Catriona McKenzie is the writer/director of Satellite Boy, her award-winning debut feature, set to have a national release through Hopscotch Films on June 20.
Satellite Boy is a heartfelt and uplifting story about a young boy’s journey to save his home and ultimately himself. Fable-like in its storytelling, it shows a world torn between old and new, tradition and progress, nature and technology. It celebrates the importance of family, true friendship and cultural and spiritual identity.
Graffiti With Punctuation would like to congratulate Catriona and thank her for taking the time to chat with us.
AB: Your film tells a heartfelt and endearing story that is culturally significant, being set in the Kimberley region of North Western Australia, and yet it is a tale that is universally relevant in that it tackles an individual’s ties to their family and country when faced with significant and undesired change. What was your primary inspiration behind the screenplay, and how long were you working on it?
CM: I had written a different script that was much more conventional. It was pretty much ready to go and I threw it away. I said: “Sorry, I don’t want to do this. I want to do a much more distilled story that allows the audience to feel.” Partly that was my story. I was adopted and wanted to meet my biological mum. I searched for a while and turned away from my family. I eventually met my biological mum and I realized that love is the day-to-day glide. That’s what real love is and I wanted to explore that through these characters on film. But I also wanted to bring that feeling for country to an audience. Yes, it is an Australian story, but it is also a very universal story. We had our premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. They loved the film. It played at Abu Dhabi. Then in Berlin we won two prizes for the film. It is clearly touching on something that is universal.
AB: I was going to ask you about the awards and your experiences in Berlin. Did you go along and accompany the film there?
CM: Yeah, we went to Berlin and it was fantastic. It is a pretty amazing film festival. They pick you up in a BMW. These boys – Cameron Wallaby, who plays Pete, and Joseph Pedley, who plays Kalmain – had never been out of the country before and here they were in Berlin. It was snowing. It was cold. The film premiered and there were a thousand people on their feet clapping and cheering. You’re standing in front of this audience and I remember looking down at Cameron who was standing beside me and he was looking out at this sea of strangers and he was beaming. I think that is one of the best memories I’ll take. The way that being involved in this crazy feature called Satellite Boy has touched his life, as well as everyone else’s.
AB: With this film you not only worked with the youngsters in their first roles but also a veteran indigenous actor in David Gulpilil. I imagine, like in the film, he was also a mentor to those boys on set?
CM: Yeah, with David Gulpilil it is interesting for me because one of the touchstones was a film called Walkabout. That was the very first film that David Gulpilil was ever cast in as a young fourteen-year-old boy. It is a beautiful film. There are a few shots in Satellite Boy that are direct homage to Walkabout. I got to Darwin, sat down with him, talked him through the story and what I wanted to do. He agreed to be in the film, which just blew me away. I was so happy. He had been in so many films – Walkabout, The Last Wave, Crocodile Dundee and The Tracker. For me it was like working with De Niro or Pacino, or Meryl Streep. He’s a living cinematic legend. He just won the Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement to the Arts. It was pretty amazing to have him on set and he certainly was an inspiration to the two boys.
AB: How did you cast the two boys? Did you look for a specific boy for each character or did they audition for each other’s roles at one point?
CM: I flew to Broome and my casting director and I threw our swags on a car, put our kids in the back. We drove thousands of kilometers and looked in every little community group. We went up to Darwin, too. We found Cameron Wallaby playing under a tree in Fitzroy Crossing and he came in with cousin Pumpkin and did an incredible audition. We found a lot of kids along the way, and we had to go back and re-test the short list of people. After a few workshops it was pretty clear. Little Pete has a fragility to him because he is a little bit lost. He doesn’t know who he is or what he wants to be. But Kalmain is a bit cocky and thinks he knows everything. I had to find actors that could convey that. Once we put Joseph and Cameron together it was pretty clear they were the right combination. They didn’t know each other before this and they come across as knowing each other for ages. They have a great chemistry on screen.
AB: You also have something to say, I think, about land ownership and native title, a serious issue in ties between white and indigenous Australians for centuries now. This is evident especially in Pete’s bond with the cinema, in the middle of an isolated world torn between the old and the new. Can you comment on that?
CM: Satellite Boy is an allegorical film, not an overtly political film. But yeah, the catalyst for them leaving their home and journeying to the city is because a mining company shows up and wants to do excavation on their land. But, for me, it is an allegorical tale about a boy making a decision. Across Australia and in the Kimberley the mining regime is doing a lot of damage. The relationship with country is something I wanted to look at. An indigenous relationship with country is not about viewing it as a potential bucket load of stuff to be dug up and shipped off. The relationship you have with country, country has with you. There is a living relationship there. That’s what I was trying to convey, and it is hard because it is an experiential thing. It is a feeling. In cross-cultures people talk about that. The Dalai Lama says: “Once a year go into the wilderness and recharge the batteries”. Australians understand that. We love to go camping and fishing and getting out into the bush. We have lots of National Parks and we really enjoy that. It was about taking that feeling and putting it into a cultural context, which way have been a little bit new for a lot of Australians. Everyone has a granddad and many of us will be a granddad or grandmother some day. The glue in the film is that relationship, which is about love and family.
AB: I understand that the film was shot in a world heritage listed area. Your producer gathered permission from the owners of the land and they supported you throughout. I imagine this would have been both a deeply rewarding and a challenging atmosphere?
CM: One of the things I am very proud of is that the cultural protocol was followed perfectly. We sought permission from the traditional owners in Wyndham and the Bungle Bungles. There are two traditional owners there and we got permission from both. We are the first feature film in the world to shoot on the ground in the Bungles. I think Baz Luhrmann did aerial captures over them but we were actually on the ground. We couldn’t drive any equipment in. We had to walk everything in. People’s shoes were bubbling in the heat it was that hot. People had eight litres of water per day, but the crew never complained. We are like a family now. Very small crew, less than a documentary crew, and they had to carry heavy equipment across rugged terrain. And they did it. I love the footage from the film. It is its own character. If I talk about the symbolism of country and how it is alive, the Bungles are just so vibrant.
AB: The film is magnificently shot, the beauty of the land is brought to life and seems to have emotions all of its own. Is this the first time you have worked with Geoffrey Simpson?
CM: Yes, he shot Sleeping Beauty and The Sessions and it was great having him there. Henry Dangar, the editor, has done more films than any other editor in Australia and he’s such a maestro. Sammy Hobbs was the production designer and he had to deal with the fact that it was called ‘Satellite Boy’ and we couldn’t afford a satellite dish and we couldn’t afford to build the cinema screen. He had to wrangle that and utilized the assistance of the community around the Kimberley and Wyndham. The spirit of cooperation was fantastic. On every level these incredible people backed me up.
AB: You have directed some television, most recently some episodes of Redfern Now. How did you get into directing and filmmaking?
CM: Yeah, I was a director on The Circuit, Redfern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street. I went to film school and after getting out I was offered a job directing television commercials for Filmgraphics, David Denneen’s company in Sydney. John Edwards, producer of The Secret Life of Us, saw a couple of my ads and he invited me to work on TV drama. I just tripped and stumbled into it, really. Making films in Australia is a rich man’s sport, like owning a yacht or horses, and I’m not. I used television as a way to cash flow my passion for making films. I try and balance both. I love television. It is exciting, there is a fun turnover and you get to work with more resources. But I have done about five or six short films at film school and they were for festival circuits, for the big screen. So, I guess coming full circle with Satellite Boy is like coming home in a way. I feel privileged to have been able to do both.
AB: What is next on the horizon?
CM: I spoke to Cameron Wallaby and asked if he wanted to do any more films, and he said he’d love to. I am doing a supernatural thriller called Min Min, which is about the Min Min Lights. Scientists think there are about five or six theories that explain the lights. They are getting closer and they don’t quite explain it. But, the Aboriginal myth is that the spirits of the dead return and they can either help you or hurt you. It is kind of like The Shining meets Poltergeist, a scary thriller. I am going to put Cameron in that.
AB: We have a regular feature on Graffiti With Punctuation called Five Star Films where we reflect on the films we love and would give the highest grade. What constitutes a five star film for you and what is your number one five star film?
CM: Oh man. I love Blade Runner. I love the Director’s Cut. It is such a visual feast but it is also touching on the human condition of what it is to be alive and being caught between those two tigers of being born and dying. It is a wonderful film. Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I love that film. He takes these people into the zone and there is this weird David Lynch-ian journey about it.
AB: Well, Blade Runner is in my Top 10 and Stalker is my favourite Tarkovsky, so I love those picks.
CM: I also have to mention Gallipoli. Peter Weir is one of my favourite filmmakers. The scene where Mel Gibson is running to stop the charge kills me every time. Even talking about it now I get all weepy.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22