Andrew L. Urban journeys to the salt lakes of South
Australia’s deserts to meet bearded dragons - and the makers
of Zone 39.
Two blokes walk into a pub, The Standard, in Melbourne's
cosmopolitan suburb of Fitzroy for a drink and a chat: this is
what's called a creative think tank in Australian film making. A
while later they walk out with an idea for a feature film. It's
called The Zone, and it's science fiction, and it has political
undertones. The year is 1987, and the two blokes are film makers
John Tatoulis and Peter Bain-Hogg.
"We are in Zone 39, a
little in the future but a lot in the heat of South
Australia's deserted Woomera region." Andrew L. Urban on location
Do the time-warp jump to December 1995, and Tatoulis is
sitting in the director's chair under an umbrella with a
thermometer hanging off it, which registers 39 degrees C in the
shade. We are in Zone 39, a little in the future but a lot in the
heat of South Australia's deserted Woomera region.
Two bearded dragons (lizards, not crew) are resting inside a
shaded box to keep cool, waiting for action. Tatoulis, his face
bronzed, an iced-water towel tied around his neck, is also trying
to keep cool, as the shoot approaches its end after six weeks. We
sit side by side as the crew prepares the Tracum, the filthy but
futuristic 4 WD vehicle, for the next scene - the body of a
contaminated escapee (from the New Territories Union) is
recovered from the Zone. Peter Phelps, in a broiling, blue
protective suit and helmet - which has a tiny fan inside to keep
his head from melting - perspires quietly in anticipation.
Facing us, the white, salty sand of Island Lagoon shimmers in
the distance, pretending to be water, with a pyramid shaped
island rising out of the centre.
Behind us, the rocky desert floor rises some 20 metres into a
long, narrow topped ridge; the art department has built a vaguely
futuristic concrete bunker into the side of this little hill. Of
course, it is neither concrete nor the complete bunker, but the
carport and entrance to Megaw's border outpost.
"I was looking to
science fiction, or rather, science fact, as a genre," film maker, John Tatoulis
Megaw, played by Peter Phelps, is the soldier on solo duty
here, across the Zone from his opposite number, Boas, played by
Brad Byquar. Tatoulis believes Phelps' performance in this film
will propel his career towards stardom, with its range of
strength and vulnerability. Megaw represents all of us.
"I was looking to science fiction, or rather, science
fact, as a genre," says Tatoulis, "because I'm
interested in where society is going - and going rather quickly.
It started as a containable two hander, with Megaw's inner and
outer conflicts, and one other character, Boas . It was a cat and
mouse game, a bit Sleuth-ish, but more cerebral and emotional. A
mind game. But we had to flesh it out, and that's how we
developed the story."
This is where Deborah Parsons comes in, to write the
screenplay, from Peter Bain-Hogg's original 15 page treatment,
which followed the lubricated creative session at The Standard.
"We wanted her to work
on the darker edge of the story, and on the characters."
Tatoulis on Deborah
"We have worked with her before," says Tatoulis (she
scripted In Too Deep for Tatoulis and producer Colin South, who
is also produer of what has become Zone 39), "and appreciate
her scriptwriting skills. We wanted her to work on the darker
edge of the story, and on the characters."
For Tatoulis, it was a way of looking at the politics of the
future; "it's another storytelling medium and one that's not
been properly utilised here."
It may not be too far in the future, he says, that an
organisation, "run by someone like a Kissinger and a
Murdoch, becomes so powerful as to assume control: it's the
coming together of communications and political skill."
Tatoulis wonders how that "dangerous mix leading to a Big
Brother syndrome" might affect society and the individual.
"The heart of the film
is about how the individual deals with the death of a
partner, with aloneness and grief, in such a society."
But, he adds, "the heart of the film is about how the
individual deals with the death of a partner, with aloneness and
grief, in such a society. Isolation leads to a need for emotional
support - from any human being. That is the final
For writer Parsons, the combination of the film's different
levels - the sci fi, the socio political and the coming to terms
with a partner's death - makes this film unconventional. And it
was the death of her mother during the writing process, that in
hindsight, she says, coloured the whole script.
The character of Anne was originally in Tatoulis' scenario,
"just as a kind of wet dream; I came up with Anne after my
Anne (played by newcomer Carolyn Bock) is Megaw's pregnant
wife, and a computer operator who works for Central Union, the
peace keepers who are obsessed with maintaining control through
advanced technology; a Big Brother outfit.
When they believe she stumbles on sensitive information, she
is killed, although Megaw never realises it was intentional.
"When Megaw goes to Zone 39, he is really going there to
mourn her, and to be with her."
"But in coming to
terms with her death, he realises - too late - that he wants
This he does with the use of Novan, a drug he has smuggled in,
which allows him to conjure her up as if she were with him in the
"But in coming to terms with her death, he realises - too
late - that he wants to live."
While there are also some environmental messages through the
storyline, Parsons belives the film is OF the sci fi genre, not
IN it. And it is especially topical with its setting inside a
long term war - she is thinking of places like Bosnia.
Boas is a soldier on the other side of the border, Megaw's
counterpart and enemy.
"Although a peace of sorts has been negotiated between
the Federated Republics and the New Territories Union for
business reasons by Central Union," she says, "people
are still living with the long term prejudices against the enemy
- very much like they are in Bosnia today. At the end, Megaw
faces up to the fact that his enemy need no longer be his