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The Dish is based on the true story of how the Parkes telescope, in a small Australian outback community, played a part in the greatest science show on earth, when man put his foot on the Moon. Andrew L. Urban spoke to two of the Working Dog team who made the film: Rob Sitch and Santo Cilauro.

Way back then, before they made The Castle, the Working Dog team sat huddled in a think tank. The tank had in it four film ideas, as Rob Sitch recalls. "The first one was about a really bad tour bus through Central Australia – which has since been done." (With some of the same cast; Roy Billing, who stars as the Mayor of Parkes in The Dish, stars as the dodgy bus tour operator in John Polson’s debut feature, Siam Sunset.)

"we went off and made The Castle then we came back to it"

"Then there was one about a dog show. In fact, when we were in Toronto, there was Christopher Guest's latest film, Best in Show [on that subject]…then we had an idea about a kid that inherits a bad circus. And then Tom [Gleisner] said, did you know that Australia was involved in the Apollo 11 mission. Australia doesn't have a space programme so that made us very interested. And we researched it for a while and then we went off and made The Castle then we came back to it and buried ourselves in it."

The team – Sitch, Cilauro, Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and executive producer Michael Hirsch – made a decision early on not to name actual characters, a decision that even extended to the Prime Minister of the day, John Gorton. In The Dish, the PM is played by Bille Brown but is portrayed as an amalgam of Australian Prime Ministers from the 40s to the 70s.

The actual Moon landing, in July 1969, is part of the film’s attraction. NASA, says Sitch, was incredibly helpful. "NASA was very forthcoming. We got the complete set of tapes of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and Huston command centre talking to each other over the seven days – on the way to the Moon and on the way back. This was at the extremes of human endeavour, people stretched beyond their capabilities. Yet they did not have one angry word to each other in the entire seven days - at the peak of their tension. It was really interesting how they spoke to each other."

"so bizarre they didn’t make it into the script"

Other research took them to the various archives, from text to screen; some of the elements they discovered were so bizarre they didn’t make it into the script. For instance, under the circumstances, it would be viewed as over the top writing to have the Mayor of Parkes called Cec Moon. But that was his real name.

Another was a small but interesting discovery, made during research: Armstrong and Aldrin had written a thank you letter to the Parkes telescope operators in appreciation of their efforts in the global televising of the Moon mission. Again, this was omitted from the film; it could have been seen as gilding the lily by the filmmakers.

Shot on the actual location, The Dish looks remarkably authentic: strangely enough, says Sitch, nothing much has changed since then, as far as outside appearances are concerned. Even the old wooden telegraph poles are still carrying the electricity wires across the paddocks around the telescope.

When it came to casting the film, the team had already targeted most of the actors they wanted. "We'd done a lot of tv production," says Sitch, "and cast a lot of people, so we had a fair idea. But Jane cast it from top to bottom and I think she does that really well. We had said early on that we wanted to cast Sam Neill, but we always assumed thought it would be in the too hard basket. When we finally got a script to him, he responded really quickly, so that was a bit of a nice surprise. Then there was Kevin Harrington, Tom Long – most people know them from Sea Change… When people are interested in actors as Jane is, you have them on the radar for a long time."

There were a few exceptions: when Sitch was in New York on a private visit with Pat McEnroe, he was shown some wedding photos. In one shot, there was a tall, white haired, distinguished looking guest, and Sitch pointed him out. "That’s the sort of guy we need to play the American Ambassador." The man turned out to be US stage actor John McMartin.

"there’s a sensibility that comedy brings"

Cilauro says there was a desire to use certain comedic actors. "In The Castle there were a lot of people who had comedy experience. We actually like putting comedy people into dramatic roles. As Eric Bana proved in Chopper, I think there’s a sensibility that comedy brings. . .that fear of dying in front of an audience that encourages a meticulousness in everyone's performance, trying to stay true to the story, and just to be totally focussed, to get everything right."

Publication date: October 14, 2000

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Santo Cilauro & Rob Sitch

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