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Jasper Jones director: “Everyone we wanted to be in the film said yes”

Nick Dent
Written by
Nick Dent

Craig Silvey’s hugely popular novel Jasper Jones, about a teenage boy’s awakening to love, death, racism and family secrets in smalltown WA, has been very successfully adapted to the stage, and now it takes its big screen bow under the direction of Rachel Perkins.

The founder of Blackfella films, Perkins is an Arrernte woman from the Alice Springs region, and the director of feature films Radiance (1998), One Night the Moon (2001), and Bran Nue Dae (2010), as well as one of the main creatives behind ABC TV’s Redfern Now.

Over a serving of Korean dumplings, she spoke to Time Out about how strongly she related to Silvey’s 1960s tale, how its message is cutting through to young people, and what she loved (and hated) about directing it.

Rachel, it must be apparent to you that your movie is poised to be a big success.
I’m not sure about that! We had one screening in Alice Springs with my family and friends, and they said nice things, but of course I don’t believe them. The screening iat the Hayden Orpheum was very positive. People said that we had lived up to the book, and been true to the book. But that’s the only two screenings I’ve been to.

We believe this was a passion project for you?
I read the book and loved it. I tried to get the rights to it early on, but when I got around to asking the publisher the rights had gone. And then two years later I heard my friend David Jowsey had the rights. He really supported me directing the film, and I hung around and persisted long enough to get the gig. It was really nice to have the work escape me and come back to me as I appreciated it all the more.   

What appealed to you about the book?
Obviously the murder mystery – it hooked me, I couldn’t put it down. Once you’re hooked you're taken on this funny and heartfelt journey of this character. And I really identified with the indigenous context of Jasper – I really understood him and his predicament. But it actually transcended those issues. It’s a book about empathy and understanding at the end of the day.

With racism seemingly on the rise, does it feel like a good time to be bringing this film out?
There are lots of things going on in that book, which is why a lot of people identify with it. I got an email from a friend who had brought a friend who brought kids [to the film]. And he had said that the conversation in the car on the way home with his children was all about racism, feminism, change, and he said it was so good to have that conversation instead of Snapchat and Instagram. Young people are engaging with the material.

Why did you relocate the action to 1969 rather than the book’s 1965?  
That was just a matter of some of the songs we wanted to use, because people email and complain if you get it wrong! We used an Easybeats song that was published in 1969.

The cast is awesome.
I agree.

What were the challenges in casting?
There were none. Everyone we wanted to be in the film agreed to do it. Toni Collette [Ruth Bucktin] had actually tried to get the rights to the book herself. When she heard she had been offered the role she changed around her whole US schedule to be here. Levi Miller [Charlie Bucktin] just got back from the US, just had done Pan, just became available, was the last person we auditioned and it was like ‘it’s got to be him’. I knew Aaron McGrath [Jasper Jones] because I had chosen him for Redfern Now. And then when I read the novel I thought, Aaron McGrath could play that role.  

Hugo Weaving [Mad Jack Lionel] does a lot of Australian films but I feel he’s often wasted. Not here though.
Hugo gives a really stellar performance in my view. It’s such a small scene and we did it in one take. He nailed it the first time around.

Where did you shoot?
We shot in Pemberton [southwest WA]. Trying to find a town in Australia that hasn’t been touched by modernisation is really tricky. If this was a big Hollywood film you’d just build the entire street. We could only afford to build one half of the side of one building.

How deeply was Craig Silvey involved?
It was a very close collaboration with Craig – he came on set for the whole time. which is very unusual. And then he came in for the editing. Also, because I have such a deep ambivalence about cricket, I eventually said to him, “I think you should direct the cricket scene,” because I didn’t want to engage with all the different cricket plays and strokes. I didn’t want to learn about cricket, so he directed it, and it’s one of the best scenes in the film I think.

Jasper Jones opens in cinemas on Thu Mar 2.

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