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New filmmakers stuck for ideas, come up with a romantic tragi-comedy based on a real event. They raise money offshore, sign up Jack Thompson and Jacqui Mackenzie and shoot it on an island off Perth. ANDREW L. URBAN flies in to investigate the making of Under the Lighthouse Dancing.

Out on a ruggedly beautiful point on the west coast of Rottnest Island, surrounded by what seems imported Aegean Sea water in hues of aquamarine, cobalt and teale, production designer Laurence Eastwood has built a weekender fit for ...well, Jack Thompson.

"But of course, I designed it as if for myself...or anyone's romantic vision of a beach house," says Eastwood, whose work includes films like Country Life and Crocodile Dundee II, mini series like The Rainbow Warrior and A Town Like Alice, as well as dozens of stage plays.

And now this, "an uplifting romantic comedy" according to the producers, called Under the Lighthouse Dancing, starring Jack Thompson and Jacqueline Mackenzie as the couple mis-matched in age but perfectly matched in love - except she is really ill and maybe dying, oh, sob ... but they are getting married anyway, isn't it beautiful, sob.

Aden Gillett, Naomi Watts, Phillip Holder and Zoe Bertram play the four support roles of David, Louise, Garth and Juliet.

"It could have been set on a Greek island." Production Designer, Laurence Eastwood

"When I read the script," says Eastwood, "I had the view that it should be something more upmarket than some grotty house with a single fluro as lighting. It read to me as if it could have been set on a Greek island."

They are rehearsing a scene in the house, while we are whispering in one of the bedrooms; I ask about the atrium in the middle of the building.

"It's to let in lots of light so they can film the interiors and also get some of the views, which are worth seeing." There is no glass in the windows (to keep costs down), and the brusque wind off the ocean buffets the props.

Surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Indian Ocean, the house is where much of the action takes place over one magical weekend, when Harry (Thompson) realises he and Emma (Mackenzie) are the perfect soul mates, and despite being short of a priest and some paperwork, is anxious to marry her.

"They both allow themselves to love for the first time in an adult way." Jack Thompson

"Harry has finally met the right woman," Thompson explains. "She has a career of her own, she is a solicitor and she's not been particularly looking for a man. I mean she's had boyfriends. Then she meets Harry. And the two of them go 'Wait a minute, there isn't any nonsense here', and they both allow themselves to love for the first time in an adult way. It's a wonderful relationship between the two of them and it's inherent in the script."

Pressed for time - with Emma rather ill - they are keen to get married but they haven't complied with the red tape and the regulations, and the local priest buzzes off to a golfing weekend.

Not accepting defeat, Jack claims it an emergency and so enlists his friend David (Aden Gillett) as captain of the yacht they came on, to perform the ceremony.

Then comes the wedding, arranged by their weekending friends, but the less details audiences know about that the better the uplift it will give them when they get to see it, sometime in the middle of 1996, after the film's debut at the Cannes film festival.

Inevitably, after the wedding, Emma dies, but that is when some more uplift comes in, as she makes her presence known to her friends - except for Harry. He has to wait...

"Well, the world is no more or less stuffed that it has ever been" actor Jack Thompson

It is a indeed a splendidly romantic story; Thompson muses about the film sitting in the wardrobe van. "Perhaps there is a common theme beginning to appear [in films] that really has to do with optimism, romantic optimism ... surely an inevitable backlash and perhaps the only way out of the pragmatic cynicism of the 80s. You know, 'the world's fucked and there's nothing we can do about it. What we're more inclined to say now, I think, is 'well, the world is no more or less stuffed that it has ever been and there is something we can do about it and whatever that is it can only be done strongly and straight if it is informed by the good grace of love and affection."

"We got stuck for ideas one afternoon and went for a walk." scriptwriter, David Giles

Perhaps he has a point; producer David Giles and director Graeme Rattigan do both seem to be "informed by the good grace of love and affection" - at least outwardly. Novice film makers, both talk about the spiritual and emotional aspects of the film with great enthusiasm. They wrote it, too, on the spur of the moment during a visit to Rottnest Island, ostensibly to write an adventure script together.

"We got stuck for ideas one afternoon," Giles recalls, "and went for a walk. Graeme told me about this couple whose friends once arranged a wedding on the island for them, and suddenly we had abandoned the adventure script and were writing this."

Within a year, they were back on Rottnest Island, shooting it; in between, they had been advised by both the the Film Finance Corporation and the Australian Film Commission that if they had any sense they would replace themselves as producer and director - preferably with people who have had more experience.

Of course, these were the two most non-negotiable aspects of their project. If they couldn't raise the finance as writer/producer/directors in Australia, they would go and talk to their business contacts in Malaysia - contacts they had been warming up and nurturing over the previous three years.

"They raised the entire budget (claimed to be between $4-$8 million), from private offshore sources,"

By the middle of 1995, Giles and Rattigan had done just that; on the basis of the script and their relationship, they raised the entire budget - which they claim to be "between $4 and $8 million, but it's not $6" - from private offshore sources, without giving away a single creative decision, or writing in a spurious foreign element.

The industry is watching in some admiration; "It's a great story but even so, they've done something remarkable to raise that sort of money with no strings - from foreign sources," says one film industry executive.

What's more, they are already talking about the next feature (a historical drama), financed the same way, by the same people, who wish to remain anonymous.

This is not how you make films in Australia, laddie, their bank manager told them, even though Giles had reduced him to tears with his pitch of the film. This pitch, essentially an acting job says Giles, so impressed one executive at Columbia TriStar in Hollywood, claims Giles, he branded it the best pitch he had ever seen.

The pitch is one thing, of course, the film is another. But Giles and Rattigan have hired the experience they themselves lack, in a crew starting with the well respected line producer Jane Scott, who did the same job on Strictly Ballroom and Crocodile Dundee among others.

"Turtle because turtles never go backwards." Director/co-scriptwriter, Graeme Rattigan

They also have the luxury of not needing to find a distributor for the film until it is is completed, and they are thoroughly confident. "We know this is a highly commercial picture, an ensemble piece about human beings behaving extremely well...and it's so visually beautiful," says Giles, 35, the only one with film school training of the two. Rattigan, 48 in 1997, has been a successful Perth lawyer, but now that they have formed Silver Turtle Films, they are determined film makers: "Turtle because turtles never go backwards."

And they have a clearly defined vision of the sorts of films they want to make: uplifting ones.

"This script is loosely based on an event, but more on the emotional journey," says Rattigan, balancing a lunch plate on his knees on the back seat of a 4WD parked by the pounding ocean.

"The real incident was the seed, and we've fabricated a modern middle class myth. But unless it touches everybody there's no point to it. I do want to show that there is another way of looking at the world...that we're not merely material beings, but spiritual beings who are living a human existence. That is to say not humans with some spiritual expressions."

With his ruddy good looks and spiky white hair, Rattigan would look at home on a yacht, tall and authoritative. Yet he works quietly on the set, "bringing nothing to the actors: I'm asking for their gifts of creativity, just choosing from the options they give me."

Thompson, for one, is revelling in it. To him, it is the middle class version of Sunday Too far Away, in which he played a gun shearer.

"If we're caught acting for one millisecond we're in trouble." Jack Thompson

"What I mean by that is that when I first read the script of Sunday Too Far Away, it was like a diary, cause I was working in the bush in 1956 when it was set. The dialogue that appears on the screen is not one moment of improvised dialogue. And it all sounds like it's come straight from the mouths of people who've come out of shearing sheds in the 50s.

"And I said in rehearsal to all of us, to remind all of us is that this is so documentarily accurate about life and the life that I've known and people that I've known that if we're caught acting for one millisecond we're in trouble.

"And I mean that about this as well. If you attempt to play these people as examples of something it will fall down. Because it is a really accurate portrayal of the lives and manners of the Australian middle class."

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Under the Lighthouse Dancing opened in Perth on one screen on September 25, 1997, followed by Adelaide; Sydney & Brisbane release date, October 16, 1997.


Cast: Jack Thompson, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Naomi Watts, Aden Gillett, Phillip Holder, Zoe Bertram

Script: David Giles, Graeme Rattigan

Director: Graeme Rattigan

Producer: David Giles

Cinematographer: Paul Murphy

Production Designer: Laurence Eastwood

Australian Distributor: Carrington Road

International Sales: Beyond Films

An uplifting romantic comedy loosely based on the true story of three couples who visit Rottnest Island in Western Australia to stage a magical wedding. A film about friendship, laughter and beauty and based on actual events: a love story which transcends the bounds of death.

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020