Eric Bana bought “the Beast,” a 1973 Ford GT Falcon Coupe, when he was a 15-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne. And he’s kept it, over 25 years that have spanned a successful stand-up and sketch comedy in Australia, an acclaimed break-out performance in 2000’s “Chopper” and Hollywood stardom that’s included roles under Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”), Ang Lee (“Hulk”) and Steven Spielberg (“Munich”). That car, the genuine relationship someone can have with an automobile and a five-day rally race held in Tasmania all factor into Bana’s rather unexpected directorial debut, “Love the Beast.” Part personal documentary, part automotive love story, the film follows Bana as he races the restored Beast with help from his childhood friends, interweaving the footage with meditations on the ties between man and motor car, and interviews with faces famous (Jay Leno) and not. I talked to Bana a few days before his film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29th about racing, car movies and the impact of “Mad Max” on an Australian boyhood.
A chicken and egg question: Did you want to make a film first and then decide to make one about your love of cars? Or did making a film on the topic seem a natural extension of this lifelong love you’ve had?
I always wanted to make a film, but it wasn’t something that was at the front of my mind. As someone who used to write a lot when he was doing sketch comedy and stand-up, I thought, well, if I ever have an idea for a narrative, one day I’d love to do it. But I wasn’t writing scripts with an eye to direct or anything like that.
[“Love the Beast”] came about because my producing partner Peter Hill has a company that makes a lot of surf documentaries. I don’t surf, but I remember watching them one day and saying to him, “The thing that really annoys me about car films is they never made me feel the same way I feel about surf films.” When I watch a surf film I feel like I know what it must be like to surf. And car films kind of do the opposite.
The idea just grew. I one day went, “Well, essentially what’s not being captured is this thing that I’ve experienced in my life and that relationship with a car.” And as I thought about it, I realized that turning that into a documentary was its best chance to work, better than a narrative. It was born out of a desire to tell an emotional story.
That said, you’ve got some beautiful footage of racing. Can you tell me a bit about that aspect of the film? There are cameras mounted on the car and inside, and also a lot of helicopter footage…
Once I decided to make [the film], it was with an absolute intention to make it as cinematic as possible. I didn’t want to approach the production cheaply. I wanted it to look as great as it could with the budget and tools that we had, based on the amount I’ve been exposed to [with] photography and the fact that as a driver I know what it’s like to be in the cabin. I wanted the audience to feel that.
You bought your car when you were 15. Do you know anyone else who’s held on to their first automobile for as long?
Not personally, no. I’ve heard stories of people who have. Jay [Leno]’s had a few cars for a long, long time.
What’s the status of the car now? The end of the film finds it in need of some work.
It’s still as you [last] see it, unfortunately. I’ve just been so busy with the film. If I hadn’t made it I probably would have fixed the car by now, which is quite ironic.
As someone who grew up in a suburban town, do you think that a suburban upbringing can be vital to a love of cars?
Most definitely. Distance was a big factor when I was growing up — to visit your mate, it’d be 30-40 minutes on your BMX bike. So you dreamed of getting your license because having a car was an essential part of how you got from “A” to “B.” There was no public transport infrastructure where I lived, or very little. So it was a given that you needed a car to get to where you needed to go.