June 13, 2024
People & Places

A shine that never dulls

SALIFE visits filmmaker Scott Hicks and his family to chat about the release of two new documentaries inspired by the 25th anniversary of Shine and how a special slice of the Fleurieu has been the secret ingredient to creativity and staying grounded.

Filmmakers Kerry Heysen-Hicks AM, Scott Hicks and their son Jett Heysen-Hicks find sanctuary in their picturesque slice of the Fleurieu at Yacca Paddock Vineyards where Scott and Kerry have revegetated a large portion of their land with native trees.

It’s like something straight out of a movie set. Winding country roads traverse hills of lush, undulating farmland dotted with rusted iron sheds. Sheep bleat in the distance. Through a farm gate and down a farmer’s track, an otherwise hidden valley view comes into frame over a steep hill raked with rows of vines. A hobbit could emerge at any moment.

It’s a scene worthy of a feature film, but it’s about as far from Hollywood as you might get. And that’s exactly why filmmakers Scott Hicks and Kerry Heysen-Hicks AM purchased their slice of the Fleurieu about 25 years ago, soon after the release of their breakthrough, award-winning film Shine in 1996.

Studios had knocked back Scott’s film again and again, particularly for his steadfast vision to cast an unlikely Geoffrey Rush in the leading role of concert pianist David Helfgott, yet Rush would go on to win an Oscar for the role.

While Hollywood beckoned, Scott and Kerry’s minds were closer to home. The 80-hectare dairy farm at Kuitpo presented a perfect escape, although there was plenty of work involved to transform the paddocks into vineyards and revegetate a third of the land with native scrub. And there still is.

“We wanted to make an investment at the time, and we didn’t want to buy a house in LA or an apartment in New York … it was going to be South Australia and the vineyard seemed apropos,” says Scott.

The family’s rustic retreat is ensconced in nature.

“When the world opened up for us after Shine, we spent years commuting back and forth to make films in LA or wherever we were shooting, be it New York, or Louisiana, New Orleans or Vancouver, but always maintaining a home base here.”

Kerry explains: “The longest part of a film process is the editing. Scott used to have in his contract, and still does, that we would only edit back in South Australia. That was quite hard to get, because studios like Warner Bros and Universal wanted us to edit over there. But we got it each time, which meant studios became very conscious of Adelaide,” she says.

The couple has revegetated 25 hectares of their land, which is now protected by a Native Vegetation Heritage Agreement. The scrub, which grows down to the pond at their back door, is populated by hundreds of yacca, hence the name of their Yacca Paddock Vineyards. Their extensive vineyards grow grapes for award-winning winemakers.

The couple lives in Adelaide and spends time at Port Elliot, while Yacca Paddock serves as their retreat. For Scott, it’s a place where maintaining the native land and vineyards provides a humbling outlet.

“A great escape; what more could you want really? For me, the main task is trying to keep the grass down and revegetating with trees. I drive the tractor and I find using the chainsaw to be very relaxing, but don’t be alarmed,” laughs Scott.

The stone and corrugated iron lodge has no bedrooms, simply a fold-out couch and a pavilion that looks out over the dam. A chorus of croaking frogs floods the room after dark. The rustic setting has been an important sanctuary and a source of creative muse for not only Scott and Kerry, but also their son Jett Heysen-Hicks – a producer, writer and former touring rock musician – who occasionally brings other musicians here for distraction-free song writing.

Scott Hicks and Geoffrey Rush on the set of Shine in the Adelaide Botanic Garden.

Scott, Kerry and Jett are taking SALIFE for a short bushwalk on their property to discuss two new films which hit cinemas in November, 2023. The first is The Musical Mind: A Portrait in Process, a documentary exploring the creative process of David Helfgott (the real-life concert pianist played by Rush in Shine) and three famous musicians whose lives were touched by the original film.

“The idea for The Musical Mind was sparked by the 25th anniversary of Shine and that I wanted to revisit David Helfgott,” says Scott. “We’ve remained close friends since Shine and I thought it would be interesting for an audience to see the impact that the film has had on his life. Then we connect other prodigious musicians who have had a link with the film.”

His other subjects are Daniel Johns (formerly of Silverchair), who says he has watched Shine innumerable times; Ben Folds who lived in Adelaide for several years; and pianist Simon Tedeschi, who as a child prodigy himself performed in Shine as a child, his hands standing in for the actor who played a young Helfgott.

The Musical Mind is the first cinematic release of new Adelaide-based production company May30 Entertainment, co-founded by Scott and Kerry with their close friend and entrepreneur David Chiem. Sons Jett and Scott work closely with them. “Our interest has always been in films that have the capacity to lift you up, rather than push you down, so the scripts that we’re developing are that sort of material,” says Scott. “The Musical Mind is in that vein, because we’re working with these musicians who all displayed amazing prodigious talent at a young age. They have very particular ways of looking at the world and that is manifested through their music. The film is a love letter to creativity and the positive dynamic of the creative mind. How it can be a redemptive factor in people’s lives.

“It’s been a wonderful journey of discovery. We went to meet the musicians in their homes, their private worlds, and in making a documentary you’re not working to a pre-scripted notion, it’s always an exploration.”

A scene from the new documentary The Musical Mind featuring Daniel Johns with David Helfgott who previously collaborated on a song for Silverchair’s 1999 album Neon Ballroom.

Even now, at the age of 71, Scott’s drive for filmmaking hasn’t waned. And meanwhile, the legacy of Shine continues under its own steam.

“It never goes away. Much of my working life to this day revolves around what is happening with Shine across the world in different ways. We just produced a 4k (resolution) version of the film, secured a new distribution agency out of London to handle worldwide sales and it’s just being rereleased in South Korean cinemas. It’s embedded in my day-to-day life,” says Scott.

The films Scott has made in South Australia tend to be the ones he feels most creatively invested in. The Boys Are Back starring Clive Owen was shot on the Fleurieu with scenes at Port Elliot, Myponga Beach and McLaren Vale. Shine also features a plethora of recognisable locations.

“Again, there’s always this presence of music,” says Scott. “I’m fascinated with other people’s talent. I wanted to learn to play the piano, so I begged my parents for piano lessons. I continued for a few years, but when it got to the point where I had to make a serious commitment, I had other things I wanted to do, I suppose. But I always retained my fascination with the piano in particular.

“Daniel (Johns) talks about doing some of his best work when he’s moving between wakefulness and sleep. That in those moments, he has great access to his subconscious. They don’t teach you that at music school.”

In hindsight, Scott’s self-described “failure” to become a skilled pianist gave him an important understanding of what is required of musical greatness.

Ben Folds’ performance with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has been captured for a documentary to be released later this year.

“Well, we did turn out a musician,” responds Kerry.

Jett himself played a small acting role in Shine at the age of 12. And the making of the film spanned across most of the first decade of Jett’s life.

“When I was growing up, if I was asked what my mum and dad do, my answer was that they make Shine. I’d never known them to do anything else,” says Jett.

Jett went on to forge a music career, touring the world with bands including former group Tracer, playing in hundreds of cities in front of thousands of people. Jett’s now enjoying a more settled lifestyle away from touring and is working closely with Scott and Kerry producing documentaries.

“Some of my earliest memories are all focused on Shine in terms of the filmmaking side of the family. (Film production) was always present around the dinner table. But it did feel important to go and do something totally different. There’s a gravitational pull that sort of brings one back. Film was always there, and it has been my brother (Scott Heysen)’s life all the way through,” says Jett.

From childhood, Jett became accustomed to Helfgott’s quirks of personality with the pianist having become a close friend of the family.

Film production has been an intrinsic component of Jett’s life.

“I had known David from a young age and I realised that he was very insightful,” Jett says. “Even before the film was made, we were living in Stirling and we’d bring a piano in and he’d play. He gravitates to the piano like a dowsing rod. He finds it and has to play it.”

While Jett has produced music for many of his parents’ feature films and documentaries, The Musical Mind will be the first he has produced in creative collaboration with his parents.

“The journey you go on when you watch the film is one of discovery that mirrors the journey one goes on when composing a song, writing a story or performing live,” says Jett.

A second film to be released later this year is My Name’s Ben Folds, I Play Piano, which is a project that sprouted wings while shooting for The Musical Mind. This second film documents Ben Folds’ 2021 performance with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at Thebarton Town Hall.

Scott explains: “We were going to film Ben’s two Adelaide concerts to get the best version of two songs we needed for The Musical Mind, but it seemed like a wasted opportunity – why don’t we shoot the whole thing? We quickly realised that we had another film on our hands.

At the age of 70, Scott still has the motivation to make films, driven by his fascination with other people’s talent.

“It’s a love letter to Adelaide. He wrote a song called Adelaide, which he only ever performs here. In the film he talks how he lived at Port Willunga and so forth, so all these South Australian references are peppered throughout the film.

“I must say, it’s the first time in my whole career that I’ve made two films at once. It is a marathon, but once you get involved in a project, it generates its own energy and then you see it through.”

Producer of both new films, Kerry is an equally important part of the family’s filmmaking equation. The films she has produced throughout her career have grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide.

“My job is to keep everything else outside the bubble so Scott can be in the bubble directing the film,” she says.

For Kerry, the most heartening legacy from Shine has been the way it has changed society’s perception of mental health and disability.

“David’s late wife Gillian felt that the film had a huge effect on how people saw mental health in different ways. We received so many letters from people all over the world who said it had transformed how other people saw their children or themselves. It wasn’t a thing that just pertained to our culture, which I thought was fantastic,” says Kerry.

When the world opened up for them after Shine, Scott and Kerry could have bought a house in Los Angeles or an apartment in New York, but instead invested in 80 hectares on the Fleurieu.

Scott explains that while filming The Musical Mind, he discovered there were similar traits between each musician, particularly that each had a separate outlet to escape their relentless creativity.

“David Helfgott is either playing the piano or swimming, all day. And when swimming, he is playing music in his head; it’s a continual process. Ben Folds talks about the same thing – not being able to get to sleep at night, because of music pounding through his head,” says Scott.

“Music is in their minds all the time and the film really opened my eyes to that.”

It’s obvious that Yacca Paddock Vineyards serves as the family’s own source of escape and creative inspiration. For Scott, it is an escape in which to forget about creating for a while, only to find his way back to it with a sharper mind and fresh ideas.

While researching for Shine in the 1990s, Scott spoke with a concert pianist who told him that during a highly technical performance there are occasions the pianist can’t hear the music, only the rattle of the keys – a phenomenon he portrayed in Shine with great effect.

“The same pianist said to me that you can get lost in the performance. You have to let your hands find the way back, because if you start thinking about the notes, it will be derailed,” says Scott.

“It actually sounded terrifying.”

The Musical Mind: A Portrait in Process and My Name’s Ben Folds, I Play Piano have both enjoyed cinematic releases.


This article first appeared in the November 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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