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Homing pigeons that wouldn’t home, ships wrecked on the rocks, wild weather and soul-draining isolation are some of the elements that attracted (yes, attracted) Shirley Barrett to make a film about soul-draining isolation, wild weather, etc, etc. as she explains in this statement accompanying her latest film, South Solitary.

While researching another film about whaling around the Eden South Coast area, I stayed at Green Cape Lighthouse and chanced upon their log books which were really interesting. There had been a really terrible shipwreck down there, and the assistant light keepers had to go and rescue all the people who were drowning. It was fascinating reading because one of the assistant’s cottages became the temporary morgue!

So the idea for South Solitary was borne of many long happy hours in the State Library reading accounts of life on remote Tasmanian lighthouse islands – particularly Maatsuyker, Tasman and Deal Islands – before the advent of radio communications.

They were thrilling stories of homing pigeons that wouldn't home, precipitous haulage ways up which provisions were perilously landed, supply ships endlessly delayed by bad weather, and of course, the infamous tale of the body preserved in the bathtub. Insatiable for lighthouse lore after all this, I delved into the National Archives where the original logbooks kept by the lightkeepers are stored, and here their lonely isolated world opened up even more. In the Remarks columns of the 1927 logbooks of Maatsuyker Island, tersely worded accounts emerged of one Assistant Keeper endlessly putting locks on the doors of his quarters (who amongst the other keepers did he not trust?), and finally succumbing to a haemorrhage from the lungs. I wondered if this was the after-effects of gas, and whether this Keeper had been a returned soldier.

"life on these remote outposts"

One aspect I found particularly touching about life on these remote outposts was how attached the keepers and their families became to their animals. The homing pigeons were so lovingly tended they showed a marked reluctance to leave, which was a problem if the message they needed to relay was urgent. One lighthouse keeper's daughter talked of doting on a chicken, which she'd put in a high chair and fed like a baby, explaining plaintively “It was something alive, you see.” Idiosyncratic behaviour amongst livestock was not only tolerated, but practically indulged – a horse on Tasman Island would regularly release the taps and empty the water-tanks; a goat on South Solitary Island was well-known for his tendency to bail up the women in their own kitchens. These animals had become companions to these people in their isolation, and this general theme of our great human need for companionship began to emerge as the script took shape.

Once the script was written, Marian (McGowan, producer) and I gamely embarked on the first of several epic trips to find the perfect location. Of course, right from the outset, I doggedly insisted on shooting on Maatsuyker Island, the southernmost lighthouse island in the Southern hemisphere, known for its stunning topography and wild weather. It was helicopter access only and even then, there was no guarantee the helicopter would actually be able to land. The budget practically tripled. Finally I grudgingly conceded on this point, and after an extensive search which included England and Ireland, we finally settled on mainland Victoria - in particular, rugged Cape Nelson with its classic whitewashed lighthouse cottages and spectacular cliffs and Cape Otway, in which beautiful lighthouse we filmed the prism lens and service room interiors.

Miranda (Otto) and I had worked together very happily many years ago on Love Serenade, and I had written the part of Meredith with her in mind. We had a lovely collaboration on this. We would pore over 1927 issues of the Australian Ladies Home Journal and Hobart Mercury. We would imagine what movies Meredith wanted to see, and what clothes she would be attempting to fashion for herself. We would write letters to each other in character (I was her passive-aggressive best friend, Myra). She is a wonderfully gifted actress, and I think her performance is absolutely beautiful in its detail and heart and humour. I give her all the credit, as she requires practically no direction!

"it was the weather that plagued us"

But I feel very fortunate with all my wonderful cast and indeed, my crew. They threw themselves into our world with gusto and good humour, and it wasn't always easy. The haulage was referred to grimly as The Appallage, owing to its extreme steepness and slipperiness. The lighthouse service room was every bit as awkward and cramped as it looks on film – if you were over 5 foot 8, you were perpetually smashing your head on the gantry above, and we lived in fear of plummeting down the perilous lighthouse stairwell. Cape Otway lighthouse is purported to have its own ghost, and certainly some vexatious spirit was messing about with our lanterns up there, causing our Gaffer much grief.

But mostly it was the weather that plagued us. I had a vision (always dangerous in a director) of our imaginary island being a perpetually grim and overcast place, with perhaps just a small patch of sunshine permitted at the end of the film as love blossoms between our two leads. Of course, no sooner had we unpacked the cameras from the truck and commenced arguing about where to point them when a hitherto unheard-of high pressure system moved in and settled itself tidily over a five-kilometre radius of our lighthouse. Aghast, we dived indoors and filmed every last one of our interior scenes, but still these unseasonably fine and warm conditions prevailed. Not a cloud in the sky! “We never get this weather at this time of year!” the locals informed us gleefully while pocketing the vast sums we spent drinking in their bars. Our second A.D. spent his life harassing weather forecasters while standing on the one patch of elevated terrain where phone reception actually worked; our First A.D.- normally a cheerful fellow - was to be found slump-shouldered at the lunch table, staring mournfully at the tattered remains of his schedule.

And yet... and yet, the clouds finally came..... just enough to shoot the most critical scenes. How our spirits soared. Miranda practically skipped onto set. It was a long time after the shoot before any of us were able to open our curtains in the morning and feel any kind of normal gladdening of the heart at the sight of a sunshiny day.

The animals were as much a comfort to us in these difficult times as they must have been to the original light keepers. The lambs particularly were doted upon – pin-ups of Bill, the cutest lamb of all (seen with Miranda in the opening sequence) lined the make-up bus. And yet it was our older sheep, Sausage, who carried all the more demanding scenes. Oddly enough, it became apparent that Sausage saw himself as more than mere set dressing; he had given some serious thought to his performance. Keeping a wary eye on what lens we were using, he could often be seen craning his head up to ensure he remained in shot, and on more than one occasion, he would adlib a timely bleat here or there where he sensed a dull spot in my writing (sometimes virtually saving the scene in so doing). I believe Sausage has retired from the business now to pursue a more pastoral lifestyle on our grip's farm, but his performance endures onscreen.

"skill, artistry, passion and resourcefulness"

We didn't have a lot of money to make South Solitary, but with all that combined skill, artistry, passion and resourcefulness, it turns out we had just enough. Speaking for myself, I have to say it's been one of the most joyful and satisfying collaborative experiences of my life.

Published July 29, 2010

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Shirley Barrett


Australian release: July 29, 2010

Written & directed by Shirley Barrett
Meredith (Miranda Otto) and her officious, proper and demanding uncle (Barry Otto) are sent to the isolated lighthouse on remote and rugged South Solitary island shortly after World War I, to take over after the death of the head light keeper. The small supporting family living there, Harry (Rohan Nichol) and his steely wife (Essie Davis) with their three young children, provide little comfort, and the sullen, introverted junior keeper, Fleet (Marton Csokas), is the only other inhabitant. After a series of mishaps, Meredith is left alone with Fleet, a horse and Lucille the lamb … and her demons. These two damaged people have to make an accommodation with the wild weather and themselves to try and survive.

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