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ELLIOT, GEORGE: THE CROP

THE SMARTEST DINGBAT IN TOWN
They said he was a dingbat, he didn’t have the brains to be a bricklayer, now he’s written a movie, The Crop, stars as its lead, and raised over $5 million to do it. George Elliot is the sort of dingbat whose smarts are hidden under a naďve front, as Andrew L. Urban discovered. He’s also charming and very determined.


His headmaster at primary school called him Professor Dingbat; “he thought I was stupid,” says George Elliot, whose first feature film script is The Crop, in which he also stars as the lead character, Blade. The film is financed by his own efforts, and had its gala premiere at the Hoyts multiplex at Sydney’s Penrith Plaza on August 18, 2004. It’s distributed (through Roadshow) by his own newly formed company, which raised an extra $1.2 million (also privately) to market the film nationally. Elliot also raised the $4 million budget for the production. Dingbat he ain’t.

On the day he turned 14 years and 9 months he was able to legally leave school – so he did. Told to go to the school’s vocational guidance counsellor, Elliot was asked what he wanted to do. “I had no clue… I’d seen them working on Long Bay jail across the way and I said I wanted to be a bricklayer. The counsellor said I didn’t have the brains for that, but maybe I could get a job as a builder’s labourer. So that’s what I did.”

George Elliot was four when he arrived in Australia with his parents from Scotland. A year or so later, the working class lad was sent to a school “full of Aborigines” and couldn’t understand a word anyone said. And no-one understood his broad Scottish accent, either. He ran messages, cleaned up the yard and generally wasted time. He learnt very little, hence the Dingbat tag.

When it came to high school, he was allocated to attend Matraville High. “The school wasn’t built yet,” he says ruefully, so he was sent temporarily to Daceyville High, where he “hung about getting into trouble for a year. When I got to transfer to Matraville a year later, I began to see what school was about – but it was too late. I fumbled my way through until I turned 14 years and 9 months…”

"a good but tough life"

From builder’s labourer to racing car driver to executive producer/writer and star, George Elliot has had a good but tough life. In between, he spent some time in the 80s as a bouncer and bar-body, which is where he found the inspiration for The Crop: in real life.

Ron ‘Blade’ Gillette (Elliot) runs a strip club in the 80s, and when random breath testing is introduced in Australia, his takings plummet as patrons take to smoking dope and drinking water as they perve on the girls on stage. With debts to pay and cops to pay off, Blade and his mate Wack (Rhys Muldoon) decide to become farmers: growing marijuana on the country property owned by the father of Blade’s girlfriend, Geraldine (Holly Brisley). Blade borrows cash for the seeds from loan shark Wally (Bruce Venebales) but when crooked cops steal the buds they’re back to square one. Unless they can steal them right back.

The story pivots on the introduction of random breath testing, which Elliot regards as the biggest turning point in Australian lifestyles (for young people) in memory. He was working in the leisure industry at the time, so he saw it first hand. “Night clubs and strip joints were really hurting,” he says.

But the trigger for writing a screenplay was not the issue of drink driving or the loss of bar profits. He had earlier experienced one of those moments that later prove life-changing, during a forced break from motor racing, after an accident. He worried that it was getting harder to raise sponsorship for his career. “I wanted to write and star in my own hit movie.” It was a specific thought, complete with the phrase ‘hit movie’. Perhaps it’s obvious, but he never contemplated making a flop. (But he never gave a thought to accolades, and forgot to enter the film in the AFI Awards. “I did it as entertainment, not for some award,” he says.)

He began writing, in long hand, all capital letters, in thick writing pads. It started life as a novel instead of a screenplay, since he had no idea how to write a script. Six weeks later, his brother Ian read it and passed it on to Bryce Courtney, with whom he had done some work. “Out of the bluer one day, I got a call from Bryce,” says George. “When I told him iyt had taken six weeks to write, Bryce said to throw it in the trash and go back to driving cars. He said ‘I take two years to write a book!’ And I said well, you can’t be very good at it then.”

But joshing aside, that single introduction lit the fuse that would burn its way to his debut feature film – after two fairly successful novels. The MSS Bryce Courtney wanted trashed ended up (after being keyed into a computer by Mrs Elliot) on Courtney’s more serious suggestion, at Margaret Gee, a respected reader. “If she likes it, it’ll be a winner, he told me,” says Elliot.

"you can’t teach people how to tell a yarn"

Gee gave it the thumbs up and Elliot took the MSS to the book fair, found the publisher with the biggest stand (Hodder Headline) and gave it to the lady who ran the show, publishing director Lisa Highton, who still runs the show. “He’s a real mover and shaker, that George,” she says. “And smart. All power to him. I signed him up because he’s immensely plausible – very entertaining and charming and he can tell a story. The technique can be sorted out, but you can’t teach people how to tell a yarn.”

Elliot was signed to a 2-book deal; Final Custody was followed by Terminal Greed. But he stopped short of a third novel, trying to get back to his original plan of writing a screenplay. That’s when he worked up the storyline for The Crop. “I showed it to a couple of production companies and they loved it, but they wanted to just buy it and make it without me.”

Elliot decided he had to do it himself. He acquired computer skills and got stuck into it. He got his old pal and tv producer from the race track, David Wood, to take on production chores, while he took up the responsibility of executive producer and went back to his old racing sponsors for finance. They coughed up. “I get people excited … I bubble with enthusiasm,” he says matter of factly, as we sit in the empty bar of the oh-so-trendy W Hotel in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, his publicist waiting at a discreet distance. His muscles bulge under smart casual gear, his energy flowing through every pore.

“The difficult part was to make people believe that I could make it happen,” he says. “It’s great to be naďve!” he adds laughing.

He then concentrated on “getting the right people,” and that began with meeting the late Moira Fay, fabled casting agent, just six months before her untimely death. “She took a liking to me…she believed in me. She told me to get a good agent and introduced me to Martin Bedford. Martin said he was looking for rough diamonds and he put me in training.” That led to other meetings and introductions, including Holly Brisley (a Bedford client) who landed the role opposite Elliot as Geraldine. “She had to be ditzy but with some maturity, to balance Blade, who is a bit immature. We hit it off and worked on our characters, which needed a lot of development.”

As his cast came on board, Elliot would rewrite the script to make use of each actor’s personality and strength. 

David Wood proposed Scott Patterson as director, and Elliot has nothing but praise for him: “he thinks on his feet, is open to ideas…I told him he should drag [the performance] out of me and ignore the fact I’m the writer and executive producer.” Patterson took him at his word, even when Elliot was doing his own stunts, being dragged around a field by a donkey and having to do several takes. He broke his left wrist, just before shooting a scene in which he is sparring in a boxing gym with a punchbag.

"Always looking for a challenge"

“I’m really an ordinary bloke,” says Elliot when asked to describe himself, “and unassuming guy, but I get bored easily. Always looking for a challenge.”

So he figured if Sylvester Stallone and Paul Hogan can do it, “so can I.” But until he started writing in laborious long hand for his first piece of fiction, he’d “never even written a note to the butcher!”

Published August 19, 2004

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