John Molloy is the head of production at Mushroom Pictures, working out of the company's Melbourne office. After boffo success with 'Molly' earlier in the year, he's now gearing up for the release of his latest project as producer: Nicholas Verso's fantasy-tinged teen drama 'Boys in the Trees'.
When did you meet the director, Nicholas Verso? I know you produced his short.
That was the first time we worked together, on The Last Time I Saw Richard (2014), but I'd seen some of Nicholas's short films before that. Nic and I started working on Boys in the Trees and then decided to make The Last Time I Saw Richard as a way of helping us put the feature together. A proof of our relationship and also showing Nicholas' style, so that when we were out talking about the feature we had something very concrete that people could hold on to.
So the feature idea came first?
Correct. Nicholas came and pitched a couple of different ideas and Boys in the Trees was actually not one of the ones he came to pitch. And then afterwards I asked what else he had – what's the thing you're most passionate about? And he said: I've got this strange film, I'm sure you won't be interested in it. This would have been 2013. Because we made The Last Time I Saw Richard by the end of 2013 and it then won the AACTA in 2014.
Did you have a script editor on board to develop the feature script?
Louise Gough acted as a script editor early on, and sort of stayed in touch with the project. Then the short film was made for Screen Australia's Springboard program, and the way that program ran [means] you do some more work on the feature script. That was with Paul Welsh and then John Stevens, who's a Melbourne script editor and did some work with us heading into production. So there was input from different people along the way but really it was always Nicholas who had full charter of the script.
How did you put the financing together?
A lot of private investment and a small amount of rebate. The government funds that we have are from the South Australian Film Corporation. They came on board to help bring the production to South Australia. And then we received some completion funding from Screen Australia once they'd actually seen a cut of the film. The film was originally written to be set in Melbourne. But because the film is set in the suburbs of Australia it was very easy, because in a strange way the identity of the city isn't so important as the idea of kids walking suburban streets at night.
How long was the shoot?
It was five weeks. It shot the end of September [last year] and finished on Halloween, which was perfect for the film. That felt appropriate and a good omen.
What were the particular challenges of the shoot?
It's a low-budget feature and you're shooting at night for nearly the entire time. That becomes a really interesting challenge. You're working with smaller crews in strange hours. A friend of mine, who's a much more experienced filmmaker, said – just get ready with the night shoots, everybody goes a little crazy. And it's true, because you're working from 6pm to 6am and you're not seeing daylight and you enter into a weird communal shared space. So the night-time was a challenge. We [also] had a young cast, which means that you have to provide the right support around young actors to make sure they're delivering their best work because they don't have those years of experience behind them. But we had some very talented and very gifted young actors, so in a strange way they made that easy.
Had they acted before?
Toby [Wallace], the lead in the film, actually acted in The Last Time I Saw Richard for us, and he was also in Galore, he's in The Turning, and he's in the INXS [mini] as well. He played the young Michael Hutchence. All these kids today, they actually come with credits in their teenage years because they've been working. Mitzi [Ruhlmann] we first saw a long time ago in an amazing short called Yardbird (2012), in which she was the lead. When [casting director] Marianne Jade suggested her, Nicholas sort of said: 'are you sure? She's 12, that girl.' And Marianne had to say, 'she's grown up Nic, it's a while since Yardbird'. Justin Holborow was in [TV series] Conspiracy 365 and Reef Doctors. Gulliver [McGrath] has shot films with Spielberg, Scorsese and Burton. He had a small part in Hugo, [he was] a vampire in Dark Shadows, and [he was] Abe Lincoln's son in Lincoln. They all work more than I do (laughs).
Was post done back in Melbourne?
Yeah, the edit came back to Melbourne. And then post finishing, as in sound design and grade, were done in South Australia, except for the visual effects elements, which were actually done by [Byron Film Studio’s] Will Gammon in Byron Bay. The SAFC supported the production so we tried to maximise our spend in that state, but we also found some great collaborators there. Kojo is a really great post production facility in South Australia who go above and beyond. So it was a happy marriage. The way our post was set up, it was very fluid; it was actually working [in] three states simultaneously. In post for five or six months.
Were you finished long before Venice?
Not long. Venice had seen a cut that was not complete – there were still visual effects elements to be added, final soundtrack elements to be added, and the final mix to be done. We finished about a month out from Venice.
How was it premiering in Venice and going on to Toronto?
You couldn't choose two more diametrically opposed festivals in terms of how they feel. Venice was incredibly special, incredibly beautiful. We were in a 1400-seat cinema with exquisite sound, beautiful picture, all the glamour of the red carpet. The audience gave it a standing ovation. They went crazy and mobbed Nicholas and the actors after the screening. They were a very emotional audience: in tears and asking for autographs. The festival [people] were standing around going, we don't usually see this for the smaller films, this is usually reserved for the big Hollywood films. Actually they had trouble clearing the cinema. So it was a really beautiful moment to open the film. We screened in Venice on the Friday and in Toronto on the Monday. Toronto went incredibly well, but Toronto is like a big monster of a festival; people running from screening to screening to screening. It's like the Melbourne Film Festival on steroids. It was great to have your world premiere at Venice, and then go start doing the business on the film at Toronto.
What's the release plan?
We're releasing here in four weeks. We'll do a premiere in Melbourne on October 10, and into cinemas on October 20. At the moment we're placed with Village and Event through the multiplex network, because it's absolutely important for us to be targeting the teen market with the film. We've tried to go to sites where young Australians consume cinema, because there hasn't really been a teen film made in Australia since Tomorrow, When the War Began. It's not a genre that we enter into very much and it's something that we feel passionate about: that we should be trying to engage the teen audience in consuming Australian stories.
At this point how many screens is the film going out on?
Going out on 15 at the moment but that may grow because I'm still waiting for some people to come back [to me]. We [Mushroom] have retained distribution rights in AU/NZ, and that's not uncommon for us. We often do music content and we're also the distributor next year for the film Killing Ground. So we're actively stepping in to that space and trying to support Australian films.
How much is on your slate, and how much does Mushroom have in development?
We produced Molly, the miniseries, earlier this year, which was on Channel 7. We try to balance between film and television. We have several television series in development at the moment. And we're looking to see what Nicholas's next film will be, and then obviously we'll be working with Damien [Power] on Killing Ground. The reason why Nicholas and Damien are a good fit is that we love doing things with new talent, [and] we love things that are a bit edgy. Our company sits within the Mushroom Entertainment Group, [so] it's a bit rock and roll. We look for things that have a youthful and edgy vibe to them.
This film's got quite the soundtrack, with Yoko Ono, Marilyn Manson and many other big names. Did Mushroom's clout in the music world make getting those rights easier?
Soundtracks are something we're really passionate about. Often what you'll find is that producers in Australia will leave the soundtrack to the very end and consider it an afterthought. Nicholas himself is a DJ and is incredibly passionate about music, so lots of the tracks were already in the script. Rather than us baulking at that, we thought it was fantastic, because music's important in cinema, and we went out and worked out how to clear it. It takes a lot of work, but rather than our clout I think it's our knowledge that helps us clear soundtracks. Because we're in discussions with all of these companies every day. On something like Molly, we cleared 67 tracks, which nobody else would ever do.