You might not know Greg Brenman by name, but you’ve almost certainly seen one of his many projects. Whether it be 2000’s break out hit, Billy Elliot or one of his many TV shows that he produces. His latest project is The Boys Are Back starring Clive Owen as grieving father Joe Warr, and his unconventional ways of bringing up his two boys. Shot in South Australia, the film was one of the most beautifully shot films of last year. You might have lost in in the shuffle, but luckily it is coming to DVD this Tuesday January 25th.
Read our interview with Greg below:
First of all, I’d like to tell you that Billy Elliot is one of my favorite films. It is a film that I always tell people they have to watch if they haven’t seen before. It’s just a very touching story, and it seems that with Boys are Back that you are working in a very similar project.
I really like those Father/Son films, I guess.
How did you decide to choose South Australia as a shooting location versus New Zealand which is where the original story too place?
A couple of reasons really, I was really keen to work with Scott Hicks. When we saw Shine years ago, and we were looking for a director for Billy Elliot, I thought, “God, I’d love to work with Scott.” We didn’t approach him, but I was a massive fan of his work. So when we started working on this I thought he’d be pretty good for this film. He was Australian, from South Australia actually, and he was keen to make a film down there, so that was a very strong reason. In broader terms when we were financing it we made a decision for Australia, and we had to decide if it was important to have it in New Zealand or Australia. We needed a location where you were on the other side of the world from Britain. Clive Owen’s character Joe Warr was literally on the other side of the world, leaving his first son behind. We just needed that feeling that you couldn’t be further away. We were pretty relaxed about whether or not it was Australia or New Zealand. I really feel that it didn’t affect the emotional truth of the story if we had set it one place or another.
Yeah, I don’t think it would have made it any better changing the scenery. Especially since South Australia looks so beautiful in this movie.
What was interesting, was that when we shot the movie we didn’t have many visual references to what the house and the environment looked like, where the kids grew up. We just had the descriptions from the book. Simon Carr, once he had seen the movie, told us he couldn’t believe how close it is. It looked like New Zealand. So, I think we got it kind of close in a kind of lucky way. Maybe our designers are just intuitive.
Do you plan on shooting more films down in Australia? There seems to be a lot of productions heading that way.
Oh yes, it was a fantastic place, a wonderful experience in terms of the crew and the cooperation of the people. Shooting in London is a nightmare, just because it is so congested and so hard to get around., and it’s so expensive. Although we have lovely locations. When we were shooting for example in Adelaide, the very first day we were shooting in Adelaide Airport, in the scene in which they first pick up Harry. It was our first day filming, and an official comes marching over towards us. I’m thinking, “Oh my, what have we done to upset him already?” His first question when were looking out at the runway was, “Where do you want the planes?” Literally, we could say to him, “Could we have a jumbo jet on gate 53 and a small plane on gate 42? We need to shoot on that particular location.” He would tell us that he would see what he could do, and we could orchestrate where the planes were going. Which is pretty extraordinary.
That is pretty brilliant actually. Do you feel like this film has gotten lost in a packed end of the year? I really enjoyed the film, and it seems like it has gotten lost in the hype of films like Up in the Air and Avatar.
Yeah, I really do feel like it got lost. I hope it has a really good shelf life, because I feel it is a pretty good classic movie, with some powerful performances and an emotional and universal story. To be honest it wasn’t helped by the fact that two weeks before we went out in America, Miramax was reduced by 75% by Disney. Disney basically said you guys are going from 80 to 20. I think during the course of this year is going to wind down its brand. So yeah, I think the timing was awful for us.
When we showed the movie at Toronto we had a five minute standing ovation, and great reviews. We thought, “Wow, this is exciting.” Then we did a really small rollout, because Disney said we didn’t have a budget for anything else. We had just 5 screens, 2 screens in LA, 2 Screens in New York , and 1 in Toronto. We got a pretty vicious review in the New York Times. I think when you have the kind of strategy we had as our rollout, you can’t afford to have any negativity. Someone took offense to the movie and the philosophy of the film. It was the kind of film that we wanted to have a controversial feel at times. Men and women do things differently. It was a great shame. The film has done pretty well in Australia, and it opens tomorrow in the UK, its third territory. So far, the reviews are very strong.
The film seems like a bit of a departure from the recent Clive Owen we’ve seen. We are used to seeing a slightly more gruff and hardened character. In The Boys Are Back he plays a caring, if a bit clueless, father. Do you think this role is actually closer to his off screen personality?
It was one of the reasons we went for him. We wanted a guy who at one level was going to be quite risky, volatile, dangerous, attractive, but underneath that armor of the alpha male there was a man grieving and going through a lot of pain who was not comfortable with discussing his emotions. His first instinct is not going to be to cuddle his child. Someone who was going through his own journey of grief and pain. We felt that Clive had that, and that he could play a character who could play that alpha male, but have an emotional journey on screen, and admit that he made mistakes. In one of the later parts of the film when Harry doesn’t want to come back to Australia, which he loved, was because of his father who kind of scared him. Clive is credible in that role.
I think it chimed with him because he is a dad who has two kids, girls not boys. I think a lot of people have told him it isn’t something he’d normally do. I think he was also comfortable with it because it spoke to him in some way.
How was his off screen relationship with Nicolas Macanulty and George McKay? Being a father of two girls, did he seem like the natural father type for two boys?
He took great pains to bond with them, particularly with the boy, Nicolas Macanulty who plays Artie, because we were going to put them in some quite bizarre and extreme situations. They spent quite a bit of time together. He’d take Nicolas away from us, and take him to the zoo or do something with him. They need to know each other and trust each other, and Clive really invested a lot of time in that.
Yeah, I have no doubt that George McKay, who plays Harry, is going to be a leading actor. I think he is wonderful.
Do you know if there is any more plans for Nicolas Macanulty to continue to be in films?
(Laughs) He’s only going to be 7 later this year, or I guess 8. I think Nicolas is a massive talent, whatever he chooses to do he’ll do it well. He’s also a very good little artist. He’s got a very imaginative brain. I think he could make a really interesting actor if he wanted to, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be pushing anyone that young in any direction too soon. I think it is important that they have a normal life as much as possible. I do think he got a lot out of the experience, and I think he looks back on it as a positive and challenging time for him. I have no doubt that whatever he does in the future will be pretty extraordinary.
How did Simon Carr respond to the film?
Yeah, the most emotional screening we ever had was when we showed the film to him and his two boys. Simon had come and seen it on his own maybe a fortnight before that. Of course the boys have grown up, and are probably in their early twenties by now, but you remember the Artie character, who in real life is named Alexander, was six when it happened. He seemed to process it as a six year old. Now here he is age 20, having his life played back to him. You can’t underestimate how moving, powerful, and raw that was. He has now seen the film three or four times with us, and I’d like to think that it is quite an important part of the processing for him to see not only what he went through, but what his dad went through. Maybe it helps him understand that a little bit better. Simon definitely felt that his life had been played back to him. He has written a few articles, because he is a journalist, and one of the things he wrote was how much he might have underestimated how much his kids had missed their mom. It was quite an interesting thing. I think he thought he could be a replacement or a different version of a parent. I think he realized that maybe he couldn’t compensate a hundred percent.
You mentioned you had some negative feedback from the New York Times, was that because of the “Just Say Yes” portion of the film?
I think some people thought we might be being a bit male or chauvinistic. Which we weren’t trying to be. We weren’t trying to be smug saying that men would do it better. We just wanted to say that some men would do it differently. In this film though, there is a guy who owns up to the mistakes he made. It seemed like there might have been a bit of a knee jerk offense, but if they had looked a bit closer they would have seen that it had been a bit more subtle then they might have given credit for.
I actually really enjoyed those scenes in the film. It seems like the kids and Clive had very organic reactions to the events taking place around them. How hard was it generating that type of raw enthusiasm?
I think that really comes down to the skill of Scott and Clive, and the Director of Photography, Greig Fraser. They knew the make or break part of this film would be in the performances of the kids. We needed to capture those moments. So, we made sure we created a filming environment that was very fluid that could crack those moments of spontaneity. We needed to make Artie as uninhibited as possible. We had a great DOP, Greig Fraser, who gave us enough flexibility to work with it. Scott was just really great at conjuring up that atmosphere.
We’d like to thank Greg for taking the time to sit down and answer a few questions for us.