The last five years have proved to be a tremendously exciting time for the film industry here in Melbourne. The 2004 opening of Melbourne Central City studios at the Docklands has seen the city host a substantial number of Hollywood film projects, including such big budget productions as Knowing, Ghost Rider and Steven Spielberg’s TV epic, The Pacific. However, as successful as they might have been, none of these has been greeted with anything near the eager anticipation that preceded Where The Wild Things Are. The latest film from leading Hollywood auteur, Spike Jonze, is an adult adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much-loved children’s book of the same name (first published in 1963). It follows a young boy’s (Max Records) retreat from the problems of the real world into the melancholic realm of fantasy, where he befriends a group of monsters that seem to be as much a reflection of the child’s emotional turmoil as they are an escape.
Australian actor, Angus Sampson, plays The Bull (voiced by Michael Berry Jr) in the film. Having appeared in a seemingly endless array of major local productions such as Kokoda and Underbelly, as well as the major Hollywood film Darkness Falls, Sampson claims Where the Wild Things Are to be the largest and most dynamic project yet. And this signals a healthy sign for the state and reputation of local production here in Melbourne.
The feeling, he says, was mutual, with Jonze and the American wing of the Wild Things team wholeheartedly embracing the city and its film professionals. “I know they loved Melbourne and loved their time here. It was a huge thing for them – the quality of the Australian crew.”
Before Jonze had started production, the unique appeal of the Victorian landscape drew him in. “It was really important for them to shoot somewhere that hadn’t been seen before in other films,” says Sampson. Film Victoria spent 18 months competing against various countries that included Ireland, Argentina and New Zealand to secure the Wild Things production. The clincher, though, was a burnt-out forest near Gembrook that Jonze has said perfectly invoked the aesthetic of Sendak’s book: “We were left with this amazingly clean palette of black ground and black trees, which sort of gave it the depth of the book. The book is very graphic and this was the most graphic forest we had seen,” he told one reporter. Eleven locations were then chosen across the state, including Mount Arapiles, Gilwell Park and the cliffs of Bushrangers Bay.
Thankfully, the opening of Melbourne Central City Studios ensured that Melbourne was (and is now) fully capable of supporting large-scale Hollywood production, and the facilities could match the needs of Jonze’s project. Since the doors opened in 2004, the studio has hosted a substantial number of Hollywood film projects as well as a multitude of domestic films and television programs. The MCCS is demonstrating an increasing capacity to compete with Fox Studios in Sydney.
Deciding to film Wild Things at an international location invariably came with its issues – from the transportation of costumes built by The Jim Henson Company in Los Angeles, to unexpected weather conditions that nearly had the director of photography drowned in the bay while strapped to his own camera. But, says Sampson, this is all part of filmmaking.
“Any film is a matter of solving problems,” he explains, “how do you tell this story with all the problems in-between.” On the bright side, Sampson notes, shooting at such a distance may well have afforded a greater amount of creative flexibility on the film. “I think they certainly enjoyed the space from the system. If they were making it in San Diego they’d have a few more eyes prying over them.”
The global financial crisis and current strength of the Australian dollar has threatened the success of Australian production studios with international films. So the success of Where the Wild Things Are (rumours are ripe that Wild Things is set for a Best Picture Oscar nomination next March) has come at a crucial time for the Australian film industry. Through this film, Victoria, and more importantly Australia, has demonstrated that we are not just the source of many beautiful film locations, but that we have the resources and film professionals required to helm the most ambitious of Hollywood productions.
'Where the Wild Things Are' will receive general release across Australia on Dec 3.
Angus Sampson is currently working on an Australian feature film entitled 'Summer Coda', as well as the upcoming television drama, 'Spirited'.