In 1999, director Gregor Jordan directed a film that would see the rise and popularity of the late Heath Ledger.
Two Hands, a film about a 19-year-old who finds himself in debt to a local gangster became a cult classic, cementing Jordan as an “It” director in Australian film.
Jordan and Ledger then went on to partner in Ned Kelly (2003), an adaptation of the story of one of Australia’s most notorious criminals.
For Jordan, speaking about Ledger proves difficult as the pair were great friends.
“I guess the thing that always struck me from when I first met him was that he just had this sort of exceptional magnetism about him,” he said during an interview with The Latch.
“People just wanted to sort of meet him and hang out with him. That’s something that was really quite separate from his acting ability.”
Now, Jordan is at the helm of another Aussie story, Dirt Music — his first Australian film in 15 years. This time, his two leads are slightly older, and while they portray quintessential Australian characters, both hail from overseas.
“When we were looking for these two roles, we were really wanting to try to cast Australians, because, obviously, Australians do Australian accents better than people from other countries,” Jordan said. “But at the same time, our prime focus was just on finding people who are going to really be able to inherit these roles, and who really understood the essences of these characters.,” Jordan said.
Dirt Music, (which is an adaptation from the infamous Tim Winton novel of the same name), is a gripping, sexy drama with a haunting love story at its heart set against the powerful backdrop of Western Australia’s evocative landscape.
The scenery is vast and wide, and during a pandemic, it’s the ultimate escape.
Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald) is barely holding it together these days without a drink. Once a nurse, now she’s trapped in the backwater fishing port of White Point with local crayfish baron, Jim Buckridge (David Wenham) and his two sons, whose dead mother she can never hope to replace.
One hazy night she sees the lone figure of Lu Fox (Garret Hedlund) appear in the mists of the bay. A long time ago he was a dirt musician, but now he survives as a poacher – an unwise choice given Jim’s iron-grip on the local fishing trade.
Georgie is instantly drawn to Lu, and the pair begin an intense affair. What Georgie doesn’t realise is that the Foxes and the Buckridges have a long, murky history.
Here, Jordan talks about the pressure he felt to adapt the novel to the big screen, how locals from far north Western Australia made up some of the cast and crew and details why he likes to share Australian stories.
Anita Anabel: Hi Gregor, congratulations on such a wonderful film! It was incredibly haunting. Adapting a Tim Winton novel must have a certain element of pressure to it. How do you go about adapting such an iconic novel?
Gregor Jordan: Obviously his readers and his fans — which includes me — have an expectation in the things that he does uniquely that they really love, so you want to be able to bring the magic of his writing, and somehow translate it up onto the screen.
There always was a sort of a pressure in a sense, and just a really great source of inspiration as well, because the thing about his writing, it is extremely evocative of the land, and the sea, and the air, and the sun, and the insects. The natural world has such a sort of a visceral effect on the way his writing impacts you so there was a real inspiration there to really sort of try and bring that to the screen. That’s something that is in all of his novels, but probably in Dirt Music more than most. Bringing that up onto the screen was a real challenge, but was also something that was really inspiring as well.
AA: I read that you wanted to find the actors that were best for the roles and landed on two international stars, Garret and Kelly. They both have superb Australian accents and even felt authentically Aussie. How did you and your dialect coach help them make that happen?
GJ: Casting is always a strange process. It’s hard to control in a way and the universe sort of hands you the actors that arise. When we were looking for these two roles, we were really wanting to try to cast Australians, because, obviously, Australians do Australian accents better than people from other countries, but at the same time, our prime focus was just on finding people who are going to really be able to inherit these roles, and who really understood the essences of these characters.
With both Kelly and Garrett, I just had such a natural understanding of who these people were and also they were exactly the right ages. They are both accomplished experienced actors with an international profile. I guess the fact that they weren’t Australian was just something that we dealt with.
We had a great voice coach called Jenny Kent who worked on Lion with Dev Patel and so she was used to the process of teaching an actor with no experience of doing an Australian accent and having it sound really authentic. Then also later, you know, if things aren’t quite right, you can go back in post-production.
AA: Watching the film has certainly given us a sense of wanderlust, especially on the islands. When shooting, what was important to you about creating such a scene? Were the extras locals from the towns?
GJ: We shot part of the film in the Northern part of Western Australia where it’s actually set and part of the process was realising that we had to go to the real place. That involved going to this extremely remote part of Australia where we have to drive in four-wheel drives, 300 kilometres on dirt roads, rendered roads, and end up staying in these tiny little communities set up in the middle of nowhere.
And then from there, actually get on boats, and go out to these uninhabited islands where the crew is passing boxes of equipment from boats onto the island so that we can then start shooting.
Part of it was also having involvement with the traditional owners and so the Indigenous community out there are really just such fantastic and such fascinating people, especially in the way that they related to the land and what they told us about the place. It was such a unique experience.
Some of them are in the film as well and there were lots of them working behind the scenes as guides and carpenters and even crocodile spotters! We really didn’t want to have any actors getting eaten by crocodiles (Laughs).
AA: No we wouldn’t want that! (Laughs) Speaking of your actors. You were working with such a young child with Ava Caryofyllis playing Bird. She was such a standout. What was it like working with her and what type of experience do you want to give a child actor on set?
GJ: It’s an interesting thing because I remember when I was making my first movie, Two Hands and two of the central roles on the show were played by young actors. The lead character was 18 and the street role was like 15. I remember meeting Bruce Beresford and saying to him, I’m making this movie with two influential roles, essentially, played by inexperienced actors and he said “it’s all about the casting. If you find the right person, then they’ll give you everything. It’s actually the older actors are the ones you need to worry about!”
And it’s actually incredibly true. What I’ve found is that — and this especially applies to people like Ava — is that when you find the right person, who really has all this natural talent and is perfect for the role, they really just sort of doing it themselves. You don’t necessarily really have to do much, you might have to tell them where to stand and tell them where to look sometimes, but I’m always just blown away by the natural creativity of people like this.
Ava was just incredible on set. She was just so cooperative and creative and was just so excited about being there. She got along with everyone and made them laugh and was just such a joy to have around!
AA: Two Hands and Ned Kelly, both starred the late and exceptionally talented Heath Ledger. What do you remember most about him?
GJ: Well, he was a very close friend so it’s weird to have to talk about it. But I guess the thing that always struck me from when I first met him was that he just had this sort of exceptional magnetism about him. People just wanted to sort of meet him and hang out with him. That’s something that was really quite separate from his acting ability.
He just said this sort of natural high likability element as a person and people would really go out of their way and want to meet him. Combined with the fact that he was such a great actor, made me sort of realising even before he had really done anything, people who’d met him just knew that he was gonna become a movie star.
AA: Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I can imagine it is still incredibly difficult to talk about.
You also directed Heath in Ned Kelly with Orlando Bloom 17 years ago. Ned Kelly, Dirt Music and Two Hands are at their core, three iconic Australian stories. Why do you like to tell Australian stories?
GJ: I find it easier because I am Australian. You know about the culture and about the sensibilities of Australians that are naturally there because I’m from there and there are all these little things that you know so when you’re trying to tell stories from other countries and other cultures, they’re not given. You have to learn how they do things.
I guess it can be a good thing because maybe you can bring some objectivity to these things, but there’s just something obviously familiar about Australia that makes storytelling there, a part of me. A part of who I am.
Dirt Music will be released in cinemas nationwide from October 8.
WATCH: The official trailer for Dirt Music.