Gillian Armstrong

As a respite from the rigors of reading countless Government Press Releases about the new tax rebates and the merged AFC/FFC/Film Aus into one huge superbody, ASDA (or the ADG) honoured filmmaker Gillian Armstrong with a screening of one of her best works, High Tide, as well as her short One Hundred A Day.

Tonight, at the ASDA Dinner, Gillian Amstrong will be presented with the Outstanding Achievement Award, one of the country’s most prestigious film awards, and appropriately, the screening of High Tide was a total knock-out.

A pristine print courtesy of the Archive looked great at the Chauvel in Paddo, and Claudia Karvan’s first major role in a feature film at the age of 14 or thereabouts was brilliant. Combined with Judy David, Colin Friels and Jan Adele, the cast of this small budget film shot on location in Merimbula puts in an ensemble performance that is beyond accolades.

As Gillian told us afterwards, in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz, casting is 90% of filmmaking, and if you cast one major role incorrectly, it can imbalance the entire production.

Interestingly, Armstrong told us that High Tide was born out of the frustration of trying to get another project up with Sandra Levy and screenwriter Laura Jones. When they couldn’t raise the budget, they decided to make a smaller budget film instead.

Originally the film centred on a male character, a surfer who drifts into a sleepy seaside town and runs into his daughter, whom he abandoned years ago. “I was watching Ian Pringle’s Wrong World (shot and edited by ASDA president Ray Argall) and I realised that films are always centred on a male drifter,” Gillian told us, “so I floated the idea to Sandra and Laura that we switch the lead to a female role.”

Casting had already commenced at this point, so a quick phone call to Liz Mullinar created controlled panic. “Judy David would be terrific in the role,” Liz told Gillian, “but if you want Judy you have to get her to commit today, as she’s about to take a major role overseas.”

So the script was rushed over to Judy, with the instruction to read the male role as a female. Judy loved the script and signed on board.

Armstrong told us that Davis considered carefully how to work with Claudia Karvan, then an inexperienced young thespian. Karvan had learnt how to become an expert surfer in preparation for the role, but Davis felt that it might assist her if Judy kept her distance during rehearsals, and while they shot the initial scenes in the film, and then gradually became more friendly in real life as the two characters warmed to each other in front of the lens.

The scenes between Judy and Claudia are certainly electric, especially the one inside the car towards the end of the film, when both actors give a marvellous performance.

The script works brilliantly as well. Interestingly, Gillian told us that although Laura Jones went on to write many other screenplays for the big screen, including Angel At My Table and Oscar and Lucinda, she became known as the genius of adaptation and to this day has still never written another original story. Perhaps she will.

Armstrong commented in introducing the session that High Tideis well known throughout the US, and often referred to in film school courses as the epitome of the smaller character-based film.

Given the low budget, the film never falters in the directional department, and there are many tracking shots that belie the paucity of the budget. Armstrong told us about how she collaborated with DOP Russell Boyd in working out how to construct these moving shots. For example, towards the end of the film there is a key shot where the camera operator had to shoot while walking backwards, and continue to roll while climbing onto the back of a truck, which drives away. It’s a stellar example of the sheer ingenuity and dedication for which Australian crews are renowned.

Gillian Armstrong is significant within the Australian industry, not only for the number of projects she’s been able to bring to fruition, but also for her ability to straddle Hollywood with Australia. She told us that she selects her crew as carefully as the cast, as for her it’s vital to establish an atmosphere on set that allows a creative space for the actors to work. She looks for gentle, quiet people as crew members, and it sounds as though an inappropriate joke at the wrong moment may well mean the crew member responsible is shown the door.

Gillian Amstrong richly deserves the accolades about to be heaped upon her by ASDA (or the Australian Directors’ Guild, as it will be henceforth known,) and High Tide provides an ideal example of her outstanding work.

ADG: Gillian Armstrong
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Friday 11 May, 2007

Leave a Reply