An interview with Stephen Kearney
By Jordan and Eddie
A true-tale of Warrnambool chicken farmer Swampy Marsh and his plan to save the native penguins of a small island with his two dogs, Oddball promises to be an injection of life into the Australian film industry and a story the whole world can get behind.
The film’s producer, Stephen Kearney, was kind enough to offer his time and answer a few of our questions, detailing what we can expect with Oddball, as well as his experience in the industry (beating Jim Carey for a role in a forgotten film which co-starred Traci Lords, was directed by Scott Spiegel and written by Sam Raimi being a particularly interesting chapter).
E – Steve, first off could you tell us a little about yourself and your history and other film projects that you have worked on in the past?
I was one half of Los Trios Ringbarkus, a comedy duo that toured the world in the 80’s and 90’s, winning the Edinburgh Perrier Award in 1983 and going on to live in Hollywood in the mid 80’s landing 3 picture feature deals at United Artists and Columbia Pictures at the same time. I eventually went on to secure Sit Com deals with NBC, Warner Bros and Castlerock and Fox making an infamous pilot called Pistol Pete written and produced by legendary Simpson’s alum John Swartzwelder. In the mean time back in OZ making the feature Garbo with Los Trios, I played the lead in the feature Ricky and Pete, I beat out Jim Cary for the ill fated feature in LA called “The Nutty Nut”. I’ve made Tropfest films, shorts, mobile games, directed Comedy Festival shows, you name it. So yea, I’ve been around the block a few times.
E – What was it that drew you to this true life story and its appeal to audiences both near and far?
In 2007 I was at this great kids festival in Warrnambool with my children and wife Lou Lou. My Sister Denise lives in Warnambool. Lou said I should go over and see the “Tram Conductors” and take one of their tickets – the ticket I wanted was about a local chicken farmer and his dogs and saving penguins, instantly I said that’s a movie. I do that a lot. I tracked down Swampy and spent the day with him and the story just got better and better. I signed him up and spent the next 4 years trying to sort out a story.
E – You must be over the moon to have secured the services of the two Jacobson brothers, what do you feel they will bring to the project?
Well way back in 2007 I approached Clayton to direct or write or. …anything! I mean Kenny was so in the zone for a great new Australian character, the comedy Clay can get on the screen is so grounded and real yet just heightened enough for my taste, no one else can do that. But he turned me down, told me to ask his brother Shane. I did and he was interested right away. Shane is Swampy, that’s all there is too it. He knows where Swampy comes from and this means he wont be pretending or mimicking – he will slide into this character and play, bringing all that terrific depth of reality, yet comedy and sense of adventure, fun and cheekiness I need to make the film entertaining and compelling. But I didn’t have a script and well, kept pushing on for years, with Shane diligently calling once a year asking for the script. Eventually in early 2012, with writer Peter Ivan, US script editor Meg Leave and the support of Film Victoria I sent it to Shane and he gave me the thumbs up. At the same time Village Roadshow told me it ticked every box and it started to take off. I asked producer Richard Keddie to join me and bring this to the next level. Richard brings the weight of production house WTFN to the process elevating what is traditionally a small team heading towards production to an organised and professional juggernaut, advancing Oddball and it’s potential beyond my wildest expectations. We have US producer and story guru Sheila Hannahan Taylor ( Final Destinations, Cats and Dogs) as well to keep us on track to make the best film we can who is really showing us a thing or two about never giving up making it better. Just recently the script was developed enough to bring Clayton to say yes. Finnally! And having the Jacobson’s together again is full circle and the best outcome I could have hoped for. I think we have the best shot we can of nailing this and making something we are all going to be proud of. If I have one talent, its persistence.
E – Filming in a small coastal town like Warrnambool must have its logistical issues were there any other choices for a filming location or was it always integral to you and the production to get the film as authentic as possible?
We aren’t making a documentary so it’s not the goal to make it as authentic as possible. But I have always seen many scenes being able to be shot in the town, showing the Island, the views etc. The story is crafted from actual events and draws from many of the people involved, but the reality of making a compelling story means we have to create a world where saving the Penguins is super important to our lead characters and so we need to get creative. What we do want is to place the event squarely in the region and we aren’t going to pretend it’s anywhere else.
E – The Australian film industry has had a tough couple of years in regards to box office takings, what do you feel is behind this and what could bring it back to it’s glory days where people looked forward to an Aussie made movie just as much as they do an American summer blockbuster?
There are many factors at play here. Ill addresses some of them. But I think your memory of the glory days might be different to reality.
Writing movies is extremely difficult – it’s kind of an unknown fact that Australia has no full time courses in writing screenplays. The US has plenty and they churn out hundreds and hundreds of knowledgeable writers a year. It’s called an industry. The UK is different as they have a fierce theatre infrastructure that is the breeding ground for writers. The Australia funding bodies have stepped in and filled the gap here with various workshops, conferences and bringing script editors from overseas to help us get our stories right – that’s how Oddball is where it is today. But the fact is writing is the least trained of the cinema arts in Australia and it really sets us up to fail from the get go.
A simple fact is we don’t make enough films. The global statistics are that one in 20 make any money back – so if we only make 20 films, we are statistically never going to make a popular film.
Our dollar is high, making wages high, making Australia the most expensive place in the world to make movies. There I’ve said it. And the returns to investors from distribution is not terrific. Film is a risky business, anywhere.
Our culture throws up filmmakers, actors and cinema craftsmen that punch well above their weight internationally – so what happened? As rivers find their way to the ocean, talent flows naturally in the same way. In our business it’s to the US. Actors have the least resistance, producers wanting finance for Australian films have the most resistance. So we have a lot of stress on the industry just keeping talent in Australia and in a way decimating the industry.
Apart from all these caveats, we still manage to deliver popular films. Its always going to be tough, it always has been, always will be. Australian films failing at the box office shouldn’t be news, its normal. Why not let those films just fade away and write about the successes? What’s different in Australia is that we MUST release our films to get the tax rebate to enable us to finance the films. If it’s great or crap – it must get released – and we pay the price for that in publicity for forcing companies to theatrically release films and show the world everything we have – good or bad. I’m not sure that happens anywhere else in the world or in any other industry.
J – Obviously animals are a massive element of this film (and close to Australian film-goers hearts thanks to Babe and Red Dog), do you find the prospect of working with them exciting or daunting?
We have been working with Animal trainers for the past 18 months, in fact the people that did Red Dog – so we are well aware that the animals will need a lot of attention. Daunting, yes! Exciting Yes! But its part of the joy of this story – we get to hang out with Penguins and Maremmas and all the great characters of Warrnambool including the unique Swampy Marsh.
J – Will Mr Marsh be making a cameo appearance? It’s OK, you can tell us…
No plans as yet, but he did want to audition for the lead role playing himself. I told him we got that one covered.
J – Lastly, Thank-you very much for your time, and if you could use just one word to summarise why everyone should be excited to see this film (hyphens allowed), what would it be?
Its – going – to – be – the – feel – good –inspirational –film – of – 2015!
Oddball will be released in 2015, and we’ll keep you up to date with further developments and on-set reports!