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25 April 2019
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Tim Burstall

One day short of his 77th birthday, the man who showed us all the way has died. Tim's father was a Professor of Engineering and Tim came from a family of academically oriented professionals. The family moved to Australia when he was ten and after that he never left for any length of time. He was educated at Geelong Grammar and Melbourne University. Shortly after he graduated he and his life partner Betty married. They were together for most of the rest of his life.

For eight years during the 1950s he was a member of the Communist party (he left the communist party in disgust after Russian tanks rolled into Eastern Europe) and he became a prime mover in the Eltham group. This "push" was the some time stamping ground of Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Cliff Pugh, Sydney Nolan, Tom Sanders, David Baker, Matcham Skipper and many others.

Inspired by the success of The Red Balloon and The Little Fugitive, Tim made a short film called The Prize. It is about 45 minutes long and probably contains no more than 200 words of dialogue. It was budgeted at 200 pounds but the cost swelled to 600 pounds and by the time that it was commercially released it had cost 6000 pounds. Not for the last time Tim mortgaged his assets to complete the film which starred his sons Tom (6) and Dan (9). The film was shot on an old clockwork camera of the sort used by battle photographers in World War two. It was mounted on a tripod salvaged from the 1930 Antarctic exploration of Sir Herbert Williams. The Prize won a bronze medal at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. From then on he believed in the possibility of a self supporting, popular Australian film industry.

For a long time it seemed like a pipe dream. He made some sponsored documentaries, a children's series with Peter Scriven's puppets, and, at the then Commonwealth Film Unit, a film for children called Nullabor Hideout. He also made a well regarded series on Australian painters. In 1965 Tim won a Harkness fellowship and studied in America for two years this bought him into the orbit of Lee Strasberg through the Actor's Studio. From this came an attachment with director Martin Ritt on Hombre starring Paul Newman. After they returned to Australia Betty set up the La Mama theatre in Melbourne. It doubled, and still does, as a coffee house theatre and a workshop for writers and actors.

In 1969 he directed 2000 Weeks from a script by himself and Patrick Ryan. Ryan was a nephew of Lord Casey, a friend and a long time supporter of Tim. It was the first independent Australian feature film for a long time and starred Mark Mc Manus and Jeannie Drynan. As well as hoping for commercial success the producers expected it to be assessed as a film working in the territory of The Pumpkin Eater. It flopped badly. This was a lesson that Tim took to heart. Martin Ritt had told him "You make three for them and one for you." Some years later in an interview headed 'The Man at the Head of the Gold Rush' Tim said "the significant thing is not the peculiarity of the director's vision but the populist business of making that vision accessible on film".

He kept his eye in over the next couple of years with two short films. Getting Back to Nothing dealt with the world surfing championships and was a finalist in the AFI documentary category in 1971. The next year his short drama The Hot Centre of the World (set on St Kilda Pier) shared the Alan Stout Award for the most creative contribution to Australian film making.

At La Mama Betty had put on the first production of a play called The Coming of Stork. The writer was the then unknown David Williamson. Borrowing $8000 from the newly formed Experimental Film Fund Tim embarked on the film adaptation. He had to put his Arthur Boyd paintings into hock and the film eventually cost $80,000. Launched at the St Kilda Palais it introduced Bruce Spence and Jacki Weaver to the big screen, dominated the 1972 AFI Awards and returned gross film hire of just under $225,000. He was the first Australian filmmaker for 40 years to have had a critical and commercial smash. Stork set him on a path of collaborative work from which he never diverged. He formed Hexagon Films comprising Roadshow Film Distributors, Tim Burstall and Associates and Bilcock and Copping. David Billcock and Rob Copping, long term collaborators with Tim, were the editor and cameraman respectively on Stork.

The energy of the writers and actors who populated La Mama and The Pram Factory would provide an enormous creative stimulus in the Melbourne film landscape. Tim found the style of working with his cast and crew which would be the key to his success. Years earlier, needing tears from his son Tom for a scene in The Prize, Tom suggested he hit him because he was unable to create tears. Tim obliged. After his experience at the Actor's Studio he had found a more viable method which could be used with bigger stars. As he said later "The director's first job is to see what's wrong, then to get alongside the actor and set about getting it right by working with what he already has."

In 1973 The Producer's and Director's Guild of Victoria secured a release for Libido, an anthology film comprising four stories by prominent Australian authors. Burstall's episode The Child is based on a short story by Hal Porter and was shot in six days. The other episodes were directed by the film's producer John B Murray, Fred Schepisi and David Baker from stories or scripts by Craig McGregor, Thomas Keneally and David Williamson. The film was a critical and commercial success and Tim received the most uniformly positive reviews that would ever come his way. Mike Harris in The Australian was typical: "exquisitely filmed, performed and directed…Burstall's handling is nothing short of masterful. He must be the best director we've got in Australia."

Again the film was a major success at the AFI Awards. Not so Alvin Purple. However, spearheaded by Alan Finney's brilliant campaign it ousted Stork and Barry McKenzie as the most commercially successful film of the Australian film revival with gross film hire in excess of $1,630.000. By now Tim was very skilled at fitting the parts of a film together. Just as he had built his first house out of mud bricks at Eltham and renovated his home in Fitzroy he set about bringing together the elements of a hugely successful ocker comedy of high energy and good nature. As he said at the time "Either the thing works as a whole, either you can relate to it or not - these are my criteria." If Libido proved he could direct with taste, Alvin proved he could direct with flair.

To many Petersen which confirmed Jack Thompson's stardom, was Tim's best film. During its making the film was untitled although its author, David Williamson rather liked "Dostoevsky Never Slammed Home the Sealer". It was a further commercial success to the tune of over $450,000 and was described by Variety as "another triumph for Burstall" as well as the first screen appearance of Wendy Hughes. It featured wonderful performances by Jacki Weaver, Arthur Dignam, Bud Tingwell and Helen Morse. It was hated by some critics who regarded it as vulgar and Americanised. Stanley Kubrick praised the film in particular for Jack Thompson's performance and Tim's direction.

Over the next 15 years Tim directed seven feature films and produced two more, as well as two mini-series , an American telemovie and the initial episode of Water Rats. Among the features End Play was a solidly constructed and often effective example of the mystery/thriller genre. When screened in the UK on BBC television it attracted enormous ratings and was frequently revived.

Like Peter Sculthorpe and Patrick White before him Tim had long been drawn to the story of Eliza Fraser. In 1976 he produced and directed The (Rollicking) Adventures of Eliza Fraser from a script by David Williamson. It starred Susannah York, John Waters, Trevor Howard and a scene stealing Noel Ferrier. With a budget exceeded locally only by The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith it was a commercial failure despite overseas sales and local gross film hire in the order of $570,000.

Hexagon's final film would be The Last of the Knucklemen, which was shot over six weeks including three in Andamooka. It has a lot going for it including a marvellously tense card game. As Sandra Hall said in The Bulletin "Burstall has not made a lugubrious film since 1969 (2000 WEEKS) and there are no signs that he ever will." The film also contains a brilliant debut performance by Peter Hehir which was somehow overlooked at awards time.

Throughout the periods of success and the times when he was down Tim was a generous friend and supporter and a mentor to countless people. He was opinionated and provocative and his zest for life was enormous. As a star spotter he was outstanding - witness his early work with Jack Thompson, Wendy Hughes, Bruce Spence, Graeme Blundell and John Waters. He was the first producer to use Judy Davis on screen (High Rolling) and discovered Kaarin Fairfax (Descant for Gossips).

His analytic skills were well honed and he never shirked debate. Not surprising, really, when he instigated so many of them. In 1977 he wrote an article for The Bulletin which was released as Triumph and Disaster for Australian Films. In it he analysed the 64 full length features which had then emerged from the revival of the Australian film industry. He forcefully made the point that "A film industry cut off from artistic standards is obviously undesirable but so is an industry cut off from market considerations." He deeply mistrusted the role of government in the industry and predicted "the pressure will be for films to fit in more and more with the safe, respectable values of the educated middle classes and to reflect less and less the disruptive, anarchic entertainment values of the cinema-going public". It is as stimulating to read today as it was at the time and predictably it enraged many. Like the character played by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces he was from the elite but did not share its values.

Just as contentious and just as relevant today was a paper he prepared for the then Victorian Film Corporation on the funding of feature films. In the paper he explored some alternative methods of encouraging the development of the film industry including a profit-incentive scheme. Essentially the producer had had to find his entire budget from private sources but would receive a government incentive grant based on the gross film hire his film earned in Australia. The film had to be wholly Australian, have a national release and generate gross film hire in excess of $250,000. On that model 22 of the 62 films financed to that date (he excluded soft core films like Fantasm and Australia After Dark) would receive a grant and all but four of those would be in profit.

For me his best film was Kangaroo, adapted from DH Lawrence's novel and produced by Ross Dimsey. It had a screenplay by Evan Jones who wrote the script for Wake in Fright. Originally intended to be shot in 1981 the putative cast was then Jonathan Pryce, Helen Mirren, Bryan Brown and Oliver Reed. The film that emerged in 1987 had terrific performances by Colin Friels, John Walton and Julie Nihill. Judy Davis as Harriet (the Freda Lawrence figure) was outstanding and in her remarkable career it is difficult to rate it accurately. I would certainly place it above A Passage to India which won her an Academy Award nomination the previous year. Dan Burstall's camerawork is outstanding. It was to be Tim's final feature. He planned many more of course, including Stork (30 years on) with the original cast.

This man who described film-making as "a blessed, glorious way of filling in time" made a remarkable impact. Over the years, when I visited Melbourne, I would sometimes be in a cinema and see his familiar thick bodied figure. It was always great to catch up. Wherever I saw Tim - at a party, screening, meeting or meal he was stimulating and enormous fun to be around. I am sorry that I won't see him again.

(Richard Brennan met Tim Burstall in Melbourne in 1962. They remained friends for 42 years.)