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A funny fable about three friends who discover a huge gold nugget that promises wealth but strains their mateship is Bill Bennett’s next film, starring Eric Bana, Stephen Curry and Dave O’Neill; Andrew L. Urban went on location in Mudgee, NSW.

Producer Jennifer Bennett is dressed to the nines, red lipstick flashing as she wields a large black dildo, thumping Peter Moon over the head during a skirmish inside the town brothel. There are bodies on the floor, kicking and scratching as Vince Colosimo and a gaggle of girls fall on the pathetic figure of Peter. Writer/director Bill Bennett looks on approvingly and Danny Ruhlmann gets his camera ready to roll for a take.

Peter Moon and Vince Colosimo play the two villains of the piece in The Nugget, both trying to get a piece of the action when three friends, council workers who spend weekends lazily digging for gold, find the monster gold nugget just outside town. The town is Mudgee, and the council workers – road maintenance crew – are played by three comedians who have previously worked together in revue and stand up, but not in a movie.

Eric Bana (between making Black Hawk Down and The Incredible Hulk for Hollywood) plays Lotto the unlucky one, Stephen Curry plays Wookie the conspiracy theorist [who swears he saw a Wookie in his garden one day] and Dave O’Neill plays Sue, who sued a pie company after discovering a severed finger in one.

Belinda Emmett, Karen Pang and Sallyanne Ryan play the wives, with Jean Kitson as neighbour Joyce and Max Cullen as the mystery man and narrator of the story, Wally.

"Why choose Mudgee for the film? "

Mudgee is a fine town, wineries surround it; like the splendid by name and splendid by taste, Frog Rock. The folk are middle class, homogeneously collected, it seems, and a film shoot is welcome. There’s money being spent, and the end result can only help the town’s profile. Who knows, maybe it’ll start another gold rush, not so much digging for gold but spending it at Frog Rock and its like.

Why choose Mudgee for the film? Well, for one thing, Jennifer Bennett comes from here and still has a family home just up the road from Madeira Road, where two adjacent houses have been taken over for the shoot, to be used for both exterior scenes and interiors. Mudgee also suits the story and Bill Bennett’s desire to anchor the film in small town reality. It’s a comedy, but Bill sees it as a fable, too, with its morality tale trappings. "It’s about mateship and how that’s put to the test when the mates stand to become millionaires.

"I’d always wanted to make a film about The Pearl, the John Steinbeck novella," he says, "about a poor Mexican fisherman who finds a beautiful pearl and comes into instant wealth. It sets off a series of changes in his life – and in that case, quite tragic ones. I then found that the film rights weren’t available and I started thinking about an Australian equivalent, but in a comedic form."

Eric Bana, offered the role of Lotto the guy who is so permanently unlucky he was inevitably nicknamed Lotto by his mates, "loved the script straight away."

But as well as the quality and cleverness of the script, the thing that really appealed to Eric Bana was that this was a film he could show his young son. "I wanted to do a film that I could show my son before he started driving a car. I felt I could show him this film at 8 and 12 and 16 and he’ll pick up different things each time. It’d be three different films…"

Lotto is no replacement for a poor Mexican fisherman, of course, nor are his mates. But the film no longer links to the fisherman’s story. And, as Eric says, its characters are defined by their language, which he finds a remarkably easy way into the character. "There’s so much of the characters on the page it took the hard work out of it for us…

"there’s nobody being precious about who gets a laugh"

"We’ve worked together in comedy so we have some prior history," he says, "and that’s working well. We all interact with each other on screen much like we do off screen and it shows. And there’s nobody being precious about who gets a laugh."

But then it’s not that kind of comedy, as comic Peter Moon points out. "It’s not a jokey comedy at all; the humour comes from the characters." Moon took a day or so to turn the volume down on his performance, he recalls. "I think Bill’s first direction to me was ‘pull it back about a thousand percent…’ I’m so used to working on stage or radio and making it all big … then I saw Dave (O’Neill) who doesn’t act at all."

Dave O‘Neill concurs. We’re sitting in the lounge room of the house next to Lotto’s house (Joyce’s house) between scenes. "I was never that interested in acting, but when they said I’d get to play a lazy, fat council worker, I thought it’d be a bit of a stretch but I can do it," he quips.

A day on the set turns into a day and a night; having taken the 7.10 am XPT from Sydney Central, I am met by Jennifer’s assistant, Matthew Wooldridge, at Lithgow, to be driven to Mudgee. It’s still (just) breakfast time by the time I get there. Locals are sparse in the main street, and film crew and cast are gathering for sidewalk breakfast at the café that would be well at home in Darlinghurst or Carlton. Eric Bana is munching at a pavement table, while producer Jennifer Bennet guides me inside and we order the breakfast I didn’t have on the train.

The day’s shoot at Madeira Road begins at 2pm, with int and ext scenes, right through to night scenes. After snatching interviews between set ups, I watch the crew bustle and toil – it reminds me of a movable factory, with its carpenters, trucks, cranes, hoists, lights and rigs. A block away, caravans and the catering tent waits patiently for meal breaks.

Peter Moon slips away to get some shut eye: he’s up at 6am every day doing his breakfast show with The Morning Crew on Sydney’s 2DAY FM by special link-line – which he pays for. He didn’t want to miss out on doing the film, but he couldn’t escape his contract, so he found a work-around. "I had to do a bit of begging," he says, "to get agreement, but it’s great and the local Real FM station has been very helpful. I’ve also helped them a bit … reading the death notices of a morning."

"there’s a fine line between drama and comedy"

Bill Bennett first wrote The Nugget "just to have a bit of a laugh. I didn’t think it would get financed. I’d been writing a lot of dark material and had a gap in my schedule so I thought it’d be nice to cleanse myself as it were. A lot of my work in the past has been quite serious – but in fact there’s a fine line between drama and comedy."

The Nugget, fully financed in Australia, will be released in 2002 by Roadshow.

Published January 3, 2002

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