BY: STEPHEN FITZPATRICK
From: The Australian October 10, 2012 12:00AM
Nadine Garner and Adam Zwar play a tense married couple in The Wedding Party.
THE making of films is a notoriously fickle business, so it’s notable that Adam Zwar and Nadine Garner are upbeat about the fact The Wedding Party, a pleasant romcom set in Melbourne, is practically ancient history.
Shot and edited three years ago, but not given a general cinematic release until now, the Amanda Jane-directed tale of a marriage of convenience that doesn’t quite work out has had a successful run of the international festival circuit.
It struggled, however, to find a distributor for general release — and, in the meantime, so much else has happened. For one thing its star, Josh Lawson, continued to improve his prospects, with a resume ranging from Zwar’s talking-dog creation Wilfred to the US television series House of Lies. The career of Essie Davis, who also features in The Wedding Party, has followed a bright trajectory in recent years, too, including her turn in the Matrix franchise, the Nicole Kidman-Hugh Jackman spectacular Australia and the Australian TV series The Slap and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
Zwar too has gone big places with Wilfred — now sold into the US, in a remake for which he retains a credit as the show’s original creator — and with the Australian comedy series Lowdown, focusing on the fictional shady dealings of the news industry. (What shady goings-on, you protest.)
Perhaps one of the most notable developments since The Wedding Party was shot, however, has been the death of one of its cast: Bill Hunter, the grand old man of Australian cinema, who plays the priest officiating over the marriage. Zwar remembers Hunter fondly, though it’s an eccentric kind of memory; fitting, one suspects, given its subject.
Making a short film a decade ago for Sydney’s Tropfest competition, which each year requires a signature item to prove the piece was written specifically for that year’s event, Zwar coaxed Hunter into playing . . . a rock.
“That was the special item. He was an actor dressed as a rock . . . he was a metaphor for the Australian film industry, if you think about it,” Zwar says.
Metaphor or not, Hunter’s requirements for the Tropfest shoot were simple. “He did it for a suit to wear to the AFI Awards,” Zwar continues. “That was his payment — we just had to hire him a suit.”
But the suit wasn’t all — Hunter apparently had a bit of encouragement to offer, presumably from his position as the rock of the industry. “After we’d finished shooting he called me over and said to me, ‘You’ll be all right’,” Zwar remembers. “I went, ‘Oh, thank god.’
“I’ve since spoken to heaps of people, told them Bill Hunter said I’d be all right; they all say, ‘Yeah, he says that to everyone.’ ”
Jokes aside, there is a jolt of nostalgia seeing Hunter in The Wedding Party, knowing that even though it wasn’t the last film he made (Red Dog and The Cup were both shot after it), it’s certainly the last time audiences will see him in a new release on the big screen.
For Garner, whose Australian TV career stretches back to her teenage years, this prompts a musing on just what it is that makes it to cinema complexes in the given market. While acknowledging the success of recent smashes such as The Sapphires, she points out that Australian stories are much more commonly produced for TV than for cinema — and she’s got a pretty clear idea why.
“We’re happy to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves in our living rooms, but we won’t part with the $18 to walk through a cinema door (to see that),” she says. “I think it’s because what we want from the cinematic experience is not what Australia has been delivering, thematically, for the past 15 years.
“I think (for) when we were delivering cinematically, we have to go back to the 80s, films like The Devil’s Playground (and) Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
Although the industry at that time was backed by vastly more generous tax concessions than exist at present (they were “a great incentive to lose money on a film”, Zwar interjects), Garner believes there’s more than just the economics of production involved.
Cinema-going has become something focused on the giant spectacle that can be enjoyed — 3-D, special effects, pulsating soundtracks — whereas Australian audiences want to see stories about themselves “reflected back to ourselves as authentic, low-key, and earnest”, she says.
Zwar, who is deeply embedded in the TV production industry as a player, sees a simple explanation: there’s more money to be made in TV. “All the professional writers go where the money is,” he says with a shrug. “The dilettantes, who are working on other jobs, do the (film) screenplays. They’re not actually professional writers, and you have to understand that screenplay writing is like boilermaking. It’s very technical. It’s not an expression of what’s inside your heart; no one’s actually interested in that.
“If you’re going to see a genre film, you want to feel certain things at certain moments. To do that you need professional writers, and they’re all going to TV, because that’s where they’re getting paid.
“You find a lot of people who might be graphic designers or architects, and they’re getting a little bit of money from the funding bodies to write a (film) script, (but) they just don’t have the experience.”
That being the case, The Wedding Party is clearly one that slipped through to the keeper thanks to a fine screenplay and some sparkling ensemble acting.
Based on a series of vignettes, it follows in a wry way the fortunes of the rambling Thompson family, headed by patriarch Roger Thompson (Steve Bisley).
Son Steve (Lawson) is in financial trouble and answers a newspaper advertisement to marry Russian emigre Ana Petrov (Isabel Lucas) for money. In return Ana will acquire Australian citizenship, so the union has to appear convincing.
The fly in that particular ointment is that Steve and Ana already have partners whom they love; and Steve, in particular, is keen that his girlfriend — from whom he (fortuitously) is taking a “break” — not discover anything of his plans. Things get rather out of hand when a family friend discovers the impending nuptials and the big day fast becomes the full catastrophe.
The screwball comedy aspect of things is obviously front and centre here — how could a wedding comedy not go down that road? — but as Garner points out, the script also offers a subversive reading of the nature of marriage and romantic love in modern life.
“I think it lifts the lid a bit on that and it says love’s flawed,” she says. “It’s not just a romantic comedy; it’s saying that people fail and are flawed and fall out of love, and aspects of the relationship don’t work. What part of a relationship can break down, and the relationship still continues?
“That’s interesting to me, and the film explores that.”
The Wedding Party’s internal stories tease out the various romantic relationships of Thompson family members. In the case of Garner’s and Zwar’s characters (she plays a Thompson daughter; he’s her partner, an aged-care nurse) there’s a heightened tension produced by the fact her character doesn’t enjoy sex. Comic moments ensue, of course, but so do deeper explorations of what constitutes a satisfying relationship. In particular, Garner says, the film goes to the heart of examining what we think we might get out of a marriage.
“I think that acknowledging that being alive is painful is OK,” she says.
“Being able to say, just because you married that person, and you have those kids and that house and that job and whatever, doesn’t mean you’re not in pain, doesn’t mean that you’re not suffering. And it’s OK to reveal that part of yourself. It’s OK to say that we’re all still in transition.”
Deep stuff for a romcom, perhaps, but The Wedding Party manages that elusive feat of being both light-hearted and dealing with the big issues.
With minimal narration by Nikita Leigh-Pritchard as Eve Thompson, the precocious 14-year-old granddaughter of the clan, it cleverly addresses the ways sex and affection can play out across a lifetime.
Crucially, as young Eve points out in a final monologue, it may be that “being normal is overrated; and the most interesting times in life are when things don’t make much sense at all”.
Fortunately for all involved, this debut feature outing from a capable director makes remarkably good sense.