If there is a defining face of the Australian film industry of the past 50 years, it’s Jack Thompson.
Thompson has been a regular presence on our TV and cinema screens in iconic films including Breaker Morant, Wake in Fright and Mystery Road.
So, when Thompson, 80, talks about the state of the local industry, you listen. There are fewer people who can speak with more authority on the value of an Australian screen industry than Thompson.
After the recent federal government changes to film financing subsidies which equalised film and TV production and removed genre requirements on broadcasters, Thompson’s poetic articulation of what Australian stories represent of our national identity is even more urgent.
He told news.com.au the changes “doesn’t help the film industry”, an industry he helped usher in the early 1970s.
“I’ve said it before but when I was a kid, there wasn’t an Australian film industry,” Thompson said. “When we played goodies and baddies, we used to adopt American accents because that’s what we’d seen on the screen.
“If we were playing a war game, we’d adopt British accents because those were all the British movies we’d seen.
“We helped to re-establish a film industry right here, along with a whole lot of wonderful filmmakers and took Australian film from unknown and obscure to being internationally recognised.
“It’s our image of who we are, to ourselves as well.
“It’s all very well to talk about how you should be proud of your nation and what we can do and all of that. But if you don’t encourage the film industry, you’re not encouraging that depiction of our culture and who we are.
“We can’t go on making it without that encouragement, that’s how it was created. That’s how Hollywood was created. It wasn’t the climate; it was tax concessions. Without that encouragement from a government, it’s not going to last.”
One of the hardest hit industries in Australia throughout the pandemic was the creative arts – musicians, comedy, theatre, TV and film production, events, visual arts and more. The Morrison Government was oddly tight-fisted in releasing federal help to support the thousands of workers who had lost their jobs overnight.
It took months for the government to open that wallet, finally pledging an arts package, and even then, the money was slow to flow.
Often undervalued by politicians and in public discourse, and derided as some sort of “elitist” concern, the arts is misunderstood as an add-on rather than a necessity.
Thompson lays out a counterpoint, arguing that Australian stories told through cinema are the “voice of a nation”.
“The screen is the language of the age, that’s what cinema is about,” he said. “That’s what film production and television production – but in particular cinema – is about.
“It’s about putting together tales for the screen and every one of them is a reflection on who we are, what we aspire to and what we find funny. And that is surely the duty of the administration of any country, to encourage that stream of expression within the community.
“Culture is where you find the sense of understanding of the world around you. If you deprive people of that, you’re depriving them of much more than mere entertainment.
“It’s a real sense of belonging, a sense of the world around you and therefore the human community. Without that, we are nothing but lonely individuals, desperate, in a world that’s been turned upside down.”
Warmth and compassion are what Thompson hoped Australians will gain from his new film, Never Too Late, out in cinemas now.
Co-starring Jacki Weaver, James Cromwell, Roy Billing, Dennis Waterman and Shane Jacobson, it’s an easy comedy about four Vietnam War veterans who wind up at the same retirement village in Adelaide.
Their unit was famed for pulling off a daring prison escape during the conflict and now hopes to repeat the feat, but for a different reason: love.
Thompson said it’s not just an “oldies” movie, sharing that his 30-year-old son had given it the endorsement among his friends. He was afraid that the movie wouldn’t be released in cinemas given the pandemic, but now it’s releasing to 160 theatres nationally.
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He particularly enjoyed being part of a comedy, a genre he’s not traditionally tapped for.
“There’s not a lot of those around and I don’t get offered a lot of comedies,” Thompson explained. “I can’t think of the last comedy I did. I think people talk about typecasting, but typecasting isn’t just a thing that happens to some people.
“It’s something that happens within the business itself, almost naturally, because if you play an intense character, either good or bad, you play that role, and you play it convincingly, next time someone wants an intense character, they go, ‘oh yeah, did you see him in that, we should get him’.
“When I was in amateur theatre, I did so much comedy that when I finally did a serious play, when I made my entry on stage, the whole theatre started laughing because they thought, ‘ah, here comes the funny guy’ like as if Charlie Chaplin just came on.”
Thompson has been riding out the pandemic on his property north of Coffs Harbour – “In 1969 I bought a farm at the end of a dirt road at the end of a valley, isolation is my default position”.
He’s just 80 and is on renal dialysis after being diagnosed with kidney disease a few years back.
“I have a machine at home so I don’t mind being isolated, and I’m not so isolated that I can’t be in touch with the rest of the world anyway.
“I’m taking a break, an enforced break. My just said, ‘this is the longest time we’ve spent here at home in the past 10 years’. My life is on the road, on planes and in hotel rooms most of the time. But coming back here, coming home, it’s forced me to disengage and it has allowed me to appreciate just how beautiful it is where I live.”
But the enforced break didn’t stop Thompson from acting as one of the patrons of the Brisbane International Film Festival, where Never Too Late and another one of his films, High Ground, both played.
High Ground was a project that Thompson spent many years getting off the ground, and it finally premiered this past February at Berlin Film Festival. Thompson was in Berlin for the honours and flew back home just as the world was starting to hibernate.
High Ground is definitely one of those local stories that speaks directly to an Australian experience – a story of colonial violence in the Northern Territory, a foundational tale of the country’s history and the reckoning with that past that’s still to come.
Never Too Late is in cinemas now
High Ground is due for theatrical release in 2021
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