(...maybe this Time)

  • aka Letters to a Friend (working title only)

Sydney in the years of the federal Labor Whitlam government, around 1975 in its decaying moments of power ...

Twenty nine year old Fran (Judy Morris) is heading towards thirty and an emotional crisis. She works as a research assistant for Paddy (Mike Preston), a sexist, cynical history lecturer at a Sydney university. Her lover Stephen (Bill Hunter) is a married man and private secretary to a minister in the Federal Labor government (Leonard Teale).  

When Fran and Stephen head off to Canberra, they're joined in bed by Stephen's wife, Meredith (Jude Kuring).

Disillusioned, Fran dreams of heading off to Europe to join her friend Ginney, to whom she sends regular updates on her state of mind by way of letters.

But instead Fran heads down south Wollongong way to her mother's birthday party, where she celebrates with her sister Margo (Michele Fawdon), and her disapproving mother (Jill Perryman) - and Margo's husband Jack (Rod Mullinar), who makes a clumsy pass at her. 

Fran tries to rekindle her relationship with an old boyfriend Alan (Ken Shorter), recently returned from New Guinea. A rural boy, Alan wants to get married, but a romantic weekend ends with Alan mortified because he can't sustain an erection, and is unwilling to accept a blow job because he wants it "to be real".

Fran has an encounter with a travelling salesman (Chris Haywood) in a motel bar/dining room, and then she consummates the affair with Paddy, on the beach by a flickering fire.

Fran celebrates with a nude swim in the moonlight, but Paddy wants an open relationship - he likes an occasional dalliance with his tormented students.

Fran rejects another advance from Stephen and then turns down Alan, who's idea of courtship is to eat a burger with her at McDonald's.

Fran finally writes to Ginney telling her that she'll join her in Greece: "I am coming. I am sick of being a face across the table into which men read a thousand boyhood fantasies."

Alan and Fran's family head to the airport to send her on her way, and soon enough Fran is in Athens looking at the Acropolis ...

The short pitch in the Cinema Papers' production survey, Feb/March 1980 ran: The focus is on a modern woman turning 30. Overall the film concerns, hopefully and humorously, the rising cost of emotional freedom in modern times, and the mixed bag of qualities that go to make up the Australian male.

 

Exec producers:
DOPs:
Production Designers:
Art Directors:
Composers:
Editors:

Production Details

Budget: c.A$460,000. (Murray's Australian Film). The New South Wales Film Corporation funded the film 100%.

Locations: Sydney, harbour and suburbs; Canberra; the NSW south coast road and Kiama; Hawkesbury river; Kangaroo Valley, etc. 

Filmed: The film is listed as being in production in the February-March, 1980 edition of Cinema Papers; it is listed as being in post-production in the April/May 1980 edition. Other databases, quoting David Stratton, propose that it was shot over six weeks starting in November 1979.

Australian distributor: Roadshow Distributors

Theatrical release: the film was released at the Melbourne Longford cinema on 20th March 1981. Some databases suggest a release date of August 1980, but press reports consistently list the film as awaiting released up until March 1981. It did however screen earlier as part of the AFI awards judging process, which possibly exhausted its market.

Original video: CEL

Rating:  M (August 1980, 2,621.47m)

35 mm    Panaflex cameras by Panavision    Eastmancolor  

Running time: 96 mins (Murray's Australian Film), 100 mins (Cinema Papers)

VHS timing: 1'32"08

Box office: The film was a box office flop, a complete turkey that found it very hard to get any kind of theatrical release. It also didn't travel well internationally.

This might help explain why it isn't listed in the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, and also why it doesn't appear in the specialist film magazine Cinema Papers' box office gross records of the period. It did however sell to television and appeared on VHS in Australia. It even reached the UK market on tape.

Opinion

Awards

Remarkably the film picked up a number of nominations at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, but it was no match for the 'Breaker' Morant machine, except in the case of sentimental stage favourite Jill Perryman, who had at last appeared in a feature film and who snatched her award away from two of her colleagues:

Winner, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Victorian Film Commission (Jill Perryman)

Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Victorian Film Commission (Jude Kuring and Michele Fawdon were both nominated for their work in the film)

Nominated, Best Film of the Year, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (Brian Kavanagh) ('Breaker' Morant won that year, producer Matt Carroll)

Nominated, Best Screenplay, sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Anne Brooksbank, Bob Ellis) (Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens and Bruce Beresford won with 'Breaker' Morant)

Nominated, Best Original Music Score, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Bruce Smeaton) (Peter Sculthorpe won for Manganinnie)

Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (Judy Morris) (Tracy Mann won for Hard Knoocks)

Writers Bob Ellis and Anne Brooksbank also won an AWGIE (Australian Writers' Guild) for best film screenplay in 1980. (Ellis also won Best Film Adaptation that year for his children's film Fatty Finn). 

Availability

The film was released in Australia on VHS, and while it can occasionally still be found, this version is now extremely rare.

Instead most Ozmovie enthusiasts now see the film via rips of the film taken from VHS and shared by collectors, quality depending on source material.

As a major flop, it is of course essential viewing.

How could so many talented people then at the work in the industry have joint-ventured to produce a romantic comedy with feminist tinges, which resulted in a singular lack of enthusiasm from audiences and mixed notices from critics?

Why was it shot using Panaflex cameras when it really was just a telemovie in disguise, and for once watching it in open matte 4:3 framing doesn't seem so strange?

Is it any worse than Michael Thornhill's "comedy" The Journalist?

Many would suggest it has more life than that, but only the dedicated buff can consider and solve these deep mysteries by watching the film.

1. Source:

Co-scriptwriter Bob Ellis on the film's genesis:

It took five years. We offered it to everybody you can name, and they all said no. There was Gill Armstrong, Steve Wallace, Tony Buckley, Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam. Ken said yes, but we got him into trouble with his chosen producer, Tom Haydon, and it didn't happen. I also showed it to David Stevens and Brian Bell, and they hated it.

Eventually, Annie and I re-read the script and found it was no good at all. I then re-wrote it with a punch line, and bullied the NSWFC, which was a bit uncertain about its commercial potential, into doing it. They then imposed a producer and a director, who weren't our first choice, but with whom we finally agreed. (Cinema Papers, October/November1980)

At the time, Ellis had a deal with the NSW Film Corporation to write 10 feature film scripts over two years. He was paid $7,000 for each script, and if the NSWFC wanted to buy one, they had to pay an additional $12,000 within 28 days of receipt of a second draft. The NSWFC picked five of 33 ideas Ellis put to them, and he and his wife/sometimes writing partner Anne Brooksbank picked the other five. Ellis claims that the five the NSWFC picked were selected because they could be made for $400,000.

As was the case with most of Ellis's scripts, he complained about problems with the director and the producer ("...you can't work with two of them. You have three wills pulling in three different directions, and you always wind up with less.")

He also complained about interference with the script:

In this country, producers don't realize that in a good script every full stop and comma contributes to the total effect. You can't rip out 100 pages of David Copperfield and believe people aren't going to notice.

There is also a point (like six weeks before shooting) when a script should not be interfered with. On Maybe This Time, we were instructed, three days before shooting the great Whitlam sequence, that all references to Whitlam had to be cut out of the first third of the film. Apparently, this was so that the NSWFC could pose as though it hadn't been appointed by a Labor government, and was not approving of Whitlam, who, as we approach 1984, is becoming a non-person: Michael Parkinson said he has never heard of him.

Losing Whitlam wasn't all that serious, but losing the references to him destroyed the structure of all the scenes in which those references occurred - and that may have been five or six. As a result, the first 10 minutes of the film was wrecked, and the film will lose money.

I don't see how these changes were worthwhile. My words aren't sacrosanct - I prove that every day of the week by collaborating - but I do know more about what I am doing, in terms of dialogue and structure, than somebody who is not skilled in the field.

There is another case on Maybe This Time which illustrates the present plight of the writer. There was a scene where Fran and Stephen are in a restaurant over-looking the harbor. It's a nervous scene: the old boyfriend wants to divorce his wife and marry Fran. In the original script, he says, "Luna Park down there." And she says, "I know, I've lived here for some time." He then says, "Settling in all right are you?, and so on.

What happened was Luna Park had been burnt down and they didn't want to include a cut-away of it, which they didnt have to, anyway. So they changed the line on the day to "Sydney Harbour." And she said, "I know, I've been in Sydney for some time." That made us, as scriptwriters look like fools. (Cinema Papers, Oct/November 1980)

In reality, it could be argued that the Luna Park line doesn't sound much better, as the amusement park on the north shore lags in popular Sydney awareness only a little behind the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

But the observation does reflect Ellis's penchant for throwing in markers - in one part of the film showing a scene from Roy Rene's (Mo McCackie) Strike Me Lucky, and having Judy Morris say that she's gone off Mo in recent times (a remark that would be mysterious to the many in the audience who would have missed the days of Australian vaudeville, old time radio and 1930s Australian films).

In another scene, the minister (Leonard Teale), flying in company with Fran, attempts to lighten her mood by quoting Tolkien, an incongruity noted by several reviewers.

2. Casting:

As with the scripting, so it was with the casting, with Ellis miffed that he had missed out on various actors while writing roles with specific ones in mind ...

...on Maybe this Time ... we replaced the coquettish Jack Thompson with Mike Preston. It almost worked, but it was specifically Jack's part - as was the part played by Gerard Kennedy in Newsfront. I think Jack and Bill would have made pretty good brothers, but you scarcely know they were, the way the film was ultimately cast.

I think correct casting is a hidden fact in the success of a lot of films: Satyajit Ray says it is 93 per cent. Just try and imagine Lex Marinos and Elizabeth Alexander in Kramer Vs Kramer - it wouldn't work. It has to be the two who played it ...

...Roadshow also imposed a lead actress. They wanted Judy Morris, Helen Morse or Wendy Hughes, and Judy was the only one with buck teeth and, therefore, the only one with any hope of not looking resolutely beautiful all the time. I still think she looks too beautiful to have these problems, and the correct choice would have been somebody like Anna Volska or Michelle Fawdon. But Judy is terribly good in it, and it is by far her best performance, which is a considerable achievement. She will get the Best Actress Award, I am sure. A couple of times, when watching her do things, I felt like crying. (While Morris was nominated, Tracy Mann won the best actress award in 1980 for Hard Knocks).

All the same, whatever the sense that Ellis had that he'd missed out on his ideal actors, the cast was solid for the time, with Bill Hunter in a main role and Rod Mullinar accepting a small role, and solid character actors such as Leonard Teale, Chris Haywood, John Clayton and Willie Finnell all turning up in support.

The problem perhaps was the less successful casting of Mike Preston - more at home in The Last of the Knucklemen than playing an lecherous academic, and Ken Shorter as the old boyfriend, who is given such a dispiriting impotent country bumpkin character, as written, that it diminishes Judy Morris's Fran to even consider him one more time.

Jill Perryman, a well known theatre actress, attracted attention by shifting to an Australian feature film for the first time (and winning an AFI award for her effort), while character actors such as Michele Fawdon (who had won the AFI for best actress the year before with Cathy's Child), Jude Kuring (one time at the APG and well known to fans of the TV soap Prisoner) and Lorna Lesley lend support. Perryman has a brief wiki here, while Kuring's, here, is more substantial.

The film is notable for Matrix lovers because Hugo Weaving can be spotted in a minor role as student 2.

Others appearing in the film as students include a brief sighting of Celia de Burgh as Paddy's girl, and Tim Burns (who'd played Johnny the Boy in Mad Max) as student 1.

3. Production and locations:

 Ellis on the production:

It was a hard film to do, because in a way it should be ill-lit, poorly-dressed, and populated by ordinary and ugly people. But in another way it should be handsome and well-dressed, as it is. There is no correct way to do these things, and fashion in women's films alters radically every year. Sunday Bloody Sunday was a handsome film, whereas Sterile Cuckoo was grotty, with some pretty ordinary-looking people. I think you go back-and-forth between these two things, and you can pick it wrong. I think we did.

It was in fact a low budget effort of the kind that suited the New South Wales Film Corporation.

It was shot using Panaflex cameras but in spirit and style it was determinedly telemovie-orientated, the one flourish being Ellis's use of the Acropolis in Athens to give the ending a visual lift.

There is some predicable use of Sydney Harbour, the Opera House and the bridge (seen from a ferry and a restaurant), and a trip down the coast road from Sydney to Kiama to add some picturesque sights, but they're filmed in a relatively static way.

When in Canberra, for example, the film throws in a flatly delivered establishing shot of the front of what is now the old parliament house, without ever using the end days of the Whitlam government as an effective device for either the characters or the atmosphere.

4. Release:

For many reasons - though perhaps the leaden script and direction can share much of the blame - the film had a difficult time on release.

Critics made an attempt to be kind, and the film picked up a number of AFI nominations and one win, usually a help with publicity, but the film couldn't pick up a theatrical slot.

While some databases suggest it was first released in August 1980, various media interviews with the key cast (Bill Hunter, Judy Morris, Mike Preston) all refer to the delayed release of the film (an interview with Mike Preston in the Australian Women's Weekly of the 11th March 1981 refers to the film as "yet-to-be-released").

The film did pick up a strictly limited, night-screeening only booking at the Longford in Melbourne starting 20th March 1981, and it did pick up other limited bookings - it ran, for example, at the Electric Shadows in Canberra for a week in September 1981.

But bookings were sporadic and rare, and the film quickly disappeared from the circuit, though it did get a run on television and on VHS, and it did get released in the UK on tape.

Whatever the details of the failed release - the film isn't included in the Film Victoria report on Australian box office and it didn't make the Cinema Papers' box office figures at the time - it was reported in The Canberra Times on 28th March 1987 that the NSW Film Corporation had lost $7.3 million on its investments since it was established ten years before.

It had sunk $10.1 million in Australian films from 1976 to June 30, 1986, and received a net return of $2.8 million.

The NSW Public Accounts chairman Mr Joh Murray told a hearing "that the corporation had placed 100 per cent equity in several films which had failed ot make a return as of June 30, 1986. These included Maybe This Time and Crosstalk".

The problem for the film was that, as the boom in domestic production increased, there were more Australian films seeking screens in the limited theatrical space still dominated by American product.

In addition, the 100% bureaucrat-driven financing meant that the film had no distributor with skin in the game, and therefore very little chance of leveraging theatrical bookings.

As a result, weaker films with a difficult demographic (in this case, female, and concerned male companions) fell by the wayside, a trend that would increase in the 1980s as more films went direct to television and/or video.

(...maybe this Time) was an early victim of this developing trend.