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Five Questions with Satellite Boy Director Catriona McKenzie

Though she has more than a decade of experience directing short films (including The Third Note and Road) and episodic television (Redfern Now, My Place), Australian writer/director Catriona McKenzie is only now ushering her first feature in the world. A long-gestating project she has been working on since the mid 2000s, Satellite Boy is an evocative coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy, Pete (Cameron Wallaby), who lives with his grandfather (David Gulpilil) in a crumbling outdoor cinema in the untouched beauty of Western Australia’s Kimberley country. When his home comes under threat from a mining company, Pete and his best friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley) set out for the city to try and save the only world he knows. Filmmaker spoke to McKenzie about Satellite Boy (which plays at Toronto on Monday September 10 and Saturday September 15), its protracted progress toward production and the particular challenges she faced while filming it.

Filmmaker: How did you conceive the story of Satellite Boy? Was there a particular experience that inspired you?

McKenzie: Satellite Boy is a love letter to my father. He’s gone now – he’ll never see the film, but I wanted to let him know that I finally understood his process. That he showed his love through action, through cooking for me and looking after me. I was adopted and always wanted to find my birth mother. Perhaps in my quest to find her I rejected, for a time, who he was. Life’s a long journey but I came to understand how vast his love was for me. I came back to him in my heart.

That’s a very personal rendition of part of my inspiration but I was also interested in the idea of tradition and traditions. And the generational gap. The context for that is the notion of country that I speak about later on.

Filmmaker: Your script for Satellite Boy was in the Aurora Development Program in 2006. What were the reasons for the film’s slow journey from page to screen? How do you now look back on the past 6 years?

McKenzie: I had actually written a really good script that was ready to go. Then I threw it out and started again. David Jowsey, the producer, was so patient. He waited for me to write a new script, and I’m glad because I wanted to make a film that was distilled in its essence. Brancusi’s Bird in Flight was my touchstone for Satellite Boy.

When you see Brancusi’s sculpture it needs space to be properly seen and felt. It deserves contemplation. So there’s a spirit to the work that requires proper attention. And that’s the feeling of my film.

In the city, life gets very hectic. There’s this compulsion to move, react – it fragments one’s spirit. But the notion of country from an Aboriginal perspective is that it supports your spirit. It sustains you on a spiritual level, as well as a physical one if you have that understanding. That’s what I was going for.

It also has an echo in narrative structure – there is a compulsion to have violence to propel action, plot points, momentum. I was very interested in exploring a narrative that wasn’t propelled by violence. That’s a challenge because just as in the city we are used to being given things to react to in the cinema. City life echoes narrative energy.

So that’s why I took so long I guess – I was trying to deconstruct the form to get to a more pure story.

Filmmaker: You traveled thousands of miles while looking for your two young leads. Was your exhaustive search because you knew exactly what you wanted, or because you were open to discovery?

McKenzie: I wrote the script then I had to fulfill the vision of that script. The film would not work if I didn’t find the right [person to play] Pete. I didn’t know what he had to look like but I knew he had to have certain emotional qualities for the film to work.

So I knew what I wanted but finding it was perhaps the adventure/discovery. My casting director, Jub Clerc, and I would drive into small communities, talk to the local school, or community centre. Often we’d walk around, stalking young kids on the street. Cameron Wallaby, who was eventually cast as Pete, was playing with Boab nuts on the street outside where we were meant to be casting in Fitzroy Crossing (a remote community), and Jub’s mother nagged him into coming inside to try for an audition. It was often as flukey a process as that.

Casting nonactors is always a risk. You need to be sure yet you can never be sure. But directing is about making decisions and then making that choice work. Ultimately, Cameron had an inner light, a vulnerability that was so wonderful to watch. His spirit was incandescent on screen. I was very lucky to find him.

Filmmaker: Shooting in the Kimberley seems to have been a unique and sometimes very restrictive experience. How important was location to the film? And how much did it ultimately shape what Satellite Boy became?

McKenzie: Satellite Boy is a film about country; about being connected to one’s ancestral place so being in the Kimberley was vital. It is majestic country, wild and untouched by many “modern” things. I remember standing out of the mud flats where we were to build the outdoor cinema. The sun was going down fast and the stars were coming out. For a brief moment, it was black but then the stars came out and I was standing on the edge of the world. I felt free. Like my spirit was free to expand out to the Milky Way constellation. There was a gentle breeze coming across from the river. I felt like I was swimming in space. I never feel like that when I’m in the city. I wanted to capture that quality in the film.

Of course, then my mind remembered that there are huge 5m salt water crocodiles in the river and that I should really get back to the camp ground. But that’s part of the beauty about being in country – you are not at the top of the food chain.

From the beginning, we were immersed in the bush. Our casting process started in Broome, Western Australia. Jub and I packed up our car, threw our swags (canvas sleeping bags) on the roof of the car and started driving across the Kimberley. We camped at the side of the road, lit fires — it was the perfect process for the film, which is about coming to accept that connection to home, country.

We brought Henry Dangar, our editor, up to where we were filming too, so he could feel the rhythm of the place. I believe it’s part of the process to be able to understand the spirit of a place.

And yes, there were difficult times. It is wild and free, and bloody hot and locations are very difficult to get to and we had to sometimes walk equipment into places. Sometimes my mind would rebel and having to carry really heavy objects beyond what I thought I was capable of, but that was all part of the process too. It was a group effort – we all helped. I know how to lay a track
and balance a crane.

Filmmaker: What was it like making the step up from directing TV to making movies? What was the most important thing you learned during that transition?

McKenzie: I’d made 6 short films before I started directing TV so I’d had to readjust to a small screen for that, so going back to the big screen was familiar territory. I’d always shot on film too: super 16 or 35. I never thought I’d film Satellite Boy, a film where the landscape is a huge character, on anything but 35mm. When it came to the crunch, we couldn’t afford to. Luckily, the Arri Alexa had arrived. When rushes started coming in, it was amazing how good the country and the characters looked.

I really loved making my first feature film and I’m now planning my next film, Min Min, a supernatural thriller. I started out as a writer so I’m very comfortable writing my own work. It’s satisfying to be able to create a world from scratch and see it emerge from the rushes into the edit. It allows me a purity and singular vision – a real privilege.

I love the space the cinema canvas gives you, the ability to be so precise and really control the vision. My key words were purity and elegance. We all worked towards that level and I’m proud what we were able to achieve with the film.

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