The Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films has been around since 1996, when a handful of friends made a short that turned out good enough to warrant persistence.
Next Sunday, they’ll enjoy a moment in movies’ biggest spotlight: the Academy Awards. Among the nominees of Hollywood veterans and glamorous movie stars is Jacki Weaver, whose supporting actress nod represents not just her fine, disarming performance in David Michod’s crime film "Animal Kingdom," but the ascendance of Blue-Tongue films and its tenacious gang of mates.
"We’ll all be watching it from wherever we are," says Nash Edgerton, one of the group’s founders, speaking from Berlin. "It’s a long shot, but awesome that it got that far."
It’s been a remarkable year for the seven members of Blue-Tongue, which isn’t a production company or a business arrangement of any kind, but a loose group of friends who look to each other for help and inspiration.
Edgerton, a 38-year-old seasoned stuntman of many blockbusters, formed Blue-Tongue with his actor brother, Joel, and Kieran Darcy-Smith — the two of whom had just finished drama school. Their ranks have grown to include Michod, Luke Doolan, Tony Lynch and Spencer Susser, the lone American among the Aussies.
Edgerton’s gritty noir "The Square" came out last year to strong reviews. Doolan’s short "Miracle Fish" was nominated at last year’s Oscars. In April, Susser’s "Hesher," a film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman about a heavy-metal drifter that befriends a grieving boy, will be released. Darcy-Smith recently wrapped shooting on his feature directorial debut, "Say Nothing," a psychological thriller.
"It’s an incredibly positive time," says Darcy-Smith, speaking from an editing bay in Australia. "There’s been a lot of interest. It’s opened wider and more international doors. There’s a healthy kind of pressure that that brings."
The members of Blue-Tongue are typically scattered across the credits of their films. "Animal Kingdom" was written and directed by Michod, co-starred Joel Edgerton and Darcy-Smith, was edited by Doolan and includes special thanks to Nash Edgerton.
They aren’t bound by any aesthetic mantra, but their films do share a gritty realism, particularly in suburban sprawl environs and genre movie templates. They constitute one of the most exciting, hard-earned movements in years. Film Comment hailed them as "the Next New Wave."
In "Hesher," a father and son (Rainn Wilson and Devin Brochu) are shocked out of a stupor when a tattooed, often-shirtless maniac (Gordon-Levitt) moves in. Similarly, Blue-Tongue seems to be injecting a dose of energy into movies — a good, deserved smack in the mouth.
"I think the worst thing that anyone can ever say about your work is, Eh, it was OK,’" says Susser, speaking from Los Angeles where he’s prepping the film’s release. "You want people to be passionate in one way or the other."
It all started with 1996’s 8-minute "Loaded," which proved to the Edgertons and Darcy-Smith that they — despite having no film school training — could succeed.
"It just inspired us to keep playing, and we found that we played together well," says Darcy-Smith. "We were bouncing ideas off each other. There was a great collaborative spirit. We’re also all really good mates. … We’ve become, really, family."
Shorts have remained the group’s training ground, a way to get their names out there, prove themselves capable to investors and get familiarized with directing. Doolan and both Edgertons recently completed new shorts, including one by Nash, "Bear," that’s a sequel to his darkly comic "Spider," which was paired theatrically with "The Square."
"Everyone is continuing to keep it up, keep the ball in the air," says Edgerton, who’s currently writing a script for a film he expects to be bigger in scope than "The Square."
More than anything, Blue-Tongue functions like a support system. They share each other’s scripts, seeking constructive feedback. When one succeeds, it only makes the others more confident that they might, too.
"It was never something we talked about," says Susser. "It was this group of friends that liked making films — kind of our hobby."
Susser, 33, fell in with the Edgertons while they were all working on "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones." Though he grew up in California, he counts himself as a "wannabe Aussie." He filmed his short "I Love Sarah Jane" in Australia, and is working a script of a feature-length adaptation.
Blue-Tongue’s kinship is partly based on their shared interest in portraying emotional authenticity — whether it comes in a crime drama like "Animal Kingdom" or a Zombie film like "Sarah Jane."
"I really like stuff that’s honest," says Susser. "Whether it’s fantasy or crazy or really silly, I like stuff that feels grounded. I feel like we all have that in common."
It’s an inspiring tale: a group of filmmakers, thousands of miles from Hollywood, striving for years to build themselves into feature film directors, many of them arriving with their first movies at once.
"After years and years and years of plugging away at home and getting into a lot of debt," says Darcy-Smith. "It’s great now that it’s finally come to what I always thought it would: a film."
With movies in the pipeline and scripts in the works, Blue-Tongue may be just getting started.
"I’m keen to see what everyone does with a little more money and doing something a little bit bigger," says Edgerton. "Now, at least, some people will return our call."