With Matt Carroll, Geoff Burton and Max Cullen

BY JOHNNY MILNER

In 2018 the NFSA screened the digital restoration of the iconic Australian film Sunday Too Far Away and hosted a Q&A afterwards with producer Matt Carroll, cinematographer Geoff Burton and actor Max Cullen in which they discussed the film's production and legacy.

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The Australian Shearer

The archetypal vision of the shearer has figured prominently in Australian cultural imagination. Over the years, the shearer has come to symbolise (among other things) pastoral life, intense masculine labour and the defining role that the wool industry played in Australia's economic prosperity. As the old adage went: Australia's wealth rides high on the sheep's back.

The shearer has also long been a preoccupation of our post-British settlement art, literature and film, manifesting in different portrayals, but uniting in a capacity to convey nationalist sentiment. Famous examples include the nostalgia for a bygone era found in the painting Shearing of the Rams (Tom Roberts, 1890) or the bleak depiction of sheep grazing in the influential silent-era film, The Breaking of the Drought (Franklyn Barrett, 1920).

With this context in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that by the mid-1970s, when the so-called New Wave of filmmaking was beginning to gain traction, the feature Sunday Too Far Away appeared, with a claim to be (as the Q&A above explains) the defining Australian film of that era.

For more on the important role of sheep in Australian history see The Postwar Wool Boom (1947) and A Nation is Built: the Wool Industry (1938).

Friday night [he's] too tired, Saturday night too drunk, Sunday too far away

- Shearer's wife lament

Of Sheep and Men

Set in 1956, Sunday Too Far Away follows the journey of Foley (Jack Thompson), a gun shearer in the late stage of his career. Seconded by the contractor Tim King (Max Cullen), Foley joins a new team for one last job at an outback station. The film then focuses on the day-to-day lives of the shearers, the dynamics of the group and also on external threats, such as pay cuts and the arrival of non-union labour.

The film is not a romance – it's about male culture, and Aussie men who work, drink and gamble. It highlights a sense of adventure and also a sense of 'the great Australian loneliness'. As noted by australianscreen curator Paul Byrnes, the film endorses the 'hard-won benefits of unionism versus capital' but implies a 'larger criticism of the pioneer mythology, with a bleak vision of the human cost of an industry that made Australia rich'.

The clip above showcases the realities of shearing life; we see the demanding nature of the work and the intense competition but also the camaraderie. Here and elsewhere, the camera dollies around the shearers, presenting close-ups of them pulling sheep from pens, the beads of sweat dripping off their bodies, the careful sharpening of combs, and the shears running through the fine-micron, lanolin-filled merino wool.

All of this imagery is rooted in social-realist cinema and consistently conveys the skill, speed and physicality of the work. Adding to the film’s uncompromising realism is the loose naturalistic dialogue, which incorporates shearers’ jargon such as roustabouts, skirters, classes and so on.

For more clips and notes on Sunday Too Far Away see australianscreen online.

Fleeces, Friendships and Misfortunes

The Q&A provides valuable insight into how Sunday Too Far Away was produced, from conception to completion. It discusses how the team was assembled and, fascinatingly, how several of the cast and crew had a direct connection to sheep. Writer John Dingwall, for instance, drew inspiration for the script from the wild stories told by his brother-in-law, a shearer of many years.

Jack Thompson takes a swig from a hessian bag

Jack Thompson in Sunday Too Far Away, 1975. NFSA title: 5

Matt Carroll, who had commissioned Dingwall for the project, explains how he too came from the world of sheep. Notably, Carroll's father 'owned sheep and hated them'! Carroll then explains how at university he wrote an Honours thesis on the architecture of shearing sheds, poetically describing them as cathedrals.

Jack Thompson also partly owes this cinema milestone in his career to sheep – Carroll and Thompson were once housemates, and Thompson had learned to shear while living in the Northern Territory. 

Carroll, Cullen and cinematographer Geoff Burton all stress that everyone on set was a beginner; there were no seasoned professionals. They also talk about the extremely demanding and unforeseen circumstances of the shoot, the torrential rain that damaged the roads and flooded the generators and the impact this had on the production's day-to-day logistics.

Geoff Burton explains how the constantly overcast weather compromised the cinematography, in particular the landscape shots which were supposed to portray heat and dryness. The panel seems united, however, in the view that these challenges made the whole process all the more rewarding. 

For more on producer Matt Carroll, listen to a clip from his NFSA oral history where he discusses the production of another great Australian film, Storm Boy (1976).

Gil Brealey and the SAFC

Also playing a key role in the film's production was producer Gil Brealey (1932–2018) who at that time had just been appointed founding director of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC). Brealey was interested in creating an iconic Australian film, one that differed from the cycle of sex-themed comedies released in the early 1970s. As explained in the Q&A, Brealey initially wanted to make Gallipoli, but after several complications the project fell through. The opportunity then arose to produce Sunday Too Far Away.

For the film's director, Brealey brought on Ken Hannan, an experienced television director and old friend who happened to be living in England at the time. Brealey, we learn, was not enamoured with the film's first edit and so worked with Carroll to delete certain scenes and story threads. Eventually, however, Brealey recognised the film's tremendous honesty and truth. 

Read more on the decisive role played by the South Australian Film Corporation in producing quality film content.

Legacy

Sunday Too Far Away received critical acclaim and performed well at the box office. It also translated successfully into other markets and languages, was invited to screen as part of the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and won Best Film at the AFI Awards.

It was the first feature of the South Australian Film Corporation, and it paved the way for a spate of extraordinary works – including Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976) and Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1979) – all of which preference quality cultural content over commercialism. Sunday Too Far Away (now digitally restored by the NFSA), remains one of the great Australian films, concentrating on the once great Australian archetype, the shearer. 

You can also enjoy the Sydney Film Festival's special online event, Jack Thompson at 80: A Tribute, presented by David Stratton and supported by the NFSA (31 August - 6 September, 2020).

 

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