It may feature Southern Cross tattoos, kebabs, Ned Kelly and Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”, but new film “Down Under” is not your average Australian comedy.
Set during the aftermath of the Cronulla riots in Sydney in 2005, a blight on Australia’s history that rivals anything Donald Trump has set in motion, “Down Under” follows two carloads of hotheads from both sides of the fight (Anglo and Middle Eastern) destined to collide.
Following a premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival Centrepiece Gala, Mandy caught up with writer/director Abe Forstythe and star Lincoln Younes to talk about everything involved in making a comedy about racism.
I remember John Oliver coming to Australia a few years ago, and he remarked that we were the ‘the most comfortably racist nation’ he’d ever been to. And the reaction was incredibly defensive, people just didn’t want to hear it. So I love that you’ve approached the issue of racism in a comedy form because I think it is really the only way we would be receptive to this message. But it must have been very hard to get the balance right. Did you do a lot of research to prepare for this?
Abe: The humour was in there from the first draft. And the characters were pretty locked in from the beginning as well, or at least their motivations were. Subsequent drafts – that was when a lot of the research went into it and making sure I was treating the different cultures and ethnicities in the correct way. It’s a hugely multicultural and diverse cast, and actually one of the largest diverse casts in the history of Australian cinema, which is ironic too because it’s a film about racism. Once all that research was done it was just about making sure that everyone involved, be it crew or cast, were able to hit everything at exactly the right tone because it’s as much drama as a comedy. It is a tricky balance to get right.
Lincoln, I understand you’re half Lebanese, but this is a pretty big departure from the characters you’ve played previously. Was there any nerves coming into this role or were you excited to embrace this side?
Lincoln: No, no nerves at all. I’ve been a fan of Abe’s for a while and I knew some of the cast already assembled so it was more excitement than fear. But for me I was just really excited and grateful that Abe could see the character in me because it’s such an important issue to be dealt with, and Abe’s got a unique way of approaching film through that black comedy lens. I’ve seen his short films before and I think he’s got that style down so I was excited more than anything to see how this would eventuate. And it’s such a big ensemble, so the Middle Eastern cast, we only worked with the Anglo side of things at the end. So there’s a lot of the film that I had no idea how it would end up until I saw the finished product. It was almost like watching a whole new film. It was more excitement, and I think a responsibility. If an opportunity like this comes up then you take it, because that’s why you get into this industry – to make a difference and affect people – and if you’re fearful of that then you shouldn’t be in the industry.
Absolutely. Abe I understand you started writing this film six years ago. Is it almost disappointing how relevant it still is?
Lincoln: It’s disturbing.
Abe: Yes it is. I initially wrote this because I felt that we weren’t dealing with what happened at Cronulla, and we were choosing to deal with it by just not discussing it. I think what that has proved is that if you don’t deal with these things then they come around again in a different form. And it’s not just here, it’s happening overseas as well. People on social media have been having a go at me and talking about Islam and everything. It wasn’t about that back then. Just because it’s a movie about racism doesn’t mean you apply it all onto one canvas.
Lincoln: It’s not even about religion. It’s not about location either. It’s about fear and ignorance. And testosterone.
There’s a great dialogue in the film about building a fence ‘to keep the wogs out’. When did you write that?
Abe: Six years ago. I actually sat down and tried to write the dumbest thing I could think of…and here we are.
Lincoln: Trump just plagiarised his speech from the movie [laughs].
This is such a quintessentially Australian film, but has it had a broader interest overseas because this is such a universal issue at the moment?
Abe: Yes it’s having its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest. And there’s another festival that hasn’t been announced yet which is very relevant to that country too.
Did you have to tone down the swearing at all?
Abe: Yes we did. We did a version for North America and the UK which is four C-bombs as opposed to 24 in the Australian version.
Abe: Yes they’re much more sensitive about that..and I don’t even mind, some of them I even prefer because we had to come up with really creative ways of doing it.
One of my favourite scenes was the juxtaposition of the two cars – the Middle Eastern and the Anglo, and in one you’ve got the beatboxing, and the other they’re all singing along to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”. The mix tape motif throughout is fantastic, how did you go about choosing all the music for it?
Abe: It kind of came down to who would give us the rights to use their song in the movie. We approached a lot of people. And, even when the context of the movie was explained to them, a lot of people were worried about being associated with a comedy about racism. But we were very fortunate with the ones we secured, and now I can’t imagine any other songs being used.
That’s great that Natalie Imbruglia came on board.
Abe: No, well she didn’t actually, but she’d done a cover. She said no but she didn’t write it so we recorded it and she couldn’t do anything about it [laughs].
Lincoln, you had a very interesting scene in a mansion which saw your character put in a pretty vulnerable position (without pants). That must have been an interesting time shooting, did you stick closely to the script?
Lincoln: Nah that was all improvised [laughs]. That was just between takes and Abe was like, keep rolling! No, I don’t think we strayed at all from the script. And that came down to not needing to improvise because it was all in the script. Improvisation definitely has its place but it can also come from a place of carelessness, of preconceived thought. With this film there’s a lot of thought and time put into what we want the audience to take out of it. And the comedy isn’t just for levity. There’s a whole rollercoaster and it needs to hit certain beats and pick-up pace where sometimes there’s been a bit of breathing room. So we didn’t really stray at all from the script.
And I understand you didn’t do any filming in Cronulla itself?
Abe: No. We didn’t want anyone to know. We announced this film after we’d finished filming it. We thought it was just better for everyone to stay under the radar. And you can’t explain the context of the movie to people when you’re being approached and people have concerns. It’s much easier to do that when you have the film to speak for itself.
Studios are very focused on sequels and franchises. I take it this is a one shot film for you though?
Abe: I learned a lot doing this and it opened my eyes to a lot of cultures and behaviours, and even through the release of the film I’m still learning a lot about this, but even if I was offered a lot of money to do a sequel to this film there is no way I would do it at the moment.
The film certainly has some seriousness attached to it. Was that important to you?
Abe: Yes. If you’re going to delve into this subject matter I feel like it would irresponsible not to be responsible with the message. This sort of behaviour is only going to end a certain way – anger just breeds more anger. It’s a sad message but I think there is hope as well. And you can heal from sadness, but you can’t heal from anger.
The casting was fantastic. How did you go about it?
Abe: We saw a lot of people and every person we cast represents the cultural heritage of the characters. And that was very important to me. Each time that I cast someone, as soon as they walked in it was immediately clear to me they were right for the role. And I didn’t have actors in my head when I wrote this. And now I can’t imagine the characters any other way. Which is a good sign.
Did you do any bonding exercises before the film began?
Lincoln: I ate a lot of kebabs [laughs]. We spent time together on set, that was the joy of it. It was five weeks of night shoots so there’s a certain level of bonding with that. It felt like we were on school camp for five weeks – eating dinner at 3am and feeling like you were doing something you shouldn’t. But it was so much fun and the whole crew and cast were the complete opposite to their characters. They were really great people. And if you’re going to be working on something for six years, the reward is filming it. That’s why you spend so much time preparing it.
I loved Chris Bunton as Down syndrome character Evan. How did that come about?
Abe: That character kind of represents our nation’s innocence. We saw a lot of people with disabilities for that role, but similarly, as soon as I met Chris it became apparent that he was going to be perfect for that character. It’s an amazing performance, and it is a proper performance that he gives too. He’s not just being himself. When we were filming with him and an actor that he was playing opposite would change a line delivery, he would hear that and change it back. It was a proper line and response, which is amazing considering this was the first time he’d been on a movie set.
Yes he was a gymnast for Australia in the Special Olympics!
Abe: Yes he was gold medal winner. He’s an incredible human being.
The Australian film industry does unfortunately struggle to get the financing and marketing to compete with Hollywood blockbusters. How difficult was it to get this film made?
Abe: Any film is going to have its own set of unique set of challenges in bringing it to the big screen. We always recognised though that the event of the film, the Cronulla riots, was something that was going to make people want to learn more about it. The challenge for us was then how to convey that even though its controversial in its subject matter, It does treat the issue very respectfully and doesn’t condone the behaviour of some of the characters in the movie, and in fact does the opposite, it really condemns it. And once we were able to convey that to our investors everyone came on board.
How are you feeling about the broader Australian film industry at the moment?
Abe: It’s hard. It’s always hard. It feels like it’s getting harder too. What’s really important is that young people growing up hear and see Australian stories. We’re being saturated with a homogenised studio based filmmaking from the States and we can’t compete against those movies. We don’t have the marketing budgets or the screen power to compete so we need to find other ways of standing out. And I think one of the best ways we can do that is by trying to find unique ways of telling our stories. Every year there are successful films in this country, which is great, but I hope that this film has the opportunity to find an audience. And I know there is an audience for it as I’ve seen the response it’s been getting in Q&As and festivals. But it’s so important in the first week of release to get bums on seats because if we don’t then we’re gone. And that’s where it’s tricky because we don’t have the millions of dollars to build awareness.
Lincoln: But hopefully it’s a precedent and paves the way, because if this is successful for Australian film in general, then it means that new and experienced filmmakers won’t have to jump through all the hoops that this one has had to. If you go to America, it’s rare to see any kind of foreign film there because they have so much local content. You come here and it’s few and far between. Which is sad. I would really love if we could do more films because we have some of the best crew and actors and directors here.
“Down Under” is in Australian cinemas 11 August.