Australian director Cherie Nowlan’s latest film is called Clubland in Australia and Introducing the Dwights in America. Starring Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, it is a warming portrait of a dysfunctional family in Sydney. The film played at Sundance this year, where it was so well received it was snatched up for international distribution. In Melbourne on a fly-by publicity tour, Nowlan chats to In Film shortly before the film’s Aussie release.
By Luke Buckmaster
Australian films picked for international distribution usually gather dust for a considerable period of time before they get trundled off overseas. Aussies first met Darryl Kerrigan in April 1997 but the American public had to wait until May 1999 to watch The Castle. Jindabyne, which opened locally last July, took another nine months to crop up in U.S. cinemas.
Director Cherie Nowlan’s Clubland, a warming portrait of a dysfunctional family in Sydney, is a rare example of an Australian film that opens here (June 28) and in America (July 4) in the space of a week. Clubland will be the first ever Australian film to open in the U.S. on Independence Day, and will compete in both countries against its diametric opposite: Michael Bay’s Transformers.
After a strong reception at Sundance earlier this year scouts from Warner Independent snatched the film up, reportedly paying $4 million in distribution rights for North America, the U.K. and Germany. This immediately put Clubland in the black. There was however one catch: overseas audiences will know the film by a different name (Introducing the Dwights). Most directors are sensitive about these kinds of small changes - i.e. the names of their films. Not Nowlan, however, whose opinion inadvertently waxes Shakespearean: she believes that by any other name her film would work just as well.
“They wanted the title to indicate that the film is about family, which it is,â€ Nowlan explains, in Melbourne on a fly-by publicity tour a week and a bit before the film’s release. â€œThe thing about titles too is that once you see them with artwork and a trailer they always work.”
“No one was particularly fond of Clubland either. We had a competition on set to find another title, and we announced the winner at the wrap party. The winner was a suggestion from the lighting department, which was ‘A Joke, a Poke and a Disabled Bloke.’”
cherie nowlanNobody - not even screenwriter Keith Thompson - seems to have ever cared what Clubland was actually called (”it mattered to him less than me,” Nowlan says). That goes some way in describing the kind of production Clubland is, or perhaps the kind of production it isn’t: this is not a high-concept movie with a title that can easily summarise what the story is about. This is not a movie that slips into convenient definitions; it carries the impression of being about real people and real situations. Nowlan points out that those unacquainted with Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, the star of the film, sometimes believe it’s autobiographical. When Thompson won a writing fellowship his brief was simple: “make it personal.” That’s Mission: Successful, because Clubland is nothing if not tuned to its characters.
One particularly vivid personality is Mark (Richard Wilson), a mentally disabled character who is the glue that holds the Dwight family together. Separated parents Jeannie (Blethyn) and John (Frankie J. Holden) love each other deep down but spend most of their time bickering. In his own unassuming way Mark encourages them to push their grievances aside. He has a strong kinship with his brother Tim (Khan Chittenden), who is nibbling at his first real taste of romance with new girlfriend Jill (Emma Booth). Tim is nervous but love struck, much to the chagrin of Jeannie, an overbearing mother who needs to learn how to let go. Jeannie is a naturally entertaining person who performs stand-up comedy at RSL style clubs, thus explaining the film’s title.
Representing mental disabilities is never a walk in the park but Richard Wilson pulls it off persuasively. As a young adult who was brain-damaged at birth, Mark is a demanding and easily derided character with a big heart, a limited brain capacity and cloddish physical mannerisms. Wilson is scarily authentic, and compared to cinema’s monolithic portrayals of mentally disabled people (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Sean Penn in I am Sam, Geoffrey Rush in Shine) he holds his own. To prepare for shooting Wilson spent time in character working at a business through disabilities services in Sydney, and “nobody knew he didn’t have a disability.”
“Richard was only nervous after he’d done it,” says Nowlan. “When he was doing it he was fearless. It’s a bit like directing too. I’m like a Lemming, leading everyone over the cliff. Nothing gets in the way, and he’s a bit the same. He had to be funny, he had to be real, and he had a particular set of problems we had to work out and then be true to them.”
“To be honest, most people think he is handicapped. Even my manager, who is also John Hillcoat’s manager (Hillcoat directed The Proposition), didn’t recognise him…Critics aside - I have no idea what they’ll think - the audience perception is that he is completely real. They don’t doubt it for a minute.”
Nor are they likely to doubt Brenda Blethyn. The 63-year-old acting veteran, an Oscar nominee and a recipient of BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, creates a scene-stealing presence that fits the film like a glove (Thompson wrote the screenplay with her in mind). Blethyn’s tour-de-force performance runs the gamut from cheery, carbonated comic persona to moments of dark and complex emotions. Clubland Producer Rose Blight, who worked with Blethyn on In the Winter Dark, told Nowlan “you can have whoever you want” but in her eyes there was one person fit for the job.
“I’ve been obsessed with her (Blethyn) since Secrets and Lies,” Nowlan says. “Up until that point I thought no-one was greater than Meryl Streep, but she certainly gave her a shove sideways as far as I’m concerned.”
“Brenda is able to do things and take the audience to very uncomfortable places at times, but you never lose her. You always know where she is coming from. She has that strength to play flawed but lovable characters, and take you to the edge.”
Feature filmmaking often draws people in for the long haul: it’s been fourteen years since Keith Thompson began writing Clubland and ten years since Cherie Nowlan directed her last feature film (Thank God He Met Lizzie). Blethyn, whose name was attached from the beginning, received a number of drafts over the years. Because nobody really cared what the script was called, each draft had a different title. She would think (says Nowlan) “gee I’m popular in Australia, I keep getting all these scripts!” Then she would open it and realise it was still Clubland. Or Introducing the Dwights. Or - if the lighting department had their way - A Joke, A Poke and a Disabled Bloke.