8 April 2022
By Anthony Frajman
The Nitram producer on Good Thing Productions’ slate and the challenges of producing during the pandemic.
Since its formation in 2018, Good Thing Productions has quickly established itself as one of the busiest producers of Australian features and documentaries.
Following the well-received releases of 2040 and The Australian Dream in 2019, the company, which is run by Nick Batzias and Virginia Whitwell, had a major success with the release of their feature Nitram.
That film went on to receive acclaim globally, including winning Best Actor at Cannes 2021 for star Caleb Landry Jones.
As Good Thing’s Head of Production, Whitwell has played a major part in steering the company, overseeing their slate of features, documentaries and TV series.
2022 sees the company release the Australia/NZ film Nude Tuesday, starring Damon Herriman, on top of the documentary Clean, which recently screened at SXSW.
We spoke to Whitwell at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever Conference.
As a producer, how have you managed with the challenges of the pandemic?
We were very fortunate in that we had two feature films that could operate relatively smoothly through COVID. We had Nude Tuesday, which is a co-production with New Zealand with Emma Slade producing, Jackie van Beek, Jemaine Clement and Damon Herriman starring, directed by Armagan Ballantyne. It was shooting in New Zealand. Even though we had to delay it, we were very fortunate in that our key partners being Screen Australia, New Zealand Film Commission, and Film Victoria, were happy to back us to shoot that film towards the end of 2020.
We were lucky enough to get the finance in place on Nitram and import the lovely actor Caleb Landry Jones to do his quarantine alongside Anthony LaPaglia, who played his father. They both came over and we were able to film Nitram in a bubble environment, akin to the AFL where we were one big happy family in a conference centre in Geelong where we all did our tests.
That meant we could proceed with those films.
Beyond that, luckily, under the laws at the time we had a couple of documentaries filming and anything that was in production was allowed to proceed. So that just gave us a bit of a lifeline to keep the lights on and the doors open.
During early days of the pandemic, I really appreciated the generosity of other producers in sharing information and discussing challenges with managing COVID – Andy Walker (Spreadsheet) and Kylie du Fresne (New Gold Mountain) spring to mind. It was lovely to have that solidarity.
Nitram has just opened in the US. How happy have you been with the international reception to the film?
Obviously, starting with the Cannes premiere last year and Caleb taking best actor, that’s been fantastic as a springboard for the international release and Wild Bunch’s campaign to sell the film. With the US release, we are really happy with IFC the distributor and looking forward to seeing how it performs. It’s then going on to AMC. That will be a fairly quick transition, I believe.
You work a lot in nonfiction. How’s the pandemic impacted documentaries?
I think documentary in some respects can be a little bit more COVID-proof in that it can wear a few delays. Shoot days can be delayed and rearranged without the impact that’s felt on a feature film. From Nitram’s point of view, we were supported with the TIF [Temporary Interruption Fund] at Screen Australia. That meant that we had that backup so that our financiers were comfortable to go ahead. I think we’ve been generally very lucky to be in Australia to be honest, because, really, by the time we were filming Nitram and concluding some of the work on some of our documentaries, Victoria had all but got rid of COVID altogether. And Australia had. Globally speaking, I’m sure there’d be very different answers from other parts of the world and how their shows were impacted, but I think we were fortunate here to be able to just keep going.
How has Good Thing adapted its strategy to the changes brought by the pandemic?
I think it’s a very different situation today than it was pre-vaccine. And where we are now is different to where we’re going to be in six months’ time, when perhaps traditional insurers are willing to cover COVID. I would hope, but it’s still not something that I seem to be able to find an answer about. There’s still a bit of a grey area, but I’’ hearing globally that in other countries, financiers are far less COVID-apprehensive, because the way COVID is managed on-set and the realistic risk to the film being stopped is so small now, that, I think times are moving on in terms of how COVID is really impacting on filming.
That said, of course, if you’re filming a documentary and one of your key participants or key crew does get COVID, then you do have to just put down tools for a while and work through things. But it’s certainly nothing like what we are up against previously.
A lot of Good Thing’s films have relied on word-of-mouth campaigns, such as 2040. Have you found it harder to generate awareness on those types of productions?
I think it’s hard to say right now. We are in a situation where we just had a lovely documentary, Clean, have its world premiere at South by Southwest. Its impact campaign has yet to be realised and be rolled out, which will happen when it has its proper release. But then again, that film was supported by SBS, and SBS are very much about impact. I’m sure that will afford us a different approach to make sure that the intent of that film is fully explored. We haven’t really had to do an impact campaign through the pandemic, yet. 2040 was wrapping up by then and The Australian Dream had done its run by then.
But it’s great that the way people behave online now is so much more natural. And, the fact that you can have meetings, I feel like it’s been really great for filmmakers around Australia to have that distance shortened. If you are a filmmaker from Perth or Melbourne, you’re not waiting for that chance to go to Sydney, to meet everyone. You can come, you can meet them as long as you can Zoom. I think that’s been one good little sweet spot from the pandemic.
Nude Tuesday is going to be a Stan movie. What was behind that decision, and are you thinking more along the lines of working with the streamers?
Nude Tuesday will have a cinema run first. We welcome the chance to [work with the streamers]. That would be fantastic. We’re really pleased that Stan was so enthusiastic about Nude Tuesday, because it’s a really novel concept and it actually is a concept that plays incredibly well with its multi versions on a platform, that can accommodate multiple versions. We’re really excited about that. And yes, we’re often speaking to the streamers about feature ideas and whether their models, that model, can work for a particular type of film or how it can partner with a distributor for a traditional theatrical release. It’s interesting watching these behaviours change around the world. We were just talking to someone from Netflix actually through the global producers exchange program. And they were talking about the standard becoming in America of the 45 day window before an SVOD release in some cases, but not necessarily, it’s still a movable thing all the time and in various territories, but it’s something where I think, producers locally and, talking to producers internationally, we’ve got all got to be pretty nimble about understanding what’s possible and what’s working elsewhere so that we can get good results for our films and filmmakers.
What are you looking for from filmmakers?
We do such a huge variety of films. I’m often watching the news or something and saying to the family, ‘Oh, we are doing something with them.’ And, really, I must sound like either incredibly shallow or very, very busy, I don’t know. But, it’s exciting. We’ve got a really broad slate, but basically, we like stuff that has really good ideas. And we love working with really great people and, often we like ideas that have something to say and that entertain at the same time. So, that’s our approach when we’re considering projects and we’re lucky that quite few have come our way.
What has Good Thing got on its slate coming up?
We are currently developing a feature film called The Museum of Modern Love, which is based on a book by Heather Rose and won the Stella Prize. That is in development thanks to Film Victoria and being adapted by Veronica Gleeson. That’s probably the top of our most developed projects at the moment. We’re also doing a lovely comedy called One More Shot, that’s a co-production with Truce Films directed by Nick Clifford. That’s a project about a time traveling bottle of tequila, it’s a lot of fun, but it has a great heart and, we think like a lot of our projects has got something to say. We’re working on the TV series adaptation of Nick Cave’s book And the Ass Saw the Angel and that will be directed by Justin Kurzel. We do have several other TV series being developed.
Other things coming up on the slate include War and Order, a feature documentary about Indigenous Artist Richard Bell directed by Larissa Behrendt and also Intoxicating – a documentary series about Australia through the bottom of a glass!
Are you continuing to expand?
We’ve certainly expanded our factual department and, I think, like any company, scale makes life a lot easier to really do justice to what you’ve got in development, particularly when you’re shooting and really ensuring the films have a great afterlife in the marketplace. So, yeah, we’re always looking to find new good people.