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Small Down Under Film Is Making A Big Noise

November 13, 1986|JOHN VOLAND

You can forget "Waltzing Matilda" and koala bears. Thanks to one monster hit ("Crocodile Dundee") and one critical success, the recently released "Malcolm," Australia is becoming even more of a movie force to be reckoned with.

"Dundee's " $70-million-plus at the box office, in only six weeks, speaks for itself. The recognition being given "Malcolm"--a limited-release film that just walked off with the equivalent of eight Australian Academy Awards--is of the legendary "small film makes big noise" variety.

"Malcolm' s" big sweep came as a large surprise to its husband-and-wife production team, Nadia Tass and David Parker, although neither had doubts about the film.

"We had no idea this would be the outcome," said Tass, the film's director, from Melbourne, where she is performing in a play. "When you simply focus on trying to make the film--a nice, little film, mind you--as good as it can be . . . it becomes shocking, really."

"It was a bit of jolt," added Parker, writer and cinematographer of "Malcolm" (which is playing at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion in West Los Angeles and two screens at the Beverly Center Cineplex). "We thought, 'Well, we've got a funny little picture here--we've done all right for a first go.' But best picture? We near died."

The positive response that "Malcolm" has generated is less of a shock, for the pair say they deliberately crafted a mass-audience film, even though it is the first feature film for both as a team.

"The film community in Australia is pretty sharply divided between the art-film crowd and those of us interested in making really entertaining films--films that just might do well at the box office," Parker said. "That's not a curse to us at all."

Thus far, "Malcolm" has pulled in more than 750,000 Australian dollars (the equivalent of $525,000) since it opened Sept. 11 in its native country, playing at about 30 screens. Locally, it has grossed $23,552 since Nov. 5 at three theaters.

Telling the story of a socially maladjusted Australian inventor and his two borderline boarders who combine to form Melbourne's latest high-tech crime wave, "Malcolm' "s relative financial success (it cost only one million Australian dollars--the equivalent of $700,000-- to make) and its unqualified critical success--at least Down Under--have put Tass and Parker, rookie producers both, on the Australian film industry map at one throw, a situation the duo finds tense and wonderful.

"The best thing about winning all those Ozcars (as they are called in Australia) was that David and I got our track record at one go," Tass said. "The 'sophomore jinx' will not, we hope, have any effect on the next movie ("Rikki and Pete," a story about two blase Melbourne young people who relieve their ennui by buying a copper mine in the deep Outback.) We'll still apply the same criteria we used for 'Malcolm' on the next movie, regardless of the awards. Or the money.

"With 'Malcolm,' I was aware of our monetary and scheduling restrictions right from the start," the director continued. "So I went in even a little overprepared, if there is such a thing. In fact, I started talking up the characters with the actors months before we started to shoot. We'd spend the weekend discussing characterization, with Colin (Friels, who played the title character) flying in from Sydney, where he's based. We had to do it that way in order to get it done in six weeks."

Parker, interviewed while working and promoting the film in Los Angeles, agreed. "We can't change too much of our work habits, because we've got most of 'Rikki and Pete' written already," he said. "The pressure to repeat is there, all right, but we're going to put it in our pockets and not let it out until we're finished."

But Parker allowed as how those eight Ozcars have built up the duo's pitching power. "Well, at least we're not being told, 'Right, there's the door' anymore," he said, laughing.

Parker is less sanguine about growing American interest in producing films in Australia--Dino De Laurentiis is building a studio there and Walt Disney Studios is looking into the area--noting that the Australian film industry is undergoing something of a holding action after years of "devil-take-the-hindmost production."

The tremendous support the Australian government has given national film production since a tax-incentive bill in 1980 "is falling away now," Parker noted. "There are going to be a lot of producers dropping out of the race pretty soon. And not everyone in Sydney and Melbourne is enchanted with the notion of American studios coming home to roost, though it doesn't really bother me."

What does bother Tass, however, is the idea (expressed in some American reviews) that "Malcolm' s" breezy comedy glosses over the problem of socially maladjusted persons. The character of Malcolm was at least partially based on her brother John, who was killed at age 25 in an automobile accident.

"That really makes me boil," she said angrily. " 'Malcolm' is something of an homage to John. I really feel very deeply about fighting for these people's rights--I've spent practically a whole lifetime on it.

"If I'd treated this in an indulgent, self-conscious way, I would have gotten such a limited audience that 'Mr. Average' wouldn't have learned anything about people like him," Tass continued. "And maybe the next time that Mr. Average sees someone like Malcolm on the street, he won't turn away. Who knows, he might even say, 'Hello.'

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