Dungog Film Festival earns its credits

Xavier Samuel and Sophie Lowe in Road Train
Xavier Samuel and Sophie Lowe in Road Train

A MIGHTY juggernaut thunders across the vast Australian landscape, a gleaming, soulless, unstoppable force that terrorises and then crushes everything in its path.

That’s the hair-raising plot of the new horror film Road Train, a supernatural splicing of Wolf Creek and Duel featuring an outback highway, a very big truck and two of Australia’s hottest young actors, Xavier Samuel and Sophie Lowe.

It’s also a fitting metaphor for the box office death race faced by Aussie movies like Road Train as they dice with the mega-budget celluloid B-Doubles roaring out of Hollywood and into Australian cinemas every week.

Road Train director Dean Francis admits his little $2million thrill ride is up against it trying to scare up a dollar from the same teen audience coveted by the Hollywood studios.

“With your typical Australian art-house picture people may go see it specifically because it is Australian, or because of the story or actors,” Francis said.

“But a genre film like ours is right in there competing with the mainstream multiplex fodder, those big American pictures with $50million budgets and marketing behind them.”

Road Train is one of 17 films premiering next week at the fourth annual Dungog Film Festival.

The four-day, 160-film, all-Australian cinema showcase begins on Thursday at the historic town’s grand old cinema, the James Theatre.

This year’s event will screen 12 features, 12 documentaries, 132 shorts and five classic movies from the National Film and Sound Archive.

The festival will also foster emerging talent with six live script readings, workshops on music and censorship, panel discussions with actors and filmmakers such as Beneath Hill 60’s Jeremy Sims and Brendan Cowell, an acting competition called ‘‘speed auditioning’’ and masterclasses with directors Gillian Armstrong (Little Women) and Nadia Tass (Malcolm).

For first-time filmmakers like Dean Francis, Dungog is the chance to unveil your work, make contacts and maybe cut the deal that movie dreams are made of.

Road Train has its Australian premiere on Friday, May 28, at 7.30pm.

Shot in the Flinders Ranges not far from where Wolf Creek and Mad Max were filmed, the 90-minute tale of horror on wheels follows four teens on an outback camping trip who are terrorised by a massive two-trailer truck hauling an evil secret.

Government funding agency Screen Australia was Road Train’s principal investor.

“There are Australian filmmakers out there who’d say $2million is a huge budget, but when you look at what we had to do it’s peanuts – the stunts, the spectacle, a certain amount of action is needed to pull off this genre, and we were out in the middle of nowhere for five weeks,” Francis said.

The Sydney-based former Neighbours actor will be in Dungog to present the film with his cast, which includes Underbelly’s Georgina Haig and Home and Away’s Bob Morley.

“We had the choice between Dungog or the Sydney Film Festival and while Dungog is smaller if you critique this as an intellectual art-house film you’re not going to get it,” Francis laughed. “So we figured maybe it wasn’t the Sydney festival crowd’s kind of thing.”

Road Train arrives in Dungog with sales already secured in 13 foreign territories. And that was before Screen Australia shopped it around the Cannes Film Festival this week with two out-of-competition screenings.

In the US, it has been adopted by top-selling horror movie magazine Fangoria which will release it on DVD in 3500 Blockbuster stores as part of a fan-voting competition to select one of eight scary movies for a theatrical release.

In Australia, Francis and his producers are aiming for a limited cinema run in August or September, in the wake of Twilight sequel Eclipse, which marks star Xavier Samuel’s Hollywood debut.

“We’re hoping to capitalise on some of the publicity for Eclipse,” Francis said of the planned “small, staged release”.

“To do a 100-200 screen release you need at least $1millon for prints and an advertising budget. But there’s no fat in our budget to release the picture. If we’re going to have a big release it’s reliant upon somebody seeing the potential and investing further in the thing.

“If someone from, say, Paramount saw it and thought it would play well in the multiplexes and they put up the $1million for prints and advertising, that’d be our wet dream.”

But cinemas were not where most teen horror films turned a profit anyway.

“It’s more a glorified advertising campaign for the DVD release,” Francis said. “This genre in particular does better on DVD so my most realistic hope for Road Train is a strong DVD release like the one we have in America.”

IF there’s a cast on show at Dungog next week that can match Road Train’s for screen appeal and commercial potential it’s the line-up of romantic comedy Surviving Georgia.

Looking for Alibrandi’s Pia Miranda and former Neighbours favourite Holly Valance play prodigal sisters estranged from their mother, played by stage star Caroline O’Connor.

Kenny’s Shane Jacobson and Secret Life of Us star Spencer McLaren play the love interests.

“It was not like we sat around saying let’s get a cast together that’s going to make a shitload of money,” Surviving Georgia writer and co-director Sandra Sciberras said.

“We got a cast together that we wanted to see on the screen. And, lucky for us, they liked the script.”

Shot in country Victoria, Surviving Georgia was co-directed and produced by Kate Whitbread, Sciberras’s collaborator on The Caterpillar Wish, the 2006 tearjerker that won Newcastle actress Susie Porter an AFI Award.

Unlike Road Train, which had government funding, Surviving Georgia was independently bankrolled.

It screens publicly for the first time at the James Theatre on Saturday, May 29, at 6.30pm.

“We haven’t even finished the sound mix, so I think we’re being pretty courageous putting it out there when it’s not really finished,” Sciberras said.

The Melbourne-based filmmaker described the movie’s target audience as “mainly women, aged 25 and up”.

She coyly put her budget at “one point something” but less than the $1.2million spent on The Caterpillar Wish.

“It’s just a nice, heart-warming romance and mother-daughter story with a lot of sweetness and it doesn’t require a big budget,” Sciberras said.

“Mind you, I could have spent more money if they had given it to me. But we were never going to go overboard because we want our investors to get their money back.

“Australia’s a small country and there’s only a certain amount of box office you can get.”

Sciberras, who will introduce the film at Dungog with Whitbread and their cast, said Aussie filmmakers could no longer “get away with pretending it’s not a business”.

“As a writer and director I want to be able to make the films I want to make,” she said.

“But of course I also want people to see them. Whether it’s on 100 screens or not ... ultimately we just want people to enjoy the film and see the heart in it because word of mouth is the best way to get more bums on seats.”

MIKE Selwyn will be a first-time visitor to the Dungog Film Festival this year.

The managing director of Paramount Pictures Australia will join actors Cameron Daddo and Denise Roberts and directors Tass and Sims on the judging panel for the Screenwise Speed Auditioning competition.

Selwyn said he wouldn’t be shopping for new films in Dungog but “sure, if I saw something like a short film that caught my eye, you never know”.

“What’s great about this festival is the willingness to work from the grassroots up and help people with that first step early in their career,” he said.

“If we look back in a few years we’ll find any number of people who had their first go at Dungog.”

Despite the fact Australian films accounted for barely 5per cent of the $1billion we spent on movie tickets last year, Selwyn believes an all-Australian festival is valid.

“There is a strong commercial future for Australian films,” he said.

“A couple of years back there was a feeling we’d had a run [of films] that wasn’t as good as it might have been.

“But I don’t think the audience has been burned. If you look at TV there’s a huge capacity for people to watch quality Australian drama and entertainment.

“It’s just that we haven’t produced it as much as we should on film.”

Paramount is certainly doing its bit to lure mainstream audiences to Australian movies. In between blockbusters like Iron Man 2 and Shrek Forever After, the company has three decidedly populist Aussie films out this year.

World War I drama Beneath Hill 60 has sold $3million worth of tickets in five weeks.

“We’re pretty proud of that one,” Selwyn said.

This week, a decade after Nick Giannopoulos’s first film took $13million at the box office, Wog Boy 2: Kings of Mykonos opened on more than 200 screens.

“We’re excited to see how it goes because Nick has a loyal audience,” Selwyn said.

Then, in September, comes Tomorrow When The War Began, the $20million action-adventure shot in the Hunter last year.

“I can honestly tell you that what I’ve seen of it so far looks fantastic,” he said.

While art-house films would always have a place in Australian cinema, Selwyn said “the commercial market is crucial for Australian film”.

“We were ecstatic with what we were able to do last year with Samson & Delilah, which almost restored your faith in people’s ability to recognise a great film,” he said.

“But you can’t run an industry based on small-scale personal films.

“I don’t think you can say filmmakers shouldn’t make the films they want to make because a lot of people feel they have something to say and an idea of how they want to say it and that’s perfectly valid.

“But it’s a question of balance. You need a range of product. And as a business you only exist if you put out product that people want to see.”