Blinding talent: Grassroots footy hits big screen

The pantheon of great sports movies is long and illustrious. Raging Bull, Remember the Titans and Chariots of Fire are just a few gems in the genre.

But in Australia, while we are renowned for our sporting passion, films on the subject have been frustratingly few and far between.

Richard Gray, director of Blinder – the first Aussie rules film to hit the big screen in more than a decade – can’t put his finger on it.

‘‘I’ve never really understood why we didn’t make films about sport, it didn’t make sense to me,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s always felt weird that we weren’t making more films about subject matter that as a country we’re obviously pretty passionate about.’’

Blinder puts Oliver Ackland in the role of Tommy Dunn, a one-time budding superstar for the Torquay Tigers whose career was ruined by scandal. Gray hopes that it will herald a new era for the Australian sports film.

‘‘I don’t know why but Australian films often struggle to find an audience,’’ he says. ‘‘But if there’s one thing you know Aussies love, it’s sport, so it could become a real staple, you could build a new following for Aussie films if there was one about footy or rugby or cricket every year. It’s something there’d be an audience for.’’

The 32-year-old now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, but grew up in Box Hill. It was there that his love affair with Aussie rules began, watching AFL and local footy.

He speaks passionately about the latter, the focus of Blinder. Shot entirely around the coastal suburb of Torquay, Gray says it was all about bringing the grassroots to the fore.

‘‘The Bellarine Football League down there is a great league,’’ he says. ‘‘The ovals are beautiful and we picked Torquay because they have the recognisable Richmond colours and the best theme song.

‘‘We used films like Bend It Like Beckham and TV series like Friday Night Lights as references to why it didn’t need to be professional football, it could be suburban and still mean something.’’

For Gray, writer-producer Scott Didier and executive producers Glenn Archer, Sam Kekovich and Adrian Gleeson, the next task was to make both the story and the action – significant portions of the film are devoted to football matches – seem authentic and true.

After six weeks of shooting drama they shot only football for three weeks, playing matches every second day, which saw the actors mixing it with players from the Bellarine Football League.

‘‘When I first read the script I thought we could really do it. We went to Torquay and watched a lot of games, hung out in the clubrooms, really tried to make the film authentic, grassroots footy. If the actors wanted to win the ball they had to win the ball.

‘‘The key was to try and capture what it’s all about – taking your kid down, kicking the footy at half-time, listening to the coach’s speech, a can of beer is still three bucks, because that’s what a lot of people remember growing up.’’

Outside of the football, the film is given weight by an underage sex scandal. When photos are leaked to the media it destroys the careers of Tommy and his teammate James ‘‘Morts’’ Mortimer (Josh Helman). Tommy and Morts return to rebuild the club following the death of their former mentor, Coach Chang, played by an inimitable Jack Thompson, reprising a similar role to the one he played in 1980 football classic The Club.

The scandal was a way of increasing the stakes for the characters and giving it relevance to modern football, says Gray. ‘‘What was great about the original script was it really understood grassroots footy. All we did was bring in modern issues whether it was the young schoolgirl, dealing with drugs, underage sex, all that.

‘‘It was also to bring in the female side of it because it’s the women who really run these footy clubs. We wanted to make sure we were looking at both sides of it and it wasn’t just boys playing footy.

‘‘Whatever happens at the top level is obviously happening at the lower level as well. But what we were really interested in is seeing what happens to the people in a scandal a month after the newspapers stop running headlines. It’s a terrible mistake that someone makes and we wanted to explore the ramifications of that, and when you’re in a small town it cuts a lot deeper.’’ n 

Blinder opens on March 7. 

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