Tim Winton’s Dirt Music is a sweeping love story set against the stunning backdrops of Western Australia.
In the time since the book’s release almost two decades ago, there has been at least one aborted film adaptation. But now, with lockdown restrictions being lifted and a hopeful July reopening for cinemas, we may finally get to see Winton’s story on the big screen.
Today, Universal released the trailer for Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Dirt Music, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
There’s no release date confirmed but the new trailer is an encouraging sign that we’ll soon be planting our bums on plush velvet chairs.
Starring Kelly MacDonald and Garrett Hedlund, the story is set in a small fishing town in WA.
Georgie (MacDonald) is married to crayfish baron Jim Huckeridge (David Wenham) in an unhappy marriage. She becomes drawn to dirt musician and poacher Lu Fox (Hedlund) whose family has had a long rivalry with the Huckeridges.
Georgie and Lu engage in a passionate, forbidden affair that sees the pair flee thousands of kilometres up the coast to the Coronation Islands.
Jordan, who broke out as the writer and director of Two Hands, which starred Heath Ledger and catapulted Rose Byrne to fame, got on the phone with news.com.au from his LA base to chat through his decades-long relationship with Dirt Music and why he cast two foreigners to play these Australian characters.
(Interview condensed for length and clarity.)
Was Tim Winton’s book a favourite of yours for a long time or did you only read it when the project came across your desk?
I was initially sent the book by my agents as a manuscript before it was published in 2001, because they were sending it around to filmmakers to see if anyone might be interested in turning it into a film.
I read the book then and I was, in many ways, a different person back then. I was a single guy, and while there was a lot about the book that I loved, I couldn’t really wrap my head around how to turn it into a film because it’s such an unusual story and it’s such a vast canvas it’s told on.
Then the rights went elsewhere. Then years later I met the producer, Finola Dwyer and she asked me if I was keen to look at the screenplay (by Jack Thorne). I said yes because I was more curious to see how they went about trying to adapt it.
I was completely bowled over and completely moved. I lot has changed in my life since I first read it, namely that I had kids so the element of losing a child and the tragedy this character goes through is really harrowing in a way I hadn’t seen before.
I guess having kids makes you terrified of losing them, so that element of the story is really powerful to me.
You’ve got people like David Wenham and Aaron Pedersen in this cast but you cast two international stars, American Garrett Hedlund and the Scottish Kelly MacDonald, in this Australian story. Tell me about that choice.
I guess we had every intention of casting all Australians but we just couldn’t really find the right Australians who are exactly the right ages and had the right qualities as actors and who were also available and wanting to do the parts.
Actors turn up for a job and you put different clothes on them, you cut their hair and they change their voice, so obviously casting an American and a Scot to play Australians meant they had to do more work on their accents than Australian actors would be. But that was just one element of their preparation.
What they brought to it was that they were really, really right for the characters.
Garrett was so perfect for Lou. He grew up in Minnesota on a farm and was very outdoorsy and rugged. We had to do a lot of work changing his voice to sound Australian but we just couldn’t find the same elements in an Australian actor.
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He was so impressive in Dee Rees’ Mudbound, which I guess came out just before you guys were casting?
That was the movie that I saw which made me think he was right for this, because he was so dashing and handsome but had such a sensitive, gentle spirit to him. I thought that was such a terrific performance in Mudbound. It’s just now about getting his accent right and getting him looking Australian.
Even in the trailer, you can see the landscape of WA, of the Kimberley, is so beautiful and sweeping. Can you tell me about how much the landscape contributed to the epic nature of Georgie and Lu’s love story?
I think that’s a feature of Tim Winton’s books generally. He’s very visceral and evocative in the way he writes about the natural landscape and things like insects and the birds and the smells and vegetation and the ocean.
So the natural environment is a big, important element in all his stories. But I would argue that Dirt Music probably has that element even more prominently. So it was very important to us to really evoke the places.
We were shooting down south in Esperance and then shooting right up north in the Kimberley and we looked at it on a map and it was the same distance from London to Moscow. So it just gives you a sense of the vastness of the countryside.
Capturing that was important because the characters have this relationship to the landscape and it’s an important theme of the story in a kind of meditative way, with how they spiritually interact with it. It’s hauntingly created in the book and that was something we were really trying to put into the movie.
Jack Thorne, the screenwriter, just worked on a TV series with Damien Chazelle called The Eddy and in that show the music is so integral to it. Music is also integral to Dirt Music – did you see that in his script here as well?
When you’re making a film called Dirt Music, the music is an important part.
Jack was very deliberate about the way he scripted the music and what he was going for lyrically and just the mood of the songs that he chose were really powerful. We didn’t use all the music he chose but in certain places we took the spirit of what he was doing and used that as a springboard for ideas.
You have a history of working with Powderfinger and their concert films – how much of that experience did you bring to this?
Being able to incorporate music in its different forms into a film is a strength as a filmmaker. Finding the music and interacting with the musicians and creating a space where they can really feel part of it all is an important part of the filmmaking process, and really satisfying as well.
We had a really great time making the music that was going to play in the movie for instance. There’s a band in the film, a family band, so we cast actors who could sing and play, and in one instance we cast a musician, Julia Stone, who could act.
Julia had an idea in where we set them up together in a house so they could get to know each other, and they could just play together. and we had a bunch of songs that we’d cleared the rights for and they played for days and nights.
It became very clear the songs that clicked and that was a real deciding element in what music would be in the film. So in that sense, the musicians actually chose the music for the movie.
As a bonus, they got to know each other really well and really felt like a family, and I think that comes out on the screen as well, that real bond.
Dirt Music is coming to cinemas soon.
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