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Director Russell Kilbey talks to Beamafilm about his award-winning documentary, “The Man from Coxs River”.
“The Man from Coxs River” is the first feature-length documentary from director/producer team Russell Kilbey and Amy Scully. A herd of brumbies must be removed from Sydney’s dam catchment area in the Burragorang valley. Park Ranger Chris Banffy is convinced that Luke Carlon, an experienced horseman whose family has lived in the area for a hundred years, is the man for the job. “The Man from Coxs River” went on to be the highest-grossing Australian documentary of 2014, and has won both prestigious awards and the love of audiences Australia-wide. Beamafilm talked to Director Russell Kilbey about his experiences making the film, and some of the extraordinary stories from audience members.
Hi Russell. The brumby relocation and the story of the Carlon family as the last remaining original settlers of that area is absolutely fascinating. What drew you to the subject?
We were looking for a story about living in Australia and really being connected to the place where you grew up – a sense of belonging and that sort of thing. We put it out there, and we were ringing people about this sort of broad idea, and just by happenstance this woman walks into my office and said “I’ve got your next documentary for you.” She threw this map on the table and said “My brother is catching these brumbies up in the Wild Dog Mountains”, and I just went “Wow!”
What are some of the stand-out stories from behind-the-scenes of the film?
Well, I almost died a few times from falling off horses. Once I fell off this horse, and I looked behind me and I had just narrowly missed this pointy stump that would have impaled me like a shishkebab.
There were lots of great nights. The thing about filming horsemen is that they’re not really into sport, and Luke, he’s a huge Doctor Who fan. So we’d sit around the fire at night drinking whiskey and talking about Doctor Who. They really made us feel welcome out there. We were a big pain in the arse for Luke, because he had to get extra horses and extra equipment to get us in and out of the valley, so it was a lot to ask. Every time I go up there I take him a bottle of something, or a Doctor Who Tshirt to make it up to him.
You personally toured “The Man from Coxs River” to many regional cinemas around Australia. What the response to the film was like in those areas?
It was pretty universally loved. The movie first showed in the Blue Mountains, and then it took off from there. We did about seventy Q&A screenings, which is probably the record for the most Q&A screenings of anyone in Australia since back with the Leyland Brothers or Albie Mangles. Normally the filmmakers do five or six, in the capital cities, then that’s it. We just kept doing it and doing it. It’s a very expensive way to promote a film, because me and Amy and most times my son would travel to remote areas, but it was also just heaps and heaps of fun. So we’re trying to find another project where we can do the same thing.
It was always a matter of reaching critical mass with the audience somehow – if you can get to “x” amount of people then you’ll get a lot of people. If you look at our website you’ll see sold out, full house, sold out, full house, and it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’d always ask the audience, at the end, “There’s just me and Amy and we don’t really know what we’re doing, but we know that if you ring all your friends, tell them over the next week ‘Mate, I saw this really good film’, spread the word by bush telegraph, then we can keep doing this.” And they did. We had people who would come and see the film three times. They’d go and take their grandson, and they’d go and take their mum…
The thing about the film is that it’s very multi-layered, so different people found different things in the film. We tried to make it like a painting, where it could be experienced in different ways by different people. We tried to make it a piece of art, not just a factual product where it’s someone telling you what to think. A lot of that was just luck. Getting this story that was a multi-layered, historical story that hadn’t been told properly yet.
One time we showed the film in South West Rock, and this woman who was in a wheelchair got up and started talking, and she said that she’d travelled three hours down the coast to see the film. She and her husband were in their 90s, and they’d met at the Burragorang. In the 30s and 40s it was a very popular honeymoon spot, so this couple had met and gone on a honeymoon in Burragorang, and they were crying. There were quite a few times when me and Amy were in tears when people told us about how wonderful it was to see that country again, because you can’t actually access it now. We had people on their death beds, whose final wish – this is fair dinkum! – was “You’ve got to get me ‘The Man from Coxs River’, I just want to see that country one more time before I die.” And they’d bring the TV set into their ward. It didn’t happen once, it happened two or three times, that we found out that someone was buying the DVD to show their grandmother, because they were on life support. They just wanted to see that country where they grew up, or got married, or went horse riding, one more time.
Another night, it turned out it was from this guy in the audience…There was a drowning in the Coxs River in 1968, there was a big flood and his girlfriend had drowned in the river. It had really changed his life. We made friends with him, and we made another film about his experience, which we’re trying to put together. It was a very powerful thing. Because he’d hired the horses from the Carlons, and then Norma, who is Luke’s mum, nursed him. He had wandered through the wilderness for three days in bare feet, trying to get back, because there was a flood, and his friends were trapped. It’s quite a traumatic story. But that was amazing, so we’re still in contact with him.
Finally, are you currently working on any projects that you can tell us about?
Well, we bought an old book of stories…I’m going to be a bit vague about it, but it’s a true story from the 1880s, and it’s got bushrangers and a girl and a horse. I’m sure that the audience will love it.
We’re working backwards in that we know that the story will work for the audience we’ve had for the film [The Man from Coxs River]. We’ve already done sort of half of the work. We’re trying to recreate that fun experience of having a film that we can travel around with, and hopefully this time we’ll do it even better. We’re also looking at other documentary projects, but it’s a tough game. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to juggle my work commitments and my filmmaking fun, but things could change and it could become difficult. But hopefully not!
You can watch “The Man from Coxs River” on Beamafilm here.