The Zen of Bennett / Tony Bennett
Louise Leitch doesn’t mince words when talking about New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s one of the most exciting things in my career, in my life,” she says, quite matter-of-factly.
Leitch, an Australian-born director living in New Zealand, entered her short film Whakatiki into the festival as a “work in progress”, with no grading or sound mixing. Even in this form, a Tribeca programmer fell in love with it.
“An A-list festival can unlock further post-production funding,” Leitch says, “which it did for us.” Last month, the polished final print of Whakatiki was one of 59 short films to premiere at Tribeca. Within a few weeks, it opened doors that, she believes, not even the revered Cannes Film Festival could have opened.
“I think of New York as a very vibrant and exciting centre,” says Leitch. “We were keen to come here and reach out to US production companies and distributors with some of our other ideas. What we’re looking at developing sits more in this market than in some of the European arthouse markets.”
Though she had previously directed many hours of Neighbours and Home and Away, Whakatiki is her first narrative film, and she doesn’t apologise for being thrilled. A more seasoned filmmaker, of course, might take Tribeca more casually. Yet Dion Beebe, the Aussie cinematographer who filmed Chicago and won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha, still gets a buzz from having a film in Tribeca. “There’s always excitement to having your work screened,” he says.
It’s impressive how much buzz Tribeca generates, especially considering how new this festival still is. A response to 9/11, it was established by Robert De Niro and film producer Jane Rosenthal to inject more vitality into downtown Manhattan’s depressed TriBeCa district, and “redefine the film festival experience”. In only a decade, it has become one of the world’s most valued film festivals.
Whakatiki \ Aylissa Mataiti
But while it has an international program, it has showcased relatively few Australian films. These have ranged from Eric Bana’s documentary Love the Beast (2008) to dramas such as One Perfect Day (2003), Accidents Happen (2009), and last year’s Grey Matter, whose Australian production was overshadowed by the fact that it was also Rwanda’s first feature film.
This year, three Australian directors saw their films unveiled in Tribeca. But for novice filmmakers encouraged by that, bear in mind a few things. Of the 5950 films submitted this year, only 149 made the program. What’s more, even the makers of those short films weren’t actually novices.
Leitch ran a government film production unit before entering television. Zak Hilditch, the Perth-born writer-director of Transmission, has already directed three low-budget features, and entered films into Tribeca seven times before he finally struck gold with this 13-minute short. “That’s what makes this even sweeter,” he says. “Those seven years of no, and then that one year of yes. It just proves that nothing’s easy. It definitely wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you that much.”
Transmission, set in a world where most people have fallen to a deadly pandemic, was never envisioned as the breakthrough film. It was made simply as a calling card to raise funds for a feature, These Final Hours, about humanity preparing for the end of planet Earth.
With such topics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hilditch is a nihilist. Meeting him in New York, his only complaint is how difficult it is to find good coffee there, after several years enjoying cafés in Melbourne and Sydney. “I think that the movie [Transmission] gives a sense of hope,” he says, “leaving it up to the viewers.”
Story-wise, Transmission has nothing to do with These Final Hours, which begins filming later this year. “It’s more of a tonal and mood companion piece,” he says. These Final Hours will not clarify the reasons for Earth’s impending doom, but it’s not a pandemic. His spot at Tribeca has already helped him land funding for the feature – which, he hopes, will mean that he never needs to make another short film.
Whakatiki Director Louise Leitch (R) on the set with Jim Moriarty
Among other things, Transmission is notable for the performance by 11-year-old Perth actor Angourie Rice, who also visited Tribeca with her parents, seeking an agent.
With the number of Hollywood power players watching, the festival has been a springboard for talent on both sides of the camera; it also gave early career boosts to actors Jason Gann and Clayton Jacobson, director Kriv Stenders and others.
Transmission was filmed in Western Australia, 2½ hours east of Perth. The outback can be a desolate place – which is possibly why Australians, despite our sunny attitude, do apocalyptic movies so well. “It’s got a lot to do with the geography,” says Hilditch laughing, “but also maybe budget. You can go there, and you don’t have to do too much. You can convey that some bad stuff’s going down [using] what is already there.”
Whakatiki, meanwhile, is very much a New Zealand film – a glimpse into Maori culture amidst the greenery of the New Zealand bush. In fact, it was moving to New Zealand that gave Louise Leitch a chance to make films. In Australia, television had been keeping her too busy.
“If I went into television drama, I could be doing it all the time,” she says. “It gave me a solid background into the whole craft of directing, and I tried to do as much production work as I could within that fast-turnaround environment. But yes, I did hanker to make film projects.
“At that time [I was] so busy, immersed in television drama, I didn’t have any room to think about doing anything else. While I did hanker for it, I didn’t know how to bring it to creation and still support myself financially.”
The answer came after she moved with her husband to his home land of New Zealand: “It was the perfect time and perfect opportunity to make that happen.”
Transmission \ Angourie Rice
She has now lived in New Zealand for eight years. “I’m seen as an Australian, but certainly with a commitment to living in New Zealand. The [NZ] Film Commission has treated me very well.”
In Whakatiki (the name of a river in the film, but fittingly, it is also Maori for “to rise up”), an overweight Maori woman suffering from low self-esteem and an unhappy marriage learns to connect with her true self. Scripted by New Zealand writer Bernadette Murphy, it is a fascinating glimpse into Maori tradition. Not typical fare for an Australian director.
“Obviously, in Australia we work and meet with Kiwis all the time, but it doesn’t mean that you get down into a deeper level of understanding of Maori culture. The cast were really great at steering me in any direction that was more culturally accurate than another.”
At Tribeca, she was pitching three features with her production team, all New Zealand stories to varying degrees. She ponders whether she would have made it so far had she tried to break into the Australian film industry. “The perception would be that it’s a bigger sized market, so it’s the next level of competition. I don’t know what success I would have had. I persevered to get into Australian television and I did it, and I was successful, so I’d like to think that I could have done the same in film – and maybe one day I will.”
A highlight among the documentaries at Tribeca, The Zen of Bennett is a glimpse into the life and career of crooner Tony Bennett, still sharp at 85, as he records his album Duets II.
Transmission \ Zak Hilditch
Though he is known for big-budget Hollywood movies, Dion Beebe was approached for this film by Danny Bennett, Tony’s son and manager, whom he had known since filming the 2006 TV special Tony Bennett: An American Classic.
“Danny wanted to make a definitive film about Tony that followed the recording of his album,” says Unjoo Moon, Zen’s director, “but it wasn’t about the making of an album. It was really about his life and philosophy, and his approach to the artistic process.”
Moon, Beebe’s wife, is a former ABC TV reporter and Australian Film Television and Radio School graduate, who won an award as a student in 1999 for her short film Sorrow’s Child. For The Zen of Bennett, her first feature, she recorded much of Tony Bennett’s wisdom – and indeed, showed it in action.
“What we really witnessed is that Tony sees himself as an eternal student,” she says. “Even at the age of 85, he still feels that there’s so much more to learn. I’ve seen his concert so many times, maybe a dozen times. What’s really incredible is that, every time you see that concert, there’s something different about it. It’s exactly the same music. It’s almost exactly the same words in between the songs. But every time Tony sings the song, he sings it in a different way. It makes every time you watch a concert really quite special.”
The Zen of Bennett / Unjoo Moon
As witnesses in the recording studio, Moon and Beebe filmed an all-star cast. We see Lady Gaga flirting shamelessly with Bennett, Andrea Bocelli upstaging him, John Mayer leaving him worried, and the last footage of Amy Winehouse, as Bennett regales her with personal stories about one of her jazz heroes, Dinah Washington. In the film, Winehouse notes sadly that Washington died so young.
“She wasn’t even 40.” After Winehouse herself died only months later, this became the most poignant moment in the film. She was 27.
“You see this girl as a really interesting, vulnerable, but very special recording artist,” says Beebe. “It was very shocking for us that [her death] happened. You see that footage and you wouldn’t have thought it.”
The Zen of Bennett had excellent reviews after Tribeca, and is still visiting festivals. The filmmakers will introduce it to the Sydney Film Festival in June, though unlike in Tribeca, the subject himself will not join them. While Sydney gets under way, he will be accompanying the film to the Tuscan Sun Festival in Florence.
The Zen of Bennett / Dion Beebe
In the weeks since Tribeca, Whakatiki has also won interest from US and UK distributors, as well as meetings with US producers to discuss feature-film projects from Leitch and her production team. Transmission has had some positive feedback, and while it doesn’t have a distributor as yet, Hilditch notes that he wasn’t really seeking one. Though it has screened more recently at the St Kilda Film Festival, it was not made for the festivals but as a showreel for These Final Hours.
Tribeca, however, is almost certainly a turning point in his career. It might not have the prestige of Cannes, nor the box-office power of Toronto. It isn’t even the best showcase for independent films; that title still goes to Sundance. But Tribeca is cool. Tribeca is still growing. Most of all, Tribeca is big business.
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