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A new generation of young filmmakers has taken a vital chapter of Australian war history as the subject matter for a film that takes us back to the forging of an Australian legend: Kokoda. This is the story of how they did it.

Deep, squelching brown mud grips the worn-out boots of a soldier as he drags himself wearily up a hillside, his platoon straggling across the New Guinea terrain at the place seared into the Australian psyche, known as the Kokoda track. So begins a new Australian film that dramatically captures those terrible days and nights that have become legendary in the history of Australia.


Alister Grierson first became inspired by the story of Kokoda after his brother came back from walking the track and was astounded by the enormity of the history there and that it was still a largely unfilmed story from World War II – other than Damien Parer’s excellent documentary footage of the time. He began researching what he found to be an epic story of the struggle of the unsung heroes of the ‘chocolate soldiers’ (volunteers who were used to carry food and other supplies). What rapidly became obvious was that it would be impossible to tell the whole story so he began thinking about a way “to collapse it down into something more accessible in 90 minutes, so we came up with the lost patrol concept. We worked it out in treatment form, wrote the story for the lost patrol and gathered all the ideas together, then we approached writer John Lonie to write the first draft.”

Made largely by a creative team of graduates from Australian Film Television and Radio School (class of 2004), Kokoda is based on events that happened just prior to the battle of Isurava in 1942, where one of several standing patrols who were positioned about an hour outside of Isurava got cut off from the main patrols when the battle began.

As co-writer and director Grierson explains “it’s the nature of the terrain that’s a constant theme of the battles in New Guinea, individuals and groups getting cut off from supply lines all the time. So this patrol was cut off, not lost, and had to fight their way back over three or four days. In fact it was more than a patrol, it was about 60 men in the jungle fighting to get back to Isurava. When that group finally did get back to Isurava, they heard that the battle was going badly for the 39th battalion so even though they hadn’t eaten or slept for three or four days and all of them had dysentery or malaria to some degree or another, they joined a parade of sick and wounded and made their way back to join the battle because they thought that was what the 39th Battalion expected of them and the stakes were so high.

“That’s a true story and that’s what blew us away because we thought there’s something really powerful in that, that captures the essence of the Kokoda experience; of course not having the resources to tell a massive story of about 30 or 40 guys we reduced it down to a unit of about 10 men who operate as this patrol.”

Grierson was aware that trying to make the film on location would have been impossible because the terrain is so unmanageable with steep rocky inclines and incredibly dense jungle but it is also quite alien with regards to the sounds, the light and the mood. “It was really important for me to get the cinematographer, Jules O’Loughlin, there to see the light, to see the conditions, to start to develop his own idea of a palette that we could work with and the same for the sound designer, to listen to the place, to get a sense of it so that they could imbue the project with that. I think those two are the most important for doing that, I would have loved to have had my composer (John Gray) up there because we were able to meet some New Guinean musicians and did some basic sound recording of singing and percussion, and I think it would have been a fantastic influence for John but financially it was impossible, but that was great exercise to get the team motivated.”


As a start to the research O’Loughlin found it vitally important that he could get a feel for Kokoda and took away from the experience plenty of tools and ideas that would bring authenticity to the film. While there he wanted to learn a little about “how it felt under the conditions which these guys fought in and also to go there to get a feel for the light, what it’s like under the canopy, what the jungle canopy is like in New Guinea and the kind of light that permeates the canopy in different kind of conditions, what it’s like when it becomes misty, what it’s like at night, when it rains, all the different kind of atmospheric conditions that effect the play of light in the jungle.”

In addition to the New Guinea trip O’Loughlin also studied the accounts of campaigns by historians, particularly Peter Brune and archival photos and descriptions of the war from survivors. “There are a lot of accounts of servicemen who describe the conditions and the environment in which they fought. The environment played such a huge part in their experience. It was so hostile – the descriptions of how it felt at night, the intensity of the rain, the frequency and overpowering presence of the jungle mist, the energy sapping humidity - that served as the starting point of how we were going to treat the film. In addition, I looked at the films of Damien Parer and the photographs of George Silk which gave us a real vision and an impression, a very realistic one, of what conditions were like there. Then from there we branched out and looked at a lot of films and got hold of a book called Images of War, which is a collection of WW2 paintings and that was a big influence on the look of the film.”

One of Grierson’s major concerns was where, if not New Guinea, could they film that would allow them to recreate effectively the landscape? No one wanted to make a film that could not capture the essence of what these brave men did so it was fortuitus that their Production Designer, Nick McCallum, was working on Answered By Fire (which is set in East Timor) at the time. McCallum was keen to be involved in the project, having read the script and he already knew of some great locations to introduce them to.

Grierson recalls looking at the images that McCallum had brought with him to their first meeting at Brisbane airport on their way back from New Guinea; “we looked at the stills and we were just blown away as we thought ‘wow, that looks just like where we have just been’ and he said ‘well, that’s in the hinterland of the Gold Coast’, so after the meeting we organised another visit to Queensland for a recce. Nick drove straight to these locations and it was astonishing that these tiny pockets of rain forest exist in the hinterland. It was this strange experience of driving in right past someone’s house and you think ‘I can’t make a movie here, there’s a house and cows and dams just round the corner there’ but it occurred to me that once you have contained the frame, you’ve got incredible flexibility. We were able to find abut 10 different locations all within a small radius of each other that clearly represented New Guinea and that was just an amazing blessing.”

The locations had magically fallen into place and Nick McCallum not only bought his own wealth of experience, he also brought with him an experienced Queensland crew that he had worked with previously.

" every young male’s fantasy to participate"

As a film written for a large ensemble cast it was also going to be of some importance to secure a strong and talented cast of young men. For this they contacted respected casting director Nikki Barrett who also thought the script was impressive and who, even before the funding was confirmed, voluntarily undertook to do the research and read the texts that Grierson recommended so when the film got green lit and the film were ‘on the radar’. The response from all the agents was instant; it’s every young male’s fantasy to participate in a film like this.

Having such a wide pool of great actors to cast from was a joy for Grierson. Each of the roles was written with specific characteristics and he wanted actors that naturally had some of the qualities of the soldiers, especially knowing how gruelling, both physically and emotionally, the roles were going to be. “Casting it was a challenge because once the script was out there every young male actor in the country wanted to be in the film. It was exciting to have access to that sort of calibre of actor and to generate that level of excitement. Difficult because, with an ensemble of 10, we had to see several hundred people to reduce that down. We hadn’t written it with anyone in mind and we were open to who would come along. We had so many kinds of wonderful accents, some people just leapt out straight away as the characters and we didn’t have to look any further; some of the roles were difficult to cast because of the complexities of the characters. The Jack character is kind of the main character and a difficult role to cast because he is very complex. Trying to find someone who would capture all the elements that we needed was really difficult but in the end, though a kind of synchronicity, I think we got the perfect guy in the county to play that character because so many of the qualities of the character are in him as a man.”

That man was Jack Finsterer (Strange Fits of Passion) who felt a natural affinity to the character of Jack Scholt for a number of reasons. “Mainly there’s the place of Kokoda in the Australian story and what those men did up there. On my mother’s side of the family (Irish/Australian) we had relatives who fought up there. She tells stories of when she was growing up in the war in Sydney and men from Kokoda, friends of cousins or whatever, would come and stay when they were on leave so it had a very significant resonance for me on that level and then to see this terrific script. Then there’s the fact that I play the character of Jack who is half German - and my name is Jack and I’m half German.”

As the casting went on Alister was becoming more comfortable about having the right actors to play these men. “One of the things we discovered, with the Bourke character for example, Luke (Ford) who plays that role, just was that character, and that’s one of those weird experiences when you are making a film when you just think ‘is that guy acting?’ and you can never quite work it out. So that was really a blessing to have a wonderful ensemble of actors who are so committed to the project as soon as they started to do the research and started to meet the diggers and historians and get embedded in the material that the level of emotion commitment from them was really profound and they really quite fell in love with the project and that kind of love transposes itself onto the screen.”

Published April 20, 2006

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On set


Alister Grierson

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