Ten Questions with Brolga Director Adrian Powers – Post-Apocalyptic Australia, Film Collaboration, The Steve Jaggi Company

Australian filmmaker Adrian Powers short film, Brolga, is an impressive work of creative collaboration, with Aboriginal artist Michael Connolly (Munda-gutta Kulliwari) providing the backbone for the eventual short film. Andrew put ten questions to Adrian, asking him about the creative process of making Brolga, as well as his work with The Steve Jaggi Company and the future of Australian film. 

Brolga can be viewed on YouTube at the bottom of this interview, or via this link here.

The synopsis for Brolga is:

In a ravaged future-Australia, an isolated hermit is forced to offer sanctuary to a young girl as she tries to escape a gang of murderous scavengers that roam the lawless country. 

And Adrian’s statement regarding the film is:

The message of this film is about coming together, listening and learning. It’s a reconciliatory story, about cooperation and surviving together. The Visitor in the film represents me, and all other non-Indigenous Australians, who must realise that we must properly respect and acknowledge Aboriginal cultures, and must take a turn to listen.

Where did the narrative for Brolga originate, and what collaborative work went into writing the script?

The genesis of the idea for this film started all the way back in school, when I was first taught about Indigenous Australian cultures and storytelling, and the injustices they experienced and continue to experience. Since then, I’ve always been compelled to tell a story about a future Australia and future Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, with a theme of listening, learning and coming together — a reconciliatory message for today, inside a science fiction story about a potential tomorrow. At the same time, I was also interested in telling a story about the importance and power of stories, especially in our most difficult hours.

Years later, during my own research, I came across the works of Aboriginal artist, Michael Connolly (Munda-gutta Kulliwari), and in particular, his writings and paintings concerning the Murriwarri story of the brolga crane. Soon, a rough idea for the film came into focus, and I contacted Michael with a pitch to see what he thought about the project. I explained my desire to tell a post-apocalyptic science fiction story which featured his artworks, both written and painted. He was immediately enthusiastic and supportive, and absolutely understood the message of the story. 

Michael spoke about his desire to share Indigenous art and storytelling with as wide an audience as possible, and we discussed how the brolga myth would be incorporated as a kind of narrative echo, one that would urge viewers to seek out and explore the richness of First Australian cultures. Michael has said “it’s all about education and about people knowing that we are artists and storytellers of our land. It’s about the promotion of our land and promotion of our stories, to know that we are the oldest living culture in the world and giving people the chance to hear the story, see the story and feel the joy that our culture can bring to people.” 

Likewise, the film’s very nature existed as a suggestion for non-Indigenous audience members to sit, listen and learn. For those who have seen the film, it’s not hard to see that the perspective of the Visitor, played by Tiarnie Coupland, represents my own.  

Although I drafted the actual screenplay, Michael is credited as story custodian and consultant, and the film couldn’t proceed without his approval. My friendly collaboration with Michael remains my favourite memory of the whole process. To be thorough with the facts though, there was a fair amount of character and dialogue work that was revised and created once lead actor James Saunders joined the project. Once James and I started discussing the intricacies and intimacies of his character, many things began to shift and grow, thanks to the insights and ideas he brought to the table. For example, the entire opening voice-over was re-written in post-production to accommodate the lines about the character’s past, which was an idea that came out of our conversations.

Michael Connolly’s artwork within the film is powerfully presented in stark black and white cinematography. It highlights the enduring presence of culture throughout time, where the footprint of human existence outlasts who we are as a species, reflecting the enduring legacy of stories throughout history. What importance is the artwork to you, and how does it reflect the Indigenous history of Australia?

So, clearly the Michael’s work was essential to the film. His paintings and poems reflect and represent thousands of years of culture — a culture which should be respected by all Australians. When the idea for the film’s story was coming into focus, and I was in talks with Michael, I realised that one of my original intentions for one of the film’s themes — the power and importance of storytelling — had taken on new meaning, because now the film was just as equally about the importance of preserving cultural sites and spaces. As a non-Indigenous filmmaker, this became a major focus for me, since the coloniser’s attitude and disrespect towards Aboriginal sites pervades to this day, and is a continual shame to non-Indigenous Australians. So from that perspective, the film is a rallying cry for allies to stand up and defend those sites. You mention that the paintings are presented in stark black and white cinematography, which is true, but I urge audiences to pay attention to the film’s sparing use of colour. There’s some very deliberate choices there that have a message all their own.

Post-apocalyptic Australia has been represented on film with various different stylings and iconography, from Mad Max to These Final Hours. What was the decision behind filming in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and how did you decide what to present as a desolate version of Australia?

Mad Max loomed large over our heads as we were making this film, but in a way it was an inspiration — we were committed to not doing that. It immediately became clear that we would have to work to distinguish ourselves from those films stylistically in order to have our own voice, but that turned out to be the essential choice anyway, because I realised early on that nature should be thriving in this story. Rather than present a scorched dust-bowl, our future-Australia would be overcome by plant life and teeming with animals, now that humanity had seemingly disappeared. This effect was something that was really made possible by our amazing sound team at Trackdown Studios. The sound mix contains so many layers of animal sounds that I’m still noticing them. 

We chose to never reveal exactly what the nature of the crisis was that wiped out most of society, but internally we always agreed that it was the result of a worldwide pandemic. That choice certainly turned out to be more unnerving than we anticipated, and unsurprisingly, most audiences now immediately assume that’s exactly what’s happened in the story. 

We shot most of the film in both rural NSW and Sydney, but due to budget constraints, we lacked the shots we needed to really establish the scope and scale of the country’s decline. Test audiences admitted that it was hard to discern whether the film was set in the future, or just in the bush. It’s supposed to be both. So, when my partner and executive producer, Jess Shteyman, brought up the plan to visit family in Ukraine in 2018, we decided that we would visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and see if we could capture some establishing shots that would really help to sell the audience on this world, before the film narrows down on the characters, out in the wilderness. This was before the Chernobyl TV series had come out, so we were less educated on the full scope of the human tragedy of the disaster. Going there was an unforgettable and life-changing experience, and (when the world returns to some kind of normalcy) is highly recommended. We did end up getting some shots there that are included in the film, but there are only three or four. We ultimately didn’t want to trivialise or make light of the incredibly harrowing events that took place there, so those shots are not distinctly recognisable as Chernobyl in any traditional way. They’re smaller glances at an abandoned place, frozen in time. In the end, we utilised some CGI to craft our big establishing shots, and I think the whole aesthetic of the film is successful. 

Gunditjmara and Wiradjuri actor James Saunders grounds the film in the central performance. What was the casting process like for James, and how did you craft his performance with him?

After meeting Michael, meeting James was the second linchpin that made this project happen. James was one of a few actors we auditioned, but as soon as he walked in, both I and producer J.J. Todd knew the role was his. When he delivered the dialogue, his intonation and performance was essentially perfect, and it was spooky how much he sounded like how I had imagined the character to sound. 

As James puts it: “as I came through the audition doors, I noticed that Adrian was not Indigenous. I knew the theme of the film. There was a Dreamtime story involved. So, before I auditioned I asked him straight out: ‘do you have permission to use this story?’” Once I had shown James my conversations with Michael, he was very pleased, and really excited. And once we were lucky enough to cast Tiarnie in the film, and saw how well they played off each other, we knew it was going to really work.

Working with James was the kind of lovely, creative experience that a director sometimes gets to have with an actor. James was still new to acting when we cast him, and while his dramatic instincts were often perfect, he was still adjusting to on-set protocol and camera technique. To make things harder, James has to play a lot of this character without dialogue, on his own, in close-up. That’s a challenge for anyone, so he and I spent as much time talking about physicality, movement and expression as anything else. Sometimes we would just roll camera and James and I would try out lots of variations and ideas, with me quietly directing and making suggestions off-camera. That meant that when I got to the editing room, I had lots of options to play with, and craft the performance further. In the time that’s passed since we shot the film, James has come along in leaps and bounds, and continues to impress me with his performances. It would be really great to work with him again in something totally different and go down a whole other road. I love the guy.

As a non-Indigenous director, what challenges and processes did you go through in the initial stages of making Brolga?

Insofar as my role as a non-Indigenous director, the right questions needed to be asked: “what are the connotations here? What is the intention? Who do we need to consult about this? Why are you specifically telling this story, with this component? Is this appropriate?” etc. I was personally invested in making sure that these were successfully answered, but since I knew that the intention for the film was so collaborative, with a message of people coming together, I felt that it was clear that it was coming from a positive place, with a positive message, and that the Aboriginal elements of the film were not something I was seeking to claim or appropriate (or certainly not profit off, since it was agreed that the film would be made not-for-profit). Once I contacted Michael and discussed the project with him, he came onboard and we proceeded from there with his support and blessing. Still, some folks, like our producing consultant Andrew Williams, really went above and beyond in making sure we had the right Indigenous consultations, and I’m very grateful for that.

The cinematography is distinct and impressive, leaving its imagery seared into your mind. Can you talk about the collaborative process with Tim Tregoning? Did you storyboard the film prior to shooting?

I honestly cannot say enough good things about Tim. The guy has more talent and patience than I can possibly fathom. And he made a lot with a little on this film — take a look at some of his feature work and it will amaze you. 

We didn’t storyboard the film, but we did do a shot list that covered the essential setups we needed. By the time we got to location, with the minimal crew we had, we often had to improvise and design shots on the fly, but that was fine. We had a good shorthand and a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve, thanks to hours of discussion. 

And to his credit, it was Tim who first suggested that the film be in black and white. I was hesitant at first, because I thought it might be gimmicky, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised the potential and the benefits of doing it. I’m very grateful that he had that idea!

The score by Matt Rudduck is also quietly reflective of the devastation of a post-apocalyptic world. What notes did you give Matt as he created the score?

Matt’s another amazing collaborator who I can’t thank enough. He’s been by my side during the film’s long post-production process, and dedicated so many hours of his time. When we finished principal photography, he created a series of pieces that were inspired by the script and the rushes. I then used those as musical inspiration and placeholders as I edited the film. When the film was finally ready to score, some years had passed, and Matt was keen to explore new ideas. Nonetheless, a few of those pieces (like the opening sequence) went on to inspire the final music. I think the score is absolutely beautiful, and it’s actually available to listen to on all the major music streaming services.

As a seasoned editor of many great Aussie indie films, from Chocolate Oyster to Rip Tide, what has been the difference between editing a short film versus editing feature films? 

Unlike screenwriting, I find that editing is essentially the same no matter the length of the film. Writing a short film has many of its own unique challenges, but when I’m cutting a film, I generally use the same process every time. I go through the rushes, note the best takes (and then the best moments from the other takes) and start to craft a scene. Once each scene has been cut and strung together, you have what’s called an assembly edit if the film, but that’s just the beginning of the journey. That’s when you begin to watch the film again and again, isolating problems with story, character and pace, and start showing it to people for feedback. You proceed to a rough cut, then a fine cut, and then a final cut, tightening and consolidating as you go, over a period of weeks.

In the case of Brolga, editorial turned out to be the longest part of the process, and was slowed by my commitment to other projects, since it was still a personal project with little external support. When the first rough cut was completed, the film was thirty minutes long. Much too long. After that, Brolga was shelved until I could properly commit to it. Then, when I finally had an opportunity to return to the film, and with the benefit of fresh eyes, I quickly realised what could be trimmed further, and got it down to its current run time after a few more weeks.

Additionally, you have worked extensively with The Steve Jaggi Company. Can you talk about what it is like to work with one of the most consistently great and productive production companies in Australia? 

It’s wonderful. It’s gotten to the stage now where we’re like a family. I’ve been working with Steve, Kelly and the rest of the gang over there for seven years, and they’re always taking new leaps forward. It’s inspiring, and you get swept up in the enthusiasm. With them in Brisbane, and me in Sydney, COVID has made it a long distance relationship of late, but I look forward to visiting them as soon as possible. They’re busy working on their new Netflix / Channel 10 series, ‘Dive Club’. I co-wrote four episodes of the first season with my writing partner, Caera Bradshaw, and by the look of how production has come along, it’s going to be fantastic. We’re also working on a few more things with them that I can’t talk about yet, so it’s a very exciting time!

As Australian film faces a new landscape, what changes would you like to see implemented or what are your hopes for Australian film going forward?

It’s obviously a precarious time, and every inch of the industry has been affected by how drastically the world has changed recently. It’s strange — even saying that gives me a little shiver, since one of the original lines of dialogue for the opening voice-over for Brolga was “the world has changed.” 

It goes without saying that we’re in much better shape than most of the planet, and the influx of new foreign productions speaks to that. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love big, event movies and TV as much as the next person, and something like Dive Club really represents the best kind of collaboration between Aussie talent and overseas partners. Nevertheless, while big budget productions are taking advantage of our relative safety, many small timers are struggling more than ever. What happens when the artists, craftspeople and technicians can no longer afford to work in this field? Some people are lucky enough to have JobKeeper, but others have to survive on pittance or switch careers entirely. It might not sound particularly insightful or revelatory, but my biggest hope is just that the industry can get back on its feet. I think the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight, but it’s certainly been an eye-opening experience for the entertainment world, one that has highlighted how important our industry is. Because, as we all can now attest, without entertainment, being stuck inside can be a nightmare.

Watch Brolga below:

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