Holding the Man: one-on-one with producer Kylie du Fresne
Holding the Man is now screening nationally and has made a brilliantly strong office debut over the weekend. Screen NSW catches up with the films producer Kylie du Fresne for a one-on-one chat about the challenges, the creatives, sex scenes, wigs and all the good stuff behind the making of the film.
Can you tell us how you came to Holding the Man and why you took it on as a producer?
I had heard incredible word of mouth about an extraordinary play, Holding the Man. I went to see it at Belvoir Street, and I recall sitting in a packed theatre, with a diverse audience: mums, dads, grandparents, the young and groovy. Certainly not just the gay audience I had imagined would attend this production. The audience laughed uproariously then sobbed their hearts out, a sobbing that was guttural and not often something I had seen or experienced in a theatre. I approached Tommy after that about the film rights as I felt that it was a story that packed such an emotional punch, that it could also make a wonderful film.
Can you tell us about working with the key collaborators and how it was you came to work with Tommy and Neil?
After approaching Tommy about the film rights, I learnt he had already started working on a feature film script with Cameron Huang, the EP. But it was early days and the script was still very much at an exploratory stage. We then bought on script editor, Keith Thompson, who was our head of creative at the time, to work with Tommy. We got the script to another couple of drafts and then felt it was time we found a director to imbue their vision into the script. Neil and Tommy had worked together in the theatre and we both were fans of Candy. We approached Neil about the material and lucky for us, he had always been a fan of the book and play, which of course he had programmed at Belvoir St. We were just lucky he wasn’t booked up with his theatre for the next five years, which is often the case.
This is a real story that has a special place in the gay community already through both the original autobiography and then through the theatre. With many of the film's characters alive today, how did this influence you during production?
Having access to Tim and John’s family and many friends was one of the great gifts in making this film. Tim’s family held the book rights, so their involvement in the film was always going to be assured, and they were there whenever Neil, Tommy or the cast needed to confirm something about the boys' lives, or access photo albums, props etc. Tim’s mum, Mary Gert, and his sister Anna appear in the film at the wedding, as do Tim’s friend Kaarin Fairfax as the wedding singer and Paul Goddard, his friend from NIDA, who plays the priest at the funeral. Having these connections available to us all gave the experience an extra special resonance and meaning during the filming process, it was like Tim and John had tentacles at every turn of making this film.
What were the challenges adapting from stage to screen, especially considering that the stage play was adapted from an autobiography?
When we started working on the script, we had to make the decision whether to pursue an adaption from the stage play, which by then was a very successful production, or the book or a combination of both. It took a bit of experimentation for us to realise that we should concentrate on the original source material, the memoir. This was more aligned tonally to the film Neil Armfield eventually wanted to make and presented so many more cinematic opportunities for our adaptation, moments that Tommy Murphy loved but could never find a home for on the stage. There were many challenges though once we had made this decision, from where we should start the story, to whether we should tell it in a linear or non linear fashion to how to position the humour, which had to be a different style of humour than the play to comfortably sit in its new cinematic form.
Tommy has written a brilliant play, and as a playwright how did you work with him and push him to adapt his script for the screen?
Bringing in Keith Thompson to work closely with Tommy, especially prior to Neil's involvement was a really important part of the process. As Keith is a writer as well, and was adapting The Sapphires during this period, he knew first hand the challenges Tommy might be going through in adapting this kind of material. A large part of the early development was working with Tommy on the mechanics of screen writing, which are so very different from stage play writing. From how you set a scene, to how people enter and exit a scene, to allowing pictures, not words, to tell the story. Tommy has an incredible work ethic, and just never ever tired of going back into the script to refine, re-explore, throw out etc. In fact he was still enthusiastically doing this during the edit.
The sex scenes in the film are quite brave. How did you judge the lines of where audiences are at, what would benefit the film and what people were ready for?
We knew we had to stay true to the fact that Tim Conigrave’s memoir contains a lot of sex – we couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t an important part of his life. But we also knew we could not deliver an R rated film as we felt it was important that the film be accessible to as wide an audience as possible and in particular to young people. During the shoot, Neil had no caveats put on him about how to film the sex scenes, apart from making sure his actors were comfortable in what they were doing. It was in the edit that we made the choices about what to show, but interestingly, it was never a discussion during our screenings that we had gone too far. All our partners always felt the tone and balance was right from the first cut they saw. At the end of the day though, I think it just we are so used to seeing heterosexual sex scenes and not gay sex scenes in mainstream cinema, unless they are presented as dangerous or a bit brutal, which these are not.
You have picked a really strong cast and there is an uncanny resemblance between the two leads and the real life John and Tim. Were you lucky with the casting or was this intentional?
We tested something like 300+ actors for the roles of Tim Conigrave and John Caleo. At the start of the process, we thought we might change actors from the teenage boys to the older boys, but in hindsight, that was partly about being unsure if we could find the right actors to play Tim and John all the way through from teens to young men.
During the very lengthly casting process, Neil kept a photograph of the real boys with him at all times, that he used as a talisman (it’s the photo we see at the very end of the film after the credits). And Ryan and Craig do look so similar, so perhaps this photo was so embedded into Neil’s subconscious that it was fate. But really, we just cast the two best actors for the role and the ones that we felt had the best chemistry as a couple – that fact they looked like the real boys and that amazingly, Craig Stott also has very long eye lashes was a bonus.
One aspect of the play that is quite different from the film is the choices of how to treat the progression of John’s HIV from diagnosis to his death? Can you tell us about the decisions you made?
In the book Tim details the medical ordeals of John's decline and John's determination to be 'strong'. Tim was alerting his readership to an experience of AIDS from within the crisis. Likewise, John's valiant fight is central to the final act of the film. It's interesting though that we devoted much effort into investigating how to portray the stages of John's illness only to discover in the edit that a brief and intense experience of the medical detail carried an abundance of story. That said, when we showed the medical procedures John went through Neil wanted to make sure they were truthful and real, so we living it there with him. A lot of medical expertise and detail went into those scenes.
In the stage play Tommy used the puppet of a skeletal John to amazing effect. That was about embracing a theatrical mode and here we're capitalising on cinematic elements.
The film covers three distinct periods and you’ve captured the 70s unaffectedly. Can you tell us what the challenges of recreating that period were – what were the design choices and tell us about the hair!
Neil was always adamant that the period should sit subtley under the film and not the other way around. Alice Babidge, our costume designer, had a long history of working with Neil in the theatre and so Neil had an innate trust in Alice’s choices of costumes, that would never take away from the actors. Jo Ford, our Production Designer, was also very adamant that the success of the film was in finding a design that allowed the audience to at all times, to concentrate on the beautiful faces of the two leads. Jo was always looking for locations that required the least amount of dressing, so that everything felt real to our world. The biggest challenges by far were the physical transformations of Ryan and Craig from 16 to early 30s. Ryan in particular had a number of wigs to contend with, including his 80s wig we nick named ‘Flock of Seagulls’. In any one day we could find ourselves shooting the three different decades which was certainly a challenge for the makeup team
People have been saying that Holding the Man is Australia’s Brokeback Mountain – what do you think the film will mean to Australian and international audiences and what life do you think the film will have after its release?
We set out to tell a love story first and foremost and while it is a great gay love story, ultimately it is just a great love story, regardless of gender. We were very aware going in how loved this book and play were to the LGBTI community so we had to make sure we got it right and from feedback so far, I feel like Neil has delivered a film that this core audience feel very proud of.
Also, when we set the release date for this film, none of us had any idea that the debate about marriage equality would be sitting so firmly in the same period. Holding the Man is not about marriage equality, but it invariably speaks to this so we hope that someone how, this film contributes in a positive way to this debate.
Watch the youtube video
Watch the youtube video