Matching Jack

In her element


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Article appeared in the Australian 24/7/2010

NADIA Tass is bemused. She hasn’t been missing in action for 10 years. She’s been making a film a year. Just not here. “That’s a lot of work,” she says with a smile.

It’s an unfair perception, but a perception nevertheless, that the director of Malcolm, The Big Steal and Amy has been absent from the film industry since the latter was released in 1998. The view is enhanced by the back-story of her latest film, Matching Jack, which she’s spent 10 years developing.

Such a conclusion betrays our parochialism and our embrace of the auteur in filmmaking. Tass, 54, is one of many Australians who work extensively, albeit somewhat anonymously, in American film and television. Tass works in the relative shadows of the theatre, too, and recently directed The Gronholm Method for Melbourne’s vibrant Red Stitch Actors Theatre company. Right now she is in London directing Three Women in an Ice Cream Cone at the King’s Head Theatre, which opens on August 10 (Tass will whip back for the Matching Jack premiere, arriving on Thursday, the day it screens at Melbourne International Film Festival).

Melbourne is, in fact, still home, although Tass and her husband and collaborator David Parker have a base in LA and Tass spends a lot of time in New York doing pre- and post-production work for TV. She probably spends about half of each year elsewhere. “I miss Melbourne, I love Melbourne. I love it so much and I hope it shows in my work that I love the city I’m shooting in, because there’s nothing like it anywhere. Having the privilege of working and getting to know so many places around the world, when I return I think, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the best city in the world’.”

As for the lack of recognition; that off-the-radar perception? “I don’t really care, what does it matter? I go where the work is and there’s been more work for me that I can actually do,” she notes. “And that’s a very fortunate position to be in and I enjoy it, I really enjoy it. I love the work that I have chosen to do in America.”

Referring to the gap between Amy and Matching Jack, Parker adds matter-of-factly, “It seems to me in the normal course of events it can take you 10 years to make a movie.” Which is why he says he would not recommend the business to anyone “in a million years”, despite his and Tass’s son John working as an assistant producer and stills photographer on Matching Jack.

“It’s a tough business that doesn’t necessarily reward, proportionally, the product,” Parker says. “There are too many variables, too many unknowns out there. The streets of Los Angeles are littered with films that were actually quite good that never went anywhere for various reasons.”

Tass is in her element in the US. She emphasises that working there is a matter of her choosing: she has not worked in the US just for the sake of being employed. She has revelled in working with the Walt Disney Company and with Julia Roberts’s production company, Red Om, on the American Girl series of TV movies. Her next project is a US indie film to be shot in Russia and Ukraine, which will be cast from the US.

There was a time when Tass did take a directing job for less than pure reasons though, adds Parker. After their success with the beautiful Melbourne comedy Malcolm, the two were inundated with offers to make US movies. “The problem for us was we were getting Splash, Too and Son of the Absent Minded Professor,” Parker says with a grin. “We thought, what do these people think Malcolm was?”

They knocked everything back until their twitchy US agent convinced them, justifiably, they shouldn’t be too choosy. Interest might wane. So they selected Pure Luck, a 1991 caper comedy starring Martin Short and Danny Glover. It did enough to consolidate Tass’s reputation in the US.

While Tass is the director, she and Parker are inevitably connected as a creative partnership. As Parker describes it, “when I think about our body of work I am referring to a Nadia Tass-directed, David Parker-written or co-written and shot film [Parker co-wrote and shot Matching Jack].”

The couple has produced a distinctive batch of Australian soft comedies, the kind of films where the story comes before the gags; films that don’t paint their comic characters as broadly as Australian filmmakers have done historically. Malcolm remains a modern classic of heart, wit and invention with Colin Friels’s performance as the awkward tram enthusiast a career-making role. It also provided us with indelible images, including the captivating sight of a joyful Friels driving half a car through Melbourne.

The next Tass-Parker film, the road movie Rikky and Pete, represented a sophomore slump of sorts before the gorgeous caper comedy The Big Steal, starring an emerging Claudia Karvan and Ben Mendelsohn, restated the couple’s bona fides. Tass then directed the popular TV adaptation of Ben Elton’s novel Stark, and later the comedies Mr Reliable and Amy in a captivating decade of work.

While not entirely unbreakable (Parker directed his own comedy in 1997, Diana & Me), their creative partnership is solid. The two are suitably contrasting.

Tass is the migrant from Greece who was schooled in theatre as a young actor before becoming a director caught up in the vibrant Melbourne scene in Carlton in the 1970s and 80s. She is adamant about working with people who “are serious about their work and not just their career”.

Parker is the chuckling counterpoint to that, a former photographer (he took a memorable shot of young Princess Diana sitting on a fence post at Uluru) who graduated to cinematography, writing and directing television commercials yet still, he says, finds writing a difficult task.

Tass laid claim to a strong individual identity in the US. Parker still acted as her director of photography and the two tended to spend their Sundays rewriting scripts together, but Parker smiles as he says it was a holiday for him. He would be home in Australia as Tass was in pre- or post-production. She has directed a series of telemovies in the past decade that were high-rating, commercial successes there but essentially unknown here, consigned to subscription television and not in a format that normally attracts the kind of kudos a feature film might.

She directed The Miracle Worker and Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story for American network ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney; Undercover Christmas, starring Jami Gertz and Tyne Daly for CBS in 2003; and then two American Girl telemovies.

They meant enough in Hollywood for Twentieth Century Fox to back Matching Jack, despite assessors at our federal funding body, Film Finance Corporation (in its final days) rejecting the film. The backing of a US studio gave Tass the confidence to persist with a film that was hitting a few brick walls at home before Film Victoria gave it a boost.

Matching Jack is perhaps at first glance what is – disparagingly and insensitively – sometimes called “a cancer film” or “movie of the week”, a teary drama focusing upon a terminal illness. Financiers run from them. But in Tass and Parker’s hands, the story is not so classifiable, let alone maudlin.

Jack (Tom Russell, last seen in Last Ride) is the nine-year-old son of an esteemed Melbourne architect, David (Richard Roxburgh) and his wife Marissa (Jacinda Barrett). Jack requires a bone marrow transplant to counter leukaemia. That’s the tough bit. The extra sauce is the means by which Marissa tries to secure the bone marrow: via children her husband may have sired during his string of affairs with almost identical blondes. (Yvonne Strahovski, who recently starred in I Love You Too, plays the latest mistress.)

A complementary plot featuring Irish actor James Nesbitt (Cold Feet) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) unfolds from the hospital bed next to Jack’s.

No wonder Tass says the tale instantly grabbed her when a stranger, Lynne Renew, came into her Port Melbourne office and pitched the story 10 years ago. Just getting the story to Tass was an achievement, she says. “I actually don’t get too many people hanging around all day waiting to see me.”

Tass did enough research to understand how widespread such trauma is, and how truthful the notion of benefiting from a husband’s philandering might be. “It’s not one person’s reality, it’s a lot of people’s,” she says. “We’re bringing all the information together and creating one story.”

She threw herself deep into other people’s lives in order to make this one a story she could tell. “It was really interesting to see how much people were willing to part with,” she says with a grin.

Tass says she didn’t encounter closed doors because her intention with the film was not just to entertain. “I love entertainment, and you know from my work that making people laugh is really important to me. But at the same time there’s a serious issue in there and never is that serious issue used in a way that we’re laughing at it.

“So perhaps people have seen my work and feel comfortable, but it wasn’t that hard to get out there and see what’s going on in the community. And it wasn’t all ‘Oh my god’,” Tass says. “People cope, people live, people still have to eat and drink, but it does arrest you momentarily and you think, ‘OK, what next, what am I going to do now? How am I going to navigate my way through this part of my life?”‘

The Tass-Parker double act helped the film negotiate its way into production, says Parker. When pitching the tale to studio executives, “Nadia would start this rave about this being the story of a woman’s struggle and against all odds, she achieves what she does. I’m sitting there letting her have her rip, and then I’d say, ‘No, it’s not; the story’s about it being really important for guys to screw around . . . just in case’. And you’d see this executive going, ‘What the f . . .?’ and thinking there was going to be a domestic.”

Such mischief has worked before. After numerous meetings with Short as they pitched to make Pure Luck, the couple finally sent him a fax thanking him for his time and reiterating how they hoped to make a great film together. “On the other hand,” they wrote, “if we don’t get to make the film with you, we hope it’s a complete pile of shit.” They later heard that fax clinched the deal.

Matching Jack is too complex a film to clinch financing with a one-liner. Yet Fox made a commitment six years ago despite knowing Tass was not looking for A-list Hollywood actors (Dustin Hoffman was also interested in producing the film).

So when prospects dimmed here, there was some talk of making it in Seattle or Boston with people such as Meg Ryan. “I knew we could take it to America because I knew Fox really liked it, so it was always going to be made,” Tass says.

Yet she pulled back from a US shoot because it would have become a different film. “It’s really important when we’re putting up these sorts of sensitive issues on the screen that we’re not constantly reminded that that’s Meg Ryan up there or Julia Roberts,” she says. “I wanted this to be a film where people actually believed in that world. Yes, I wanted an actress who had a lot of experience but I really didn’t want someone who was going to be bigger than the film.

“The fact is you’re either an actor who is acting in a part, actually breathing life into a character, or you’re a star,” she adds. “And if you’re a star, your public or audience has certain expectations of the star, and if you’re not fulfilling their expectations, therein lies a problem, and the studio system knows that.”

Tass loves her actors, which is why names such as Mendelsohn, Friels, Susie Porter, and Jacqueline McKenzie return to work with her (Friels has a bang-on cameo in Matching Jack). They’re always on the same page. Tass insists on a three-week rehearsal period before any film (most films get one week, at best). It’s her deal-breaker.

“I’m from theatre and I will not make a film without a rehearsal period,” she says. “In 1990 when I went to Hollywood and told Universal that, they looked at me like I was an alien. I got it, and since then people know I will not do something without my rehearsal period. It is where the film is made. The actors are all there, I’m there and we’re actually making the most important decisions, the choices about what this film is about so we actually find ourselves in the same world.”

Matching Jack deals with complex relationships with light, shade and experience. Barrett’s, Roxburgh’s and Nesbitt’s characters have lived. As have Tass and Parker.

“I love my job, I love the idea I can really get out there and listen to people’s stories in the community and hold up a mirror to what we’re about in certain areas of life,” says Tass. “It’s what theatre used to do.”

Matching Jack premieres on Thursday at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It will be released nationally on August 19.

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