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Beamafilm talks to James Francis Khehtie about his award-winning film “The Telegram Man”, a poignant tale of war and loss.
“The Telegram Man” is a multiple award-winning short film starring Aussie legends Jack Thompson, Gary Sweet, and Sigrid Thornton. Set during WWII in a rural Australian town, Thompson plays the local telegram man, who is tasked with the harrowing duty of delivering telegrams that inform the locals of the deaths of their sons. “The Telegram Man” has played at over one hundred and twenty festivals worldwide and won countless awards, including a BAFTA Los Angeles® award and an Australian Academy Awards® nomination. Perhaps the film’s greatest honour is its annual screenings at the ANZAC Day Commemorations in Gallipoli, with the 2016 Commemoration marking its fifth consecutive screening.
The film will also be part of the 2016 Camp Gallipoli’s ANZAC Day events, taking place between April 24th and 25th in five Australian cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. Camp Gallipoli is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to helping the Australian community to remember the spirit of the ANZAC – mateship, loyalty and the “fair go” – and honouring those who fought in World War I (and subsequent wars).
Beamafilm talked to Director/Producer James Francis Khehtie about the making of his powerful and poignant film.
Hi James. What inspired you to make “The Telegram Man”?
I wanted to explore the human cost of war at the home front, those who wait for news at home, how their lives and relationships can be utterly devastated by a war that’s taking place far away, hundred, if not thousand of miles away.
“The Telegram Man” focuses on the experience of a close-knit farming community living in a small Australian country town during World War II. The film puts a relationship between two mates under the microscope: a postman, well liked by the townsfolk before the War, but shunned during the War when he has to deliver unpleasant news, and a simple farmer, whose two sons went to the battlefield. I wanted to examine both characters’ inner turmoils: the postman’s, as he’s going to the farmer’s place to deliver news about his two sons, and the farmer’s, as he’s watching his good friend coming up to his house in an official postman capacity.
You shot “The Telegram Man” on 35mm film, a (now) unusual and expensive format. Why was shooting on 35mm important to you?
I felt that film was the best format, much superior to digital at the time we were shooting “The Telegram Man”, and I really wanted to do justice to the story by shooting it on the best possible format.
And I love shooting on film, the way it looks and the discipline that comes with it, whereby you have to really plan your shots, rather than shooting endless, aimless material, which tends to happen with digital. With “The Telegram Man”, I storyboarded the entire film, knowing in advance the frame composition and lenses I’d be using, while at the same time still keeping myself open-minded to new ideas and spontaneous things that came up during the shoot. As a result, I had a very low shooting ratio, was able to finish the shoot within the allocated four days, had a considerably short post-production time, and managed to bring the project to completion on time and within budget.
“The Telegram Man” stars Australian legends Jack Thompson, Gary Sweet and Sigrid Thornton. What was it like working with these stars, and how did you get them interested in the project?
Jack, Gary and Sigrid delivered restrained yet deeply emotional performances. It was an honour and privilege to be able to work with such screen legends on my first professional film. They were all extremely gracious, generous and down-to-earth. I very much enjoyed working with all of them. They have more than a hundred years of cinematic experiences between them and I learned so much from them.
I always had Jack in mind for the role of the telegram man. He was the first one to sign on. He was attracted to the project by the story, as well as the preparation and presentation of storyboard and concept that I brought to him. Having Jack on board helped the project gain the interest of both Gary and Sigrid. This is the first film in which Jack and Gary ever worked together, and a reunion for Jack and Sigrid since working together in the 1982 classic Australian film “The Man from Snowy River”.
Do you have any standout behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film?
“The Telegram Man” was four years in the making from securing the film rights to raising the finance to gaining the interest of the film’s three screen icons. The film didn’t receive any government funding or support. It was a big challenge for me trying to get it off the ground. I raised the finance privately, hoping that someday it’d be enough to make a film that would do justice to the story. It’s well worth the effort since the film has been so well received here in Australia, as well as overseas, particularly in the United States, where the film has been screened in more than 60 different film festivals across the country.
Audiences around the world have been moved by “The Telegram Man”. Can you please tell us about some of the conversations you had with audience members?
I had the good fortune to visit the United States on a festival-sponsored trip to present and talk about “The Telegram Man”. In each of the festivals and special events I attended here in Australia and the United States, audiences would approach me after the screenings to let me know how the film had deeply touched their hearts.
Some were parents whose children were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were war widows whose spouses recently died while serving in these two countries. A number of Australian audiences remembered those stories told by their grandparents of how they went through the horrors of World War II, not seeing their sons, husbands, brothers or fathers for the entirety of the War, not knowing from week to week if they were alive or shot dead in some obscure jungle, and the frightening knock on the door, not knowing if it was the telegram man on the other side of the door.
I’ve also been receiving numerous letters from soldiers and returned veterans describing how the film emotionally moved them.
As a filmmaker, it’s the greatest joy to learn that the film, in which you poured years of blood, sweat and tears to make, resonates well and strikes a chord with audiences.
“The Telegram Man” is going to be screening at the 2016 ANZAC Day Commemoration in Gallipoli, Turkey, which is an amazing honour. How did it happen, and will you be attending?
It’s a great honour to have “The Telegram Man” screening once again at the Commemoration. This will be the film’s fifth consecutive time, following its screenings to over 26,500 people at the 2012 – 2015 Commemorations. I won’t be attending the 2016 Commemoration, but I hope the film will have a profound effect on the audiences, as it’s had in the last four years.
“The Telegram Man” has received more than 40 awards and screened in more than 120 film festivals around the world, but the film’s screenings at the ANZAC Day Commemorations in Gallipoli remain its greatest honour.
Are you currently working on any exciting new projects you can tell the Beamafilm audience about?
I’ve got a couple of World War II projects in the pipeline: one is set in Europe and the other one in home front Australia. Working with a veteran Australian actor, I’m currently developing a mainstream commercial feature film project, a fast-paced crime mystery thriller about a missing child set in contemporary Tasmania.
You can watch “The Telegram Man” now on Beamafilm.
All images from THE TELEGRAM MAN Motion Picture © JAMES FRANCIS KHEHTIE All Rights Reserved.