Putting dogs in space
An Australian classic celebrates its 30th anniversary
Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space revels in a particular historical moment: the final, dying spin of the Catherine Wheel that was Melbourne 70s punk culture before its raffish spirit dissipated in the safer, blander decade of the 1980s. To read Richard’s diary notes on the making of the film in 1986, now 30 years on, is to realise however that the bravura of punk was never fully cowed.
Australian Perspectives this week brings Dogs in Space back to the screen and writer/director Richard Lowenstein has generously shared with us some selected extracts from his journal that capture the genesis of the film: the legendary 10BA tax deductions, meeting Michael Hutchence, and the serendipities behind the film that got up that wasn’t meant to be the one to get up.
Our thanks to Richard.
Telexes in Space (excerpt)
Dogs is born
During the Christmas period of 1984/85, I began a screenplay entitled, Dogs in Space.
Frustrated at the length of the writing/funding/production process of feature films in Australia, ‘Dogs’ was written as a quick exercise in character interaction and portrayal.
It was an idea I had tossed around with some fellow film school students in 1979 when we were living together in a large student house in the inner-city suburb of Richmond, Melbourne.
As the punk era finally began to disappear along the expected heroin-related path, its sense of community, idealism, militancy and innovation began to be replaced with the isolation, homogenisation, rampant materialism and the reactionary politics of the Eighties. I began to investigate the idea more fully. An idyllic era was ending – as it had for the Beat generation, the mods, the rockers, the hippies, and now it was for the punks.
The character of Anna in the story is based on a close friend and compatriot, whose spirit seemed to encapsulate the essence of that era both in Australia and abroad.
This diary and the film are dedicated to that friend…
Richard Lowenstein, Melbourne, Australia, 1987
10BA – The Story of the Tax Man and Australian Cinema
During the final weeks of Strikebound, the entire production was fraught with schisms.
I had fallen out with both of the co-producers. The sound editor, who, whilst being the sound recordist on the film had driven the boom operator off set, wasn’t talking to the picture editor, both of whom weren’t talking to the producers. The two producers weren’t talking to each other, I wasn’t talking to the producer, I was fighting with my mother over the final cut of the film, since it was based on her research. My father wasn’t talking to me because I wasn’t talking to my mother. The production coordinator was having an affair with the director of photography, and since I wasn’t talking to the coordinator it also meant I wasn’t talking to the DOP, with whom I had been to film school and lived with for a number of years.
I was also $35,000 out of pocket due to my own insistence on a Dolby Stereo soundtrack.
I had resigned myself to a lifetime of music videos.
The Australian film industry was going downhill and getting worse. The heyday of Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career and all the others was beginning to wane.
To understand why this was so, you first of all have to understand the 10BA Tax Incentive scheme for investors in the Australian film industry.
Introduced in 1979 as a way of encouraging our then fledgling industry, which was just starting to become internationally prominent, the scheme was very simple.
If you are an investor in the 60% tax bracket (over $50,000 per annum) and 60 cents out of every dollar earned is taken in tax, then you are able to claim 150% of any investment in a film as a tax deduction off your gross income ~ the first 50% of your investment returned in earnings is tax free.
If for example, you invest $10,000 with a $50,000 income, your gross taxable income is reduced to $35,000, saving you 60% of $15,000, very close to your initial investment in tax payments. Thus earnings off your investment, however small, are immediately turned into profits, with the bonus of the first 50% of your investment being tax free. The original quote by the government as to the cost in lost tax revenue was a few million dollars. When the final tally was in from the first year of tax incentives, the cost was closer to $200 million.
Productions began to be geared to fit in with the financial year, the majority of films being financed in the last few weeks of June, the deadline for funding being June 30th. An offer document became necessary: a glossy document that was registered with the Tax Department that gave a rundown of the film, stills, graphics, synopsis, CV’s, etc. This would sit on various accountants, lawyer investor desks, hoping vainly to attract money.
It became necessary to have an underwriter: a body of financiers who for a fairly hefty percentage of the budget would guarantee that the total budget would be raised by June 30th (you could risk going without one, but if the whole budget wasn’t there on June 30th, then the project would collapse, causing a lot of investors to dislike you intensely for ruining their chance at some easy money). Thus, underwriters began to have an awful lot of power and say about who should make what films and what they should be about.
The other breed that began to develop amongst the mess of brokers, lawyers, distribution guarantors, pre-sellers and other hangers-on that film-money usually brings with it, were the completion guarantors.
The completion guarantors consisted of a group of insurance businessmen and industry professionals who, for a nice little percentage of 5-10% of the total budget (this fee could sometimes amount to over a million dollars), would make sure that the film was finished in some shape or form and not too drastically over budget.
This usually means that they have the power to fire anyone on the production team at a moment’s notice. They have no interest in the quality of the finished product or its earning potential. Their only responsibility is to have the product finished in a releasable state as close as possible to the original budget, and if that means replacing half the crew and finishing the film on Super 8, then that is what they’ll do.
In the recent history of the Australian industry there are numerous cases of directors and other key crew members being sacked and the guarantors taking over. In all the cases, the finished films have been critical and commercial failures – most of them unreleasable.
In theory, the completion guarantors are there to pay for any overages. In practice, they make sure their own slice of the pie is never jeopardised by any concerns about the final quality or commerciality of the product. Usually no one, not even the executive producer has the power to stop them.
What the 10BA Tax Incentive scheme had created was a sharp upturn in quantity of Australian feature films along with a sharp downturn in quality.
For a country with a population of 15 million – a bit more than London – we were averaging 30-35 feature films a year. Few of them were watchable. Internationally, most of them were being laughed at. The annual AFI Award screenings became a dreadful ordeal to sit through, with a corresponding lack of votes (to vote you have to sit through all the films). Above the Line budgets sky-rocketed. Executive production and production fees of $1/2 million to $1 million on $2-3 million budgets were not unheard of. The average budget was $2-3 million. $10 million was a big budget. $1 million was low-budget.
Two weeks before Cannes, I get a phone call from a strange character by the name of Gary Grant from a management and publishing company called MMA. He has heard that I do film clips and wonders if I’d be interested in doing one for an Australian band called INXS.
I begin to say that I’d never heard any of their records, hadn’t liked what I’d seen, and since I was leaving for Cannes we wouldn’t have the time for pre-production, let alone shooting and editing time. He butts in with, “But, we’re ready now! Just grab your camera and catch the next plane for Queensland and you can finish the rest in London after Cannes”. It is this sort of naivety that you just can’t contend with.
And so three pale skinny little figures in black from the drizzle and rain of Melbourne end up coming face to face, under the Queensland sun, with the bronzed rock band from Sydney, including one Michael Hutchence…
A couple of months later, with extra footage shot in London, this all finished up as the film clip Burn For You.
It is at this point in time that I come face to face with the ‘M’ from MMA, a certain Mr Chris Murphy, a manager brought into being by INXS’s success as a band, notorious throughout the world for his manner and tactics, and on his way to setting up a galactic empire.
May 1984: Cannes Film Festival
By coincidence, INXS are playing in Nice (just a few miles from Cannes). I rustle a few Australians together, along with the odd Pom, my publicist and her 14-year-old daughter.
Me and Michael H – after partying through a string of nightclubs and hotel rooms – end up back in Cannes with the daughter, offering to avenge all the sexual harassment from the boys in her class in school. Her mother defuses the situation by driving us back to the Croisette where I get Michael to tag along to a meeting with a prominent, respectable, middle-aged Australian producer.
Whilst moaning artistically and collapsing into our ten dollar orange juices, I explained the plot of my political thriller. The response was minimal.
I was then hit by a bolt of lightning, sat up suddenly and said, “And of course there’s the film that me and Michael are doing..!” Michael looked up in a vague stupor and said, “We are?”, “Yeah, It’s all about this young girl who comes into a household full of hippies and punks and other assorted weirdos in the late seventies”, “That’s right, and then there’s…”
Michael and myself began to ad-lib the storyline, which wasn’t bad since we hadn’t discussed it at all up to that moment. The producer was delighted. We promised to get in touch with her as soon as we got back to Australia. I never saw that Australian producer again.
I left a rather bedraggled Michael on the sidewalk, lying in the sun waiting for his tour bus to pick him up – something I wasn’t sure they would know how to do, since they didn’t have the slightest inkling where we were.
As I was leaving, Australia’s leading film critic, David Stratton, dropped a coin into his outstretched hand. Michael smiled up at him and said thanks. A few weeks earlier an INXS song had been number one in France. I guess David understood how the tide can turn.
After writing some sample scenes, I had my first story meeting with a fellow film student, Tim, who had lived for a while in the Berry Street house on which the story is based.
At the time he had a weakness for whatever young girl I was going out with (luckily he’s gotten over that), and I would invariably find out, after the event, that they had been sleeping together for a while – and that he had been “so understanding”. I think it was just that he had more toys in his room than I did, and provided them with a fatherly bacon and eggs in the morning, while I went off to my early morning job.
Tim had a very sharp wit: always throwing a wisecrack in at the end of each sentence. He was a great source of energy, and could always be depended upon to join in on some group action as long as it was “stupid”. He was the synthesiser player in a band called “The Ears”, and built his own synthesiser out of a toy piano and an electronics kit. He left the band fairly early on for reasons that are still unclear, and has since appeared in other various cult bands such as Kaos, DIN, and the Techno Truckin’ Cats. He now has a full-time job in the Public Service.
We discuss a number of episodes and character breakdowns from happenings I was only vaguely involved in. His events are all quite comic and bizarre such as ‘killing the budgie’, ‘Skylab’, ‘Crazy George’ (later arrested for murder) and ‘burning the television’. There was also his invaluable ‘born-again virgin’ era which was yet another attempt at getting sexual attention.
We still don’t have a storyline. I’m not sure whether we need one. Tim is dubious and tries to think of some orthodox plot lines. I don’t like them, but I like his stories.
First draft of the script. It is basically a stream of episodes of various humorous and dramatic intensities strung together in a vague sort of manner. I don’t even know if an audience would want to see a film like this. Does it say anything to anyone or is it just a self-indulgent, personal, nostalgia trip? It’s hard to tell.
I have an appointment with Greg Tepper of Film Victoria (the major funding body on Strikebound) about my political thriller script. Just out of interest, I had given him a copy of the ‘Dogs’ script along with the thriller treatment. The reception to the thriller was rather cool, yet the ‘Dogs’ script gets a great reception. Greg has given the script to John Kearney, the financial adviser at Film Victoria, and word is that he loves it too. There is no accounting for taste.
I send my producer the first draft of script, then ring her to see what she thinks. Very vague. Doesn’t sound like she’s read it. She feels committed to a low-budget feminist feature and doesn’t think she can handle both. I get a letter saying she’s read it and laughed all the way through. Madly enthusiastic. She begins to do a budget. The plan is to submit it to the Creative Development Board of the Australian Film Commission (AFC), for Low-Budget Feature Funding. They will consider it as long as the budget is less than $300,000.
Two weeks later she rings up distraught and a nervous wreck. She says she can’t do it: the feminist film, the pressure, it’s all too much. I act casual about it, telling her she can think about it for a week or so. In actual fact, I panic. Everything drops away and I don’t know which way to turn. I had pinned all my hopes on her. I feel sure the feminist film is gonna collapse though.
In the meantime, I show the script to the co-producer of Strikebound (the better one), more for feedback than anything else. He rejects it, finding all the characters, especially Sam (the character Michael would be playing), thoroughly unlikeable.
It had never struck me before that characters in a film had to be likeable. How limiting. I’d always found Sam likeable in a cute, selfish sort of way. Maybe that says something about myself. After all he was only twenty-one. There must’ve been some reason why girls would throw themselves at him. Maybe things had changed in the last few years.
My producer rings back to say she hoped I didn’t take her nervous breakdown seriously, that maybe we shouldn’t take the film to the AFC in case we got rejected, and asks when can we get together to go over the script.
I can’t keep up.
Catch screenings of Dogs in Space in Australian Perspectives from this Saturday at 4pm.