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The big-screen adaptation of Craig Silvey’s beloved bestseller Jasper Jones is one of the most eagerly anticipated local films of the year. The story has become an Australian classic; the tale of the bookish Charlie Buktin and his unique and moving friendship with Jasper Jones, an indigenous teenager desperate to prove his innocence when a horrible event envelopes an Australian country town in the late 1960s, has earned comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. So all eyes will be on director Rachel Perkins when the film premieres to eager home grown audiences this week. SCREEN-SPACE sat with the director of such acclaimed works as Radiance (1998), One Night the Moon (2001), Bran Nue Dae (2009) and Mabo (2012) to chat about the joys and pressures of doing justice to a yarn that means so much to so many Australians…

SCREEN-SPACE: How did you first become attached to the Jasper Jones adaptation?

RACHEL PERKINS: It had sold over half a million copies and everyone had read it by the time it was recommended to me by my partner. He insisted I read it, which, of course, instantly turned me off it, so it went unread for quite awhile. Then, finally, it was sitting by the bed and I couldn’t get to sleep and next thing, it was 4am and I couldn’t put it done. I immediately knew this would make a great film and that, I must admit, my partner was right and I was wrong. So then I reached out to all the people to try to secure the rights, which, because I had messed about for so long, were gone. So I was resigned to the fact that someone else was going to direct it. But I ultimately outlasted the other filmmakers, persisted so much that I eventually got the gig that allowed me to be part of the adaptation

SCREEN-SPACE: What are the key elements of the narrative that connected with you? What made it a story you wanted to film?

A number of elements combined to make it really attractive to me. It was the murder mystery plotting that was the reason I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to solve it, to see it solved, I love a mystery such as the one in the book. But along the way there is this beautiful dialogue between Charlie Buktin and Jeffery Lu, which is laugh-out-loud hilarious. And then there is this great heart to the story, which provides the sort of cathartic, emotional experience that I love in films. (Pictured, right; stars, l-r, Aaron L. McGrath, Levi Miller and Angourie Rice)

SCREEN-SPACE: It’s traditional small-town, coming-of-age story that employs big themes, weighty issues in Jasper Jones. The scourge of racism, the shadow of Vietnam, the sweeping social change of the late ‘60s setting…

RACHEL PERKINS: Having some underlying meaning or providing some commentary on how we can improve the world has always been a part of my work. It might sound a bit naïve, but I think films can change hearts and minds. This film is about a young guy who, when exposed to the world that the character Jasper Jones inhabits, displays a lovely compassion. I think the great thing about this book and certainly a large part of why I love it so much is that it wasn’t just about those big issues. It transcended the themes of racism, class, sexism and abuse to ultimately become a bigger story about empathy and understanding. Most importantly, it’s a ripping yarn, a terrific piece of entertainment, that doesn’t bash you over the head with issues but weaves them into great storytelling.

SCREEN-SPACE: In addition to established names like Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving and Dan Wyllie, the production secured the young Australian stars Levi Miller and Angourie Rice, both on the cusp of international stardom…

RACHEL PERKINS: You can see why they are international names, fronting big films overseas. They have a greatness about them. They have an intelligence that they bring to their understanding of the characters. They have an emotional truth that they can naturally portray, that they can switch on, which they access in different ways but which they convey beautifully. They are incredibly talented young actors who bring with them the experience of having worked on big films, so they have sophistication and sensitivity. It wasn’t a hard casting process.

SCREEN-SPACE: And you also did the unthinkable and actually welcomed the writer of the book and co-writer (with Shaun Grant) of the screenplay, Craig Silvey, on to the set every day. That flies in the face of the Director’s Rule Book, surely?

RACHEL PERKINS: (Laughs) It never happens, really. Maybe the Coen Brothers but, you know, they’re brothers and Craig and I are quite different, obviously. From a director’s point of view, I’m not intimidated by collaboration, by having someone else say, “That didn’t really work for me,” or “No, that’s not how I imagined it,” or “Really, do you think that’s the right thing to do.” If I’m wrong, and I often am, I’m pleased to be corrected so that it becomes right. Who else to judge that and provide a second opinion but the person who has imagined it all and way before me? Ultimately, the director has the final say on set, so I knew I could always just say, “Hey, I’m the director and I’m doing it this way so just shut up!” (Laughs) But that never happened. Craig was great resource, particularly for the actors, who Craig could talk endlessly to about their characters. We got along great. (Pictured, above: Perkins, left, with Craig Silvey)

JASPER JONES is in Australian cinemas from March 2 from Madman Entertainment.

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