High-altitude work: From left, Murray Lui, Steven McGregor and David Tranteron on location for the second series of Art and Soul.
Steven McGregor lists the wisest thing anyone ever said to him as being his mother telling him to “get off his ass and get a job”. You wouldn’t pick McGregor for “couch bludging” these days: he was one of the writers of Redfern Now, directed the acclaimed ABC series Art+Soul, and is in Canberra this weekend with his new documentary Big Name No Blanket, about Warumpi Band frontman George Burarrwanga. If that wasn’t enough he has two screenplays on the boil and is about to direct another television show. Let’s just say the past two years have been hectic.
Of course, like most in-demand artists, success comes after years of hard work following a passion. Growing up in Australia’s far north, McGregor recalls being fascinated by the frozen reality of photography. “As a kid I looked at photographs of people in magazines and started to wonder about the story around the image. What brought these people to that point, where did they come from and what happened afterwards? It was always the narrative that intrigued me.”
It didn’t take long for McGregor to find a way to pursue his interest once he left school. “Basically I was lucky”, he says, “I was 17 and got a traineeship at a government department video unit in the Northern Territory. I was a packhorse really, carrying all the gear around, but my boss was really supportive and let me start playing with the cameras. Then I learnt how to edit on those noisy and very clunky old tape machines. But it was a great introduction.”
Heart and soul: Warumpi Band frontman, George Burarrwanga.
After five years McGregor moved to Alice Springs to work in television, where he learnt to shoot and edit in the quick turnaround environment of news reporting – one of the best training grounds for documentary filmmaking. From there he joined the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association at the same time as award-winning filmmakers Allan Collins and Warwick Thornton. He made corporate films, short documentaries and his first drama – a 45-minute short called Cold Turkey that was nominated for an AFI award. McGregor believes his background in TV and documentary helped significantly when it came to writing and directing drama.
“We are a bit freer and looser than filmmakers who have only made narrative films,” he says. “We’re not so rigid about the conventions and far more adaptable. After making news and documentaries, I don’t freak out if things don’t go according to plan. If it rains, I’ll just shoot in the rain.”
When it came to making Big Name No Blanket, McGregor felt a deep sense of responsibility. It’s a film he describes as relatively straightforward on the screen but very difficult to make.
“I’d always been a fan of the Warumpi Band and crossed paths with George and the band over the years”, he says. “But when George passed away [in 2007] he had put a five-year embargo on the use of his name and his music. When that time was up the family wanted to celebrate his life and asked me to direct a film about him. There was huge archive of material but I knew what I wanted was George’s voice, his personality – good and bad.”
A heavy drinker and a charismatic showman with wild hair, Burarrwanga was frequently compared to Mick Jagger and James Brown. If you’ve ever seen him on stage or in his many music videos, you can feel the electric energy of his personality.
McGregor spent the best part of a year interviewing people from the era – people who knew Burarrwanga - like Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil, and Shane Howard from Goanna, along with family members and close friends. “But at the end of the day”, says McGregor, ”there was no escaping the fact that the Warumpi Band was a big part of George’s life, and that he was a rock and roll star and a bit of a ratbag.” It’s this dynamic - and the band’s great music - that makes the film so engaging.
Making sure the documentary didn’t gloss over the darker side of his subject’s life, McGregor worked closely with the singer’s family. “Producer Lisa Watts and I made a lot of trips out to Elcho Island in Arnhem Land where George came from”, says McGregor, “and there was plenty of sitting around under the mango tree before I earned their trust. And I remember when I took the rough cut out to show them – I was very scared they wouldn’t like it. I mean George had his good side and his bad, but if we hadn’t shown all of him, it would have been a bullshit story.” But in the end, all of McGregor’s preparation paid off. “The family was very happy with what we’d done. They knew we’d told it like it was.”
Burarrwanga would have approved. As the lyrics from one of his most famous songs goes: "Black fella, white fella; Yellow fella, any fella; It doesn't matter what your colour; As long as you are true fella."
Steven McGregor introduces his film Big Name No Blanket at the Stronger Than Fiction documentary film festival at 8.30pm Saturday, August 2, with a Q&A after the film.
Simon Weaving is co-director of the Stronger Than Fiction film festival.