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Back in 2000, Eric Bana captured Hollywood’s attention with his role as a homicidal thug in Chopper, a breakout hit in his native Australia. Soon after, the actor was being courted by the likes of Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down and Steven Spielberg for Munich. Despite leading tentpoles such as Ang Lee’s Hulk and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, he longed to return to his gritty Aussie indie roots.
Enter director-producer Robert Connolly, who first met Bana on Richard Roxburgh’s 2007 film Romulus, My Father. They’ve now teamed on four projects, and their latest — the crime drama The Dry, which Connolly directed, Bana toplines and they both produced — is set for a May 21 release in the U.S. after earning $18 million in Australia alone.
They caught up with THR from their shared office in Melbourne. Bana, a father of two with his wife, publicist and photographer Rebecca Bana, discussed protecting the cinematic aesthetic and why a Marvel return is unlikely, while Connolly, also a married father of two, mused on why he can’t believe Netflix bingeing is the only future for entertainment.
How did the two of you start working together?
ERIC BANA After Romulus, Rob was working out of an office in Sydney and then moved to Melbourne and was looking for an office at the time.
ROBERT CONNOLLY Eric reached out and said, “Why don’t we set something up together?” We help each other on all our projects. We are a sounding board for everything, even when Eric goes off and acts in something overseas. It’s been a great creative arrangement.
Why not formalize as producing partners?
BANA It would be like a couple that had been living together for 12 years getting married. It just doesn’t seem like it would really achieve anything. It’s just one less company that needs to be listed.
Bruna Papandrea and Reese Witherspoon first optioned the book The Dry in 2015. How did you get involved?
CONNOLLY It was brought to us by Bruna and her company Made Up Stories. Back in ’97, I mentored Bruna on her first feature film in Australia, a film called Better Than Sex, and I have known her ever since, [nearly] 25 years. I have been really proud and excited to see everything that she has achieved with her own creative work.
What made you go with IFC Films for domestic distribution?
CONNOLLY They are innovative in how they reach audiences, which I think in these challenging times is really important. We are at a time where it’s very easy to retreat to the idea that film should just play on streaming services and that is the future. I’m so inspired by the philosophical approach to cinema that IFC has. We are social animals who love gathering together, and I think COVID has created incredible challenges for the world in that regard. But, if Australia is any example, I think when cinema is opened en masse in the U.S., people will flock back.
BANA We felt the best chance this film had to work overseas was at first working extremely well in its home country. There have been loads of examples of films that have gone off to a festival that got attention and then had really disappointing performances in their home territory, and then it was very hard for that film to get any momentum anywhere else. So, we really went all out for prioritizing the Australian release.
What did you think of Searchlight’s Nomadland prevailing over the streamers at the Oscars?
CONNOLLY I just can’t believe that the future is watching Netflix six nights a week and then on the seventh night going to a dinner party and talking about what you binged on the other six nights. I just can’t believe that the pinnacle of civilization has led us to there.
BANA I didn’t see the show in its entirety, but I was thrilled that a film like Nomadland was acknowledged. I think the elephant in the room here is the aesthetic of cinema. There is no one that can tell me filmmakers’ craft isn’t affected by the end result being geared toward streaming. There is a dramatic difference to the end product and the craft when a film is intended to be seen on the big screen. I think that level of craft is extremely important to protect, and I won’t be swayed on that opinion.
There is an aesthetic that has crept into a lot of supposed large-scale movies that are made for the streamers. So, yeah, I was thrilled to see Nomadland do so well because I think it’s something that we have to protect and be honest about. Whether it’s a conscious thing or a subconscious thing, and whether I’m the only person that notices it, I think it is becoming something and it has to be acknowledged.
What are your favorite movies?
CONNOLLY Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness. Wong Kar-wai films.
BANA The first Mad Max movie. Dog Day Afternoon had a huge influence on me as a young person. Al Pacino’s performance in that, everyone’s performance in that movie, actually. And The Straight Story.
As producers, what kind of stories are you most eager to tell?
BANA I want people to feel better for having seen something that I am involved in. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be challenged, or there might be moments of feeling uncomfortable, but I have no interest in beating someone up and having them leave a film feeling worse than they did when they went in. I don’t want to involved in content that just makes you feel darker for the experience. That is something that is very important to me. Almost all the stuff that I read and say no to has that edge to it.
What’s next for the two of you?
CONNOLLY We’re in postproduction on [environmental drama] Blueback with Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell and Eric.
BANA We’re developing a story based on Mike Hailwood, who is arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. I sat with Pauline Hailwood, Mike’s widow who has unfortunately since passed away, and told her the story that I’d like to tell. So, I have been working on that the past two years. I’ve been writing the screenplay. Rob and I are producng that together and ultimately would like to direct that together, with myself playing Mike.
Eric, you played Hulk before Marvel became this ginormous thing in Hollywood. Would you ever return to that world?
BANA Highly unlikely. It just goes back to how I respond as an audience member. I love that people love those movies, but I’m just seeing other films before I’m seeing those. So, it’s much harder for me to make that leap.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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