Bill Leimbach, founder of Lucky Country Productions is a former photographer, cinematographer, director, and current producer with over 25 years of experience in the industry, both in nationally and internationally.
Born and raised in the United States, his interests in the visual medium of film and television started with photography, which led him to study cinematography in London, England. Upon completing film school, he took on multiple jobs, one of which saw him develop his first documentary, taking on the roles of cinematographer and director.
His love for the art of creating documentaries saw him work with the BBC, shooting anthropological films, or “tribal films”, in such places as the Amazon, Borneo and New Guinea. His fascination with tribal people led him to further travel and his willingness to travel to “remote places where people wouldn’t go” saw him gain reputation with his documentaries, which soon found him selling documentary ideas to the BBC.
This period of creating documentaries in the late 70’s and early 80’s are what he calls the “glory years” of documentary filmmaking when documentaries were allocated “20% to 25% of programming on ABC and BBC” with no reality TV to compete with. It was a period, he claims, where documentaries were respected and given reasonably sized budgets.
During his time in London, where he lived for 10 years, one of the jobs he took out of film school was a part-time position with the British Film Institute, where he ushered films and acted as a gopher. At some point during his employment there, the British Film Institute held an ‘Australia Week’, dedicated to showcasing rising, Australian talent, and their new wave of films. It was during this week where Bill found himself showing Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce, and Fred Schepisi around London. It was this week that was the catalyst of what would make Bill Leimbach take a keen interest in Australia, “I liked their attitude and their future… At that time in London, it was whingey, Margaret Thatcher times… There wasn’t a lot of good positivity, and being from California especially, I needed the sun”.
Bill’s motivation with regards to Australia, and its stories stems from his prior experience with tribal documentaries. “I was always interested in first contact – first contact in the Amazon, first contact in Borneo, first contact in New Guinea, and when I wanted to make my first feature film, I wanted to make my first contact story here (Australia)”. The result of this saw him write, while in London, Phillip & Bennelong, the story about the first governor, and the first aborigine captured, bought and living with him. Since then, he has lived in Australia for 30 years, and still doing historical films – “My heritage is heritage films”.
When asked about the leap taken from documentary film making to feature films (with his first feature film being 2010’s Beneath Hill 60), he alluded to wanting a change “I wouldn’t say bored… I just got more excited by the story, and the script, and working in a team like that”. He claimed that after a while, he found documentaries to be limiting as a producer, “you get the subject matter, you have to chase the subject matter and make the work in the editing room” as opposed to “making the work in the script”. He found working with actors, scriptwriters and directors to be a very fascinating process. This move away from documentary filmmaking he feels is a permanent move, “I’m not gonna go back… Documentaries are pretty dead. Everything is reality now”. He goes on to say that he finds the work more challenging and more rewarding with regards to film and television.
In the early 1970s Bill made such films such as ‘Balinese Surfer’, about the beginnings of surfing in Bali, and co-directed and shot ‘WOW’, a documentary about the Asmat tribe of West Papua. He would often shoot, direct and produce his own documentaries and sell these to the BBC.
In the 1980s he moved to Australia and formed Lucky Country Productions- which has made over 25 films for National Geographic, The History Channel, BBC, ABC, SBS, and other commercial networks. One of his first Australian documentaries, ‘Philip and Bennelong’ was about the first contact between Governor Philip and Australian Aboriginal Woollarawarre Bennelong. Most of Bill’s films have been based on history, particularly Australian history.
In 2010 Bill made his first feature film, ‘Beneath Hill 60’, a first world war film based on a true story. Bill was approached with the idea by mining engineer and WW1 history enthusiast, Ross Thomas, and soon realised that the story lent itself better to feature film than to documentary. Bill explains that now he has started on features, he is not going back- “documentaries are fairly limiting as a producer…you have to chase up the subject matter and make it work in the editing room…whereas in features it is more exciting working with the story, the script and with a team”
Beneath Hill 60 has been one of Bill’s biggest successes so far. It has played on 172 screens, was sold to 16 countries, had 12 nominations at the Australian film awards, as well as winning awards at the Savannah Film Festival in the USA. It has also sold ¼ million DVDS worldwide. Bill describes the making Beneath Hill 60 as the best year of his life.
Throughout his career Bill has adapted to the changing industry. He believes there is very little room for documentary on television anymore, and as a result, he has made a permanent move to feature films and drama on tv. The challenges of selling to commercial networks is high, he says “if you can’t tell a story in a 7 min commercial break then you just don’t find a place for it”.
Bill has also been compelled to focus more on television drama, as he believes film in the cinema is dying, that “people aren’t going to the cinemas” and there is simply not enough revenue unless it’s a hollywood blockbuster. He claims “if you don’t have a star, you don’t have a chance”, and that television drama is more appealing because it is not so dependent on bagging a big name.
This issue of piracy has also been one of Bill’s biggest challenges, with Beneath Hill 60 being one of the 88th most popular films on Pirate Bay. He says “my view on piracy is that it stinks, there has to be some way to evade it but you can’t stop it”.
At the moment Bill is working on 2 feature films. ‘Singapore Sunset’ is another war film. This time a drama about the fall of Singapore in WW2. ‘Banjo and Matilda’ delves into Australia’s heritage, a drama based on Banjo Patterson and the story behind the iconic song ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
In terms of the process of projects, both creative and business, Bill emphasised the fact that its very much an organic process once the everything starts to fall into place. The key relationships like in any medium or industry are paid the most attention (he chased the director for Singapore Sunset for over a year); however, once they are settled the rest of the crew and, to a certain extent, the cast starts to be built up from these core key relationships. It must be emphasised however, that while the key positions are paid the most attention, they rely just as much on the rest of the crew in order to function and fulfill their job.
Leimbach rarely directs anymore and focuses purely on producing. For him, his mantra within producing is to always support the director. This is particularly emphasised in the medium of feature films where the director is God, and it is the producer’s job to make their lives as comfortable as possible; in other words “paving the way for them.” This may or may not be agreed upon by all producers. it is fair to say that each producers has their own way of working; and in this instance it seems as if Leimbach would like to stay out of the creative collaboration and follow the director unless asked upon to collaborate.
This is in stark contrast to documentaries; something with which Bill has had extensive experience in. For him, God is the director in documentaries as the story and, to a certain extent, what you can film is dictated by what is available as “truth.” As a consequence, the process of creating a feature is a much more rewarding one than in documentaries. His only feature film to date, Beneath Hill 60, might manage to break even for many of its major investors, however, Bill describes the year of making that film the “best of his life.” The many benefits that can be procured from film are more often than not, intangible and nothing to do with money.
However, to fund Beneath Hill 60, money still needed to be raised. In this instance, the support from the local mining community in Townsville proved critical. Their passion for the story and for its own heritage had drove them help see out the making of the film. In his own words, “Townsville pitched the film to me.” This brings us to an important factor within the process, raising money from investors. Whilst Screen Australia and Screen NSW were certainly viable options, Bill has stated they gave “chicken feed” compared to private investors. Budding producers needed to think outside of the square and outside of only government sponsors, especially for bigger budgets. In order to attract private investors, Leimbach was adamant in saying he had to be strategic in who you go to. Someone who is emotionally invested in the story (and not just for money purposes) will prove a more viable investor. This can also be seen with his next slate of projects, where ‘Banjo and Matilda’ was pitched to the shearing industry (where they are passionate about this part of folklore). Its a delicate process, and one in which, when your investors become emotionally invested in the story, you must nurture just like you would with your director. However, all this can certainly be overwhelming for all parties; in a word of warning, Leimbach strongly suggests to work on 2 or 3 projects at the same time, and to never put all of your eggs into one project as many fall through.
Producing is undoubtedly a tough job, one that can encompass all aspects of the filmmaking process. Ultimately, however, it can be one of the most rewarding roles within the industry, especially knowing the amount of work you have put in to achieve your success. After a slight pause, the final question was answered with the same eloquence he approaches his producing work. Why this industry? “It’s a great industry to be in because it’s a full spectrum of people from the gaffers to the actors, to finance…it’s always changing…the number of countries I’ve filmed in, the number of people I’ve met along the way. It’s just one of the best jobs in the whole wide world”
Lucky Country Productions: http://luckycountryproductions.com
Beneath Hill 60 Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYOpCJCl5L4