• Interview: Sam Hobbs discusses Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan

In August 1966, in a Vietnamese rubber plantation called Long Tan, 108 young and inexperienced Australian and New Zealand soldiers are fighting for their lives against 2500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. Vice President Fiona Donovan APDG interviews production designer and APDG member Sam Hobbs about the film Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

In relation to the film “Danger Close” that you so amazingly designed –  how did you find your way into the world of this movie?  

There is so much to all of this. We had to be incredibly mindful of creating a world that was as grounded in reality as much as possible while still managing to express the story with economical, cinematic story telling. It’s the old tension of Telling v Showing in a big way. In that sense the Art Direction in a film like this has to do a lot of heavy lifting.

We were initially very lucky to have had an incredible visual resource of life for Australian soldiers in Vietnam in the form of a photographic archive compiled by our Producer Martin Walsh over many years. Martin had previously produced a fantastic documentary on Long Tan and was the original driving force behind the film. These images detailed the incredibly Spartan and haphazard conditions Australian troops endured at the Australian Taskforce base at Nui Dat and in the field particularly in the early years of the engagement in which the battle took place. Many of these images are not photos to be found in normal texts because they came from the collections of veterans.

Key texts for me were Lex McAuley’s The Battle of Long Tan, Richard Pelvin’s Vietnam: Australia’s Ten Year War and the incredible book by the English veteran war photographer Tim Page, The Mindful Moment.  

We also spent time talking to veterans who had served in Vietnam. Remarkable men like Bob Meehan and Wally Grieco from the Gold Coast War Museum. This was incredibly illuminating because it is really only by talking to veterans like these that you can get a sense of the minutiae of daily life – the rigours of patrol, rations, latrines, cooking, letters from home, trying to keep things clean and serviceable in a tropical environment, the drinking culture, living under canvas day in day out, brothel visits on leave …. the incredible sense of humour and also the toughness of (and for) these young soldiers many of whom were National Servicemen or Nashos. Then there is the incredibly technical component to soldiering and warfare – radio comms, weaponry …… the skill of combat itself. The way artillery functions for example is really mindboggling – fire control procedures, drills, mathematics, ballistics and sheer gut wrenching hard, dangerous work.

It is not simply about making a facsimile of the past, it is really about wanting to know how it felt to be there and then somehow expressing this physically and visually in our art direction. My key reference image for the whole project was actually of a young soldier sitting in a truck reading a book because for me it encapsulated everything that the film needed to say. Here was a kid in an ill-fitting uniform trying for a moment to escape the reality he was in. I really wish I knew what the title of the book was. It is an incredibly poignant image. The first two Australian soldiers killed at Long Tan, Pte Frank Topp (19) and Pte Colin Whiston (21) were just like him. The average age of these men was very young;  20- 21.

I had a remarkable moment when a group of veterans visited our set of the Nui Dat base on the day we shot the Little Pattie and Col Joye concert scenes. We had a small fire hut structure in amongst all the tents. It was pretty much a copy of a particular reference pic –felt very homemade and rudimentary. When one of the vets saw it he immediately broke down and started to weep. This one little set piece had triggered an incredibly visceral reaction – he was completely transported back to a place he said he really didn’t want to go back to but here he was anyway. We all realised that this was a big part of making the film – that we were opening up some pretty serious trauma in the wider Australian community and this was not just for veterans – it was also families who have suffered the PTSD fall out for over 50 years. It also greatly resonated with younger veterans who were involved.

When you receive the script what is the process you go through to get to the first day of filming?

Firstly I think about who the script is about and what does it mean for me personally. Where is the core point of view situated? The script of Danger Close by Stuart Beattie was conceived with the experience of Australian soldiers front and centre. It did not directly address the point of view of the Vietnamese were who engaged in the conflict. This is really because there was simply so much drama and internal conflict to cover in the Australian dimension of the story. I felt that the films value was as a story of survival and courage in the face of incredible odds. I also feel that it was a film of commemoration, not of myth making. This is a very important difference. None of us saw this as an exercise in flag waving. These events happened and many of the men who were there are still alive.

Initially I try and let the script simply work on my imagination. I look at a lot of images, fine art, photography to see what resonates creatively. I tend not to look at other films in the same genre at least. I normally try and put together a mood board or design treatment based on this investigation which becomes a creative tool to both collaborate and affirm an aesthetic in my own mind. Also design sketches of course and initial set concepts. This is ultimately the basic work of establishing the tone or aesthetic of the film from my perspective at least.

Then particularly for a film like Danger Close there is a lot of research and collating that work so it can be easily referenced and employed is very important.

While this is going on I do a complete script breakdown to both try and comprehend / internalize the scope of works required and what that means for the budget. I’d add that the art department budget is itself a creative tool and assists in a whole lot of discussions about what is really important in the narrative with director and producers. For me the breakdown is also an opportunity to see the film in terms of individual scenes and the meaning of each scene. I have a column for design notes and ask questions like how does the scene progress the story? who is it about? what is the concept or emotion of the scene itself? It’s also where I start to think about character iconography and set design. At this stage I also work up character and set dec boards. 

Crewing is key and I find it a particularly full-on process ie finding the group of people, skilled artisans, who are available and suited to a project and importantly passionate about it. I was very, very lucky to have assembled the group who worked on Danger Close and I thank Jodie Whetter (Art Director) for really helping me put this together particularly as I hadn’t worked with many of the Queensland crew before. 

Then there is of course the very special relationship with the director. My process in this collaboration involves a lot of visual communication as well as a lot of discussion in which we kick around ideas and investigate a whole series of creative questions ranging from story to character to visual style. It is essential in the process to drill down into the detail, to share the work that our department is doing and bring them into the tent wherever possible. It’s always critical not to have any misunderstandings and to make sure that a director’s feelings are respected and what they want is understood at our end. It is also a way of triggering ideas that hadn’t occurred to anyone. I had worked with Kriv Stenders on Red Dog: True Blue so I already had an established relationship with him prior to making Danger Close. He did an amazing job in bringing the film into a place where it could actually be made considering our very considerable budget short fall. Kriv is an intensely positive and energetic filmmaker and particularly believes in the creative possibilities of limitations – they are never seen as negatives. I love this because he brings such a dynamic philosophy to the table and he’s very open to other people’s ideas. He truly understands collaboration. We had an amazing day in pre where Kriv mapped out every scene of the film on a wall in the office and proceeded to wrestle with the form of the film until it came together. He basically cut away the non essential ingredients of the initial screenplay and reordered the structure of the film until it all fell into place.

Another major collaboration outside the art department is with the Director of Photography, in this case the brilliant Ben Nott. It really matters to me to understand how the DP and the director wants to apply a particular cinematic language or aesthetic to the project and how that intersects with a design aesthetic. I really enjoy creating possibilities in the way a set is designed and put together for them to exploit … things like how can the volumes and depth of the space work in terms of an actor’s performance and blocking, how can we facilitate angles and camera movement, how can we build lighting design into the fabric of the set itself through pracs, openings, wall details etc. All of these things need to be motivated of course in terms of design and story but I really believe in the flexibility of things to allow the director and DP room to move. This involves a lot of discussions with floor plans, tone and palette and lighting reference etc and Ben was deeply engaged with this process. He is similar to Kriv; dynamic on set and intensely devoted to his craft and how his cinematography can drive the emotion and storytelling of a film. 

It is also essential to bring the Producers into this bubble and make sure they are respectively engaged in what is happening. After all they’re the ones out there doing the incredible slog for this thing to even happen in the first place! On Danger Close we had the wonderful trio of Martin Walsh, John Schwarz and Michael Schwarz as well as the tireless Line Producer Peta Ross. These guys were backed up EP’s Andrew Mann and Justin Boylson in a serious way.

This is not to say the relationship is always plain sailing. One of our funniest points of contention was hiring a very expensive water buffalo named Walter that Kriv and I were desperate to have in the film. We understandably got a bit of push back for him but when you look back at the film Walter is a star – not because he does much performing but because an exotic animal like this instantly places the audience in a different world. He was absolutely worth the money and I’m very thankful John Schwarz let us have him! 

So while this “foundational” work is going on we are simultaneously getting on with the very real job of physically constructing the dramatic world that the film exists in. Again for me the breakdown is a key tool because from it we generate comprehensive job sheets for each mini department – large and small builds, graphics, signage, props makes, dressing plans …. I tend to work up these sheets and then sit down with each team. It helps me track workflow and consolidate information in one spot. They also ensure my messy note taking finds a home – as much a process of making me accountable as everyone else.

I am not saying this is a particularly ordered, linear process. It’s much more akin to a terrifying juggling circus act but I like to pretend there is a structure to it all.

Who made up the art department and set decorating teams on “Danger Close” and how did you work with them?

Jodie Whetter was Art Director, Emma Rudkin Set Decorator, Emile Oliver Props Master, Steve Taylor Vehicles, Allan Mowbray Armoury, Bern Castle Head Scenic, Mick Meehan Construction Manager, Peter Horden Greens, George Kabot Graphics, Brian Cox SFX. Whenever possible we held meetings with this group so we could co-ordinate things between each mini department. Jodie and I were very keen to make sure everyone’s opinion was respected creatively and logistically. It matters to me that everyone feels like they have some ownership in the process. We also had to work very economically in terms of time and budget so getting together helps! One of Jodie’s great qualities as an Art Director, as well as her suburb eye, is the way in which she nurtures crew and gets the very best out of people. The importance of this can’t be overstated.

Individually I try and carve out moments when I can collaborate with each of these creatives and also engage with the junior crew. It’s up to me to make sure the brief is clear and achievable. It’s a continual process of feedback really. A lot of talking and looking together. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes my thought bubbles may not be working and someone else might have a much better idea! It’s also critical to be as decisive as possible and to know that your indecision as a designer has an impact on someone else’s workflow and their stress levels. 

Our on set crew was led by Michael Kissane (Standby Props) and Mark Harman (On Set Dresser) who were simply great. Incredibly attentive to detail and respectful of what I wanted.

We also had a fantastic collaboration with Brian Cox and the SFX team. When I asked Brian would he like to be involved and sent him the script his response back was “I have been waiting my whole life for this script”. I was so blown away by it. Brian had been in the Army in the late sixties so it meant a tremendous deal to him to be involved. A lot of the really important creative work was contributed by his department – not just the amazing pyrotechnical work but also smoke, atmosphere and of course rain. As the battle largely was fought in a tropical storm this was incredibly important and Brian devised simple and effective ways to deliver these effects. One major idea that I wanted in the film was the symbolic idea of rubber trees bleeding. Brian and Bern collaborated to create simple tree skins that we could wrap around our Polonia trees and put special rubber sap squib hits in. This is a great example where a conceptual part of design is realised through creative and technical collaboration and it really matters.

I also have to mention the incredible work of the costume and webbing departments on Danger Close. We had a great working relationship with Lizzy Gardiner and Adam Dalli and their attention to the detail of both Australian and Vietnamese costuming was really phenomenal. We were also incredibly supported by Makeup. In particular I would note our “corpse” department collaboration where prosthetic bodies had to be turned over, re costumed, dressed into set … a lot of work goes into this and it relies on establishing really good inter-departmental relationships.

What were the biggest challenges on this project?

There were a few!  

Our first really big problem was location. We were shooting South East Queensland for Vietnam and most of the film is set in rubber plantations – both the Australian task force base at Nui Dat and the Battle of Long Tan itself. As there are no rubber trees in Australia we used two Polonia plantations one small one in Nerang on the outskirts of the Gold Coast and a very large one in Kingaroy. Polonia trees have a very similar look to rubber trees but are deciduous so our other battle was time – we had to get the film shot before the trees lost all their leaves – a process that began as soon as we got some cold nights in early Autumn. We then scenically treated key Polonia trees with textured tapping cuts and added half coconut cups to catch latex as rubber sap. We also shot in Pimpama for big bamboo, grasslands and for where we constructed our artillery battery and helicopter base known as the Kanga Pad. Mike McClean was a superb location manager and his experience was invaluable on the project.

Just maintaining and enhancing the greens on these sites was a really big part of our work. Peter Hordern and his team sourced a great range of exotics and probably every banana palm in South East Queensland. I also wanted to progressively degrade the location as the battle ran its course considering the huge amount of artillery and bullet fire that was unleashed. We created mock physical artillery ground hits that we could drag around and dress, and gathered large quantities of leaf litter and tree debris that we progressively built up. We also created lots of bullet hit pieces, splintered wood and sap elements that we applied to the trees again progressively building this up.

At Pimpama the great Mick Meehan and his brilliant crew did a wonderful job constructing the large rubber tappers hut where 11 platoon are ambushed. It was one of the only opportunities to express a Vietnamese building vernacular so we had a lot of fun with it. It was also a place to build real tension in the film while its interior is swept by Pte’s Whiston and Topp. For this reason we designed and lit it to underline their point of view – dark, spooky, foreign, a bit like a haunted house. It was a set where we could amplify their fear to the audience.  

The Nui Dat base set constructed in Nerang was a substantial set consisting of a lot of canvas tents and smaller built structures. The tents were all WW2 vintage so almost impossible to get now. Emma managed to find a few which we used to model the rest on and had them mostly fabricated. Every tent at Nui Dat was fortified to waist height with sandbags around its perimeter. We decided to mould and cast as many sandbag walls as we could afford for ease of movement in hero sets. The rest were real and we were very lucky to have a volunteer group of ex young vets (Iraq, Afghanistan) who were led by Shaun Barry from Extra Specialists. From memory they made 25 000 bags. When you’re low on budget that’s a really big deal and they were incredibly helpful to Set Dec and Construction in putting up canvas which is actually a very physical, laborious and skilled job.

The Nui Dat interiors and exteriors were incredibly important to Emma and myself because they were the real opportunity to really express the personal iconography of soldiers, whether officers or men, and to tap into more domestic period details. Emma and her crew did fantastic work in this regard. Emma has a phenomenal eye and it shows over all of the sets. 

Emile Oliver similarly brought all his years expertise to bear on the film in propping the film to an incredible level of accuracy. He and Emma worked fantastically as a team as well. The interior of the large tactical operations tent staged in studio really displays both of their talents as well as that of our fantastic graphic artist George Kabot.  

The other great challenge is to get the scenic finishes right. I love the collaboration with the head Scenic on a show and Bern Castle was truly great to work with as was Mark Dixon his foreman. Getting the canvas of Nui Dat to literally look like its sweating , to get the sandbags to look like they are about to disintegrate …then get the prop and vehicle finishing right – it is such a huge job and requires a high level of time management and artisanal skill. Every element in the film (just about) has their brushes applied to it.

Allan Mowbray did a superb job in putting together the armoury of the film. We also had to mould and cast a significant number of prop weapons – SLR’s, MI6 and AK47’s. This work was done by the fantastic sculpt/mould props making department lead by Tony Voevodin and brilliantly scenic finished by Bern and co. These guys also did a superb job moulding and casting our sandbag walls.

Vehicles were a big deal and again I was very lucky to have had Steve Taylor on baord. Steve and his posse assembled a small fleet of period Landrovers and International Trucks and other types of rolling hardware. We also had the problem of the Huey UH 1 choppers which we sourced from McDermott aviation – normally bright blue and yellow they had to be scenically changed using washable paint. Because of the time and cost we needed to do this literally the day before shooting and immediately on wrap. We came a little unstuck on a day with a lot of rain fx! We had to also convert modern Armoured Personal Carriers provided by the Army to be correct for the period. Again a great scenic treatment by Bern and his crew and Steve’s team assisted by our APC consultant Rocky Hema and the Army’s APC crews refitted the exteriors. We also had an original M113 APC which we used for interiors and some exterior shooting.

Our 5 gun artillery battery was similarly challenging. Again a lot of sandbagging – this time on a swamp in Pimpama that flooded. John Bowring came up from Sydney bringing two ingeniously rigged, functioning 105 Howitzers. This was done with enormous hydraulic systems to make their barrels recoil on firing – something they won’t do with pyrotechnical charges. This was a major contribution to the realism of these sequences. His pyrotechnical work was topped off with an ingenious sacrificial projectile made of foam. This meant we could get the actors to load the guns with a shell and projectile and then eject the spent shell from the gun once the pryo had been triggered by the firing pin and destroyed the foam warhead. A very successful magic trick. 

What does your art department space look like during the project?

It’s a bit of a mess! Like most designers I like getting things up on walls and have things lying around to chat about – concept drawings and mood boards, models, prop and set dec ref reference, vehicles, construction drawings, graphics, palette boards … everything visual that can be absorbed really.

For me the Art Department should really feel not just like our space but the creative hub of the production so that when crew visit they are also inspired from the director, producers and DP to the unit assistant. A lot of creative ideas flow from these moments when crew from other departments come by. They often bring personal stories, experiences, insights, ideas… It should feel welcoming and it should be fun. It is a place to affirm and celebrate our collective endeavour.

I would like to add that one person who loved coming in and sharing this experience was Jamie Leslie, our wonderful First Assistant Director who very sadly passed away earlier this year. We were very fortunate to have had this gentleman driving the ship. 

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