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JACKMAN & WHITE: ERSKINEVILLE KINGS

AUSTRALIAN MEN V THE MYTHS
Erskineville Kings is an ironic title for a drama about two brothers trying to face their family demons within their respective male psyches; writer/director Alan White and co-star Hugh Jackman talk to ANDREW L. URBAN on a footpath in Noosa.

It's a sunny Sunday morning in Noosa, and there is more than the usual street traffic in the Queensland resort as the inaugural Noosa Film Festival starts its fourth day. At the five screen cinema in Sunshine Beach Road, the competition screening of Erskineville Kings has just begun. Writer/director Alan White and star Hugh Jackman have introduced the film and are now sitting in the cinema café at an outside table, doing the publicity work. And loving it.

"Australian men have a more complex essence"

"Our film," says White generously, "is a maverick in the film business, so I feel 'sympatico' with Noosa; it's an independent festival without any Government support and that's how we made our film, so we're very comfortable. Luke, (Davis, the festival director) is a good, honest bloke and I'm happy being in Competition - it has kudos even now, though the real credibility will have to come as the event grows."

His first film explores the contemporary young Australian male psyche - with restrained drama and subtle shading. Barky (Marty Denniss) returns home to the Sydney suburb of Erskineville for his father’s funeral, after escaping two years previously from his drunken abuse. He had left behind his girlfriend Lanny (Marin Mimica), his friends and his brother Wace (Hugh Jackman). Although his father is no longer alive, the grievances and baggage that Barky and Wace harbour from their torn household are.

"We all had a deep belief," says White, "that males in Australian film tended to be caricatures rather than characters. We feel that Australian men have a more complex essence. Mythically, he is seen as removed and enigmatic, but where do we see that portryed? Except in films like Sunday Too Far Away. So we wanted to see contemporary Australian males."

For Jackman, the role is a chance to explore the conflict of a young man "between 'you' and what people see you as or want you to be."

White, a Los Angeles based Australian, is a deft hand at making tv commercials. "I went to Los Angeles," he explains, "because an American production company offered to finance Erskineville Kings if I went there and directed tv commercials for them. It was part of the contrcat."

"Risk represents being seen as a legitimate film director"

That may go down as the most unusual method of financing a feature film for an Australian, but also shows the typical can-do attitude of our filmmakers. His next film, Risk, is already financed (with Bryan Brown signed to star), but with more a traditional Australian government supported financing structure, also involving local and international distributors.

"For me," says White, "Risk represents being seen as a legitimate film director. It was always difficult to overcome the stigma that as a tv ad director I can direct action but can't tell stories. . . that's the mistaken view of tv commercial directors." Clearly, Erskineville Kings helped his reputation no end.

It is his first feature, as it was for everyone on the shoot. "We prepared a lot," he says. But there was something about the project that resonated with everyone who got involved. Jackman says he "really wanted the role 100 per cent. The quality of the writing is unsurpassed and I had a good gut feeling about it. So did my wife (actress Deborrah Lee Furness), who reads everything that comes in…She said it is a turning point for Australian films, as well as one for me."

It was Jackman's first movie role, completed just before he began work on Paperback Hero (pic). (But as it sometimes happens, the latter was released before Erskineville Kings.)

The only reservation came from Jackman's agent: she worried it may turn out to be 'angry young Aussie blokes at the pub' and damage Jackman's image as a romantic lead, based on his stage work in musicals like Oklahoma and Sunset Boulevard. "But being in a pub in Erskineville," says Alan White, jabbing a metaphorical finger in our chest, "doesn't mean you're a fool. . ."

"a true actor can intellectualise a character"

Jackman and White were strangers when Jackman auditioned for the role, but they were both certain about their respective decisions: "Alan and I both tend to be indicisive," Jackman admits, "but not with this." When casting Jackman, White was aware how some people had pigeon-holed Jackman as the song and dance man. "But a true actor can intellectualise a character and locate something inside…"

White is looking forward to making Risk; "If I succeed with it, I'll get under the skin of big business as Erskineville Kings gets under the skin of young guys growing up in a big city." As we finish our coffee, White admits he is hoping to secure Jackman for the co-starring role in Risk, and the deal is subject only to Jackman's schedule. "I see Bryan Brown as Australia's John Travolta - and both he and Hugh are like the Everyman of their respective generations, and the Everyman of each generation has something to say to everybody.

Risk (shooting from October 17, 1999 in Sydney) is the story of a young guy unable to get a secure job in the insurance industry, and becomes an unwitting part of his boss' very clever scam. By the time he discovers it, he's in too deep and is intoxicated by what it brings him. To give an idea of where the film is 'coming from' creatively, White says "The Apartment is one of my all time favourite films and Jack Lemmon's character really appeals…"

"hard hitting, yet surprisingly subtle"

Erskineville Kings is "hard hitting, yet surprisingly subtle, Alan White’s debut feature is a moody film with undercurrent to burn. It is beautifully shot with lingering glimpses of the street, the train station, the shop fronts, all setting the scene of suburban Erskineville," says one of our critics, Louise Keller. A working class inner city suburb of Sydney, Erskineville plays an important element in the film, giving the characters both cultural and physical context; cultural specificity, as does Notting Hill in the film, Coronation Street in the old soap, or Alice Springs in A Town like Alice, among many examples.

Jackman's enthusiasm for the role was rewarded by its demands. "I loved the idea that as men we try to find our spot, somewhere we're comfortable and hold on to that. Wace is just beyond that point of having a window in which he can show his true inner self, and his brother is really someone who he has decided to be. That's the conflict between them."

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