Peter Cattaneo for “Opal Dreams”

Nobody was more surprised than British director Peter Cattaneo when his Full Monty became such a universal hit. Choosing to still make films in Britain, Cattaneo’s latest film, Opal Dream, also deals with working class dreams, this time in the Australian outback.

Based on the acclaimed Australian novel Pobby and Dingan, the film is set in the outback opal mining township of Coober Peedy, where the Williamson family reluctantly share their modest cottage with Pobby and Dingan, the two imaginary best friends of their 9 year old daughter Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce). Neither her older brother Ashmol (Christian Byers), their mother Annie (Jacqueline McKenzie) and least of all her dad Rex (Vince Colosimo) have much patience for Kellyanne or her invisible friends, but Rex takes them to the mine one day for an ‘outing’ to humour his daughter.

When he returns that night, having forgotten them, Kellyanne is distraught and persuades Rex to search for them, which is mistaken by their neighbour for ‘ratting’ an adjacent claim and lands Rex in court, not to mention the degrading fury of the entire community. Ill with worry, Kellyanne once more persuades her brother to go on a desperate search for Pobby and Dingan in the collapsed mine, which turns up unexpected results all round. Already a success in Australia, Focus Features is releasing Opal Dream in select cities across America next week. Paul Fischer spoke to its director.

Question: Did you come across the original book or was this offered to you?

Cattaneo: I came across it as a book. I was sent the book by a young producer – Kate Myers, who ended up being one of the associate producers on the film – and didn’t know anything about it. It had this sort of weird name, Pobby and Dingan, and had a cool cover and I just took it away on holiday with me for New Year in 2001. And read it on New Years Day in kind of one sitting and just was totally in love with the story and kind of totally moved by it. Once the holidays were over I rang up and said I want to make this my next film. So then I met Ben Rice the novelist and persuaded him that I was the guy that was going to make it. I found out that people are very interested in the book because it’s such a great story but they were mostly kind of production companies. I was the only director that just said I’ll meet you at a coffee bar and we’ll just talk about your story and guaranteed him that I would make it my next movie. So off we went.

Question: Now how does a guy from London identify with the setting of this, or was it hard for you to do that?

Cattaneo: I mean obviously one looks for the universals in any story and it was the kind of universal themes of dreams and the imagination, the power of the imagination, and just the basic kind of family structure that goes across all cultures really. So, no, I mean I just actually identified with the little kid Ashmol, because he’s just beautifully written kind of an imaginative, pretty average little kid, a kind of survivor but not a kid that’s uniquely Australian. And I actually thought, wow, in a way if you were 11 it would be kind of brilliant to grow up somewhere like Coober Pedy or Lightning Ridge because I can just imagine, it’s kind of like a big playground, with that space. And when I went to those places and I met people they all talked about their childhood, so some of the stuff in this movie comes from like sledging all comes from actually talking to people who grew up in those areas.

Question: Now at which point did you decide to make the trip to Coober Pedy? Was it as you were doing the screenplay or was it during early, early discussions with the author?

Cattaneo: It was once we got started on the script. It was ‘get over there’, so we had sort of started a script, went over there and then came back and carried on writing and then went over again.

Question: Does being an outsider give you a very unique perspective on telling this story?

Cattaneo: I think maybe in a way… there were certain details I saw. I mean obviously I had an Australian crew, I was always going to use Australian DOP, Australian production designer, and I was determined not to do what I had seen before really onscreen, the kind Fosters image. And as soon as I said that the production designers were like thank god, we want to just give it its own look and its own sense of reality, so they kind of looked around and used that weird environment as inspiration.

Question: What about casting this and being relatively unfamiliar I would imagine with Australian actors, but, you cast it perfectly. Was it a difficult picture to cast?

Cattaneo: Well we had a great casting director, Nikki Barrett, who is Sydney based and casts a lot of great movies. So immediately we were in touch with her early on just kind of like send me tapes, what movies should I see – and of course one does see the best of Australia in exports like Lantana which Vince is in, . I was just doing that anyway, you know. And it was great. It’s like anywhere, you get the best movies like that, which kind of crossover and are remembered well.

Question: There seems to be some interesting parallels between this film and The Full Monty in that both movies deal with a working class environment, the dreams that these working class guys have. Was that truly a subconscious thing or are these things of interest to you?

Cattaneo: They obviously are of interest as they’re both projects that I’ve chosen. As I said, there was a completely intuitive ‘calling’ almost to make… you know, when I read that book I just thought I want to do it, I didn’t kind of think about it. And I mean I’ve always felt that Full Monty and Lucky Break could be seen as too similar, but I thought it was completely different but I guess in the end there are certain similarities.

Question: Let’s briefly talk about Monty and its impact on you. You didn’t really get… set out to Hollywoodize your success after The Full Monty’s huge success, was that intentional?

Cattaneo: It was 90% for personal reasons that I didn’t Hollywoodize myself. It was to do with the fact that I had a brand new baby and then ‘babies’ in London, and my father was ill – there was just stuff going on that made it actually impossible for me to immigrate basically at that point. So that just cut that option out in a way and I wasn’t going to get that kind of success but suddenly relationships with family just blow up because people just go, whoa, I’m going to go do something completely different. And there wasn’t really an option for me and that’s probably a good thing because then I could concentrate on projects and stories that I liked and more personal stuff. I had a sort of interesting feeling that it would be good just to make a couple of films which aren’t necessarily massive movies but which I really loved the stories.

Question: Is Hollywood still knocking on your door?

Cattaneo: I’ve been spending a bit of time over there recently and it’s been good, so I think that’s what I’m going to do next is a Hollywood movie now that things have settled down a bit at home and I can feel like it’s a bit more of a sane atmosphere to work in Hollywood, because the heat was just almost kind of too much at the time of The Full Monty.

Question: It was clear why Americans reacted the way they did to Monty. Do you think that a film like Opal Dream will have the same impact on America?

Cattaneo: It’s going to be even bigger… No, I don’t know, because no one takes their clothes off.

Question: So what are you doing next?

Cattaneo: Well I’m developing a couple of movies here in London and then I’m also working on some movies in L.A., so I think the next one chances are will be a Hollywood movie/