Geoffrey Simpson ACS on shooting landmark Australian film ‘Black and White’

Award-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson ACS (Shine) on shooting the landmark Australian film Black and White (2002), restored and presented at Adelaide Film Festivalby Geoffrey Simpson ACS 

Actor Ben Mendelsohn playing Rupert Murdoch, with director Craig Lahiff on the set of ‘Black and White’ – PHOTO Brian McKenzie

I met director Craig Lahiff on Sunday Too Far Away (1975) when I was working as second assistant director for first assistant Malcolm Smith. Smith had invited Lahiff to visit the set as he was interested in learning about the film industry. I showed him around and introduced him to a few people. I remember he mentioned that he enjoyed the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

My own career began working for the South Australian Film Corporation. Lahiff was around during that time and started making short films in the late seventies into the eighties. His feature work started with the television movie Coda in 1987, then his first feature film Fever in 1988. He kept quite busy for the next twenty-three years with his last film being Swerve (2011).

Lahiff’s producer, Helen Leake, sent me the script for Black and White and I thought it was simply terrific. The film dramatises the true story of Max Stuart, an Indigenous man arrested for the rape and murder of a young girl in 1958. Wonderfully written by playwright Louis Nowra (Così), it really captured the feeling of the time. I was a kid when the story broke, but I certainly remember the discussions over dinner between my parents about whether Stuart was guilty or not.

The audience, and indeed the public, never really know whether or not Stuart committed the rape and murder. There were leads that the police did not follow up because, as far as they were concerned, they had found their killer. So many things suggested Stuart was a scapegoat. The police were appalling, they lied about his confession, bashing him and writing it themselves. They intimidated the indigenous trackers to lie about recognising Stuart’s footprints. 

A Royal Commission in Adelaide dismissed the testimony from fun fare operator Norman Geisman, Stuart’s employer, who said the accused was elsewhere at the time of the murder. The racism and class division surrounding this case is astonishing. Even so, there is an uncomfortable feeling that runs through Black and White that maybe Stuart was, in fact, guilty.

“ The racism and class division surrounding this case is astonishing. ”

The film also introduces Dr Ted Strehlow, an anthropologist who spoke fluent Arrernte, an indigenous language spoken in parts of the Northern Territory. Strehlow gave evidence suggesting that an Arrernte speaking man, with English as his second language, would obviously never use the English in Stuart’s confession. Suggesting it was written by the police, and not Stuart. As a side note, I actually met Dr Strehlow as a child when my father took me to see him at his house in Walkerville. I remember a very dark house, common in the hot Adelaide summers, with a lot of Indigenous artefacts on bookshelves lining his passage and sitting room walls.

Murray Picknett was Production Designer on Black and White and already working on the film when I arrived. One of the truly outstanding things about the film is the feeling of authenticity found through the locations, all discovered by Lahiff and Picknett. They were, apart for gaol cells, actual locations and not sets. A grand house in Adelaide called “Carrick Hill” in the suburb of Springfield was dressed and stood in for prosecutor Chamberlain’s home. Courtroom 3 of the Supreme Court was actually Courtrooms 2 and 3 in the Adelaide Supreme Court, and the North Terrace Masonic Centre interior stairs became the Supreme Court’s stairs and exterior.

It’s worth mentioning the cast we achieved for this film; Robert Carlyle OBE, playing lead defence lawyer David O’Sullivan, was already well known for starring in the television series Hamish Macbeth (1995-1996). Kerry Fox, who plays O’Sullivan’s lawyer partner Helen Devaney, made an impact with Jane Campion’s Angle at My Table (1990) and who two years later I worked with on Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). A young Rupert Murdoch is played to precision by Ben Mendelsohn.

Actor Charles Dance, who has seen an incredible career with over a-hundred-and-fifty credits to his name, plays the prosecutor in the case. Colin Friel’s plays father Dixon, with John Gregg playing Rohan Rivett, editor of Adelaide newspaper The News. And, of course, the late David Ngoombujarra went on to win the second of his three AFI Awards for his outstanding performance as Max Stuart.

My choice of camera for this film was a bit of a departure for me because it was the only time I ever used the Moviecam Compact; a beautifully designed camera and a very quiet one. The motion picture camera company Moviecam was formed in Austria in 1975 when Fritz Bauer started making Moviecams, then later the SuperAmerica camera in 1984. There were only a couple of Moviecam SuperAmericas in Australia in the 1980s then owned by Yuri Sokol.

Malcolm Richards from Cameraquip had supplied me with the equipment for Celia in 1989 and Shine in 1996. We have known each other for a good while. ARRI representative Heinz Feldhaus knew Bauer very well, and he also knew Richards. Over dinner one evening Feldhaus started talking about the Moviecam Compact and how the Austrian Company had become involved with ARRI. Both cameras shared an identical movement and both cameras convert from two perforations-per-frame film to three and four perforations-per-frame with relative ease.

Cinematographers Nino Martinetti ACS and David Forman ACS both used Cameraquip’s Moviecams during the 1990s. It was Richards who suggested the Moviecam Compact and I was very pleased to use it on Black and White.

David Ngoombujarra as Max Stewart in ‘Black and White’ – DOP Geoffrey Simpson ACS, PHOTO Brian McKenzie

My first assistant camera was Jules Wurm, a woman I had worked with quite a bit in Sydney over the years. Her career has rocketed up the charts and seen her work recently with the likes of Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton. Our second assistant camera was Gerard Maher. His work now as a first assistant has continued to grow with recent credits including Ladies in Black (2018, cinematographer by Peter James ACS ASC) and Peter Rabbit 2 (2020, cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr ACS). On Black and White I operated the camera, as I love to do.

My gaffer Graeme Shelton is a friend from many films over many years. Plenty of films with him as best boy working for others before gaffer on Black and White. Shelton has seen an outstanding career as gaffer in South Australia. Key grip was Robbie Morgan, a friend from many South Australian Film Corporation documentaries, and my feature film Playing Beatie Bow, he has also worked with Shelton a lot over the years.

I was not involved in the original grade of Black and White as I was working at the time. While writing this article, I contacted producer Helen Leake and mentioned that I would love to have a digital grade opportunity and amazingly we did. I just completed a pass with colourist Charlie Ellis at post-production house Roar Digital in Melbourne. It was a basic pass to tidy things up, and it was done remotely due to Covid-19. The restored version of Black and White screened at the Adelaide Film Festival on 24 October.

The film certainly has resonance today with the current Black Lives Matter movement, both in Australia and in the United States. To think that this story started in 1959, some sixty-one years ago, is disheartening to say the least. A truly appalling situation where racism seems just as bad if not worse than it was all those years ago.

Geoffrey Simpson ACS is one of Australia’s most highly regarded cinematographers known for work on films including ‘Shine’ (1996), ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ (1997) and ‘Romulus, My Father’ (2007) amongst many others.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: