Dance Me To My Song

There are some scenes in "Bad Boy Bubby" where Bubby befriends some wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy people, because he can understand them. One of those people was Heather Rose. Heather could speak only through the medium of a voice machine, into which she would slowly, laboriously type each letter of every word of every sentence she wished the machine to say for her.

On "Bad Boy Bubby" too, we needed some electronics miniaturised, to record the binaural sound we had devised. The person we found to do that, who had worked in the field for ASIO, was Frederick Stahl. And, because of the complexity of what we were doing, Fred worked on the shoot of the film.

I wasn't much aware of Heather Rose on the two or three days she was on the shoot (she was largely an extra), but I sure became aware of her during post-production. The phone would ring, I'd pick it up and there would be silence, except for Heather's raspy, panting breathing. Then the robot-like "Hello!" would come, repeated several times for good measure. I'd signal to anyone else in the room that I'd be occupied for a while, because a even a short phone call with Heather would take at least fifteen minutes, most of which was spent listening to her breathe as she typed.

Heather was very interested in post-production sound, so she was allowed to come for the sound mix. This didn't last very long, however, because she used to get terribly excited and when in such a state, she made so much involuntary noise that we couldn't hear properly what we were supposed to be mixing.

Months, or perhaps a year or two, later, I received another of those calls from Heather, ordering me and everyone else in the office to attend her birthday party. We did as commanded (she lived quite close by) and turned up on the night. To my surprise, the first person I encountered was Fred, he of the miniature electronics. "Fred!", I said, "I didn't know you knew Heather."

Well Fred did know Heather, through some remarkable circumstances.

On the shoot, Fred had spoken to Heather a number of times. After the shoot was over, Fred went back to his normal non-film life, but after a viral attack, contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Out of work and out of sorts, he found himself on-line, on a sort of chatroom set up by the government for disabled people. As it was, Fred now rightly considered himself to be disabled.

And there he ran across Heather again, and Heather was as persuasive with Fred as she had been with me and the sound mix...she wanted Fred to write a script with her. And, each confined by their condition to their own home, they began working on the script through the medium of the chatroom.

After explaining this to me at heather's party, Fred asked me if I wanted to see the script so far, they'd done almost twenty pages. I laughed and politely declined with the excuse that if I were to look at it now, it would likely disrupt their process. If I liked it, they'd start to second guess and get blocked. If I didn't like it, they'd start to second guess and get blocked. Better to get a complete draft down first.

Six months later, I again had cause to be at Heather's, and again Fred was there. They'd now done almost thirty pages, Fred said, and I suddenly realised what it must take them to get just one page talk about something with Heather takes twenty or thirty times as long as a normal conversation, for half the depth in meaning. How to discuss the contents of a script you're writing together? How to get the approved words down in the right order.

Realising that even one small comment now about something obvious they might be doing wrong could save them six months of tedious work, I agreed to read what they'd done to this point. I discovered a mixture of edgy realism and Hollywood fantasy, and it was the edgy realism, the writing about stuff that Heather really knew, that was by far the more convincing.

I offered to help them as a sort of unofficial script editor. We'd have the odd session at Heather's place when Fred, who lived further out, could make it across. And slowly they progressed.

One day the talk got around to money...both Heather and Fred were, of course, flat broke. Wasn't there some way the script could make them some money?

I hadn't said to them that the script had between zero and no chance of ever getting made...there was simply no way to do it convincingly, nor would there be much of an audience for it even if it could be done. But I said I'd think about the money business.

I came back to them and said that if my company took out an option on the script, that might just provide enough weight for the South Australian Film Corporation to give it a little script development money, the amount being limited by the fact that neither Fred nor Heather had any screenwriting experience or credits at all.

This we agreed to do, and without me having any intention of ever taking it further, an application was lodged which was consequently approved...Fred and Heather were to receive $2,000 each for a further draft of the script.

If nothing further had ever happened with this project, that would have been enough. For the first time in her life, something that Heather had chosen to do had been validated as being worthwhile. She was triumphant, but it only made her more determined.

Time passed as Fred and Heather worked on their script. I went onto another film, as producer this time, and I didn't see much of either for some time. During post-production on the film I was doing, I did catch up with what they were doing, a couple of times. Then post turned sour, the pressure was on and some very difficult times were had.

I emerged from that film broke, and somewhat shell-shocked, and needing very much to do something of my own. Tania, the editor I'd been working with on my past few films emerged even more shell-shocked. I determined we should make another film, to get over the previous one.

But I had nothing prepared, no scripts that I thought I could finance, no projects on the boil. I'm more a one project obsession is more than enough to cope with at any one time. And then, of course, Fred and Heather's script passed through my mind, and ways of actualising it.

Although Heather was in the habit of suggesting actresses to play the part of Julia, the character modelled on herself, I couldn't see any way of the film being convincing unless Heather played the role. That would bring with it certain obvious difficulties, many of which would be overcome by shooting the film at Heather's place.

And so I mused, until I picked up the phone and rang Heather and asked her if it was okay for me to think seriously about making her film. The answers came back quite garbled for the next few minutes, as Heather excitement quite destroyed what little co-ordination she had, and the typos completely confused her voice machine.

I had a session with Heather and Fred. I told them the best of their script was wonderful, but the worst of it was still pretty awful. I needed to move on this soon, so would they mind if I did a draft of the script (they were only too happy, of course, and the final script is a seamless blend of three people's sensibility...I can't remember who did what on it).

Then we talked about casting, and gently I pried into Heather's real thoughts. Well yes, she had thought of wanting to play the main role herself, but that was obviously not possible in the real world. So then I told her I wouldn't do the film unless she played the lead role and at that point we had a voice machine on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I rang my friend Domenico Procacci in Italy. We had first worked together on "Bad Boy Bubby", and that had been a wonderful experience, with the success of the film at the Venice Film Festival having so impressed Domenico's bankers that half his problems were instantly solved. Then we did "Epsilon" together, and that had been the weirdest of adventures on a film we both still loved. And then he'd put up some of the money for "The Quiet Room", and that had both been selected for Cannes and gone into profit, a rare combination indeed.

So when I told him that I wanted to make that script that I'd mentioned, the one that cerebral-palsy Heather was writing, and that I wanted her in the lead role, and that I needed something upwards of half a million dollars to do it, he said he'd see to it. And he did, with two other Italians, Paola Corvino of the sales agency IntraFilms (now IntraMovies) and Giuseppe Pedersoli of Smile Films.

So with one phone call, sight unseen in terms of script, we were financed, on a project that seemed almost impossible to pull off.

The shoot was set for eight weeks later and I swept through a pass of the script. Fred and Heather approved it and we began pre-production, which was largely free of incident...we had most of the locations (Heather's house) and the cast was not large. The biggest issue was that of the bath...the scene as written could not take place in the bath that was in Heather's place (a government provided house), so Beverley proposed to demolish it and have one built in which both Julia and Eddy could fully immerse themselves. It was by far the biggest expense of the entire art department budget.

Shoot day dawned and the little crew assembled at Heather's place at the appointed time of seven a.m. Heather's carers were still getting her ready, feeding her breakfast and so on, so there was nothing that could yet be done other than have a cup of tea or coffee and wait. By eight a.m., things were getting a little serious, we'd lost an hour of shooting time in a short four-week schedule. By nine a.m., and being told this was normal and would happen every day, I began to fear for the shoot itself.

Shortly after nine we were allowed in to set up. We worked hard till lunchtime, when once again we discovered that the lunch procedure for Heather always took around two hours. That's simply how long it took to change Heather out of her film costume, feed Heather, clean up Heather, take Heather to the toilet, and then change Heather back into her film costume.

By 4 pm, Heather was so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open, and I knew we had to stop. Heather had, of course, never worked in her life and here she was working at what was one of the very most difficult things for her, acting.

For Heather, making a muscle move the way she wants it to, often has the opposite effect...a different muscle will move in a way she doesn't want it to. Acting is partly about moving in certain ways to create certain behaviours, on certain timing cues, and when your muscles don't do what you want them to, it's hard, hard work reeling them back in.

And that's what she'd been doing, working desperately hard to do the exact things her script told her to do (the depth of her true acting in this role, and what it took her, was never really was harder for her to create that performance than it would have been for an able-bodied actor to create a convincing performance).

That evening, the schedule went out the window, and we rethought the shoot. Instead of looking at rushes (dailies in America) after the day's shoot, we would look at them after lunch (the studio was only ten minutes away), to give Heather more time then. And the beauty of working with a small crew was extra shooting week was only $30,000, easily affordable within our contingency, so that was immediately allocated. And we were to learn how best to work with Heather, as she was to learn how to work.

And we did learn to work with Heather, and Heather did learn to work, until towards the end she was putting in close to ten-hour days.

Two incidents stand out in my memory. Both are a testament to Heather's determination, and the flexibilities we had to have.

The first involved the bath that had been installed at great expense. It was a large, Asian style bath, square sides that allowed two people to be comfortably in up to their neck without touching each other. More than that, it allowed a carer in the bath with Heather, allowing Heather a wonderfully immersive, gravity-free bath.

Unfortunately, Heather had never had a bath like that, and as we approached the shooting of the scene which had Eddy give her a bath like that, Heather became increasingly agitated. She didn't, however, let on as to the source of her agitation, not wanting to hold up the shoot with a conversation that might take fifteen minutes. We thought she was shy about getting into the bath with John Brumpton, who played Eddy and whom Heather adored.

Eventually I sensed something different about Heather's agitation and I stopped everything to talk with her. She held out, but eventually I extracted from her the reason for her agitation...the bath terrified her, she felt sure she was going to drown, even though she knew John wouldn't let that happen.

At that point I sent everyone away for a couple of hours. This was an absolutely pivotal scene, but there was no way I was ever going to ask Heather to get into that bath. I sat and reconceptualised...eventually it struck me that Julia could get agitated about getting into the bath with Eddy, objecting to how it's been set up, which then gives the carer Madelaine, played by Joey Kennedy, the chance to take her away, dump her on the bed in another room and make the play for Eddy herself.

So a quick rewrite, and that's how we played the scene and modified those following.

The other incident involved that great Kiwi actress Rena Owen who plays Heather's previous (and loved) carer Rix. Rena had loved the script and been most pleased to come down and do the role for the pittance it paid. When she arrive, she was shocked to discover not so much how disabled Heather was, but by her own reaction to this. She, Rena Owen, champion of the underdog, unable to cope. It was almost more than she could bear.

But Rena, as Rena would, knuckled down to conquer this, and worked hard at getting to know Heather, getting used to Heather, getting close to Heather. Then early in their shooting together, some sort of disaster happened.

In the scene, Rix takes Julia out of her wheelchair and nurses her in her lap. Rena is strong, and could manage the lift well, but when she rested Heather onto her lap in the rehearsals, Heather seemed to object, arching her back slightly in a seeming attempt to get away from Rena.

During the first take, it got even worse. Out of her chair in Rena's lap, Heather had no voice, so "Cut!" was called and Heather put back in her chair. I asked if everything was all right and Heather, without even resorting to her voice machine, indicated yes with her eyes. "Shall we go for another take?" Again it was a yes.

So we re-set and went for another take. Again, at the critically intimate point, Heather arched away from Rena. Again we had to call a halt and by now Rena was getting quite upset, fearing that Heather had sensed Rena's earlier uncertainties about her and that she hated Rena for them.

I questioned Heather more closely this time, and again she didn't use her voice machine to answer, simple blinks and eye movements I'd learnt the meanings of. Back in the chair Heather was largely calm, and she seemed to me to be perfectly honest when she denied that Rena was any trouble at all.

Eventually we went for a third take, which went smoothly enough though without quite the intimacy I'd hoped for. That was beyond getting at this point, with these actors at this time.

Following this was a wardrobe change for Heather, and minutes into it, Beverley rushed out to get me. There was the source of our problems...just below Heather's hip was a mass of bruises and blood. What had happened was that a prong on the belt buckle Rena was wearing had almost impaled Heather each time she was held on Rena's lap. The more we went, the tighter Rena would hold Heather, the more pain was being inflicted on Heather, until the final take had pierced the skin and drawn the blood. And Heather, fiercely protective of her film, wanting to be seen to be as competent as any able-bodied actor, had refused to say anything for fear of her being the cause of a delay.

Poor Rena, but the outcome did allow her and Heather to draw closer together, and we did manage to reshoot the shot at a later time. And the courage of Heather...

The shoot finished and we edited. It was a difficult edit, if only for the constant sound of Heather's laboured breathing, which we had also recorded binaurally to allow us to control it in the sound mix.

The rough cut without music was difficult to take (it was the version shown in the story at the beginning of the overview page about this film). We made the film, and finished it, for Heather, not caring that few people would ever see it.

Very shortly after it was finished, Pierre Rissient, a pre-selector for Cannes who was a great friend of Australian films, was in Australia and asked to see the film. Remarkably, he recommended it to the Committee. Even more remarkably, the Committee selected it into the main Competition. Most remarkably, we managed to raise the money to take Heather and two carers to Cannes, and Heather was carried up the red-carpeted stairs by fellow star John Brumpton with a thousand cameras flashing her progress.

And during the 2000-person standing ovation afterwards, I turned and saw the jury president, Martin Scorsese, standing and applauding as enthusiastically as the most enthusiastic of them...and Heather Rose just beaming and beaming.