With the recent closure of so many video rental stores, and DVD and Blu-ray retailers, finding a copy of Jeremy Sims’ 2006 film Last Train to Freo proved a difficult feat.
With a promise to throw Sims a tenner when I catch up with him in WA for the promotion of Last Cab to Darwin, I even tried searching for the film on illegal pirating websites. Nothing. iTunes? Nope. Not even any of the streaming services available in Australia stored the film.
Thankfully, my memory of Last Train to Freo – which I adored when it was originally released – was enough to throw together enough questions for the highly-respected Australian actor and director. As this interview proves, it’s obviously a film he holds very close to his heart.
“I still enjoy watching the film. It’s got a lot of great stuff in it. It’s basically the play filmed and the screenplay is not hugely different to the stage play where, for instance, Last Cab to Darwin is like chalk and cheese, it’s different on every level. Last Train to Freo was a very interesting exercise in filmmaking. People who make films really love Last Train to Freo because it was filmed in real time in one location which is quite a rare thing. Not many people would try to pull that off which I didn’t know before I got started. I thought it would be the easiest thing to do at the time. [Laughs].
Tell us about some of the difficulties involved.
Well in terms of telling a story, time doesn’t go any faster than it does on screen. From the moment you meet the two boys in the beginning, when they get on the train, then the moment they get off the train in Fremantle, on screen that’s real time. There are no jump cuts. There’s never a cut between one scene to another, five minutes later. It’s all absolutely real time. That posed a lot of curly questions in the edit because we had to get around it. We couldn’t ever jump forward and people had to be in continuous continuity the whole way through it.
How did the actors handle that?
Well they loved it because when we were doing wide shots we were doing takes that were ten to fifteen minutes long. It’s an actors dream really. Some people are real film craftsman and they love the fact that you can do several versions of a scene in wide shot or close up and work that kind of technical expertise but most actors love to just be able to have a run at it.
You must have faced restrictions filming in a real train carriage. How did the cast and crew manage that?
Interestingly my DoP on Last Train to Freo was my DoP on Beneath Hill 60 which is shot underground in tunnels. On Last Train to Freo I made it very clear that I was not going to be moving panels out of the train carriages that we built inside that studio. I was never going to have my camera, even the back of my camera, in a place that it couldn’t be. So the camera always had to find a place in the carriage that was actually in the carriage. Most filmmakers would say, “Ok, we’re shooting in this direction so lets take that wall out so we can put the camera back here.” But I didn’t want to do that at any stage and I think that helps with the sense of claustrophobia in the film.
Did making Last Train to Freo make it any easier for you to acquire funding for you next films, Beneath Hill 60 and Last Cab to Darwin.
It didn’t help us get funding as such and there are three different areas of funding anyway. You’ve got to get your private investments, you’ve got to go through your government bodies and you’ve got work out your rebate nowadays, or tax issues as they were in the old days. It’s more to do with the fact that you can’t get financing for a major feature film unless you have made one already in Australia. So having made one through ScreenWest and the West Coast Visions initiative, which is what gave us our finance through ScreenWest, that was important in getting the other films up purely because you had to have a feature under your belt. It didn’t help us in terms of people telling us, “Oh I loved that film, here’s some money.” But in terms of the government bodies, it ticked that box for all of us because (producers) Lisa, Greg and I all produced Last Cab to Darwin. We learned how to produce feature films on Last Train to Freo.
Wow, I’ve got all kinds of ones. My ten year old daughter was just born when we moved to Fremantle to make the movie so I have great memories of her little tiny baby body. [Laughs]. I was at home with her crying and doing all those things that you do with your first kid while we made it.
One of my favourite technical memories from behind the scenes is that I initially thought that we would shoot it all on trains in Perth. I thought we’d go and talk to TransPerth and that we would somehow get one of their trains at our disposal for four weeks and we would travel up and down a piece of track somewhere and that’s how we’d do it. [Laughs]. Of course that’s incredibly complicated to do and it’s not very helpful in terms of shooting drama. So Clayton Jauncey, who’s been my production designer on all three of my films and is a Perth boy, he said, “No, we have to build a train carriage.” I asked him how and he told me to leave it to him. We went out to the studio one day and there it was. He basically got hold of where they keep the second hand parts for the trains and had constructed it from all the broken pieces from trains and you really couldn’t tell the difference. Till this day, on a film with the budget we had, most people assume that it’s eighty percent on a real train and twenty percent in a studio but it’s the other way around. It’s ninety percent in a studio and ten percent in a real train. We pulled it off because no one ever, for one second, thinks we’re anywhere other than on a real train. And that, for a low budget film, was probably the best part. And all of that was down to Clayton Jauncey building it from nothing out of spare parts and me insisting on a very old fashioned way of doing it and saying that it will work.
We’ve heard from other filmmakers that Steve Le Marquand is quite the character behind the scenes. What was your experiences like working with him and other cast members on Last Train to Freo?
He’s a lunatic. He’s an idiot. [Laughs].
This is all on the record remember. I’m going to publish this.
You can. He’s a big, tall, dangerous idiot. Steve and I were old mates way before this and he actually did the original stage play, twice, so he new the character very well. The great thing about Steve in that film was that he’s a naturally skinny guy and he’s an intimidating guy, but he was never big. I told him that it would be really great if when he turned up he looked like he had been in prison curling dumb bells for the last four years waiting to come out. I was so happy when I picked him up at the airport in Perth and he was huge and he was cut and he just looked terrifying. You see in the film when he brings his arm up to do anything his muscles are just popping out of his skin and that makes a huge difference to the sense of danger and tension in the film because you can see that physically his body wants to kill someone soon.
Are you excited about presenting the film to a local Perth audience on Tuesday night, many of whom would be very familiar with catching the Freo train?
Well I was incredibly excited to present the film to Perth audiences when we first made it but I was pretty disappointed by the response. I told the producers that we may not do particularly well around the rest of Australia but we’ll certainly do well in Perth because there’s never been a film in WA that says Leederville, Subiaco or Claisebrook. It has Freo in its name and it couldn’t be more about Perth. I thought Perth people would come out in droves to see it but we got a couple of lukewarm reviews in Perth that I was very unimpressed by considering the amount of work and effort that went into making a film in Perth, and it was the first one that had been made in Perth for ages. It was disappointing because the per screen average was less in Perth than it was anywhere else in Australia and it was friggin depressing. It was also a lesson about audiences and testing things. I think Perth people didn’t want to see a story that told them that their trains are full of thugs and that their opinions are bigoted and that we where the most isolated city in the world. I don’t know why, but it felt like a bit of a small town reaction to it really. I was bitterly disappointed about it. I’m really looking forward to people seeing it now and seeing that it stands up.
Cinema Australia will host a Q&A screening of Last Train to Freo with Jeremy Sims as part of Australian Revelations on Tuesday 2nd July, 2015.
Follow Cinema Australia on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for details on future Australian Revelations screenings.