‘It’s stressing me just remembering’: how a tiny Australian film became a spectacular flop
In 1976, a young director set out to make a rock music take on the Wizard of Oz. I speak to those behind Oz: A Rock’n’Roll Road Movie about everything that went wrong
Before the ABC ran commercials for Q&A and Bananas in Pyjamas between shows, they ran meditative interludes – waves crashing against rocks, hot air balloons drifting through the clouds, that sort of thing. This is how the director of Oz: A Rock’n’Roll Road Movie, Chris Löfvén, got his start. At 14 years old, he darted around Melbourne with his 16mm camera, licked a stamp and posted the footage to the television station. They liked it and ran it.
Chris’s first job out of high school was working for director Fred Schepisi (who’d go on to make The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith). “I trained as an assistant cameraman,” he recalls. “Fred, he was very good about lending out equipment on the weekends.”
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One such weekend, in 1971, he jumped on a bus with Melbourne band Daddy Cool, travelling to Myponga, South Australia for a rock festival. “So, I was shooting little bits and pieces of that trip. And we ended up using it for Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock film clip.”
Chris helped pioneer a whole genre. “And what is a film clip? They didn’t really exist back then,” he says. There were few television shows that played rock music and those that did wanted the bands performing in the studio. With nowhere to play video clips, no one thought about filming them. “I didn’t shoot very much because I was on a really tight budget. I would’ve only shot about a 100 feet on the whole trip.” A 100 feet is two and a half minutes. So scarce, so precious. How times have changed. You can’t even get murdered these days without it being caught on 17 iPhones.
Eagle Rock became the bestselling single in Australia that year, the film clip an important part in its success. So 23-year-old Chris and his co-producer Lyne Helms headed to London (they were also boyfriend and girlfriend). Around this time, he caught the US film Easy Rider, directed by and starring Dennis Hopper. “That was a really loose road film with lots of great music. And the plot came into it about three-quarters of the way through. I thought, oh, what did they have to do that for? It was just so nice cruising along the highway and nothing happened.”
Chris originally conceived Oz to be like Easy Rider before the pesky plot barged in. “It was never meant to be a narrative feature. It was originally going to evolve around the idea of a loose doco-style film, covering all the things that I thought were oz youth, like panel vans and Holden cars and motorcycles and music.” Chris decided that even a loose film needed something to hold it together. “So, I thought maybe you could have a wizard character and one thing led to another. Why don’t we make it an allegorical story, of The Wizard of Oz, which I’d seen when I was a kid.”
That Oz means Australia seemed a sign from the slang Gods that there was something here. Chris and Lyne flew back to Australia.
The pitch went like this:
Dorothy is a 16-year-old groupie riding with a rock band in country Victoria (Kansas) when their shaggin’ wagon crashes, knocking her out. She wakes up in a fantasy world and learns they ran over a local thug (The Wicked Witch of the East). As a reward for killing the unpopular thug, a gay shop attendant (The Good Fairy) at a nearby boutique gives her a pair of red shoes, to help her see the last concert of The Wizard, an androgynous rock singer, who will be hitting the stage in the Emerald City (Melbourne). She is pursued by the thug’s brother (The Wicked Witch of the West) who attempts to rape her on several occasions. Along the way she meets a dumb surfer (The Scarecrow), a heartless mechanic (The Tinman), and a cowardly biker (The Lion).
The Australian Film Commission (AFC) kicked in $90,000 of the $150,000 budget. They needed to find a distributor who would cough up the rest. “There were only about three distribution companies in the whole country. Village Roadshow knocked it on the head. They said, ‘Oh no, it’s all too gay and we don’t want to know about it.’”
The Good Fairy was played by Robin Ramsay, mincing about rural Victoria like Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? The Wizard is based on David Bowie. Graham Matters, who sadly died in 2021, was primed for this role, having appeared in local productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Hair. Joy Dunstan played Dorothy, and Bruce Spence, Michael Carman and Gary Waddell rounded out the cast as The Scarecrow, The Tinman and The Lion.
Chris and Lyne flew to Sydney to pitch to Greater Union’s board of directors. “We had to go through an exercise of saying what an innovative thing this was, how it was dealing with the youth market, which they had never touched on before. We had no idea whether we were talking bullshit or not.”
The film version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy was a huge hit at the time, so bullshit or not, it sounded true that the rock-fuelled Oz could work. Greater Union committed to the film, but wouldn’t throw in all the money needed. “The only money we could put into it was our deferred wages, which meant we were really struggling with the backsides out of our pants to get the thing made.”
The AFC eventually agreed to provide the final $25,000 required but this was in the form of a personal loan. “It’s stressing me just remembering,” Chris says.
The shoot took five weeks, over January and February 1976. They couldn’t afford hotel accommodation for the cast and crew. “We had to keep locations close to Melbourne and still make them look like they were out in the middle of nowhere.” Little River in Greater Geelong was chosen. A few years later Mad Max filmed there.
“We shot in the middle of summer to get all the exteriors really hot and steamy.” Chris was too successful in this regard, hit with sunstroke on day one, so he couldn’t make it to the first day of rushes. (Chris didn’t learn his lesson. He now wears a pirate’s bandanna, having lost an ear to skin cancer.) But, Chris says, it wasn’t the weather that taxed him most. He found himself at odds with the most accomplished actor on set, Bruce Spence. He had won best actor in the Australian Film Institute Awards 1972, for Stork. He was now playing the surfie, a stand-in for The Scarecrow.
“I don’t think he enjoyed the experience at all,” Chris says. “He wanted a lot more input. And he didn’t like the casual way I was directing. He kept wanting motivation for things that were just not requiring it.” The hitherto laid-back Chris becomes animated recounting this. “I kept saying to him, look, this character’s based pretty much on me. So just watch me and the way I behave. It’s very simple. Don’t try and read too much into it.” Chris huffs. “It’s up to you whether you contact Bruce, but he won’t say anything nice about it.”
I contact Bruce.
“It was a strange, strange film to shoot,” Bruce says. He doesn’t think Chris directed in a casual way, rather the opposite. Bruce explains Easy Rider, Chris’s influence, was part of the New Hollywood movement, which itself was inspired by French New Wave cinema. “What they were trying to do was refer to the world in a more contemporary light,” Bruce says, compared to the films coming out of US studios. They were rejecting the film-making conventions around pacing, editing and plot, and did not see themselves as a cog in the creative process, like in traditional Hollywood. They were auteurs, holding control (or trying to) over everything from writing to filming to editing. “We started to see a lot of auteurs in Australia. And that’s the way Chris saw himself,” Bruce says. “Chris was very protective of what he was doing, and almost obsessively.”
They rehearsed Oz in Chris’s back yard. “He and I had a difference of opinion because he didn’t want a syllable altered in his script.” Bruce feels Chris was too auteur-y even for an auteur. Bruce worked with German director Werner Herzog on Where the Green Ants Dream in 1984. “Herzog could get relatively obsessive with his script but would acknowledge that a scene might need some massaging.”
Things didn’t ease up, moving from rehearsals in Chris’s back yard to the shoot. Chris became worried Bruce was lobbying the other actors to turn against him. “They used to have all these little sessions in the caravan,” Chris says. “Where I suspected they were going on about this, that, and the other.” Now, Bruce wonders if Chris was so controlling of the syllables because it was hard to control much else when shooting a film like Oz. Chris couldn’t shout at the sun to come out from behind the clouds in Little River and he didn’t have the budget to sit around and wait.
Bruce remembers one hectic night of filming. The script called for The Wizard to perform with his band in the Emerald City with Dorothy watching on in awe. Chris had convinced music mogul Michael Gudinski to let the fictitious band insert themselves into the lineup at a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
“AC/DC were the headliners, and we were to go on just before them,” Bruce recalls. Countdown’s Molly Meldrum served as MC. “The audience were chanting ‘AC/DC! AC/DC!’ And Molly said, ‘Just before AC/DC, I’d like to introduce you to a new band.’ And as soon as we go on and they can see all this camp get-up we wore, you can hear chants of ‘poofters! poofters!’ We hadn’t even started playing.”
Bruce, on bass, feared for his safety. “Music starts, and away we go, and the audience sort of calms down. And I think, we’re cruising now.” Unbeknownst to the audience, they were miming. “About two-thirds through the song, somehow, somebody, somewhere pulls the plug. We lost the sound. And immediately the audience knew this wasn’t real, this was bullshit, and they got even more aggressive with us. The invective from audience, they wanted to tear us apart. The Music Bowl has a moat between you and the audience and if it hadn’t been for that moat we would have been dead.”
The music was plugged back in, they finished the number and fled the stage. “And Chris, I remember came in backstage and said, ‘Look, we might have to go back on again later.’ And we said, ‘Like fuck we are. You’ve got your footage.’”
Greater Union rushed editing and post-production, wanting Oz out by school holidays, for the teenagers who supposedly were going to storm the cinemas like they had for Tommy. Oz premiered on 29 July 1976, only six months after the final day of the shoot.
“We found out the marketing budget for Tommy in Australia was $300,000,” Chris says. “And they were only prepared to spend $30,000 on ours, and they thought it was going to do the same kind of business.” According to Chris, Greater Union engaged in “magical thinking”, booking Oz in enormous cinemas, bigger than the ones that screened Hollywood blockbusters of the time, like Jaws. “It was mental. They just put it into all these barns because they owned all this real estate and they had to put something in there and didn’t seem to care that our movie was going to only last a few weeks and die.”
The premiere took place at the Chelsea Theatre on Flinders Street, Melbourne. Michael Carman (The Tinman) has kept a black-and-white photo of the night. Journalist Kerry O’Brien, of 7.30 Report and Four Corners fame, holding up a light for his cameraman, as Chris and the cast make their way into the theatre. Well, the cast minus one. “Bruce was so peed off he refused to be involved in the marketing and promotion,” Chris says. “He didn’t even come to the premiere. An a-hole from start to finish.”
Bruce says he had something else on that night.
Oz was struck by a tornado of poor reviews. The Age declared, “Oz can claim neither the charm nor magic, moving fantasy of the original [as it] lacks cohesion, suffers an inconsequential script and self-indulgent acting.”
Impossibly quaint, looking back on it now, Oz caused a stir because it featured the f-word. Dorothy, in the beloved 1939 original film, discovers the Wizard is a phoney. Her realisation – “There is no place like home” – breaks the spell, and she wakes up at home in Kansas. In Oz, Dorothy’s exposure to rock star Wizard’s hedonism and smallness makes her realise “fame really fucks you up”, snapping her out of her dream. Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail sneered, “The Australian Film Commission helped provide a big slice of the $150,000 budget. Some of the money should be used to buy Mr Löfvén some soap – for his mouth.” They warned parents not to confuse it with the Judy Garland classic.
Chris’s sister piled on, after she invited her friends and their kids to a screening. “She had no idea what it was about or anything. And she was horrified. She wouldn’t speak to me afterwards. Really embarrassed her in front of all her friends because of the language.”
The Melbourne Times was no kinder than Chris’s sister. “With the release last week at the Chelsea, and one suspects the imminent commercial failure, of Chris Löfvén’s Oz, the final nail may have been driven in the coffin of low-budget Australian features.”
People will disagree with the Times’ assault on the film’s creativity, but its financial prediction came true. Unfortunately, Oz was a flop.
Not all hope was lost, though – there was still the rest of the world. Lyne flew to the Cannes Film Market. Only one of them could afford to go and she convinced Chris she was a better talker. It worked. She secured a US release with a company called Inter Planetary Pictures. Other films they put out around this time were a horror, Summer of Fear, directed by Wes Craven and starring Linda Blair, and a comedy, Goin’ Coconuts, starring Donny and Marie Osmond.
“We were getting all these congratulatory telegrams,” Chris says. Inter Planetary saw Oz as a potential blockbuster. They changed the title to 20th Century Oz and redid the poster so it hints the film is more futuristic than it is, and might possibly have something to do with outer space. “They planned a really huge release, all through New York and everywhere. They had all the cinemas booked. I think they had about a hundred prints. We only had like six prints for the whole of Australia.”
Dorothy got her tornado: the weather conspired against Chris in another way. The weekend of 20th Century Oz’s release, New York was hit with a horrific blizzard, killing 23 people, snowfall over 2.5 metres, thousands abandoning their cars in the streets. “Everyone stayed home. No one could get out of their home to go to the cinema or anywhere,” Chris says. “They lost a fortune on the cinemas they booked. And they didn’t have the funding to rebook it after that.”
That was that. The silver lining in the storm cloud, Chris had already cashed the check from Inter Planetary Pictures. “They put up a pretty substantial advance. So, we were able to get some money back.”
Revered film critic David Stratton was ticked off by the short shrift Oz received. In 1980 he wrote in The Last New Wave, “Oz is one of the most inventive and enjoyable of Australian films – clever, brash, noisy, gutsy and uninhibited.” He took a stab at the harsh reviews: “Why, oh why, will critics not review the film for what it is, not for what they think it ought to be?”
Oz has been Chris’s only feature film. “I said to Bruce Beresford, ‘Why would you even want to be in this bloody business?’ It’s just such a pain in the arse,” Chris says. Inter Planetary Pictures was still interested in another project. “Lyne and me were trying to work on the idea of doing another movie, but our relationship disintegrated before we could get to that point.” Lyne passed away in 2003, only 52.
The Sidney Myer Music Bowl shoot may have gone haywire, but it hooked Chris up with Michael Gudinski. “He kept me in work for the next 10 years making music videos for Countdown.” Chris now hosts a music show on Noosa FM.
A black-and-white photo published by the the Herald and Weekly Times in 1964 shows 16-year-old Chris on the streets of Carlton, shooting a six-minute film, The House of Secrets. Like Dorothy, he was whirled into a full-colour adventure that most don’t get to have, and then returned home.
[That’s how my piece ran in the Guardian. I thought I’d show you the section the editor sliced out from the middle, for word count reasons. The behind the scenes peak into an Australian television show in the late 70s is eyebrow raising!]
Chris couldn’t control the sun in Little River or the tech at the Music Bowl. And ultimately, he couldn’t control all the syllables either. There was the matter of the soundtrack and its lyrics.
Ross Wilson, from Daddy Cool, agreed to put together the soundtrack. This was quite the get for Chris.
Chris couldn’t believe his luck. Coincidentally, Ross had already written, but was yet to release, a song called ‘Living In the Land of Oz’, with the perfect chorus to cut into any wacky chase sequence in the film: ‘We’re living in the land of Oz, We gotta shake it up now.’ The verses, however, didn’t immediately match the vibe or storyline of the film. They were something else altogether.
‘150 years ago the black man lived in peace and the land was still / Now a city of millons covers the soil and the blacks have all been killed / Now I don’t know how it happened but it happened just the same / Now the whites are rich and the blacks are dead and no one seems ashamed / And we’re still living in the land of Oz / We gotta shake it up and change it’
‘It was more about the politics of white invasion,’ Chris says. ‘That wasn’t the point of what the movie was about.’
‘I recall exactly how it came about,’ Ross Wilson says of his song. He had gone to visit his parents in Hampton, Melbourne. ‘I was sitting in the backyard of the house I grew up in, with the guitar and thinking, how did I end up here? What happened? And it prompted this whole thought about how my folks came from far away and someone else was living here first. What are the implications of that?’ Ross says the song did fit perfectly with Chris’s movie – its dreamy, off-kilter quality, where you don’t immediately know the mechanic is The Tinman or the biker is The Lion. Australia isn’t quite what it seems at first.
Ross was booked to perform the song on a Channel Nine pop show. During rehearsal, the set designer projected photos of Aboriginal people onto the backdrop. ‘And the fucking producer came out, going “You can’t use that! We can’t have anything like that!” So, they took that out.’ (The Australian media land- scape was such back then, that Greater Union’s distribution arm was named British Empire Films). Ross says that a white guy singing about dispossession wasn’t a thing back then. Indeed, ‘Living in the Land of Oz’ pipped to the post Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ by about a decade. One more thing that makes Oz compellingly strange.
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What a great story!
i had no idea...
Definitely want to see this film now.