Film poster (above) and trailer (below)
âI canât imagine how many times Paul Kelly must have been approached over the years to make his story,â Paul Wiegard insists. âItâs just one of those wonderful talesâ¦â
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 â Stories of Me. At this yearâs Melbourne Film Festival, Stories of Me sold out pretty quickly â and was the first film of that festival to do so.
More impressively, to launch its cinema release, Darlingâs undertaken a national tour of theatre venues for âspecial eventâ screenings in which the filmâs followed by live talks with the director and Paul Kelly. The first weekend â featuring a screening in Brisbane and Sydney â 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).
âNice result, hey!â Wiegard acknowledges, rightfully proud.
Although itâs possible that you donât know why Paul Wiegard is rightfully proud. Or who he is. Or why Iâd be talking to him about this. Rest assured: youâve enjoyed the fruits of his labour, even if this is the first time youâve 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 (âart-house, world cinema, docos and animeâ their website boasts) also develops films from the ground up. Paul Kelly â Stories of Me is one of theirs. And Iâm pleased that when a press release about the filmâs 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 â hoping not to stretch the friendship â is to quite literally âset the record straightâ. Why is the record that Stories of Me has broken significant? In whose footsteps does it follow?
âGood question,â Paul replies. Advising that the answer might be âlayered in a number of waysâ, he layers it this way: the âlive tourâ is an âinnovative âeventâ releaseâ, the likes of which doesnât 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 Careyâs Concert, last year. And these are both in the Top 10 list of Box Office results or Australian documentaries. So Paulâs âNice result, hey!â is laconic understatement, one of the Madman managing directorâs endearing traits.
âSo,â he continues, âthe significance here is itâs unusual to take feature films â and in this case, feature documentaries â and project them onto the big screen. Weâre very much looking forward to seeing how the filmâs going to come up down in Melbourneâs Hamer Hall in November, where thereâll be approximately 2000 in attendance. Itâs got an enormous capacity; itâs an enormous venue.â
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
â Paul Wiegard must be anticipating a triumphant showing in that town.
âItâs funny â as a Melbournian, I think that,â Wiegard agrees. âBut 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 guyâs been quite the âjourney manââ â in this instance meaning âtravelerâ rather than the traditional term for a tradesman in that phase between apprenticeship and master craftsman â âforever jumping on a plane, train or automobile to regional Australia to perform and work with our indigenous population.â
So yes, Paul concurs, since he lives there, Kelly is âvery much quintessentially Melbournian in some respects but his career spans the width and breadth of Australia.â
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 wasnât just name-dropping â mentioning a local artist to placate an Aussie journoâs parochialism. Hall knew the manâs work intimately.
âHeâs obviously a man of good taste,â 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.
âThere are a number of dedicated film sites around the world that comment on trailers, looking at whatâs being released around the world, and a bunch of these sites have picked up on the trailer weâve cut about Paul and been almost amazed that theyâve 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.â
Paul Kelly: Stories of Me was, according to Wiegard, âvery much a passion projectâ of director Ian Darling, a man who has âa great deal of integrity and a lot of runs on the boardâ. A quick look at their website reveals Shark Island Productionsâ 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 âwholly privately financed,â according to Wiegard. âWhich is significant,â he adds, his voice dropping down the kind of whispered awe that only someone whoâs hustled for finance within the industry can both understand and have: âthatâs really rarely the case with feature films in Australia.â
How does it work, I wonder. Surely it wasnât a crowd-sourced enterprise â weâd all have heard about it and had an opportunity to contribute. Was it some Ã¼ber-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 achievementâ¦ Iâm not so much imagining the lyrics to a song Paul Kelly hasnât quite written, as asking Wiegard indirectly if he committed some of his own personal savings in the project. Was he the visionary who went, âhave this money, I believe in thisâ?
Australiaâs tax rebates, incentivising film investment, is part of the explanation, according to Paul. Itâs a case of âa collection of private individuals coming aboardâ, he says, rightfully naming Shark Island Productions as âthe visionariesâ. But, he says, as far as Madmanâs involvement is concerned, âit was an absolute âno-brainerââ. The key point of negotiation was to ensure there was ample time afforded to putting the final edit together. Youâll know itâs been time and money well spent when you see the film â particularly when you listen to its sound quality.
âI think this is one area that Kelly himself had, letâs say, âfinal cutâ on,â Paul assures me. Whatever technical hurdles appeared, they were jumped. âWithout going into the details of it, the recordings are outstanding,â he continues. âItâs a credit to all the techs that have been involved with the film to have produced a work of such a high standard. Iâm probably waxing on a little bit too much about that side of it, but theyâve really done an outstanding job of capturing the music.â
Yeah, but as Mr Miyagi might say, âwax on!â Itâs a musician that weâre talking about â sound quality is important. But I canât help myself from wondering, given some parallels (that certain fans will hate me for) â shouldnât there be an excellent double CD of rare, significant and previously unreleased hits? Okay, Iâm thinking in terms of the Dylan doco No Direction Homeâ¦ No, come back, hear me outâ¦
Before you get all het up, we are talking about another legendary songsmith. And off the top of my head, Iâll point out that âFrom Little Things Big Things Growâ is adapted from the same traditional folk source as Dylanâs âThe Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrollâ (the original is a Scottish ballad called âMary Hamiltonâ). Iâm sure there are several other parallels thatâd annoy a Paul Kelly fanâ¦
âTo date, there are no plans for a soundtrack recording,â Paul assures me. âThe purpose of the film is not so much to open up and discover the music that hasnât been heard previously, as much as to learn a little bit more about Kelly through his music.â
Fair call. And if you are a fan in need of a new release, Spring and Fall, Kellyâs first album in five years, is out now.
Talking at length about this project, itâs 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 â 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 (âWe have a second series on the way,â 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 shouldnât be surprised to discover itâs the local talent that lies closest to this Aussieâs heart.
âAs a distributor, we know there are so many different ways to connect with people,â he says. âWorking with Australian talent and having that local voice is incredibly satisfying.â According to Wiegard, âitâs a little bit about our own national identityâ. Not surprisingly, this is particularly the case with Paul Kelly, whose work is by now part of the Australian collective unconscious.
âThere are a whole host of reasons why weâre motivated to do it,â Wiegard continues, outlining some of the projects in which Madman has been successfully involved. In addition to helping bring âa bunch of other filmsâ to fruition, there are âtwo or three films per yearâ that the company invests in at the very beginning. They secure âabsolute rightsâ, taking projects âfrom scriptâ 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 Savilleâs initial offering, Noise â which he scripted â may have passed you by. Not so his subsequent directorial work, such as Cloud Street and âa bunch of comedyâ like We Can Be Heroes and the soon-to-be-released Josh Thomas series Please Like Me. âHeâs an outstanding young talent,â Paul says.
So what are the motives for getting involved? âItâs always personal. When it comes to distributing films it becomes a very close working relationship, always over an extended period of time.â Distributing a foreign film can be âa little bit hit-and-runâ, but working with local filmmakers, often from scratch, is always full on. âAnd Iâll tell you now,â Paul says, anticipating my next question: âthe experience of working with the team at Shark Island has been a nice balance of involvement. Thereâs been a degree of respect and plenty of points for discussion on the way through the post-production process, for comment and fine-tuning.â There has to be â especially when orchestrating the âopening event tourâ. Itâs been a lot of work, a huge collaboration. And it has paid off: âitâs terrific to see the people rolling out en masse to see the film.â
Okay. Iâm 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 â dare I say a âfilm nerdâ â 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.
âFor anyone who works in the arts, it is a 24-hour job,â Paul says. The day doesnât really end because thereâs always something more that can be done. âThe degree of involvement comes down to where you think you can make a genuine contribution thatâs going to aid the project. In many cases, our role is one of just helping to bring people together. Itâs trying to be that interface between the commerce and the creative.â
Having to juggle the extremes of commerce and creativity 24 hours a day canât leave much down time to just enjoy watching, surely. Is there ever a time Paul Wiegard can watch a film without constantly analyzing what heâs seeing?
âYou go through phases!â Paul says.
âThere are times when youâre sitting there watching something for the first time and youâre 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 donât know whether youâre quite in the mood, first thing on a Wednesday morning; there are times when itâs certainly not for pleasure.â
An honest answer. But Iâm relieved to know that someone in Paulâs position can be successful and still have a soul. The proof is that he does still enjoy films as a casual punter. âThereâs nothing more exciting than hanging out for the next Wes Anderson film,â he offers. âIf youâre not a fan boy and you donât have a passion and a love for films, itâs too tough.â
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?
Thereâs a massive pause.
And then a chuckle.
âDo you ask this of everyone?â he asks. He has a soul; heâs 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.
Thereâs another pause, shorter this time.
âThisâll be an unusual response,â he begins, âbut itâs always in your impressionable yearsâ¦â Heâs interrupted himself abruptly. âHowâs this: Iâm giving you a caveat already!â
Rightfully, Paul explains, it is the stuff you see early on, when youâre seeing everything for the first time, which impresses you most. So his selections date back to his younger days.
âFor me, Iâm somewhere in between Blade Runner and a film called Betty Blue; theyâre part of growing up. Blade Runner is visionary, and Betty Blue had a sense of romanticism and escapism that took me to another place.â
Perhaps I should point out the irony regarding Betty Blue, at least: certainly, itâs a love story about escapism. More than that, however, the gorgeous but erratic Betty has what we, in these politically correct times, would call âmental health issuesâ. Thatâs Paulâs favourite film. And he went on to create and run a company called âMadman Entertainmentâ.
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.