How to make ‘How To Make Gravy’ into a movie

Paul Kelly’s classic Christmas tune is becoming a feature film – here are three ways it could turn out

Adapting Paul Kelly’s beloved song ‘How To Make Gravy’ into a movie is a little like adapting ‘Waltzing Matilda’: a song so big, and so bloody ’Strayan, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Both tunes are ingrained in the national psyche, offering instant recognition as well as small but important narrative details. Given Australian culture is filled with stories about lawbreakers and nogoodniks, reflecting our convict past, it’s no surprise that both songs are about criminals. Banjo Paterson’s bush ballad famously focuses on a jolly swagman who camped by a billabong and met a not-so-jolly ending: deciding that suicide was a better option than facing up to his crime of stealing a sheep.

Joe, the protagonist of ‘How To Make Gravy’ – who is in jail for an unspecified crime, and writing a letter to a man named Dan in the days leading up to Christmas – is a less dramatic kinda dude, with gentler demeanour and a forlorn turn of phrase. He expresses remorse for whatever he did (“tell ’em all I’m sorry”) and speaks about the good ol’ days – hanging out with a woman named Rita (“I love her badly, she’s the one to save me”) and making gravy using his famous recipe (“just add flour, salt, a little red wine, and don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness”).

News broke earlier this month that the song – so iconic it spawned its own quasi national holiday – will indeed be fleshed out in an upcoming feature film adaptation, from Warner Bros. and the production company of musician Megan Washington. At this early stage, virtually nothing is known about it, including cast and crew and even the overarching tone and vibe. This means we can have some fun by wondering: what kind of experience will How To Make Gravy: The Movie be, and whose names will be attached to it? ‘How To Make Gravy’ is already an Australian musical classic – here are three ways it could become a cinematic one as well.

Recipe #1: an inspirational musical starring Paul Kelly himself as Joe

The cherished musician and troubadour himself takes the lead role. This marks a rare but not unprecedented screen performance: he played a racist farmer in One Night The Moon, in Rachel Perkins’ excellent, elegantly made 2001 musical western and morality tale. This version of How To Make Gravy: The Movie returns Perkins to the director’s chair and begins in jail, with Joe writing his letter. A slow version of the titular song soundtracks a series of flashbacks: a roast going into the oven; a family around the Christmas dinner table; Rita dancing (she’s played by Kaarin Fairfax, Kelly’s former wife and co-star in One Night the Moon).

Instead of being a story about Joe, this film is actually a meta-ish story about Kelly, using his songs to depict various aspects of his life and career. We’ve cribbed this self-reflexive approach from the musician’s own memoir (also called How To Make Gravy), which the Sydney Morning Herald said turned Kelly’s songs into “launching pads for sometimes eye-opening Australian histories, each with a personal twist.” Perkins – who also directed the movie musical Bran Nue Dae – will imbue the production with warmth and radiance, making it a thoroughly memorable oddball biopic.

‘How To Make Gravy’ is like ‘Waltzing Matilda’: they’re big, bloody ’Strayan songs

Recipe #2: a hard-hitting slice of social realism

Want a lovely time watching the ‘How To Make Gravy’ movie? Forget about it. This version is hard-hitting and confrontational, provocatively directed with a vérité aesthetic by Ana Kokkinos. She has form when it comes to in-your-face dramas, having helmed the debauchery-filled Head On and the sexual assault-themed The Book of Revelation. Played by Colin Friels, Joe is a gardener battling a long-time heroin addiction, married to his long-suffering wife Rita – played by Leah Purcell – with whom he has three children.

(Fun fact #1: Friels has played a junkie before, in 1982’s Monkey Grip. Fun fact #2: Purcell has played a woman named Rita before, in the long-running TV show Wentworth. Fun fact #3: Paul Kelly has even provided the music for a film starring Friels before, scoring the soundtrack to 2004’s Tom White.)

Colin Friels in 2018
Imagine Colin Friels leading a hard-hitting, social realist adaptation of ‘How To Make Gravy’. Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage

Rita finally leaves Joe after he starts using again, and so How To Make Gravy: The Movie continues a long line of Australian productions starring actors who deliver half their dialogue with needles dangling out of their arms (the greatest Aussie screen junkie, by the way, is David Wenham’s character from Gettin’ Square). Alone, on the street, and desperate for cash, Joe robs the house of a cashed-up yuppie, who comes home mid-burglary and catches him. This is why he’s in jail.

Nobody lives happily ever after; even the family dog dies, continuing the “canine carks it” theme prevalent in Australian cinema (see also: Snowtown, The Road Warrior, Red Dog, Tracks). The meal they serve to Joe in jail on Christmas Day is a roast – but the meat is tough and dry, and doesn’t even come with gravy.

Recipe #3: a broadly appealing drama about second chances

Time to cheer up, because this version of How To Make Gravy: The Movie stars the always fair dinkum and just bloody likable Michael Caton as Joe. The director is Jeremy Sims, who has directed Caton – best-known as Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle – twice before in tender, down-to-earth dramas: Last Cab To Darwin and Rams.

This film, set in a small town like a zillion other Australian movies, is bittersweet but life-affirming, with an ultimately cathartic ending. In this town the winds of change are a-blowing: the coal mine on which its local economy has long depended is about to close down, creating uncertainty in the community. Joe is a generous albeit occasionally cranky bloke who runs a local “men’s shed” initiative, helping rural and remote blokes connect with each other.

Michael Caton
Michael Caton in ‘Rams’. He could lead ‘How To Make Gravy: The Movie’, a broadly appealing drama about second chances. Credit: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Joe becomes a father-like figure to a troubled young man named Dan (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, recently nominated for an Oscar for The Power Of The Dog) who is a good kid but mixes with the wrong crowd. The pair have a fight one evening and Joe says something he soon regrets. Deeply upset, Dan leaves and accidentally hits a man with his car, almost killing him. Instead of ’fessing up he does a hit-and-run.

When the cops figure out it was him, in an inspirational act of self-sacrifice Joe invents a story and takes the fall to protect the kid’s future. This is why he’s in jail. In the last scene, Joe returns home to his wife Rita (played by Jacki Weaver) on Christmas day and everybody shares a lovely, perfectly cooked roast, with plenty of that sweet, sweet gravy.

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