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:: Spotlight :: Thunderstruck - an interview with Darren Ashton and Damon Gameau

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

Thunderstruck is a new Australian film about a group of close mates who, after sharing a pact, travel across Australia with the remains of their dead school friend in the hope of burying him next to their rock idol, Bon Scott, the original lead singer of AC/DC. It’s a fun film with a good young cast in the main roles. The first-time feature film director is Darren Ashton. The lead actor is Damon Gameau, who you might remember from The Tracker but whose experience has mostly been in theatre. I had a chat to both of them whilst they were in Melbourne.

Q. What prompted you to write the story?

A.(Darren)The co-writer wrote the first couple of drafts. Then I came on board because I had been working with Jodi Matterson on another project that hadn’t been going that well. She told me how she met this guy who’d written his first screenplay. She pitched the idea to me and it was bizarre as it was just like a journey that I once went on with my mates when I was eighteen – a big three-day concert. She gave me the script. I worked on it for a while. Shaun (Angus Hall) and I worked together on various drafts before it came to fruition. The inspiration for it was that kind of familiarity I’d experienced. I thought it was funny and charming. I love thew daggy underdogs.

Q.I was curious when reading about the film how the film was financed. Sony Music invested. Icon Films got involved early on in their first Australian film. Yet, it could be said that they were taking a risk with a first-time feature film director, producer, and screenwriter. Was it simply the strength of the AC/DC brand?

A.(Darren)Jodi (Matterson) is very tenacious. She was really in love with the project and she knew the guys at Sony Music. We did speak with Miramax and Village Roadshow but we thought Icon would be more beneficial. You’re right. The AC/DC banner is very strong. It’s a real hook for a film. It’s one of those films you can tell people in one paragraph what it’s about. While it’s a risk in that I’m a first-time feature film director and Jodi’s first production credit, other people had good bodies of work. The film was to be shot in October 2002. There were nine investors in the film and to get all those contracts sorted out took longer than expected. It wasn’t such a bad thing because the script went through a couple more changes that helped.

Q.Tell us what AC/DC means to you?

A.(Damon)When I was seventeen and eighteen, they were pretty much a staple diet for most of our friends. They went through a strange phase in that early 90s period – not as prominent but always cool. We got into the Pearl Jam and Nirvana era but AC/DC would always get mentioned. They were top of the list of Aussie rockers. With them, it was no fuss; just rock ‘n’ roll.

(Darren)I’m unashamedly a fan of Bon Scott. The songs ‘Jailbreak’ and ‘TNT’ were amongst my favourites. My nine-year-old daughter was dancing around to Avril Lavigne recently. I was thinking – I used to do that to ‘Jailbreak’ when I was fourteen. They had so many great rock songs. The reason we had the start of the film talk about Bon Scott and Brian Johnston was because it’s a debate that comes up all the time. It’s a bit like wrestling. Is it real or fake? People are polarised.

Q. Did you have much trouble getting the rights to some of their songs?

A.(Darren)To be honest, from a pure practical finance point of view, we could only afford three songs. That was what we negotiated. Also, the whole package had all their merchandise and likeness. The merchandise had to be authentic. We found many AC/DC fans out of the woodwork. Some of the collectors approached us with offers to use their material – backstage passes, original posters, etc. We took them, reproduced from the originals, and returned them to the collectors. Our production manager found a lot of old 45s and LPs. The scene at the start of the film shows the memorabilia. The collectors were very generous with their items. We bought stuff from Ebay online as well.

Q.Do you think you’ve made a distinctly Australian film?

A.(Darren)Regardless of anything, what people realise is that any Australian film overseas is considered an arthouse film. Maybe in the UK they might get a broader distribution. What made me realise that this is intrinsically Australian was when the pre-selector for the Cannes Film Festival came out here. He rang me and said he really liked the film. He said that you’re telling an Australian story and that you should continue to tell such stories. It’s no good when Australians try to tell American stories. By the way, we missed out on selection. Only two Australian films got pre-selected.

(Damon)It’s worth noting the universal theme – the mateship factor is important and shows that it doesn’t have to be “Aussie” to put across that view.

Q. That’s an interesting factor that I noticed from the film. You observe how lives change as we move on from school friendships. We lose touch, then return in certain circumstances…

A(Damon)It showed my character Sonny as the driving force. Everyone else had their elements. I had that frustration – age twenty-eight, living at home, not doing too much. We had these grand visions at seventeen. It was good to play that character – tricky at times because it’s actually as comedy and I’d be playing the straight man.

(Darren)There was a key moment that wasn’t in the early drafts, when Ronnie makes the phone call. He put out the olive branch. It’s actually done on the day he dies. You’ve got the different people with strong keys to their character. Whereas, Damon’s character is the lead of the film.

(Damon) The cast had a great connection. There were no strong egos with somebody saying, “It’s my film”. There was an instant rapport. I thought, “How good is this? We had a great time and we’re still very good friends.

Q. You had a couple of very experienced cast members with you too…

A.(Damon)Yes, it was terrific to work and learn alongside people like Judi Farr, John Doyle, and Roy Billing.

Q.This was a good role for you following on from The Tracker a couple of years ago. Tell us a little bit more about yourself?

A.(Damon)I was in drama school during 1997-1999, so been out of that for nearly five years. I’ve done a lot of theatre. The Tracker was a special role – really worthwhile. I’ve been lucky with the jobs I’ve done. All of them have involved such wonderful people. Since filming Thunderstruck, I have spent time overseas and I’m going back in June and look forward to picking up some work.

Q.Is it just a matter of more opportunities in a bigger place?

A.(Damon)Yes, unfortunately. You feel torn in a way that you don’t want turn your back, but I have had one audition in five months here, whereas I’d have three a week in London or in America, and with people like Al Pacino and Jude Law. I want to work; to do the thing I love to do. If I can’t do it here, I have to go overseas. I would come back here to work with people that I know and trust. At this stage of my career, I must make this move – to take the risk and try it.

(Darren)He’s right. You don’t want to see an actor like Damon having to go to America or Europe and work. But at the same time, you’ve got five films a year being made here and not all are suitable for Damon.

Q. Your previous work included TV commercials, documentaries, and corporate films. What’s it like to progress from that, through a Tropfest experience, to now doing a feature film?

A.(Darren)The best way to describe it is that the first day of shooting I was really nervous. Because I was familiar with going on set (usually for two commercials a month), there wasn’t a piece of equipment I wasn’t used to. It was more the bigger elements of filmmaking – continuity. The longest commercial that I had made was sixty seconds. Whereas even a three-minute scene took on a different thought process to achieve. That was a big lesson. Also, comic tone in the film. There are a couple of things in the film that I liked. But if I were doing them again, I’d probably tone down the peripheral bits of the performance.

Q.The Fremantle cemetery scene was terrific. Tell us about that, and did you try to “close down” the cemetery for a day?

A.(Darren)It was a great moment. We paid a location fee that allowed us to live there for a day. That was the small part. The logistics of port-a-loos, food, drink, sunscreen, etc was huge. We did shoot it a bit like a rock concert/documentary. We had concerns on cranes, steadicams, etc. That was a real celebration. The fans were cheering and screaming.

(Damon)It was a magical day. We’d all done so much research about Bon Scott that we knew him intimately. When we got to his grave, the four of us (guys) stood around and it suddenly became a reality. It felt more special. Here we were with two thousand extras and playing one of his songs. It took it beyond filmmaking. It was one of the rare moments where the camera was pretty irrelevant. We were having such a great time.

Q. What’s in the pipeline now?

A(Darren)I’ve got a project that I’m doing with Jodi (Matterson) called “Wrestle”. It’s about professional wrestling in 1971 – the original wrestling. It’s a comedy and I’m writing with a local writer.