Based on Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Dirt Music is a compelling romantic drama set against the magnificent backdrop of the remote Australian West. Georgie (Kelly Macdonald) begins an intense affair with handsome former musician Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), unaware that her partner Jim (David Wenham), the local lobster baron, has a shared history with the Fox family involving a tragic event…

Director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Ned Kelly) talks with STACK about the challenges in adapting Winton’s epic novel to the screen.

Dirt Music has been described as a “long gestating project” – why has it taken so long to bring Tim Winton’s book to the screen, and how did it end up with you?

I first read the book back in 2001, and it was sent around to a bunch of filmmakers to potentially secure the film rights. I remember being blown away by the book but I just couldn’t work out how to turn it into a movie. I found it very intimidating to be honest, because it’s such a big, sprawling epic, but it had so many unusual ideas and abstract concepts and was definitely not a straightforward thing to adapt.

Phillip Noyce grabbed it and went on this journey trying to get it going, which was torturous because of where the story is set, and because it’s not an obvious commercial property. He couldn’t figure out a way to do it for the price – he could never get the script and budget working together, so he ended up giving up the option. Then another producer, Finola Dwyer, picked it up and I just happened to meet her by chance through a mutual friend, Sam Neill actually, in Capetown of all places.

Director Gregor Jordan

Finola ended up sending me the script asking if I was interested. I said I was, because I’m a massive fan of Tim Winton’s writing and I was very curious to see how the writer – a Welsh/English writer called Jack Thorne – had gone about adapting it. I’ve got to say I was a bit dubious before I read it, but I was very impressed and moved when I first read the script and blown away by his skill as a screenwriter to somehow corral this massive novel, put it into a coherent form and add some of his own invention as well. I instantly got in touch with Finola, lobbying to get the job as director. And I got the gig!

Are there significant differences between the book and the screenplay?  

Jack developed the character of Jim, the fisherman. He tied his backstory into Lu’s backstory, which wasn’t a part of the novel. Jim entered the story on a number of levels and made it a really great three-hander; it’s very much a love story between Georgie and Lu, but Jim is now a central element in the whole story.

Is it more challenging to make a film based on a popular novel than an original screenplay, in terms of the weight of expectation from readers and remaining faithful to the book?

I suppose it is. You do feel a weight of responsibility to an extent on the source material and on the audience who read and loved the book and are fans of the author. But in other respects it’s kind of a blessing, because the author has done all the hard work for you and provided all the characters and original ideas and the storyline. Having the novel as a reference and a guide is incredibly helpful as well; there’s a lot to use. When you’re trying to tell an original story, you really are starting from scratch. Having to make the whole thing up yourself is liberating but comes with its own challenges as well. So the short answer is, it’s hard and it’s easy [laughs].

Why did you decide to cast international actors Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund in the lead roles?

It was a case of let’s find the best actors we can, and they were right for the role in the respect that they were the right ages. It was also about having actors who really understood the essence of those characters and in a way had lived the lives of those characters in different respects.

Garrett grew up on a pretty remote farm in northern Minnesota in a very harsh, physical environment – hunting, fishing, and building things with his hands. And he had a great singing voice and was very attached to music; he was very similar to Lu in a lot of ways. He just didn’t happen to be Australian [laughs].

It would have been a bonus if we’d found two Australians for the roles, but nowadays it’s a pretty normal part of any actor’s craft to do some kind of accent or dialect that’s not their own, just like having to wear different clothes or a different haircut.

It was interesting with Kelly; it’s just part of the job for her. Her natural accent is Glaswegian and she told me that she has to do a different accent on every job, because she never gets to use her own. I asked her if it was easier to do an Irish accent for Boardwalk Empire and she said, ‘No, it was actually harder if anything.’ While there are similarities between her own accent and an Irish one, she said she had to undo her accent and learn that one.

Tim Winton’s work captures an authentic sense of place, which has translated well in both Dirt Music and Simon Baker’s recent adaptation of Breath.

Tim Winton is famous for writing about his home state of Western Australia, and in particular certain communities there. He also has a very visceral relationship with the physical world, especially the ocean and the coast, the earth and arid environments. His descriptions of the vegetation and the animals and insects, the salt in the air… all these physical elements are captured so wonderfully in his books.

Dirt Music, more than most of his books, really captures a sense of Western Australia because it travels – from a fishing village to Perth and all over on the road, and ends up in a very remote part of the Kimberleys.

It’s a really massive part of the world. This was one thing we realised when making the film. We chose to shoot in Esperance, which is down south, then the islands off the Dampier Peninsula and the Buccaneer Archipelago, which is up north. When we measured the distance between the two, we realised it was the same distance from London to Moscow, which gives you a sense of how massive the place is.

In that respect, Dirt Music is exactly the sort of movie we need right now with the pandemic restricting domestic travel – and it’s great that audiences can see it in cinemas…

I feel incredibly blessed to be able to show this film in my home country on cinema screens. That’s a very lucky thing in relative terms.

Dirt Music is in cinemas (excluding Victoria) on October 6