Tail of a Tiger

"But... that's a Tiger... a real Tiger... an original Tiger Moth, with the fabric body and the Gypsy Major engine!"

Orville's wonderment at discovering the wreck of a full-size Tiger Moth bi-plane in the depths of a disused flour mill conjures up all the romance of the early days of flight. The De Havilland Tiger Moth first appeared in 1931, and between then and 1945, over 5,000 were built in England and almost 3,000 in the rest of the Commonwealth, making it numerically the most successful of all light aircraft. It became the backbone of private flying in half the countries of the world and remained a basic aircraft for private flying and service training for more than thirty years.

In May 1935, the Newcastle Aero Club purchased the first DH Tiger Moth to be brought to Australia. Since then numerous clubs have bought and lovingly restored old Tiger Moths, attracted by the romance and adventure of the early days, when flying truly meant human and machine against the elements. In the open cockpit, feeling the wind, the sun and the rain, flying was more dangerous but also more free.

Many of today's commercial airline pilots had their first taste of flying in Tiger Moths. One such is Ray Vuillermin who owned and flew the plane in "Tail of a Tiger". He first learnt to fly in a Tiger Moth at the age of sixteen and when not flying commercial jets, he returns to his first love.

In 1983, a Tiger Moth enthusiast in Melbourne mooted the idea of making a documentary on the restoration of an old Tiger Moth. Finance was promised, and the project ended up with The Producers' Circle in Sydney. Rolf de Heer was asked to write the documentary script.

But the promised finance was contingent on a distribution deal, and no satisfactory deal for a documentary was forthcoming. At this point Rolf saw the opportunity to make an exciting and worthwhile childrens' film, rather than a documentary of limited appeal.

Working only on the premise that the film would feature the restoration of a Tiger Moth, he started to create a story that would appeal to children of all ages, from five to ninety-five. Having decided on the basic outline, with the characters of the old man (Harry) and the young boy (Orville) sketched out, Rolf then set about peopling the film with other believable characters.

It was while Rolf was working on the script in his office in North Sydney, that he first noticed "Rabbit". Dylan Lyle, the cute but wily six year old who plays Rabbit, lived across the road from the office, and he was completely unaware that every afternoon, as he made his way home from school, Rolf was observing him and writing a character around him.

With the script completed, Rolf (writer/director) then had to decide on casting. He had created a gang of kids, to act as a counterpoint to Orville, and wanted to ensure that the actors cast would come across as believable, in terms of the dynamics inherent in any such group. This was almost a bigger worry than the casting of individual characters. Rolf saw nearly three hundred kids before he found the gang.

One Sunday afternoon Rolf was driving through an inner suburb of Sydney looking for a warehouse location, when suddenly he saw "Spike" and "Blue", looking as if they had just ambled out of the pages of the script. It transpired that after screen testing, all but one of the kids in the film gang were members of a gang of schoolmates from the inner Sydney suburb of Leichhardt.

"Tail of a Tiger" was the first feature film for Rolf de Heer as writer and director, and for producer James M. Vernon. With a very low budget, but a quality script, they gathered around them a young and enthusiastic crew.

Partly by chance, and partly by design, many of the crew had been fellow students of Rolf's at what was then known as the Australian Film and Television School (later to become AFTRS). They knew each other, worked well together, and above all had a common belief in the film and a high level of commitment to making it work.

Richard Michalak, the Director of Photography, had shot numerous commercials, rock clips and documentaries since leaving the Film School. In 1981 he had won the Australian Cinematographers' Society Golden Tripod Award, and his final year Film School film, "Gary's Story", won the Australian Film Institute award for best short fiction film and also a Sammy. (Rolf de Heer produced this film.)

Since leaving the Film School, Suresh Ayyar had won the Australian Film Institute's award for best editing in a non-feature film for "Double Concerto", a film on Roger Woodward. Suresh edited "Tail of a Tiger".

Production Designer Judith Russell had worked on many commercials, winning awards for several of them. Judith had also designed several Film School productions.

The shoot took place over a four week period in the inner suburbs of Sydney. It went largely very smoothly for something as ambitious with such a relatively inexperienced crew and cast, but it was not without its moments, most of which were provided by the cast members playing the gang.

One particular shooting day was extremely difficult. The gang had had a fight at school the previous day and had sent one of its members, Blue, to Coventry. All day on set they refused to speak or look at Blue, but unfortunately this included when they were acting in the film...dialogue between their own character and Blue's character was also forbidden. No threats or entreaties of any sort would budge them. Even a threat to withhold their pay made no difference. It was an important lesson about working with kids...contracts make not one bit of difference to anything.

Steven Arnold and Graham Tardif were responsible for the music on "Tail of a Tiger". Steve was another Film School graduate, and Graham had contributed music to several Film School films. After reading the script, discussing all aspects of the film with Rolf, and viewing the rough cut, the two musicians set to work in a small studio in Steve's parents' house in Sydney, creating the music to the final cut of the film.