Incident at Raven's Gate

December 1980, and I've been out of film school for six months. I understand that no one is ever going to ring me up and offer me a feature, and that it's up to me to make something happen. So I'm sitting in the lounge room of the tiny share house I live in talking to fellow Film School graduate Richard Michalak about making something happen. The phone rings. I answer it. Someone is at the other end, wanting to talk to me about me directing a feature script that he'd written.

I find out later that producer James M. Vernon had rung up the Film School and asked for contact details of the most promising recent directing graduates. I find out still later that Mary in the booking office, to whom the call had gone, had simply given him the names of the two graduates that she knew were unemployed...Richard Michalak and myself, and since Richard Michalak wasn't home when James Vernon rang (because he was in my lounge room), I received the almost fatal call.

I say almost fatal because I spent the next three years, full time, trying with James Vernon to get that film going. We learnt rapidly, got close, then the government introduced 10BA and all financing options were off the table except that one. We learnt about 10BA, got close, then they changed an aspect of the legislation and we, along with a number of other projects, bit the dust.

We picked ourselves up, regrouped, got close, but were caught by a fraudulent misappropriation scandal and we bit the dust again. We dusted ourselves down, regrouped, got close, then suddenly the 150% tax deduction was reduced to 133%...our deals fell over and down in the dust we were once again. And so it went on for three years until James Vernon was completely broke (I'd been broke for the entirety of the previous three years, but I didn't have four young children like he did). Then a phone call came that started "Tail of a Tiger", and everything changed.

At the end of "Tail of a Tiger" James and I weren't working together anymore (we're still friends). A close ex-film school friend, writer Marc Rosenberg, who James had paid to write a draft of the script when after five drafts I said I couldn't make it any better, came to me. He'd made a bit of money recently, and he suggested we option James's script and do it ourselves. And so we did.

Then I spent another three years, only part time this time, trying with Marc Rosenberg to get that film going. We got close a few times, but ultimately couldn't get there, so we threw our lot in with Australia's most prolific producer-type, Antony I. Ginnane. We knew we were going to be losing control of many aspects of what we were going to be doing, but hey, better this way than not at all.

And so it proved to be. Tony Ginnane managed, through a deal with a shonky American company called Hemdale, to get a distribution guarantee for 70% of the budget. Armed with that, raising the finance through a prospectus was no real problem. Suddenly the film was financed, at a budget of $2,500,000 (although the financing and associated costs ate up almost half the budget), and we were making the film.

Pre production was fantastic. We were going to shoot the film in Adelaide (the money to cover that aspect of the budget not subject to tax deduction was coming from the South Australian Film Corporation, on condition we shoot and post produce there) and Adelaide was almost the epi-centre of Australian film making at the time.

As part of the SAFC financing deal we had to spend a certain amount on SAFC facilities, so we booked everything that we could possibly need...extensive production offices, two sound stages for sets, a six week sound mix, dressing rooms, makeup rooms, the works. It was truly luxury film making.

And we put together a largely very fine crew, mixing many locals with a few interstate immigrants. I'd walk into the set workshop, and later the studio, and watch, absolutely thrilled, as the sets came together in all their different stages, the designing, the building, the painting, the aging, the decorating. Each day of pre-production whizzed by in a joy of location scouting, casting and decision making, each evening I spent in my office until late story-boarding the film, using little mini-sets I'd made out of the designs for the full size sets.

We'd hired an old local grip, Brian Bosisto, who had the tallest camera crane in Australia plus all sorts of other dollies, and all were included, as much as I liked. I went to town designing crane shots and revolving shots and creeping along shots because I figured that a mystery thriller that has an alien presence ought have those sorts of shots.

Not all casting was straightforward. We cast the part of Bill McCullum, who gets incinerated during the story and whose charred body then comes exploding through a wall, with a local bloke. Special Effects did the body cast of him and the face cast and began to make the charred body. Only trouble was that the local bloke hadn't read the script when accepting the role, and when he did, he opted out of the role...too much profanity in the script.

So we had to cast someone else, but that someone else had to have a body size and shape very close to the previous incumbent in the role, as the charred body was quite advanced in construction and we couldn't afford to go again on it. So we found another local actor who fitted the role, so to speak, and cast him. The day we began to shoot the film, we heard the terrible news...our second occupant of the part had died over the weekend.

Back to the drawing board. Another actor to be found at short notice who could fit the now-completed body. A new bloke in town came highly recommended, just over from England. He fitted the body so he had the part. Only trouble was that he'd never done a film before and found himself way out of his depth. We struggled through.

But all in all, the preparation of the film went beautifully until almost the very end. On the Friday before we were due to start shooting, though, there was a phone call...Tony Ginnane. He'd just read the script for the first time, hadn't realised it was a story with a complex time structure and wanted the whole script rewritten...3 days before the shoot. I spent an hour on the phone to him and eventually he agreed that it would indeed be possible to cut it differently if the current structure didn't work, but it was a scary moment, almost impossible to see how we could have managed such major changes at such short notice.

The shoot, though tight at six weeks, went largely beautifully. Shooting in mid-winter, we were very lucky with the weather...we made calls on whether to shoot location or studio depending on forecasts, and almost always we made the correct call. At a certain point we split units, with Richard Michalak (yes, he was the director of photography, seven years after he missed the phone call asking him to direct it) shooting in one part of a location and another unit under the camera operator Andrew Lesnie (who happened to win an Academy Award for "The Fellowship of the Ring" some years later) shooting around the corner in another part of that location.

Tony Ginnane and Derek Gibson from Hemdale came across to Adelaide and saw some rushes on the big screen and were impressed enough to leave us completely alone for the rest of the shoot. We finished on time and on budget.

The rough cut of the film was had energy, suspense, intrigue, some humour and generally seemed to be heading somewhere.

Then Tony Ginnane and one of his staff came to see the fine cut (cutting on film as we were, sending a DVD or a VHS or whatever was simply not an affordable option) and we went back to square one. There was a tremendous amount Ginnane wanted changed in the film, and equally, I disagreed with much that he wanted done.

He came back over to Adelaide and sat in the editing room with Suresh (Ayyar, the editor) and I, and we went through the film, almost cut by cut. I'll never forget the day.

It was Tuesday October 20, 1987. Tony was then about to float a new company on the stock exchange, Hemdale Ginnane Australia. As is usual with these company floats, a stockbroker will underwrite them (guarantee the float) subject to the stock market not falling more than a certain percentage. But that day was Black Tuesday, when stock markets around the world crashed. As we sat editing and arguing, his business plans for the next ten years began to collapse around him. But he never lost focus, and one could see there was a passionate film maker underneath all the business bluster.

I felt I'd managed to limit the damage quite a bit during that session, but there was one big issue left unresolved, and that was that Ginnane wanted the film cut chronologically (when the whole point about the reveal of what happened is that it's not). He left town expecting a chronological cut for the final product. I said I'd see what I could do.

The next day co-producer Marc Rosenberg received a call from Ginnane's office. As far as they were concerned, I was fired from the film for being obstructionist and refusing to obey orders. I was shocked, having thought the editing session was a fair exchange, and Marc set about fighting the edict, ultimately successfully.

Re-instated, I set about working out how to deal with the chronological cut issue. We (I don't remember how it came about) decided the best thing to do was to do various different cuts, say three, film them off the Steenbeck editing machine with a VHS camera (meaning terrible vision and even worse sound) and send them to Ginnane. Having learnt from the script incident in pre-production, we doubted he'd ever see any of them, let alone all three.

Then followed an almost eight-week stand-off...we wanted to, needed to, lock the picture off, and Ginnane had to give us permission to do so, but he hadn't seen any of the cuts. When the financial need to keep going became almost crushing, and Ginnane still hadn't seen any of the three cuts, he had little choice, and he told us to, "...lock the fucking thing off, then."

We did, and proceeded to complete the film in exactly the shape it had been after Ginnane had sat for the day in the editing room.

Months later, when all the sound was in and all the music placed and everything was beautifully mixed together, Ginnane and his offsider again came to watch the film. This time they were overjoyed, walking on air but swearing blind we'd completely re-cut the film since last Ginnane saw it. Yet not a frame had been changed, only the sound had been completed. It was an object lesson in the importance of good sound when showing cuts of a film to investors and the like...few people can imagine it like the film maker can.

But it made little difference to the film's prospects. In Australia Ginnane's company needed the cashflow a video sale would bring and the film was released on video the day it opened in the cinema. Hopeless. In America, Hemdale took delivery of the film but refused to pay the distribution guarantee. They then proceeded to sell it to different territories. It was pure theft, nothing more, nothing less.

There was an investors meeting. The investors' representative proved to be toothless, and no one was willing to throw good money after bad to take Hemdale on. Marc found a lawyer in America willing to sue Hemdale, and willing to take it on, on a contingency basis (no fees, he keeps a third of the settlement).

The lawyer rang back a couple of weeks later, reporting that it was hopeless...we were number 42 in line to sue Hemdale, and it would be at least seven years before it was our turn. If it ever got that far, all the previous cases would have sent Hemdale broke and there'd be nothing left anyway. There was no way to bring those running Hemdale to account.

Not long after, Hemdale went bankrupt, completely entangling the rights to the film.

Eight years, four of them fulltime, three of those unpaid and one of them very badly paid - one dead film.