The story of Mirrah Foulkes and David Michod’s first kiss is so perfect it could have been scripted.
The date was late 2004 and the location Melbourne, where budding director Christopher Benz needed two volunteers to play girlfriend and boyfriend in a short film being shot, guerrilla-style, across a single weekend.
Michod had travelled from Sydney to help out. Then a 31-year-old editor of Inside Film Magazine, he had been to film school with Benz at the University of Melbourne’s Victoria College of the Arts. He had taken a job at the magazine to keep engaged with an industry he loved but had no idea how to crack.
Foulkes was a 23-year-old fledgling actor who was never supposed to be there. When Benz’s first choice for the girlfriend role quit, she stepped up.
“It was a rehearsal kiss within 15 minutes of us meeting, on a mattress on a [living room] floor,” says Michod, who fell for his co-star “straightaway. I still call it the greatest weekend of my life.”
Foulkes took a little more convincing.
“I was very young,” she recalls. “I was like: ‘Ah shit I really like him but it is too soon … I had plans, I was going to go and live in Spain … There were all these other things that I wanted to do. And then, you know, life gives you different options.”
Seventeen years on, Foulkes and Michod have emerged as one of Australia’s most intriguing film-making couples. Both belong to the powerhouse Blue-Tongue Films, a collective of creatives who have played a crucial role in the exchange of talent between the United States and Australia, providing opportunities for the next generation of Australians in Hollywood and paving the way for international films to be made here.
Foulkes boasts a heavy-weight acting resume (think TV classics such as Blue Heelers, All Saints, Top of the Lake, Hawaii Five-0, Judy & Punch, Harrow and The Crown) but she has also written and directed three award-winning short films and a movie, Judy & Punch, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Judy & Punch is a searing #MeToo revenge tale set amidst puppeteers in a 17th century English town.
Shot around Melbourne, it stars Hollywood favourites Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. It generated a slew of Australian Academy Cinema and Television Arts Award nominations (including Best Director and Best Screenplay for Foulkes) and won AACTA awards for actor Herriman and the movie’s composer François Tetazdebute.
It put Foulkes on the map.
Michod catapulted to global attention in 2010 with his explosive debut movie Animal Kingdom, a testosterone-drenched, family drama set in Melbourne’s claustrophobic, criminal gangland.
Written and directed by Michod, Animal Kingdom made $2.5 million in its first three weeks, won nine AFI Awards, and turbo-charged the Hollywood careers of Ben Mendelssohn, Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce, winning Jacki Weaver her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role of Smurf and inspiring a US TV series of the same name (starring Ellen Barkin as Smurf) that’s run to five seasons so far.
Michod has since released three other movies (The Rover in 2014, War Machine in 2017 and The King in 2019), and been involved in productions starring everyone from Brad Pitt (who sought Michod out for War Machine) to Robert Pattinson, Laura Dern, George Clooney and Natalie Portman.
“I’ve gotten very, very comfortable working in this globally tricky budget range $US20 to $US60 million,” he says.
Until today, Foulkes and Michod have refused all requests for joint press interviews. Sitting in the living room of one of their two Bondi Beach apartments (the first is where they live and he works; this one, just across the hallway, houses her office and his electric drum-kit), the couple explain why.
“We both feel like we’re … forging our own careers,” says Foulkes, “We’re fairly private as well and … ”
“… and fear of schmaltz,” chips in Michod. “It all becomes about bathroom habits or something.”
“It becomes about the couple rather than the work, and I guess we like to keep things specific, so this is the first time we’ve done it,” clarifies Foulkes.
Deadpans Michod: “I don’t know why we’re doing it now.”
He’s kidding, of course.
They are doing it for the launch this month of Australians & Hollywood, a landmark exhibition on Australian cinema at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive, and because Blue-Tongue Films is a key part of that picture.
Australians & Hollywood is designed to celebrate the power and reach of contemporary Australian film and the creatives behind it, according to curator Tara Marynowsky. It showcases never-before screened footage from Mad Max, and rarely seen memorabilia from classics such as Crocodile Dundee, Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby, Muriel’s Wedding, Adventures of Priscilla, Chopper, The Sapphires and Strictly Ballroom.
Australians in Hollywood are nothing new – high-flying actor Errol Flynn and filmmaker John Farrow were part of Hollywood’s golden age from the 1920s to the early ’60s. But it was the so-called “New Australian Cinema” of the 1970s and ’80s, including Walkabout and The Last Wave, that punched homegrown creatives like Peter Weir and Mel Gibson into Hollywood’s studio orbit.
This exhibition showcases some of that talent. George Miller, Baz Lurhmann and Rachel Perkins are just some of the featured directors, and red-carpet celebs include Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman and Heath Ledger.
“Australians & Hollywood is about the pivotal moments, the iconic movies and the people that bought them to life,” says Marynowsky. “It’s about collaboration and camaraderie. We were looking for the insider point of view.”
Which is where Blue-Tongue Films fits in. A loose group of screen creatives, it is comprised of eight award-winning filmmakers: Michod; Foulkes; writer/director/actor Keiran Darcy-Smith; director Luke Doolan, writer/director/producer/ stuntman/actor and editor Nash Edgerton; his younger brother, actor and filmmaker Joel; director of drama, short films, commercials and music videos Sean Kruck; and Spencer Susser, the only American, whose work spans features films, shorts, commercial and music videos.
Marynowsky describes Blue-Tongue as “unique” and “inspiring” because “first and foremost they are good friends, they aren’t in competition with each other … and they tackle everything – stunts, writing, editing, everything – all at once”.
Blue-Tongue began in Sydney in 1996 when four filmmaker wannabes: stuntmen Nash Edgerton and Tony Lynch (who has since left) plus drama graduates Kieran Darcy-Smith and Nash’s younger brother Joel made an action-packed, eight-minute film called Loaded, about some buddies buying a gun. They named themselves after the Edgerton brothers’ pet lizard.
By the early 2000s, Blue-Tongue had an office in the same Darlinghurst building that housed Michod’s magazine. Nash talked him into joining and he recalls going, “Okay, sure I like hanging out with you guys, it’s fun.”
The core was friendship fuelled by a shared passion for cinema. Blue-Tongue’s members bounced script ideas off each other, badgered each other into launching projects and helped out where they could to get things finished.
“We were frightened,” says Michod, who began writing Animal Kingdom. “We didn’t know how to have a career. We thought there was safety in numbers and that if we all just mucked in together, we’d work something out. And then it took on a power of its own.”
That moment arrived at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
“I was [there] with a short film that I’d made called Crossbow, Nash was there with a short film called Spider that I had co-written with him, and Spencer Susser [was there] with a short film called I love Sarah Jane, that I co-wrote with him, too,” recalls Michod.
“People were talking about us like we were a movement when we were just a bunch of friends. We came to recognise … there was a power in milking the brand a little bit. As cynical as that sounds … it was good for all of us.” Not least when The New York Times’ arts section profiled the Australian trio in a front-page story.
“On the back of three short films,“Michod laughs.
Michod kept working on Animal Kingdom (“10 years of writing and writing and rewriting and starting from scratch about four times”) until the screenplay “felt good, which happened to coincide with me hanging out with those guys and having champions in them”.
“Joel was a major part of that, [he] was becoming a famous actor at the time and really wanted to help me get this thing made. He attached his name to it early, helped me make the  short Crossbow, which played at Sundance … all with the aim of getting Animal Kingdom made.
“It’s easy enough to write something at home by yourself but taking the next step to actually making it is gigantic, and you only really do that if your friends are forcing you to.”
Foulkes is nodding in agreement. “Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Shaming you into it.”
Foulkes identifies Nash Edgerton as the glue that keeps Blue-Tongue together. Without the support of the Blue-Tongue gang, Foulkes doubts she would ever have directed.
“It’s like any group of friends that are pushing and encouraging each other,” she says. “It just happened to have a name and … fall under the banner of a collective. We never channelled it into any sort of business model, which I think has been a saving grace.”
Michod says he never wanted to: “My theory has always been that the thing will fall apart if we do that – that its strength is its friendship and its generosity … We are all weird, moody creatures, and it needs flexibility.”
Part of that, these days, means allowing Blue-Tongue to splinter.
“It was much easier [to stay connected] when all of us were semi-unemployed and only working on small things,” says Michod. “As the projects started getting bigger it kind of forced us off down our own tributaries.”
Foulkes disagrees. “It’s still alive and strong. Spencer and I are working on something at the moment … and you and Joel are into your third or fourth writing project.”
“True,” concedes Michod. “Nash has a short that is the third in our trilogy. There was Spider, Bear and now Shark that has just played at Sydney and Toronto [film festivals].”
Foulkes has just begun directing the new season of Upright, Tim Minchin’s critically-acclaimed black comedy. Michod is happy, for the moment, “just floating around and writing”.
“My advice to aspiring filmmakers is always the same,” he says. “Find your peers, find your friends, grab the ones who feel the same way you do and then just make stuff together.
“Find your Blue-Tongue.”
Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent, and ambition runs from January 21 to July 17, at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in Canberra.
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