Rachel Perkins on the set of One Night The Moon. Credit: Sam Oster

One Night the Moon (2001) is a new Australian film that blends together music and drama in moving and effective ways. Running at a brief 57 minutes, it is about a young girl (Memphis Kelly) who overnight goes missing within the Australian landscape and her father’s (Paul Kelly) refusal to let an Aboriginal man, Albert (Kelton Pell), be included in the search party and utilise his ‘tracking’ skills. It’s a decision that proves fatal. Months later, the mother (Kaarin Fairfax) approaches Albert to begin the tracking process that eventually leads her to her lost child.

One Night the Moon‘s particular novelty is the use of song within the narrative, specifically as a means in which the drama is played out and characters’ inner turmoil expressed. The work of composers, musicians and songwriters Mairead Hannan, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody has ensured a distinct poignancy and tenderness to the film and a subtle expression of themes that sometimes only music allows. Complex and loaded themes like racism in colonial Australia and by extension contemporary relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are handled in subtle and moving ways rather than with heavy-handedness. The shifts, tenor and pace of the score is matched by a fluid cinematography, which is also effective in evoking primal imagery of the Australian landscape.

One Night the Moon is a product of a recent funding initiative – known as mdTV (Music Drama Television) – set up to develop a series of screen-based works in which the arts feature integrally. This film is the first in the series. Originally made for television, it was eventually picked up for a cinema release. Responding to the advertisement for submissions, composer Mairead Hannan put together a creative team comprising songwriters/musicians Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and theatre writer John Romeril. The idea was to develop the real-life story of Tracker Riley, which was partly explored in the documentary Black Tracker (1997) made by Michael Riley about his grandfather. Rachel Perkins entered the project in early 1999 as director and shifted the script’s focus somewhat from that of Tracker Riley’s story to the mother’s story and the loss of a child. Perkins also cast Paul Kelly in the role of the father.

A consideration of One Night the Moon‘s development and production process reveals that it was an unusually collaborative one in the sense that it depended on the contributions of a theatre writer, musicians, composers, songwriters and a screen director. Kathryn Millard recently spoke with Rachel Perkins about the process of making One Night the Moon.

– Fiona A. Villella

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Kathryn Millard: I found One Night the Moon‘s key image of the lost child in the bush, and the father’s rejection of the knowledge of the black tracker, very poignant. It made me wonder about how the project was conceived. Was the idea of the lost child at the heart of it?

Rachel Perkins: Yes it was. Mairead Hannan was the musical director and had seen one of Michael Riley’s documentaries, Black Tracker (1997), which was about his grandfather, Tracker Riley. Mairead saw that documentary and thought it would be a good idea for this series of films being advertised by the ABC. I became involved once a draft of the script had already been written. So I came in quite late in terms of the development of the project… The lost child has been an important image in Australian film and literature for many, many years.

KM: It’s a very resonant image isn’t it?

RP: I read that book The Lost Child by…

KM: Peter Reid.

RP: I looked at Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and other similar works when I was thinking about One Night the Moon. It is a very Australian image and there’s the whole thing about the bush being a scary place, a place you have to ‘tame’. So I was interested in exploring these ideas and, in particular, the Aboriginal perspective.

KM: I am interested in the film’s style in terms of music. For example, I thought the opening sequences were very direct. We immediately go into this world where people sing their thoughts and feelings. You mentioned the music video clip as a starting point (in your Production Notes). I’m interested to know more about that. What specifically were you drawing from the music clip? How did it influence the style of the storytelling?

RP: I think it influenced how we approached the film. The musical is not a very contemporary form. So it was like, what’s the contemporary equivalent of the musical? And I thought it was the music clip. I grew up watching music clips and loved them. But also we were very conscious of the fact that having people singing on screen is going to be a weird thing for audiences. And we employed a couple of strategies to get around that. One of which was to go straight into it, so the first thing you see and hear is someone singing. And you go “right, there’s someone singing on film” and you either decide you’re going to go with it or you don’t. And then for the rest of the film it doesn’t shock you when people start singing.

KM: I thought the beginning was very bold.

RP: That song came quite late in the development of the project. Paul (Kelly) wrote it and we whacked it on the front and were pleased with the result. We did a cut with that song at the end. But we felt it worked much better at the beginning. It might have been shocking for the audience to first see people sing, but it did work in terms of introducing the style. We cut a lot of the dialogue from the script overall and had less transitions between singing and dialogue. We wanted music to tell the story so we tried to open it up and give the music space to breath.

KM: That was one of the things I really liked about One Night The Moon – the way in which the lyrics furthered the story. They weren’t just asides to give voice to the feelings of the characters. And I’m curious as to whether that had always been intended or was something that developed further in the process?

RP: We didn’t want songs where the characters sang to each other or gave information out necessarily. We wanted them to be inner thoughts. Not expositional.

KM: For me, they do actually further the story as well as convey the inner world.

RP: They work on some level, but I don’t know what exactly. They’re not dialogue and they’re not song but somewhere in between.

KM: That sounds like a good way to describe it. I’m interested in how this script evolved. I’ve got lots of questions about the script actually. Because it seems to me like an unusual scripting process. I wonder if One Night The Moon was ever written as a scenario? And at what stage the lyrics came in? And what form of the script you actually worked from in production?

RP: Well, I came on board when there was a script that John (Romeril) had written. And songs were written at the same time as the script. And once they were written, the songs had to stay in the script. We had script meetings where we all had an equal say in the script development process. We had very long script meetings and then John would go away and do a draft. Then we would have more script meetings and he would do another draft. We went through three or four drafts like that. Then I took over as the writer to do a shooting draft. It became a very, very different piece of work. It changed a lot.

KM: How do you think the script shifted at that point?

RP: Oh, it became the mother’s journey and the ending changed.

KM: So the point of view of the storytelling shifted?

RP: Totally. It was much more the mother’s point of view. We took out a lot of the historical information and stripped all of the dialogue back. I mean, the script was too long… I like scripts with as little scene direction as possible. And the landscape was given a stronger emphasis. It became more of a visual piece rather than a historical, informational sort of work which was what it was before.

KM: That sounds like a very layered process with different people bringing different things into the scripting process. Especially writer, John Romeril, I guess, who is better known as a writer for theatre and music theatre.

RP: He hasn’t written for television for 17 years. So it was probably challenging for him in lots of ways. I think it was a very different experience for him than writing for theatre. With theatre, you know, the writer is god. Whereas in film and television, the writer’s … well, that was probably new for him. The script did go a long way from where he originally intended it to be … I mean Louis (Nowra) and Ned (Lander) had lots of ideas. [Louis Nowra, a writer, and Ned Lander, a producer, are regular collaborators of Rachel Perkins. Louis wrote Radiance and Ned produced it. –Ed] They had a lot to do with the idea that it should be the mother’s perspective. So there were lots of people who had input. Everyone had different opinions and ultimately we had to come up with something that I was happy with and prepared to shoot. We redrafted the script up until the week prior to the shoot and I changed the ending of the film… We had a teleconference and people kept saying ‘no’.

KM: What was the difference in the ending? And what was it that people found difficult to accept about the shift in the script?

RP: Well in the original ending, the husband leaves and then the wife leaves and then they come back. Later, you see the house all empty; then the wife returns, walks up to the farmhouse and goes to get the tracker. She knocks on his door, and then they appear back at the homestead, and then they go on the search for the child and find the child and come home bearing the child. But for me, I felt like, the film had no climax. They thought it was more poetic, but I felt the film had to have a climax then resolve. So I’d say ‘you can’t have a song without a chorus’. Every film needs a climax and a resolution. But also I found it difficult how the tracker would be able to ‘track’ a year later, when there’s no track left. How to get an audience to believe that is hard. So then a week before the shoot, we’re up on location, and I said “I’m sorry I know you all disagree with me, but I really, I really need to talk about this again because I don’t believe this is the film at the end we should be running with. It’s very different and I want to talk about it as director. I’m not happy”. We had another meeting and it took like two hours. Is this the right thing to do? So I got Paul (Kelly) to agree, which was big, because if I got him to agree, other people would agree with him. So finally, I got them all to agree and I was like ‘Yay!’ So it was an extraordinary process of coming to mutual decisions. Very challenging.

KM: I’d like to talk a bit about performance. I wondered what challenges the centrality of the songs and music presented performance-wise. How did that affect casting? And what were the implications of working with both actors and musicians as key cast?

Paul Kelly in One Night The Moon

RP: What we did, or what I insisted on doing, is that we had a really long rehearsal process.

KM: How long’s “really long”?

RP: I think we had four weeks or something like that.

KM: Hmm, for a four-week shoot, that’s long.

RP: We had six weeks with Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), which is also extremely long. I find it a really good way to work. And it means that you get to flesh everything out during the rehearsal stage.

KM: Was any of that on location?

RP: No, that was in Melbourne. First, we worked out what the characters are going through, then their lines. With Paul, he gives you what you’ve discussed. With another actor you might want to say “okay let’s just think about this in a completely different way” and then the actor can give you that. But with Paul, we worked out where we were going to go and stuck with it. Apart from the breakdown scene, where Paul really broke down. I didn’t know what he would do and I didn’t want to rehearse it with him. And I wasn’t even there when it was shot, because I had to go to Sydney to see my father. So Kim Batterham directed that – it was one of the best scenes in the film and I wasn’t even there! It shows you how important directors are! So there were different levels of experience. In rehearsal, we choreographed scenes …for example, we’d say, in this scene you are looking out the window thinking about him etc. And then you get on location and everything changes.

KM: You mentioned Kim Batterham [D.O.P.] which brings me to the cinematography and the look of the film. I think One Night The Moon‘s a very beautiful film to look at. There’s a real sense of balance to the compositions, attention to the landscape, light at different times of the day. Things like clouds rolling in, birds silhouetted against the sky or the way that sunlight can suddenly illuminate clumps of salt bush or wild flowers. I guess overall the sense that the landscape can change very quickly. I’m interested to know more about your thoughts about depicting the landscape. And the place of the landscape in the story.

RP: One Night The Moon was so much about the landscape…it had to be worked in there in some sort of approach rather than just a ‘cut to’ here and a ‘cut to’ there.

KM: I hate it when people talk about landscape as ‘cutaways’. A terrible concept!

RP: Yeah! So Kim and I spent two weeks in the Flinders Ranges deciding that we were going to use that tree there and that piece of ground there. We found these beautiful places and we put actors in them. Because the film is, you know, 90% shot in the landscape. So that was our backdrop. And the time of day was a big consideration. We shot a lot of stuff day for night because we wanted to see the landscape at night-time and we just didn’t have the light… So a lot of it was day for night… And it was Kim’s suggestion to use the bleach bypassing process, which was great. We did some tests when we went there for an early reccie. We shot and processed different ways. The ‘normal’ way proved boring whereas bleach bypass was great because it made it look more interesting.

KM: How did the bleach bypassing shift the colour palette overall, do you think?

RP: It takes out the colour, especially pink. And so a beautiful sunset will look not as beautiful. But the blacks are much deeper and you lose the detail in the black … it draws out the colour and makes it more contrasting. I like what the bleach bypassing does. When shot normally, the results look just too normal. We wanted some sort of overall thing that made it sit outside the norm. We heightened the style of it, which explains also why we shot a lot of it from lots of different angles. But in the end we didn’t use high-angle shooting because it just seemed to be an imposed style, which took away from the drama… We didn’t need it.

KM: Was it always intended to have a theatrical release?

RP: No, it was made for television.

KM: In terms of cinematography, I was wondering if it was important that the cinematographer had an extensive background in both fiction and non-fiction? Because of the importance of the landscape and light in the landscape.

RP: Kim certainly had to work without lighting a lot of the time. And he’s certainly very resourceful in terms of “okay we’ve got a minute here, let’s shoot this, we’ve got a minute there”. That’s what we talked about doing whenever there were gaps in the schedule because a lot of the landscape wasn’t scheduled to be shot. So we had to pick it up where we could and we knew what shots we wanted but they weren’t scheduled. So Kim and I would grab half an hour or so here and there. And Kim did a lot of that just on his own. Time lapses and stuff. There was definitely a real efficiency there. We weren’t waiting for a second unit to be picking up all the landscapes.

KM: And a consistency of look, I guess. I mean, again, it’s making all those landscapes central and saying ‘they’re not second unit’.

RP: The interesting thing with Kim is that I had my best script discussions with him. Our first meeting was a three-hour conversation about the script and it was the best feedback I had got at that point. And it made such a difference. He was my right hand man. Whether it was the script or something else, I was able to talk to him about it. And he gave me great feedback; it just made the collaboration fantastic.

KM: It does sound like a very collaborative way of working. I have one last question about the design. A lot of the film is shot as exteriors. I’m curious about the brief to the production designer or the ideas that you were working with there. The house, for example, looks really stark in such an isolated setting. Yet the little girl’s bedroom has been very lovingly decorated by her parents. And there are some beautiful objects. For example, I was thinking about the large blue metal teapot when the neighbours came over to search …

RP: Was it!

KM: It was a distinctive shade of blue, a very beautiful object. What were you looking for there in terms of the production design? What did the domestic spaces and objects have to say about the domestic life of the couple?

RP: It was the production designer. It was like in Radiance where there was not a lot of opportunity to want to make things beautiful. And we wanted it to be a realist approach to Aboriginal interiors. So there weren’t a lot of beautiful things in that house.

KM: I can remember individual pieces of a patterned china and things like that?

RP: We thought we wanted this house to be filled in a sparse way but, you know, with simple, beautiful objects. And the child’s bedroom and everything else should be sort of homemade looking because they didn’t have any resources. So things like the bed is homemade, all the blankets are homemade, the toys are mostly homemade, stuff like that. But yeah we did allow ourselves to make things a bit nice, because we wanted it to look really beautiful. So there’s like an old miner’s chair that I bought. Which is a beautiful old chair, a lovely shape, and flowers.

KM: Is that to indicate a level of care…

RP: … the mother trying to make the house beautiful and nice, and especially trying to make the child’s bedroom look beautiful because she was the only child and adored. But we chose that house because it had an arid, sparse feeling. How insane it was to go live there in the first place. And all that madness it would create and all that pressure of trying to live in that environment. But internally the mother was trying to make it look nice and beautiful.

KM: One last question. It’s about the sense of theatricality which to me both Radiance and One Night the Moon share to some degree. Of course, in both cases you were working with writers who work across theatre and film. Is a sense of theatricality something that’s important to you as a director?

RP: I don’t know about that. I’ll have to make some more films first.

About The Author

Kathryn Millard is a writer and filmmaker. Her films include the short feature, Parklands (1996), and the documentary, Light Years (1992). She teaches screenwriting in the Department of Media and Communication at Macquarie University.