowe's other great love, music: he began professional life as a musician and songwriter. "I used song writing to help prepare ideas about the character, to help set it down."

Naturally mischievous and always mentally alert, Crowe hangs on to everything Ogilvie tells him: "He said something very interesting to me at the beginning. He wanted us all to read some poetry - it distils things. That's what he wants from us as performers. You get essence through suffering ... it just hit me when he said it."


Danielle Spencer & Russell Crowe onset

Danielle Spencer, playing Meg, is equally in awe of Ogilvie's abilities. "He's a genius ... He has the knack of pushing you to actually feel things, so when you're on camera, he talks about seeing it in your eyes. He actually brings the emotions out of you. It makes it easier to get you where you're supposed to be."

Spencer, who trained as a dancer, is excited by the medium, having experienced some television, ("where you DON'T get a chance to actually feel things,") and wants to continue. "I'm probably not the right 'type' for this role," she says. "I'm really a city girl, and very much of the 80s. So yes, I have to act.

"I'm not as innocent as Meg: can't be, in this day and age...And I've travelled a bit with my parents when I was younger, so I guess I'm more worldly. Meg is from a decent family, well brought up, with strict morals, yet very natural and down to earth. She is strong willed, with a foul temper if pushed. She is independent, and doesn't need a peer group.

"She was a little shocked at Johnny's first approach, because they had been close friends. But it grew slowly and naturally - he's a really lovely person."

Capturing it all on film (Kodak 5247 for exteriors, 5296 for interiors) is Jeff Darling, a laconic, inventive and respected professional who shot A Place at the Coast and Young Einstein. He is using black & white and colour prints mixed in varying percentages, echoing the time span of the film: "As it all takes place in 24 hours, we begin before dawn when it's all dark ...black ...and of course it ends at night."

Controlling the colour saturation will create a subtle visual effect. A similar process was used in Sophie's Choice, for the Auschwitz sequences, but for different reasons and with different results, says Darling.

The various elements are intended to come together (along with a good deal of music, directed by Martin Armiger) as an intense and emotional film, both satisfying and achingly real.

First published in Cinema Papers, December 1989

FOOTNOTE: A few days after Urban visited the set “we went back to the ‘grand tragedy’ ending (in which Robert Mammone’s character dies),” explains Al Clark. “We spent a whole Sunday evening in George’s Junee motel room talking about it - then tempered it with a rather tentative (but at least silent) cemetery ‘closure’ scene shot some weeks later.”

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