Interview: Stephen McCallum

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Director Stephen McCallum. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto.

Director Stephen McCallum has launched his feature film career with 1%, a violent and ferocious family drama set inside the world of a brutal bikie gang. Boasting an impressive lineup of Australian acting talent including Ryan Corr, Aaron Pedersen, Abbey Lee and Simone Kessell, 1% was written by Matt Nable who also stars in the film.  

“I was always fascinated with Australian films. I loved Romper Stomper and Lantana. I’ve always been interested in Australian stories and Australian history. I love Western Australia and I want to continue to tell WA stories.”

Interview by
Matthew Eeles

You grew up in Perth. Were you that kid who was always running around with a camera making movies?
I was the kid who was running around playing Army and stuff like that. I loved watching films, and I loved acting them out, but the first time I picked up a camera was in high school. We had to do a 40 minute talk on the Russian Revolution and the guy I was partnered with had chronic stage fright, so we decided to recreate the Russian Revolution with army toys and dolls and all that sort of stuff and do our 40 minute talk that way. I really enjoyed the process of doing it and that kind of lead to me wanting to become a filmmaker. We got top marks and it was screened for the rest of the school to watch. [Laughs].

You graduated from AFTRS in 2011. What kind of movie did you imagine would be your first once you got the opportunity?
I was massively drawn to the usual filmmakers like Kubrick and Lynch and Ridley Scott, but I was always fascinated with Australian films. I loved Romper Stomper and The Proposition and Lantana, so I always wanted to tell Australian stories. My graduating film was a short film called Six Straws which was a colonial convict thriller, so I’ve always been interested in Australian stories and Australian history.

I’m a big fan of Tony Ayres and I loved Cut Snake on which you had a director’s attachment. What did you take away from that project.
That was awesome. That film brought me to Melbourne. Tony was just so generous with having me involved in every part of the process. I was involved in pre-production in developing aesthetics and talking to all the different departments. I was with him during rehearsals and on the days when he was blocking out the actors and setting up camera shots. The weird thing about directing is that it’s a job you only really learn how to do by doing it directly, or observing another director right next to you. That opportunity was fantastic for me to learn from one of the best.  

Cut Snake was a highly stylised film with a gritty realism, much like 1%. Did your experiences working on Cut Snake still linger during the making of 1%.
Not really. Not in terms of aesthetics. While I think they’re both stylised there’s a little bit more of a rawness to 1%. For instance, 1% is entirely handheld off the shoulder. It’s probably closer in aesthetics to working with Glendyn Ivin on Gallipoli, which I did Second Unit on, and that’s where I developed my natural aesthetic a little bit more. You kind of take little pieces away from everything you do and from the films you love as well.

Matt Nable in 1%.

How did your involvement with 1% come about?
The script was initially sent to me by Michael Pontin from See Pictures. He and I went to film school together and we did a marriage equality ad together which went viral and had over 16 million hits on YouTube. He produced that and we’ve always stayed in touch. He had this script come through from Matt Nable called 1% and after he saw Six Straws he thought I’d be perfect for it. I did a director’s treatment and told him how I felt we should take the next step in the development of the script. Luckily enough I was able to get the job.

What was your impression of Matt Nable’s script when you read it for the first time?
It was actually very different to what the film is now. The script was set in the 70s and was more of a gang film about multiple gangs fighting for power, but at the heart of it it had this central premise about a man who had to choose between his father and his brother. I really connected with that straight away. We went into development and brought all the conflict into one club rather than multiple clubs. It really is about this house divided.

How open was Matt to these new ideas?
Really open. I write myself and when you collaborate with people you realise the best writers are the ones who collaborate. We worked together really well for about a year with Michael and Jamie from See Pictures, as well as our script editor, to really hone the story and bring it more character conflict based in this world set in a motorcycle club. It’s more of a cult really than a motorcycle club.

Matt’s an incredible talent with a real edge about him. Can you tell us about working with Matt as an actor?
Matt and I were lucky enough to work together on Gallipoli. We got on well. The thing with Matt is that he’s highly intelligent both mentally and physically. He’s got a real rawness and brute about him and he’s also this real talent. I loved working with that voice which is so different to any other writer I’ve ever worked with before. He also brings all of that to his performances. We have such a great relationship that directing Matt is very easy and I don’t have to say a lot for him to know what I want and vice versa.  

Ryan Corr in 1%.

This film boasts some incredible acting talent from Eddie Baroo to Aaron Pederson and Abby Lee and Simone Kessell, but I want to ask you about Ryan Corr. He’s arguably the best actor working in Australia today and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play two characters the same. What impressed you the most about working with Ryan?
Exactly that. He’s such a fantastic actor and he’s so passionate and throws everything he’s got into every role he takes. He’s a chameleon. At the same time we were screening 1% at CinefestOZ he was playing a Hungarian aristocrat in Ladies in Black. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy on screen. [Laughs]. I saw him in Holding the Man and I thought he gave a wonderful, captivating and charismatic performance. When we were casting for Paddo, Paddo needed to be a warm, caring and charismatic man that happens to be apart of a very dangerous world.

A lot of the film takes place in a house that was rented for the production. Did I hear a story that the cops were called at one stage?
They were! [Laughs]. Shit, I forgot about that. We were shooting a massive shootout and we had blanks going off. We had police cars and sirens going off. Someone would have heard the gunshots and wondered what the bloody hell was going on in little Yokine. [Laughs]. They were called off pretty quick. We notified all the authorities but sometimes these things slip through. [Laughs].

Have you had any feedback from the motorcycle community, and in particular one percenters themselves, about the film and how well it stands up compared to real life?
Most of our Copperheads extras were either ex members or social members of motorcycle clubs. They all love the film and feel it’s really authentic. We also had a military advisor on set who is an ex one percenter. He watched the film in Sydney and was over the moon about how well the film stood up in terms of authenticity with the understanding we’re telling a story and we’re not telling a documentary. There will certainly be one percenters who come out of this thinking the story is bullshit, but I’m sure if you asked anyone who is part of the mafia what they think of cinema renditions of their world, they’d think the same thing. We tried to be as authentic as possible while still trying to create our own world.

There have been some big productions come out of Western Australia over the last few years. What’s your opinion on the local film industry at the moment?
I think it’s very strong. I was just chatting to the guys at ScreenWest the other day and I think there’s something like five productions going into production over the next few months. That’s incredibly healthy in terms of filmmaking, but we probably need more crew. I think it’s in a really good spot especially with things like Royalties for Regions which helps to get production out of the city and into regional areas. It’s really nice to be seeing other parts of the state rather than just beaches. We tried to do that with 1% also. The film not just Cottesloe Beach at sunset, it’s real urban and gritty. The next thing we need is a studio. I love Western Australia, it’s my home and I want to continue to tell WA stories.

1% is in cinemas from October 18. 

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