Hollywood executives spark to Leah Purcell’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ movie

Leah Purcell on stage in The Drover’s Wife (Photo credit: Belvoir)

Leah Purcell aims to start shooting the feature film adaptation of her play ‘The Drover’s Wife’ next September after pitching the project to major players in Hollywood.

Purcell and her producing partner Bain Stewart met with a raft of executives including reps of Fox Searchlight, Endeavour Content, Netflix’s film and television divisions and Amazon Prime on a visit to LA as part of Screen Australia’s Talent USA initiative marking 25 years of Indigenous screen production.

Stewart and Purcell’s Oombarra Productions, who will produce with Bunya Productions’ David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin and Monumental Pictures’ Alison Owen, are looking to cover a significant gap in the budget of The Drovers Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson from US-based financiers.

“Screen Australia gave us the perfect entrée for key meetings,” Stewart tells IF. “There was a lot of interest and we had fantastic responses.”

Purcell will direct and play the title role in the revenge Western inspired by her play, a re-imagining of Henry Lawson’s short story. Screen Australia has been championing the project since CEO Graeme Mason, Sally Caplan and Richard Harris attended the play’s opening night at the Belvoir St Theatre, and Create NSW is also supporting development.

Set in 1893, the plots follows the heavily pregnant Molly Johnson and her children who struggle to survive hunger and the wild elements. She forms a bond with Yadaka, a runaway Aboriginal, who helps her with the birth and burial of her stillborn baby. Sergeant Nate Clintoff learns that Molly’s drover husband is missing and sends his assistant, Trooper Leslie, to investigate, triggering a chain of brutal events.

Stewart says the US executives were impressed to learn that Purcell has been nominated for best lead actress in a TV drama at the AACTA Awards for her portrayal of Rita Connors in Foxtel/FremantleMedia Australia’s Wentworth.

Owen, whose credits include Shaun of the Dead, Suffragette and the Hulu series Harlots, was keen to get involved after she met with the film’s script editor Nicole Dade. It’s hoped she will bring some UK finance to the production.

Leah Purcell and Bain Stewart.

The shoot is planned for September – November in the Snowy Mountains. The DOP is Mark Wareham, who first collaborated with Purcell when she directed episodes of Redfern Now and later on Cleverman. Stewart says they are drawing up a casting wish-list, which may include two UK actors to play the English characters, and are in advanced discussions with an Australian distributor.

Stewart and Purcell are talking with a leading international theatre producer about staging a London season of the play, followed by a New York transfer if that season goes well.

Penguin Random House commissioned Purcell to write a novel based on the play, which will be published in mid-2019. The producers are also developing a TV series spin-off, hence the talks in LA with Netflix’s TV executives.

“I want to put my black pepper on anything I touch. I’m always asking how can I put my blackness though this. I love history and if I can tell a story that can also tell my Indigenous heritage and culture then I’ll absolutely do it,” Purcell told Screen Australia earlier this year.

Describing the play and film as a tale about love, life, happiness and justice for women who have suffered, she added: “This story came to me for a reason. It’s time for change and when justice is done, then the change has come.”