IF Magazine (OZ), April 2001, Pg. 36
MANMHIEM. 6.30AM. Still pitch black. The first thing Gregor Jordan asks when we arrive at unit is whether I have thermais. Negative. 'You're gonna freeze mate.' And it's gonna be a twelve hour day. Fortunately he's got a spare pair.
We're standing in a genuine, though now non-operational, US nuclear army base. All the bunkers face north. Moscow? Surrounded by thickest baclk forest, guiard towers and razon wire, all I can think of is Steve McQueen… A rumble and we turn, as one hundred honest-to-goodness US combat soldiers (extras-for-a-day) march and sing their way into the compound: "I wanna be an airborne ranger…" M-16s, helmets, camo-faces and full Gulf-war combat regalia. So now I'm thinkin' George Clooney. Then the trucks arrive: hummers, troop carries, a tank. This is pretty freakin' big Gregs…
Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) is half-way through filming his much anticipated second feature film, Buffalo Soldiers, a full-blown US Cold War movie set in Germany at the fall of the Berlin wall. Financed by Britain's Film Four (Trainspotting) to the tune of US$15 mil, and with an A-list cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and Anna Paquin, this is, for all intent and purposes, a major Hollywood picture. Jordan has come a long way since winning Tropfest in 1995 with his $500 short Swinger.
Working again from his own screenplay, this time adapted from the Robert O'Conner novel of the same name, it's a lot of pressure for a bloke with only one feature film under his belt. Gregor just wants to talk about surfing. Frankly, if he was any more relaxed he'd be asleep.
So how did he end up here?
Flash to February 1999: Two Hands premieres at Sundance to an enthusiastic response but no 'bidding war' and no immediate US sale. Nevertheless, its young director is immediately offered a US$50,000 first-option-on-original-material deal through Miramax. Back home, the film takes more than $5 mil, making it the highest grossing locally produced film of 1999. At the '99 AFIs Two Hands takes out several major categories, including best picture, best direct and best original screenplay. Jordan is hot property. What does he do next?
"Well, I finished Two Hands with a $13,000 personal debt to the tax department. You've kind of got three options: you can get eight grand or so every three months from the AFC to develop another script, you can direct commercials (and I don't know anything about that 'cos I've never done it), or you can take the money being offered and go make another movie."
Rainer Grupe, (Gorilla Entertainment, with Australian partner Ariane Moody), is a German producer doing the US agent rounds with an option and an adapted screenplay. He has seen and loved Two Hands and is determined an antipodean should direct. He also cites Heavenly Creatures, Praise, and Mad Max and the films of Peter Weir and Baz Luhrman as influential in this decision. Jordan has been reading screenplays for months. He thinks this one sucks, but he loves the book. They meet in LA and nut out a deal: Jordan will write his own screenplay and, subject to completion of casting and finance, he will direct the movie.
It is the start of a very uncertain twelve months. Countless trips to Germany and the US; writing and re-writing, scouting locations, slowly pulling together a production and distribution team, conducting preliminary castings and dealing with agents-a difficult period, with no guarantee the film will be made.
In May they go to Cannes with a package, including a short-list of actors. Joaquin Phoenix, white-hot following recent roles in Gladiator, Quills and The Yards, is interested. Film Four out-nudges Fox as principal financer, and NY based international sales agent Good Machine starts selling. Buffalo Soldiers is a green light.
It's a curious choice. For a start, this is an American story, set in Germany. The character of Elwood is unorthodox-a drug-abusing, self-serving criminal-an anti-hero. It's a strange script.
Why this story?
"Well, the book's really funny." is Jordan's laconic reply. Fair enough. It also raises an interesting question: What happens when you throw 350,000 trained young killers together over an extended period of time with no one to kill and nothing to do?
Ultimately though, Jordan was attracted to what he considers "a unique intellectual premise' and an original spin on a familiar subject. 'The film goes entirely against the premise that war is hell. In a way it says that peace doesn't exist, that peace is just a fucked-up hippy ideal; that people don't only need war, they like it."
It is, in fact, a familiar world. Jordan's entire childhood was spent living "just off base" in a number of military towns across Australia while his father flew Caribou transports for the RAAF, including 13 months active service in Vietnam. Aside from this, and this perhaps in answer to perceived criticism re. His departure from the Australian film scene, Jordan was attracted to the international nature of this project. "There are plenty of people who have real cultural statements they want to make with films at home, which is cool I want to tell stories about the world."
One thing I recall very clearly about Gregor having worked with him once before is his love for the characters he has written and developed, his absolute pleasure and laughter at their "living out" his imagined scenes. How different was it then to be developing, rehearsing and filming characters lifted from an autobiographical book? Jordan admits it is "harder to work with characters you haven't created. Part of the process is getting to know them," he says and "whenever you're in doubt, you have to go back to the book."
Rehearsals are not part of the deal. Working with actors who come contracted with time-specific price tags leaves little room for anything apart from filming. Jordan aggress "some rehearsal would have been nice," but also admits that he often finds it a waste of time. "Mostly you just wish you'd shot the first rehearsal anyway." And the bottom line, "These guys are so good it doesn't matter."
BY MID-MORNING we have settled into a kind of rhythm, with me hanging mostly around the video-split and Jordan chatting comfortably between takes It's a relaxed set, a well-oiled crew (mostly mixed British and German).
Australian Kick Gurry (Looking for Alibrandi) is hovering, messing about with Phoenix. Thick as thieves. Cast in the role of "Video," one of Elwood's core of young recalcitrants, Gurry is right at home with it-the role, the break, this movie-star business. Today he's waiting on a call from his LA agent, to confirm a possible role the upcoming Ocean Warrior with Billy Bob Thornton and Rutger Hauger. He's also waiting to hear on The Matrix 2. Along with Michael Pena (Gone in Sixty Seconds). Kick and Joaquin are keeping us entertained with their Three Amigos triple-act. They do it better than Chase, Martin and Short.
Ed Harris is on today. (For mine: State of Grace; Under Fire. Legend.) Smiling, he obliges a soldier/extra with a photo, "Just be quick yeah, I don't wanna be doin' eight of 'em." But he's too late. One hundred and ten instamatics appear like magic. He's cool…
I'm curious about Harris. It's not like he'd be short on offers. What did he see in Jordan, and how did the script get through? Harris maintains he will look at "almost anything with a firm offer attached." In the end there were a number of things. "I liked the character. I'm not a military man at wall; it's very different for me. I like Joaquin's work. And they managed to make it happen within a two week period—I don't' like being away from home for too long."
Did he consider the unorthodox nature of the script at all risky?
"No, it's not a risk. And I'd already seen Two Hands. I think he's a good filmmaker." When they first met in New York, Harris was impressed by the young director's "quiet confidence and intelligence." "He's very passionate." And, he adds, "I also wanted to get a bunch of money together quickly to put into my own movie." (Harris has recently completed filming Pollock, based on the life of the famous painter. It is his directorial debut, with himself in the central role.) "It's taken most of the 90s to get up." I hold off on asking how much Buffalo Soldiers is paying him.
In the end though, this is Joaquin Phoenix's movie. There has been a lot written about the guy lately, and I don't want to add too much to the mix except to reinforce his growing reputation as an actor and a gentleman. It's his first leading role and I'd imagine there's one pressure comes with that. Characteristically, between takes and off-set Joaquin is "live" and enigmatic; crackling with boyish energy, intellect and self-effacing charm. Every now and again he'll withdraw; kicking back to chew on his nails and watch the world go by. When the camera rolls, he's transfixing. It's as if we're holding our breath.
JORDAN HAS GONE Super-35 for a 1.2.35 wide-screen finish. ("Lots of scenes with four or more people-gotta fit everyone in.") He's shooting it pretty straight, mostly because it's a true story and he wants his audience to believe in it. Certainly today the set-ups are conventional, with one short tracked move being about as complicated as it gets. On the split, it's coming across rich and cinematic.
Jordan and DOP Oliver Stapleton have decided on push-processing, (two stops), which will give the film a little more contrast; crushed blacks and slightly more saturated colours.
I ask Gregor if he were to think of the movie in a colour, what would it be? "Green." Definitely. He sings the praises of Australian designer Steven Hones-Evans; points out the little hints of red light dotted about the vast compound. Green with red dots. Curiously, I'm reminded of The Insider, on khaki.
Designer Jones-Evans is, in fact, one of only two Australian key creatives carried over from Two Hands. Editor Lee Smith is here also, along with assistant John Lee. So determined was Jordan to have Jones-Evans in this critical key role, he had to fight his investors for it. It's all part of the dance. "In the end they made a lot of noise, jumped up and down-and signed the cheque."
He may be ladi back, but it is clear Jordan has pushed hard, insisting from the outset that he be surrounded by the best key creatives available.
DOP Oliver Stapleton recently shot The Cider House Rules. His CV includes Hi-Lo Country, The Grifters and My Beautiful Laundrette. 1st AD Patrick Clayton was doing slates on Kubricks's 2001(!). AD credits include Interview with the Vampire, Shadowlands, Gorillas in the Mist, and Mad Max II. EP James Schamus produced The Ice Storm, Happiness and Sense and Sensibility. He also co-wrote/produced the phenomenally successful Chinese language hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Make-up designer Faye Hammond, (perhaps the friendliest woman on earth), recently had the enviable job of tattooing Brad Pitt's torso for Snatch. She also did Heath Ledger on the upcoming A Knight's Tale, and Gary Oldman on Lost in Space. Kind-of mega-Hollywood. She is raving about seeing Two Hands in a crazy sixteenth-century back-street cinema in Prague when one of the art department wanders over. "G'day." He's from Australia! Another surfer curious about home…
The finished movie will be scored by Irish composer/pop-star DJ David Holmes, who did the Soderberg/Colooney/Lopez flick Out of Sight. Jordan says they're going hip hop, reaming contemporary, while true to the period 1989.
In all, it's formidable support.
So what are the really significant differences between making a film here, with this team, and making Two Hands three years earlier? Jordan is quick to respond "The bid difference is in the way things are financed." He also talks about an extra level of ongoing creative support - which has included comprehensive and invaluable script notes, mostly from EP Schamus-and continuing constructive feedback on dailies. Ultimately though, it's about the availability and allocation of investors' cash.
In Australia, an FFC financed film shoots within a fixed and absolutely finite budget. It is, by necessity, an inflexible structure. "When the budget is set, it's set. It really doesn't matter what gets in the way." By comparison, on Buffalo Soldiers (and here Jordan draws an example), "If the 1st says you need three days to shoot a sequence and the producer is saying 'you've only got two', the 1st just says 'well that's not our problem, it's a producer problem….' And the producers are gonna have to find the money if they want the sequence shot." I suppose what we are talking about is a refusal by the on-set team to compromise on account of shortsighted budgeting or unforeseen circumstances. Certainly nice if you can get it.
After lunch they block and shoot a full-scale Cold War war game battle while I sit on a bunker and read Gregor's screenplay.
Military advisor Michael Edmiston slips me stories every now and then about working with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan. Other stories too, like dropping into Panama in '89, Somalia in '93, The Gulf. Anti-terrorist stuff. Special forces. Jordan's brother Ivan (video-split operator for the duration) confirms, "Yep, he's killed people."
There's trucks roaring extras yelling and charging, M-16s flashing. Every now and again Gregor checks on my progress with a "What do you think is going to happen?" I won't give anything away, but I wish I were in it.
That night someone cracks a joke. We all laugh and return to our sushis. I look to Gregor. He is staring at the table, lost in though. "Didn't get it mate?" "Hm?" He raises his head. Relaxed, tired though. "Oh no I was just thinking…" Kind of amused eyes. "Just wondering if this movie's gonna be any good." Man…
Kieran Darcy-Smith is an actor and filmmaker. (Loaded, Bloodlock, The Island) living in Narrabeen. He played the role of Craig in Two Hands.