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Morgan O’Neill’s script for the noirish thriller, Solo, was one of 1,200 entries in Project Greenlight Australia; it won the prize of a $1 million production budget - and acclaimed actors like Colin Friels, Angie Milliken, Vince Colosimo, Chris Hayward and Tony Barry all said yes. It began when he felt pretty solo himself, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

When Sydney born Morgan O’Neill moved to Adelaide in 2001 to be with his then girlfriend who got a job there, he knew no-one. He found himself alone – solo - every day, feeling somewhat isolated. With nothing much else to do, the character that had been taking shape in his head wanted to get out: that stay in Adelaide changed his life, although he wasn’t to know that at the time.

O’Neill began to write out the character that became Jack Barrett – “although at that stage he wasn’t a professional hit man,” he says, leaning back in his armchair, the Sydney Harbour Bridge behind him. We meet in a Circular Quay hotel suite, where he has a string of media commitments. “No, it’s quite good,” he says of the demands. “I’m often talking to journalists who’ve just seen the film the night before and it’s all fresh, so I get a good insight to their reactions … and sometimes a new aspect jumps out.”

Still excited by the film’s completion and imminent release, O’Neill has hip hopped across Australia to present the film and talk about the process of making it.

"always playing with grand ideas"

“When I was writing I was always playing with grand ideas, and as a law student I had read a lot about corruption, through things like the Royal Commissions and so on …and it all seemed very cinematic. I had had the Jack Barrett character evolving and I began to forge the various elements together … I think his sense of isolation might have fed off my own at the time…”

Three years later, Jack Barrett sprang to life when Colin Friels walked on set to portray him in Solo, O’Neill’s debut film, and the inaugural winner of the Project Greenlight Australia scheme funded by The Movie Network subscription TV group. The prize was a $1 million dollar production budget to make the film. O’Neill’s was one of over 1,200 entries – in itself sign of its attention grabbing qualities.

After thirty years of working for an underworld consortium Jack Barrett (Colin Friels) has had enough of killing for a living. Now at 53, Barrett is tired of the sordid life and tired of jumping to attention every time his boss Reno (Linal Haft) gives him yet another commission. He regularly visits the prostitute, Kate (Angie Milliken), who seems to have a soft spot for him, while he dreams of a simple life in a small fishing village, but in order to get out of the business, there is one final job to do. Sounds simple, but then Billie Finn (Bojana Novakovic) comes along, a 19 year old university student doing her thesis on the fallout from the Commission on Organised crime… and Barrett is a key source.

You don’t have to be a student of film to recognise the classic ingredients: the anti-hero seeking redemption, the whore with a heart of gold who loves him, and the evil bastards he works for. And the innocent who wanders into his orbit ….

O’Neill, a professional jazz muso himself (alto sax & vocals), loves music enough to have made sure the score was something special. “I had written specific songs into the screenplay,” he explains. “I had John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald … but the rights to those would have chewed up the whole budget,” he laughs. So instead, he played the music to his composer friends Martyn Love and Damian Deboos-Smith, who then wrote music to approximate the originals and match the mood.

The result is pretty good jazz – ideal for a noirish thriller. “Jack loves jazz – in a way, it’s a music of a bygone era … and that’s a bit like him. He’s a man of a bygone era, wanting to step back from that life.”

O’Neill has moved back to Sydney, into an apartment in Darlinghurst. When his mum came to visit from her Tasmanian home, she remarked how interesting was his choice of location. “I didn’t understand, so she led me outside and down the street and pointed to a kerbside spot and said ‘That’s where you were conceived … in the back of a Torana.’ Amazing!”

Now, bitten by the movie making bug, he’s off and running with new ideas – once the junketing and promotions for Solo are over. He could have been a lawyer, but as his friends kept telling him, that wasn’t really his bag. Ever since he was 8 years old, he had shown signs of a creative energy that wasn’t to be denied. “My school teacher in those days, Mrs Kettle, I remember her saying ‘I want the first autographed book that boy is going to write.’ But somehow I ended up doing law, but couldn’t stop doing music, and now writing and filmmaking.”

"I loved every minute of it"

He still plays alto sax with the jazz band some Sunday nights at the Opera Brasserie at Circular Quay, but he’s more likely to be blowing his own trumpet (in the nicest possible way) with his next film in the future. “It was all very exciting making Solo, and working with the cast …I loved every minute of it,” he says.

Published July 6, 2006

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Morgan O’Neill – one in a million dollars


Solo - Australian release:
July 6, 2006

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