Film poster (above) and trailer (below)
“I can’t imagine how many times Paul Kelly must have been approached over the years to make his story,” Paul Wiegard insists. “It’s just one of those wonderful tales…”
Paul Kelly is perhaps the seminal Aussie muso; whether fronting inner-city rock bands or presenting the purest of heartfelt ballads in roots music mode, his songwriting hits your soul with utter honesty. Filmmaker Ian Darling has gone and captured him in the documentary Paul Kelly – Stories of Me. At this year’s Melbourne Film Festival, Stories of Me sold out pretty quickly – and was the first film of that festival to do so.
More impressively, to launch its cinema release, Darling’s undertaken a national tour of theatre venues for ‘special event’ screenings in which the film’s followed by live talks with the director and Paul Kelly. The first weekend – featuring a screening in Brisbane and Sydney – resulted in the film taking $118,344 in revenue, setting a new record for largest opening weekend per screen average for an Aussie film ($59,172).
“Nice result, hey!” Wiegard acknowledges, rightfully proud.
Although it’s possible that you don’t know why Paul Wiegard is rightfully proud. Or who he is. Or why I’d be talking to him about this. Rest assured: you’ve enjoyed the fruits of his labour, even if this is the first time you’ve heard of him. Paul happens to be a founding partner and director of Madman, the company that, in addition to distributing all manner of films and television shows (“art-house, world cinema, docos and anime” their website boasts) also develops films from the ground up. Paul Kelly – Stories of Me is one of theirs. And I’m pleased that when a press release about the film’s record-breaking success lands in my inbox and I ask if I may interview anyone at all about it, with virtually no notice whatsoever one of the grand poobahs of local film and television entertainment puts his hand up.
My initial gambit – hoping not to stretch the friendship – is to quite literally ‘set the record straight’. Why is the record that Stories of Me has broken significant? In whose footsteps does it follow?
“Good question,” Paul replies. Advising that the answer might be “layered in a number of ways”, he layers it this way: the ‘live tour’ is an “innovative ‘event’ release”, the likes of which doesn’t happen often in cinema. The previous record-holder, Paul tells me, was Warren Miller. Twice. He makes epic ski flicks such as Children of Winter (2008), which held the record at $50,716. Until it was broken by Dynasty (2009, $54,662). But to put Stories of Me in perspective, opening weekend revenue figures of other successful Aussie docos include the $8,308 earned by Bra Boys in 2007 and $6,984, by Mrs Carey’s Concert, last year. And these are both in the Top 10 list of Box Office results or Australian documentaries. So Paul’s “Nice result, hey!” is laconic understatement, one of the Madman managing director’s endearing traits.
“So,” he continues, “the significance here is it’s unusual to take feature films – and in this case, feature documentaries – and project them onto the big screen. We’re very much looking forward to seeing how the film’s going to come up down in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall in November, where there’ll be approximately 2000 in attendance. It’s got an enormous capacity; it’s an enormous venue.”
True that. So if the tour had opened with
the Hamer Hall showing, that would have been the bigger record breaking opening
revenue, surely. Paul Kelly has always struck me as the seminal Melbourne muso
– Paul Wiegard must be anticipating a triumphant showing in that town.
“It’s funny – as a Melbournian, I think that,” Wiegard agrees. “But gosh, when you think about it, Kelly grew up in Adelaide where probably every second person is related to him. He probably wrote some of his most memorable songs in Sydney, and the guy’s been quite the ‘journey man’” – in this instance meaning ‘traveler’ rather than the traditional term for a tradesman in that phase between apprenticeship and master craftsman – “forever jumping on a plane, train or automobile to regional Australia to perform and work with our indigenous population.”
So yes, Paul concurs, since he lives there, Kelly is “very much quintessentially Melbournian in some respects but his career spans the width and breadth of Australia.”
And beyond, I have to chip in: the first time I interviewed comedian Rich Hall, back in 1998, conversation turned to music and he admitted how much of a Paul Kelly fan he happened to be. It wasn’t just name-dropping – mentioning a local artist to placate an Aussie journo’s parochialism. Hall knew the man’s work intimately.
“He’s obviously a man of good taste,” Wiegard says of the comic, before going on to acknowledge how universally loved both Stories of Me and Paul Kelly might happen to be, judging on the response the trailer has received.
“There are a number of dedicated film sites around the world that comment on trailers, looking at what’s being released around the world, and a bunch of these sites have picked up on the trailer we’ve cut about Paul and been almost amazed that they’ve never heard of the guy before. Hopefully the film will go some way towards broadening his appeal and seeding his music in more locations around the world.”
Paul Kelly: Stories of Me was, according to Wiegard, “very much a passion project” of director Ian Darling, a man who has “a great deal of integrity and a lot of runs on the board”. A quick look at their website reveals Shark Island Productions’ history of brilliant and award-winning documentaries: The Oasis, In The Company of Actors, Alone Across Australia and Woodstock for Capitalists. Of the many people who might have approached Paul Kelly for his cooperation in a doco, Darling was the most likely to get it together. Which is why the film turns out to be “wholly privately financed,” according to Wiegard. “Which is significant,” he adds, his voice dropping down the kind of whispered awe that only someone who’s hustled for finance within the industry can both understand and have: “that’s really rarely the case with feature films in Australia.”
How does it work, I wonder. Surely it wasn’t a crowd-sourced enterprise – we’d all have heard about it and had an opportunity to contribute. Was it some über-fan recapturing a life left behind? A captain of industry, say, who was a regular at Paul Kelly gigs during the inner-city living, record buying, pub-going phase of their student lives, but who left that bohemian milieu for the upper echelons of corporate achievement… I’m not so much imagining the lyrics to a song Paul Kelly hasn’t quite written, as asking Wiegard indirectly if he committed some of his own personal savings in the project. Was he the visionary who went, ‘have this money, I believe in this’?
Australia’s tax rebates, incentivising film investment, is part of the explanation, according to Paul. It’s a case of “a collection of private individuals coming aboard”, he says, rightfully naming Shark Island Productions as “the visionaries”. But, he says, as far as Madman’s involvement is concerned, “it was an absolute ‘no-brainer’”. The key point of negotiation was to ensure there was ample time afforded to putting the final edit together. You’ll know it’s been time and money well spent when you see the film – particularly when you listen to its sound quality.
“I think this is one area that Kelly himself had, let’s say, ‘final cut’ on,” Paul assures me. Whatever technical hurdles appeared, they were jumped. “Without going into the details of it, the recordings are outstanding,” he continues. “It’s a credit to all the techs that have been involved with the film to have produced a work of such a high standard. I’m probably waxing on a little bit too much about that side of it, but they’ve really done an outstanding job of capturing the music.”
Yeah, but as Mr Miyagi might say, “wax on!” It’s a musician that we’re talking about – sound quality is important. But I can’t help myself from wondering, given some parallels (that certain fans will hate me for) – shouldn’t there be an excellent double CD of rare, significant and previously unreleased hits? Okay, I’m thinking in terms of the Dylan doco No Direction Home… No, come back, hear me out…
Before you get all het up, we are talking about another legendary songsmith. And off the top of my head, I’ll point out that ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ is adapted from the same traditional folk source as Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ (the original is a Scottish ballad called ‘Mary Hamilton’). I’m sure there are several other parallels that’d annoy a Paul Kelly fan…
“To date, there are no plans for a soundtrack recording,” Paul assures me. “The purpose of the film is not so much to open up and discover the music that hasn’t been heard previously, as much as to learn a little bit more about Kelly through his music.”
Fair call. And if you are a fan in need of a new release, Spring and Fall, Kelly’s first album in five years, is out now.
Talking at length about this project, it’s easy to forget that Madman is a big company with a massive catalogue of films and television shows. They specialize in art films, anime and even comedy releases – responsible for the Warehouse Comedy series of live performances by the likes of Sam Simmons, Tom Gleeson, Hannah Gadsby, Tom Ballard, Felicity Ward, Denise Scott, Sammy J, Charlie Pickering and Josh Thomas, to offer a significant example (“We have a second series on the way,” Paul assures me). Given the varied genres and the high quality of the different work, you might wonder how Paul approaches the different projects, and which ones lie closer to his heart. You shouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s the local talent that lies closest to this Aussie’s heart.
“As a distributor, we know there are so many different ways to connect with people,” he says. “Working with Australian talent and having that local voice is incredibly satisfying.” According to Wiegard, “it’s a little bit about our own national identity”. Not surprisingly, this is particularly the case with Paul Kelly, whose work is by now part of the Australian collective unconscious.
“There are a whole host of reasons why we’re motivated to do it,” Wiegard continues, outlining some of the projects in which Madman has been successfully involved. In addition to helping bring “a bunch of other films” to fruition, there are “two or three films per year” that the company invests in at the very beginning. They secure “absolute rights”, taking projects “from script” to screen. Examples include Kenny, Animal Kingdom, Snowtown and The Hunter. In the process, Madman helps establish fledgling talents, such as Glendyn Ivan. You may not be as familiar with his first film, Last Ride, as you are with his most recent screen effort, Puberty Blues. Likewise, Matt Saville’s initial offering, Noise – which he scripted – may have passed you by. Not so his subsequent directorial work, such as Cloud Street and “a bunch of comedy” like We Can Be Heroes and the soon-to-be-released Josh Thomas series Please Like Me. “He’s an outstanding young talent,” Paul says.
So what are the motives for getting involved? “It’s always personal. When it comes to distributing films it becomes a very close working relationship, always over an extended period of time.” Distributing a foreign film can be “a little bit hit-and-run”, but working with local filmmakers, often from scratch, is always full on. “And I’ll tell you now,” Paul says, anticipating my next question: “the experience of working with the team at Shark Island has been a nice balance of involvement. There’s been a degree of respect and plenty of points for discussion on the way through the post-production process, for comment and fine-tuning.” There has to be – especially when orchestrating the ‘opening event tour’. It’s been a lot of work, a huge collaboration. And it has paid off: “it’s terrific to see the people rolling out en masse to see the film.”
Okay. I’m talking to the director of the company. He must spend a lot of time deskbound. But he is a co-founder. That means he has to have been an enthusiast – dare I say a ‘film nerd’ – at some stage. What interaction does he have with the projects on a day-to-day level? I mean apart from taking questions from some foolish interstate blogger.
“For anyone who works in the arts, it is a 24-hour job,” Paul says. The day doesn’t really end because there’s always something more that can be done. “The degree of involvement comes down to where you think you can make a genuine contribution that’s going to aid the project. In many cases, our role is one of just helping to bring people together. It’s trying to be that interface between the commerce and the creative.”
Having to juggle the extremes of commerce and creativity 24 hours a day can’t leave much down time to just enjoy watching, surely. Is there ever a time Paul Wiegard can watch a film without constantly analyzing what he’s seeing?
“You go through phases!” Paul says.
“There are times when you’re sitting there watching something for the first time and you’re thinking about the numbers, rather than enjoying it as a pleasure. Most of the exhibitors in this country are watching their films first thing on a Wednesday morning. I don’t know whether you’re quite in the mood, first thing on a Wednesday morning; there are times when it’s certainly not for pleasure.”
An honest answer. But I’m relieved to know that someone in Paul’s position can be successful and still have a soul. The proof is that he does still enjoy films as a casual punter. “There’s nothing more exciting than hanging out for the next Wes Anderson film,” he offers. “If you’re not a fan boy and you don’t have a passion and a love for films, it’s too tough.”
So good to hear. And the answer brings me to what has to be my final question: push comes to shove, Paul Wiegard, what is your favourite film or television show?
There’s a massive pause.
And then a chuckle.
“Do you ask this of everyone?” he asks. He has a soul; he’s just wary of baring it.
But I do ask this question, more-or-less of everyone. I ask comedians who their big influences were that made them want to do stand-up, and which musicians turned other musicians onto music. Of course I want to know what films spark the imaginations of filmmakers.
There’s another pause, shorter this time.
“This’ll be an unusual response,” he begins, “but it’s always in your impressionable years…” He’s interrupted himself abruptly. “How’s this: I’m giving you a caveat already!”
Rightfully, Paul explains, it is the stuff you see early on, when you’re seeing everything for the first time, which impresses you most. So his selections date back to his younger days.
“For me, I’m somewhere in between Blade Runner and a film called Betty Blue; they’re part of growing up. Blade Runner is visionary, and Betty Blue had a sense of romanticism and escapism that took me to another place.”
Perhaps I should point out the irony regarding Betty Blue, at least: certainly, it’s a love story about escapism. More than that, however, the gorgeous but erratic Betty has what we, in these politically correct times, would call ‘mental health issues’. That’s Paul’s favourite film. And he went on to create and run a company called ‘Madman Entertainment’.
But clearly, the more significant point is that the films Paul Wiegard finds most inspirational are artistic, creative and very successful. No irony there whatsoever.
I should probably tell you where the film's showing, but chances are the DVD and Bluray are out by the time you read this. Own it for Christmas; it's a great doco.