At a club in her native Darwin with her closest friends, Lauren (Miranda Tapsell) can’t help but dance when Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” comes over the loud speaker in “Top End Wedding,” despite the fact that she’s called off a wedding with her boyfriend Ned (Gwilym Lee) only hours before. While she’s able to blow off some steam pop-and-locking with her girls the way she did as a teen, the hook “Love Will Never Do Without You” would seem to hang in the air well after the song stops playing as Lauren clearly misses Ned and her father Trevor (Huw Higginson) pines after her mother Daffy (Ursula Yovich), who’s mysteriously left town right before her planned nuptials, which is what led her to cancel her to cancel them.
Lauren has no idea just how much hot-stepping she’s about to do, but she never stops dancing in her reunion with “The Sapphires” director Wayne Blair, delivering another rousing crowdpleaser with “Top End Wedding” which sees Lauren and Ned reunite to hopscotch across Australia’s Northern Territory to find Daffy, otherwise their wedding won’t seem complete. In doing so, Tapsell and Blair offer up a gorgeous travelogue of places such as the red rocks of Kakadu and the serene waters of the Katherine Gorge, home to indigenous Australians whose beautiful cultural commune with nature is on full display. So too are the comic talents of Tapsell and Lee, a perfectly matched pair despite their characters’ occasional uncertainties about each other, as well as Kerry Fox, who steals scenes as Lauren’s no-nonsense boss who’s eager to help the wedding along because she wants her top employee back as soon as possible.
Shortly before the film’s premiere at Sundance, Tapsell, Lee and Blair spoke about how they put together an event to remember with “Top End Wedding,” organizing a shoot with so many locations across Australia and how Tapsell got to connect with a childhood hero in Jackson to get the rights to “Escapade.”
How did this come about?
Miranda Tapsell: It started when my co-writer Joshua Tyler and I were teaching drama and he told me that he had been up to my hometown in the Northern Territory. He spoke about how much he loved it and it was such a rarity to hear that because not many people from Sydney go up to the territory and enjoy it, so it was really [heartening] to hear such a positive experience. Then we started talking about the films that we loved and we noticed that a lot of them are romcoms, so Josh said, “We should write a romantic comedy for the Northern Territory.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, that sounds like the best thing in the world.” But I’ve never written anything. I’d obviously done lots of acting and that’s when Josh said, “You know how to deconstruct a script, you’ve got this.”
Gwilym, how did you get mixed up in all this?
Gwilym Lee: The script came my way via my agent and it just struck a chord straight-away, just to hear a romantic comedy, but from that perspective, it was completely unique. There was a real heart and soul to it that I connected with in terms of the story of people trying to discover their roots and their heritage – that’s quite universal. So I put myself on tape in London and sent it off to our Australian casting director and it got to Wayne and Miranda and fortunately, Miranda happened to be on holiday in London and they thought it would be a good idea just to get us in a room and see if we had any chemistry. That went well and then I had a little Skype chat with Wayne when he was in beautiful sunshine and I was in freezing cold darkness in London, so that just persuaded me even more I wanted to be in the good Australian sunshine. Next thing I know, I’m on a 17-hour flight to Perth, making my way to the Australian Outback, which is pretty awesome.
Was there as much travel involved between locations as it looked on screen?
Wayne Blair: Yeah, we were in a number of locations and sometimes in making a film, you shoot your foot off because we had to be in Adelaide and then we went to Darwin and then we went to about three or four places in the Northern Territory, all within the space of about five weeks. The logistics of getting a film crew and moving such great distances is pretty crazy, but the whole thing felt like an amazing adventure. We had a small crew that were invested in telling this story who worked their socks off to go to these incredible places and when we had our days off, they were just as much an important part of the adventure of the shoot, going and doing amazing things like fishing in the ocean and jumping off waterfalls and climbing these beautiful mountains. So we covered a little bit of ground for sure, but we were prepared and Miranda knowing that area well and having a lot of local people support us from the Northern Territory was awesome, and it made our jobs so much easier with that travel.
Miranda, was there anything in the Northern Territory you wanted to show off or incorporate into the script?
Miranda Tapsell: The biggest challenge for me was to be able to fit all the places I wanted to go to into a 90-minute film. [laughs] There’s so many beautiful parts to the territory, we really had to make sure the ones were spectacular. I knew of lots of places because I’d grown up in Kakadu and I had been to Katherine many times and obviously, I grew up in Darwin as well, so I was able to tell everyone, this is where we should be looking and these are the traditional owners we should be in contact with so that we’re doing things right.
Gwilym, I imagine you were able to connect with this fish out of water through your own experience. Was that interesting for you?
Gwilym Lee: Yeah, it was fascinating. I didn’t know a whole lot about aboriginal culture and history, so I just wanted to absorb as much as I possibly could. We had a lot of indigenous people working on the film, not only Miranda and Wayne, but our director of photography and other members of crew, so I just tried to learn as much as I could from them and the other fascinating thing was just being given access to parts of the country that no one gets to see because the production and Wayne and Miranda have so much good relationship. With the owners of Kakidu, for instance, they were allowing us access to parts of this national park that no one gets to see, so that was an incredible privilege to be welcomed by all of the community up there. Hopefully, you can see the look of awe in our performances as we’re entering these landscapes [since] there’s no acting required, really. It was all very felt and very real on the day.
Wayne, as beautiful as those scenes are, was there some pressure to get those shots because it looked like a lot of magic hour shoots to get the right light?
Wayne Blair: Yeah, definitely there was. The wedding sequence of the film was all shot in one day and on a bigger budget film, we might shoot that scene over three or four days or a week, but we got three-quarters of the day [in the church] and then had to go outside to shoot the final scene. When you think back, it’s like, “Shit, we bit off a lot more than we could chew, perhaps,” but we were pretty prepared and very positive about it on the day and we had to be very strategic to get that light. For instance, that Katherine Gorge sequence, we shot that in half a day and then we were all out in this little ferry at 4:30 in the morning, not just the key cast but everyone from the script supervisor to the director to the actors to the props master – that’s about 80 people going out to capture the light at 6:15 in the morning, but those are the type of sacrifices we have to do. In saying that, though, bloody hell, it was a great journey and those experiences you can’t equate to anything else.
And you brought in the Tiwi Strong Women’s Choir – how did they get involved?
Miranda Tapsell: Aren’t they adorable? They are the sweetest, sweetest women. Don’t be fooled by their cute faces, though. They are extremely funny and cheeky. I’ve got Tiwi heritage from my great-grandfather, and these women know my mother really well, so I got to know them really well across the time of the film. They said yes straight away to singing, but they actually made a song especially for my character Lauren, essentially in Tiwi language welcoming Lauren back to traditional lands and saying we’ve missed you and we’re so glad you’re back with us. Obviously, the first time they sung that, I was just bawling. I was just so happy and touched by the effort they put into the film.
Miranda, you put quite a bit of effort as well info a musical sequence, dancing with your bridesmaids to “Escapade” in a club for one of the film’s big moments. How long did it take to learn the routine?
Miranda Tapsell: Oh my goodness, I spent a lot of time on the choreography because once I get it, I can remember it for ages, but it just takes a really long time [to learn] and I just had to keep watching the videos back because the choreographers worked together to give us very simple dance moves. But can I just add that Janet Jackson let us play her song? It’s so hard [to get the rights and] I had to write to her to say, “Dear Ms. Jackson, I just need you to know what a fan I am of your music. In fact, a lot of indigenous people listen to your music. If we could please, please have ‘Escapade’ in my film, that would be so good. And she approved it – can you believe it? That’s wild.
What’s it like getting to the finish line?
Wayne Blair: It’s very special. It’s a romantic comedy and it has that indigenous blood all the way through it, and Sundance is a very special festival, so we have to pinch ourselves to be in the premiere section. To add to that, I suppose what we said about all those locals that helped us along the way, they’re so proud of us now and those screenings in Darwin and on the Tiwi Islands and in Katherine will be even extra special, and it’d be great to bring everyone here [for the premiere], but [since] that’s not possible I know that we’re representing them with beauty and brilliance and a lot of generosity.
“Top End Wedding” will screen at Sundance on February 1st at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City at 11:59 pm and February 2nd at the Temple Theatre at 6 pm at Park City.