Stephen McCallum has recently directed his debut feature film. 1% is an intense drama about an outlaw motorcycle gang called the Copperheads. McCallum has been working towards this goal for a number of years. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2011. He has directed TV commercials, as well as the popular online Marriage Equality ad – It’s Time. He was second unit director for Channel 9’s GALLIPOLLI mini-series. AccessReel’s Phil Jeng Kane spoke with McCallum recently about the process of making his first feature.
The transcript is the highlights of the longer audio interview below.
ACCESSREEL: We’re speaking with Stephen McCallum, the director the new film “1%”. Congratulations on the film, I’ve just seen it, and it’s a really intense 90-plus minutes.
MCCALLUM: Good. Thanks, that’s certainly what we intended. I’m glad to see it had the effect that we desired.
ACCESSREEL: The film is all about a motorcycle club, the Copperheads, and the struggle between the president, Knuck, played by Matt Nable and his right-hand man, Paddo, played by Ryan Corr. How did you get involved in the project, what was the first thing you saw?
MCCALLUM: Matt and I had met about a year earlier on a TV series GALLIPOLI, where I was Second Unit Director. So, I knew of Matt, but the project came to me through producer Michael Pontin, who I went to film school with (AFTRS) and he really liked a short film I did there, which was set in a colonial convict prison, called SIX STRAWS. He read Matt’s script (for 1%) and he thought I would be a great fit for bringing a tribal, visceral aesthetic and authentic performance to the piece. I read the script and I liked it. At its heart, it’s a story about a man who has to choose between his brother and his father. I was intrigued by the world of outlaw motorcycle clubs, so I was intrigued at the chance to do a first film in that sphere.
ACCESSREEL: How did you go about making the story material about motorcycle clubs authentic?
MCCALLUM: The scripts were originally set in the ‘seventies and more straight forward and I wanted to bring out the more tribal, Shakespearian themes and modernise it. The first step is always research. I watched every documentary, read every book. But the main thing was meeting these guys face to face and talking to current and ex-members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
ACCESSREEL: Did that take a year or so?
MCCALLUM: It was an ongoing process over about a year in development. The script I initially saw was very different to the film we made. It was initially multiple different gangs vying for power and we knew we didn’t have the money to make that, so we discussed putting all the conflict in one club and making more of a Shakespearian story. Ambition, betrayal and father versus son. And more importantly bringing out the female characters.
ACCESSREEL: How did you work out how things were going to look and sound?
MCCALLUM: Ultimately, I chose things from multiple different clubs and different people. I borrowed from multiple resources and melded it together. I wanted to create my own world and my own club.
ACCESSREEL: Did you have any advisors on set?
MCCALLUM: We had an ex-member on set as the military advisor, really. Whilst every club is different there are protocols they follow like any organisation, cult or religion. He was a wonderful resource in making it happen. He saw it at the Sydney premiere and he was blown away.
ACCESSREEL: What was your thinking with the Shakespearian vibe of the film?
MCCALLUM: When I first read Matt’s script, I saw that connection straight away. I saw it as a real “house divided” story, succession, ambition and betrayal. I’m by no means a Shakespeare-ophile. But I connect to those stories because they’re so visceral and uncompromising. The lengths people go to for ambition. I thought that resonated in this tale.
ACCESSREEL: Is the fight for power a bigger theme you see all around?
MCCALLUM: It’s something I always get attracted to. Some of my favourite films like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, where it’s definitely, “power belongs to those strong enough to hold it.” I really wanted to elevate that. I think when you do that it makes the story more universal. I’m fascinated by sub-culture. I’m fascinated by wanting to belong to something bigger than yourself and the cost and rewards for that.
ACCESSREEL: You made it clear that the loss of the tribe or “family” was a big thing…
MCCALLUM: We very rarely exit out of the four walls of the club and there aren’t any outside characters and it does feel like a little world. To be banished from that means everything to them. And that’s something that we drew from real life as well, these clubs really do operate as a family for people who don’t have one. To lose your colours is the worst punishment you can have. If this had been set a thousand years ago, these guys would have been kings, in today’s society, they’re outlaws.”
ACCESSREEL: Why are the Copperheads a 1% club?
MCCALLUM: 1% is a codenamed used by cops for outlaw motorcycle clubs. It harks back to the time of the Hells Angels where a newspaper article claimed that outlaw clubs made up only 1% of motorcycle riders in America. These guys being who they are, decided to wear that as a badge of honour. Literally as a patch on their vest. To show they’re above the law.
ACCESSREEL: You were saying something about Knuck representing an older style of club and Paddo representing a newer style?
MCCALLUM: Absolutely, even down to the way they dress. Paddo is in a new biker jacket, Knuck is in one he’s been wearing for twenty years. That’s a real division in most clubs. The old bull and the young bull going head-to-head over progress, with one wanting to stay where they are, but you can’t. The young one comes in and says, “We need to move forward to survive.” That happens in real clubs with them becoming more monetised and business-oriented. Whereas old-style clubs were places to run amuck. The (younger ones) get called “Nike Bikies” by older members.
ACCESSREEL: (Actors) Matt Nable and Aaron Pedersen were a little different to what we’re used to seeing. Is that what you were aiming for?
MCCALLUM: I’m always looking for the actors to surprise me. With Knuck (Matt’s character) he is a man who, on the surface, is ruling with an iron fist, but he’s actually dealing with a lot of internal confusion. He’s actually one of the most vulnerable characters in the film. Sugar, Aaron Pedersen’s character, I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen in an outlaw motorcycle world. Someone who is very charismatic and conniving. I guess that came a bit more from the Shakespearian aspect.
ACCESSREEL: What quality were you seeing in the Katrina character played by Abby Lee?
MCCALLUM: Katrina’s an interesting character. She’s got the biggest arc or surprise of any of the characters. When I chatted to Abby about the role, she was excited about coming aboard, but I felt she had a real presence and mystery about her, that was right for the role. And also a counterpoint to Simone Kessell’s character Hayley, who was the loyal, archetypal club matriarch. It was trying to find two opposites on the spectrum as we did with Paddo and Knuck.
ACCESSREEL: How did you go about dealing with what seems like a super-intense shoot?
MCCALLUM: It was tough. We were all committed to being as uncompromising as possible, from the actors through to the crew. Most of the takes were long takes so it felt visceral and unpredictable. A lot of the actors got quite banged up in the fight scenes, but we needed intensity and unpredictability for it to feel real. Most people come out of the cinema feeling like they need to get their breath back after the film, which is good. At the same time, we all had a great time on the weekends, we were all friends when the cameras stopped rolling. But we were all very committed on the day.
ACCESSREEL: Why did you choose Western Australia to shoot this film?
MCCALLUM: I grew up in Western Australia and bikie culture is a massive part of Western Australian identity. As a kid, you were told about the bikie clubs and they’re referred to like boogeymen. Whenever I see Perth onscreen, it’s usually blue skies and beaches and that’s not the area of Perth I grew up in. I’ve always wanted to show what this place looks like 10 kilometres from the coast and that’s where the film is set.
ACCESSREEL: Thanks for your time, Stephen.
MCCALLUM: Thanks, for this, I appreciate it. Tell everyone to see 1% on the opening weekend!
Phil Jeng Kane