Very rarely does the opportunity to tell a big, bold, story like GARDENS OF WAR come along. Especially a story set in the fictions highlands of the Wegan Islands. When an adventure like this beckons, it’s hard not to heed it’s call.
Gardens of War is an escapist drama and survivalist thriller rolled into one. It employs the classic Hero’s Journey structure, and places a strong, female protagonist at its core.
Essentially, it is a story about an Australian TV producer, BUNNIE BLACKWELL, trying to discover the story of her late father’s life, and how it ended. But when the lives of her crew and the people of the Valley are put on the line, Bunnie will come to learn that not all stories are worth telling.
Inspired by producer Bill Leimbach’s career spent documenting some of the most remote cultures and places in the world, the script has evolved in collaboration with myself and Reg Cribb. For me, a script is an everevolving blue print and I am excited to see how it can be transformed once again through creative collaboration with cast, HODs and Vanuatu creative consultants alike.
Setting the film in the 1980s not only gifts us the opportunity to tap into a nostalgic era of music, costume and design, but it also elevates the stakes for our characters.
Without the trappings of modern technology, our characters can become instantly, and more believably, isolated the second they arrive in the Yopa Valley, adding at once to both the drama and the danger.
This era also creates a poetic duality within the story world. The 1980s were defined by greed, shoulder pads, big business and even bigger hair. All of which Bunnie subscribes to when we first meet her in the ordinary world. But when Bunnie crosses the threshold and lands in the remote Yopa Valley, she could not be further from everything she knows. This creates the perfect ‘fish out of water’ scenario to put Bunnie to the ultimate tests. To discover her father, her past, the kind of filmmaker she wants to be, and ultimately, to discover herself.
This duality is echoed through many facets of the story and this theme is constant. The pairing of two opposites is further reflected in various character dynamics, ie. Wahme and Blackwell, Jay and Clive, Benjamin and Weyak, George and Sanggai. This duality mirrors Bunnie’s own character paradox, reflecting the duality within herself, and the very thing she must wrestle with by films’ end.
This is a story with a strong female protagonist and it is told from her unique perspective. Bunnie’s wit, her inner strength and her determination despite all obstacles is commendable. But for me, it is her willingness to sacrifice her own work, her own film, for the lives of others. This is what makes her a true hero.
Bunnie sets out to make a film to save her career, her bank account and her life. But ultimately she must give it all up to save the people of the Yopa Valley. It is Bunnie’s dilemma and discovery of self that will elevate the story from the personal to the universal.
Visually, Gardens of War, will combine that classic 1980’s filmic look with the modern cinematic wonder of widescreen. Through this added layer of duality, we will capture the essence and beauty of Vanuatu - the old and the new - in every frame. Contrasting the stunning natural landscape of the place with the - at times - ugly actions of the people stuck within it. We will further explore our theme of duality through framing as we look to find the poetry of these two worlds colliding.
This story world is a place typically reserved for explorers, and for men. But Bunnie is our portal into this world and through her, we will come to experience this usual gritty world, with colour, joy and sublime detail.
Having a film made within a film creates a unique opportunity to experiment with POV at various points of the film. It allows for stylistic choices and creativity around the choice of when and how to contrast, and at others time blur, what is being filmed of the characters and what is being filmed by the characters.
Movement and energy of the frame and camera will be integral to track Bunnie’s journey across three acts, and to keep the action and stakes at an all time high. Smooth, controlled and sleek camera movements will carry us through act one as we are bound by the trappings of Bunnie's ordinary world.
But as we venture into act two, our camera’s approach and movement will shift to adapt to its new and vast surroundings, and by act three, hand-held, frenetic framing and movement will keep us guessing at every turn, as our characters must fight for their lives.
Bunnie’s dreams and imaginings play out as ‘hauntings’, at times shifting back and forth among memories in the protagonist’s life. Care must be taken to ensure these flashes are not clunky, and intrusive, but instead propel the stakes and the story forward.
Costume Design will be vital to track Bunnie’s transformation across the story, as her key turning points are reflected by her ever changing, and often diminishing, costume. Bunnie’s costume will mirror her journey, as the layers of both are peeled back as she discovers her past, her father, and her true self. By film’s end Bunnie will have journeyed 180 degrees from where she started, with not a shoulder pad in sight.
To further immerse our audience in this world, the score will utilise the inherent sound scape of Vanuatu. Together with the talents of Australian band, Lime Cordiale, I imagine a minimal yet emotionally-charged soundtrack.
The success of films like Netflix’s Unorthodox, weaved fiction and reality, but always drew on the truthful human portrayals of each and every character. In doing so, they created a full world, giving each character, and each culture a full and deep sense of identity. This is something Gardens of War should aspire to.
Working with local Vanuatu cast, crew and creative consultants is an exciting prospect and will be vital to telling this story. Having authentic Vanuatu voices guiding the creative across production design, set builds, language, culture, costume, etc will be pivotal in creating an authentic experience for both our cast and audience alike.
Vanuatu itself will be an ever-present character in the story, and it is a remarkable opportunity to be able to tell this story in Vanuatu, and to celebrate the beauty and talent within Vanuatu to an international audience. We will be sure to pack plenty of excitement and splendour into each frame as we showcase the rich visual and cultural tapestry of Vanuatu.
It is an honour to have worked on the project to date with such experienced practitioners like Bill Leimbach and Bill Mullham. I anticipate the crew and cast will be a great and varied mix of experience and I have faith in this team to bring this vision to life.