Production company: South Australian Film Corporation
Budget: A$320,000, jointly from the South Australian Film Corporation, the federal government investment body the Australian Film Commission and the Seven television network (Oxford Australian Film). $260,000 (ASO); $300,000 (Cinema Papers' production report, and the figure in David Stratton's The Last New Wave)
Locations: exteriors near Goolwa, a town opposite the head of the Coorong (a saltwater inlet a hundred miles long on the South Australian coast), Port Elliott Primary School and Port Noarlunga, and interiors at the SAFC studio in a converted picture theatre, the old Star, the Parade, Norwood S.A.
Filmed: shooting began May 1976, four week six day week schedule.
Australian distributor: SAFC/Roadshow/Village
Australian release: 19th November 1976 Fair Lady Theatre Adelaide, and then to other states mid-1977.
Running time: 87 mins (Oxford Australian Film), 1'25"38 (NSFA)
DVD time: 1'25"05 (including end music overhang)
Off air time: 1'24"57 (no music overhang)
Box office: According to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film achieved a domestic gross of A$2,645,000, equivalent to $13,674,650 in A$ 2009.
It was listed in the July 1984 Cinema Papers, using CPI corrected data from Variety, as number 12 in the then all-time top twenty-two Australian films, with a gross film rental of A$1,725,789.
In the first eight months of its run in Adelaide, the film grossed a box office record of $300,000.
As well as the strong domestic returns, the film also achieved widespread international interest and sales, and was even given a screening at the White House in the United States "at the request of President Jimmy Carter" (the film was also "requested for viewing" on the Royal yacht Brittania). It was the first Australian film to attract a major Japanese distributor (and to be seen by the Emperor in a private screening).
By January 1979 producer Matt Carroll was claiming the film had sold in 23 countries and returned $1.2 million to the SAFC. The SAFC would later claim the film had sold to over 100 countries. In short, a commercial success.
The film did acceptable business at the 1977 Australian Film Institute Awards with a couple of key wins, but it received many more nominations than gongs. Adult material was preferred by the voters, with one crucial and major exception:
Winner, Best Film of the Year sponsored by the Australian Film Commission and Cinema International Corporation (Matt Carroll)
Winner, Jury Prize (Matt Carroll)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Directing sponsored by Village Theatres (Henri Safran) (Bruce Beresford won for Don's Party)
Nominated, Best Screenplay sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation (this category then included Original and Adapted) (Sonia Borg) (David Williamson won for Don's Party)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Geoff Burton) (Russell Boyd won for Break of Day)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Bob Cogger) (Bill Anderson won for Don's Party)
Nominated, Best Original Music Score (Michael Carlos) (Peter Best won for The Picture Show Man)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Art Direction (David Copping) (David Copping beat himself by winning for The Picture Show Man)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Helen Dyson) (Judith Dormsan won for The Picture Show Man)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (David Gulpilil) (John Meillon won for The Fourth Wish)
There was some surprise and controversy arising from the film winning "best picture" but not a single other category, and complaints from those associated with Don's Party because of it winning so many categories, but not "best picture.
There was also a significant split in the jury that year, with the jury divided as to whether to give the jury prize to Tom Cowan's pseudo-feminist convict-based Journey Among Women, or to Storm Boy. The compromise reached was to give the Jury Prize to Storm Boy, and two special awards for creativity to Journey Among Women and Love Letters From Teralba Road.
Storm Boy did however win the Jedda Award sponsored by the Australian National Travel Association (Producer: Matt Carroll, director: Henri Safran), an award "category" that didn't feature in later AFI Awards.
Storm Boy did well on the international festival circuit:
International Youth prize and Grand Prix, Moscow Film Festival 1977
The film also won three prizes at the Tehran Film Festival, including one "for a beautiful message of friendship beyond the bounds of race and class."
DOP Geoff Burton won the Australian Cinematographer Society's Millie Award for the Best Australian Cinematographer and a Golden Tripod, 1977 for his filming of Storm Boy.
Writer Sonia Borg won an AWGIE (Australian Writers' Guild) for her screenplay adaptation in 1977.
Storm Boy has been widely released on DVD in a number of editions, though many of them are bare bones and in 4:3 format, perhaps with a trailer as bonus. Picture quality has usually ranged from indifferent to poor. Blacks are usually lousy, and none of the exquisite hues captured by DOP Geoff Burton survive in their original form.
Sadly even the region four "anniversary edition" of 2006 by Reel offers a dull 4:3 image, with the only extra a stills gallery. Presumably international DVD editions are derived from the same source - certainly the images on view on the internet suggest there's no improved alternative source available.
In most of these versions, you can even see at the end of the show the wing of the hang glider used by stunt man Grant Page to capture the final aerial shots of Storm Boy on the beach.
There are better images out there - recent television screenings of the film on the ABC did more justice to Geoff Burton's photography, with better blacks and richer colours. While better, even this print lacked the richness of the original 35mm and - as well as featuring the usual TV bug in the lower right hand corner - the wing of the hang glider remained in place at the end.
On its original release, the film was sometimes screened in 1.66:1, though many databases propose it was framed for 1.85:1, perhaps unaware of the arbitrary way that projectionists with a casual rack up or down, or the use of a mask, could change the aspect of the print. That said, how hard would it be to produce a decent compromise 1.78:1 image, with rich colours and blacks, as befitting Burton's award-winning work, and incidentally consign stunt man Grant Page's glider wing to history?
For some reason, the SAFC has routinely delivered sub-quality material of its historically significant productions to the home market, using distributors like Reel which focus on achieving shelf-space and turnover rather than delivering quality product.
In the usual way, for those who think that watching a few clips is a good way to check out a feature film, the ASO has three clips here.
The film is based on well known South Australian author Colin Thiele's novel, and the film had to a certain extent been 'pre-sold' in Australia by the book's presence on many school reading lists.
Several other Thiele works have been filmed, including Blue Fin by the SAFC, and much later in the 1990s, the mini-series Sun on the Stubble by Film Australia.
Thiele, an educator as well as an author with a background in a rural German-speaking community, long made use of South Australian locations in his work, but he was eventually forced by arthritis - his hands were remarkably gnarled in later years - to seek out the warmth of Queensland.
Thiele was a relaxed author, albeit with a sly sense of humour, and he realised that adaptation of his work into film and television was best left to others.
Sonia Borg, who came to Australia from Germany in 1961, did the adaptation. She had worked as a television actress, then as an actors' tutor at Crawfords, before turning to writing for Crawfords, and she explained the process in an interview in Cinema Papers, Oct/Nov 1987:
Colin didn't want to be involved in the scripting. His only condition in allowing the South Australian Film Corporation to do a film of Storm Boy was that they didn't turn it into a sex comedy - I was told that when I was given the book.
I had no contact with Colin until it was finished. He then read the script, and as he was upset about a few things, we discussed it and made a few compromises. In the end, he was very happy with the film.
I think Colin trusts me and knows that I am not trying to do something bad with his books.
One of the changes made concerned the character of the father:
In Thiele's Storm Boy there is a beautiful relationship between father and son. We had to change that because the film needed more development; we made the father a tougher character.
(Below: Colin Thiele)
There were a number of film tie-ins, including a soft cover by Seal/Rigby in 1976. As a result of the film's success, Thiele's work became inextricably interlocked with the film, and Storm Boy is by far his best known work, even if some of his other studies of growing up in a German-speaking community in rural South Australia provide a more rounded understanding of childhood, and boys growing into manhood.
Valerie Hoogstd and Jennifer Simons wrote a relatively short (48 pages) 'making of' book published by Macmillan in 1987, which can be accessed through the library system, details at Trove here.
(Below: two of the film tie-ins, featuring the work of the stills photographer on the shoot, David Kynoch - for more details of the many editions of this book see Trove here).
Shooting with the pelicans was a nightmare for the crew.
Writer Sonia Borg tried to limit the difficulties in her script:
I met the animal trainer on Storm Boy and we talked about what the pelicans would be able to do. This influenced what I put in the script.
I think it's better to restrict oneself and only write down what is possible, rather than ask for the impossible.
There were some happy accidents:
Greg Rowe has a marvellous personality, and his scenes with the birds are beautiful. He loved the birds, and that love came through in the film. The scene where the pelican plays with him and bites him on the leg, for example, was shot without Greg being aware of it.
Children are very quick to pick up falseness and phony acting; Greg was so sincere - that was probably what made him so appealing.
For publicity purposes, Mr. Percival retired to work at Adelaide's Marineland, but there were a number of Mr. Percivals.
Animal trainer Gordon Noble - who had worked with dolphins and other animals at Marineland - spent several months before the production training the pelicans - there were three trained to share the lead role, Dum-Dum, Carpenter and Sandwich.
Given the tight four week schedule, what he achieved remains one of the more remarkable examples of animal training for an Australian feature film.
When not on set, the pelicans were kept in a pool at the back of the SAFC's then administration headquarters at 64 The Parade Norwood. They made a mess of the pool and the surrounding areas - pelicans are not fastidious in their toilet habits - and they were inclined to escape whenever possible. Crew regularly went on searches to return the birds to their pool home. The birds were fitted with identification discs to help in their return.
Greg Rowe, who had no previous acting experience, was selected from amongst 70 boys who auditioned for the role. His fifteen year-old sister had entered his photograph into a modelling quest - he came second and won a modelling course. The modelling agency involved prompted him to audition for the film. He was a seventh grader at Hectorville Primary School at the time of his casting.
Producer Matt Carroll didn't allow Rowe to see himself up on the screen until the premiere screening, but credited Rowe's ability to relate to the pelicans as a key to the film's success:
"He is marvellous," said Matt. "He is very sensitive to animals and we approached him about the film for that reason. He just about lived with those pelicans for a year, and they smell like a fish factory." (Age, 5th July 1977)
When Marineland closed down, the key Mr Percival transferred to the Adelaide Zoo, and lived there from the late 1980s until his death in his mid-thirties in September 2009. (ABC News, here).
Stunt man Grant Page used a hang glider to capture the aerial shots featured at the close of the film showing Storm Boy on a beach. Shine director Scott Hicks acted as runner on the film.
The SAFC managed to hit the newspapers with stories about how the film had been screened in the White House for President Carter, on the Britannia for the Queen, and in Japan in a private screening for Emperor Hirohito and his wife.
The film also won awards, and advertising prompted adults to take their children on the basis that all would enjoy the result.
With all this buzz, the film did well at the box office, and is now considered something of a children's classic.
The SAFC was one of the first production companies in the revival to exploit schools as a way to reach the target demographic, in this case preparing a study-kit which included videotape interviews with the crew, portions of the script, stills, background materials, and a Film School documentary on the shoot (they repeated the exercise on the follow-up adapation of Thiele's Blue Fin, albeit with much less impact).
Because it was effectively a government department, with connections to other government departments - it had a monopoly on South Australian government sponsored documentary productions, and ran a film library for the education system - the SAFC used this as a way to help keep the film in SA cinemas for an extremely long run. This generated box office, but also maintained a visible presence, important for political purposes.
The use of study kits - these days called study guides - is now rampant in the selling of Australian feature films, but it can be a two edged sword, turning students against the forced study of films they don't like (in the same way that some students developed a hostility towards Macintosh computers when they attempted to control the education market in Australia).
Finally, if for no other reason, the film now stands as a visual tribute to a lost world.
The Coorong is not the place it once was, with the Murray river not flowing as strongly and environment now heavily saline, and much degraded from the time when the film was shot, as noted by Colin Thiele's widow Rhonda Thiele and the film's star Greg Rowe in a story in the Adelaide Advertiser in 2008 here.
4. Henry Safran:
Director Henry Safran was born in Paris in 1932 and came to Australia in 1960 to work with the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a producer of television documentaries and drama. He became an Australian citizen in 1963, but returned to work in British television in 1966 on shows such as The Troubleshooters and Softly Softly.
When Safran returned to Australia, he made the short feature Listen to the Lion, not released until 1977, but which worked as a calling card for him to direct Storm Boy. Safran made several other feature films, including The Wild Duck, with Jeremy Irons, the dire Norman Loves Rose, and the 1983 re-make of the 1947 Rank children's film Bush Christmas but none had the impact of Storm Boy …