The film needed extras to play journalists; the Gazette obliged

Former colleagues playing colleagues: Ex-SMH journalists Erik Jensen and Jennie Curtin at The Alex in Leura, filming Acute Misfortune.
Former colleagues playing colleagues: Ex-SMH journalists Erik Jensen and Jennie Curtin at The Alex in Leura, filming Acute Misfortune.

When the call came out for extras to play journalists on a new film about the life of Adam Cullen, staff at the Blue Mountains Gazette jumped into gear.

After all, who better to play a journalist than a journalist? Especially as the scene revolved around a farewell in a pub.

For this reporter, at least, it was a very familiar situation. In fact, it was a case of art imitating life – for 30 years of my pre-Gazette career I had worked as a reporter in the Sydney Morning Herald newsroom.

The wardrobe department: Shoes, shoes, shoes.

The wardrobe department: Shoes, shoes, shoes.

In fact, I had worked alongside the journalist, Erik Jensen, whose book is the basis for the film.

To set the scene: Nearly a decade ago, Wentworth Falls artist Adam Cullen invited Jensen to stay in his spare room to write his biography.

Jensen jumped at the chance to work with the Archibald prize-winning, albeit very eccentric, artist.

Although he eventually discovered there never had been a book deal, Jensen turned his experiences with the increasingly chaotic and self-destructive artist into the book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.

It was very well-received, winning the 2015 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature, being short-listed for both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the Walkley Book Awards, and making numerous “best of the year” lists.

It's a wrap: Gazette journalists Brenda Cunningham Lewis and Jennie Curtin with Erik Jensen and the actor who is playing him in the film, Toby Wallace.

It's a wrap: Gazette journalists Brenda Cunningham Lewis and Jennie Curtin with Erik Jensen and the actor who is playing him in the film, Toby Wallace.

It also caught the eye of actor Tom Wright (Top of the Lake, Balibo) and he and Jensen agreed to adapt it for the big screen, with Wright directing.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when the crew and cast descended on the Mountains to begin filming – inhabiting venues such as the Katoomba courthouse, The Edge cinema (doubling as the SMH newsroom) and the Alexandria Hotel at Leura.

This was the pub where journalists gathered to say goodbye to one of Jensen’s old colleagues. And this was the scene where the Gazette staff knew we could shine so colleague Brenda Cunningham Lewis and I joined a dozen or so locals looking for a fun afternoon out.

First stop was wardrobe, where we were kitted out in office outfits circa 2010. Make-up wasn’t offered – obviously deemed unnecessary – then the director explained our big scene.

We were to stand around one of the back bars at the Alex as an actor playing SMH management gave a speech farewelling the old sports journo who had been pushed out.

A lucky few were handed half-full middies of beer with strict instructions to hold them, raise them in a toast but not to drink (it would mess with continuity issues).

To my delight, old colleague Jensen was there and would play an extra himself.

Daniel Henshall as Adam Cullen in Acute Misfortune

Daniel Henshall as Adam Cullen in Acute Misfortune

We were called to the set and randomly draped ourselves around the bar tables, subtly trying to get close to the action before suffering the indignity of being shifted to the background as more telegenic folk were given prominent spots up front.

In the end, banished to a position up the back, my only chance to sparkle rested with my right shoulder, the single part of me still within camera range.

Movie-making might sound glamorous but, in reality, there’s a lot of hanging around – a lot – as well as a lot of repetition.

We heard the manager’s farewell speech perhaps 20 or more times as the director asked for take after take. We raised our glasses and mumbled “hear hear” and cast sorrowful looks at the poor journo who was being punted.

This should have been a piece of cake. Hey, I knew redundancy scenes, I knew pub farewells. I’d done this in real life at least 100 times over my SMH career, including at my own goodbye in November of 2012.

I could’ve stolen the show. I didn’t need method acting to empathise with the character – I was the character, it was me, I’d been there, done that.

I was ready but cruel fate had intervened, reducing my performance to the back of my right shoulder. 

Not even Meryl Streep could conjure an Oscar out of that.