MOVIES starring lovable animals – such as Red Dog or Lassie – are always family favourites. We grieve at their misfortunes and thrill to their courage and stoicism.
Oh how we yearn for a happy ending. And, then, when the lights come on, there isn’t a dry eye in the house…
Harnessing this theme is an upcoming movie by Mordialloc dance school proprietor and filmmaker Steve Kearney, which he describes as being in the same vein as The Castle and Crocodile Dundee.
Oddball – starring established local star Shane Jacobson and his ‘daughter’, nine-year-old Coco Gillies – is about (you guessed it) a dog – but one that has made a world of difference to a colony of penguins down Warrnambool way…
It’s a feel-good movie – based on a true story – about how maremma guard dogs ‘saved’ the colony on Middle Island, off the coast at Warrnambool in western Victoria, from foxes.
The wily predators had reduced numbers on the island – which is accessible at low tide – from the usual hundreds down to under 10 penguins in 2005. Thanks to the dogs there are around 200 now.
Maremmas are fiercely protective of their charges – usually sheep in Europe – but which can be any defenceless herd-type animal. Woe betide any fox or feral cat that tries to make a meal of them.
Once the dogs’ scent is prevalent, the sneeky predators know to keep away. And the maremmas are dedicated to their work – it’s all they know – having been bred for guarding duties over centuries. They are never ‘off duty’ preferring to sleep in the open with their charges.
Kearney’s creative juices started flowing when he and his family visited Warrnambool in 2007 to enjoy a Fun for Children festival and to visit his mother.
He and wife Lou heard about the maremma project of the year before in which a local farmer, Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh, had realised the potential for saving the dwindling colony using his two maremmas.
After badgering the council for years for permission, the dogs were trialled by his two daughters and had great success.
They stay on the island during the penguin breeding season from September to March and then return home when the penguins head out to sea to fish.
The project won the 2010 Australian Government Coastcare Award.
On hearing about it I said, “Now there’s a great movie idea,” Kearney recalled last week.
Making people laugh is in his blood: as a member of the stand-up comedy team Los Trios Ringbarkus in the 80s and early 90s he toured the world entertaining on stage, appearing on TV shows (including Friends and JAG) and filmmaking, spending 13 years in the US. One potential hit was Garbo, a comedy about garbage collectors in the early 80s: “We were ahead of our time,” he quipped, referring to the success of Kenny (coincidentally also starring Jacobson). He worked at all the major studios searching for the next big funny movie: it always eluded him.
Hopefully, not this time. With the ‘ball’ rolling, he visited Warrnambool regularly over the next four years searching for writers and film staff, arranging production and filming deals and ironing out all sorts of issues “until everyone got sick of me”.
His efforts have been worth it. Kearney received backing from Film Victoria and an advance from distributor Village Roadshow who “loved it”. Their support put a financial ‘floor’ under the movie and allowed him to secure Jacobson who he says fitted the part perfectly. He grew a bushy beard and “became the same shape as Swampy” by adding to his already well-rounded frame.’
During the two-week filming in May the weather was on their side – it rained just once. Only one dog was used in the movie which is expected to be on the big screen by school holiday time next year.
If it has only a fraction of the success of the two movies he likens it to, Kearney, who lives in Aspendale, will retire a wealthy man. Stay tuned.
Middle Island has been closed to the public – except for organised tours – since 2006 to protect penguin burrows from human trampling which can harm penguins, chicks and eggs. Closing the Island has also contributed to a huge increase in the colony’s size. Over summer, those wanting to visit can do a Meet the Maremma tour and experience the project firsthand.
The two original maremmas, sisters Eudy and Tula, spend five days per week on the island during the breeding season and on their days off live at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, meeting visitors and helping promote environmental conservation.
As well as Oddball, the project was the subject of a documentary by Erebus Productions viewed by 1.5 million in Italy and it featured on the ABC’s Catalyst program.