Production company: Smiley Films Pty. Ltd.; the New South Wales Film Corporation presents.
Budget: A$485,000 (Murray's Australian Film, Cinema Papers, David Stratton's The Avocado Plantation); $460-$480,000 (director Stephen Wallace). In a Cinema Papers' interview Feb-March 1980, producer Richard Brennan suggests the budget was higher, at $525,000, with $465,000 coming from the NSWFC (it had originally guaranteed $325,000) with an additional $40,000 coming from Ray Beattie at Channel 7 and $20,000 from private investors.
7 took an equity position, and the private finance came from a group of solicitors. Producer Richard Brennan told Beattie he didn't believe the film would ever be shown on television, but Beattie said he had heard that about The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The French Connection, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Last Tango in Paris. The network eventually screened the film.
Ben Goldsmith in his study of the film here suggests that Hoyts provided a $50,000 advance, recoupable from box office receipts.
Locations: disused prison at Gladstone, South Australia
Filmed: October - November 1979. According to producer Richard Brennan, the film was shot in five weeks, and the unit shot 110 minutes of fine cut material, or 22 minutes a week. It had originally been scheduled for four weeks, but Brennan says they could never have done 27 minutes a week. Shooting ratio was 11:1, according to director Stephen Wallace (budgeted at 10:1). Crew pre-production began 10 weeks prior to shoot; Wallace had worked on the film for two years in pre, Brennan for 18 months.
Australian distributor: Hoyts
Theatrical release: According to newspaper reports, the film had a premiere in New South Wales on 31st August 1980, with NSW Premiere Neville Wran in attendance. According to the Prisoners Action Group, Wran declined to make a statement on the issue of jails, and "slunk out one door as police moved in the other".
The film opened at the Hoyts Entertainment Centre in Sydney on the 2nd October 1980; it opened in Melbourne at the Hoyts Entertainment Centre on 23rd October, 1980. It had previously been screened in the Cannes marketplace at the Marché du Film, held concurrently with Cannes Film Festival May 1980.
Original video: Australian Video. Released on video June 1984.
Rating: M (rated R in August 1980, but changed after appeal in September 1980, 2,770.43m.) The Umbrella DVD lists its release as R-rated.
35 mm Eastmancolor
Running time: 101 mins (Murray's Australian Film), 100 mins (Cinema Papers)
Umbrella DVD timing: 1'36"16
Box office: minimal. The film wasn't listed in the Cinema Papers' box office grosses survey at the time, nor is it mentioned in Film Victoria's report on Australian box office.
Director Wallace claimed in an interview with Peter Malone, on 21st November 1998, here:
They came to it. It cost $460,000 or $480,000. I know it's made a profit. It ran for six or eight weeks. That was the time when Australian films were taken off as quickly as possible. It had a run on television and it sold quite well overseas.
There is little evidence to support this. The film didn't last in key major city hardtops and was quickly yanked, before heading off to repertory bookings, and it didn't travel well overseas - initially it sold only to Ireland, though it did sell to the UK, and it did sell to television, screening in a modified version, with some of the language softened.
While the DVD 'making of' tends to skirt around the matter of hard numbers, it is clear from the comments that the film was not a commercial success. For example, producer Richard Brennan acknowledges he'd optimistically hoped the film would make money, but then admits that it didn't perform well, and Stephen Wallace doesn't contradict him.
This is not a judgment on whether the film is worth watching - it's just to note that at the time the film failed to find a significant audience in its first theatrical release.
There is however an argument that the film did good business after it was controversially whisked away from the NSW Film Corporation by Pepper Distribution, along with a number of other NSWFC features.
According to Ben Goldsmith, here:
It was only in 1998 when Collins began legal proceedings in California against the directors of Pepper that the New South Wales Film and Television Office, successor to the NSWFC, was able to secure an out-of-court settlement under which the NSWFTO received a cash settlement of a little over $700,000. When Pepper Distribution's subsequent deals for the rights of the Australian twenty films were analysed, it was found that Stir had been one of the company's largest earners in terms of overseas television and video sales.
The film picked up a swag of nominations at the 1980 Australian Film Institute awards, but it was steam-rollered by 'Breaker' Morant. It received 11 nominations, in all but three AFI categories (and two of those were for female actors, hard to win with no female cast).
Director Stephen Wallace in the DVD 'making of' called the failure to win a single award the most disappointing day in his life:
Nominated, Best Film of the Year, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (Richard Brennan) (Matt Carroll won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Directing, sponsored by Village Theatres and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Stephen Wallace) (Bruce Beresford won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Screenplay, sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Bob Jewson) (at the time the category included original and adapatation, and Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens and Bruce Beresford won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography, sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Geoff Burton) (Don McAlpine won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Film Editing, sponsored by Atlab Film and Video Laboratory Services (Henry Dangar) (William Anderson won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Sound, sponsored by Colorfilm (Gary Wilkins, Andrew Steuart, Phil Judd) (Gary Wilkins, William Anderson, Jeanine Chialvo and Phil Judd won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Original Music Score, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Cameron Allen) (Peter Sculthorpe won for Manganinnie)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Art Direction, sponsored by the South Australian Government (Lee Whitmore) (David Copping won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Bryan Brown and Max Phipps were both nominated) (Both Brown and Phipps were pipped by Jack Thompson, who won for 'Breaker' Morant)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Victorian Film Commission (Dennis Miller) (Bryan Brown won for 'Breaker' Morant)
The film screened at the 25th Cork Film Festival, October 1980, where it won an award for sound and music (it also achieved what was, at the time, its only international sale, to Ireland).
The film was long available on VHS, now rare, but this was made irrelevant when the film was released in region four by Umbrella.
The image is 16:9 and is in the best condition the film has been in since it quickly disappeared from screens on its first theatrical release in 1980 (at time of writing the DVD remains in print).
The cigarette burns at reel changes suggest that a release print was used, but apart from a little dirt and sparkle and the odd bump, especially at the reel changes, the image is clean and the colours good and rich. There is a noticeable amount of float on view in the opening and head titles scenes.
The film also came with a number of extras, including a useful 48'45" 'making of', Tales from the Inside, put together by Mark "Not Quite Hollywood" Hartley, featuring interviews with director Stephen Wallace, producer Richard Brennan, writer Bob Jewson, and actors Bryan Brown and Gary Waddell.
In the usual Hartley way, the main emphasis is on the cast, and some of the key players and their characters are tracked. Bryan Brown, Max Phipps (and his sensitivity), Dennis Miller, Gary Waddell, Syd Heylen, Paul Sonkkila, Ray Marshall, and notorious prison escapee Les Newcombe are featured - though ironically, the actor who kicks off the featurette, country music singer and entertainer, Robert 'Tex' Morton, who is given a featured head credit as "The Governor", is overlooked.
There is much less attention paid to the actual production. The featurette is dated 2005 and copyrighted to Umbrella Entertainment.
There's also the original theatrical trailer in restored 16:9 format, and a stills gallery.
The film has also been released in the UK on DVD, but as this edition was in 4:3, nothing more needs to be said about it.
For those who prefer watching clips to the actual feature film, the ASO has three clips here, but having them as PG rather defeats the point of the film.
Indirectly the source of the film was a riot at Bathurst jail in New South Wales on the 3rd February 1974, and ongoing agitation for better conditions in NSW jails during the 1970s.
There was an active Prisoners' Action Group, and the PAG approached director Stephen Wallace, perhaps because of the sympathy shown to working class strugglers in his 'short feature' Love Letters from Teralba Road, which introduced Bryan Brown to screen audiences.
The film doesn't mention Bathurst or the Royal Commission into the riot, or otherwise indicate that it was inspired by the real events in that prison, until a closing title notes that the writer of the film was a prisoner in Bathurst Jail when rioting prisoners gutted the jail in February 1974.
According to Ben Goldsmith, ex-prisoner Tony Green and the PAG had worked with Mark Stiles, Mathra Ansara and other members of the NSW Film Cooperative on several films - the documentary Prisoners (1976), Maximum Security (1977) and Child Welfare (1979).
Ansara had also worked with Wallace on Love Letters and suggested him to Green as a possible director of the feature film project. According to Wallace in an interview in Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980:
I was told that Tony Green (producer of the PAG's first two films: Prisoners and Maximum Security) wanted to have a good look at me, and my films, to see if I was the right person to direct the film.
We then had a meeting at which we talked about the concept of the film, and whether it should be a documentary or told as a story. We agreed that it should be dramatic and follow one character through the riots.
When I asked who was going to write it, Tony said, "We have this guy who is a bit like you; he is a bit of a writer." I don't think Tony really knew how good Bob Jewson was as a writer. He gave me Bob's address and sent me over, telling me I had to look at his writing to see if he could write.
When he met Jewson at Bondi, Wallace was impressed. He asked if Jewson had a script, and Jewson showed him some random scenes he had written.
Wallace took them away, read them and thought "these are wonderful, these are really good". Wallace says he took one particular scene and showed it to Richard Brennan - a scene subsequently left substantially unchanged in the finished film, in which the prisoner played by Dennis Miller talks about his institutionalised prison homosexuality with Bryan Brown.
Brennan read the scene and thought it was fantastic, though he later said that when he came on to the project at third draft stage, he was rather disappointed with the project, and thought the script was too diffuse:
I couldn't really believe in Norton (Max Phipps), the sympathetic warder, and I didn't think that the inevitability of the riot was there. People who are sympathetic to a social situation may assume that such occurrences will appear inevitable to an audience, when they don't. In The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, for instance, you had a lot of middle-class whites coming out and saying, "Well, I've been ripped off and I've never taken an axe to anybody." You're juste as likely to get an unsympathetic reaction to a group of hooligans ripping a gaol apart.
Finally, Bob Jewson did about 10 drafts. He was an extremely easy person to work with, which is not to say that he always accepted suggestions. He is quite analytical. (Cinema Papers interview, Feb-March 1980)
Jewson had written some short stories but notes "some people had their doubts" as to whether he was up to a feature film screenplay.
Jewson has been a safe cracker for some twenty five years and a burglar, and as a non-violent criminal, he was at the time of the Bathurst riot in minimum security wing, working in the library, as he was preparing to embark on a university degree.
In the DVD 'making of', Wallace is keen to insist that Jewson had never been violent, and never carried a gun: "he was just a man who thought he could make money out of safe-cracking and I think he was a bit ashamed of it."
Wallace suggests that a line in the film about being too old to climb through windows was also a decision that Jewson had made in relation to his own life.
According to Wallace, Jewson told him a lot of hilarious stories about safe-cracking, and after Stir they tried to write a script about safe-cracking, but Jewson couldn't really tell the truth about it, because being a good Catholic boy from Melbourne, he was very embarrassed by what he'd done.
Jewson didn't participate in the riot, but had a good view of what was going on. He witnessed it and knew all the key prisoners who were involved, and he also knew Tony Green very well.
Bryan Brown thought him a lovely fantastic bloke, "a real gentle soul", while actor Gary Waddell thought of him as a "genuine father figure" (Jewson was on location for most of the filming). (Richard Brennan suggests in the DVD 'making of', that while Jewson wrote other scripts after Stir, none worked as well as that one, or were as powerful, because it came out of his guts and being)
The New South Wales Film Corporation funded Wallace to write the script with Bob Jewson:
Stephen and I first approached the New South Wales Film Corporation together. We gave them an outline and a sample of the work, and received script development money on the strength of that. I must say that throughout the project they have been incredibly supportive and always had faith in it. (Jewson, Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980)
But the film was initially viewed by the Corporation as a low budget project:
Ken Quinnell (a consultant on special project developments with the New South Wales Film Corporation) rang me and said the NSWFC was interested in financing the work of directors who had made reasonably successful short films. They were instituting a low-budget fund and had approached a number of people: John Duigan, Phil Noyce, Gill Armstrong, Ken Cameron and me. I was told that if I had a project in mind they would talk about investment.
I think the NSWFC had heard about the prison film and were interested in it, but that was on the assumption it was only going to cost $200,000. They thought it could be made as a low-budget, 16mm film, which turned out to be completely wrong. Had I put it in as a project under other conditions it would have been knocked back. (Director Stephen Wallace, Cinema Papers Oct-Nov 1980)
Jewson found working to a budget difficult:
Steve and I worked together throughout 1978, and the longer we worked and the more drafts we wrote, the more obvious it became that we couldn't make the film for the amount we were thinking about, which was then around the $200,000 mark.
Even when we got more money we had to keep cutting the script down because it was too long and would have cost too much money. The last cut was made a couple of weeks before filming when we had cut 18 minutes out of the guts of it - a fairly hard thing for a writer. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980)
Jewson estimates that he did some 13 or 14 drafts, starting writing in late October 1977 and writing up until shooting began in October 1979.
When Wallace went back to the NSWFC with the screenplay, in the DVD 'making of' he suggests that it was mainly director Michael Thornhill, who said 'right, go ahead, we'll fund it'.
Jewson says that he continued writing during shooting but only scenes that didn't work:
There were some scenes where the actor put his own language into the part, which meant the part developed differently. I felt I owed it to his performance to explain it throughout the script. That's something I love about the film industry - where the kind of input can come in and you find the character in relation to the rest of the script. I don't expect an actor to be able to pick that up, because they are into their own part and its development. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980)
The PAG spirit infused the project, though an attempt at making the film collectively had dissolved early, according to Wallace:
… it was going to be a group effort, but after another meeting it seemed impossible to make it that way. I didn't feel it was going to work. Finally, the NSWFC refused to deal with anyone other than myself and Bob (Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
Jewson also realised the notion was impractical:
The original idea was to have committees, each to work on a different area. But that's an absolutely impossible thing to do, especially in film. Film is one of the great collective experiences. But there have to be ways in which individual creation can come in.
One of the best collective experiences I found on the film was when an actor - and I won't name him - interpreted the script quite differently from what I had envisaged. And he did it so well that I wished I had written it that way. It's the same with the direction. If you tried to make the film through committee stages you wouldn't get that spontaneity; what you would get is a flat interpretation. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980)
One of the problems was that the PAG wanted the film to make a statement from the prisoners' side. According to Wallace:
…I always felt a little bit awkward about that, you know I just felt we should more balanced but then Tony Green who was head of the Prisoners' Action Group like didn't want any balance at all, he just wanted the prisoners' side, he wanted all the warders to be seen as bad. ( Stephen Wallace, DVD commentary)
...I think it's my problem in life, in a way, that I've always been very sympathetic to people and wanting to tell their stories. I've always felt a bit on the fringes myself - I don't know why - and so I identify with them very strongly. But, at the same time, I didn't want them to be unfair to the warders. It was a great struggle with the Prisoners' Action Group because they thought all the warders were brutal. And I said, "That just isn't true." It's like in the French Revolution: all the nobles weren't awful people, yet everyone wants to believe that, and all the revolutionaries weren't good people. So you've got to take a balance. (Wallace in a Peter Malone interview at Malone's invaluable site, here).
By way of contrast, Wallace thought Jewson had a balanced view:
…he always understood the warders, he always knew that it was nothing to do with those particular warders, it was the situation that had been allowed to get out of hand, it was the governor of the jail and the whole way it was administered, the whole way people acted then. He never wanted to be you know radically against the warders and I think Bob's always very fair, that's why I thought I could write a script with him. (Wallace, DVD commentary)
Jewson himself said he was aware of the difficulties faced by both prisoners and warders. In an interview for Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980 he said:
In writing Stir, I tried to show how prisoners' frustrations come about. In his book Asylums, Irving Goffman tells us that to get control within the total institution, you must first kill the former person; they do it in the army and in monasteries. In prisons they do it by humiliating the person. By stripping a man of his outer garments, you take away the personality he has in his clothes. You put him into a prison uniform, brand him with a number and just treat him as somebody who has to obey.
When the keeper sees the person in the green uniform, he has the same reaction as happened in Vietnam with the "gook" syndrome. You see a person as being less than yourself, and then you can commit crimes against him.
In the film, we try to explain the forces that cause the keeper to bash and, on the other side, how the kept react. However, we do this in an entertaining, dramatic way - always conscious that films are entertainment …
A conversation with a prison officer gave me my first realization that the keeper must live a life outside prison. I started to think what would happen to a prisoner and how he would feel when the media suddenly came in, as they did at, say Pentridge, after the H division riots, and accused the prison officers of various crimes.
That man has to live with his family. His wife has to go to the shops, the children have to go to school.
Many gaols where there were bashings of prisoners - Attica, Maitland, Goulburn, Bathurst, Grafton - are located in small towns, so obviously there would be enormous pressures on those officers. We couldn't show very much of that side of their life, because of money considerations, but we did show what we could in the prologue.
The person who told me about the prison officer's situation spoke of a sense of fear, in that when he started in the position he felt good and always had control, but when the prisoners started to protest and riot he realized that the warders only had control by consent of the prisoners.
To instil fear back into the prisoners he bashed them. Whether that's a rationalization or not I don't really know, but we certainly show that working within the Norton character.
In the end, a number of PAG members appeared in the film as extras, and there were PAG advisors attached to the film, including the one-time notorious prison escapee killer of a warden, Les Newcombe (the ADB handily provides a bio of his partner in crime, Kevin Simmonds, and the 1959 manhunt for Simmonds and Newcombe, which sent tabloid newspapers of the time into a frenzy, here).
Simmonds later hung himself, and according to Brown, when he asked Newcombe about life in jail, Newcombe had said the longest he'd been in prison without being bashed was six days. He had done seven years of solitary confinement, and the one tip to surviving was not to dwell on anything you love at any time, or you'll go insane.
Another member, Lee Whitmore, became the production designer, and PAG had other links:
It has a percentage and, although it hasn't any legal ownership, it has very strong links with the film.
The spirit of Stir is Tony Green. Bob wrote the script and I directed it, but Tony was the driving force - despite anything he might say. (Wallace, Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
As for the nature of that spirit, Bryan Brown captures it in the DVD 'making of':
I said to Tony, I said 'well what was a good time you had in jail, what was, like was it camaraderie, what was the best moment you ever felt in that jail and he said 'when we fucking knocked it down'.
Producer Richard Brennan added: For many years (I'd) heard about the conditions in Bathurst and always thought there had to be some degree of exaggeration as to what I was hearing about just how brutal and appalling it was. What I heard was only scratching the surface I now believe, having talked to people who were in there at the time".
The riot was the culmination of a long period of discontent in a variety of Australian prisoners. It was one of the more extreme outbreaks of discontent, because the prisoners did manage to burn down a substantial section of the jail, and the warders standing on the prison walls did open fire on the prisoners, seriously wounding several, though they had no permission to fire, and no real reason to do so, Wallace suggests, as the prisoners remained locked in the gaol, and had no way to get out
... I think it was a culmination of a whole lot of bad behaviour in prisons by warders. (DVD 'making of')
According to Brown, if a group is demonised, it's possible to forget that they were human:
Here we had the opportunity to present 'em as human beings and what they were going through and the bloody terrible things that were happening to them, regardless of the terrible things that they might have done in their lives (DVD 'making of)
There is a reference in the end titles of the film to Attica, and producer Richard Brennan in the DVD 'making of' proposes that the team did a lot of reading about riots in Attica and Hull, and "we frequently talked about it (the film) having its genesis in the riots in Attica and Hull".
But director Wallace denies this and says the film didn't have anything to do with Attica:
"(It) ...wasn't based on anything at Attica at all, it was just, that was only in there for legal purposes. I wanted to call the film The Riot of Bathurst Jail but legal people who were advising Richard and the New South Wales Film Corporation wouldn't allow that. (Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980)
The film had to be called Stir, the prison had to be be called Gatunga Gaol, and there had to be no references to the state of New South Wales.
Brown: So you have to put a bit of bullshit out to deflect it but it was the Bathurst prison riots (DVD 'making of' - ironically there is a town called Gatunga in Kenya).
According to Bryan Brown conservative politicians didn't want a film made about the Bathurst prison riot, which might give some explanation as to why it might have happened, but then Stephen Wallace quotes a police chief as praising the film and saying more of that kind should be made:
The Liberal Party was in power when the riots happened; when we made the film, the Labor Party was in and Neville Wran came to the opening. The man in charge of the Police Department at that time - he became the Commissioner - told me, "Keep making films like that." He was one of the honest commissioners, Avery. I know the New South Wales Prison Department use it now as a training film. (interview with Peter Malone, here).
In what was a relatively rare occurrence for an Australian feature film during the revival, Jewson was on set for most of the shoot, either re-writing his script, or acting as an advisor to the to the director. He didn't find it difficult, as he explained in Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980:
I don't think you can have universal rules. I quite often see people who have had troubles with a writer being on set, so it does depend on the relationship between the writer and the director. If it's a truly professional one, where they can argue like hell off camera but not in front of anybody else, then there is a chance it can work. Each has to respect the other's integrity and not be on an ego trip.
I know, from a writer's point of view, that it is very easy to get into. In the early days, when Steve was reading drafts of the script, I found that I was defending the script even when he made quite legitimate criticisms. I only found this out because I taped our script conferences.
After that, I decided that if I was being defensive, I'd ignore it.
In the process of drafting, a number of significant changes were made. As well as separating out the character of Redford from the character of China, some token female characters were wisely excised:
At first there was a woman social worker and another woman character in the film, but they weren't good characters and were dropped. Even up until the second last draft there was a sequence where China Jackson (Bryan Brown) has a visit from his girlfriend, But I was always worried about her as a character.
When we had to cut the budget I cut her scene out as to have kept it would have meant building some visiting boxes and bringing an actress from Adelaide. We replaced it with a scene where the prisoners receive letters. (Wallace, Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
In the usual way for the time, a film tie-in based on the screenplay was written by Jewson. It carried at the top of the book the line "The real story of a prison riot", making the connection to Bathurst plain. The 155 page paperback was published by Unicorn Books, Melbourne, 1980. More details at Trove here.
Jewson died in 2005.
(Below: the film tie-in)
2. Casting and the Clown workshop:
Director Stephen Wallace always wanted Bryan Brown to play the leading role:
Bryan Brown has always embodied, to me, something very special. He hates me when I say this, because he doesn't want to know, but there's no other actor that I've met who embodies what I feel in the way he acts. Whether I have or not, I always feel I've got tremendous integrity, and Bryan Brown has it in his face. At the same time I feel very ordinary. I had very ordinary parents. I come from an ordinary background, although I was sent to Scots College. But I feel ordinary underneath, yet with lots of energy, and I think Bryan has got that. I've also got a lot of suppressed energy and I think Bryan has got that. And underneath it I feel very sensitive. I won't argue the point, but I feel sensitive and I think Bryan underneath is very sensitive too. And yet at the same time he's larrikin, he's what I'd like to be - a larrikin. I feel I'm a larrikin underneath but I can never express it, but Bryan expresses it. That's why I like him. And that's why I liked him in Stir. (Interview with Peter Malone, here).
In the original screenplay, the character of China Jackson (Brown) and the homosexual Redford (played by Dennis Miller) were one and the same.
Wallace deemed it an awkward mix, and producer Brennan says he didn't think Brown would have been comfortable with it.
Wallace had come to Brown via the theatre:
He was appearing in a play, Here Comes the Nigger, at the Black Theatre. (Written by Gerry Bostock, and now trying to be turned into a film by Brown and Bostock.)
Sandy Richardson (director of several short films) took me to see the play while we were casting for the main role in Love Letters. I hadn't been able to find anybody suitable, and we were about to compromise with someone who wasn't quite right. Sandy was really keen for Bryan to get the part, but I felt he wasn't quite right.
After the performance, Sandy introduced us, and I asked him to read the script and then do a test. He did and Richard Brennan, my producer, thought he was great. (Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980)
A few years after his appearance in Love Letters from Teralba Road and Brown's face was an ubiquitous presence in Australian feature films in the revival.
Brown became attached to the project some two years before filming began, while Max Phipps was attached about 15 months before shooting. According to Wallace
I've always liked Max Phipps. I was in ensembles with him years ago. I always thought he was an exceptional actor under-used, and I fought very hard for him in that film. I never had the same rapport with him that I did with Bryan. (Wallace talking to Peter Malone, as above)
In the DVD 'making of', Wallace details some of the difficulties he faced with the insecure Phipps.
But there was also some tension between Brown and Wallace. Assiduous readers of end credits will note this one:
clown workshop Bridget Brandon
The production had several weeks allocated for rehearsals and in the first week, Wallace introduced the actors to a clown workshop, in a bid to find spontaneity and naturalness in his actors by finding the clown within themselves.
Brown and some of the other lead actors reacted badly, with Brown calling it a "bloody waste of time":
He had this idea that was absolute balmy idea and to this day I say it was a complete and utter waste of bloody time for a week because we had two weeks rehearsal and the first week he made us do this clown workshop which somebody he'd come across a bloody clown workshop and we all had to put these red rubber things on our noses and try and look for the child inside us and everything and … (DVD 'making of').
According to Brown, after this waste of time, in the second week the cast got down to working on the script and videotaping rehearsals and doing some "proper work" on the project.
In his October-November 1980 Cinema Papers' interview, Wallace admitted it had been a mistake (though in the DVD 'making of' he remains defiant and positive that it was a good idea):
The ambitions I had for the clown workshop didn't come out. I was hoping for a really relaxed style and great spontaneity.
Many of the actors resisted the purpose of the workshop and I realize now that you can't thrust actors into a workshop of that kind. They are professionals and have their own standards and training. It would have needed a year's training program to put them through that kind of workshop and expect anything to come out of it.
It was my mistake and I almost alienated some of them. I think the idea was right, but the way I went about it was wrong …
…The clown workshop ran for four days and the rest of the workshop for three weeks. Looking back, I think the whole workshop was too long. It ended up being mainly rehearsals and not every actor got a lot out of it.
It was important, however, in that PAG members Tony Green, Kevin Storey and Bob came along and talked to the actors, and took them through the experience of being in prison: what it was like to be in a boys' home, how they were ordered about, the humiliation, the searches, how prisoners react to each other. They looked at films, talked to Les Newcombe (a former prisoner, who appears in Stir, and who is author of Inside Out) and read books.
Wallace also had the idea of the workshop/rehearsal period culminating with the actors spending a night in jail.
The cast reacted in different ways, and while some appreciated the experience in relation to the film, some were resentful. Gary Waddell, for example, had already been to jail, and didn't think he needed to go again.
Waddell, in the DVD 'making of' tells a story about how the cast weren't searched and so smuggled in a lot of contraband, and as a result at least one actor got very drunk.
Waddell claims to have filled up Bryan Brown's boot with urine in the middle of the night, and then enjoyed the sight when Brown tried to pull the boot on to his foot in the morning.
According to Waddell, Dennis Miller and myself and a few other people and Phil Motherwell said 'why don't you just throw us in a pub for three days and we'll just drink our way into a bondship, you know …
According to the DVD 'making of' and Wallace himself, Wallace had an ambivalent relationship to actors, noting that he was scared of actors, and had been scared of Bryan Brown working on Teralba Road.
Waddell thought him shy and sensitive and not a great communicator, while producer Richard Brennan suggests he had a peculiar manner, and could be blunt and direct and awkward with people (Wallace, had for example, a run in with the 'rough voiced, rough mannered' Ray Marshall on set - Marshall would die in 1986).
That said, Stir contains a a strong ensemble of the best male actors then doing the rounds. Wallace had seen Max Phipps at the Ensemble in The Removalists and other plays and had long admired his work.
Wallace had seen Gary Waddell in Pure Shit and knew he could play the part (Phil Motherwell, another convict in the film, also starred in Pure Shit). And the film also features Michael Gow, who would later go on to become a leading playwright, and Keith Gallasch, who would become a festival organiser and arts writer and editor.
Wallace had done an acting workshop with Paul Sonkkila, who wanted to play romantic leads but ended up playing a scary warder. Wallace didn't like talking to Sonkkila when he put his warder cap on. According to Wallace, he treated Wallace like a prisoner, but "he was the director", so Wallace told Sonkkila to take off his cap when talking to him.
Perhaps the only real risks involved Dennis Miller, who had come to fame on TV soaps shows such as Bellbird, but who provides the comedy and energy in the film with his portrait of an institutionalised homosexual prisoner, and Syd Heylen, an actor well known for his broad comedy stylings on television stylings.
According to Brennan, the result of Heylen's work is the "embodiment" of writer Bob Jewson. Jewson himself wasn't quite so sure:
I don't see myself in any of the characters; I see parts of me and parts of other people I have met in some of them. Everyone thinks I am in the film because there is one character called Old Bob. But I would be a bit more subtle than that.
The SAFC rejected financing the film, or offering additional assistance - chief executive John Morris, according to David Stratton, rejected the script on the basis that it contained "too many fucks" - but as Stratton notes, ironically, the SAFC was at that point involved in the production of "John Lamond's lame and leering sex comedy, Pacific Banana."
The main issue the film faced was to find a prison in which the film could be shot, and so the production ended up in South Australia in any case, even though it had been financed by the NSW Film Corporation.
For a time, according to Wallace, after checking a number of locations which failed the test, producer Richard Brennan began saying that if they couldn't find a prison, they couldn't make the film. (DVD 'making of')
But then Matt Carroll at the South Australian Film Corporation tipped them off to the disused jail at Gladstone in South Australia. Carroll had done research on gaol locations in South Australia for 'Breaker' Morant. While he reportedly hadn't see the gaol, after walking into the prison, Brennan said "we can make the film":
If we hadn't found it I double we would have made the film. Setting it up on different locations would have cost too much money and wouldn't have looked convincing (Cinema Papers Feb March 1980)
According to actor Waddell, while the prison was a scary place, the best thing about the shoot was three pubs in nearby Jamestown where he and others in the cast spent a "shitload of money". Producer Brennan confirmed the town was welcoming:
It's a council-owned gaol and not under the control of the Prisons Department. Gladstone is a town whose economy had revolved around the fact that it was a gaol town. A lot of people who live there are sorry that it has been closed. I am not really sure that a town's economy starts pumping when a film crew arrives. The publican's tills are a lot fuller, but people tend to think that we are attractive prospects and they were pleased to have us there. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980)
However the remote location did create some complications:
We had a lot of trouble because we were shooting in a town well away from anywhere else, and most of the extras had to come from Port Pirie. We couldn't find enough locally and we couldn't afford to fly them from Adelaide.
I was told later that some potential extras wouldn't have their hair cut, so we had to lose them. (Wallace, Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980)
Some of the cast had done prison time:
There is one sequence where five guys front before the governor, and three of them have each done more than 11 years in prison; one of them was an actor. (Wallace, Cinema Papers as above).
Jewson argued that the presence of ex-prisoners added to the sense of realism, and that most ex-prisoners would see it as a true portrait of what prison feels like:
Quite a lot of former prisoners worked on or played in the film, particularly among the extras. One man we picked up in Port Pirie had served 14½ years in prison, and he really became part of the film. The feelings of actors who were ex-prisoners were quite important to me and they felt it was worth making ...
The film was the first one Wallace had shot on 35mm - the NSWFC was keen to avoid 16mm, according to producer Richard Brennan, because of the film grain on night sequences or anything shot below 2.8, and because it downvalued the film for international sales. Brennan cites Mike Harris in Variety reviewing The Night the Prowler at the Sydney Film Festival as a 16mm outing (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980).
Wallace thought the format was less fluid than 16mm, and he had to be more careful with stock because of the cost. (He ended up shooting 11 to 1, though the budgeted ratio was supposed to be 10:1):
Geoff Burton (cinematographer) and I thought it would be more suitable to shoot Stir with fixed lenses, as a zoom lens gives a documentary feel; it's a bit loose. Looking at it now, though, it might have been a bit formal.
Wallace was also worried about the lack of women in the film (only Margaret Throsby, who would become well known as an ABC personality and classical music presenter makes the cut in a short scene as a TV interviewer), and a lack of Aboriginal people, and he did wonder if a claustrophobic prison setting would hold the attention of an audience. He was also worried about authenticity:
The other problem I faced was trying to make a film about an area of which I had no direct experience. I was reliant on advisers and I kept making mistakes, like leaving the locks off the doors. There was one scene where I originally had the warder (Max Phipps) having a cup of tea while he was talking to one of the prisoners. Bob went off his head and said. "Prison officers don't have tea while they are working. They are as bored as the prisoners and they are not allowed to do that sort of thing." I was quite shocked. I thought just having a cup of tea would give him something to do.
Not knowing what a prison is really like was always a problem. How do warders walk down corridors? How do they salute their superiors? How do they open doors? What do they say to each other? (Cinema Papers Oct-Nov 1980)
The lack of Aboriginal prisoners was partly a function of budget and location, with only one appearing:
We wanted to have lots of black prisoners, but the film isn't about Aboriginal prisoners. At Bathurst - the gaol that Bob was in - the people who rioted were mostly white. Apparently the Aboriginals didn't want any part of the riot. They said it was a white man's riot and, according to Bob, went off to another part of the gaol.
We should have had more black prisoners, because there are lots of black people in gaol. We tried to get Aboriginals on the set, but there were no blacks in the district. We did get one guy for a day, but he didn't want anything to do with it and left. So the film isn't representative in that sense.
According to producer Richard Brennan, the film was the first feature for Barbara Gibbs in the role of production manager, Digby Duncan as production accountant, Mark Turnbull as first AD and Henry Danger as editor.
Also according to Brennan, Wallace was one of the few directors whom he'd worked with who promised to storyboard the entire film, and then actually did (Phillip Noyce for example only storyboarded the flood sequence in Newsfront). The NFSA has some 145 of Wallace's storyboards - primitive compared say to a Sergei Eisenstein doing Ivan the Terrible - available on line here.
To save money and to keep a low profile during the shoot the creative team didn't hire a unit publicist:
It is obviously going to be controversial, so it is not going to be difficult to attract publicity or interest in the film, although this might be horrified interest or total rejection. (Brennan, Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980).
Producer Brennan placed hope in realism to attract an audience:
What I care most about is people finding the film impressive and effective. I think where it stands a chance of impressing people is that it's realistic. It's written by someone who has actually been in gaol. Many of the cast, particularly among the extras, have had prison experience, and I don't mean a night in the cells for being drunk and disorderly. There was a great deal of knowledge imparted to us by members of the Prisoners Action Group, and I hope it reflects some of its special knowledgeability. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980).
Unfortunately the reaction was more inclined to be muted indifference and he film did disappointing business. The film wasn't listed in the Cinema Papers' box office grosses survey at the time, nor is it mentioned in Film Victoria's report on Australian box office.
The reason is simple enough - the film quickly disappeared from theatres on its first release.
Director Wallace claimed in an interview with Peter Malone, on 21st November 1998, here:
They came to it. It cost $460,000 or $480,000. I know it's made a profit. It ran for six or eight weeks. That was the time when Australian films were taken off as quickly as possible. It had a run on television and it sold quite well overseas.
But there is little evidence to support this. The film didn't last in key major city hardtops and was quickly yanked, before heading off to repertory bookings, and it didn't travel well overseas - though it did sell to Ireland after screening at the Cork Film Festival and to the UK, and it did sell to television, screening in a heavily modified version, with much of the language softened or deleted.
While the DVD 'making of' tends to skirt around the matter of hard numbers, it is clear from the comments that the film was not a commercial success.
For example, producer Richard Brennan acknowledges he'd optimistically hoped the film would make money, but then admits that it didn't perform well, and Stephen Wallace doesn't contradict him.
This is not a judgment on whether the film is worth watching - it's just to note that at the time the film failed to find a significant audience in its first theatrical release.
One of the key issues involved the strong language. Director Richard Brennan noted that the script contained more four letter words than Brennan had encountered in any script to that point (and anywhere else, except perhaps for real life).
Gary Waddell found it violent and confronting, and watching it like walking out after a screening of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket:
Fuck, what the fuck was this?, he wonders in the DVD 'making of'
Wallace wasn't worried by the strong language but his sound recordist gave him a heads up:
After about the third week he said, "Look Steve, I am just an ordinary middle-class guy and I can't see this film ever being released. And even if it is released, I don't think anybody is going to come and see it." He told me he wouldn't see it because of the swear words.
It's obvious the language is going to be a bone of contention, but that's a decision we made. (Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
The NSWFC was also worried, as Wallace explained:
They thought it it wouldn't sell to television, here or overseas. In fact, that that was their biggest worry about the film. But, once we made the decision, the NSWFC backed us all the way.
Prisoners use a certain kind of language because they are bored: it's just bravado. The point of the film isn't the language - it's much more political than that - and if you appreciate what the film is about, you forget the language. But even the ex-prisoners objected to it when they read the script. They felt we were showing prisoners in a bad light. In the end, it was up to Bob to decide whether to leave it in, and he is the authentic ex-prisoner. (Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
Jewson himself had guidelines in relation to the use of language, as he explained in his Cinema Papers' interview:
I'm sure it offends. We agonized over it. I don't think you can make a prison film, and try to do it realistically, with just a "fuck" here and there thrown in for effect. So we decided to be natural, and where it felt right it went in.
We had some pretty rough actors, and at times when we were filming, two or three extra "fucks" were thrown in and that made me feel that the language was right.
I think it does offend people, particularly people of my age. It certainly doesn't offend the young kids. But once people get the feeling that the language is right for the film they won't be offended so much.
In the same way, the word "cunt" is used only in anger and not as a throw-away. That was deliberate. I showed the script to a feminist friend and she made a legitimate point, which was that if a group of people see a word as offensive to them as a group, then it shouldn't be used.
I thought about that for a long time and felt that there is a time in anger where you have to use it because of your own use of language. But "cunt" is used only in anger or frustration.
People who are in gaol have very limited vocabularies and are unable to express themselves. They come, in the main, from a culture where you don't use language so much - you use your fists. In prison, where you can't do that as much, you have to use language aggressively. In middle-class society, instead of using fists, they use language quite aggressively and horribly to strip a person. Sometimes I think it's just as violent. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980).
Producer Richard Brennan's interpretation was slightly different again:
I saw it as a performance problem more than anything else. I remember a film called The Friends of Eddie Coyle where people swear in a way that suggests that they are quite unconscious of what they are saying - which is what happens in real life.
But because a certain amount of adrenalin starts pumping when you begin using taboo words like "fuck", an actor can sometimes persuade himself he is giving a better performance than he in fact is.
There is an enormous amount of swearing in the film, but very little in the final parts of it. I asked Bob if that was intentional. He said it was because most of the time the men are bored and irritable, and swearing is part and parcel of the boredom. In gaol it is just a way of stringing out the conversation …
If we presented the people in Stir as talking in a faintly bowdlerized way, I don't think you would believe it. I can believe that nobody swears in Wake in Fright, but I don't think you'd believe lack of swearing in this film.
There was also some nervousness about a state government body funding a film about rioting prisoners, and the kickback that might follow:
… if people start to compare Stir with the riot at Bathurst gaol - which occurred under a Liberal state government - it might be construed that we were given government funds to attack the Liberal party. (Wallace, Cinema Papers, Oct-Nov 1980).
But in the end the film didn't hang around long enough to generate political controversy in a way that might have led to more attention being paid to it.
Producer Richard Brennan, in the DVD 'making of', suggests the film came at the end of a cycle of films on the topic, and that this might have led to a certain weariness in audiences.
He points to the English comedy Porridge (on film and television), the English film Scum, the documentary The Bitter Lessons of Attica and notes that Brubaker, starring Robert Redford opening one or two weeks before Stir opened.
The disappointing box office was perhaps compounded by the film's failure at the AFI awards - it picked up some 11 nominations, but 11 times, it was beaten by other films, mainly 'Breaker' Morant.
Director Wallace, in the DVD 'making of', says it was the biggest disappointment of his life - at least to that point - with the film not managing to pick up even one gong, and it was perhaps on that night that it was realised that a film about a bunch of scungy rioting prisoners was never going to be a big hit like the nationalist pandering, mythologising 'Breaker' Morant.
Whatever the reason for the film's failure, producer Richard Brennan says in the end the stars weren't aligned, though all the commentators in the DVD 'making of' line up to confirm that they were proud to have worked on the film, and after long exposure on VHS, it now remains in print on DVD.
At least the producers couldn't blame the censor or the film's rating. As both Murray's Australian Film and Ben Goldsmith notes, the film was reduced from 'R' to 'M' on appeal (newspaper advertisements and posters from the time confirm the 'M' rating).
But mysteriously nobody seems to have told Umbrella as its DVD, which still carries an 'R 18+' warning.
Goldsmith claims the rating was reduced from 'R' to 'M' because the producers successfully argued that the language was justified by its context and that its capacity to act as a warning about the horrors of incarceration would be limited if the film wasn't permitted a wide release.
Perhaps Umbrella made use of the 'R' rating for reasons first canvassed by producer Richard Brennan when he discussed the potential impact of an 'R' rating on box office in Cinema Papers Feb-March 1980:
Certainly it would have been very helpful in 1971. People were so delighted to hear phrases that they use all the time - like "piss off" - that they poured along in droves to see films like Get Carter.
Certainly people aren't pleasantly surprised anymore at hearing their own language beaming back at them from the big screen; in fact, they are often irritated by it. But we didn't put the language there for salacious reasons.
Whatever the impact of the language on the film's box office then or DVD sales now, Goldsmith notes that initially, in part because of the confronting violence and the issues raised, and in part because of the competition from a number of similarly themed films that coincidentally were released around the same time, Stir did not set the box office alight. (Goldsmith, here).
In 1987 Stir would become part of the controversial sales deal which would see some twenty NSWFC films sold to Pepper Distribution Inc.
Pepper paid some $550,000 for the rights to the films for 75 years (the state government wound up the NSWFC with debts of some $10 million in June 1988 and would replace it with the NSW Film and Television Office). Danny Collins, who had been a marketing executive at the NSWFC, became president of Pepper Distribution.
Goldsmith notes of this scandal:
It was only in 1998 when Collins began legal proceedings in California against the directors of Pepper that the New South Wales Film and Television Office, successor to the NSWFC, was able to secure an out-of-court settlement under which the NSWFTO received a cash settlement of a little over $700,000. When Pepper Distribution's subsequent deals for the rights of the Australian twenty films were analysed, it was found that Stir had been one of the company's largest earners in terms of overseas television and video sales. (Goldsmith, as per link above).
Remarkably ICAC in its inquiry into the matter didn't recommend any action against any of the principals, but at least the rights to the film were recovered.
5. A Message Film:
In the end, the result is a message film (and never mind the old Hollywood joke about sending messages by Western Union).
Bob Jewson said one thing - and I think this is what we tried to make the theme of the film, although it was very hidden - that riots don't happen out of the blue. The prison authorities make you believe that all these criminals that are incarcerated are at all times dangerous and they're trying to get out. But Bob said that's never true; most of them have accepted their lot and they're trying to serve their time. They only get into a riot situation when they're treated badly and unfairly over a long period. He said most people don't want a riot; they know what it's going to mean, longer in jail. (Director Stephen Wallace in the Peter Malone interview, here).
In the DVD 'making of' the message of the film ranges from 'prisons create monsters' to Bryan Brown saying:
I guess the thing that we all learned on the movie is that it doesn't matter whether you're the screw or you're the prisoner, I mean it's just not a nice place to be and it's just ruled on fear and on bloody power and bullying and you know who's the toughest and … any sensitivity is just drained out of you ...
Director Stephen Wallace put it this way in his Cinema Papers Oct-Nov 1980 interview:
We tried to show authentically what it was like to be in gaol. It isn't like a Nazi concentration camp; it's not that bad. They have beds, they walk around and it looks quite casual, but the underlying violence is obvious.
Prison is an extremely lonely and isolated place. Men are constantly moved and shoved around, and they are locked up in cells for 14 or 18 hours. It's the sheer boredom, the frustration, that's destructive. It's like a really bad boarding school, but you can't get out.
You are not allowed contact with women. You have only brief contact with other prisoners. You have your meals in your cell. Warders are constantly niggling you.
You can look at Stir and think everything looks all right - the prisoners are walking around; they are not being bashed every day - but if a prisoner dares stand up to the system he bashed bashed and thrown into the really bad places which Raymond Denning (NSW prison escapee) has spoken about.
We didn't show the observation section at Grafton or Katingal at Long Bay. But we have prisoners being taken off all the time - shanghaied in the middle of the night - and you don't see where they go, but it is obviously to much worse places …
… the film doesn't suggest (an alternative to prison) and I don't know of any. But there are certainly alternatives to that sort of prison which just makes people worse.
Someone remarked to me that Stir wasn't presenting anything new. At first I was quite offended and though, "Of course it's new." Then I realized it wasn't new because it has all happened before, in every gaol. But in a way that's the point of it: if the content of Stir was new, people would say it was a unique prison, but it's not.
Basically, it is a lack of understanding that causes riots and the film is meant to increase understanding. Bob says that unless something is done, people are gong to be killed. Eventually there will be bigger riots, with hostages taken and the moment hostages are taken there will be bloodshed and warders will be killed.
The reasons for making Stir were social. It wasn't a personal film for me. It was like a contract job in a way, although I identify thoroughly with everything the prisoners wanted.
It's not a heavily-political film because you don't see what happens to the prisoners later. You only see what happens at the gaol and have to draw your own conclusions.
On the other hand, we hope it's entertaining enough for people to see just as a film. That's why the NSWFC backed it; I don't think they were particularly interested in the prison issue.
Bob Jewson had his own set of aims as he explained in his Cinema Papers' interview, Feb-March 1980:
First, that they are entertained. We are not going to have a film industry if we don't entertain people. Then, I hope people go away having a dislike of the prison system.
I think even television series like Porridge and Prisoner leave people with a dislike of the institution. Once they have that dislike of the total, rotten, penal institution, they will think of ways to eliminate it. I have no doubt that there are ways we can do that.
At the moment there are countries going for something called deincarceration - a terrible name, but what it means is not putting people in prison as a way of life. In New South Wales, 74 out of every 100,000 are in gaol. In Victoria, only 40 out of every 100,000 are in gaol. There's no way there is more crime per head of population in New South Wales than in Victoria.
In Holland, only 18 or 19 out of every 100,000 are in gaol. It has the same crime rate as Britain, which is somewhere between the rates in New South Wales and Victoria. We have to realize that most people in prison today are serving less than 12 months.
We hear in the media of all the "dangerous people", and we don't realize that most people are in prison for all sorts of minor crimes, victimless crimes. So we can start by ridding the system of all those people because they are no threat to the community.
Even Walter McGeechan, our discredited former commissioner, said that 75 per cent of the people in prison could be released today with no harm to the population.
I would like people to look at the film and say, "This is not the way." This system not only brutalizes the crims; we also have evidence that it brutalizes the screws.
Producer Richard Brennan added his message in his Cinema Papers' interview, Feb-March 1980:
Obviously the situation of a gaol being burned to the ground has relevance to Bathurst in an Australian context. If it was an American film it would be Attica, and were it British it would be Hull.
I wouldn't be happy if people judged the film on how closely it followed events at Bathurst because the conditions that provoke riots - and this is what was in Bob Jewson's mind - are the same the world over.
The reason I mention Attica and Hull is that the anatomy of each riot was the same. It was a combination of boredom, frustration, petty restrictions, brutality, niggardliness, refusal to listen to the people who are incarcerated. The funny thing was that a lot of people who spent time in gaol and who worked on the film were not nearly as bleeding heart about criminals as you might expect. They would say, "We committed a crime. We expected to be punished. But the punishment is being in gaol."
They didn't expect additional things like only being allowed to have two letters in a cell. I don't think any body can question their wanting to be treated like human beings … I think it was inevitable that a situation like Bathurst would happen. Bathurst isn't the only one of course. There have been riots in Long Bay and Grafton ...
Director Stephen Wallace, always inclined to be a worrier, was inclined in retrospect to think he'd missed the balance in the message, as he told Peter Malone:
When I went to Italy, a girl came up to me and said - and it's the most insightful thing anyone ever said about it to me - "It's a good film, but if you only realised, you could have made it into an exceptional film - it's Dante's Inferno. If you had made Dante's Inferno, you would have got a film that got beyond that." It's very hard when you've got the Prisoners' Action Group and bashed prisoners around you looking at the script and saying, "Aren't you going to represent us properly?" They wanted a polemical film. So that was hard. I thought you could have both. Now I could probably do it. I couldn't do it then. (Peter Malone interview, here).
6. Bob Jewson:
One time safe-cracker and writer of the screenplay, Bob Jewson explained how he came to be called a 'tank man':
It's euphemistic. Tank men are people who rob other people's money and find that money in safes. "Tank" is an English derivation of "Safe" - it makes it sound a bit better. The English have a beautiful way of saying those things nicely, to give them some sort of romanticism. (Cinema Papers, Feb-March 1980).
Asked to give a personal history, Jewson responded:
How personal? I find this is a problem at times, knowing whether people are more interested in my freakishness or my work. I can understand that. I have worked as a journalist and I know there are things that are interesting to the public.
I certainly won't give you a whole history, but I was a thief for 25 years. I didn't "see the light"; I just got too old to climb through windows and felt that there must be other ways.
Also, I was caught and got a five-year sentence, nearly all of that at Bathurst, and it was a terrible gaol. You reach a stage where you can't do any more, but not for reasons of conscience.
Jewson had begun by writing short stories and pieces for gaol newspapers, and started Inside Out at Long Bay, which he claimed was "the first prison publication for many years".
Jewson went over to X wing at Bathurst prison in December and the gaol was destroyed February 3rd 1974. After the riot, Jewson went to Kirkonnell, a prison about 30 km out of Bathurst. He had been in X wing, but after being accepted for the Bachelor of Arts (Communication) course at Mitchell College, he needed a warrant to travel outside the gaol.
After doing his time, Jewson began working as a freelance journalist and came to Sydney to sit in on the Royal Commission into prisons which started April 1976 and ran through to the end of 1977.
He worked as a consultant for a firm of solicitors which was acting for a group taking part in the Commission. Jewson wrote for The Bulletin, The National Times, Nation Review and other publications: The reason I kept changing is that some people wouldn't publish what I wanted to say.
Jewson became involved in the Prisoner Action Group. PAG had made a short documentary Prisoners in 1976 as a way of lobbying for a Royal Commission into prisons. In 1977 they decided they wanted to make one on the Bathurst riot, and Jewson was nominated:
I was asked to write a film script that would show how riots in gaol came about. It's not a problem that's confined to Australia alone - there have been some disastrous ones throughout the world; the horrific events in Attica and the Hull riot in England.
All these riots had similar ingredients, and the McKay Inquiry into Attica produced similar findings to Justice Nagle's findings about the Bathurst riot. They found that prisoners' grievances had been ignored by officials. Both reports talk about petty restrictions, their arrogant enforcement, rules that were poorly communicated, often ruthless, petty and senseless …
Jewson sat in the Royal Commission each day, observing proceedings, and eventually he was the author of "Bathurst Gaol and the Royal Commission into Prisons - A Summary by the Prisoners' Action Group" which was published by the PAG in the Alternative Criminology Journal vol 2 no 3 February 1978 (more details of Jewson here; more on the Royal Commission in pdf form here):
Nagle (the head of the Commission) put the blame on the former Commissioner of Corrective Services, Walter McGeechan. However, I think we have subsequently shown that not only did McGeechan know, or at least have strong suspicions, but there is evidence that the Public Service Board was as informed as he was, because all the papers that he had were sent to them as well. They arrived on January 31, 1970.
I think the problem we have had with allegations of bashings is that they are prisoners and they don't have the same rights as other people. So we have this arbitrary punishment and it went on at Grafton for 33 years. It's well-documented in Les Newcombe's book Inside Out. He was there for more than seven years, and the longest he went without being flogged was seven days.
The prison officers admitted in the Royal Commission that intractable prisoners were flogged with a short rubber baton which had a steel rod through it. Another prison officer told the Commission that prisoners were flogged that way lost control of their bodily functions during the bashings.
I think it's a comment on our civilization that the people who committed these atrocities are, in the main, still working within the department because of cover-ups. It is the worst case of state criminal conspiracy since we slaughtered the Aboriginals throughout Australia.(from pdf report).
But while involved in the formal and bureaucratic process of the Commission, Jewson always retained a keen sense of the personal and the individual:
I do know that the reason for rioting is an individual one. We like to think that everyone jumps up one morning because something has happened and say let's riot. That is not quite true. Each man, or all our main characters in the film, has a different reason for rioting.
Popular uprisings take a long time. Each man has to come to his own reason to act.
For a time in the 1970s and the early 1980s, Jewson became a 'go to' spokesman for the media wanting a quote on prison issues in New South Wales, but he had left the PAG by 1980, and he wouldn't have another screenplay produced.
He would eventually die of cancer in 2005, but in the interim as a ex-prison writer he would become a model for a number of Australian films and writers, such as ex-prisoner Ray Mooney, who served eight years inside Pentridge and then wrote Every Night ... Every Night... (1995) for director Akinos Tsilimidos.
Writer and director John Hillcoat would use American criminal and author Jack Abbott's book In the Belly of the Beast as the basis for his 1988-produced prison film Ghosts… of the Civil Dead.