20 Years Ago: Inside The Castle

In March 1998 GARY STEEL met up with Michael Caton, otherwise known as Darryl, star of the breakout Aussie romp The Castle.

It’s an extraordinary time for Australian cinema, as it continues to develop its unique hybrid of manic comedy and poignant storytelling. The latest example of the genre, The Castle, was made in a rush and on a shoestring, but that didn’t stop it from becoming the romping runaway success of the year. It’s based on an unlikely premise and a superficially repulsive bunch of characters, which make the fun the film generates even more laudable.

The Kerrigan family are working class suburbanites who happen to live right next to the airport. When the authorities decide to forcibly take their land for airport extensions, dad Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is so outraged, he determines to stick up for his rights. Caton, in New Zealand briefly to talk about the film, is still reeling from its success and thanking his lucky stars. Before this, the man who played Uncle Harry in The Sullivans had been decidedly down on his fortunes.

“The success was reaffirming, because I had the backside out of my pants before The Castle,” says Caton. “I was thinking, ‘What can I do? It looks like I’m going to have to give the game away’. It was really tough, mate, but all of a sudden, I’ve got a whole new lease on life.

“Of all the things I’ve done – and I’ve been hanging around a bit over 30 years – I’ve never done anything where the public have been so warm towards me.”

It’s no wonder. Caton’s performance as the beleaguered but belligerent dad is brilliant. On one level, he’s just a blue collar drongo, a kind of Aussie Homer Simpson. However, he’s a larger than life character, who genuinely loves the simple pleasures in life and who stands up for what he thinks is right – and we love him for it.

“What I did with The Castle is I pulled all the externals back – tried not to be funny-faced – but at the same time turned all the internals up to an unreal degree. I certainly didn’t go out and study tow-truck drivers or whatever.”

The Castle was shot in 11 days and cost less than a million dollars to make, and it shows. Despite this, any roughness is easily made up for in riveting ensemble performances and lines which just jump off the screen (when they’re not made inaudible by audience laughter). In fact, Caton reckons much of the film’s charm is due to the intense shooting schedule.

“I wonder what would have happened if we’d had three months to shoot it. I don’t know if it would have been as good,” he muses.

“Every day, you’d finish and you were raging, mate. You were going harder at the end of the day than you were when you started. There’s nothing like a film shoot where you’re bored, waiting around. All your energy drops, and then they finally get you onto the set, you shoot half a scene, then you go away, wait a couple more hours and do the rest. It’s unbelievably boring.

“What we did on The Castle is shoot it with two cameras, so it meant you were shooting the scene in real time. It worked very well. They’d light both people, whack the cameras on them and away they’d go.”

Anyone who has chanced across The D-Generation (a popular satirical show) or the mean but accurate current affairs spoof, Frontline, will understand the talented team behind The Castle. What’s more, Caton says the family in the film was based on the real life family experiences of the creative team, “they just exaggerated them a bit”.

“I was a huge fan of Frontline,” Caton enthuses. “With D-Generation, they had been after me to come on the show, but (director) Rob (Sitch) used to show this tape of me that I did years ago on The Sullivans, where I spat the dummy and turned on the camera, and abused the producer after somebody was electrocuted for the third time with the electric toaster! I thought, ‘No way, he’ll show the tape, mate!”

Caton was thrilled when Sitch approached him to star in The Castle, and glad to play a comedic role for a change.

“The older I get, the more I hate baring my soul,” he explains. “In comedy, it’s the gags you’re going for. I come home after doing comedy and I’m a much nicer person. When I’ve been a homicidal maniac or a manic depressive all day… well!”

The Castle’s script won accolades at the most recent Australian film awards, but “Rob (Sitch) didn’t want to be around, so he went off to New Zealand to fish!” Caton, however, was at the awards, where he met the director and producer of the highly acclaimed British film, Trainspotting.

“They were so enthusiastic about The Castle. They’d seen it coming out in the plane, and they were in business class, so they didn’t see the cut version,” he says cheerfully. “There’s a cut version, with all the ‘f’s taken out. We had to go in and dub it, turning all the ‘f’s into ‘flamin’s. That whole scene with the photocopier had to go, because there was no way that could be cleaned up, mate!”

The film has come in for some stick for being patronising towards working people, but Caton rebuffs the criticisms.

“I thought that was a load of rubbish – it’s a celebration. I reckon the people who said that are working class traitors, trying to cover their arses with that sort of criticism.

“The characters are exaggerated. They aren’t as it is, but as you would like it to be. It’s a fantasy in that regard. It’s a comic style, so they’re exaggerated, but at the same time kids love the movie because the family is really close. Even the brother who is in gaol is loved and cherished as much as everything else.”

Finally though, aren’t these characters just too dumb to be heroes?

“Kerrigan might be dumb, but he does have his own tow-truck business, three cars and a boat. There is an astuteness about him. There’s a duality there, mate, but that’s comedy. It’s not Shakespeare!”

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