Rob Sitch for “The Dish”

While The Dish may be the second feature from that irreverent Working Dog mob that brought us the smash Aussie film The Castle, it was always intended to be the first. Working Dog’s Rob Sitch, who directed both films, explains to Paul Fischer, following the film’s premiere screening at the recent Toronto Film Festival.

The Dish may have been receiving enormous buzz as this year’s recent Toronto Film Festival was nearing its weary end, but Rob Sitch, was by no means complacent. “I’m just grateful that people are talking about this little Aussie movie”, Sitch explains as we chat in his Toronto hotel. It was Sitch’s The Castle that unexpectedly took Australia by storm, but it was always The Dish that Sitch and his Working Dog pals wanted to do from the outset.

It was to be an ambitious undertaking for the group’s feature debut. “I think just about every filmmaker in Australia tells the same story, that it takes forever to get something made. Legitimately, people have doubts if you’ve never made a film, and every aspect of this film was US, from direction and writing, through to casting. I think people added up all the doubts and kept pulling back from it.” The Dish was put on hold, and Working Dog merely decided to do something on a smaller scale. Hence The Castle came out of that mood. “We simply decided to back ourselves but to a very small budget. I don’t think we had any grand plans for it at the time, but we got a release and it was a fairytale from there.”

That fairytale grew in leaps and bounds, to the point where at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, the film was sold to US distributor Miramax for a reported $US10m. Though the film came and went in the US all too quickly, Sitch has no regrets. “We were just amazed that the film even got to play at Sundance and gratified that audiences got the film. Getting them into the cinema was tough, but then the competition was enormously tough. What Miramax should have done, was released the film on the strength of its buzz. I know that when I hear about a movie, I want to see it straight away.” Sitch denies that he went to Sundance with his eyes not so open. “I think our eyes were pretty much open, as they are here, but The Dish is a different film anyhow and we’ll sell it accordingly.”

The success of The Castle has enabled Sitch and his team to again self-fund their second feature, which ultimately evolved into The Dish. The film is set in Australia in 1969, and tells of a satellite dish installation in the Australian country town of Parkes, that monitored the Apollo program, as the date of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing approaches. The film’s genesis began, Sitch recalls, “when [Working Dog’s] Tom Gleisner remembered that whole incident. It then came out of a meeting we had one day and he said that he had two ideas for a film: One was about a dog show and then he said: Did you know that Australia was involved in the Apollo moon landing? So four years later, here we are at Toronto and there’s an American dog show film here and our film. Isn’t it great we chose the latter?”

Part of the process of making The Dish, adds Sitch, was the pure joy that he had in researching the material. “Researching the moon shot was one of the best things I’d ever done. I still hadn’t gotten to the bottom of why it had affected me so much. So we got the full seven days of transmissions between Houston and Apollo 11, and I used to listen them on my Walkman. The hairs on the back of my neck would stand up for the way they treated each other. These were people at the extremes of human endeavour, and there wasn’t a cross word spoken.” So while the film may appear somewhat fantastical at times, Sitch insists that the film is far more real than people might realise. “There’s a lot of reality in this,” but is coy about revealing much more than that. “I’m always wary about discussing what is and what isn’t; I don’t mind revealing the magic trick at the end but prior to people seeing it, I’m nervous. I think people will ultimately be surprised and the central idea is correct, in that every picture people saw of the moon landing came from Australia. Did they have great difficulties? Sure, they did”.

Sitch utilised the resources of NASA to incorporate the moon landing footage which the film makers used in the film, and Sitch recalls how co-operative NASA was. “The north Americans are pretty polite”, Sitch adds laughingly.

Sitch of course is best known for his on-camera work, from the D-Generation through to Frontline. Yet in his big-screen outings, the director resisted the chance to also star. Not necessarily by design, as he explains. “Both times we both wrote scripts and went: Hey, there’s no parts in this for us! I think if there’d been a part in it we would have done it, but in the end of the day, there’s a good vibe about writing a part and being separate from it and getting an actor to come in and play it. There’s something about that collaboration that helps too. People come into it fully fresh as well.” He did get Sam Neill to deliver one of his finest performances, though, as the leader of the Parkes crew. “I just think he did a super job. I knew when we were making it that with every take, he was able to just render that character perfectly.”

While Working Dog has often been associated with presenting a cynical view of Australian society in their television work, audiences may be surprised, as they were with elements of The Castle, as to how human and heartfelt The Dish is. Sitch was able to gel both elements but is not surprised that he could pull that off. “Modern comedy looks at the way things are and how do they work? So I think cynicism without substance or understanding is just smart arse, but cynicism on the basis of understanding something and understanding the truth of something is the opposite. People say things are funny because they’re true; I also think things are heartfelt and heart-warming because they’re true.”

There is no doubt that the buzz, which began in Toronto, will continue leading up to the film’s Aussie premiere. By the way, only three days after its Toronto screening, the film was voted the Festival’s second most popular film. For Working Dog, does this mean another hit? Based on reaction at Toronto and beyond, it is very likely indeed.