Kriv Stenders talks ‘Wake in Fright’ two-parter

(l-r): Jason Isaacs, Zen McGrath and director Kriv Stenders on the set of 'Red Dog: True Blue'.

Kriv Stenders might just be the busiest director in Australia.

The helmer's first sequel, Red Dog: True Blue, comes out on Boxing Day, he's got Foxtel TV movie Australia Day in the can, and he's currently in the thick of making a documentary on The Go-Betweens.

After that Stenders begins production on Ten's two-part adaptation of Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright, previously the basis for Ted Kotcheff's 1971 film of the same name: considered by many the greatest Australian film of all time.

For now, the director is focused on True Blue, and admits to nerves in the run-up to its release.

"Look, of course, I'm anxious," Stenders told IF. "I know I've made a really good film, I'm really proud of this film. My job is to make the film and I think what companies like Roadshow do really well is release this kind of product wide. I'm really not that much involved in the marketing of the film or in the way they are promoting it, I'm leaving that up to the Roadshow boys and to [producer] Nelson [Woss]."

Stenders is in the midst of shooting Go-Betweens interviews on the VariCam in Queensland, having locked off Australia Day earlier in the year. 

Foxtel's Penny Win, who developed Australia Day for a couple of years, described it to IF in August as "very like [2004 Oscar winner] Crash; these characters intersect but they don’t know each other. It’s about standing up and taking a stand." 

"It’s showing Australia Day from the other side. It’s about an Australian farmer, a Chinese illegal immigrant, a Persian family and an Indigenous girl."

Stenders is coy on whether the film, which stars Bryan Brown, Matt Le Nevez and Shari Sebbens, will get a theatrical release.

"Watch this space. It's a Foxtel film, yeah, but I think they're doing something very interesting. The new paradigm of subscriber financed films… it will have a theatrical release of some kind, hopefully. It's a brave new world. It'll have a sort of a limited theatrical release component to it as a way to kind of prepare it for the platform release on Foxtel."

Like Abe Forsythe's Down Under, Australia Day addresses race, but Stenders sees his film as a very different take. 

"Down Under is a great film but Down Under is very much done in a very particular key. [In] our film, there is a Middle-Eastern story in it but that's only one of the story's threads. Australia Day is much more a film about Australia and the Australia that exists now. It's a film that looks at race but also a number of other things: Disenfranchisement and all kinds of inequalities and issues that we, as a nation, face now."

The writer of Australia Day is Stephen M. Irwin, who also penned the new Wake in Fright: "a project that we've been quietly developing for a number of years in the background," says Stenders. 

"It has been a very long process to get to where we are now and we've still got a very long journey ahead of us. But it was an idea that we had been kicking around for quite a few years and we were just waiting for the right elements to align and they eventually did. It's a bit of a dream project."

The two-parter has been developed with producers Kristian Moliere and Helen Bowden and "will be a two night event," says the director.

With shooting to begin in Broken Hill and Sydney in the first quarter of the new year, Stenders and his team have been quietly testing actors for the lead role of John Grant (Gary Bond in the original).

As in the Picnic at Hanging Rock mini, the new Wake in Fright will be taking its lead from the book instead of the film, which "has cast a huge shadow over me for a very long time," says Stenders.

"We're not remaking the film. We've actually gone back to the source novel and we're extrapolating out of that and building on the characters that are in the book. It's going to be a very different kind of story and a very different kind of film. It's basically a psychological thriller." 

From Red Dog: True Blue to Wake In Fright might seem like a stretch, but it's a natural one for Stenders.

"When I first pitched Red Dog, [and] whenever I was talking to crew, I'd say, 'Red Dog is Pixar meets Wake In Fright' (laughs). There are a lot of Easter egg references to Wake In Fright in Red Dog. Even John Grant, the lead character in Red Dog, is named after John Grant of Wake In Fright."

The mini will be produced by Lingo Pictures in association with Endemol Shine Australia, with the assistance of Screen Australia and Screen NSW. Executive producers are Jason Stephens (Lingo Pictures), Mark Fennessy and Carl Fennessy (Endemol Shine).