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It’s a comedy set around horse racing and the Melbourne Cup, but Horseplay is a lot darker than it might appear, as everyone kept telling Andrew L. Urban when he visited the set – but missed out on the horses. 

I am sitting at a trestle table in a long concrete barn (production manager’s base), in an outer Melbourne suburb, having flown in from Sydney at sparrow’s burp, juggling writing pad and pen, and thinking of real coffee. This is not what I expected when I agreed to visit the set of Horseplay, a comedy set in and around horse racing and partly shot at the real Melbourne Cup. I had hoped I’d at least get to smell the horses. But it’s not even a Tuesday. 

"Jason hadn’t even met Stavros before his audition"

Jason Donovan strolls up cheerily and sits down, leaning across the table in a conspiratorial manner. I figure he’s going to give me a tip for the 3rd at Doncaster, but he’s just being habitually quiet on the set. The unit is so far away we can’t even hear the 1st AD yelling, but habits are hard to break. “This is a blind date,” he says, and I know he doesn’t mean me. “I didn’t know Stavros before,” he adds. In fact, Jason hadn’t even met Stavros before his audition. Or even then. “I auditioned in London … arranged it myself and taped it. I produced my own audition,” he says dryly. Then, as an afterthought, he says, “It’s hard in the UK to get into the business …. harder than L.A.”

It’s been a quiet few years for Donovan: “I’ve put away the disco shoes,” he says with a smile. “I have two kids and a partner. Life’s changed a lot. It’s been 10 years since I last worked in Melbourne.” (His father Terence is also in the cast, but they don’t share a single scene.)

Donovan plays Henry, “a womaniser who gets into financial trouble…he uses Max’s down payment on a horse which he hopes will win the Melbourne Cup to get out the country and sets up a kidnapping to throw the race.” Donovan leans back, watching me take notes.

Marcus Graham, who plays the said Max, is walking towards us, beaming from ear to ear. He’s just finished for lunch. He takes up where Jason left off. “Max is a hopeless punter and a blind optimist.” Graham slides along the bench left warm by Donovan, who is hunting for a water to drink. “He’s a great, fun character to play and different to other roles I’ve had. He married into racing money – a girl he doesn’t love. It’s great as you get a bit older as an actor, there’s less pressure to be strapping and more into character.”

In short, he plays a small time horse trainer who has successfully screwed up his life. His wife (Tushka Bergen) hates him, his mistress (Natalie Mendoza) loathes him and his father-in-law (Bill Hunter) wants to kill him. With nothing to lose, he enlists the help of his best friend (Donovan) and concocts a plan to rig the biggest horse race in Australia.

"It’s a black comedy with murder and sex"

Graham, not previously ‘into’ horses, spent a lot of time around horses to prepare; “to create the base note, somewhere to start.” But he’s also quick to add that he’s using his own “limitations and weaknesses in the role, in terms of character.” In other words, he’s not really like Max, fans. “But I try not to judge the character, otherwise it’d turn it black and white and boring.”

Graham is called to have something to eat (nobody mentions food to me) and as he is walking out of my barn, in walks the suit - Martin Fabinyi, the executive producer, whose Mushroom Pictures is behind Horseplay, as it were. We’ve met several times, so he cuts to the chase. “It’s a black comedy with murder and sex,” he says with admirable economy. “It’s modern and the kids will love it. Broad market, with its irreverent humour…Like some lunch?” 

Within minutes I am standing in the Melbourne sunshine, half way along a narrow but leafy lane outside a handsome mansion (just a few minutes from that concrete barn), where the crew is lolling about in the lunch break. The house iss a location setting, the family home of Alicia, Tushka Bergen’s character, Max’s wife. The Rolls Royce parked in the drive is hired, but the lunch is mine to keep. I balance it on the fold-up chair and take surreptitious bites at it while nodding in the general direction of anyone who greets me. 

I was on set. Finally. But it felt … empty. I couldn’t see any cameras. The camera unit was inside the house, and because of the space and lights and need for silence, only essential crew were allowed in. Still no horses, either. 

Co-writer and producer Allanah Zitserman (who made Russian Doll with Stavros Kazantzidis) hangs up all her phones and energises herself to my side. She’s small, but she could recharge the dead batteries for my digital tape recorder with her energy. 

"a great Australian tradition"

“Why horse and horseracing? Because it’s a great Australian tradition and we can explore all different age groups and characters – jockeys, trainers, riders, girlfriends, punters, owners, media….” And, she adds, it’s not a setting that’s overused. “It’s a dark comedy,” she says echoing Fabinyi, “but Stavros has always been able to capture real emotions regardless of genre.”

Russian Doll was their calling card as a team, and Zitserman is grateful for the confidence that film gave investors and distributors. “We made Russian Doll on such little money…after that, making a film with 12 people, this is a luxury, having 60 cast and crew.”

Of those crew, 25 were used in the single most stressful day of the shoot, at the real Melbourne Cup. It didn’t look good all morning, with rain and drizzle alternating with showers. The umbrellas were up – and came down just before the race started, and the five camera crews breathed a sigh of relief. A sea of umbrellas would have been too arty for this film. The ending was shot separately, but you wouldn’t notice.

By the time I get to talk to the director, Stavros Kazantzidis, it’s all over and we meet for a coffee in Sydney. “It’s a lot darker than it might appear,” he begins. (He means the film, not the coffee.) “It’s even thrillerish, but comical. I wanted to deal with the nastier side of the characters and at the same time celebrate the Melbourne Cup.”

After Russian Doll, a romantic comedy, Kazantzidis wanted to do something different, “but still with comedy. It plays like a Jacobean drama in a modern setting…people driven by rotten ideas.”

"I just hope it’ll engage people"

But if there’s a message, Kazantzidis is not the one to talk about it. “I just hope it’ll engage people. I like to structure a film on one event and all the characters moving around with various schemes and agendas.” 

Published May 22, 2003

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...Jason Donovan on set with director Stavros Kazantzidis


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