Australian director James Wan is on a hot streak. His latest film, Furious 7, ran rings around the competition when it opened worldwide in cinemas in April, and was praised as a heartfelt tribute to its late star, Paul Walker. It also soaked up more than $1.5 billion worldwide, making it the fourth highest grossing movie in history.
It was the biggest – but not the first – monster hit for the 38-year-old director, who cut his teeth in Melbourne before absconding to Los Angeles. Wan's 2011 fright fest Insidious, which gave a splash of fresh paint to the hackneyed genre of the haunted house story, was the most profitable US film released that year, making $97 million USD (£63 million) on a production budget of $1.5 million (£1 million). His next feature, 2013’s The Conjuring, took more than $318 million (£205 milion) worldwide from a production budget of $20 million (£13 million) and was a surprise hit with critics.
He is also at the forefront of a new breed of Australian film-makers who are infiltrating Hollywood – the ringleader, perhaps, for this fresh crop of ‘Aussiewood’ directors. Wan has emerged as a major player since his innovative, low-budget debut Saw in 2004, which failed to attract funding in Australia but was picked up by an LA production company Twisted Pictures.
No love at home
The others are only beginning to make a name for themselves. Directors such as Patrick Hughes, David Michôd, Zak Hilditch and Justin Kurzel are major emerging talents now working with some of the biggest names in the entertainment business.
Almost all of these film-makers have one thing in common other than their country of origin: the films that drew them to the attention of big guns overseas almost always failed to draw strong support in Australia. Aussie cinemagoers are notoriously picky when it comes to watching their own films – in recent years less than 5% of movies watched in Australian cinemas have been locally made. But that hasn’t stopped the makers of these films finding success with major Hollywood productions.
Take for example director Patrick Hughes. His first film, 2010’s Red Hill, is a stylish neo-western about a good-natured policeman who finds himself at the centre of a blood bath when a convicted murderer returns to Red Hill to exact violent revenge on crooked cops who did his family an unspeakable wrong. It is one of the finest Australian action films since the turn of the century, but generated a paltry A$300,000 (£144,000) at the local box office.
Despite this, the film caught the attention of Sylvester Stallone, who was so enamoured with it he hired Hughes to direct The Expendables 3. Stallone teased out the announcement of the director’s involvement on Twitter, comparing his debut film to Rocky. Hughes’ next movie will be a big-budget remake of Indonesia’s awesome 2011 knuckle-busting action epic The Raid: Redemption.
From Adelaide to Cannes
Meanwhile, South Australia-born Justin Kurzel turned heads at Cannes this year with a radically revised adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. His first film was the brilliantly crafted serial killer drama Snowtown, set in Adelaide and made for around A$2 million (£960,000). Kurzel’s next project will have, it’s fair to say, a somewhat higher budget: he will adapt blockbuster video game Assassin’s Creed, again recruiting Fassbender and Cotillard.
It’s not just in Hollywood that Aussie film-makers are making an impact. Young writer/director Zak Hilditch’s brutally apocalyptic road movie These Final Hours, set during the final moments on an anarchy-ravaged Earth, was screened in 2014 as part of Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a strikingly atmospheric vision of a world gone to hell in a handbasket, but also fell flat at the Australian box office. Perhaps helped by the buzz from Cannes, Hilditch has been signed by Luc Besson’s company EuropaCorp to write, direct and produce a remake of his film for US cable TV.
Not all recent debut efforts of great new Australian film-makers have been greeted with lukewarm responses. In 2010, writer/director David Michôd’s crime drama Animal Kingdom, inspired by notorious gang-related crimes committed in Melbourne during the ‘80s and ‘90s, netted A$5million (£2.4 million) at the Australian box office – a respectable sum for Australia – and scooped a haul of awards and accolades.
But once again it was Hollywood that brought it to wide attention. Jacki Weaver received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for an eerily charismatic performance as the matriarch of a family of criminals. Michôd is now in pre-production on War Machine, a satirical comedy starring Brad Pitt.
In other words: the Aussies are coming to Hollywood. Or, in the case of Wan and Kurzel, they have already arrived. This new wave of Australian film-makers is arguably one of the finest to have ever emigrated from down under. The Australian cinema renaissance of the ‘70s and ‘80s eventually led to the creation of many classic American films by Australian directors. These include – to name only a few – Peter Weir’s The Dead Poets Society (1989), Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Phillip Noyce’s Patriot Games (1992).
The Aussies are coming to Hollywood
But the key difference between then and now is that Weir, Noyce, Beresford and other directors of their ilk spent at least a decade making feature films at home before venturing to Los Angeles. Times have changed. Hollywood is set to reap the benefits, and audiences have every reason to feel excited.
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