Straight Outta Oz
The Sum of Us is an Australian vessel from stern to bow. David Stevens, an award-winning Aussie screenwriter (Breaker Morant) and filmmaker (the TV miniseries A Town Like Alice) scripted it. Jack Thompson, a fixture in Australian cinema as well as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees and a director of the Australian Film Finance Board and the Australian National Museum, costars with Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper, Proof), the young buck actor being touted down under as a cross between Mel Gibson and James Dean. Aussie cinematographer Geoff Burton (Sirens, Dead Calm, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting) lensed the project. And, most important, the film wears its pronounced Australian accent on its sleeve, from the slang and dialect to the cultural attitudes and character archetypes. How then did Kevin Dowling, an American theater veteran who has directed dozens of stage plays but never before had worked on a film in any capacity, wind up piloting the ship?
"It's an odd tale," related Dowling while in town for the picture's Miami Film Festival screening in February. Working with such leading lights of the New York stage as John Malkovich, Tony Goldwyn, and F. Murray Abraham definitely has rubbed off on the blue-gray-eyed, salt-and-pepper-bearded director's conversational style. He looks like a grad student (philosophy or sociology) but speaks like an accomplished thespian. One easily could imagine him acting in one of his own productions.
"David Stevens wrote The Sum of Us as a play, but he really didn't expect to ever see it produced," Dowling explained. "He wrote it as a labor of love, then put it away in a drawer and figured that was the end of it. He only let a few of his closest friends read it, and they convinced him to forward it to a couple of producers in Australia, who all turned it down. Who knows why. David came to work here in the U.S., and his agent asked to see some examples of his work. David gave him a copy of The Sum of Us, never expecting the man to do anything with it. Sure enough, he sold it immediately.
"I read the play just prior to its L.A. run and fell in love with it immediately. So I bought the [stage and screen] rights to it," Dowling continued. "David didn't think it would work as a movie, but in retrospect I think a part of me envisioned it that way all along. It took about three years to put together the financing. In the meantime, I read everything I could about directing. I sat in on fourteen different film shoots to help prepare."
The film originally was structured as a joint U.S.-Australian venture that would feature a cast and crew from both nations. As often happens in the movie biz, complications arose. The stateside money men pulled out. The Sum of Us was on the verge of being scuttled. But then the Australian Film Finance Corporation came to the project's rescue. There was one string attached to their involvement, however: An Australian had to codirect. Ever the pragmatist, Dowling agreed to split duties with cinematographer Burton, and the cameras, as they say, rolled.
While Dowling said his primary aim was to provide viewers with "a damn good time," he also emphasized what he feels to be one of the great strengths of the Australian character: tolerance. "I'm deeply disturbed by the conservative trend in this country," Dowling confided. "We have such hypocritical policies toward guns and drugs. It was important to me as an American to convey middle-class Australian tolerance for gay lifestyles, especially as exemplified by gay Mardi Gras where 700,000 people participate. Where could you have something like that in this country? Could you imagine a parade and street festival with half a million gay men and women in Newt Gingrich's hometown?"
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