Q and A compiled by Eddie on 01/02/2019
One of the great Australian success stories of 2018, The Merger is a new local classic in the making.
Telling the story of small town local football club struggling to survive but finding salvation through a new coach and a collection of the town’s local immigrants, the film mixes in humor with a message to great results.
Winning a swag of awards, audience admiration and garnering screenings across the globe, the passion project from writer and star Damian Callinan is likely to be an Aussie favourite for the year’s yet to come.
With The Merger now available to rent or buy I was lucky enough to chat to the film’s creator and star about the films inspiring journey.
Happy reading and happy watching!
Q. The Merger has lived a long life before it became a feature film, could you tell us a little about the story’s history and how it came to be?
A. In 2019 I was approached by Regional Arts Victoria to write a show to address racism in rural communities. Vic Health had funding to deal with the physiological and psychological impact of racism.
I had just toured my show ‘Sportman’s Night’ with RAV that dealt with the culture of violence and mysogny in football clubs. Roderick Poole at RAV felt the characters in that show would be a great vehicle for this subject. So ‘The Merger’ was a sequel of sorts. It then toured throughout the country on and off for 6 years. However, even from its first outing I was getting encouragement form peers and punters alike to transform it into a film.
I began dabbling with the first draft film script in late 2012 and stated working with Mark [Director] in 2013 after he saw the show at the Brisbane Comedy Festival. I had been in the lead ensemble of his first feature film Backyard Ashes  and we had become good friends. We got our first round of development funding from Screen NSW in 2014 and just kept pushing
Q. You toured the one-man show for a number of years, inhabiting all of these characters that are now played by various actor’s in the film. Was it a little surreal handing your creations over to somebody else to bring to life?
A. The reality is I let go of those characters long ago in the writing process. I began picturing other actors in the roles. Bull Barlow was probably the hardest to let go off but once we cast John Howard I began writing with him in mind. His ‘Bull’ is very different to mine but the writing is also different. His Bull is a lot more vulnerable. He played the part beautifully.
Goober & Snapper were sock puppets, so they were easy to let go. I did the show for the cast and crew one night during the last week of filming. I didn’t want to show them at the beginning of the shoot in case it affected any of the actor’s portrayals. It turned out be a very emotional show. As films are shot out of sequence, it allowed everyone to see the story in raw form as it unfolded. It really affected everyone.
Q. The Merger is not just a pure comedy; it’s a film with an important focus on embracing other cultures and learning to accept those that are different to what we perceive as being an “Australian”. How did you go about researching this space, was it through your own personal experiences, did you spend time with real life refugees or was it all through largely anecdotal research?
A. The research for the live show was largely through extensive reading and research but through the show I became a lot more directly connected to different refugee support groups and ethnic groups, so I when I adapted it to the film I had a lot more raw, anecdotal connection to feed into the story.
Q. A number of the cast members in the film appear to have some skill on the football field. Was there a particular B.O.G from The Merger cast? How about the skills of yourself on the field, did you ever feel like you might’ve been a draft smokey?
A. Ironically Josh McConville [Snapper] who had to play the sh%$#@t player was very skillful. He was a Rugby Union player, but his skills transferred very well. Thankfully he could use his clowning skills to act s*#t.
Nick Cody had been a gun junior and captained 5 premierships in a row. We shared a house during the shoot and he would talk long into the night of his glory days. I’d soak it in and then say ‘Oh, do you count your junior premierships do you?’
I played competitive footy from the age of 7 to 30 so I had my chance to be a draft smokey. Mind you my choice to kick a torpedo punt form 25 metres out is perhaps the most controversial moment of the film
Q. One aspect of the film that is clearly evident is the connection and bond between the cast in the film. Did you sense early on in filming that this was one of those cases where the stars aligned and the right people found a way to be involved in the project?
A. We knew we had a good bunch to begin with, but they gelled extremely well. Tony Hall our Grip, has worked on over 50 Australian films said this was the happiest set he’d ever worked on. What was most beautiful was that as the team and the larger film community bonded, it began to imitate the agenda of the film as the refugees involved were welcomed. For some of the featured extras who has been in Australia for less than a year, this was their first meaningful connection with communities outside of their own.
Q. Showcasing the film around the country to a number of different crowds and demographics, have there been any particularly memorable reactions to the film or feedback you’ve heard from audience members?
A. The feedback has been overwhelming. It’s usually when the response is personal that is has the most impact on me.
I had a Syrian woman at a screening last night thank me as she was so pleased to see her race not portrayed as terrorists. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t predict.
The most beautiful messages have come via messages sent to my agent via my website. These are people who have bothered to track me down having seen the film randomly on a plane.
I had one guy who was a young widow with kids who was touched by the story of Angie dealing with losing her husband and raising a son on her own at such a young age.
Q. Spending over a month with the cast and crew filming in Wagga Wagga, was there a day on the shoot that stood out to you as a standout moment or a scene that was just a lot of fun to do?
A. I embraced every moment of it. The shoot was one of the most brilliant experiences of my life. It was at times bittersweet. I lost my dad 2 months before we filmed. On the first morning as I looked around at a full film crew bringing my story to life in the playground of Uranquiinty Primary School, I was overcome with joy as my dream had come to fruition.
My next thought was wanting to share this with dad and realising he wasn’t there. I had a big cry in the cricket nets. Kate Mulvany & Kim Anh Hunh, one of our production team had also recently lost their dads so we looked out for each other. These bonds are what made the experience so memorable. The cast & crew going to the Downside Hall for a bush dance was high point.
Q. How’d it feel when you knew Australian screen legend John Howard was on board with the film, it must always be a real kick to know someone with John’s experience was so willing to be a part of your vision?
A. Both John and Kate Mulvany agreed to be in the film within 2 days of reading the script.
We offered the roles to them early on, so we could use their names on funding applications with Screen Australia. They gave us great confidence in the story. Seeing the level of investment, thought, research they both put into their roles was humbling.
Last year Kate won the Helpmann Award for her role as Richard the 3rd for Bell Shakespeare. She had already been cast in the film when I went to see her in the play. As I watched her astonishing performance, I kept thinking to myself, how have I the greatest actor of her generation to agree to be in my film.
Q. With The Merger’s journey nearing its end in its current form, what’s next for yourself? Any more film plans for the near future or is it back to the stage for the time being?
A. The film is starting to roll out overseas in festivals. We have just played in over 20 countries as part of the Global Migration Film festival in far flung places from Nigeria to Romania. We have also been invited to be one of the showcase films at Glasgow & Dublin Film festivals.
We are being brought over to tour the film at the festivals and around Ireland as part of DIFF. While we are over there, DFAT are also organising screenings at various embassies around Europe.
I have some film ideas in early development, but I have a commissioned play called ‘The Hall Committee’ ahead in the queue. The World Premiere season will be in the Riverina of NSW in August starring myself and fellow Merger stars Fayssal Bazzi & Steve Holt.
I’m also remounting the live version of ‘The Merger at Adelaide Fringe & Melbourne Comedy Festival. You can also see me sporting in a one man play about John Newcombe playing in Melbourne during the Australian Open.
To find out more about The Merger or to buy a copy of the film visit the film’s official website CLICK HERE
To find out more about Damian Callinan and his upcoming shows CLICK HERE