Adapted from the much loved novel by author John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began is now set to be the biggest Australian film of the year. Director Stuart Beattie, actress Phoebe Tonkin and producer Andrew Mason are ready to declare war on the local box office with this action-adventure mini-epic about a military invasion of Australia, and the group of teenagers who fight to stop it.
According to the film’s producer Andrew Mason – who worked on the trilogy of Matrix films – the casting process was quite and extensive one. “It’s hard to find a major start of the right age,” he explains. “Obviously, we weren’t going to pretend that someone who was 25 was in their last year of high school. So once you come back down to the right age group, there’s a very small number of people in the world who have the legitimate movie star status and are under that age so early in the process. Everyone got used to the idea that we wouldn’t be doing this with movie stars. We’d be doing this with the right people for the roles.”
The young actors have mostly come from stage and small screen, with Caitlin Stasey, most recently starring in Neighbours, beating hundreds of other hopefuls to play the strong and determined central character of Ellie. Home and Away’s Lincoln Lewis takes on the role of the sturdy Kevin, and British actress Rachel Hurd-Wood (Dorian Gray, Perfume) plays his on-screen girlfriend, Corrie. Hurd-Wood is the only international actor in the Aussie cast, which also include Chris Pang (The Home Song Stories) in the role of the introspective Lee; theatre actor Deniz Akdeniz as the loud-mouthed Homer; newcomer Ashleigh Cummings as good girl Robyn; and And Ryan (The Jesters) as the group’s rebel, Chris.
One actress that can attest to the long audition process is the final member of the group of eight teenagers, Phoebe Tonkin, who scored the role of Fiona after four callbacks. The young Australian, who is best known for her role in the hit television series H20 – Just Add Water, initially audition for the character of Robyn, but was called back as Fiona, the sweet but pampered princess of the group. “She’s a sweet character to play,” Tonkin says. “She’s very naive, but she’s also incredibly intelligent. It was great to play against the stereotype of the ditzy blonde. I mean, she’s ditzy in the sense that she doesn’t know what two-minute noodles are, and she’s never been camping in her life, but she’s also very aware of what’s going on, of this war and the reason for it. Throughout the film, she has an incredible arc. She starts off being so sheltered and ignorant to everything outside of her little world, and by the end, she’s toting an AK-47 and blowing up bridges.”
The effervescent actress, whose enthusiasm for the project is clear, found Beattie to be a very trusting and open director to work with, giving the actors room to develop their characters as they saw fit. “Stuart gave us license to essentially change his lines, and add or take things away,” she explained. “He encouraged us to speak the way that we thought our characters would speak.” Prior to shooting, Beattie and the cast spent a month in rehearsal, which Tonkin says was more of a way to develop a bond between the cast which would translate believably on screen. “Even in the rehearsal process, we never did a line-read with the whole cast, because Stuart was terrified that all the magic was going to happen sitting at a table at the studio,” she says. “Everything that we did in the rehearsal period was improvisation. The eight of us spent that time becoming best friends and becoming the characters that we were going to play so that when it came to actually filming, it was second nature, as opposed to just rocking up at work with our lines learned and pressing ‘play’ on the camera. When we actually got there on the first day of shooting, in the bush and in our costumes, it really was the first time that we had spoken these lines to each other. That was exciting.”
Shooting commenced last September, largely around The Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Tonkin says that the training period, and the couple of months filming which followed, was one of the most intense experiences that she has had in her lifetime. “We’d have personal training at the gym with the eight of us in the morning, and then we’d have motorcycle practice,” the actress explains. “We were all riding around Fox Studios on motorbikes! It was pretty funny!” she laughs. “Then we’d have gun training. Some of the characters, like Fi, have never really held a gun before, so they didn’t really teach us how to use it, because they obviously want it to look like it’s the first time that we’ve ever held a gun. That said, we still had to go through all the safety elements.” What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the film? “Definitely the hours!” Tonkin exclaims. “We were starting at six at night and essentially going through until seven in the morning…we were all loopy! It was so cold, and waking up at five in the afternoon and eating breakfast at six at night, you mind is just rubbish. You don’t know where you are or what you’d doing, but you’re toting guns and blowing things up. It was a crazy, crazy experience!”
Beattie agrees that being in an action-based film, the shoot was tough going for the actors. “It was a very physical shoot, and it was really quite scary for them, with all those explosions going off around them,” Beattie says. “They all got banged up, and most of them were injured and ended up in the hospital at one time or another. I apologised to them daily, especially when I was going through the edits and watching take after take of poor Cait slamming into the ground, or Lincoln flying through the air. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe that I made do this again and again!'”
The upside to the scare factor was that the reactions Beattie captured on camera were often genuine. “There’s that shot of Lincoln diving into the barn,” he explains. “That was a real reaction! The cast had no idea that the explosion would be that big. Real reactions are the best,” he laughs. Tonkin says that while she was able to avoid any injuries, she did have a couple of alarming experiences on set. “My most traumatizing moment was when a snake came into the middle of one our scenes,” she offers. “Someone started yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’ and I could just see everyone running away, and there was this huge python. It was terrifying!”
Published August 2010
by Cara Nash