I really value that experience of being able to not think my bullshit was the most important thing and actually get through it with someone else who looked up to me.
Colin Thiele’s classic 1963 children’s book, Storm Boy, has plucked the heartstrings of Australians ever since it was released in 1964. Meanwhile, Henri Safran’s 1976 film adaptation has proven to be no less enduring. If you grew up in the land Down Under, you most likely know the story: Mike “Storm Boy” Kingley lives in an isolated shack in South Australia’s Coorong region with his widowed fisherman father, Hideaway Tom, and their inscrutable Indigenous neighbor, Fingerbone Bill. With Bill’s help, Mike rescues three orphaned pelican chicks after a group of hunters kill their mother. The boy names his most frail feathered friend Mr. Percival—a gregarious bird, preferring to point his long schnoz in the direction of people rather than the water—who not only becomes Mike’s constant companion but an unlikely savior in times of trouble. This time-tested tale of a boy and his pelican best friend has captured the cultural imagination of Aussies for generations.
Now comes Shawn Seet’s beautifully lensed film—the coastal stretch of South Australia’s Coorong National Park with its sand dunes, beaches, and strong sunsets is stunning to look at—is a reimagining of that same tale Thiele originally conjured up. Most significantly, Seet chooses to bookend his adaptation with contemporary-set scenes in which an adult Michael Kingley (Geoffrey Rush) is grappling with his memories of growing up as titular Storm Boy (Finn Little) in the 1950s. This framing device allows the film to flash back and forth as present-day Michael relates the tale of his childhood living with his father (Jai Courtney) to his granddaughter, Maddie (Morgan’s Davies). Michael is now a board director whose family company is about to vote on a proposal to lease land in the remote Pilabra region to a mining company. Among those opposing the move is Maddie, an impassioned environmentalist, whose presence imbues the film with an urgency.
Aussie star Courtney, who has been fielding questions about his confirmed involvement in both Suicide Squad and Alita: Battle Angel sequels lately, sat down with Anthem to discuss Storm Boy.
Storm Boy is now playing in select theaters.
I really enjoyed learning about Storm Boy’s enduring legacy after watching your film. It’s so rare that a story stands the test of time like this. It’s like the holy grail of storytelling.
Yeah, I think it’s just because of the universal themes that tie this thing together that something like this can survive that long and still have relevance and still be such a compelling story. To speak to that, it’s still on the learning syllabus in some schools in Australia, even after some 60 years almost since it was published, which is pretty cool.
At what point does this story sort of come into the consciousness of somebody who’s from Australia? You mentioned that it’s part of the school curriculum in some cases, but when did it happen for you?
That’s a good question. It was probably around the time I was 10 years old that I read the book in school. There was a film adaptation made in the 70s, in 1976. It was the kind of thing a teacher would put on at mid-term and you’d watch it. It’s because we all knew the books as well and one of those things where it went hand in hand. I think it’s around that time that it sort of gets imprinted in the memory of a lot of young Australians and you kinda carry it with you, you know? My mom happened to be a teacher and she always had a strong connection to the material. It’s only because she taught it seven times that she loved this bird, and as a result, that was always a part of my upbringing kind of knowing about that. It’s for that reason I was so delighted to get a chance to come and be part of this modern adaptation.
I haven’t read the novella, so I do wonder how fleshed out the Hideaway Tom character is in the book and also if he’s portrayed differently than in your movie.
It’s all there. I mean, it doesn’t differ too much. To speak to that, I think our adaptation is kind of more closely developed around the book than it being a remake of the film. So those elements are all true. It comes across as a little more as it does in the book. A lot of people had that memory of him being kind of mean and I don’t think that was ever the case. I think that’s an interpretation of the way he dealt with his emotions and how locked up this man was through his grief. That’s a lot of the wonder in the story of the original, which is about the boy living in his isolation. I kinda wanted to warm him up a little bit. Even Finn [Little], who plays Storm Boy in our film, had his own idea around what Hideaway was and how he related to his boy. It was funny because Finn was 11 at the time of filming and I had remembered having that kind of response to it at his age as well. Finn was able to kind of sum it up to say, “Well, Hideaway is kind of a mean dad.” That was interesting to me because I think that, through the lens of a child, it can seem that way. But somewhat approaching it as an adult, there’s a little more thought and consideration going into how that might come across versus how it really was. Of course, he’s not a mean father. We’re also talking about someone from a different time. So it was fun to kind of develop that and figure out what that meant.
Your Hideaway definitely exudes a contained and subdued disposition. He speaks in short, noncommittal sentences. But then you get this incredible line in the movie where Hideaway says to Fingerbone by the campfire, “Sometimes I think it’s better not to have anyone to care about. Then you don’t get hurt.” He’s suddenly so revealing in that moment.
It’s exactly that, which is the thing about him. He had so much going on under the surface. He’s grieving. He’s a grieving father, and he loved his boy. The whole reason they’re out there on this isolated peninsula was a response to sort of protect young Michael. That’s why he took him there. It was to run away, to get away from everything he couldn’t withstand. That’s what’s so remarkable about having the bird come into their lives. It shifts his perspective, too, and he grows from that as well. We don’t have all the answers, but he comes to realize that being in this sheltered, isolated existence isn’t actually gonna help his boy go into a rounded human being either and he needs to allow the injustices of the world to be a part of his life to impact him.
Shawn’s movie re-frames the story to include Geoffrey Rush’s character as grown-up Michael. I really felt that that colors your character Tom in new ways as well. This is a really specific example, but with the parallel between adult Michael’s drinking echoing Tom’s drinking, I couldn’t help but think that might’ve been passed onto him. How did you interpret that?
I think it’s awesome that you pick up on that theme. I think those things are always open to interpretation that way. I mean, I can’t speak to Geoffrey’s process with it at all, but I’m sure Justin Monjo, who wrote the script, was thinking about all the things that would tie it together. Because you have to, you know? It was interesting because we didn’t shoot those two time frames simultaneously. We did almost everything that was the flashback or the original story and then we wrapped that part of the movie and then Finn and I left, and Geoffrey and Morgana [Davies] took over. So it’s kind of weird. It was so amazing to see it come together because it was stuff we weren’t around for. But yeah, I do think that’s a lovely connective tissue between those two timelines. If you’re gonna do something like that with a modern classic, with the drinking, you do question the motives. But I was blown away when I read the script. I thought it was a beautiful script. I thought that the way they wove that in was actually really nice. It didn’t sacrifice or compromise any of the original narrative or what type of guy he was. I think Justin handled it really nicely.
You were saying earlier how Finn was just 11 years old when you shot this. When you’re working with someone young like that, do you inadvertently put yourself in their shoes and reflect on what it was like for you at that age?
Well, I didn’t get into it at that young of an age, certainly not in any professional sense and not in any TV or film realm at all. I was involved in acting a little bit, but it was really through school, through drama class, and through extracurricular stuff. I was starting to love it around that age and did a little more of it, but it was always in theater. It’s wonderful when you see a kid like Finn, who’s got his head screwed on and loving his work so much, you know? He does his work on the script and he makes choices. It’s kinda remarkable to see because he’s such a clever young dude. He really cares about putting in the best effort he can and trying to take that direction and having to always think about how he feels about the character and how that relates to the story. So yeah, man, I was in awe a lot of the time. It was cool to adjust my own process to tailor for that as well. I hadn’t played a father on screen where I had to have such an intimate relationship with a child. You realize it’s time to step up and you have to lead in a way that feels really organic and plays into that relationship on screen as well. It was really interesting because my scene partner in 90% of the movie is an 11-year-old boy, and it does change the process and it changes the way you look at things. You shed your own ego immediately because it’s about helping someone else through the process as well. He hadn’t taken on anything of this magnitude. He’s gone on now to continue working and we’re gonna be seeing a lot of Finn in the future. But yeah, it was actually really special. I really value that experience of being able to not think my bullshit was the most important thing and actually get through it with someone else who looked up to me. It was really invaluable.
You of course involved real pelicans on this shoot, but I read somewhere that you used an animatronic as well. Is that true?
Animatronic is a pretty dramatic word for what they had. It wasn’t really an animatronic. There was one pelican that was a little more of a, for want of a better word, puppet, I guess. It was an amazing replica of the bird. We didn’t really use it in entire live-action settings. It was just sometimes if they needed the bird to be in a really intimate space with Finn. So if it was on his close-ups, all you’re getting is a bit of wing and some feathers of a… [Laughs] replica of the bird. Aside from that, 95% of the time, there were amazing, live, winged creatures. We had an incredible team of handlers and they were able to read them, actually. They were there all the time to help the birds be part of the experience. I found that just amazing. I thought coming into this that, in this day and age, there’s no way they’d attempt to do it like that. With the computer-generated stuff being so great these days, we just kinda do that, but they had other plans and it shows. The relationship between him and the birds is real.
I was surprised that there’s a tie-in Storm Boy video game that was released last year.
Did you not know?
[Laughs] This is the first I’ve heard of it. Wow, I don’t know anything about that.
I bring up that video game because it really speaks to the kind of legacy that Colin Thiele left behind, which has become so much bigger than himself. As an actor with ambitions of your own and the amazing career that you’ve carved out for yourself already, how often do you think about your legacy and what you’d like to leave behind?
That’s interesting. I don’t think about it too much in a practical sense, probably because I’m not even getting comfortable with the fact that I’m starting to age now and like fall apart, but I guess subconsciously I’m thinking about that because I care about the decisions I make. I mean, I guess you could use that word “legacy.” I guess, yeah, in some sense. But it’s tricky, man! I mean, it’s a tricky business to be hyperaware of that. I get hungry really quickly. I wanna work on everything. Sometimes you get attached to ideas that don’t lead anywhere or aren’t kind of feeding into the picture you wanna leave behind. But that’s interesting. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll start to be more conscious about that.
Jai, you’re only 33.
I know. [Laughs] It’s all good! I have a couple grey hairs on my chin, man.
I won’t ask you about Suicide Squad 2 or Alita 2. That’s a conversation stopper, right?
There’s just nothing I can say.
I was interviewing one of the cast members of Game of Thrones yesterday since the final season is about to air. He was just so afraid to say anything, for good reason. There was actually a representative from HBO overseeing our conversation. So my question for you is, from your own personal experience or from having heard things, what are the severe repercussions in the industry if an actor goes rogue or unintentionally lets something slip about a secretive project they’re on?
Honestly, you probably just get a little scolded and you might get a call from someone higher up the chain who’s a little displeased. But I’ve never heard of anyone really facing any deep consequences. I think it’s about trying to respect the people that have poured their heart and soul into this thing. These days, with social media and the Internet being the way they are, it’s really hard to keep people surprised. I don’t know, man. It’s a balance. Sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes it’s good to let the fans in and have them know a thing or two. It keeps them interested, you know? Look—the only time that I’ve ever really struggled with it was when I was talking about my preparation for [Captain] Boomerang [on Suicide Squad] the first time around. I was misquoted. I said some stuff and my director was like, “Did you tell someone you do drugs for your preparation?” I was like, “Mannnn.” You know how it is, you’re on the other end as well. Sometimes they sound like a scoop. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you can translate it into something, but I just think it’s about trying to be switched on and not get too sensitive. Sometimes you sign NDAs and, if you say too much, there could be legal repercussions. I’ve never heard of that happening to anyone and, god forbid, it doesn’t happen to me one day. We just gotta try and keep it as hush-hush as we can.