Gregory Read embraces chaos with jetpack doco ‘Own The Sky’

'Own The Sky'.

Director Gregory Read (Like Minds) describes the process of creating his recent project, feature documentary Own The Sky, as “chaos in the best possible form”.

The doc follows an old school friend of Read’s, David Mayman, on his quest to build and fly the world’s first jetpack. Along the way, Mayman faces setback after setback, including crashes and injury, though his obsession rarely abates.

Read first rolled camera back 2007, never quite knowing what to expect or if Mayman’s ambitions would ever come to be realised. At times, the process of completing the doc was uncertain as process of creating the jetpack itself.

Ultimately Own The Sky became a consuming, 12 year journey, one that meant Read would often have to travel at the drop of a hat to wherever Mayman was conducting tests, from Mexico to the Czech Republic.

All the while the filmmaker was juggling a young family and other projects, such as producing Fred Schepisi’s 2011 film Eye of the Storm, and establishing his business, Aerial Film Australia (AFA), which he runs with DOP Peter Beeh.

And following Mayman wasn’t without risks. Read recalls standing near the back of a truck as a driver threw barrels of highly flammable rocket fuel to the ground, and posits he may be the “only person in the world” to have been run over by a jetpack, seeing his eyebrows singed and him fall into a cactus.

“You just never knew what was going to happen at any moment,” he tells IF.

Yet eventually, Mayman did succeed, spectacularly flying around the Statue of Liberty. It was only then that Read knew he had a film – one recently nominated for an AWGIE Award.

“When he lifted off, that was it. It was hard not be trembling when you’re the camera guy as well as the director and the friend… you’re just holding your breath and hoping you get a steady shot. It was an amazing moment.”

Producing Own The Sky with Read for Paper Bark Films were Firelight Productions’ Marcus Gillezeau and Ellenor Cox, with executive producers Simon Nasht and Chris Hilton. It was supported by Screen Australia and Create NSW, though Read notes most of the finance didn’t fall into place until quite late in the piece. During the making of Own The Sky, the team also created doc Rocket Compulsion for Discovery Channel, about Mayman attempting to fly a rocketbelt, which helped to finance the film.

While Own The Sky is yet to receive an Australian release – a theatrical run was initially planned for earlier this year via Adventure Entertainment before COVID intervened – the film is on Hulu in the US, and has sold to the UK for BBC4 and NHK in Japan. Gillezeau is currently in discussions with SVOD platforms around an acquisition and intends to self-release through on-demand, with the hope of a limited theatrical release later in the year or early next year

Over his career, Read has worn many hats, from director, writer, producer, cinematographer and editor.

In many ways, Own The Sky led him into yet another area of the industry, after meeting aerial cinematographer and three-time Academy Award-winning inventor Nelson Tyler, recognised for his work in creating camera stabilisation mounts. Tyler was assisting Mayman in his quest to build a jetpack; he built the rocketbelt that was flown at the opening ceremony of LA Olympics in 1984.

In conversation with Read, he mentioned that few people in Australia were using his systems – Tyler Camera Systems – for aerial cinematography.

That led Read to then establish his own aerial cinematography business, with the company supplying Tyler’s systems, and later, Shotover mounts. AFA’s credits are diverse, including films such as Unbroken, Pacific Rim Uprising, Alien Covenant, Lion, Tracks and Strangerland.

Peter Beeh setting up with the Shotover F1 in Broken Hill.

“To have an opportunity to have some of the best systems and to be able to help people achieve their vision, was to me, just as exciting as creating my own vision,” Read says.

“What do they say? You don’t want a Jack of all trades, master of none. I don’t agree with that. I think passion has a lot to do with it. I am technically-minded as well as creatively-minded.”

AFA’s recent work includes RFDS for the Seven Network/Endemol Shine Australia, shooting all the air-to-air work with the Royal Flying Doctors Service planes. The brief was dramatic, cinematic shots – more than your standard side shot of a plane.

“We were right behind them in the helicopter as they landed and as they took off. Or we were behind them, and swung around them as they were landing. You can imagine the shot; they were quite dramatic, landing on dirt runways, flying through the clouds.”

From Read’s perspective, his background in many different roles is an asset in his business. “I could talk about how I see [a shot] from a producer’s perspective, as in budget; a director’s perspective, as in, the dramatic content of the shot, and a cinematographer’s, as in, how the shot will be captured and how the light might give me the emotional resonance.”

Read has also recently worked as associate producer, field director and cinematographer for Akos Armont’s Brabham, now on Stan, and is developing two scripts he has written. One is follows a travelling carnival in 1952 outback Australia, while the other is based on Read’s grandfather, a Lebanese refugee to Australia.

OTS_TRAILER_MASTER from Paper Bark Films on Vimeo.