Production company: Kolossal Piktures
Budget: A$50,000 (Oxford Australian Film - David Stratton puts it at $17,000, other sources - a Cinema Papers' interview with director Jim Sharman - puts the figure at $20,000)
Locations: Sydney and suburbs, Luna Park
Filmed: three week period, 1971 (Jane Harders in a press interview says it was two and a half weeks of very long days)
Australian distributor: self-distributed, co-ops
Theatrical release: preview National Film Theatre London March 1972, Sydney Film Festival June 6th 1972, then through the co-op movement. Re-edited in 1976 down to 79 minutes, and distributed through co-ops and National Library lending unit.
16mm colour/black and white (tinted)
Running time: 104 mins, 79 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
VHS copy in circulation: 1'11"37
Box office: minimal. This sort of film was more a calling card than a revenue raiser, and never broke out of the alternative, indie circuit. It did however develop something of a cult reputation, no doubt helped by Sharman moving on to direct The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The film has long been unavailable, but a heavily cut print (sometimes with time code) circulates amongst collectors.
The image is of poor quality VHS standard, and the sound isn't much better, but the usual rule - it's better than nothing - applies. It's a pity that the DVD release of The Night the Prowler included the short film Freestyle, rather than a release of Shirley Thompson. A cleaned up version should be more generally available, and might well renew the film's cult following.
The film occasionally enjoys archival screening revivals, and if your idea of watching a feature film is to watch a few clips, the ASO site has three here.
Director Jim Sharman put the script together with Helmut Bakaitis, a fellow NIDA student, then active in the theatrical scene, and with a lead role in the then recent Tim Burstall/David Williamson feature film Stork to his name. Baikatis has a short wiki here. Sharman's more detailed wiki is here.
In the interview with Sharman for Cinema Papers March-April 1979, he summarised the genesis of the film:
It was made quite impulsively and not without passion.
Looking back it is hard to imagine how it was made, but I remember being very impressed by a remark Joseph von Sternberg made when he passed through Australia to attend a film festival. Most people, as soon as they step off a plane, are asked: "Well, what do you think of Australia?" In Von Sternberg's case, he was asked, "Why doesn't Australia have a film industry?" His repy was, "I don't know; you have cameras, haven't you?" There is still a lot in that remark.
Shirley Thomson was produced on a very low budget on 16mm. Sharman has said that he made the film on impulse, assembling the very low budget, willing cast and crew, while awaiting a funding decision from the new federal government financing body, the AFDC.
The team grabbed 16mm gear and other equipment and went out and shot the film, and the result is a grab bag of visual ideas about the suburbs, lightly dressed up in science fiction guise (with the sci fi element done cheaply, no doubt for budget reasons, a bit like John Carpenter's beach balloon).
Shirley Thompson was the sole film produced by the team of Sharman, Matt Carroll, designer Brian Thomson (who would work frequently with Sharman in the theatre), and Helmut Bakaitis. They dubbed themselves Kolossal Piktures.
Director Sharman called the result a "psychological thriller cum 50's rock musical/science fiction/fantasy movie … the only A-grade B-movie loathed by underground, art-house and commercial managements alike."
Sharman is quoted by ASO as remembering "What we did was pretty startling because no-one had made (an Australian film) in that kind of buccaneering way where you just picked up the camera and did it".
This isn't true - Giorgio Mangiamele had been picking up his buccaneering camera as long ago as the 1950s and making his own movies, including one, Clay, that he even managed to get to Cannes. The Carlton push had also been picking up cameras for a few years by this stage, making a number of short features before Shirley Thompson which helped get the Australian film revival get on the move.
The mythologising is understandable, but it does give an idea of the fragmented film scene between the two major cities at the time.
It also fits the film's anarchic tendency to shove a finger at the film business, the audience and whatever else you've got.
Sharman was on safer ground when he claimed to have made the first Australian feature to point the finger at the boring world of conventional 1950s mainstream culture.
Shirley Thompson was made as an underground film and it developed a sort of cult reputation on a small scale. Curiously, one of the original criticisms of that film was over its setting in the 1950s. It was one of the first films to see that period as a watershed for a post-war generation. Since then, of course, nostalgia has accelerated to a point where you are expected to be nostalgic about yesterday. (Cinema Papers, March April 1979)
Set against the stultifying world of Prime Minister Robert Menzies long reign, the stated aim was the "mass production of B-grade movies, serials or anything else away from the treacherous art, underground, or worst of all commercial circuits."
The film-makers achieved their aim by producing a movie that received only fitful distribution, along with a cult reputation.
The show features a large amount of rock and roll, led by songs by "Wild One" Johnny O'Keefe, fifties era memorabilia in terms of design and dressing, newsreel footage of the Melbourne Olympics, and many satirical shots at life in the suburbs in the 1950s.
It now seems as if it was done in a style much closer to the pop art and psychedelic schools fashionable in Australia in the late sixties and early seventies.
Director Sharman had already entrenched himself in the theatre deploying these styles in rock musical productions like Hair (Australian premiere 4th June 1969) and later Jesus Christ Superstar (Australian premiere 4th May 1972).
After the bewildered response to the film, Sharman spent some time fiddling with the cut.
As a result, the 104 minute (some databases say 105) cut is no longer available, and the re-issued 1976 version running 79 minutes is now the version available through conventional channels. An even shorter version - more like 71 minutes - circulates amongst collectors.
Matt Carroll, who worked as the associate producer on the film, would go on to a long and successful career as a feature film producer, beginning with Sunday Too Far Away, and including shows like Storm Boy, Money Movers, The Club and 'Breaker' Morant.