9 Dec 2008


by Trent Griffiths
The low budget new Aussie film Men's Group is achieving big results.

The quietly powerful low budget new Australian drama Men's Group, is a project built on taking chances, doing something that matters, and creating an atmosphere of trust.

"People would only do the project if they loved it." Speaking of his latest and most personal film, Men's Group, producer/co-writer John L. Simpson's voice is loaded with quiet conviction. "No one was going to sign up to spend all this time on a project that they weren't being paid up-front for unless they thought there was something in it. The level of trust was extraordinary."

There's the crux. There's one word which encapsulates this project in every sense - trust.

Simpson's last experience in cinema was when he was blown away by the independent Australian film The Jammed, and upon discovering that it was not going to be playing at cinemas, going straight to DVD, he set out get the film to the masses. To say that he succeeded would be an understatement, with the film winning numerous awards, receiving 5 out 5 critical reviews and collecting a respectable box office total.

On his latest, which he was involved with almost from the beginning, Simpson had to trust in the strength of writer/director Michael Joy's idea of a drama set around a suburban support group for men. The ensemble of largely unheralded but highly accomplished theatre and television actors had to have complete trust in the creators that the unique process (pretty much entirely improvised) would be worthwhile. Everyone needed to trust in each other that their creative forces combined could deliver The Holy Grail - a successful feature film.

More than anyone else involved in Men's Group, it was the actors who needed to invest their faith in the film. Soon after shooting began, however, Joy and Simpson's skill at creating honest characters and scenarios swept any reservations aside.

“No one was going to sign up to spend all this time on a project that they weren’t being paid up-front for unless they thought there was something in it. The level of trust was extraordinary.” – Producer/co-writer John L. Simpson.

Grant Dodwell, a veteran theatre and television actor and three-time Silver Logie winner from his time on A Country Practice, plays Alex, a hardened and cynical larrikin in the midst of ugly marriage problems. "There was a momentum created through the uniqueness of it, and Michael and John nurtured that," enthuses Dodwell.

"In a very non-grandstanding way, they allowed all of us to trust them, as well as trusting each other and, more importantly, to trust ourselves. After certain scenes, you could sense the atmosphere on set, and that something special had happened... We knew that there was something unique about it. Whether it was going to work or not...well, that was in the lap of the Gods. But we know in our hearts that there were moments that were truly beyond what we had experienced before."

Nonetheless, there were times when the cast and crew would remember how bold and unusual it was as a project and a sense of doubt would creep in. Grant Dodwell describes the nervous anticipation of screenings when he would forget about the trust that he had during filming, and would succumb to wondering if the film would have the magnetism to keep people in their seats. Then he would see the response of those festival audiences and his fears would be laid to rest, validating the intuition that saw him take time off from his successful corporate video business to work on this little Aussie film.

The film is also taking on a life of its own as a social tool. Men's support groups and men's health organisations are already contacting Simpson to organise screenings as a primer for weekend workshops or a point of reference for staff. It offers a way in to fraught issues like how men need to express emotion and identify themselves.

"You can be masculine and have emotion," says Joy. "Men are extremely's just that we've had so many things that tell us that we're not, and it just gets pushed to the background," says Joy. Simpson adds: "When people are seeing the film, they're finding whole new ways of seeing men, which is really quite extraordinary."

Simpson and Joy are clearly proud of how the film has the potential to offer hope and healing for men everywhere. This life of Men's Group as a social tool is something that the filmmakers hoped for as the project came together, but they didn't anticipate the extent to which it has done so far. They can only imagine the response once the film begins its commercial run. The faith of the filmmakers and the cast has paid off, with four Inside Film Award nominations recently announced, and Simpson managing to secure a theatrical release for the film: Melbourne and Perth from November 6, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart from November 13 and Brisbane to be confirmed soon.


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