Production company: Pavilion Films presents, copyrighted to Pavilion Films Pty. Ltd.
Budget: $1.17 million (Murray's Australian Film); according to David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation, the budget started at $553,000 and ended up at $1 million. Cinema Papers' production survey, Jan-Feb 1982 edition, published an impossibly precise figure of $1,147,665 at the point the film was awaiting release - though this sort of documentation usually came from the film's production office.
Locations: Sydney and Melbourne; there are harbour and beach and city shots set in Sydney, and the opening scenes of bicycle riding look like they were shot in Sydney's Centennial Park. There are also exteriors shot in Melbourne, eg outside Spencer Street station, andestablishers of the then Exhibition building.
However only one week was spent filming in Melbourne. The famous Fitzroy baths (well, famous to inner city Melburnians) were recreated, according to director Ken Cameron, at a suburban pool in Sydney's West Ryde. Interiors were shot in Sydney.
Filmed: the film was listed as being in production, Cinema Papers' production survey, July-August 1981 and post-production in the Cinema Papers' survey September-October 1981
Australian distributor: Roadshow
Theatrical release: the film struggled to get a domestic release. Eventually producer Pat Lovell launched it in Melbourne at the Australian Twin Cinemas on 17th June 1982, and it did such good business that Roadshow picked it up. However it didn't reach Sydney until Thursday 30th September 1982 at Village cinemas, city and Double Bay, and thereafter it rolled out slowly to speciality arthouse bookings
Video release: Roadshow Home Video. The film was released in late June 1983.
Rating: M February 1982, 2788.80m., but cut to 2743m. in March 1982, after being classified R (The film was released in the US without a rating).
35mm Eastmancolor Filmed with Panavision ®
Running time: 99 mins (Murray's Australian Film); 101 mins. (Cinema Papers, The New York Times).
Australian DVD time: 1'37"43
Box office: The film did respectable domestic arthouse business, but didn't break wide, staying mainly within the arty demographic. According to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film did $451,000 in domestic business, equivalent to $1,312,410 in A$ 2009.
The film did get a limited arthouse release in the UK, and was given a New York opening in one theatre, followed by a tape release in the United States. But producer Pat Lovell says that there were no advances, and nothing came back to the producers.
The film also did the film festival circuit, and picked up a slot at Cannes in May 1982 as part of the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Producer Pat Lovell was quoted as saying the film was an unqualified success, but a film distributor, Sylvia Le Clezio was quoted as saying the film had attracted a lot of attention but that the response had been very divided.
According to Lovell, Noni Hazlehurst's ability to speak fluent French had impressed the French newsmen and had helped with publicity for the film, and Lovell added to the splash by spending about $50,000 promoting the film at Cannes, but thereafter results were patchy (Cannes details, Sydney Morning Herald, 24th June 1982) - though it did help the film on the festival circuit.
In terms of commercial results, it was perhaps the band the Divinyls and their lead singer Christina Amphlett who gained the most commercially, with the 'mini-LP' sound track release drawing more attention to this rising pop group.
The film picked up a respectable number of nominations at the 1982 AFI Awards, but won in only one category - though that was part of the film's being a launching pad for Noni Hazlehurst's long career. Curiously, director Ken Cameron missed out on a nomination, as did Colin Friels:
Winner, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading role (Noni Hazlehurst)
Nominated, Best Film (Patricia Lovell) (John B. Murray won with Lonely Hearts)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography (David Gribble) (Gary Hansen won for We of the Never Never)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Editing (David Huggett) (David Stiven, Tim Wellburn, Michael Balson, Christopher Plowright and George Miller won for Mad Max 2)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Alice Garner) (Kris McQuade won for Fighting Back)
The film also did a tour of the film festival circuit, most notably scoring a guernsey at the "Un Certain Regard" section of the 1892, 35th Cannes Film Festival. It also turned up at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, 9-18th September 1982, along with Star Struck and We of the Never Never.
The film was given a release in the United States as well as in Australia on VHS.
But then Umbrella released a decent package on DVD, and at time of writing that remains widely available - Umbrella has also packaged the film in a number of box sets with other Australian films in its catalogue (with other literary adaptations, for example).
The image is restored and in good condition and in widescreen format. There's some sparkle and dirt, but nothing like it once would have been watching the show on a battered 35mm print on the suburban circuit. Sound is also good, and showcases the music in style - if nothing else, the film's a chance to see vintage Chrissy Amphlett in action, and she also turns in a solid performance which might make viewers wonder why she didn't continue with acting between gigs.
There's also a healthy swag of extras.
1. A 2004 25'05" 'making of' titled Aqua Profonda, featuring interviews with director Ken Cameron, producer Pat Lovell, and actor Alice Garner. Director Cameron has a number of memory lapses, but the result's a companionable guide to the film;
2. A 15'06" audio interview with author Helen Garner, by Steve Stockwell, dated as being recorded in 1979. The dating is suspect - Garner talks about Honour & Other People's Children as if the two novellas had been published, and this happened in 1980, and talks of seeing the completed film once, with her mother, which presumably happened at the earliest in 1981.
Garner also references an article by Craig McGregor "about a week ago" in The National Times - McGregor published a story about Melbourne, A whiter shade of grey, in that paper in the 26th August - 1st September 1983 edition (see Trove here);
Garner talks of preferring to use characters from the real world rather than try to make things up, and various other aspects of novel-writing, as well as the structuralism and semiotics then doing the rounds, before listing an eclectic bunch of authors she liked at the time, from Robert Louis Stevenson (really liked), through Frank Moorhouse (quite liked), Virginia Woolf (a visual icon in the film), E. M. Forster, James Joyce (Dubliners quite wonderful), Proust (in English), Elizabeth Jolly, Ann Beattie, and she also liked to read the short stories in The New Yorker (missing in Australia). For the rest of her interview, get the DVD;
3. A concert performance of the Divinyls' All The Boys In Town, not dated, but in 4:3.
Amphlett's looking a little worn and in white coat rather than schoolgirl mode, and the voice is aged and the mix/sound's definitely not the best, but some, including this site, thinks she could sing the telephone book and get away with it;
4. A photo montage, with a Divinyls track running over it;
5. The theatrical trailer, running 2'54" and in 16:9 format. Its title - featuring clenched hands - reinforces the poster devised for the film's publicity campaign. The cigarette burns suggest a theatrical print was the source and helps explain the dirt and sparkle;
6. A profile of the novel and author Helen Garner over six pages, informative enough, but made redundant these days by the amount of information available on the internet;
7. The usual Umbrella propaganda, in this case trailers for Malcolm, Puberty Blues, We of the Never Never and Travelling North.
All in all, a good package, which serves the movie well.
Like the original novel, Monkey Grip is aimed squarely at the female demographic - introspective voice over sets up and closes the action, and the story is told from the female point of view.
There's nothing wrong with that, it's just a matter for viewers to decide if they fit the demographic. In any case for Ozmovie cultists it's essential viewing, not least because of the way it provides nostalgic insights into how the Fitzroy/Carlton drug culture and arty crowd scene managed to get itself turned into a movie reckoned to be of national significance.
There are knowing portraits of an art exhibition and a La Mama/APG style theatre performance.
Strangely, the ASO site doesn't seem to have three clips of the film available for viewing - at least at time of writing - though it does have a profile of producer Pat Lovell here - but the absence of a few clips won't trouble Ozmovie cultists who will just go directly to the feature film, thanks to Umbrella.
Author Helen Garner, born Geelong, Victoria in 1942, was a conscientious head prefect at The Hermitage, CEGGS, Geelong, before tilting towards alternative culture.
She taught for five years for the Victorian Education Department, but was dismissed from Fitzroy High School when it was learned she had provided precise answers to students' questions on sex and sexual practices. The sacking provoked a strike by the Victorian Secondary Teachers' Association but she was not re-instated.
She then worked for the alternative paper, Digger, wrote song lyrics for bands like Stiletto, and worked for Vashti's Voice, the Melbourne newspaper of the women's movement. She briefly turned up in Pure Shit as an addled amphetamines freak with a tidiness fetish and worked with the women's group of the Pram Factory on the production Betty Can Jump.
While living in collective houses, Garner started writing more seriously and in 1977, McPhee Gribble published her first novel, Monkey Grip.
According to Diana Gribble, "Helen used (the title) as the term of a handclasp … the linking of fingers … the expression of a loving grip. The title also had the meaning of heroin - the 'monkey on your back.'" (Sydney Morning Herald, 13th October 1978).
The hardcover first edition of 3,000 sold out; Penguin put it out in paperback and sold another 8,000 copies, and in 1978 it won the principal National Book Council literary award and Garner's future as a writer was established
Garner, asked about the point she was trying to make in the novel, said in an interview available on the film's DVD, that she was just trying to tell a story and make a life, a world, and try to get it down on paper. She acknowledges in the interview that the characters in the story were very like characters that she knew but says she never used smack and never injected herself with any substance "in case people are wondering".
She says she found the junk scene profoundly depressing, and boring and rather disgusting, but on the other hand, at the time she found it rather fascinating "in a naive sort of way". She thought of drug addiction as an image in a way for other kinds of addiction, like some people's addiction to romantic love or painful love, "a kind of masochism".
In a 1986 interview, Garner took a step back from the novel:
GDS: Monkey Grip was the first book you had published. Was it the first one you wrote?
Garner: Yes, as I said. I felt like it was a fluke. I didn’t set out to write a novel. I was living on a supporting mother’s benefit. That meant I lived in collective households where we shared the rent and food. I didn’t have any big money troubles. It was then I started writing every day. So I suppose I’ve had a grant for years really.
GDS: How has your style of writing changed since Monkey Grip? How do you think it’s changed? Monkey Grip seemed like a diary, and I always thought I could see Helen Garner there, but in The Children's Bach and Postcards from Surfers the writer as a character is a lot more difficult to distinguish.
Garner: That’s terrific. I don’t know if you like that, but I do. I got pretty sick of myself in Monkey Grip.
Monkey Grip’s my albatross. It’s going to hang around my neck for the rest of my life.
Not that I think it’s bad, it’s just that when I look at it now I can see its self indulgences, and I don’t like very much the me that I see in the book. There’s a lot of whingeing and taking myself seriously. I suppose most people feel like that about their first book. So far there’s nothing I feel embarrassed by in The Children's Bach. There’s a lot in the stories I feel embarrassed about. I think the quality of the stories is up and down too. I can see myself plastered all over that book, but because I’ve made certain technical advances my presence in the stories is not as crude as it was in Monkey Grip. I don’t feel quite so much that the world revolves around me. I can see now that if I’ve felt something it’s a safe bet that two or three million other women have felt the same thing. So I don’t have to push myself into the foreground. It’s been a great relief to get myself off centre stage. (The rest of the interview here)
Asked about tensions emanating about the production of the movie in the interview on the DVD, Garner said:
"I had very little to do with the film. Before the film was made I had a bit to do with it because I went to live in Europe in 1978 and just before I left, I met Ken Cameron, who was the director, and who also wrote the script, and he told he wanted to make a film, and so we corresponded a lot while I was in Europe, and there were about 14 or 15 drafts of the thing. He'd send it to me as he wrote it and I'd write back comments and I wrote a few scenes, I had very little to do with the actual writing of it actually …"
Asked about her reaction to the film on the screen, Garner said:
Well I was present for the whole shoot because my daughter had a part in it, so I saw the rushes every day and I was around … and sort of witnessed what happened. I found it very fascinating, but I've actually only seen the completed film once, and I was in the company of my mother, and I was very anxious about how she was going to react to it, so my reactions to it were pretty er shall we say impure (laughs). I liked it, I think Noni Hazlehurst's wonderful, I think she's a really marvellous actress. There are all sorts of things I didn't like about it, but she's one I felt very strongly favourable about.
There are plenty of online resources available on Garner.
Garner's cello-loving daughter Alice, who appears in the film, has a wiki here.
Garner is present on AustLit here.
A site which collates some of the online resources about Garner, and provides links, is available here.
(b) Novel into film:
Ken Cameron recalled his initial interest in the novel for Peter Malone at Malone's invaluable website here:
I just did it because I liked it. I had no idea that it would be successful - there wasn't the pressure then that there is now. You wouldn't take on anything now if you didn't think it had a chance of being seen or being distributed widely, but that wasn't an issue then. I just did the film because I liked it. It was about things that I had seen at second-hand. And it was about a whole lot of things that I was interested in and struggling with in my own life. It had such a long gestation; it's terribly hard to remember the precise moment when I committed to it. I was aware of it. I had talked about it for a long time - it must have taken years to do. I got involved with it when the book first came out, but it didn't get made until 1982. Four years is a long time - or it seemed a long time then.
In the DVD 'making of', director Ken Cameron remembers that it was around 1978 that he first read Garner's novel and decided he wanted to make a film out of it. He was making a short film at the time and was looking for a feature project. He fell in love with the book:
… it was about things that I was very interested in. It was about the addiction to love and about obsessive relationships and about the difficulties people had with relationships and it was in a milieu that interested me … I'd been to Melbourne a number of times, and I liked Melbourne a lot, I liked what I'd seen of, around the edges, of that lifestyle and here was this wonderful novel … and um I can not remember the correct sequence of events but I'm sure I approached Pat Lovell because I'd known Pat before then …
Inspired by Cameron's interest, Lovell went out and bought a copy of the book, read it, then rang him up and said she did think it was a film:
...and so he said 'can I write it?' and I said 'yes of course you can' and it sort of all came together quite quickly, but I remember, and I don't remember the sequence of events, but Helen was for some reason in Paris with Alice ,and I had to actually fly over and see her and then she was quite happy that we would do it … and so Ken started work and it was a very, very difficult adaptation, 'cause Helen's writing is quite superb and often you find that, the better a novel is written, the more difficult it is …
Ken Cameron: … the process of writing the screenplay was very complicated and I've never been through anything like it … it was very collaborative in one way in that I was always showing it to Pat and getting her advice, but I was also working with Helen Garner, and I was coming down to Melbourne and I was having long conversations with Helen about who these people were, and trying to understand the work better, but at the same time I was trying to write it, and using scissors and paste initially to just literally cut the novel up, and type it up so that it resembled a movie, without making very many decisions about what would be in, and what wouldn't be in ...
Lovell suggests that initially Cameron put in everything he could find and then came the slow process of culling and taking it back to feature film length, and that was very slow and steady. The original drafts ran about three hours in terms of screen time.
Ken Cameron: ... very gradually I think I must have extracted scenes that interested me more others and Helen certainly in the process of talking to her supplied ideas for other scenes. Sometimes I'd think we need something that bridges this or something … we need to see something that isn't in the novel to make sense of other events and she'd often write what that scene might be so it was a very interesting osmotic process, it probably took forever, it must have taken forever, because I think it started in 1979 or thereabouts and we didn't make the film until 1981 so there were probably two years of cutting and pasting and shuffling all these scenes around …
In an interview with Peter Malone at Malone's invaluable site here, Cameron summarised the process this way:
... the book was very hard to adapt and, while Helen didn't actually do it, I have an enormous collection of Helen's letters in which she used to suggest scenes and suggest solutions. So she was very closely involved. I don't know whether she has a credit or not - I think she has some sort of partial credit. She certainly helped me a lot in doing it. But, for her, it was an exercise in rethinking the book. No-one would ever accuse the book of being a slick novel. It was diary-like, impressionistic, a fragmented experience. Trying to make a film from the novel was trying to draw from it things that I could use and which suited the purpose of telling her story coherently. It had none of the shape of a movie at all, not the normal movie. Nowadays I think you would have trouble in doing it. I think anyone who had read the book would say, 'there's no film there'. So I don't know why I've taken on these things, but...
(c) Film tie-in:
In the usual way, Penguin published a film tie in edition. For more details of the many editions of the book, see Trove here.
For a commentary on the film turned from novel into film, see Brian McFarlane's 1983 Words and images: Australian novels into film, details at Trove here. The section of McFarlane's book dealing with Monkey Grip can also be found in the tenth anniversary edition, issue 44-45, April 1984 of Cinema Papers.
(Below: the film tie-in)
The financing of the film took place just before the 10BA days, and then in the very early fraught days of the 10BA federal government tax break.
David Stratton, in his review of the era in his 1990 The Avocado Plantation, provides an excellent overview of the difficulties experienced by producer Pat Lovell.
The film was initially budgeted at a modest $553,000, a level suitable for former high-school teacher Ken Cameron's first feature, after he'd attracted attention in the 1970s with a trio of short dramas, Sailing to Brooklyn, Out of It and Temperament Unsuited.
But no distributor was interested in the project - GU's David Williams told Lovell it would never make a cent, and no one at the federal government film body, the AFC, liked it, except for John Daniell (Daniell scores an end thank-you credit in the finished film). The NSWFC also avoided it - 'perhaps they saw it as pornographic' Stratton quotes Lovell as saying, and the film fell over for lack of $150,000.
Lovell went off to do Gallipoli and then after the 10BA tax deductions were announced, she tried again:
…but in the meantime costs had risen so far that a revised budget came to $1 million. 'The above-the-lines were the same as before,' says Lovell. 'Ken was paid only $45,000 to write and direct: I shared a $40,000 producer's fee with the executive producer. It was crew costs that went up.' Danny Collins offered to help Lovell raise the money, and became executive producer, but it was an unhappy relationship. Just before production began, it looked as though a last-minute hitch in funding would delay the shoot by two weeks. Suffering from nervous exhaustion, Lovell was hospitalised and sedated for forty-eight hours - it was rumoured that the amount of money that went missing was some $200,000.
During the first week of shooting there were anxious moments because an investor, secured by Bankers Trust, who had agreed to put up the entire budget, had not signed the contract. Lovell discovered that the investor was a client of Filmco, and was told by Filmco's John Fitzpatrick that the only way the money would be forthcoming would be if Filmco became executive producers (and charged accordingly) and were given a hold on Lovell's next project.
Already the sharks prevalent in the 10BA years were active, but it took considerable courage for Lovell's next step:
She declined, and, thanks to Bankers Trust, was able to get enough money to keep the production afloat; eventually, she took out a personal overdraft and borrowed money from friends to keep the movie going.'It was a nightmare,' she says. 'And I worried so much about the money, I couldn't always give Ken the support he needed.'
For a profile of producer Pat Lovell, see the ASO site here.
In the DVD 'making of' director Ken Cameron says that there were at least three people that, if they'd been cast in the role of Nora, would have meant that they could have raised the money quickly - it started as a cheap film - but he felt that all of them weren't right for the role.
Lovell agreed with Cameron, but suddenly it looked as if they might not be able to make the picture. All in the creative team had seen Noni Hazlehurst quite early, Cameron says in the DVD interview, and thought she was quite magnificent, but no one knew who she was.
He spent three or four months approaching other names, even screen testing them, while all along thinking that Hazlehurst was right for it. "It was an awful exercise and there was one period when I just thought it was all too much and it just wouldn't be made and I was about to abandon it".
According to David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation, Cameron had first encountered Hazlehurst by interviewing her for the supporting role of Angela in the film (the pop singer in the band), and was impressed by her warmth and vitality.
Pat Lovell recalls walking into a casting session, after being told by Alison Barrett that she thought she might have found a Nora, to discover Hazlehurst wearing the brown and white spotted dress she would later wear in the film, thinking her absolutely right and also doing an excellent reading.
It turned out that Noni Hazlehurst couldn't swim, in a film that begins with a swimming sequence, though it did later make for some fun publicity for the film in a splash in the Australian Women's Weekly, where Hazlehurst confessed her failing to the female demographic. Cameron claims she also couldn't ride a bike and had to learn quickly.
Cameron wanted Doc Neeson of The Angels to play the role of Javo - Lovell recalls him as being 'quite gorgeous' and charming and 'part of a bohemian set'.
Stratton quotes Cameron as recalling that he'd bypassed Friels at first:
"He came in for an interview wearing a beard, and I didn't know who he was".
In the meantime, Neeson said yes, and Lovell remembers they did a 35mm screen test of Neeson - as she notes, a rare event in Australian auditions because of cost - and determining that Neeson was able to act "and I'll never forget getting a ring in the production office two weeks before we were to start filming and Doc had to pull out because The Angels were given this great tour with lots of money and of course we were offering so little money at that stage".
Cameron recalls that he thought it a brave thing for Friels to do - in the DVD, he remembers him as playing Macbeth and still being in that head space - until he suddenly remembers that it was Hamlet (Stratton says Friels was playing Hamlet at the Opera House when Cameron saw him and decided he'd be right to play Javo).
Cameron thought the only issue was whether Friels could make the leap from being a healthy young man to evoking a junkie "which was probably a credibility gap he had to bridge", but looking back thinks he managed it with the blunt expressiveness of his voice.
Cameron notes that in any case the film wasn't a documentary about the absolute reality of the advanced stages of heroin addiction, but was in fact a love story "and I just think the tender blunt way that that evolves is absolutely right and wonderful."
According to Pat Lovell, Ken Cameron thought about casting Alice Garner - author Helen Garner's young daughter - the moment he met her, thinking she was such a natural as a young actor.
Lovell says she can't even remember seeing other child actors. Garner moved to Sydney for a couple of months to do the film, and her mother moved with her.
Garner picked up an AFI nomination for her work in the film, and would later have an impact in films such as Bob Ellis's 1990 The Nostradamus Kid, and Emma-Kate Croghan's 1996 film Love and Other Catastrophes.
The production got going in difficult circumstances, arising from the bunching of productions because of the sudden rush by the industry to raise money under the 10BA tax break, and then hire the few experienced crew available, as recalled by Stratton in The Avocado Plantation:
Monkey Grip was one of those films made in the first half of 1981 when 'bunching' reached ludicrous proportions. Says Lovell: 'So many people on that film had never worked on a feature before. David Gribble's camera crew turned out to be marvellous, and so were the grip and lighting crews. But the art department was another matter; the production designer, Clark Munro, developed glandular fever during production and a lot of people in that department just didn't know what was involved in making a feature film.'
Another complication was that the book was set in Melbourne, a town always very possessive of its alternative culture and stories (Sydney was always resented as the emerald city, home to traitors like David Williamson)
But as director Ken Cameron notes in the 'making of', the team that assembled to do the film had a Sydney-centric bias. Cameron himself was Sydney based, as was producer Pat Lovell, DOP David Gribble and Clark Munro the production designer. The casting was done in Sydney with Alison Barrett and because of the long gestation period, "we'd dug a big hole for ourselves in Sydney".
Cameron says that nowadays and with more money, they would simply have made provision to shoot the film in Melbourne, but as it was, this novelistic jewel in the heart of Melbourne's Carlton counter-culture was mainly filmed in Sydney:
"I would have loved to have made it in Melbourne, it was a money thing really, and we had one week I think shooting in Melbourne, wasn't enough. I would have done like everything there really. I mean of course even the interiors would have benefitted probably from being in Melbourne just because … it's a flatter, it's a feeling, it's the plaster that you see outside the window, it's just all sorts of tiny things that you can't reproduce, it's just an authenticity that affects the actors, all sorts of reasons, but having said that, it was a money thing, it wasn't an artistic choice, and yet I'm quite proud of the fact that we recreated the Fitzroy baths … "
Cameron says the pool used for the Fitzroy baths was just some pool out in West Ryde but he thinks it's pretty good, and at this point Alice Garner - originally a genuine Melburnian as well as Helen Garner's daughter - chimes in on the DVD - to say that the recreation fooled all the locals she's talked to about it, and that people think of the resulting film as an authentic Melbourne show.
The authentic shots of Melbourne salted into the show effectively conjure up the town, and blend well with the interiors shot in Sydney.
5. Censorship - Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n Roll:
In the DVD 'making of' Cameron says he never thought of Monkey Grip as a film about drugs - he says he never thought of it as a drug film in the sense that Pure Shit was a film about drugs, or Dogs in Space:
"...it was always about relationships and Pure Shit had already been made and it's a wonderfully kinetic, exciting film about the drug sub-culture in Melbourne and I knew I couldn't do that, and I didn't want to do that, and so I think the drug side of it is handled very lightly, and I know Pat felt the same way. None of us wanted to make a film about, just about heroin, and we didn't see that as what the book really was about either … and so I always think of it as about love addiction, or obsessive love, or the problems of loving more than one person, rather than about smack …"
Nonetheless the subject matter contributed to the difficulties of financing the film, as did the portrait of sex in the alternative Melbourne lifestyle, and director Ken Cameron in the 'making of' recollects that the film scored an 'R' rating:
The film got an 'R' rating but I suppose it was just simply because of a few scenes, it wasn't really I think a good thing to get an 'R' rating, I'm sure it probably would have done better had it not got an 'R' rating, and maybe we could have cut a few scenes and got an M but it's always a hard thing to answer that, because if you get an 'R' rating, at least you know that the adult audience that you're trying to appeal to will probably be more curious about it than if you get an M, and you can never tell, you don't know what the consequences of an 'R' …
Cameron suffers from occasional memory lapses in his interview - the film was in fact trimmed, and on appeal, finally did score an 'M' and was released with that rating in Australia.
But the fuss was unsettling, and an even more astonishing example of government interference is recounted by Stratton in his 1990 The Avocado Plantation:
One crucial element in the film is the passion and frankness of the lovemaking scenes. Says Cameron: 'I had no problem with the actors during the filming of those scenes. I felt it was worth going all the way with them, and I was young enough to to have hang-ups. The atmosphere on the set was a bit funny: in the end, I had the entire crew, myself included, rehearse naked. Everyone was terrific, but it probably wouldn't be possible to shoot those scenes today. There's a repressiveness and a prudishness today we didn't have then. But we all believed in the novel and the film, so we felt those scenes had to be done that way.' Later, Lovell heard that the Cannes Film Festival director, Gilles Jacob, had been advised 'by someone in authority' that 'the Australian government would not be pleased if Monkey Grip competed in Cannes.' 'I found this utterly amazing,' she says. 'It's a film about a woman's sensuality. Why be ashamed of that?'
Meanwhile, courtesy of 10BA, the federal government helped finance an astonishing amount of rubbish.
These days the film seems remarkably tame - in the DVD 'making of', Alice Garner recalls seeing the film and so, for the first time, being able to watch the sex and drug scenes she hadn't been a part of during the filming, and feeling "pretty squirmy" at a few scenes, but then she would have been aged around eleven or so … close to the then emotional age of censorship in Australia, some might suggest.
Like many films shot during the rush of the early 10BA days, the film struggled to get off the shelf. It faced lack of interest, or even downright hostility from mainstream distributors, who knew little about the female or arthouse demographics, especially when the two went together.
Accordingly it didn't get a release in Melbourne until June 1982, long after it had been finished in 1981, and it didn't reach Sydney until the last day of September that year.
But it did go on to become a modest domestic success - according to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film did $451,000 in domestic business, equivalent to $1,312,410 in A$ 2009.
David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation tells the story of the film's release:
While Lovell was in London for the Royal Premiere of Gallipoli, Danny Collins screened Monkey Grip for the three main distributors, all of whom turned it down. One even claimed not to understand it. Another told Lovell later: 'I loathed it.' for the first week of the film's Melbourne release, at a Village cinema, Lovell distributed it herself, with the support and advice of Village's Marketing Director, Alan Finney, who loved it. When the first weekend's takings were a formidable $40,000, Roadshow picked up the film. 'They admitted they were wrong,' says Lovell, 'and later opened it in two cinemas in Sydney. It made half its budget back in Australia, a huge amount for this sort of movie. But it didn't fare so well overseas. American and British distributors acquired it for no upfront money, and I made nothing from it.
Cameron also remembers the film as a modest success:
It largely got very good reviews. It had a nice reception in Cannes in a modest way. It was in the Un Certain Regard section. And it did quite reasonable business. It played in the cities for a very long time, many, many weeks. In those days they didn't mass release pictures; they tended to just run them longer. I can't recall, but it must have run 20-odd weeks or so. It didn't make anyone rich, but it did respectable business for a film of that type. (Malone interview here)
The film set both the leads, Noni Hazlehurst and Colin Friels, on their way to lengthy careers in film and television, but Lovell's career as producer would begin to sputter, and director Ken Cameron gravitated towards high end television drama, where he would accumulate an impressive set of credits, as well as a few relatively disappointing feature film titles such as The Umbrella Woman.
The film is frequently dated to 1982, the year of its domestic release, but it was shot in 1981 and in its end titles copyrighted to that year, and this site dates films to their year of production.
The music in the film became anthemic to people of a certain age - you can still see older music lovers bopping to "get me out of here, too much too young" and a couple of other songs by the Divinyls featured in the film.
Lead singer Chrissy Amphlett (billed as Christina) also scored a role in the movie.
In the DVD 'making of', director Ken Cameron recalls:
There was a very good role for a rock 'n roll singer, Angela, and a drummer Willie, and a guitarist, and those three characters were in this band and so obviously I could have gone out and tried to cast those three people and formed a band like The Monkees or something (laughs), but I would have been floundering around rehearsing, trying to create some ersatz thing, and when I saw Chrissy Amphlett in The Divinyls, somebody told me about her, I can't recall exactly how, I just thought she was fantastic and the band was fantastic, and auditioned her as an actor, and found that she was very, very good, and seemed absolutely right in that milieu ...
...there was no one else in the band that wanted to act in the film, the guitarist, the lead guitarist and the drummer and the other guys didn't have an interest in doing that, they were happy to be in the film, but they didn't want dialogue and stuff like that so Don Miller-Robertson, who was a friend of Noni's, who is a performer, played that character and I think he does a great job of looking like he belongs in that band and Harold Hopkins who plays the drummer Willy, also is pretty cool in that role … and of course it's the Divinyls' music, they're just miming to that, but I was very lucky that I found them, I'm forever grateful that I found them, because I think that added so much to the film on every level … and I haven't seen whether Chrissy's ever done anything since then, any acting since then (in fact she only appeared briefly as an actor in an episode of the ABC's pop drama Sweet and Sour), but I think she did very well …
For more details on the music in the film, including details of LP and CD, and lyrics for the Divinyls' songs featured in the film, see this site's pdf of the music credits.
9. Final Thoughts:
In the DVD 'making of', Ken Cameron recalls the film as polarizing audiences, especially those who were used to seeing Australian films set in attractive worlds in the past, such as My Brilliant Career and Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli.
He whimsically suggests that the film might benefit from an accompanying manual ...
... that explains the politics of that period in that milieu. It's odd when I looked at it again, I thought 'well, it is strange, because you had to understand the way feminism had influenced, not just the women, but the men, and the way that those ideas were put into practice in quite a sort of frank and rigorous sort of way. People felt it was okay to be very ruthlessly honest about wanting to sleep with someone despite the fact that you might be upset, and I think it's the politics of that period that allowed all that to happen. I don't think that's true today".
Lovell says the only thing she misses from the novel is Helen Garner's humour, saying there was quite a lot of humour in the script which was lost along the way.
Lovell acknowledges that Cameron has a quiet sense of humour that could make her giggle, but says when he was working, he had absolutely no sense of humour at all:
"...and I was quite shocked because there's a hospital scene in there where Javo ends up in hospital which is actually terribly funny, and it's not, and I wasn't on set that day, and I can hardly, we didn't have enough money to go back and re-shoot, so I'm sad that the humour, I think the humour would have helped it a great deal, but Alice is the one of course who brings out the humour a hundred per cent, because of her jolly face and the way she behaved, but also there are fabulous touches which I love Ken for … I mean when Nora comes back to the house and realises that Javo's come back and she's got all these apples, a basket of green apples and they just tumble on to the table, that is the most gorgeous scene, and there are things like that in it that I just love and they were Ken's touches …
... I think the best thing about Monkey Grip is that it's a very honest film ..."
There is in fact some humour in the film, as when Javo has to exit the stage to vomit after eating an off meal in a cafe - the play itself is a gentle spoof of a Pram Factory offering or when he's being injected with medicine, or when he crashes an art exhibition and plays hide and seek with the security guard, or in the staging of a Nazi-themed pop clip, and there are also a few smart lines, like Nora telling Lillian that twenty people in Carlton doesn't mean everybody (the readership of the story she's written in which Lillian features).
Cameron says he likes the farewell scene at the pool, and he likes the simple scenes, not the complicated ones, he likes the simple pairings of people, between Friels and Hazlehurst and between Alice Garner and Hazlehurst …
Some critics share this view. David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation was very supportive of the film:
Hazlehurst gives an extraordinary performance in the film, and richly deserved her Best Actress award. The film compares interestingly with Winter of our Dreams, which was made the same year. Both films seem an accurate representation of inner-city lifestyle in the early 80s …: feminism, sexuality, sensuality, single parenthood, anguished doubts, close and warm friendships - all are lovingly depicted. Scenes between Hazlehurst and her daughter, beautifully played by writer Helen Garner's daughter, Alice, are among the best and most moving in Monkey Grip which, above all, is distinguished for its total honesty, in script and performance.
Other reviewers weren't so positive, and Ken Cameron himself disavowed realism, though he might accept honesty as one of the film's virtues:
I don't think it is realistic. It was a personal story and the fact that we shot it in Sydney blurred this somewhat. We shot a little bit in Melbourne. I never saw myself, when I was making it, trying to reproduce Loach, but I thought I should be trying to tell that woman's story. I was in another phase then. I was more interested in a cinema that would allow you to do those kinds of things rather than just reproduce something. I was more interested in Bergman's films about women or Truffaut's films about women than I was in simply reproducing the world. No, it's not realistic. It's heightened to some degree, although not heightened to the degree that a film like that would be nowadays. The films of that era look very pure compared to a lot of cinema now, which is much more strident, trying to look as if it belongs on George Street. (Malone interview, here).
These days, of course, you're lucky to find cinemas on George Street in Sydney's CBD. Films are more likely to be trying to look as if they belong in a mall.