When Geoffrey Rush signed on play an ageing version of the titular character in the upcoming Storm Boy reboot, the producers would have been over the moon. They had just, after all, secured one of Australia’s most famous and acclaimed actors to lend his gravitas to a seminal Australian text, originating as a children’s book written by Colin Thiele in the 1960s.
Playing a grown-up Mike “Storm Boy” Kingsley, who narrates to his granddaughter a melancholic story about his childhood experiences living on an isolated coastline, it is a role custom-built for gravitas. The producers would have been more than happy - chuffed, even – to pay Rush a reported $500,000 for his participation.
But now, oh, the irony. The veteran Oscar, Emmy and Tony-winning actor is an albatross hanging around the film’s neck and the source of a terrible conundrum for the producers.
With the film set to open in Australian cinemas on 17 January (having already been delayed from an original 2018 release), the producers are no doubt worried that Rush’s name will render the film dead on arrival. The veteran actor is now at the centre of separate allegations of sexual misconduct from multiple parties – most recently Orange is the New Black star Yael Stone, who this week gave damning testimony to the New York Times and ABC’s 7.30. Rush has strenuously denied the allegations levelled by Stone.
“Bird like him, never die” is the unforgettable line delivered in both film versions of Storm Boy, bestowing upon the beautiful pelican Mr Percival a symbolic eternity. Mythical creatures waddling along the beaches of our childhood memories might never die, but in reality careers perish and films flop. We are at a point in history now when the old saying “all publicity is good publicity” has been categorically disproved.
The current time is a period of heightened scrutiny for the off-screen behaviour of film and television cast and crew, particularly when it comes to issues around sexual misconduct. Nobody wants to be seen as condoning inappropriate behaviour or fanning the fires of community outrage.
The Storm Boy producers found themselves in a similar situation as the producers of the American sitcom Roseanne (after its star, Roseanne Barr, published a racist tweet in May mocking former Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett) as well the producers of Netflix’s House of Cards and the feature film All the Money in the World (both starring Kevin Spacey, who has been accused of numerous instances of sexual assault and misconduct).
In these examples recompense was delivered swiftly and decisively. Barr was fired and her titular character killed off, as was Kevin Spacey’s character – Frank Underwood – in House of Cards. The producers of All the Money in the World, led by its director Ridley Scott, instigated one hell of a chess movie when, with only weeks before the film’s scheduled release, they decided to remove Spacey from the picture and replace him with Christopher Plummer.
The producers of Storm Boy have three main options to choose from. The first: they remove Geoffrey Rush completely and reshoot his scenes (which serve primarily as a framing device) with another actor. The second: they delay it even further, knowing there will almost certainly never be a “good” time for it to be released. And the third: go ahead as planned, hoping that the film will weather the, er, storm.
None of those options are good, but for everybody other than Geoffrey Rush, option one is the best. An actor such as Jack Thompson – or even somebody younger, like Russell Crowe – could fit this role perfectly and would free the film from negative publicity. This option would also be the best way of ensuring the hard work of hundreds of people who contributed to the film would not be diminished as a result of the fallout from allegations made against one of the actors involved.
Reshoots however would be expensive, running into six digits. While it is true that Storm Boy wouldn’t have the coffers of a studio-backed Hollywood production, the film could find extra financing, perhaps even spinning its taxpayer-subsidised status to its advantage. Might Screen Australia be prepared to chip in for a ‘Storm Boy relief fund” on the grounds that spending a little more could result in a significantly better performance at the box office?
If this did indeed turn out to be the case (we are of course discussing hypothetical situations), it might be money well spent. Storm Boy has the potential to make very big bucks. It is not unreasonable to compare its commercial potential to other recent live-action Australian films involving animals, such as Red Dog (which grossed over $21.4m locally) and Oddball (which grossed over $11m locally). Splashing around extra cash for a de-Rushed version might protect the investment.
On the other hand, a reshot version of the film starring Jack Thompson or Russell Crowe might still flop, and an unchanged version starring Geoffrey Rush might still be a hit. These are difficult decisions and the crystal ball appears clear for nobody.
Mr Percival will remain a beloved character. How his new film will be received might be a far sadder story.