Daniel Henshall and Toby Wallace tangle in ‘Acute Misfortune’

Daniel Henshall as Adam Cullen in ‘Acute Misfortune’.

Daniel Henshall and Toby Wallace are playing the leads in Acute Misfortune, a biopic of the acclaimed Australian painter Adam Cullen, who battled drugs and alcoholism and died in 2012, aged 46.

Now shooting in the Blue Mountains where Cullen lived, the drama marks the feature directorial debut of actor and theatre director/writer Thomas M. Wright.

Wright co-wrote the screenplay with journalist Erik Jensen, based on the latter’s 2014 book ‘Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen’.

Wallace, who recently wrapped Stan’s Romper Stomper, plays Jensen with Henshall as Cullen.

In 2008 Cullen invited Jensen, then aged 19, to stay in his spare room and write his biography, claiming he had a contract with a publisher.

Over the course of four years the relationship became increasingly fraught. At one point the artist shot Jensen in the leg to test his commitment to the book. Another time he threw Jensen from a speeding motorbike.

Eventually the journo realised there was no contract, so the book became an investigation of Cullen’s psychology and a record of the decline of his final years.

Wright approached Jensen after reading the book, expressing a desire to write the screenplay, and then took the project to Arenamedia’s Robert Connolly and Liz Kearney.

Connolly and Kearney agreed to serve as executive producers and they asked Plot Media’s Virginia Kay and Jamie Houge to produce with Wright’s Black Heath Films.

The financiers are Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the MIFF Premiere Film Fund and Soundfirm. Connolly’s CinemaPlus will distribute in Australia and his firm Maze will handle international sales.

The DOP is Germain McMicking who shot Top of the Lake: China Girl and episodes of the original Top of the Lake, in which Wright appeared.

Jensen says: “Watching as this book becomes a film has been one of the great privileges of my career. I started writing this story when I was 19, staying in Adam’s spare room on the promise of a book contract that never existed. I stayed because Adam fascinated me.

“Writing the screenplay with Thomas was just as illuminating, in some ways, as those years spent interviewing Adam. I have absolute faith in the team assembled to tell this story – in their subtlety and integrity, and willingness to work without judgment or fear.”

Houge tells IF that Henshall put on about 20kg to portray the overweight Cullen, who won the Archibald prize in 2000 for his portrait of David Wenham. The actor will aim to shed 2kg a week as the character becomes increasingly ill, eventually succumbing to pancreatitis. There will be a two-week hiatus in the 35-days shoot over Christmas/New Year, when Henshall will lose more weight.

She said Wright insisted Henshall and Wallace not meet during the two weeks of rehearsals and that their only interaction on set is their scenes together to help them react to events as they unfold sequentially.

Houge and Kay met Wright in the US, where the producers spent five years working on the films Sugar Mountain, The Lookalike, Mine Games and Blinder with director Richard Gray.