For many Australians who grew up in the 1990s, one series of novels encapsulates all the anger, euphoria and just-leave-me-alone of adolescence: John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. In book one, Tomorrow, When the War Began, seven teens return from a camping trip to find their small country town occupied by enemy forces. Cut off from their parents and hunted by foreign troops, they’re forced to fight for their lives and wage a daring guerrilla war for survival.
“Its very empowering for teenagers,” explains Stuart Beattie, the Australian-born Hollywood screenwriter who makes his directorial debut with the book’s film adaptation. “It kind of says, the kids are all right; you can do this and you can step up. Every teenager wants to get away from their parents and be able to run around and blow stuff up and have it be legitimate.”
The books have been hotly pursued for the film rights since publication but Marsden, whose day job is as a school principal in Victoria, has fought off all comers until now. Beattie certainly brings strong credentials to the job. He has scripted major Hollywood hits including the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral, 3:10 to Yuma and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Marsden was so impressed with Beattie’s script that he offered only a tiny number of notes. “He was wonderfully, respectfully hands-off,” Beattie says.
Set in the fictional town of Wirrawee, the film stars former Neighbours actress Caitlin Stasey as Ellie Linton, who together with best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) masterminds a camping trip with five other school friends: Corrie’s boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), a boy Ellie likes called Lee (Christopher Pang), lovable lout Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), spoilt Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), and mousy Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings).
They return a week later to find their parents’ farms deserted and the Wirrawee Showground converted into a concentration camp. While the nationality of the invading country is never specified in the books, Beattie cast Asian actors as the enemy soldiers. “It seemed the logical thing, being so close to Asia, but I didn’t want to get into who specifically. It’s popular entertainment, it’s not a political statement.”
The film was shot last year in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley. To get his cast to bond Beattie took them for a day’s paintballing. “If you play paintball you get really excited and scared and you have to rely on each other. I also took them to climb the Harbour Bridge. It’s about having adventures together.”
Beattie, 38, was born in Melbourne and grew up in the Sydney north shore suburb of Warrawee – “from Warrawee to Wirrawee, would you believe.” Almost from his first childhood viewing of Star Wars he wanted to be a filmmaker and decided that screenwriting was his way in. After completing a broadcast journalism degree at Charles Sturt University he attended screenwriting classes at UCLA, where he won an award that got his career started.
“I always wanted my first film to be an Australian film,” he says. “It was a matter of waiting till I felt ready to direct and finding the right material. I had been offered a couple [of Hollywood directing jobs] but they were crappy genre films and you invest so much of yourself that you’ve got to love the project.”
Beattie has worked with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood and on signing on for Tomorrow he called them all, asking for their directing dos and don’ts. “Wolfgang Petersen said ‘You must serve soup! Every day at 11 everyone on the set will start to get angry, so bring out soup and everyone’s happy.’ So I had soup every day on the set. It’s about caring for the people who help you to realise this vision.”
There are seven books in the Tomorrow series: can we look forward to Beattie writing and directing the sequels? “I would love to. We had so much fun making this. It’s up to the audience. If they come in enough numbers then we would be there in a heartbeat. Nick Dent