Wrapped in a blanket on the eighth floor of the Olsen Hotel in Melbourne, Catriona McKenzie is a world away from Wyndham, the small town at the northern tip of Western Australia where she’s been living and shooting her debut feature film Satellite Boy for more than a year.
Shot by award winning director of photography Geoffrey Simpson ASC, Satellite Boy follows Pete and his friend Kalmain (played by local Wyndham boys, Cameron Wallaby and Joseph Pedley). Pete, a young Aboriginal boy, is on a journey to save his home and find himself. It’s set in some of the most remote country in Western Australia, at locations that have previously been out of bounds to visitors and filmmakers alike.
A deliberately slow, considerate examination of the conflict a young Aboriginal boy might face between the modern world and his own culture, Satellite Boy exhumes a spiritual quality and McKenzie’s pared back script encourages audiences to feel the film rather than think about its narrative.
McKenzie’s first foray into film (she’s previously worked on television shows, including Redfern Now, Rescue Special Ops and The Alice) was steeped in firsts: along with gaining permission to film in the Bungle Bungles, a world heritage-listed rock formation in the Kimberleys, her small crew battled the heat of the desert, camped out under the stars, jumped from the jaws of crocodiles and edited in tents on their way to creating one of the most beautiful, audacious, low-budget films of 2013.
Nicholas Acquroff: In a recent interview you said, “I want to make this a really simple story so that people have a chance to feel.” I think that’s a really beautiful way to describe this film, because the film wasn’t overcomplicated with subplots and secondary narratives.
Catriona McKenzie: Originally I’d written this really complicated film. It was a love story between a boy and a girl…I’d written it and it was ready to go and then I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this’. David Jowsey, the producer, was pulling his hair out [laughs].
It’s weird. I really like Mozart, and I know it’s music and I know it is more highbrow, but it is both really simple and really beautiful. I also love a statue by Brancusi called Bird in Flight. It’s a polished bird in flight, sitting on a marble plinth and you need to see it in a bit of space, you know? You really need to feel it. It sounds a bit esoteric, I suppose, but those were the touchstones I was trying to work towards.
NA: I love the theme – how the two boys are stuck between the modern world and the traditional world. Can you tell me about the themes and how you explore them in the film?
CM: In Aboriginal culture, the Milky Way is considered to be heaven. It reflects the earth and the earth reflects heaven; it’s part of your journey. You can lie here and look up at the stars and you need to know yourself in this world as well as you can track the stars up there.
George Miller talks about how the cinema is the church of the 21st century. People crowd into the cinema and watch these stories to find out about who they are. So the themes are all very planned. The cinema is there but it’s abandoned and above that there’s the Milky Way. David [Gulpilil] calls up to the stars and at the same time the boys are asleep in the satellite dish, which is almost focusing those stars. It’s about how culture is still relevant today – about how it can nurture you and hold you safe.
NA: The film has been screened in some amazing places, what’s the reception been like?
CM: It had its world premier in Toronto and they loved it. Then in Berlin, there were 1000 people at the premiere and they were clapping and cheering and stomping and it went on and on and on. I looked at little Cameron Wallaby – he’d never been out of the country before. It was snowing and he was freezing and he had to sign autographs for two hours after the film.
When we screened the film in Wyndham – the first screening of the film after it was finished – they have this walk-in cinema and more people turned up to the screening than there are in the town. It was full of kids. The next day at the shops, all of the little kids were quoting the film, saying, “I’m a cultural man and I’m going to go bush,” and things like that. It was really good to know the film had that sort of positive influence.
NA: The film had some incredible cinematography and locations. When you were writing the film, how much of it was determined by where you were going to shoot it?
CM: In 2007, when I was set up director, I found Wyndham. I was working with Sammy Hobbs, who ended up being the production designer on Satellite Boy, and I thought, ‘this is where we are going to shoot Satellite Boy, this is where the cinema is going to be’. I knew that we had to film in the Bungle Bungles; we are the first feature film in the world to shoot on the ground in the Bungle Bungles. I think Baz [Lurhmann] did aerial shots for Australia, but we are the first to get permission from the traditional owners to actually shoot on the ground.
NA: And I hear it was quite a task getting the equipment out there?
We walked – we so walked! The rubber on the soles of people’s shoes was bubbling, and we had eight litres of water per person, per day. It was hot and we couldn’t drive anything in. We were like a little documentary crew; we didn’t have many resources, we were very low budget.
It’s this iconic landscape, so I knew we had to shoot there. It’s like being the first people to ever see the Grand Canyon – it was pretty amazing. So I knew we’d be using those locations when I was writing it.
NA: I read a beautiful quote about the time you were camping, when it was time to cast the film. How did you choose the cast and why did you choose the two leads, Cameron and Joseph?
CM: We hit Broome with my two-and-a-half-year-old and my casting director Jub Clerc had a three-and-a-half-year-old son. We threw our swags on the roof of the car, our kids in the back and we started driving. We drove from Broome to Balgo, all over the Kimberleys. We drove for thousands of kilometres, kind of stalking little boys on the street [laughs]. We’d say, “Hey, little boy, do you want to be in a movie?”
If we hadn’t have got the right kids, it wouldn’t have mattered about anything else, because you need that emotional centre. We met Cameron Wallaby with his little sister Pumpkin, playing with nuts underneath a boab tree. So we dragged him in and did a little audition and then we kept driving, collecting names.
NA: Can you describe what it was like camping there, with the entire cast and crew?
CM: Well the crew was chosen not only on talent, but also on temperament, because we knew everyone was going to be in tents. Wyndham is a little town where five little rivers come together and it’s full of crocodiles. There used to be an abattoir there and they used to throw all of the offal into the river and all of the crocodiles used to come there for the food.
We were very small budget and the crew was very small, but we got on like family. Everyone bobbed in and I never heard a single person complain.
Satellite Boy is out in selected cinemas now.