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It took 10 years to develop as a screenplay, but only a week to get Toni Collette to sign on for the lead role. Andrew L. Urban reports on the making of the label-defying Japanese Story, Australia’s entry for Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2003, shot in the extremes of outback Australia. (But he doesn’t give away the ending.)

Director Sue Brooks admits that she wrote a document to be used when pitching Japanese Story and the filmmakers would hand it to prospective distributors with the proviso: “…but please read it AFTER you’ve seen the film. We wanted people to experience the film. It’s not just a matter of what happens,” she says, “like [the musical] Chicago…it has to be experienced.” Not that Japanese Story is anything like Chicago. 

On the cover page of the press kit, the filmmakers request that “media refrain from disclosing the plot twist within Japanese Story either verbally or in print.” Brooks is almost apologetic about this, knowing how hard it makes it to write about the work, but she makes no apology for the film. “The most important thing about the film for me is the point it makes about recognising the humanity in a person.”

Japanese Story, a mid budget drama in the Australian context at A$5.8 million, is hard to label, and it certainly jumps the tracks of any genre you may try to fit it with. Love story? Yes but … Outback adventure? Yes, but … Cross cultural essay? Yes but… Odd couple? Road Movie? Fish out of water?

Toni Collette plays Sandy, an archeologist assigned to baby sit a visiting Japanese executive (Gotaro Tsunashima) and show him round the red iron country of Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region, where some of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore are mined (and the oldest geological area in the world). She takes an instant dislike to the foreigner, and the cultural abyss between them seems to exaggerate the personal divide. When alone in the desert and in some danger, the two begin to discover things about each other and themselves. 

"We resisted the pressures to make it slick"

While strangers thrust together in perilous circumstances is not an entirely original concept, the film, written by Alison Tilson, explores two specific individuals with “as much honesty as we can,” Brooks explains. “We resisted the pressures to make it slick, and considered what she would do at each step. We tried to be respectful for those moments of decision making, not gloss over them or find filmic answers.”

Everything that happens, adds producer Sue Maslin, “is a direct result of the landscape – and the geological theme runs through it as they explore each other beneath the surface.”

Needless to say, “it was sheer folly to shoot in the Pilbara,” says Maslin, “with 55 cast and crew at such an extreme location. Our main concern was to get everyone back safely. But it turned out fine, thanks largely to the great local support we had from everyone – the town and the BHP people. But it was certainly a challenge for the actors and the crew, with red dust in everything.” 

Japanese Story is the second feature on which Brooks, Tilson and Maslin have collaborated; the first was the acclaimed arthouse comedy drama, Road To Nhill. When the film was invited to screen at Cannes 2003 in the Un Certain Regard section, Maslin spoke for all the cast and crew when she said “we see it as acknowledgment for serious filmmaking. And it’s the start of the film’s long journey….” A few months after Cannes, the film was screening at the Toronto film festival . . .

Tilson began working on the screenplay some 10 years ago, prompted by a basic idea by Sharon Connolly (head of Film Australia). Sue Brooks contributed at every new draft, but she credits Tilson as the author. “I had my two bob’s worth but I couldn’t tell you anything specific that was my input.”

"She’s fantastic … she goes for it"

Brooks says Toni Collette was first choice for the role of Sandy “because she’s fantastic … she goes for it. She rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck into it and doesn’t take vanity into it. She can look a million different ways … she doesn’t wear mask.” 

But luck also played a part in the filmmakers being able to secure Collette. “We’d sent the script to Shanahans (Collette’s Australian agents) and she happened to be in town so she got to read it straight away and was really moved by it. It all happened within a week – and then we had to raise the money!” adds Brooks with emphasis. (Which they did: from Showtime, Palace, Film Victoria, Film Finance Corporation and Screenwest.)

Brooks says Collette “has a strong divining rod for the truth…but she always surprises you.” The actress took her own swag on location and slept under the stars.

If there is a message to take home from the film, it’s that judging people by just their ethnicity is shallow and likely to be proven wrong. Another, says Brooks, is recognising when we are doing something that will cause hurt to others, and being able to stop. “As Alison says, ‘if only I lived my life as I write about life…’” says Brooks with a laugh. 

Published September 18, 2003

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Japanese Story

On set, director Sue Brooks (left) with producer Sue Maslin

On set, screenwriter Alison Tilson

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