Australia is a country that undeniably punches above its weight in the cutthroat, glamorous institution that is Hollywood. Since Jack Warner first saw Errol Flynn tread the planks in London and stole him for his own fledgling LA studio, Warner Bros, in the thirties, Aussies have dominated their corner of Tinseltown in one way or another. Kidman, Ledger and Luhrmann might be household names across the globe since finding huge success in the US-dominated film industry, but getting a foot in the door isn’t an easy task for most. This, however, is something that a disruptive House of Cards producer and the world’s number one Irish whiskey are determined to change.
Jameson is one of the biggest names in the world of liquor, synonymous with Irish whiskey, and a staple in any self-respecting gentleman’s liquor cabinet or favourite bar. This doesn’t mean they don’t excel at small-brand initiatives, however. In fact, they’re kind of nailing it when it comes to backing the little-guy and championing like-minded legends to succeed in their respective fields (just look at their recent super-limited release with Newtown locals Young Henry’s for one example).
Teaming up with the famously disruptive Trigger Street Productions in 2011, Jameson furthered their long-held love affair with film, and decided to use their notoriety as the number one Irish whiskey in the world to give unheard-of filmmakers their “first shot” at the big time. It’s a throwaway pun, but one with huge implications for the winners of this groundbreaking competition, which to date has seen 18 up-and-coming writer / directors work on professional sets with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Trigger Street Productions was started in the ’90s by the now-beleaguered Kevin Spacey (whose involvement ceased long before his current woes), but it wasn’t until the reins were handed to his once-assistant and now-Hollywood hot-shot Dana Brunetti that the studio began to make huge waves. Tired of comic-book remakes and easy-money sequels, Brunetti used his weight to pioneer television by way of his then-visionary concept to produce a TV show (House of Cards) that would be directly streamed on Netflix (now the norm for many productions). The much-revered and oft-polarising producer has long been an advocate for giving newbies a fair-go and shaking up the system in the process. This is the same guy who rallied to bring The Social Network and Fifty Shades of Grey to the silver screen; somebody who set a determined path to tell stories that were different; left of centre. Jameson First Shot is his way of giving back to the industry that took a chance on him many years ago, and it’s no small feat.
Each year, three winning scripts are picked from over 2000 entrants from every corner of the globe. The winners are then put on a plane to Hollywood, where they have a very short amount of time to develop their script, working through rehearsals with an A-list actor, before realising their screenplays on film, shooting over two days with a full crew in LA, a dream that most people never get the chance to experience.
And the A-list actors are huge names. Last year saw Maggie Gyllenhaal star in the three short films; previous to that was Uma Thurman, Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, all actors of enormous pedigree and skill, all of whom have gladly partaken in this bold initiative, and made each script shine.
At a party in Hollywood’s iconic Paramount Studio’s last weekend, the three completed films selected for this year’s competition were shown for the first time, and once again, young, energetic filmmakers used this platform to show off their talents and prove that Jameson & Brunetti’s huge investment continues to pay off.
Better still, for the second year in a row, a Sydneysider was featured as one of the winners.
Originally hailing from Perth, Alice Cogin is no newcomer to flexing a creative muscle. Her day-job sees her work as an art director for a Sydney-based agency, but her script The Finish Line caught they eye of Brunetti and this year’s resident star: Dominic West, of The Wire fame. The Finish Line tells the story of miserable misanthrope Paul (West) who is confined to a wheelchair thanks to a car accident. When he meets his neighbour Gregory Robert Coleman (Luke Zimmerman), an aspiring Olympic skier, who, despite his evident Down syndrome, is a smartarse who takes joy in goading the irritable Paul until he agrees to race him.
There’s a real challenge to making a short film that can both tug at heartstrings and incite laughter in under ten minutes, but that’s what Cogin achieves with her clever and incisive script and adept direction.
Last year’s winning trio included Sydney’s Jason Perini, who directed Maggie Gyllenhaal in The New Empress, making Cogin’s win proof that us Australians are still more than capable of consistently punching above our weight in the big bad world of Hollywood. This year’s three winners also included Ollie Wolf from London, whose hilarious short film Five Star Fouad left the audience laughing out loud (and Borat fans were thrilled to see a familiar face), and small-town Canadian Jason Manella’s A Funny Thing Happened to Kelly & Ted was an obvious winner, using an original, unique format to tell a story that rendered many laughs (and one gasp) from the crowd.
One of the most noticeable, defining features of this unique competition is that none of these films looked like what we’ve come to expect from the “short film” format, and that’s because they’re not made like short films generally are; they’re made like large-scale Hollywood productions. With 40 people on set at any given time, Brunetti throws the entire bulk of his Hollywood heft at these films, ensuring the budding directors have as much support as is necessary for their films to succeed. Where short film competitions usually require the submission of a short-film, produced on a shoestring budget and filmed in a mate-of-the-director’s backyard, Jameson First Shot only requires a script that catches the eye of Brunetti’s team and the star for that year – the filming is then done properly, with the studio’s equipment and manpower.
What results is not only quality, entertaining cinema, but an experience for the winning filmmakers that they might not otherwise get, and this is the true backbone of Brunetti’s philosophy: that all some people need in Hollywood is for another to hold the door open for them, and the rest will follow.
Filmmakers like Cogin have had their careers catapulted by this initiative, and rightly so, it finds the diamonds in the rough; the cat amongst the pigeons; the class clown, and gives them the appropriate stage to hone their craft and flaunt their talents. Dana Brunetti and Jameson’s concerted efforts to improve an oft-repetetive and lacklustre Hollywood is a classic story of championing the underdog, something that despite their combined American and Irish roots, is an intrinsically Australian quality.
No wonder we keep winning it.
Stay tuned for our exclusive interview with actor Dominic West and filmmakers Alice Cogan, Ollie Wolf & Jason Manella.