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It started as a joke. Years ago, Australian-born stand-up Monty Franklin stumbled across an entry on Wikipedia about the Great Emu War. Now all-but-forgotten, the incident refers to a month in 1932 when the Australian government, in an attempt to curb the wild population of emus chomping on farm crops, enlisted a battalion of World War I veterans with machine guns and military training. The result was a decisive victory. For the Emus.
Franklin, who had never heard of the Great Emu War, turned the entry into a hit routine and, together with his friend and SNL veteran Rob Schneider, a film script for an anti-war satire. With Village Roadshow on board as producer and John Cleese attached, alongside Franklin, fellow Aussie standup Jim Jefferies and Kiwi comic Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows), The Great Emu War is heading to AFM, with Mister Smith Entertainment handling international sales.
Ahead of the market, The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough spoke to the film’s director, Yaniv Raz, about a project he sees as equal parts Babe, Paddington, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jojo Rabbit. “But in the style of David Lean.”
What appealed to you about this bizarre true story, especially as you’re not Australian?
I have been obsessed my entire career, probably my entire life, with making an anti-war comedy, an anti-war satire. I think Dr. Strangelove was the videotape that I wore out the most when I was a child. I’m also a bit of an anglophile. I lived in England for a little while and became obsessed with [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. There are a number of others, more recently JoJo Rabbit by Taika Waititi.
I have literally all my life been obsessed with making an anti-war satire, but I’d always wanted to make one that was accessible to as broad an audience as possible: an anti-war satire that an Indiana Jones audience would also go to see.
The comedy I grew up loving was very much the Anglo/Australian type. I love [British radio comedy] The Goon Show. Peter Sellars is an obsession of mine. All the Ealing comedies: The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets. So when I got the script to The Great Emu War, it was basically everything I had been hoping to find in one serving. It was a biting satire, a hilarious comedy and it had this massive action-adventure component, because there’s an actual war against these emus. There’s also this heartwarming drama component as well. I know all these elements shouldn’t fit together. But they do!
In the end, the most important thing for me is the film has this deep message. The war that happened in 1932 was a war against nature, against the environment. And that’s what we’re facing now: a war against ourselves, against what we have done to nature. That happened, in a sort of microcosm, back in Australia in 1932. So I feel like it was the most relevant thing that I could find, the most relevant anti-war satire I could hope for.
This is obviously a film and a comedy. How close do you plan to stick to the actual events of 1932?
We’ve done loads of research, and the story is basically what really happened. The Australian Army, which had gone and successfully fought the Allied powers in World War I had come home and was called up by the government to go to Western Australia and get rid of these emus.
Over a series of four different battles with different types of weapons, the military, the same military that had recently won World War I, could not defeat these emus. Eventually, they gave up. They basically conceded defeat. There were newspaper headlines at the time which are just hilarious. They talk about how the emus seem to have squadron leaders who are outmaneuvering the Australian Army. So that’s all true.
What Monty added was this specific story about a lieutenant, Harry Baker (played by Franklin) who is brought in to lead the charge against the emus. He’s the son of Colonel Baker (Cleese), a World War I hero, and he lives in his dad’s shadow. Everyone expects him to become his father. He’s literary the poster boy of the Australian Army, his is the face they use on the recruitment ads and to sell bonds. But he’s never had a war to fight. He finally gets one — the war against the emus — and he loses. Because you can’t defeat nature.
So our story is primarily about Harry’s life unraveling, his sense of identity unraveling, his belief that he needs to become his father in order to get his father’s approval, all that unraveling. What happens is he meets a young woman, a Noongar, an Aboriginal woman, who wants to preserve the emus and the land. She sort of opens up his eyes to the idea that you can become a hero in a different way. So the film, from the original idea of this historical event has sort of been transmuted into both a father-son story and an ecological, environmental impact story.
This probably should have been my first question: how are you going to cast the emus?
Well, we’ve put out an open call, so any stage-trained emus in the Manhattan area are welcome to apply. We figure if Australians can come over here and take all our American roles, it’s about time American emus get their chance in Australia.
No, all the emus are going to be CGI, CGI mixed with puppetry. The wide shots, the mob scenes will be CGI and the close-ups will be puppetry. Emus are incredibly hard to train, and I certainly don’t want to run afoul of any animal rights groups, especially when trying to make an environmental message movie.
We have a very cute baby emu character called Emmie who becomes a prisoner of war and a villain emu called Blue who is sort of like Spike from Gremlins, though he turns out to be a good guy in the end.
I’ve done another bird film before [Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets] using this mixture of CGI and puppetry, together with the Jim Henson Company, who we’ll probably get to make the puppets for this film as well. I don’t want to offend the CGI people, but when you want a character to emote, when you want an empathetic response from the audience, puppets work better than CGI. And you literally can cut between the CGI and the puppet, and it’s seamless.
For the location stuff, we’ll shoot everyone on location in Perth and in Campion in western Australia. Kylie Bracknell, whose an actress and is Noongar, is a story consultant and co-writer on the film and we’re going to employ a lot of locals as a collaboration between professionals and locals learning the craft.
You mentioned Colonel Blimp and JoJo Rabbit. Are there any other cinematic touchstones you are looking to as you prepare this film?
For me, the biggest touchstone, and you might think this is a bit strange, are the Paddington movies by Paul King. I’m such an enormous fan of his. I have enormous respect for what he does. What I particularly loved about the Paddington movies, and what we’re going to try to emulate, is how they are incredibly visually inventive, without being precious. There’s this mixture of slapstick, but also upscale humor for adults. And the scale was both epic, in some ways, but also simultaneously very intimate. Then the combination of social commentary woven really beautifully into what is a family film. That’s what we’re attempting to do. Babe is another touchstone there.
We want to be heartfelt without being saccharine. And because our story involves a war, the war elements will be treated like an adventure film, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jumanji.
From a visual perspective, I want to satirize epic war films. I hesitate to even say this, because he is kind of sacrosanct, but the scope I want to achieve, the look, is David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia. The Bridge on the River Kwai.
And Moby is going to do the original music for us. I’ve worked with him before and he’s an enormous fan of John Cleese. As soon as I said John Cleese was involved in this film, he said “what do you need”? What we want to do is take 1930s-era swing and big band sounds — Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington — and doing remixes and reinterpretations for the soundtrack. Jim Dooley, who got an Emmy for Pushing Daisies, is going to do the score. The two of them will work in conjunction with one another to create something I think will be really unique.
It’s all very ambitious, but I think it’s going to be a really fun movie. If we manage to get to 50 percent of the movies I referenced, I’ll be happy!
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