Production company: Palm Beach Pictures (in association with N.S.W. Film Corporation, Australian Film Commission, Village Roadshow)
Budget: A$600,000 David Stratton, and The Australian in its review (listed as A$505,000 by Cinema Papers, and also in The Age on 19th October 1977, with the NSW Film Corporation contributing some $300,000). There were reported overages caused in the shoot, and by editing and other delays in post-production which Stratton alleges caused the blow-out.
Locations: Sydney, Narrabeen, including Narrabeen lakes, country New South Wales. Old wharf at Wooloomooloo for filming of migrant ship scenes, Pymble, etc.
Newsco International was located in the old 20th Century Fox building in Brisbane Street, Sydney. The Balmain newsreel archive for the real newsreel company Cinesound was used for the Cinetone office location, meeting rooms, editing and theatrette spaces (and was the base for the show). G.U.O. allowed filming inside and outside the State Theatrette, in Market street, Sydney. The State still stands.
Filmed: October-November 1977. According to the DVD, shooting began 9th October 1977, with 36 shooting days, spread over 7 weeks.
Australian distributor: Roadshow
Theatrical release: world theatrical premiere Thursday July 27, 1978 Village Cinema City, George Street Sydney. The event was covered by Channel Ten and featured the arrival of stars in the Cinetone Newsreel van and vintage Rileys. The official NSW premiere was held the following night on the NSW central coast at Gosford and was attended by the Premier of NSW, producer Elfick and stars Bill Hunter, Gerard Kennedy and Lorna Leslie. The after show party was at Old Sydney Town. The film opened Melbourne 24th August 1978 (the film had travelled to the Cannes marketplace that year in May)
Original video release in Australia: CEL Australian Video
Rating: NRC (May 1978, 3,018.3m) (PG)
35 mm, colour and black and white
Running time: 110 minutes (Murray's Australian Film, Cinema Papers). Some databases, after David Stratton, report that the NSWFTO required some 7 minutes be trimmed for overseas release, but The New York Times in its May 30 1979 review of the film's release by New Yorker Films in New York records a 110 minute running time (this might, of course, have been taken from Australian-sourced publicity material).
DVD timing: 1'46"16
Box office: According to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film did A$1,576,000, equivalent to $6,713,760 in $2009.
This might suggest a box office success, but the figure seems generous. According to producer David Elfick, the film didn't break even until two years after its release, and according to (possibly embittered, certainly innumerate) writer Bob Ellis, he saw only $600 in net profits from the show.
While the film travelled internationally, and was even given a release in New York, it did more of a tour of prestigious arthouse engagements than become a commercial powerhouse.
In the end, money is never the final judge, and the film remains one of the best of the 1970s revival films.
1978 Australian Film Institute Awards:
Winner, Best Film of the Year, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission and the South Australian Government (David Elfick)
Winner, Best Achievement in Directing, sponsored by Village Theatres and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Phillip Noyce)
Winner, Best Original Screenplay, sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation (Anne Brooksbank, Bob Ellis, Phillip Noyce)
Winner, Best Achievement in Cinematography, sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (John Scott)
Winner, Best Achievement in Art Direction (Lissa Coote)
Winner, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Norma Moriceau)
Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Bill Hunter)
Winner, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (Angela Punch)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography, sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Vincent Monton) (Russell Boyd won for The Last Wave)
Nominated, Best Sound (Tim Lloyd, Greg Bell, Peter Fenton) (Don Connolly, Greg Bell and Phil Judd won for The Last Wave)
Nominated, Best Original Music Score, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (William Motzing) (Bruce Smeaton won for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (Wendy Hughes) (Angela Punch won for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, sponsored by Filmways Australasian Distributors (Don Crosby and Chris Haywood were both nominated - Ray Barrett won for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)
1978 Taormina International Film Festival
Won, Best Director, Best First Film - Phillip Noyce
Nominated, Golden Charybdis - Phillip Noyce
Screened at various film festivals, including New York, London and Taormina
As befits an Australian classic, in region four the film was given a decent release in a well mounted Roadshow DVD.
The image, from a print restored as part of the NFSA/Atlab/Kodak initiative, is in good shape, the format is correct, and the soundtrack offers a 5.1 version. Judging by the cigarette burns at the reel changes, a release print was used, but there will be no complaints from anyone, especially if they've traded up from VHS.
There's a generous serving of extras, including a commentary by director Phillip Noyce, producer David Elfick and scriptwriter Bob Ellis.
The commentary is inclined to the formal and over-produced, and David Elfick doesn't give confidence by starting out describing King O'Malley as a obscure Tasmanian politician but perhaps that was a joke aimed at difficult co-writer Bob Ellis, who with Michael Boddy had come to fame by writing a musical play The Legend of King O'Malley.
That said, the commentary track offers plenty of insights into the project, with the three one-time antagonists now sounding quite amicable. There are also some comments from Bill Hunter, associate producer and production manager Richard Brennan (with his always present diary record of proceedings) and DOP Vincent Monton talking about the period and colour styles of photography used.
Wendy Hughes also chips in with recollections of working on the film, and the feeling of barriers being broken, as does Angela Punch Macgregor, who talks of learning to enjoy watching clouds on film sets. Bryan Brown also drops in, after we're told he bunged on a little do about being evicted from the tea room so Ken Hall could meet Don Crosby. Chris Haywood turns up to explain how, after his relatively recent arrival in Australia from Britain, the film was a way of being re-born an Australian, by living through Australian history in six weeks.
Also in the package is a short visual presentation The Newsfront Story, presenting bits of information in a quasi-PowerPoint style (The Pitch, The Screenplay, The Beginning, The Production, The Music, The Novel, The Cannes Film Festival 1978, The Launch, The Reviews, The AFI Awards, The new Newsfront - about the DVD release, with a quick potted history of what the participants of the project have been doing since the film).
It's in the style and of the kind of extra favoured in the golden days of DVD when a retrospective "making of" was considered too expensive and a bunch of slides could do the trick.
The DVD-ROM elements included the now obligatory Study Guide. This mainly consists of a consideration of the characters, themes and ideas in the film, prepared by Barbara Boyd and pitched at a school audience, along with a piece on the filming originally prepared by director Phillip Noyce for Cinema Papers.
There's also a compilation of Newsfront reviews in depth, a detailed report of the restoration of Newsfront by supervisor Frans Vandenburg, and perhaps most amusingly the original government script assessments done for development funding.
There's also a 10'37" 1990 NFSA (then ScreenSound Australia) documentary The Last Newsreel, which features material from the golden era of Australian newsreels, while plugging for the preservation of same, narrated in genuine newsreel style by Kevin Golsby and Phil Haldeman.
The footage includes the almost obligatory graphic shots of the Matiland floods, the Melbourne Cup and fighting on the Kokoda track.
A second menu page provided access to standard biographies, a photo gallery, the restored 1'43" cinema trailer, and footage from the 1978 AFI Awards which saw Newsfront walk away with plenty of gongs.
Unfortunately the photo gallery insists on putting its menu over the images, and over-exposing the bottom third of the images, and as usual no IDs are provided. This sort of presentation used to be considered state of the day, but now looks like trendy wannabe design masquerading as visual graffiti.
The footage from the 1978 AFI awards is narrated by Phillip Noyce, and is rewarding viewing not just for the period glam frocks, but for Noyce's bemused commentary on the eccentricities of Bob Ellis.
After Roadshow got out of the DVD game, this package ended up with Reel in region four, and a similar package was also released in the United States.
Any of these releases is a good way to meet the film, which is essential viewing for Oz film enthusiasts, with Newsfront still surviving the test of time as a quintessential bout of 1970s babyboomer nostalgia for their 1950s parents (along with political, social and emotional insights).
For those too lazy to watch the show in full, the ASO has three clips here, but any self-respecting Ozmovie cultists should already have watched the show a numbre of times.
Director Phillip Noyce claims that he grew up seeing only two films set in Australia in his first eighteen years. He made up for it by becoming involved in alternative indie film-making - UBU and the Sydney film-makers' co-op scene - then heading off to the new Film School in its very first uptake, then making a series of interesting movies, such as the bikie documentary Castor and Pollux, and culminating in Backroads. Newsfront would be the next logical step.
Producer David Elfick had the original idea for the film. He was a regular visitor to the continuous newsreel screenings that could be seen in various theatrettes in the city of Sydney.
He had grown up in Maroubra, a Sydney-beach side suburb, and the Wood brothers, used as reference points for the fictional newsreel cameramen in Newsfront, were both members of the Bronte surf club.
Syd and Ross Wood had worked for rival companies and there was sometimes a genuine and ferocious rivalry between them. (More on Syd Wood at the ACS here, inducted into its hall of fame in 1997)
Elfick started off in movies by making surf movies such as Morning of the Earth and Crystal Voyager, the latter which he took to Cannes in 1973 and which meant, after various sales, he could afford to blow up and give a proper theatrical release.
Around the same time, he was friendly with Richard Neville and Andrew Fisher of the then notorious British Oz magazine, and he decided to try to develop a storyline with them.
Elfick had worked on Mad Dog Morgan, and knew Philippe Mora and Jeremy Thomas, who had made the documentaries Swastika and Brother Can You Spare A Dime, using archival material. From that, he claims came the Newsfront idea of being about newsreel cameramen, fictional characters, being inserted into real and exciting events
When he had something on paper, he approached director Phillip Noyce, who remembers it this way:
Sometime early in 1974 David Elfick approached me with the outline for a feature film he was proposing to make called Our Time. He, Andrew Fisher and Richard Neville had been working on the project which had started as a straight compilation of documentary footage of Australia's post-war history. The doco idea had evolved into a proposal to intercut archive footage from the newsreels and period TV shows together with a fictionalised story which was about two kids, a migrant and an Aussie growing up in '50s, '60s and '70s Australia. As I remember it, when David Elfick first brought me that proposal the story did not involve newsreel cameramen …
Elfick had approached Noyce because of his humorous short film about bikies, Castor and Pollux, while Noyce though he was qualified because he had already merged fictional and recreated scenes for a documentary for Film Australia which explored a doctor's use of vitamin C to treat indigenous people, God Knows Why, But It Works.
That documentary had been shown at the 1976 Sydney Film Festival, and Elfick approached Noyce again.
According to the "official" version in the DVD "The Newsfront Story", in late 1976 Elfick then went to the AFC with a concept and a draft for a film set in the period 1948-1958, detailing the life of a newsreel cameraman named 'James Richards', interspersed with newsreel footage. It was inspired by Phillipe Mora's Brother documentary, the rock 'n roll documentary Let the Good Times Roll and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (this is the development phase to which the AFC assessments in the DVD package refer).
This time Elfick ended up with a finished script under his arm called Newsfront. (It had originally been titled Useless if Delayed, after the sticker then used on newsreel film cans).
It had been written by Bob Ellis, who thought the 1950s were best defined by the Robert Mitchum film Out of the Past, and who thought that's where his own best work was set. Ellis was helped in the task by his wife Anne Brooksbank, former Cinesound newsreel cameraman and later producer/director Howard Rubie, and veteran cameraman Syd Wood.
Ellis had attracted Elfick's attention with his musical play, The Legend of King O'Malley, co-written with Michael Boddy, about a roving American-born politician who played a significant role in federal politics during the early years of federation (ADB King O'Malley here)
Ellis had grown up as a Seventh Day Adventist in Lismore (explored in his autobiographical feature film The Nostradamus Kid) and was then sent to Stockton in Newcastle, where going to newsreels was part of his visual diet. According to Ellis, it was a dramatically thrilling way of seeing the events of the week, and he went the first day when the newsreels changed.
He saw the story as a way of exploring his father's life:
It was in my mind the kind of man that my father was which was uneducated but smart, good but kind of limited in the scope of his life and we came upon a phrase "buccaneers on mortgages" which perfectly defined that kind of man who had been to war and now had a job in which there were little adventures available, like my father the commercial traveller.
In the DVD commentary, Ellis also invokes the solitude of Edward Hopper as an inspiration.
Noyce says he was impressed, when he first read the screenplay, by the originality of the concept and also how appropriate it was for him as a film-maker because it combined fictional and real elements. He too thought it could be a homage to his parents' generation and could show the values he most admired in his father.
Elfick paid Noyce a small retainer for six months before shooting, to provide time for him to think about the movie, and in particular to begin thinking about how to combine newsreel footage with recreated footage. During that time, Noyce turned to Ken G. Hall, who had run Cinesound for several decades but who in 1948 after the feature film Smithy for Columbia had been forced to give up feature films, and instead return to supervising newsreels for Cinesound.
Hall went over to channel Nine in Sydney for the birth of television and became its CEO, and the character of A. G. Marwood, played by Don Crosby, was inspired by Hall - with a bitter sweetness about the way things had developed in the Australian movie game (Associate producer Richard Brennan recorded in his diary that Hall visited the set on 14th November 1977).
Hall and the Wood brothers weren't the only inspiration for the film. Howard Rubie gave the script the story of the chemist making alcohol for the Maitland flood sequence, and in due course the film would include the work of many cameramen and film technicians - some 43 names are acknowledged in the end credits.
Newsreels were the most active part of the theatrical film business for Australians in the dismal, largely feature film free years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and so the film became a celebration of film and film-making and film-makers (there is an abundant, almost fetishistic display of 1950s film gear), along with an exploration of the Australia they recorded.
It sounds too good to be true, and it was, because the development of the script and the project was plagued by endless disputes involving the difficult writer Bob Ellis. The fight over the script raged during its development, during production, and then flowed over into the editing and the credits
1a The Script Dispute - Development:
Bob Ellis wrote a long (because of ignorance of formatting, very long) and expensive script, and this created difficulties for the production. Director Phillip Noyce is generous in acknowledging Ellis's contribution in the DVD commentary, while presenting the problem:
Bob, as the man who had really cracked the problem posed by the original concept, Bob who had written a very compelling and wonderful screenplay, that also managed to be a political thesis on those years in Australian history, he was wedded to his original scenes and their structure, and I as the director was just faced with the responsibility of trying to deliver a movie for the budget I'd been told I'd have and trying to make the viewing experience as compelling as possible, so I knew I had to make some cuts.
This is followed in the commentary by Brennan describing a typical Ellis tantrum involving script theft and an Elfick football tackle that brought him to the ground and then his banning from rehearsals.
"It was just awful", said Elfick, and as well as the physical nonsense, Ellis sent telegrams reclaiming the rights to the script and assigning it to others, and scribbled rude notes on the script.
The problem was the enormous number of scenes in the script, the many locations, and the ambitions involved. The script was cut in the three to four weeks before shooting started, partly by David Elfick, mostly by director Noyce.
Ellis argued that "absolutely primal experiences" in the script had been cut - for example, a Christmas scene by beach between two brothers and other things, such as a locust plague, the arrival of Sputnik, the arrival of the Queen, Bradman's last test, all "at least as interesting as a tedious left wing wrangle".
Ellis considered the result the arbitrary strictures of an arbitrary budget and unrealistic schedule, while the rest of the creative team thought they had to make a film of manageable length for the budget to hand.
Phillip Noyce on the DVD: ... so perturbed was Bob by the cuts that were being proposed, he started a one man battle to convince David, Richard and I to reinstate various cut scenes, and when it appeared that that failed, he would almost, like the Ancient Mariner, grab hold of anyone who'd listen, including some of the actors who had been already cast.
Ellis, because of quadruple spacing and format one scene per page claims he delivered a 300 page script but when melted down would have come out at 128 or 135 pages long.
"It would therefore be the length that most films now are", he argues, a couple of hours or so, not an unreasonable premise or length for covering ten years of life in Australia, while pointing out that Jane Campion's The Piano covered three months of teasing in two hours (Ellis loathed The Piano, and true to his word, when Ellis directed The Nostradamus Kid, it ran for an inert two hours, losing steam and the audience well before the 100 minute mark, after an initial rough cut had run close to 150 minutes).
Noyce: I can remember the feeling of inertia that Bob would induce in me when I'd hear from actors that we'd cast that, you know, we should put this scene back in the picture, or we shouldn't be doing that, or we should be doing what Bob tells us, and it reached the stage eventually where David actually severed the relationship with Bob and we decided to go it alone, without his day to day involvement in the various decisions that were now being made on what to shoot, what not to shoot, who to cast and so on.
Although David and I were able to argue about what was right and what was wrong for the movie, and then reach agreement, it seemed that as a threesome, Ellis, Noyce and Elfick were not able to argue and reach agreement, but just argue and reach a further heated disagreement which quickly became a public disagreement that threatened to disrupt the whole film-making process.
1b The script dispute - post production:
Ellis claimed his script would work, and continued to beaver away, whispering into the ear of any actors would listen that the new version was a corrupted failure.
He remained excluded from immediate access to the production process, but there was a final dispute involving the credits, what must have seemed like the last straw in a post production process which had seen an explosion in the time taken on the edit, along with a consequent explosion of costs.
According to Noyce in the DVD commentary, the post production team had Ellis's title credit card prepared.
But in an investors' screening Ellis sat and groaned, and then at screening's end, stood up and told the assembled investors it was one of the worst films he had ever seen. They had to take his name off it, and his only satisfaction was that Elfick and Noyce would never work in the film industry again. According to Noyce, he then stormed out.
Ironically, on the DVD, this discussion of the script dispute happens over the violent Russia v Hungary polo grudge match in the1956 Melbourne Olympics.
In the DVD commentary, Ellis presents a belated, mournful, half way house kind of apology, in which he blames others for his actions:
Like all writers I'm principally autistic, I want nothing to change from what is written. I loved what was there, I loved all the characters, I wanted to possess, embrace and keep them pure from all harm in the world. I did what I could which was mainly screaming in offices, I concentrated only on what was lost.
Had I not at the screening been in the company of the mad, drunk, convicted murderer Jim McNeil, who was egging me on, I would have left my name on it, had Elfick not so quickly asked me was my name on or off, I would have left it on, had I not read Edward de Bono and discovered there are a million ways of skinning a cat, I would not have fiddled with the wording of my credit. Being too clever by half I contrived the eventual credit which was a screenplay by Noyce based by a screenplay and all that.
I should have just put my name back.
Stupid, stupid, stupid and so it goes …
(Ellis at the time was sharing a flat with Jim McNeil, who was indeed a violent killer before turning playwright, but to blame McNeil for his actions is inexcusable, in the usual Ellis way).
Noyce says he received this pronouncement back at the NSWFTO.
You have changed my screenplay so it's unrecognisable, the film will be a disaster, therefore you (Ellis pointing at Noyce) can take the blame and the credits that I propose are, screenplay by Phillip Noyce based on a screenplay by Bob Ellis.
According to Noyce: David and I pleaded with him to take credit for the screenplay and for this credit to be amongst the front credits of the film.
In a typically disingenuous way, Ellis now credits the film's success to the editor John Scott and the composer William Motzing for putting the emotion back into the film, along with the strength of the idea, and the accidental mixing of colour and black and white, which helped give the film an emotional impact and a range of feeling. It's just another way of diminishing Elfick's and Noyce's contribution.
For any one interested in Bob Ellis's lengthy account of the disputes and his behaviour, see at the bottom of this page under the header Remembering Newsfront, and an excerpt from a most informative and revealing interview by Peter Malone.
Richard Brennan, in his diary recording the production noted on the 24th Jan 1978 - Bob Ellis and Anne Brooksbank to discuss novelisation, called Elfick a skateboard manufacturer, he and Anne stalked out.
After Ellis chucked this wobbly, the job of writing the film tie-in based on Ellis and Noyce's screenplay was given to Robert Macklin, and the 142 page book was published as a soft cover by Sun Books, South Melbourne, in 1978.
(Below: the film tie-in cover - for more details on this edition, see Trove here).
Macklin was a journalist and working writer, known for books about bushranger Frank Gardiner, war hero Jacka VC, and in more recent times a biography of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Macklin has a brief wiki here, and a web site active at time of writing November 2013, which provides extensive details on his career, here.
His site includes this brief CV as well as details of his many works:
Robert Macklin was born in Queensland where he was educated at Ironside School, Brisbane Grammar and the University of Queensland.
He worked as a Jackaroo on a sheep and cattle property then as a roustabout in a shearing team before joining The Courier-Mail as a cadet journalist.
Later he moved to Melbourne and Canberra where he worked in the Parliamentary Press Gallery for The Age and then as Press Secretary to Sir John McEwen during his Prime Ministership.
On McEwen’s retirement in 1971 he took a post with the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines and for the next five years wrote and directed documentary films in 32 countries from Afghanistan to Western Samoa. These were screened on television in Australia, Britain, America and many developing countries of the region.
During this time he wrote his first novel, The Queenslander, and returned with his family to Australia. He now lives in Canberra where he divides his writing time between books and moving pictures.
(Below: Robert Macklin)
According to Elfick, he went to rich people, accountants, lawyers, public figures, family and friends, but got only three responses offering to invest. He turned to Hans Pomeranz at Spectrum Films and Pat Sayers, an importer, who had both invested in his surf movies Crystal Voyager and Morning of the Earth, and who made their money back with profit.
The Australian Film Commission, he says on the DVD commentary track, came in with a fifth of the budget, and thanks to Greg Coote, Village Roadshow became the Australian distributor. The final investment came from the NSW Film and Television Office, who put up more than half the money, and so completed the financing.
The process wasn't easy, and the DVD provides assessments done by the AFC in the early development days of the project.
Two were favourable, but one anonymous assessment shows the sort of negative vibe almost every successful project experienced at one point or another when engaging with the bureaucracy:
Are we indulging a young man with a dream? David Elfick thinks it would be 'brilliant' to piece together newsclips (from newsreels) and integrate these clips with a fictional story to put them in juxtaposition with each other. But there is just so far one can take indulgence. Mr. Elfick came to our meeting ill-prepared. The most logical question was asked immediately. Where in the pre-production budget was the allowance for purchase of the newsreel segments? What was the anticipated figure for purchase? The answer 'a reasonable figure' … when asked what was a 'reasonable figure', the question was evaded, an an answer was never forthcoming …
And so on, with this flourish:
1948-1958 - ten years of Australia's great moments - was it an important decade? Will it be humour or pathos? Will Australians want to remember? And will the rest of the world care?
The rest, including the positive assessments, is on the DVD.
Village Roadshow wanted the film to be shot in colour, seeing a sale to television as a bottom-line protection of their investment.
But this created difficulties, not least because none of the original newsreel footage had been shot in colour at the time. There was no colourisation process at the time, and yet some scenes only worked with the integration of the original black and white footage with intercut dramatic material.
Eventually to keep Roadshow happy, it was decided to shoot some of the scenes in colour, and some in black and white to match the newsreels. Even now, some people who haven't heard of the film, are still startled when the first colour images turn up.
Phillip Noyce had worked with Bill Hunter on Backroads, a ragged wild road movie which dared to mingle black and white, and he hadn't been able to get Hunter to audition for that film (instead he met him in a pub, and Hunter delivered an improv routine to score the role, a tale Noyce tells on the DVD for Backroads).
Hunter had been born in Fitzroy, to a publican dad who specialised in turning over country pubs, so by the age 13, when he left school, he claims he'd been in a total of 13 schools. He got into the movie game when he got a job as stunt double for Fred Astaire and Tony Perkins in On the Beach.
Six weeks before shooting was due to start, Elfick and Noyce decided to coax Hunter down to Palm Beach and encouraged him to remove his beard because it wasn't appropriate for newsreel cameramen of the period (Sid Wood was used as the model for Hunter's role).
It was agreed that he could keep his moustache but his beard had to go. Hunter went to the bathroom with a razor and stayed there a long time. When he emerged, Noyce realised that he'd cast someone with more than one chin, and that's why he had the beard, because it gave a particular etching to his face.
Noyce, on the DVD, wonders whether, during the casting process, if Hunter had presented without his beard, he might have been rejected outright as a possibility for the role. Yet he acknowledges with hindsight that it's Hunter's unconventional, inappropriate looks as a leading man that makes him very distinctive and also makes the film look extremely distinctive.
In the end, according to associate producer Richard Brennan, it was agreed Hunter would get top billing if he'd do the film for a $9,000 flat fee, get fit, keep the beard shaved, and not drink during shooting hours (Hunter was a fierce alcoholic).
There was a dispute with Roadshow over Gerard Kennedy. Robin Campbell Jones wasn't impressed with his test - associate producer and PM Richard Brennan thought it had been a stand out - and rang to say that Roadshow were pulling out. Elfick rang Greg Coote in Los Angeles and insisted he couldn't say "no".
Other casting followed. The casting of John Dease was particularly noteworthy. He had been a radio star in the 1950s and a household name as the host of The Quiz Kids. He had never acted for the screen before, but Noyce was moved by his screen test, and his voice, saying that it transported him back to the 1950s, an aural equivalent to the clothes and set dressing of the film.
Lorna Lesley, who played Chris Haywood's girlfriend, had attracted the attention of Ellis in Down Under at the Stables.
Chris Haywood had by this time done a lot of television since his arrival in Australia from the UK, but this would help his career take the step up to the big screen. He was introduced to newsreel cameraman Sid Wood and used him as mentor.
Angela Punch (later Macgregor), aged 23, had emerged from NIDA some six months before filming started, and had also attracted Ellis's attention for a variety of reasons.
Ellis suggests she was perfect at evoking his concept of her repressed character, Fay. While playing a Catholic, she reminded Ellis of the Seventh Day Adventist women he knew - 'nervous vegetarians who looked to kitchen and routine as a way of life', locked into an Australian Women's Weekly view of the world.
It was appropriate that the first day of the shoot was at the State Theatre in Market street in Sydney, re-enacting the State newsreel theatre, and the newsreel theme that would run through the film.
In the DVD commentary, Phillip Noyce explains how delighted he was to find the footage of Chico Marx, singing Waltzing Matilda to the troops, which nicely introduces the twin themes of American influence and Australian nationalism. He claims he found the footage December 1977, just after he'd finished the film and searching through the documentary footage in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra (then part of the National Library).
But joining these strands together - actual newsreels and re-enacted drama - would be a fraught process:
4a. A Fraught Shoot:
The shoot was fraught. Noyce was inclined to be slow in the morning, and then had to rush in the afternoon to catch up, and as a result the shoot was in constant arrears. Associate producer and production manager Richard Brennan, with his ever-present diary record, is good on the DVD commentary evoking the tensions on the set.
On the 1st of November, Brennan thought the filming was falling apart with only three shots in the can by lunch.
There were often two scenes a day, often in different locations, meaning if the first scene was covered in too much detail, there was little time left for the second scene. This reduced the filming of Don Crosby's funeral scene to a couple of shots.
According to Brennan, Noyce left himself only a couple of hours to do the dance sequence at the wedding.
Brennan outlined the challenge involved. The investors were determined not to go over budget, and there was no way to ask for extra money (a completion guarantor was in those days a foreign concept, with the government bodies standing in that role, and leery of being fleeced of money for other projects by grasping spendthrift producers or uncontrollable directors).
4b. A Tight Budget
The film had a 36 day schedule and an enormous number of scenes and locations, despite the script having been cut 3-4 weeks before starting the shoot, which led to the battle with Bob Ellis, who proceeded to conduct a guerilla war, to add to the pressure on Noyce - for example, he got into the ear of actor Chris Haywood, and convinced him that the amended script was dreadful.
All departments were on a tight rein. Norma Moriceau, who had been in the UK editing fashion magazines, returned to do the frocks, but discovered she only had $5,000 in total for costumes. So the op shops received a pounding. Nonetheless both the costumes and the period design are immaculate.
4c. Stock Problems:
The black and white stock required to match certain archival scenes provided a number of dramas. For a start, it was hard to get hold of unexposed 35mm negative stock. It was usually left over bits and pieces, from different batches and with different gamma, and in the end it would be left to colour grader Bill Gooley at Colorfilm to smooth out the differences.
The emulsion was thicker on the old black and white stock, compared to the new colour stock, and after a minute and a half or so, the emulsion would build up in the gate and the camera would jam.
4d. Directorial Style:
The newsreels determined the way director Phillip Noyce approached his visuals. The 1950s cameramen tended to use 25mm lenses, mostly standard lenses, which produced a square look, and mid shots from the waist up, or sometimes from the chest up.
Noyce decided he would adopt a similar sort of style, in terms of shot framing and the cutting rhythms, so the new material could more easily match the old. The old cameramen never used a zoom - none were available, and they didn't favour handheld cameras, preferring where possible to put the heavy cameras on a tripod - and Noyce says he generally followed this style, though the film contains some modern camera flourishes.
4e. Merging old with new:
The most notable production issue revolved around the merging of newsreel footage with the drama of the characters, and the most notable of these was the combining of staged action with newsreel footage of the 1954 Maitland floods.
Director Phillip Noyce explained in a production report in Cinema Papers August/September 1978 of the difficulties, and the final solutions, which remarkably involved that colossus of 1930s Australian feature films, and Cinesound newsreels, Ken G. Hall:
(i) Maitland Floods:
Producer David Elfick and I knew we were taking a risk attempting to recreate the Maitland floods, especially on a relatively small budget. It wasn't until after I spent mose time talking with Ken G. Hall about the ingenious ways he had handled special effects in such films as Tall Timbers and Lovers and Luggers that I believed we could do it.
One simple trick Ken suggested to cut down expense while trying to create the impression of a raging flood was to keep the camera as much as possible above the action, thereby restricting the information within frame to include only that area over which it was possible to create a strong flow.
We worked our way through all the possibilities - rear-projection, matting, models, tanks, even waiting for a real flood - before deciding to recreate a section of downtown Maitland in Narrabeen Lakes, about 25 km north of Sydney. That was 10 weeks before shooting, and it was another nine weeks before a contact at Evinrude Outboards offered a solution to the problem of moving a large body of water in a relatively remote location.
David and special-effects man, Kim Hilder, conducted tests with outboard motors and high-pressure water pumps before finally settling on the enormous thrust from a jet-propelled speed boat.
(ii) The Flooded Interiors:
The flooded interiors were another seemingly insoluble problem. The art department constructed facsimiles of the Maitland Town Hall and a 1950s chemist shop after we finally unearthed a disused swimming pool at Campbelltown. The two-sided chemist shop was built in the middle of the four-sided town hall set. The downstairs chemist scene was shot first up, then the set dismantled over lunch to reveal the larger canvas-roofed, town hall interior.
The Maitland exteriors had to match existing archival footage, so production designer Lissa Coote and art director Larry Eastwood made a careful study of the Maitland buildings, both erected before the 1950s. As with all scenes involving an integration of library and re-enacted sequences, frame blow-ups of the relevant archival material were produced for wardrobe, art, lighting and camera departments. Camera angles for flood scenes involving sets were decided several weeks before shooting, and an artist hired to story-board as much of the likely detail as possible.
More than in any other section of the film, the unflamboyant deep focus, visual style of these recreated scenes needed to merge with the newsreel shots.
(iii) Maitland street facades:
Facades of a period Maitland street were constructed in the one metre deep lake over two weeks. The flood water depth was to be mid-door level which meant that the facades could be detailed from just a few centimetres below the lake's natural water level. Unfortunately, a particularly low tide on the day of shooting exposed some of the undetailed work. In addition, stormy winds twice bent the construction scaffolding and almost blew the set into the lake before the shooting had started.
The exterior set comprised four shop-fronts running at a right angle to a second group of three shops. The second, shorter row was built directly opposite a moveable, one-sided frame mock-up of the entrance to the chemist shop. When Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood) rows out of the shop, the placement of the facades visually suggests a much longer street in all directions, than was actually constructed. The height of the facades and their placement relative to the chemist shop door were dictated by a predetermined lens size and camera position. Once the scaffolding had been erected, the shop-fronts could not be moved.
At this stage in the narrative the flood has not reached its height, so Kim Hilder had only to produce a mild water flow in the street. The jet boat was anchored at the far end of the main street - about 50m. from the camera - and smaller, conventional water pumps operated from the immediate left of frame, producing a cross-current from the side street.
Lighting, sound and production crews helped the special-effects team in releasing flotsam and jetsam to flow through the frame on cue. The camera angle which revealed the whole of the submerged exterior set was used only twice, for a total screen time of about 15 seconds. Engine noise from various pumping sources prevented any location sound recording of exterior flood sequences, and sound-editor Greg Bell created the complete track for archival and recreated material.
(iv) The Drowning of Chris Haywood:
The sequence where one of the cameramen is drowned (Chris Haywood playing Chris Hewitt) called for a much stronger water flow. The camera was mounted on a raised, moveable platform and the jet boat was operated at a distance of between 6 and 15m. The platform kept crew and equipment out of the heavy current while (as Ken Hall suggested) allowing us to shoot slightly down on the action, thereby restricting our frame to the relatively narrow turbulence produced by working that close to the jet engine.
The scene begins with a series of archived shots that establish the growing flood turbulence and, by association, the verisimilitude of the recreated shots that follow.
It was further complicated by the fact that we were down to the last roll of 35mm black and white raw stock available in Australia at that time, which necessitated a two-to-one shooting ratio.
(v) The Search for Chris Haywood:
The sequence where Len and Charlie (Bill Hunter, John Ewart) search for Chris in a small motor-boat involved the most complicated integration of new and archival footage, although most of the really hard work came at the editing and color-grading stages. Of necessity, the Cinesound and Movietone cameramen had recorded their most graphic shots of the Maitland floods from the top of army ducks on rescue operations.
A search of the combined company archives housed at 20th Century-Fox in Sydney, and the National Library in Canberra revealed many such tracking shots. Some of the best footage turned up in cans of Cinesound rushes somehow preserved over the years and available in uncut from at the National Library.
For the search sequence, the objective shots of the actors in the boat were filmed close to the set at Narrabeen Lake. Editor John Scott then had to painfully match contrast, screen direction, boat-speed and location to complete the illusion that the newsreel shots represented the actors' points-of-view.
The origins of the archival footage varied. Some had been shot on nitrate original and transferred to acetate stock quite recently; some came directly from acetate, some was still on nitrate. The printing generations varied from camera original to masetr positives to dupe negatives.
Colorfilm color-grader Arthur Cambridge had to even out the distracting tint changes that were inevitable when black and white originals of different generations, densities and contrast are printed on color-based stock, as was necessary in Newsfront. The minor variations between Kodak print stocks are sufficient themselves to alter the color balance even after perfect results have been achieved on another stock batch.
We finally overcame these problems by producing our duplicating negative for multiple prints through the old interpositive-duplicate-negative system, rather than the new color-reversal-internegative process. Additional control was achieved through the added manipulation possible at the interpositive stage, and the final release prints that will be screened in most cinemas throughout Australia have a beautifully consistent black and white texture - a result we were doubtful of achieving when we first saw the first 'Technicolor-nightmare' answer-print.
It remains a relief to see what ingenuity and physical tricks could achieve, in contrast to later use of CGIs, which invariably introduce a feeling of unreality into any image, and this is one of the reasons Newsfront retains its considerable charm. The tricks are now obvious, but they do the required job.
The illustrations accompanying Noyce's piece in Cinema Papers provide a three page storyboard of images showing how the finished film mixed recreated and archival material, but this can now be done by breaking down the cuts on a computer. It remains an impressive achievement.
The film had a little luck with some of the other locations.
The P and O liner Arcadia, which was true to period, was shot at Pyrmont in Sydney, for the overseas shipping terminal scene. It was on its last journey back to the UK on its last journey as a passenger liner, and it then turned into a cruise ship.
In Balmain, the original headquarters for Cinesound was still standing, with lots of the original equipment, including carbon arc light projectors, mixing and editing rooms, meeting rooms and offices, and camera and sound gear, all still available and period friendly. The unit turned it into their standing set.
If the shoot was fraught, the post-production process was equally fraught, with associate producer Richard Brennan judging the explosion of costs and time as unforgiveable.
It also involved a continuation of the ongoing war with writer Bob Ellis.
Frans Vandenburg (who would much later help with the restoration of the film and its DVD presentation) was hired to research newsreel footage that might be used in the film, including all sorts of floods, and not just the 1954 Maitland floods.
In much the same way as Noyce had tried to match the newsreel style in the shoot, he asked John Scott to match the zap and urgent rhythms of the newsreels in the cutting, using very short shots, and treating the material with the same kind of rhythms and seamless movement.
Eight weeks after the shoot finished, Noyce saw the assembly of edited footage and realised that in certain key scenes Bill Hunter's vocalisation was inconsistent and inclined to sound paranoid.
Noyce felt that it needed more than technical dialogue replacement. Hunter wasn't keen on ADR, but Noyce persuaded him to do it and asked him to generate an emotional quality in his voice by fixating on the image of a koala - as a way of injecting a "koala bear" warmth into his voice
After first screening assembly in original scripted order Noyce thought the film a catastrophic failure and took to his bed where he remained in a state of catatonic failure for two and a half days contemplating a future as a school teacher, not as movie director.
He claims the story didn't seem to make sense. He was due to screen the film five days later to investors, and he says the first thing he did was go into city and search for music.
He found a 78 containing newsreel music, and came back into the editing room, armed with what he hoped was a glue that would hold whole thing together and push the story along, providing an emotional thread and at least the illusion of an intellectual thread.
They started to lay in some of music Noyce had found, and he claims that the film with a temp music track was a completely different experience, and showed signs of working.
Associate producer Richard Brennan in his diary noted the progress of the cut:
3rd Jan 1978 Screened a 156 minutes cut, too much time in screening room and cuts like TV.
11th January 1978: 133 minutes cut, unbelievably improved, investors impressed and celebration in pub with Roadshow.
20th January 1978: half music industry at screening. Terrible disappointment - saturated with ten extra pieces of music.
Noyce came to think that one area of the cut was a real downer - the ending. Instead of being bitter sweet, he thought it came across as bitter, with leading character Len realising the newsreel era was over.
In particular Noyce was troubled by the positioning of a scene at the end, with Len in a taxi driving past posters being hung, which showed that the newsreel theatrette at the State had become a continental cinema showing films such as Bardot in And God Created Woman.
At first it was hoped that music would turn around the mood at the end of the film, and Noyce persevered with this notion for a couple of edits, but then it was decided to move the scene earlier, and then have movie end triumphantly with Len showing moral strength by refusing to sell his Olympics footage to his scheming brother, and being pronounced "old-fashioned" by Wendy Hughes' character.
The film was a critical success, domestically and internationally. As well as almost unanimously favourable reviews, it scooped the pool at the AFI Awards.
Director Phillip Noyce provided this encapsulated history of the release in the DVD commentary:
A few weeks later the film received its first semi-public screening as part of the judging for the 1978 AFI Awards. We began to get extremely positive responses. This was followed by a review written by Mike Harris for Variety which was very glowing and then in the second week of May David and I set out for the Cannes Film Festival where the film was to be shown, not in any of the competitive sections, but just in the sidebar the marketplace where anyone can rent a cinema and screen a film.
We screened it to a quarter full house at the first screening which was followed by about four or five full houses with turnaway audiences at all other screenings and was followed immediately by various positive reviews from all over the world, particularly from Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell in New York and David Robinson writing for the London Times and Derek Malcolm writing for The Guardian in the UK.
For all the hoopla, the film did only solid art house business - though hitting the black was even then a considerable achievement for any Australian feature film.
While it went into the black, it didn't get too far in, at least if writer Bob Ellis is to be trusted (this is not a given:
The film ran for a year, as I remember, but we made no money out of it, or I haven’t anyway, $600 in royalties Annie informs me, because of the distributors’ crushing contract, it took out a lot of AFI awards, and I learned never to take my name off anything. Eventually and foolishly I on receipt of my first AFI Award paid tribute to Philippe Mora at length, stirring Sir Robert Helpmann, the compere, to wonder ‘Who does he think he is? Vanessa fucking Redgrave?’
7. FURTHER READING:
For good reason, Newsfront is one of the most written about films of the Australian revival.
It has a wiki here, but anyone interested in a more detailed insight into the film and its production might look to the dossier presented by Raffaele Caputo and Geoff Burton, in Third Take: Australian Film-Makers Talk, published by Allen and Unwin, Crows' Nest in 2002. (Burton was DOP on Bob Ellis's autobiographical feature The Nostradamus Kid).
(Below: see Trove here for more about this work).
Tom Ryan reviewed the book for The Age on June 24 2002, and noted many highlights, including inevitably yet more talk about the script dispute:
In the most entertaining chapter in the book, the ever-rambunctious Ellis (interviewed by Noyce and Vandenburg) records his objections to the changes made to his original screenplay for Newsfront, declaring that he might not have been as cross about them as he seemed at the time: "When these things happen in my life my response is one of humorous fury. I want to make mischief in the world but there's a lot of levity in that mischief."
The book also includes an extract from Ken G. Hall's 1977 book Australian Film: The Inside Story, which discusses the film from his vantage point. Director Noyce, writer Bob Ellis, actor Bill Hunter, DOP Vince Monton, editor and researcher Frans Vangenburg also feature. (It's also reviewed at Senses of cinema here).
The film had significance for many of the participants - it would, for example, become a calling card for Phillip Noyce as he headed off to a career in Hollywood (typically deplored by Bob Ellis as a career arc which took him from Newsfront to Sliver).
But it also became an intriguing form of national defiance, a willingness to be referential about making movies in Australia, and the role of the revival in celebrating images about the Australian past.
Bob Ellis was never short of a word when celebrating the film's (or by implication his own) significance.
On the DVD he says:
I know now that the kind of film we made with Newsfront, a multitudinous chiaking Australian answer to Capra might have sired other movies in that style had we not bitterly quarrelled. The loss of that partnerership and that immense Australian cinematic future was probably mostly my fault. I know now Newsfront is the best film I ever participated in, I didn't know then how great and testing a compromise movie-making always is …
And in his remembering of Newsfront for the Australian Writers' Guild (the rest can be found below), he had this to say:
Partly because we didn’t know what we were doing, a classic eventuated. It’s not altogether like Altman or Capra or Wyler but it has its resemblances. Like many good Australian films it’s a gang show, with lots of characters (Sunday Too Far Away before its mutilation was like this, The Odd Angry Shot, Don’s Party, The Club, Australian Rules, The Oyster Farmer) engaging the audience successively, not following the Sid Field a-man-goes-on-a-journey-to-personal- redemption curve that so defines and limits and falsifies the American cinema.
The Australian cinema when good is like the Czech cinema, the Canadian, the Scottish, the Irish, the New Zealand, where humour and self-disdain is never far from the surface, and the characters not heroes but human beings.
It also paid tribute to a lost generation of filmmakers, destroyed by Menzies’ sell-out to the American distributors and reminded us of a few Australian characteristics, those of my father’s generation, worth preserving. Dad used to sing tunelessly, ‘I like Aeroplane Jelly’ and on being complimented on his dreadful voice say, ‘It’s a gift’.
Newsfront is a double-barrel nostalgia experience now, both of the 1940s and ’50s, which it’s about, and our cinema’s golden age in the ’70s, when it was made. It gets better each time you see it. Or it does for me.
Annie and I still live at Palm Beach, Elfick retains his studio there, Noyce visits most Christmases. We’re talking lately of doing another film together. I attend shows at Howard Rubie’s outdoor theatre in Castlecrag. Mike Molloy lives up the road. I still exchange birthday and Christmas presents with Richard Brennan. I see Chris Haywood at parties, mourn John Clayton, my good friend, Johnny Ewart, John Dease, John Hargreaves. I’ve just done a one-man play with Tony Barry as Ben Chifley that makes me more money each night than Newsfront did in royalties altogether. This is my third Chifley-era project. The second was The True Believers, co-written with Stephen Ramsey. The years 1946 to 1954, my pre-teen years, are the ones in which I feel as a writer most comfortable. My favourite American film is The Best Years of Our Lives, its director William Wyler, whom Elfick rejected for Newsfront as being ‘let’s face it, too old’.
There are continuities Newsfront began. And a generation, still inspired by it, that followed.
And so it goes.
9. THE FILM'S RESTORATION AND THE DVD RELEASE:
Frans Vandenburg delivers a comprehensive, detailed summary of the many steps needed to restore the film, and produce the current print now available digitally.
A feature film about the once flourishing newsreel days - already a fading memory, though less than a generation ago - was itself also in danger of being forgotten, and worse, physically lost, or at least only available in a less than pristine form.
It's an epic fourteen page record of the journey, available as a pdf on the DVD as The Restoration of Newsfront, involving a search for original materials and much re-processing of sound and picture, and for restoration buffs, it is well worth the read, since changes in film technology mean much has been lost in terms of being able to handle what were standard technical procedures for 35mm film in 1978.
10. REMEMBERING NEWSFRONT, FROM THE BOB ELLIS SIDE:
Co-writer Bob Ellis can be an impossible person to work with, talented but difficult, and Newsfront provided a classic casebook study of the difficulties.
As noted above, Ellis argued about cuts to his script, which was re-written by director Phillip Noyce, and then demanded his name be excluded from the film. He then requested that his credit be restored when the film received a best original screenplay nomination at the 1978 AFI awards.
It's worth bearing this perversity and carry-on in mind when reading Ellis's own account of the development of Newsfront, published in the Australian Writers' Guild's Storyline, issue no. 18, Autumn 2007, as Remembering Newsfront, with Ellis beginning by contemplating the Australian revival, and then turning to the beginning of the project:
... Into this interesting mix around 1973 came David Elfick, who ran a Manly cinema and had made Crystal Voyager, a successful surfing film, and an idea that began as a documentary on 1950s rock bands. Elfick’s friend Philippe Mora, who’d made the impressive Depression compilation Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, saw some of the footage and advised him to make it instead out of all the newsreels of the 1950s, and add to them a drama plotline, with actors playing the cameramen who shot them. Two brothers, he suggested, going different ways and ending as rivals and enemies might underpin this story.
Elfick wrote a screenplay which I never read but I’m told was very wordy, and when it was not liked he asked Richard Neville to work it over. Neville began but the AFC then suggested a known dialogue writer would be a better look. I by then was known for an unmade screenplay, Lindsay, about Norman and Lionel Lindsay co-written with Chris McGill, and a play on at the Stables, Down Under, co-written with Anne Brooksbank, and Elfick approached me.
He approached me on a morning when I had just decided, an hour before, to work hereafter only on my own ideas (I’d had a bad experience, the way one does, with Peter Weir), and of course it was the best idea I’d ever heard, and I broke my vow immediately. We rapidly worked out a theme, ‘buccaneers on mortgages’, a title, Useless If Delayed (the label stuck on film cans going urgently off in trucks to newsreel cinemas) and a director, William Wyler, who’d made The Best Years of Our Lives and, less appositely, Ben Hur. Elfick made Hollywood enquiries about this and his other project Captain Goodvibes in which Reg Livermore in a pig mask invades the Middle East, and I did some research in the library, what slang terms were used in those years, what products emphasised in the Women’s Weekly, what films on in town, and, of course, viewed the newsreels.
They showed me the world I’d grown up in – of marching Anzacs and marching lifesavers, Redex car races, Test Cricket highlights, bushfires, locust plagues, the Melbourne Olympics and, tremendously, the Queen’s first visit when, as a slip of a girl of dizzying beauty, she’d stayed over in my home town Lismore, just before the great floods of that year, 1954, in Lismore and Maitland. It was a world already legendary, recalled, as it were, in Banjo Paterson verse, and well-suited to Elfick’s plan, connived with his chosen director of photographer, Mike Molloy (who’d shot Barry Lyndon and, lately, Mad Dog Morgan) to do the whole film in black-and-white.
I’d known Mike since 1959 and half-made a film with him and his friend ‘Chaunce’ Rubie in 1961. Both back then were Cinesound cameramen and Howard later head of Cinesound. I talked many hours with Howard who became contributing co-writer and, after a talk with Elfick, putative director.
Howard’s own experiences crept into the script and informed the character Chris Hewitt (played by Chris Haywood, whom Elfick had noticed and demanded I write a role for). The Redex car races, the locust plagues, the Test Cricket scenes, the Maitland floods, the mutual sabotage of the rival crews, were Howard’s experiences and we put them in. There was a New Guinea sequence as well, a sequence where Chris and Len fly into and out of a live erupting volcano also in the screenplay, much missed by me. We collaborated many hours and days in a stone-and-cement shack in Palm Beach next to Elfick we bought then and after much fire damage occupy still. Annie cooked and wrote the bedroom and divorce scenes which she, a veteran of Certain Women, was better at than me.
Eventually there was a first draft completed; just before Whitlam fell, as I remember. Like an idiot I set it out one scene per page with lots of white between the lines, and it looked like a small telephone book. Though its actual length in screen time was 135-138 minutes, the idea that it was six hours long flashed round the industry (‘Ellis writes long, and hates rewriting’) and has not abated.
Elfick at the AFI screenings saw Backroads, met Phillip Noyce, felt his energy and crash-through personality suitable for Newsfront (the title changed now at Philippe Mora’s insistence), fired Howard Rubie, lost Mike Molloy in the wash, hired Richard Brennan as co-producer and Errol Sullivan as production manager, took it to the AFC, who asked that it be shortened. We retyped it, halving the white space and the number of pages, and they found exactly the same script ‘much leaner, much better’.
Tony Buckley read it, said Scrabble didn’t come in till the late fifties and there was no videotape in 1956, but quite liked it, this side of idolatry. Jim McElroy read it, said one of the two brothers should have grown up in America so an American could play him, and it should be more clear from the script what the historical period is. I said, well, Chifley was Prime Minister, and Jim said but who knows when he was? Some at the AFC had doubts about it, thinking Captain Goodvibes the better Elfick project. They proposed, however, a $500,000 budget, but Elfick resisted this, wanting to make it for $400,000 and thus ensure a profit.
Major cuts therefore became horrendously necessary. Noyce wanted the whole New Guinea sequence gone, and I rewrote it cheaper, but he removed it anyway. He wanted clearer identification of the characters early – making sure we knew Len and Frank were brothers – but we never really solved this. I said it became clear at the family Christmas scene, and we left it at that. He wanted Amy, the office bike, more feminist, a woman who could have run the company had the times allowed. He took, to my horror, the volcano out.
Much indecision unsettled the casting. Elfick wanted John Waters or John Hargreaves as Len and Reg Livermore as Charlie. I wanted Bill Hunter as Len but not till after I’d seen Backroads (I’d till then favoured Gerard Kennedy) and Johnny Ewart, for whom I’d written the part, as Charlie. We all agreed Jack Thompson should play Frank. I showed Noyce two actresses, Lorna Lesley and Angela Punch (not yet Punch McGregor) at the Stables Theatre, which Annie and I then owned, and Noyce liked both; I don’t believe his choice was influenced by Angela’s total nudity throughout her play The Gift, by Michael Cove, but mine certainly was. For Amy I favoured Carmen Duncan, star of the Brooksbank-Ellis play Down Under, also that year at The Stables; Elfick preferred Camilla Rowntree, a Palm Beach neighbour. Noyce liked Wendy Hughes, not then very well known, who had the Ava Gardner-femme fatale quality the part required. I held out for Carmen, to no avail.
I favoured Terry Dear for the newsreel narrator, Noyce John Dease, a mythical figure from our radio-listening childhoods, compere of The Quiz Kids. Don Cosby as A.G. Marwood was fine with all of us, and my great friend John Clayton as Cliff and Tony Barry as Greasy.
The big shock was when Jack Thompson’s agent wouldn’t let him play Frank. Jack plays lead roles, we were told, or nothing. Gerard Kennedy was a big star, however, we were told by the AFC, and would do, though unlike Jack he looked nothing like his ‘brother’ Bill Hunter, and his increasingly apparent glass eye ill-befitted a cameraman.
Bill’s casting was a near-run thing. ‘Don’t do auditions, mate,’ he told me, so I offered him money to do ‘a rehearsed reading of some selected scenes’ and he wavered, sensing a trick, which it was, then agreed to do that. His reading was fine, and ably abetted by John Clayton filling in as Frank, but Noyce was fearful, wondering if, under the beard, he had a chin. I said he had, having seen it in episodes of Tony Morphett’s Dynasty, but Noyce insisted on taking a look. He shrewdly took the beard off first, leaving the moustache, added glasses and, lo, there was the Len Maguire of the posters.
Cuts to the script, meanwhile, were being made behind my back. I famously seized an armload of it, said something like ‘This film is cancelled! Call my lawyers!’ and ran out of Palm Beach Studios and was crash-tackled by Elfick and workmen in the rafters roared approval of the wrestling fools beneath them as the script pages floated up like confetti. I gave directions to John Dease at a read-through and Noyce said, ‘There can be only one director on this film,’ and I was barred from all further participation in the film’s making. I was already a successful playwright, and didn’t realise yet how far down the food chain screenwriters were, below catering men. I wasn’t even asked to do the novelisation.
Filming began, and proceeded. Noyce was very slow. Crucial scenes already scheduled were cut: the family Christmas dinner, the Queen’s first visit, the locust plague (couldn’t make the locusts fly). Much emphasis was put on the Maitland flood scene, the main street being rebuilt in Narrabeen Lake and (a Ken G. Hall suggestion) an outboard motor just off camera creating a swirl. Bill’s performance was erratic, but his post-synching made a big difference. Chris Haywood improvised a few lines (‘indoor swimming pool’) which stayed in. Lorna Lesley was startlingly good as the predatory eighteen-year-old provincial virgin Ellie. My idea of chapters introduced by songs of the period was dropped, and a photo album substituted, very effectively. My end sequence, a prize-giving night, after the Sputnik arrives and changes everything and a good speech from Len, was also to my amazement dropped, spurring anger, name removal, feud and public amusement at my impertinence that lasted about a decade. The film’s success initially mystified me.
I realised finally that Bill Motzing’s score put back a lot of the exposition that Elfick and Noyce had slashed and burned, and John Scott’s remarkable seamless editing of drama and newsreel gave a kind of hyperreality that, together with Bill’s score, achieved somehow a primal, tribal, patriotic magic. I realised too the mixture of black-and-white and colour broadened the emotional palette and added a seeming depth to things that was not actually, inherently there. In If..., 10.30pm Summer, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Wizard of Oz, Abbott and Costello Meet Jack and the Beanstalk and Dead Again this admixture of monochrome and colour had the same enlarging, engulfing effect. Motzing’s contribution, however, I believed was the crucial one.
And so Newsfront occurred. Bill Hunter, Chris Haywood, Wendy Hughes, Bryan Brown, Angela Punch McGregor, John Clayton, Drew Forsythe were made by it, Johnny Ewart, Don Crosby, John Dease and Tony Barry revived by it, Elfick, Richard Brennan, Errol Sullivan, Lissa Coote, John Scott enhanced by it, and the Australian cinema noticed overseas for the first time in a really serious way. Noyce became the second most expensive director after Spielberg, Howard Rubie continued working, made a small Australian, The Settlement, with Lorna Lesley and Tony Barry, Annie and I got a ten picture contract from the New South Wales Film Commission on which we had three children.
There are any number of exaggerations and/or distortions in the piece (others, for example, claim Ellis was offered the novelisation and turned it down).
For another compare and contrast, fetishists interested in Ellis might also like to read Ellis's various comments on Newsfront in an interview conducted by Peter Malone on 13th August 1996, now available here at his excellent site.
Malone, as a priest is naturally interested in the Catholic angle explored by the film with a sure sense of Irish Catholic culture in the 1950s, but he also asks about the film's development.
The interview is wide-ranging and covers Ellis's other work to that time, but here is an excerpt of the interview in relation to Newsfront:
PM: Your contribution to Newsfront and what interested you in the theme?
BE: On the very day that I decided I would henceforth work only on my own ideas, I was rung by Elfick and offered the best idea I'd ever heard, which was the lifestyles and work habits of newsreel cameramen in the 1940s and 1950s, structured around existing newsreels with a hit-list of events. I wrote the first draft in collaboration with Howard Rubie, who was a newsreel cameraman at Cinesound at the same time, and it was understood that he would direct it. Somehow Noyce played meaningful ping-pong with Elfick and was able to displace Howard from the thing.
There was some nonsense about how long it was; we'd set it out, one short scene per page and it finally came out about 300 pages or so but, in fact, it was maybe two and a quarter hours long, which wasn't too bad then or now for something that covered 10 years. But a legend started about how huge it was. When I saw it, I was appalled. I could only see what was missing and abruptly took my name off it. Then when it won all the prizes, I sort of shamefacedly put my name back on it.
It was a quite painful experience and I think a very good film, but not as good a film as might have been made. One of the models for it was the film, Yanks, which was a moment in history in particular culture perfectly captured. It had a lot more than the politics in it but, partly because of the budget and partly because of the length, it was pruned back to the politics. Now, the politics was all there in the original but it was surrounding other things, such as the way people spent their Christmases. That was removed.
And it was round about that time I became known as a contentious person who takes his name off the credits but has never really gone away.
But I've become more philosophical and more Chandleresque about it since. Chandler said, correctly, that you have to be wearing your second-best suit, professionally speaking, to write screenplays. You must learn to care but not too much.
PM: Another aspect of Newsfront is the religious theme in the context of the 50s and the Cold War. Angela Punch McGregor's character, the righteous Catholic wife who gives up her faith, had not been seen before on our screens. Was that your contribution?
BE: That was mine, and my wife wrote a bit of it, too. You needed the Catholic thing because of the politics of the time. The overwhelming event of the 50s among those who remember it was the Communist Dissolution Bill and the threat and, to some extent, the actuality of McCarthyis in Australia. So you needed the Catholic thing and the soft option was to make the central character a Catholic and to have an unyielding Catholic wife. Then you needed the characters to do something more than stay and simply posture over the 10 years. That's roughly what happened.
Newsfront was also true to the newsreel men of the time - that their marriages were wrecked by their sexual opportunities while travelling. But they were an interesting bunch. We had a phrase for them, `buccaneers on mortgages'. They didn't get much money but they had great jobs and they saw the best of it. But the other side of it was that they were just men who, when they got home, didn't mow the lawn or go into the garage and build something in the usual way or go to the 6 o'clock swill with their mates. And that was interesting. They were, in a way, a peacetime version of the wartime Australian ordinary man who saw tremendous events and was changed by them.
In my memory there was no particular model for the wife. It was written particularly for Angela Punch McGregor, who at the time was acting stark naked in our theatre and impressing us a great deal thereby from many angles. All the parts were written, more or less, for the people who played them. They were given the roles a bit reluctantly by Noyce after finding that they did the best auditions - the Haywood role was for Haywood and the Lorna Leslie role was for Lorna Leslie. The Hunter role wasn't initially for him, but once I saw him in Backroads, I thought it's got to be him because he had that interesting thing of a ferocious clerk, the way you describe that character.
But it was not a work of passion, it was a work of research, casting, history and filling in between the existing bits of newsreel which we knew we were going to use and bits that weren't used but were intended to be used, like Bradman's last Test and the Queen's first visit, the locust plagues. They were all originally written in. I'm really fond of the original script. It's been a slow acceptance of what you can't do.
It was also the first Australian film of overt political content and, therefore, it was a groundbreaker and, I think, gave permission for the eventual films of The Dismissal, which went at it head-on, and True Believers which I co-wrote, which dealt with the politics of precisely the same 1945-1955 period.
(Disclosure: one of the editors of this site has worked with Bob Ellis).