But since their inventive collaboration with a Vanuatu tribe to make Tanna, Australian directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean have had to get used to another cultural experience – black-tie film awards ceremonies.
The acclaim for the romance, centring on two young lovers trapped by conflict between their tribes, started at the Venice Film Festival and continued all the way to the Oscars with a nomination for best foreign language film this year.
Now the so-called “two-man film crew” have won one of the top prizes in Australian film – the Byron Kennedy Award for outstanding creative enterprise.
Announcing the honour, Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller said the duo’s integrity shone through in all their films.
“Because of this, they are held in the highest regard by their collaborators and audiences all over the world,” he said.
Butler is a former director-producer on Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent; Dean is a director-cinematographer whose documentaries have included The President Versus David Hicks and The Siege after coming to filmmaking through the ABC TV series Race Around The World.
After meeting while working on Dateline, they teamed up to make Contact, an acclaimed 2010 documentary about a remote indigenous community’s first contact with white settlers in the 1960s.
They have also made the documentary series First Footprints, which charted 60,000 years of Aboriginal history, and A Sense of Self, about journalist Liz Jackson’s life with Parkinson’s disease.
The $10,000 award, honouring the late Mad Max producer Byron Kennedy, has been won over the years by such notables as Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Ivan Sen and, last year, Lynette Wallworth. It will be presented at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in Sydney next Wednesday.
“We didn’t expect it when we started but once we’d made it, I thought it was a pretty good film,” he said. “I thought it could get some recognition but obviously we really never expected anything like the Oscars,” he said.
The duo are developing a new film from an idea that came up as they made First Footprints.
“The whole process of shooting Tanna was very low-key – small crew, very close relationship with the actors [and] lots and lots of workshopping and improvisation,” Butler said. “We’re definitely hoping to use those skills to bring this [new] story to life.”
Butler said they had always taken on challenging projects.
“They all had all sorts of issues relating to remoteness and relating to very traditional people unused to the filmmaking experience. Very expensive to make in general so the getting of the money is a huge problem …
“They do take a long time and they are very difficult but it’s been fabulous that they’ve all come off.”
Butler said Jackson, his wife, was “slightly better” than she was during A Sense Of Self after learning to manage the disease better.
“It’s still horrible and dreadful but it’s not full-on panic, which it has been in the past. We’re powering on and she’s been involved in the new project too, doing some of the research.”