The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Towards a Regional Film Industry

Paul Barron, interviewed by Brian Shoesmith


A West Australian Identity

I believe that there is a Western Australian identity and in that context a regional film culture. But there has been so little film production done here over the years, and most of what has been done has been the work of key creative people 'brought in' from outside WA, eg. writers, producers, directors etc. There has been little chance for Western Australians to express the place to Western Australians. Interestingly enough there was probably more local film production in WA back in the 20s and 30s than there was in the 50s and 60s.

There is also a second part of the cultural argument that's worth addressing right from the outset. While Western Australian themes can be seen emerging from the films that have been shot here over the last few years, more importantly, such themes are as much a product of the logistics of shooting in Western Australia, as they are of a cultural nature. We have limited cast to draw on, we have limited crew, we have certain scenic conditions and so on that make it possible and cheap to shoot certain types of film here but make it almost prohibitively expensive to shoot other kinds of films. Now I don't think it is any accident that a film like Gallipoli, which was after all about the 10th Light Horse and Western Australia and includes an interesting graphic that says 'In Western Australia' didn't have a camera that came within cooee of Western Australia. I am not criticising the production for not shooting here - the film location wasn't important, any more than it was important that The Man Who Would Be King was shot in Morocco instead of in India or Pakistan. Nevertheless, such commercial restraints means that there has been limited opportunity for a local film culture to grow here.

However, there are certain ideas and themes that have come through in the film dramas that have been shot here. The first is that many are period pieces - Western Australians are still interested in where they came from. The second area that has emerged as a recurring theme is migrant issues.

Solely from the point of view of a commercial film maker, I think there are a number of local 'assets' which are going to help a regional film culture grow and develop. These assets are institutions and organisations devoted to film that have already been here for many years. For example, the Festival of Perth film festival is one of the major film events in this city. The International Film Theatre has been active for a long time and continues to be active at a time when film societies elsewhere have fallen on very hard times. The Institute of Film and Television is an invaluable asset to local film matters. I also think that we have some very good tertiary institutions teaching practical film making. The students that have come out of WAIT, many of whom we have employed in our commercial productions, have generally been of high standard. We are not talking about them being up to the Film and TV school standards but, nevertheless, they have provided important benefits to production here. The level of criticism of film at an academic level in Perth also seems to be proportionately higher than elsewhere. There has been a very active media studies curriculum at tertiary level but also, if I remember correctly, Western Australia was the first state to establish media studies in secondary schools.

Producers anywhere in the country have lots of people knocking on their doors asking for jobs. We probably get more in Perth because it is a smaller scene and most Perth people are regarded as being more approachable. It also means we get a lot of the unsolicited manuscripts and so on. We try to read them all (which takes some time!) because there is this very strong feeling of us all being in it together here in WA. So you are always looking for good 'local' ideas and people, even if they don't have a track record in the game.

You will receive material from almost anybody and if you are prepared to spend time with them and they are prepared to go through umpteen drafts then you might get something worthwhile. Joan Ambrose had no national TV experience before we did Falcon Island. She had done scripts for ABC radio and so on but Falcon Island was her first attempt at a major TV drama. It would be fair to say that, in similar circumstances, if an unknown writer had walked into a Sydney based production house with that idea at that stage of development, they probably would have said 'no' because of her lack of a track record. But because she was a local person, because it was a local idea, because it could be shot here, because it used available talent, (it was written with available cast and crew in mind) the attitude was 'terrific, let's run with it.'

We do suffer from remoteness in terms of Sydney and Melbourne where programme buyers are concerned, but against that I guess we have enthusiasm and people a~e prepared to let local people have a go.

To go back to the links between the academic side and the production side, I think that they are closer here than they are in most places because of the community spirit that's in a place like Perth. But I regret the fact that there aren't more formal links between those branches and that the two sometimes tend to operate in isolation from each other. I get wheeled out to WAIT once a year to talk about the reality of employment in the film industry. After three years of training I tell them they don't have much chance of getting a job. If they do it is going to be a limited opportunity and that it's going to be bloody hard work. At the same time I don't think local film makers often are invited to the tertiary institutions to meet with the people who are studying film and television on an academic level.

On Production

Falcon Island could have been shot in Queensland, it could have been shot on a beach in Sydney, it could have been shot here in Western Australia. It included subjects like Dutch wrecks, which happen to be located here, but that was not what I would call an integral part of the story. We were selling it as an Australian series - not as a Western Australian project, when we were selling it to the National 9 Network. The principal visual elements were things like sandy beaches, blue skies, and kids engaged in what was basically a treasure hunt. These are all WA story elements but we did not try to define the series as specifically Western Australian.

The one TV program which was deliberately and emphatically Western Australian, was Kicking Around. By this time I had a certain reputation in producing kids material. We had Joan Ambrose as a writer and David Rapsey as a director and myself as a producer, and we said okay, now we've done the blue skies - beaches number, it is time we consciously and deliberately tried to make and show a Western Australian story. For starters we set the story in Fremantle. That town doesn't look like Melbourne, and we didn't try to make it look like Sydney, and we didn't try to make it 'international'.

Kicking Around was set in Fremantle and was about Fremantle kids. We even had talks and discussions about the accents. The visual language devoted to the series, the visual symbols were all reflections of Fremantle and WA. We tried to stress elements and issues that we thought were local to Fremantle. The mixture of the kids in terms of their ethnic backgrounds, the locations that they were shot in, even some of the key characters were drawn from elements that were Western Australian. It won the Penguin Award as Australia's best children's television programme of that year, which means that regional identity, which we so strongly built into it, had something to say to national/international audiences.

For me Kicking Around was a step in the building up of a local industry. Falcon Island, was a slight anomaly because it was the one that didn't deal with Western Australian citizens. After Falcon Island, while I was still at the Film Institute, I produced with David Rapsey a documentary called First Impressions which won the award at the Melbourne Film Festival for Best Art Documentary. It was about a German artist now living in Australia. We took him to the Pilbara for the first time and followed him from the moment he saw the Pilbara through to the final etchings he made back in his studio in Canberra. It is very much a film about the artistic process and was Western Australian in a sense. It was about the migrant experience; how somebody from a different culture and a different country react when they see something as different, remote and mysterious as the North-West. It's about an experience that all migrants share.

I am a Canadian who migrated to Australia. My studies were in l9th century Australian literature. Fundamentally, that was the literature of migrants and one of the things I jokingly said on several occasions is that I have been doing my M.A. thesis on film, as opposed to on paper. My premise in my post-graduate paper was that most Australians did not understand the literature of the 19th century written by the migrant. They either called it bad English literature or only saw it as a stepping stone to Australian literature and you'd find that the critics had gone through an entire novel and taken out a paragraph here and a phrase there and 'that's Australian', that's it - that's the beginning of Australian literature there, that paragraph. I thought that was a rather simplistic appoach especially as some of those literary works touched me in a way that they obviously didn't touch the Australian critics. I concluded that there was, in this context, English literature, Australian Literature and what I could only call 'migrant literature' and each had its own characteristics and audience.

I don't think it's any accident that most of the films that I've had something to do with directly or indirectly look at the migrant view or impressions of Australia, hence River of Giants. Kicking Around etc. I'm even planning a series of dramas with the 0/28 Network about migrants to Australia. I don't go looking for migrant stories but I do have an emotional sympathy with them.

Such ideas even show up in 'non-migrant' films. One of the reasons why I was attracted to Bush Christmas as a commercial property was that I thought that overseas people would be fascinated by those elements of the bush, the heat, the Christmas dinner - all of those things that contrasted with an experience like mine in Canada with the snow and the cold. I think I am now moving out of that as a person, Fran is not about migrants. Glenda Hambly researched it and wrote a fair amount of it while she was living here. It is based on certain experiences and information that she has from case studies from the Department of Community Welfare, and a knowledge of Western Australian conditions. We were interested because I believe it could be produced here. It was developed from the idea that we were going to use local cast, local crew and so on wherever possible. Again we come back to the point that WA film themes, culture etc., are determined partly by creative instinct and partly by production necessity. If there is going to be a W.A. film culture in terms of productions, it will probably be defined by lower budget features and television material such as Fran. Contemporary and relatively small cast products will be preferred because those are the films that best fit into local logistics. Products such as A Fortunate Life. for example, are the exception. A Fortunate Life is the multi-million dollar cast and crew number. It cost a lot of money to shoot here in Western Australia because all the support systems for that production were not here at the time. In many ways it may have been cheaper to shoot that film in the East. However, it is a true representation of a regional culture because it is based on a Western Australian book by a Western Australian writer. The script was written by Ken Kelso who is resident here in Western Australia. So on that level it represents something that is really Western Australian, not just in its locations but in its whole creative essence.

On Financing

Some of the things that we have done are regarded as 'firsts' for two reasons. One is you're not Sydney/Melbourne and two is you're not Sydney/Melbourne. The easy answer is that we had to develop new ideas for financing films in order to get any chance of making a major production at all.

We were the first people in the country to issue a prospectus in relation to an individual film project. The first film prospectus in the country was produced by Film Bancor Corp. and we came out a few days later with what was the first prospectus for an individual film (Bush Christmas). Our form of prospectus was regarded as a break through: we told the investor what they were getting into, we published the budget summary and detailed principle cast and crew. That basic form of documentation is now regarded as the industry norm.

After Bush Christmas we started to look at ways of improving that documentation both from the point of view of our investors and the point of view of ourselves. I stressed our interest in offering the investors a better deal because we had to have something better being so far away from the main money markets. When our prospect us landed on the desk it had to separate itself out from the crowd otherwise why would a Sydney investor consider investing in a company which was umpteen thousand miles away.

Even local investors, who had supported us very well, need to have a sound financial reason to back their parochial interest in the local product. Our next move was the first multiple film prospectus whereby we nominated two or three films in the prospectus and said if we only raised dollars 'x', we'll produce this film and if we raised two times that we would produce the next film and so on. That was a way of cutting down the cost of the prospectus and spreading the investor's risk across several films.

But probably the most significant move we did in terms of film financing in the last couple of years was to provide a means whereby the films themselves could be listed on the stock exchange. That got a lot of press last May/June ( 1984) when we released the Take Two prospectus to finance Fran and I own the racecourse. That again is an example of something that probably could have only happened in Perth. You see the Perth Stock Exchange has much the same kind of problem as I was describing earlier - why do people buy and sell shares here when they can buy and sell through brokers in Sydney? As a smaller exchange they wanted to go into something new and innovative otherwise they are simply a backwater to Sydney. They came up with the Second Board where the conditions of listing were less onerous than listing on the main national shareboard. It just so happens that, when they drew up their regulations they left room for certain types of properties, certain types of entities, to be listed that ordinarily wouldn't be listed on any stock exchange. It was Rob Garton-Smith who came up with the original idea that we list the films themselves, not the company, on the Second Board. We went on to spend several months developing the concept and getting everything in motion and finally put the films on the board.

We spent over $80,000 on our first deed and prospectus and it was a bargain price, given the fact that it was our first and took all kinds of research and development. Basically it was cheap because of the support we had from local companies who, in effect, backed us on the theory that we were all in it together, because if the first one was successful we would all go down over the years together, working together.

I would emphasise that in all of this I am only speaking about film and television drama. It is a fact-of life that.there are only three companies in Perth who have done major dramas in the last three years, U.A.A., Film Corporation of W.A. Ltd, and ourselves.

There are several other companies who are capable of doing drama should they choose to. There are people like Richard Oxenburgh and Shepherd-Baker, for example, who are successful documentary and commercial filmmakers based in Perth. There is also David Moore at Filmwest. They are profitable companies and they form a separate and very successful part of the film industry here. Drama projects take time to make their money back and each project has to be looked at as a medium-long term venture. For the moment in WA it's probably fair to say that the drama industry gets the headlines but the documentary and commercial producers are getting the cheques.

On Distribution

A WA base is not a problem on one level and it is a big problem both at the same time. On one level it is not a problem in an age of telexes, courier bags, facsimile machines, word processors and STD phone calls. If you are aiming at the world market I have never found anybody in London, Toronto or Los Angeles who gives a damn whether or not you are calling from Perth or Sydney. As far as they are concerned, it's Australia and it's all a long way away. In that context I don't think it makes a difference where you are set up. With the electronic connecton to almost anybody in the world you can do your deals and so on and so forth.

However, there is one major area where it is a disadvantage working out of Perth. A fair amount of this industry is done on the basis of personal contact and its partly the going out and having lunch or dinner that really counts. I mean a sense of talking over ideas, a sense of feeling out where everybody fits in, that kind of thing. That type of contact is very difficult to do out of a place like Perth and the only solution is to get on a plane. I am in the East, on average, every six weeks or so and part of each trip is simply spent in on the basis of just keeping contact, making sure people know we are still here!

For the same reason I try to get overseas at least once a year, and if possible, twice. We need to keep in personal contact with agents, distributors and people that we've been talking to in London, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York. Perth is a disadvantage, there's no doubt about it, especially in terms of setting up a company but once you're in motion life becomes easier.

I should also point out that one major distributor, ACC/ITC is based here. That is one of the world's largest cinema and television distributors. You are dealing with the head office and the head man at ACC, in Robert Holmes a Court. That's something that even Melbourne can't boast. In most other respects, though, I would say that we are at no greater advantage or disadvantage than anybody in Sydney or Melbourne. We are up there on a world basis trying to sell our films.

Our Exhibition

Exhlbition is fundamentally a national game - it's basically controlled out of Sydney and I don't see in the local exhibitors any noticeable regional preferences or developments. It is true that some types of films work better in certain cities than in others and Perth has a very high per capita attendance at films but apart from that I don't know of anything that, from my point of view at least, differentiates Perth exhibition patterns or exhibitor interest from anywhere else.

On Bush Christmas

The returns were noticeably higher in Queensland than anywhere else because it was shot in Queensland. It was partly the result of press coverage that is possible when you are actually shooting on location which leads to a higher awareness of the film. Similarly, I think that there were people who went to see Bush Christmas in Perth because we were known as a Perth Company.

Actually let me add to that answer. I do think it's fair to say that we and Hoyts, with best intentions on both sides, found it difficult to deal with setting up a campaign and (from graphics to cinema trailers) on a long distance telephone because a lot of that kind of work needs to be done in person. You need to be there for more than three or four days every couple of weeks. You have to be able to whip down and take a look at the graphics on Friday and then see the amended changes on Monday.

We did as good a job as we could afford to under the circumstances and I think the end result was not bad.

On Fran

We needed Noni Hazelhurst for commercial reasons. Her presence in the film of Fran made possible the commercial deal, the pre-sale, with the network and helped attract support from people like the Australian Film Commission and our distributors. People knew of her, knew her acting standards, knew her reputation, knew her track record and would back her. This was particularly necessary because it was being made here in Western Australia. It was being made by a local crew about whom the financial backers had no information whatsoever. This was Glenda (writer/director) Hambly's first major drama and they needed a name.

While they backed our assessment of Glenda Hambly and said that Glenda was the right person to write and direct it, and that David Rapsey the right person to produce it. Because we didn't have a track record of the magnitude of Mad Max they said in effect 'yes, we'll trust your judgement but we also want somebody we can promote'. That person was Noni Hazelhurst.

The second reason for getting Noni was that the role was enormously demanding. It needed somebody who had great experience in terms of film and television acting. In this particular case there was nobody in Perth who could play this role. This is just arguing on the artistic strength of the film quite apart from the commercial aspects. We had to bring in somebody like Noni who had that experience, who had those artistic reserves to draw on and who was going to make that role sing. I think that the local personnel came up trumps all the way down the line. They did a really good job. There were some minor problems because the crew was obviously less experienced than the same crew in Sydney would have been. Full credit should go to David Rapsey, who is a very experienced film maker on many different levels. He anticipated many of those problems and found solutions to them.

I believe that you pick films and television projects that need as little in the way of 'imports' as possible. The reason I argue that is not to pit Western Australia against the rest of Australia but on economic grounds alone. If you have to keep flying people across the country, paying for hotels every day, the cost of production goes up. It obviously makes a great deal of sense for us to look for productions that require as few people as possible to come in from the East. If I have to fly in fifty people, I've got to have a damn good reason for doing it.

On Government Funding

That's one of the positive things that is happening here. The New South Wales Film Corporation, because Sydney is the film centre of the country, can afford to be, and is, in many respects, a national body. They do not require everything they back to be made in New South Wales. They have taken quite a reasonable approach that says you'll probably have to use x number of Sydney technicians, x number of Sydney actors, x amount of film processing in Sydney anyway even if you're making the film in Perth.

In places like Queensland (the Queensland Film Corporation actively supported Bush Christmas) or in Western Australia (where the Film Council backed Fran) they are more parochial. Their support can make or break the prospect of your film happening. I think, for instance, that local investors in those states will invest if they see that the local state authority is backing the film. That's actually truer here and in Queensland than it is in Sydney.

In terms of Government funding, both development funding; and production investment funding: the Government's money is very very important. Fran cost us more to shoot here, even though we designed it with all these parameters in mind. Even though we picked the local people, we still worked out at one point that it was going to cost us some $20,000 or $30,000 more to shoot here than if we shot it in Melbourne. Now I think those figures are subject to some variation because it depended on what time of year we shot, and now I think, on balance, it'd probably come in about even. Nevertheless there was one crucial stage where we went to the Western Australian Film Council for their support to make sure that Fran was made here. They came through. If they had not come through with more support, it is possible that Fran would have been produced in Melbourne.

Similarly the Australian Film Commission backed Fran extensively. They provided an underwriting commitment and a Distribution Guarantee as well as investing in it. Now I think the AFC thought it was ( 1) a good project, (2) they were backing Glenda Hambly, myself and David because they thought we deserved a chance to make this particular kind of film, and (3) it was a WA project and they needed to be seen as a national body. I think Fran is also potentially a very 'important film' and I think that is one of the reasons why they backed it.

Without the Film Council, without the Australian Film Commission, we would probably not have produced Fran. Government support at critical stages in the development of a local industry is essential. Without it you would not have anybody producing films outside of Sydney and Melbourne. The Government's money is essential at least in getting things started. I don't think we will need that level of support again (on a percentage basis). But because of that support we're now up and running. People know about Barron Films, about Glenda and David, and things will start to move of their own accord. Its a very good example of Government assistance being essential to help give you that initial push. After that you increasingly have to stand on your own. That's what I think will happen here in Western Australia.

This interview was conducted over a number of days in September, 1984 and updated for this publication.

My thanks to Paul Barron for his frankness and assistance in producing the interview.