When Thomas M. Wright first read an excerpt of journalist Erik Jensen’s biography of controversial Wentworth Falls artist Adam Cullen his reaction was instant.
“My first thought when I read it was why would anyone write a book about this f...ing arsehole?” he said. “He sounds awful.”
But it was Wright’s next reaction that explains why he is currently directing the feature film of the book that first repelled him, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.
“My second thought was: ‘That’s an interesting response… What gives me the right to respond like that? How is this story being told? Why has it been written when it plays into so many tropes and negative ideas of artists and a really negative view of masculinity in this country?’,” he said.
Not long after reading the entire book Wright approached Jensen about adapting it for the big screen.
Shooting on the biopic started in the Blue Mountains in November and will continue until January. AACTA-winning Australian actor Daniel Henshall (Snowtown, Ghost in the Shell) plays Cullen while newcomer Toby Wallace (Boys in Trees, upcoming Romper Stomper TV series) plays Jensen, the former Sydney Morning Herald reporter who first met the artist when he was 19 years old.
Jensen’s unconventional 2014 biography charts the four-year period he spent with the increasingly self-destructive Cullen, much of which centres around the artist’s home studio in Wentworth Falls.
Reviewing the book upon its release, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “Cullen constantly tested Jensen's loyalty, grit and sense of forgiveness, particularly after the former accidentally shot the latter in the leg and deliberately threw him from a speeding motorcycle...”.
Perhaps best known for his Archibald-winning portrait of actor David Wenham in 2000, Cullen invited Jensen to stay in his Wentworth Falls cottage to write his biography – an offer eventually revealed to be based on a non-existent book deal.
“I always thought there would be a deeper story there about journalism and art and the act of recording another person’s life, and what it is to know another person,” said Wright.
It is the feature directorial debut for the 34-year-old who is best-known as an actor in high profiles projects like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Hollywood movie Everest and US series The Bridge and Outsiders.
Campion once compared Wright to Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (“I’m sure she’s just given to overstatement,” he said) and the New Zealander has been a mentor, along with another Top of the Lake director Garth Davis, who went on to direct the hit feature film, Lion.
“Jane and Garth changed my life entirely. To have them be a part of my life, it means a great deal,” he said.
But it’s safe to say Wright will be working on a smaller budget than either Campion and Davis are used to.
“This is a deeply ambitious film made not even on a shoestring budget - it’s like an individual human hair holding this thing together,” he said.
“We are shooting a film for nine weeks, with months of pre-production, on the budget that a television commercial would shoot on one day.”
Wright has also co-written the script with Jensen, a sometimes fraught process as the story is as much about the journalist as it is his more famous subject.
“It was very difficult at times because I was committed to the idea that the film would be as unsparing in its depiction of Erik as, it is fair to say, he was in his depiction of Adam,” said Wright.
“I said to Erik at the start if this film simply regurgitates information that is already in the book it has absolutely no reason to exist.”
Although Adam Cullen died in 2012, aged 46, Wright has got to know many of the artist’s friends and family in the three years he has been working on the project
“People in Adam’s life have been profoundly generous giving their time and insights,” he said.
Wright even shared his thoughts on the film’s casting with the Cullen family, leading to an ‘unofficial’ approval of Henshall in the lead role. When he showed the family footage of the actor, Wright said “they turned to me and said ‘Where did you get the archive footage?”.
“It really is an astonishing similarity,” he said.
Jensen had a similar reaction to Henshall’s casting when Wright suggested he watch his award-winning performance in the 2011 Australian film, Snowtown.
“He called me that night and said ‘I’m actually shaking because it’s uncanny… He has to play this part’.”
Along with the rest of the cast and crew, Henshall is based in Katoomba while the film shoots in locations throughout the Blue Mountains.
When the Gazette spoke to him, Wright said this had already created a sense of community.
“If you shoot a film in Sydney or Melbourne at the end of the day everyone goes back to their homes, they scatter out across the city ... but here, we are all together,” he said.
There is little doubt Acute Misfortune’s take on artistic life will be less romantic than the last film about a high profile Blue Mountains artist, the 1994 Norman Lindsay biopic Sirens.
It certainly won’t flinch in its portrayal of Cullen’s mental and physical unravelling.
But despite its confronting approach, Wright has received some insight into what Cullen himself might have thought of the project.
“One friend told me that Adam would have called and said ‘they’re making this film about me, it’s full of malarkey and it’s pointless and it’s totally bastardising my life – I’m sending your three copies in the mail!” he said.
Acute Misfortune is produced by Plot Media, Blackheath Film and Arenamedia, with principal production investment from Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria, the MIFF Premiere Film Fund and Soundfirm.