Interview : Shane Abbess & Andy Whitfield

For the new Aussie film, “Gabriel”

“Take the lowest budget you can think of in Australian cinema history half-it, and you probably have ours”.

And Shane Abbess, writer/director of the new Australian film ”Gabriel” isn’t exaggerating. Sony international may have picked up the film for worldwide release, and it may have a marketing campaign behind it that’ll erroneously liken it to Len Wiseman’s Underworld films, but for all intents and purposes this is cheap and nasty filmmaking – the kind of production a few souls had to be sold to make.

Abbess, whose been making his own movies since he was 12, says he even had to beg his boss to give him back his old day a few weeks into production.

“I was working as a removalist before the film, and about five weeks into the shoot I called my boss and told him I’d have to come back and start doing that again because I haven’t got any money to pay the caterers – The whole film was done on one hundred percent deferral, so the actors weren’t getting paid so the least we could do was feed them – and he said ‘look, I’ve got four kids and a mortgage, but I’ll give you a little bit to get you guys across the line’”

The filmmaker everyone involved the film was there because they were passionate about it, and wanted to tell the story.

Actor Andy Whitfield, who took on the lead role of Gabriel, says he was simply attracted to the idea of working with a pioneering group of people.

“They were willing to put everything on the line and go for something a little bit different”, says the actor. “It could’ve gone either way. Obviously nobody knew on day one what was going to happen but there was something about [Gabriel] that drew a lot of people – a lot of talent – to it.”

In an effort to get as big as audience possible for it, Abbess went out of his way to make sure the film wasn’t especially restricted to Australian audiences.

“I didn’t want to compete with America when we were making this film, but I did kinda of want to make one giant cliché. I remember telling the production designer that I wanted big oil-drums full of fire, with the prostitutes surrounding them, and that all the bad guys should be wearing black and the response was ‘that’s too 80s’, and I said ‘that’s exactly where I want this film to sit’.

The film, which tells of the angel Gabriel and his trip to Purgatory to reclaim some fallen comrades, required plenty of research. “We did huge lots of research into angels and all the mythology behind them – read all the books, like Paradise Lost, and looked at all the best and most popular angels and took from them and made our own versions of them”, says Abbess, whose idea for the film merely stated with his fondness for the name ‘Gabriel’. “There hadn’t really been a movie about angels. Not like this. I hadn’t even seen Constantine at the time, nor the one with Christopher Walken [The Prophecy] in it, so as far as I knew – and, anyway, this is very different from those – it hadn’t been done before. So, I thought this was a brand-new territory that had never been explored before, so it was exciting for us to go into that world. And also, because of our limitations, we knew we’d be making a humble cult genre piece.”

When it came to casting, Abbess wanted actors that nobody had really seen before.

“I didn’t want anyone that had been in big Aussie films and I didn’t want anyone that reminded people of a soap actor. So Faith [Martin, the casting director] bought in a specific group of people. She found people that really put their heart and soul into it – even if they were only on the screen for two or three minutes.”

Of course, the doesn’t mean that a couple of the players (Michael Piccirilli played Dr James Fraser on ”Home & Away” in the early 90s) weren’t familiar to audiences – it’s just that Abbess didn’t know it. “Here I was harping on about no sort of soap stars, and second day of the shoot, Amy Mathews who plays Maggie, comes up to me and says ‘I’m leaving tonight for Home & Away’. I was like ‘Oh right, you’re only on there for a week though right?’ and she says, ‘No, I’ll be on there for two years’.”

Same with Erika Heynatz, best known as the host of ”Australia’s Next Top Model”, who wasn’t anyone when she shot the film two-and-a-half-years-ago but since then has emerged into a popular TV personality.

But a lot can happen in a couple of years – as Abbess can attest to. Since the film wrapped, he met a sales agent who managed to get a cut of the film to Sony in the U.S. They immediately snapped it up (the film looks like its going to be released in either January or February in the states) and set it for a worldwide release. The filmmaker now has an American agent. And he’s also receiving numerous offers.

“But I’m not too popular because I’m knocking them all back. It’s because they’re all remakes. I don’t want to do those”, he says “One of [the offers] was The Dark Crystal remake and I just think they should re-issue the original on the big screen – stuff remaking it as a CGI film, if they want to do something”.

Proving just how franchise-phobic he is, Abbess also says he’s not going to do a ”Gabriel” sequel if the audience doesn’t demand it. “I’m not just going to do it for the hell of it. If this one goes well, and people want to know more about the story, we’ll do it. And we’ll do it bigger.”