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From a memorable character part in Steven Vidler’s Blackrock, George Basha has graduated to tough-guy, leading man status. Somewhat uniquely for Australia’s relatively small industry, those roles have materialized through Basha’s own multi-faceted talent and determination. He scripted his leading-man debut in 2009’s The Combination, in which he explored class issues, race relations, crime and violence with an incisive clarity; his latest, Convict, which he co-directed with actor David Field, revisits those themes with a stark honesty. Basha spoke to SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the film’s release…

Basha (pictured, above; bottom right) plays Ray Francis, a returned serviceman who finds himself imprisoned after defending the honour of his fiancée (Millie Rose Heywood). His incarceration is a particularly harsh one; he becomes the focus of merciless warden (David Field) and finds himself a pawn in the brutal politics of life on the inside.

The character asked a lot of the actor, who wrote the part with a strong moral core so as the conflict generated within the deeply immoral world of prison life was tangible. Also of importance was the strong physicality needed to survive inside.  “I did a lot of research in regards to my role in this film,” says Basha. “I was able to prepare not only my character but my body for the vigorous action sequences I put my body through during the shoot.”

That dedication to realism extended to the films location shoot. Situated in the heart of Sydney’s western suburbs is the iconic Parramatta Gaol, a landmark dating back to the convict era and which operated as a correctional facility until as recently as 2011. “When I wrote the script, the location was always Parramatta prison,” says the director, who was convinced after taking a walking tour of the abandoned site. “I loved the sandstone and most importantly it was the oldest prison in the country which was built by convicts. It wasn't easy getting the prison; I had to really reach out to all my contacts (but) finally we got the green light.”

The producer’s layered the film with as many factual elements as possible, both to help infuse the tone of the film and to capture the terrifying experience of incarceration. Says Basha, “Convict brings the element of a more modern look to the prison life of today. We brought in some real cons to give us the authenticity that I believe a film like this needs. A real ex con will look, walk and talk like an ex con.”

Australian cinema has reflected the nation’s penal colony roots with some of international cinemas harshest depictions of jail life (Stir; Hoodwinked; Ghosts of the Civil Dead; Chopper). Basha is convinced it is time for a fresh look at life on the inside. “This film has more to offer than just another prison film. It has been years since a tough prison film was made in this country,” he says. “It also takes you into the gang elements of the prisons these days and hits out at race issues.”

Basha partnered on his directing debut with one of the country’s most respected industry veterans, David Field, who made his film debut in John Hillcoat’s 1988 prison-set classic, Ghosts of the Civil Dead. Having met on the set of Blackrock, the pair developed a close mateship and a strong professional bond; Field directed Basha’s 2009 script, The Combination.

“We have a great friendship, but when the cameras roll it’s about making a great film,” Basha recalls of the on-set dynamic he shared with Field (pictured, right). “He really will get the best out of you (but) in the nicest possible way. Anyone that's worked with David Field knows how passionate he is as a filmmaker. Whether David or I were directing, it didn't make a difference because we think so much alike.”

George Basha can’t place too high a value on the learning experience that was The Combination. The film earned critical praise and turned a tidy profit; the success the film enjoyed helped Basha secure a sizable Aus$2.5million budget for Convict. “From the acting and directing to the production side of film making, I learned a lot from The Combination,” he recalls. “For Convict, I was able to prepare and (not) make the mistakes I made. I always knew what I wanted as a director. It made it easier because I also wrote the screenplay. I believe you grow as an actor and director with each film you make.”

Convict will have its World Premiere at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre on Monday January 20. Tickets available here. A limited national release will follow; check local press for details.

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