Interview With Producer Patricia Lovell

Credits include Picnic at Hanging Rock; and Gallipoli

There are nine Australian films ranked among the all-time top 100 posted on the ABC’s My Favourite Film site. At the top of this list sits the Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by Amelie and Blade Runner. Among the Australian films scattered throughout are Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, both films in which veteran Australian producer Patricia Lovell had a key role.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was a landmark film of the local industry revival in the 1970s but were it not for Lovell’s tenacity, her success in raising the finance and then dealing with distributors, it might never have happened. Miranda’s lingering backward glance as she disappeared forever into the folds of the rock may never have been seen.

Patricia Lovell is to give the Longford Lyell lecture at the National Film and Sound Archive on Tuesday 23 October. It will explore how she became a film producer, with Picnic at Hanging Rock, following on early in the 1980s with Gallipoli and Monkey Grip.

How would Pat Lovell describe herself these days? ‘A producer-in-waiting,’ she said in a phone interview from her home in Sydney, ‘with another project I want to get off the ground.’ She won’t, however, divulge any details.

When Australian audiences were turning out to see ocker comedies like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in the early 1970s, it looked like Australians really had an appetite for local films, and she bought the rights to Picnic at Hanging Rock while working in television. The Joan Lindsay novel (on which Picnic is based) clicked with her instantly. ‘I bought it off a newsagent’s shelf, read it overnight, and thought it was fantastic.’

She had just seen Peter Weir’s (short movie) Homesdale and thought that there was a fit with themes in Picnic of Europeans trying to survive in the Australian bush: ‘Oh my gosh, this would probably be up his street.’ When a busy Weir eventually got back to her it was with a ‘I’ve got to do it and when do we start?’ She had her director.

But she recalls that finding the finance was no easy matter. ‘The bureaucracy informed me I wouldn’t be able to produce, I was “a television person”,’ recalls Lovell, but she managed to find funding to stitch the project together.

She and Peter Weir became location scouts. ‘I remember us driving on the way to Hanging Rock, and talking about how we might save money making the film in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney.’ But when they drove down into the valley and saw the rock formation, and experienced a feeling of intense ‘unease’ in its ambience, they knew they couldn’t film anywhere else.

We know in retrospect that Peter Weir (The Truman Show; Master and Commander; Witness) would prove himself an extraordinary director, but what was it about him that made Lovell so sure then? “I thought his short films were so different to what anyone else was doing,’ she says, simply.

It so happens, I discover, that Gallipoli is a personal favourite of Lovell’s too. Whose idea was it? ‘It was Peter’s. We’ve always had a bit of a giggle, because I took Picnic to him and he brought Gallipoli to me.’ She was more fortunate with funding this time, as Rupert Murdoch and entrepreneur Robert Stigwood were backing.

“In the first script of David Williamson’s…there were landings on the beach and there was this and there was that.’.[Big money! I interject!] ‘Yes, and I talked to both of them and said “wouldn’t it be better if it were a more personal film?”‘

‘Working together, they (Williamson and Weir) came up with those two great characters, those two great boys – Frank and Archy, characters played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee – as it were, overnight.’

When she took the film to the UK it got excellent reviews. ‘And the wonderful thing was the late, great Alexander Walker, film critic for the London Evening Standard, one of the toughest critics of all time…gave it a marvellous review.’

Initially he’d had breakfast with her and said ‘look, this is what’s wrong with it’. Understandably, she was expecting the worst, but a surprise arrived in the post, ‘Suddenly this review came, cut out of the newspaper, with Happy Christmas written across it in red biro. It was a brilliant review.’

Today, Pat Lovell keeps up with the latest in Australian film. She was delighted to see that among the co-producers of Lucky Miles, were two former students of hers at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Jo and Lesley Dyer. ‘I was thrilled when I saw it and thought oh, they did learn a lot!’

Once she had been helped by patronage herself in the past, through a mentor relationship with Ken G. Hall. She met him when Picnic at Hanging Rock had its grand opening night at the State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney.

Hall, who had prolific output during the 1930s including films like On Our Selection and Dad and Dave Come to Town, was Australia’s most commercially successful film director before the revival of the 1970s.

‘I was standing in a corner and this voice said “congratulations girl, I know what you did”. I looked up and here was this man, 6’3″ tall, and I thought “oh, my lord, it’s K.G., K.G. Hall”.’

He became a sort of mentor, and even though he ‘frightened the hell out of a lot of people’, Lovell just adored him. ‘K. G. gave me the courage after Picnic to continue. I think if he hadn’t done that, I may have just …given it away.’

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