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Actor and theatre director Jeremy Sims makes his feature film debut with Last Train to Freo, a tense psychological drama on board a midnight suburban train – it’s a ride that promises to take him places. He chose it because it is a half way house between cinema and theatre, Sims tells Andrew L. Urban.

The Surry Hills café is closed for business, the staff doing routine cleaning and maintenance with the chairs up on the tables. My interview with Jeremy Sims seems destined to take place on a street bench, unless there is something else open near by. But unless Sims turns up, the interview won’t take place at all. Suddenly he explodes out of a car that’s just pulled up and walks towards the café, long blond hair waving in the wind as he steams across the road. “It’s closed,” I say as we meet on the pavement and shake hands. No problem, there’s another café around the corner; Sims knows this because his producer, Greg Duffy, has an office right across the road, which is why this location was first chosen.

Sydney’s spring is asserting itself and people are filling the street tables. We go inside the small, rustic café and find a nook at the back, down a few steps, almost out of earshot of the orders being called across the bar, but with the background music still audible. As we begin to talk, Sims gets a call on his mobile; he excuses himself and says “Hi Hugo…” A quick exchange later he explains why he had to take Hugo Weaving’s call; it’s to do with a project and he needed a signature on a letter faxed to a funding body.

"a surprisingly self effacing view"

“Hugo’s actually the reason I gave up acting,” he adds. “Yeah, I was one of the last three up for The Matrix, with Hugo and one other actor… I did my prep and did the audition, you know, best I could, but didn’t get the part. Hugo did….and when I saw the film, I thought he was fantastic, much better than I could have been. He’s one of those guys who’s a real actor … I just pretend, and that’s different.”

It’s a surprisingly self effacing view, given that Sims is actually a popular and well-known figure in Australian artistic life. He has had a successful and acclaimed career as an actor, working in film (with AFI award Best Actor nomination for Idiot Box), on television (with several Logie and AFI Best Actor nominations, winning for Aftershocks in 1996) and on stage, where his reputation as one of Australia’s finest actors has been built playing roles like Cyrano De Bergerac and Hamlet. He regularly directs for Australia’s flagship theatre producer - The Sydney Theatre Company.

He has been Artistic Director of his own Pork Chop Productions since 1995 and has directed and produced classical interpretations and original theatrical works all around the country. Recently Sims has focused on new Australian works, in collaboration with Reg Cribb, enlisting the Sydney Opera House as a co-production partner. Their production of Last Cab to Darwin won many awards and toured nationally in 2004.

And it was Reg Cribb’s short play, The Return, which launched Sims’ career as a film director, after he and Cribb developed the play into a feature film: Last Train to Freo. “I felt this was a great opportunity to try my hand at film directing because it’s a half way house between cinema and theatre,” he says swirling a spoon through his iced coffee. But we wanted to take the material further than on stage and dig deeper into the psyche of the characters.”

It’s easy to see the appeal of the play for a first time director: it’s a small cast, essentially one location and a strong, dramatic story.

At midnight on a summer night, two ex cons catch the last train from Perth city to the seaside satellite town of Fremantle; the tall one (Steve LeMarquand) has recently been released from prison, while the short one, Trev (Tom Budge), is his vulnerable side kick. Alone in the carriage and agitating for action, they start to poke fun at their own mind numbing existence, until Lisa (Gigi Edgley) a beautiful young law student gets on, alone and unaware that the rail guards are on strike. Unsettlingly, the men use their off beat charm to compete for her attention, but when two other passengers (Gillian Jones, Glenn Hazeldine) board the carriage, the balance of power changes. As the train nears its final destination, confrontations force revelations of hidden agendas and secrets that catch them all by surprise.

"Sims gives the film a biting, dangerous and fascinating hook.… for a knockout film"

Sims gives the film a biting, dangerous and fascinating hook; and soon turns it into a vicious left hook … for a knockout film that is complex yet simple all at once.

“I liked the fact that the play was naturalistic and also it was whole; a short psychological drama about class, anger, alienation, disenfranchisement ….” It sounds easy enough but the adaptation process took over four years. Sims also wanted to retain as much control as possible, so he took on the executive producer’s role, working with Sue Taylor, Greg Duffy and Lisa Duff as producers.

The nature of the film – setting and content – encouraged the filmmakers to shoot on HD, with Toby Oliver finally getting to work on a feature with Sims. Oliver has worked with Jeremy Sims many times, providing free audio visual material for his various theatre productions…in the (until now vain) hope that one day Jeremy’s promise of shooting a feature film together would eventually pay off. He’s been nominated for Best Cinematography in the AFI and IF awards and received several Gold and Silver Awards from the ACS.

The film was shot over four weeks in Perth. Production designer Clayton Jauncey constructed a full scale suburban train carriage in Sunset Studios, using rear projection to simulate the background imagery from Midland to Fremantle. And, despite its contentious subject matter, the Public Transport Authority allowed the filmmakers’ access to the real Midland to Fremantle train, filming over five nights from midnight to dawn.

“I used the studio as well as the train because I needed total control over the environment for many scenes. Every moment, every sentence was carefully planned and we shot in sequence – so it was very much like theatre, which helped the actors. They loved it. They got to work in a linear fashion.”

Casting began with Steve LeMarquand, who had played the role on stage six years earlier. “I had actually wanted to cast Dan Wylie who’s a good friend of mine and never gets cast in lead roles, but I thought he could do it, even though he isn’t really big enough. I got him in and he said he’d be interested, but suggested I talk to Steve. I called his agent and made a time to meet … he approached me on the street with bare feet in a flannelette shirt all bunched up and a cigarette in his mouth with another one behind his ear, and said ‘Where are these ferk’n auditions, mate?’ I just said, ‘It’s all right, you’re cast. You don’t have to do anything else,’ [laughs]”

"you have to have a picture of the characters in your head …"

As for everyone else, says Sims, “with the exception of Tom Budge [Trev], I knew who I wanted from very early on; as a director you imagine the scenes and you have to have a picture of the characters in your head …”

Although he toyed with the idea of casting an Aboriginal actor in the role of Trev, he decided against it. “I was looking for that anger this character has … but I felt if he was an Aboriginal, that element of disenfranchisement would have become politically loaded and would have been heavier than the work could carry.”

It was Reg Cribb who suggested Tom Budge; “he was watching Australian Rules on DVD [co-starring Wylie] and rang me to say, ‘I’ve found Trev…’

The whole film directing experience turned out to be a positive one for Sims; “post production was a revelation, though,” he says. “We had to get 50 hours down to 85 minutes…” He did save time on the music, though: “I did it all on my laptop – on the bus. That was great.”

Published September 14, 2006

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Jeremy Sims


Last Train to Freo

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