Last Dance, the work of first-time director David Pulbrook, first-time writer Terence Hammond and veteran producer Antony I. Ginnane is now in cinemas across Australia.
It was one of Australian feature films to premiere at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival where it was well received by audiences at two sell-out sessions.
The film stars Julia Blake and Firass Dirani in a two-hander about a Palestinian terrorist and an elderly Jewish woman who are thrown together over 24 hours.
Although both Pulbrook and Hammond are billed as first timers, they both have vast experience under their respective belts. David Pulbrook is an experienced film editor who edited many of director Richard Franklin’s features, including the acclaimed AFI winner Hotel Sorrento. Terence Hammond is a veteran advertising copywriter who has been trying to break into feature films for many years. And Ginnane is well known as a former President of SPAA, the screen producers’ association and a producer with more than 50 feature credits on IMDB.
The film’s idea originally came from Pulbrook, who was fascinated with the potential of two people forced together in a room – one is a Palestinian and the other a Jew. The pair got together via the advertising world (Pulbrook’s company Horizon Films makes TVCs) and Hammond showed Pulbrook a feature screenplay which demonstrated his ability to write, but it wasn’t the sort of project David wanted to direct.
“I’ve worked on scripts before that were too big, too hard to finance,” he explained. He told Terence that he’d rather work on something that was doable, and pitched the idea of two people in a room.
Hammond had reached the same point via a different direction. Wanting to get into features, he had spent years writing them at nights and weekends in the hope of getting one of them realised. “First I tried to get an agent, and when that didn’t work I tried to find a producer,” he explained at an Australian Writers’ Guild members’ night. He even went to live in Hollywood for a couple of years, an experience which taught him a lot, but didn’t translate into a production credit.
He discovered that the process of cold calling producers in LA was tough, but occasionally you could get through and at least get someone to look at your screenplay. He retold an engaging story of how he even enticed Oliver Stone to read a script. But he passed on the project.
“I realised that being a writer on your own is not enough,” said Terence. “So when I began working with David on Last Dance, for the first time there was someone supporting my work.”
Intrigued by David’s notion of a Palestinian and a Jew together in room, Terence decided to give it a go. In a rush of blood he put down fifty pages of script. “I showed it to David and we sat down and talked about it and from there, it started to grow.”
“David was always going to direct it,” Hammond explains, “and I was going to be the writer.” He feels that their shared passion for the project, as well as their determination to get a feature up, was what saw them through to the realisation of the film.
Last Dance took around seven years to develop, in part because writer Hammond was working full time in advertising and Pulbrook as a film editor on other projects. They got it to a stage where it was pretty well there, but a producer they showed it to felt it needed more work. Pulbrook knew writer Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook, Mao’s Last Dancer) from working on an early film of his Ground Zero (1986), directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles, and they brought him in. “Jan sat around with us over a number of weeks and we talked about the structure and the dialogue,” Terence said. “It really was very informative. He worked a lot on when certain information was revealed during the film, and his philosophy was to try it and see how it worked. He would make a change and then go right back to page one.”
When Pulbrook was editing The Cup (2011), director Simon Wincer suggested that they take the screenplay to Anthony I. Ginnane.
“David and I have known each other for many years,” explained Ginnane at a session of 37 South, “and when David talked to me about Last Dance, the idea of a movie with two people in it appealed to me. I told him that I knew how to finance it if all the ducks fell into a row.”
Ginnane said that the first piece of the financial jigsaw was put in place by the MIFF Premiere Fund, and then Film Victoria and Screen Australia came in more or less simultaneously. He also had access to a small amount of private investment. Australian distributor Beckers also got involved early in the piece. “Trying to find an Australian distributor is a bit like trying to find a big dolphin I guess,” said Ginnane. “I’ve known Richard Becker for years and I knew his Dad.”
Terence said that once the finance was in place there were a lot of suggestions about the screenplay from investors, including Screen Australia, who engaged a script editor Lucy Sher from the Script Factory. She got involved, and agreed with them about how the film should end. “So we got support,” he added. “It was a nurturing process.”
Although Pulbrook has directed drama when he worked for Crawford Productions years ago, Ginnane was confident that the experienced film editor would be able to cut the movie in his head. “About half of my movies have been with first or second time directors,’ Tony added.
With the finance in place, casting began. David and Tony had their eye on Hollywood icon Geena Rowlands, now in her 80s but famous for her partnership with John Cassavetes in the film A Woman Under the Influence (1974), for which she earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award. She agreed to play the role, despite being less than fond of international travel. This enabled Ginnane to sign up an international distributor. But then, only a few weeks before production was due to commence, actors’ union MEAA stepped in and refused to allow Rowlands to enter the country. Ginnane was incandescent.
Luckily though there was a brilliant alternative in the form of Julia Blake, herself an AFI Award winner and one of Australia’s top actresses. Although learning the lines for such a substantial role was a major challenge, she accepted the lead role of Ulah, the Jewish woman confronting Palestinian terrorist Sadiq.
So production commenced in November 2011, for a four week shoot. Shot in the studio and around East St Kilda close to Pulbrook’s Horizon Films, the shoot went smoothly.
“Julia Blake’s performance in the film is spectacular,” says Ginnane, “and will be an asset in Australia.” However the international sales agent pulled out through the cast change, but the Australian screen agencies were able to fill the finance gap. “The script was an absolute gem, and the agencies jumped in after the union intervened.”
David mentioned that Tony was closely involved with preproduction, but left him to it during the shoot. “There isn’t a whole lot a producer can do on set, in my view,” explained Ginnane. “I’m a Gemini, so I’m always developing a dozen films at once. You’re seeing the film’s dailies every night, and if you see something awry you jump in. But that wasn’t the case with Last Dance. Once you’ve got the cast and crew you wanted, the film is almost made.”
Tony describes Last Dance as a classical film, and he feels that David’s direction is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in its measured and aesthetic approach. It was Lee Pulbrook’s first feature film, but its cinematography is assured and lush. Lee works primarily in documentary in the UK, but Ginnane said he isn’t scared of working with first time DOPs, and obviously he was always going to work well with brother David.
Postproduction sounded rather relaxed. “An old friend, Phil Reid, was the editor,” Pulbrook explained. “He put it together initially, and then I had a go at it. Did I have director’s cut? I guess so – it was all very friendly.”
Pulbrook describes it as being about mothers and sons, learning how to give way, and says it’s not a political film in any sense. Rather, it’s about how a relationship between two strangers develops over 36 hours.
Last Dance’s subject matter is controversial, and the creative team is confident it will engage an audience. It certainly deserves to.
This article first appeared in Screen Hub.