Short film with big heart wraps in Gundagai

Director of photography Dan Freene and director TJ Power check an image while shooting The Bus to Birra Birra. Photo courtesy of Geoff White Photography.

As they say in the film industry, “it’s a wrap” on The Bus to Birra Birra – a film by TJ Power that finished shooting in Gundagai on Monday.

The film’s stars and crew were in town for three days after a Kickstarter campaign raised enough money last month to see TJ’s dream of making the short film come to fruition.

As the son of Gundagai native Gerard Power, the actor and director has strong links to the town, and says he was proud to bring the production of his second short film here.

Based on a true story, the plot centres around Tom, a guy on his way home from prison who befriends a young woman, Arielle, on a bus headed to Birra Birra.

TJ describes the film as “a short drama with heart, humour and hope”.

“When I heard the story I thought it would be great to film but didn’t know where I would film it. Then I thought ‘of course, Gundagai’ because of the family link,” TJ said.

“The great thing about Gundagai is there’s no fuss, and everyone is just genuine and lovely and willing to help out which is so refreshing because it’s not always like that everywhere you go.

“I’m also proud of Gundagai myself, as a Power. I’m grateful that it lived up to its expectations for me and I was proud to present it to my friends (who worked on the film) and eventually to the world when they see the film.

“I’m so grateful for all the community support we received in the form of accommodation, a lot of help with logistics, walkie talkies, generators, things like that. My family here (aunties Judy Hay and Jill Jones and cousin Marty Hay) helped out so much, and the Niagara Cafe and the Nangus Turkey Pen, where we filmed, were lovely and so easy going.”

While a lot of the filming took place on a moving bus, five still locations were used throughout the district, with Gundagai’s famous Niagara Cafe kindly shutting down for business on Sunday afternoon for the shoot.

“That’s where most of the main dialogue happens and it’s just a perfect location,” TJ said.

“The design of the place is so unique, you don’t find that anywhere. No one would think to design a set like that, it was great in there.”

Embarking on The Bus to Birra Birra, TJ and his team are following on from the success of his first short film, Your Call Is Important To Us, starring Andy Lee, which scooped a swag of industry awards both in Australia and overseas.

“The last film was really successful and kind of exceeded our expectations but still it was my first film, so with this one we’re trying to step up our game a little bit,” TJ said.

“It’s not a farce or a comedy (like Your Call Is important to Us). There are funny moments, but it’s a drama this time. We’re also trying to step up the game in terms of production value, so we want to step up the tier of festivals that we are accepted into. It’s also kind of proof of concept for a feature length film as well as proof of our work as a film making team.

“I’ve seen a lot of short films, especially recently, and I don’t think there’s a short film that’ll be like this one. There’s a few documentaries shot out in regional areas and a few comedies, which is good, but none that romanticises the landscape. The others kind of use it as a setting but are not romanticising it like we’re hoping to do.”

The idea for the film came after a friend of TJ’s met a man on a bus who was on his way home from prison.

“He had 10 to 12 hours to get home from prison, but he had to report to his parole officer in eight hours, which automatically put him behind the eight ball,” TJ said.

“In the film, a friendship is formed on the journey and, like the true story, this story kind of explores how we don’t all start at zero but we’re all made of the same stuff. Despite how we are brought into this life or what advantages or disadvantages we have, there’s more in common that connects us than we care to realise a lot of the time.”

“Living in America I see a lot of separation of class over there, but because I live in California I also see a lot of people trying their best to bridge those gaps, which is great,” TJ said.

“This film, although it’s more a serious tone to what I’m used to doing, it offers what I hope is a feeling of connection. I hope it brings people together rather than perpetuates this gap between people of different backgrounds.

“They meet on the bus to Birra Birra and they both judge the books by their covers. But unexpected moments of kindness bring them together and then they’re invested in each other’s journey.

“By the end, we don’t quite know what happens to them. The audience can decide or read it how they like.”

Towards the end of this year, the film should be ready for TJ to start submitting on the festival circuit both in Australia and overseas.

While he has appeared alongside Julia Roberts on the big screen and starred in Network Ten’s Offspring, directing is where the theatrically trained actor is heading, with a goal to bring more positivity to the world through his work in film.

“I’ll always be an actor because it’s so much fun, but I’d love to direct, to just create content. I want to create things that add joy to the world,” TJ said.

“I don’t really have any interest in doing dark, gritty, bleak stories, which is quite fashionable now, and that’s fine, but I don’t have any interest in that unless they add something positive to the world somehow. I just don’t really want that to be my contribution.

“While this is a drama and kind of has some sad tones to it, there’s still hope and two people connecting who otherwise wouldn’t.

“With Your Call Is Important To Us so many people who saw the film said to me, ‘now when I’m put on hold, I laugh’, which is great. With this film, I hope people say, ‘I met someone the other day and I was able to help them’. That’s what I want to do – create content that changes people’s lives for the better.”

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