A little island played a big part in this film.
The decision to film on Coochiemudlo Island happened when I returned to Redlands QLD where I’d grown up, to spend time with Dad. I put my things in storage in Sydney in February 2011 – where they still are – and went to camp in the bedroom of the house I’d lived in as a child. It was special – the house hadn’t changed. My handprints were still on the walls from my childhood. I’d just directed The Salt Maiden for Short+Sweet, a short play festival in Sydney that ran over 7 weeks. Donna cut her ABC Radio National produced and award-winning play down to 10 minutes for the festival, not an easy task. She’d written her beautiful story 10 years before while living on the small unique island of Moreton Bay in the south east of the state, where she’s still considered part of the community. When directing the play, memories of the island I’d visited as a child haunted me. This island you can walk across in 10 minutes; where people live, work and breathe paradise; where I’d sometimes fled my suburban mainland childhood to gaze at the endless ocean horizon and to dream of timeless possibilities, called to me every time I watched the play being performed. On my return to my childhood home, it was inevitable that I would return to that special place. And when I stepped off the boat, I knew it was where the film should be made.
But how? I spent the first several visits alone, on the beach, in the mangroves, walking on the low tide of rocks and tangled roots. I stayed back late sitting on the beach alone in the dark, listening, silently conversing with curlews who crept in close. One rainy dark night, I made the trek up the hill to the hall and spoke to a handful of locals at the Progress Association meeting. I told them I wanted to bring the story back home and make the film there. At that stage we didn’t know how long it’d be, or how long it would take to make.
After that, resident and local electrician David Morgan stepped forward. When he contacted me even the locals barely knew of his past career in film. He’d started out assisting on the David Elphick and Phil Noyce production of Newsfront (1978), did lighting special effects on The Chain Reaction (1980), then lighting special effects/ come set electrician on Starstruck (1982). In the mid 90’s he was the sailing trainer, boat handler, & stunt coordinator for the Flipper TV Series (1995) with Village Roadshow. He welcomed us primarily to participate in a creative project, that would benefit both the island community and the film’s interests on a win win basis using some of his skills. He knew of Donna’s work which he regarded highly. He says he’s had a “very full and rewarding time working on The Salt Maiden and now I’m up for more”.
I was completely blessed to find him. He was our island liaison, locations manager and boat wrangler. He became my island collaborator and support. David is also an artist. His painting The Salt Maiden was inspired by the film. It sits proudly on his wall but might be up for sale if you’re interested.
Over the period of a year during screenplay development and pre-production, I got to know the island and they got to know me. I needed to understand things like the way tides, weather and boats worked. At low tide everything stops. When it’s windy, you don’t go out in a boat. When there’s a blackout, like during our behind the scenes screening recently, you light candles and wait. Donna had lived there for 8 years so she already knew all this.
Talented filmmaker and the film’s director of photography, Randall also has his own interesting childhood story about the island. Some friends Donna and I used to visit on “Coochie” as teenagers, lived in a house owned by Randall’s parents – but I didn’t meet Randall until 2010 in Sydney, when he was making a reality TV show – of us! One episode was of a play I was directing Renee in. We found out we had mutual love for the island in QLD when we became facebook friends and saw we had friends in common – the same people Donna and I used to visit as a child. The world is very small – it goes on. I had actually been to Randall’s parent’s farm near Brisbane when I was a teenager, to attend the wedding of my friend (yes, the one who lived on the island) but I don’t think I met Randall then.
And then another funny childhood connection emerged during pre-production with an actual ferryman on the mainland to island run. Turns out Craig who had lived down the road from me in the suburbs during my childhood who was mates with my brother, was now a ferry driver. I remembered he’d wanted to be a chef but he gave that up to drive ferries and buy a house on the island to live an idyllic life on the the bay. Coochie Magic.
Gary Blackburn, the local Coochiemudlo Island Ferry Service owner, generously donated a ferry to the project and was our ever-patient driver. The drivers and locals had to cope with weekly dog rehearsals on the ferry. Poor Akka hated the ferry, he’d whine the entire time he set foot on it. Steve Wallis also generously donated his barge and driver for the film. Driver John had to wave in four different directions with a cockatoo climbing up his arm. Locals gave us access to their houses; the cast and crew were generously billeted by locals. Our caterer Gwen, donated her entire week of time to feeding us. Local Cr Lance Hewlett took the project on board and was supportive in helping us achieve sponsorship from Redland City Council. During the crowdfund campaign locals financially donated to the fund, and many more donated who had childhood links to the island including our major sponsor Robert Neilson who, like me, spent many early years sailing in the bay.
Keith Virtue an artist and structural and mechanical draftsman in construction, manufacturing and engineering who is currently working on 3D CAD modelling of offshore marine structures donated to the film. Keith lives in Brisbane but his connection to Coochie “goes back to about 1975 when my Aunt Uncle & Cousins bought a holiday house there. I was just 12 years old and got some early tastes of sailing and Moreton Bay. The interest in sailing and the bay increased in the late 80s when I bought my first boat and continues to this day. I still keep my boat down at Redland Bay and sail regularly around the Coochie area and still have friends on the island. I sponsored The Salt Maiden because my cousin’s wife Liz put me on to the Coochie Facebook Group. I saw the teaser… it was so well done I just wanted to see more and connect with more creative people who love the island and the bay area as much as I do.”
Since that first meeting, the Progress Association has been a great support to the project and donated over $1000 to The Salt Maiden. Secretary Peter Wear said they were “very happy to help The Salt Maiden on her journey from stage to screen. Making our donation was an easy call. Coochiemudlo Island has long nurtured and inspired writers, painters, potters, photographers, weavers and workers in many other arts and crafts. We’re proud of our role our island and it’s seascape played in the story’s creation and commend Beverley’s decision to set her film in the place The Salt Maiden was born. We think, too, of the island kids who got to see that films can be made in our own backyards; films that tell our stories. We’ve been richly repaid already, the contribution we made to that experience.”
Croc is a local island resident and substantially donated to The Salt Maiden, as well as graciously giving his time transporting lights and equipment to and from Brisbane during the shoot. It’s his cockatoo that appears in the film and so does he. I turned around – and there he was in front of the camera. His connection to the arts has been to showcase various talented people. He produced a multicultural event on Coochie, as well as promotes several bands to play there. He’s been a volunteer at Woodford for 5 years and was a ‘roady’ for a band called Walisuma de los Andes for 10 years prior to that. He says he’s a “frustrated musician and an award winning poet. I get my kicks out of seeing talented people achieve their dreams and it gives me great pleasure that I have the means to help. The moment I saw ‘The Salt Maiden’ I knew it was a valuable piece of art.”
~Beverley Callow director producer