The paparazzi were in full force at the opening night of The Sydney Film Festival at the majestic State Theatre. They were waiting for the usual suspects – Miranda Otto, Claudia Karvan, Rachel Ward, Rachael Taylor, Dick Wilkins. To everyone’s astonishment, three Lebanese guys sauntered up the red carpet dressed in matching tracksuit tops, with “Cedar Boys” emblazoned on the back. “Let’s just say that a few people in the hierarchy didn’t agree with it,” says actor Buddy Dannoun today. “I don’t think that it was a bad idea,” joins in Dannoun’s Cedar Boys co-star Waddah Sari. “It was a bit shameless,” admits Les Chantery, Cedar Boys’ leading man. “No one really knows who we are. We’re not Brad Pitt or Christian Bale; we don’t instantly warrant people snapping their cameras at us. We’re here to promote the film though. We’re happy to be shameless about it.”
If the crowd didn’t know them at the opening night of The Sydney Film Festival (SFF), then they hopefully know Buddy, Waddah and Les now. As the film festival wound up, Cedar Boys was publicly voted as the Best Film screening in Satellite venues (not at the State Theatre) during the festival. It’s ironic that Cedar Boys picked up this particular honour. FilmInk actually received a letter from a disgruntled reader who couldn’t believe that a film made and based in Sydney didn’t make it into the competition component of the festival, which also meant that it didn’t play at The State Theatre. “The Greater Union audience is our audience, and what they [SFF] were after in terms of competition films is a very specific thing,” says Cedar Boys’ most-diplomatic producer Matthew Dabner. “They want cutting edge and they want innovative. The innovative thing about Cedar Boys is how it’s been made, how it’s been shot, and how it looks for an Australian film. But the story is familiar…in a good way.”
The filmmaker and driving force behind Cedar Boys is Serhat Caradee. 41-year-old Caradee is short in stature and talks at a million miles an hour, his thoughts barely catching up with his words. He’s animated, passionate and inviting, and is also stoked to have his feature film debut as writer, director and co-producer hitting forty cinemas around Australia in late July. I met Serhat on numerous occasions throughout the process of making Cedar Boys. A few days before he started shooting the film, he invited me into his house to discuss how he’d arrived at the position of making his first film. Then on one of the final days of the shoot, I stood around as an extra for the final scene in the film, watching this human bundle of energy at work. In amongst the crowded and busy atmosphere of a film set, it was impossible to miss the director, and he was truly in his element. “I’d rather be a director with a strong vision who’s got a little bit of attitude than one of those directors that gets pushed around with everyone telling them what to do,” says Serhat tellingly.
On another occasion, Serhat and I met for a casual chat after the film had been completed. He wasn’t in a good place at the time. His mother was at death’s door, but he spoke proudly about how she attended the film’s cast and crew screening, despite being virtually blind. Serhat thought that the film had turned out well, and he was keen for me to see it.
Born in Turkey, but arriving in Sydney when he was just an infant, Serhat went to high school in Homebush before moving to Blacktown, in Sydney’s outer western suburbs, well away from the cliched inner-city filmmaker set. He tried acting but wasn’t getting the roles he wanted, so on the encouragement of his girlfriend at the time, Serhat made a couple of short films, which helped him get into the Australian, Film, Television And Radio School (AFTRS). It was at the renowned film school that he made the short Bound, which travelled the world and won numerous awards. Bound was a kinetic film about a Middle Eastern youth mistakenly chased by a cop, with tragic results. “I started writing Cedar Boys in 2002,” Serhat told me on the set of the film. “It was 172 pages long, and I showed it to a film school friend of mine. He read the first draft, and that was the first indication that it was worth continuing with.” After trimming the length through further drafts, Serhat applied for IndiVision (a Screen Australia initiative providing funding of up to $1.25 million to feature films) and was accepted. “I was getting frustrated from so much feedback,” Serhat admits now. “I had one TV broadcaster on board, I had Screen Australia on board, and I had a producer on board who wanted to turn the script into something else. They had ideas about turning it into a thriller or a romance. I just wanted to keep the crux of the story: it’s about three boys, and their dreams and aspirations.”
Cedar Boys follows Tarek, Sam and Nabil, three childhood friends now in their early twenties, who live in Sydney’s western suburbs and just happen to be Lebanese. “They want to become something,” says Serhat. “They’re sick of being marginalised by society. They just want to be part of the world. The reality of it unfortunately is that they’re surrounded by petty crime and it doesn’t take much for them to get involved in that. One of the things that I want to show is a young Lebanese man falling into a world of crime,” Serhat continues. “In the media, you see drive-by shootings or drug dealers, and no one asks why. Why do they cruise down Oxford Street in their cars on a Saturday night? You see it, but nobody asks.”
The film posits three dimensional characters for the audience to empathise with, but what’s even more impressive, and what will hopefully resonate with an audience beyond the traditional arthouse one that turns up to Australian films, is that Cedar Boys is essentially a crime drama. “I was reading Down And Dirty Pictures,” says Serhat, referring to Peter Biskind’s controversial book about the generation of independent filmmakers that changed the American movie landscape in the eighties and nineties. “Someone was talking about Reservoir Dogs, and how Tarantino made it. Even though it’s low budget, it’s a fucking genre film.”
An obsessive film fan with a home plastered in movie posters, Serhat insisted that his cast watch films that were influences on how he was going to make Cedar Boys. Scorsese’s breakthrough film Mean Streets was the initial spark that inspired Serhat to write the film, figuring that Australia should make a film about its own outsiders. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai was another influence. “I like actors that don’t push or ‘act’,” he says. “I like the inner monologue. I had to show the film to the whole cast for them to understand how that worked.”
The result is a breath of fresh air on the Australian movie landscape. Cedar Boys is not only about something – recognisable young ethnic men trying to fit into the Australian city lifestyle – but it’s cloaked in the guise of a gripping crime drama set on our very own mean streets.
Matthew Dabner grew up in country Tasmania. He wanted to be a writer, and the movie industry seemed like a practical way of making a career of it. After high school, Dabner auditioned for NIDA and didn’t get in. “AFTRS was really hard to get into; you had to have experience in the industry, so I had to go further afield,” says the sharply dressed Dabner, now in his mid-thirties, and enjoying a glass of red wine down the road from his inner-city Sydney office. “I ended up in LA, and I went to the University Of Southern California, which is the school that George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard went to.”
During his post-graduate year, Dabner landed a full time job with Icon, before returning to Australia and working with Alex Proyas on I, Robot. After four years, Dabner decided to go out on his own, co-founding the production company Film Depot with Louise Smith and Kath Shelper. The idea was to develop feature film projects and produce commercials. The reality was that too much time was spent on the commercials side, and the trio decided to go their own way. “As soon as we went our separate ways, within eighteen months, each of us had features in production – Louise’s was The Square [co-written by Dabner], Kath had Samson And Delilah, and I was working on Cedar Boys.”
Matthew Dabner joined the Cedar Boys gang in 2006. Up to that point, Serhat was working with Danielle Ortega, who was an AFTRS grad and had produced Bound. Due to conflicting schedules, Ortega approached Dabner to represent the film at SPAAmart, an annual event where filmmakers pitch their projects to prospective investors and distributors. Dabner met Serhat, liked the seeds of the script, and helped him focus it. Ortega soon dropped out due to her own documentary projects, and Matthew stepped in, joined by producers Jeff Purser (Fat Pizza) and Ranko Markovic. “For a while there, it looked like the project might fall over without a producer,” admits Dabner now.
“I had a film out that I was very proud of,” Dabner says today about The Square – which he co-wrote and executive produced – which suffered greatly with the 2008 box office slump for Australian films. “We were trying to be very different from your average Australian film in terms of genre and style and storytelling. I still wonder why audiences didn’t show up, but you’ve just got to tell stories that are meaningful to you as a filmmaker. We have to do things that are unique and distinctive. They need to have something going for them in terms of a satisfying emotional experience so that they can compete with American films.”
So what spiked his interest in Cedar Boys? “It’s an entertaining crime story,” Dabner answers. “If you’ve ever been an outsider, you’ll respond to this story. You’ll get where these characters are coming from. You don’t have to be Lebanese to understand it. Serhat would say that the film is about the boys and their camaraderie,” continues Dabner. “It’s not about all Leb boys; it’s about these three Leb boys, and their friendship. They’re very different to the characters in The Combination,” he says referring to David Field’s directorial debut, which was released earlier this year and attracted reasonable box office figures and even greater controversy when alleged fights broke out at certain cinemas showing the film. “They’re not gang kids; they’re good boys. If you could draw so long a bow, you could reclaim that as a positive for the community.”
For a while there, Cedar Boys was shakily undated in terms of a cinema release. Mushroom Pictures, who were behind Chopper, had signed on with a distribution guarantee (required of government funded films), but needed an active player in the market with an infrastructure to take Cedar Boys out in to cinemas. Soon after the film was selected for The Sydney Film Festival, Hoyts signed on and announced a July 30 release for the film. “Many of the bigger guys were nervous at the beginning,” admits Dabner. “They thought that it was just for these boys and not for a wider audience. The Combination has proven that that audience comes and sees movies. If we just get that audience, we’d be quite happy.”
The Combination was one of the first Australian films to break the glut of last year’s series of flops. It didn’t break a million dollars at the local box office, but at least people came. “It’s a very crowded marketplace for Australian films,” says Dabner. “The important thing was finding a date when all the serious Hollywood blockbusters were in play. Films with a young male audience are our greatest threat, not the other arthouse Australian films. We have a bit of a multiplex sell on the film. Aspects of it could be considered arthouse, but we’re trying to present it as entertainment. This is a film that you could go to your local Hoyts to see, and you could feel comfortable about paying your fifteen dollars. It’s got girls, it’s got cars, it’s got drugs…”
It’s also got Rachael Taylor (Transformers) and Martin Henderson (The Ring, Bride & Prejudice) in supporting roles. “We financed the film entirely before Rachael and Martin were involved,” says Dabner. “It was about finding the right people for the main roles, and then giving them the support of people who would be a bit more of a marketing platter for the film. Having said that, the only comment we got from Screen Australia was that they wanted us to make sure that we’d shaken every tree and searched as far and as wide as our budget allowed for the lead roles. Serhat had his eye out there for seven years; he knew what he was after. These actors have a real camaraderie on screen, and the fact that they’re friends really shows,” Dabner says about the three guys who turned up to The Sydney Film Festival in their “Cedar Boys” tracksuit tops.
Les Chantery, Buddy Dannoun and Waddah Sari, who play the three leading characters of Tarek, Nabil and Sam in Cedar Boys, turn up together for our interview at the film publicists’ office. Les immediately shows himself to be the extrovert, whilst Waddah’s the joker, and Buddy is the strong silent type. “It was a childhood thing for me,” says Les when asked when he was first bitten by the acting bug. “I used to put on plays when I was five-years-old. Mum said to me, ‘If you want to be an actor, you have to go to NIDA.’ That stuck in my head. I did a couple of things before NIDA, including the film Pitch Black. My agent was saying that I shouldn’t go to NIDA because I’d miss three years of work, but going there was the best decision for me.”
When he was a fifteen-year-old growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, Les admired Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. “They cried on screen and were openly vulnerable,” he remembers. “I thought that was cool. When it came to the acting thing, my parents were really strict,” Les continues. “I was dux in my year, so I went to study Law at Sydney Uni. When I dropped out to go to NIDA, my dad had a mini heart attack, metaphorically. He never actually said it to me, but I knew that if in five years after graduating that I hadn’t worked as an actor, then I’d better go back and finish my law degree. After three years of post-NIDA unemployment, I got the De Niro/Pacino gig in America [Les has a small role in the crime thriller Righteous Kill], and that restored my father’s faith.”
Les graduated NIDA in 2003. One of his teachers, Kevin Jackson, passed on his details to Serhat, who was on the lookout for Middle Eastern actors for Cedar Boys. “Buddy was in first year at NIDA at the time, and so we both got involved,” Les explains. “Waddah had done a short film with Serhat [Bound], and the character of Sam was written for him. We had a reading at Serhat’s house, and I thought the film was just thugs hanging out. I was just out of drama school, and I was told that these were the only roles that I was going to get – drug dealers, gang rapists and terrorists. I fell in love with Shakespeare at NIDA. When I graduated, I was thinking about The Sydney Theatre Company. I had a snobby attitude about film. To read a script where in the first two pages the word ‘Habib’ was there, I was like, ‘Fuck off.’ But then Serhat said that this was an opportunity to play three guys that represent each archetype of the Middle Eastern community. He said that he wanted me to play the innocence, vulnerability and shame of being Lebanese. We’ll have Sam be what you expect, and Buddy’s character will be what people don’t usually think about – the heady kind of guy. So if we’re going to represent, then we could get something cool out of that.”
Buddy Dannoun also grew up in Sydney’s west, and got into acting at school when he heard that Drama Studies “was a bludge”, although he admits that he loved movies from an early age, particularly ones starring Al Pacino. “Drama classes opened my eyes, and ever since then, I fell in love with it,” he says. “A year after I finished school, I found an ad in the paper that said, ‘AAA Actors’, and I signed up. Nothing happened, but at least a guy there told me about The Actors College Of Theatre And Television [ACTT]; I auditioned and got in. At the end of the year, Camilla Franks, who was in my class, and who is now popular for designing kaftans, said, ‘Do you want to audition for NIDA?’ I was like, ‘What’s NIDA?’ She got out in the first round, but I got right to the end. They said that they were interested, and to come back next year. I did come back and I got in. I never graduated though. At the end of the first year, due to a few problems, I was told to take a year off. I got married, and never came back.”
When asked what he thinks of the film, Buddy, now a father of two, is rightly proud. “One of my mates said that it wasn’t what he expected,” Buddy begins by way of reply. “He thought that the characters were going to announce how Lebanese they were. Instead, he said that he was watching a film about three boys, and not three Lebos. Yes, the actors are Lebanese, but it could have been anyone. That’s what I was striving for. I don’t want people to think, ‘These are Lebanese boys brought up in tough Lebanese areas that want to be on screen and act like themselves.’ It’s nothing like that. Serhat didn’t pluck us from the streets.”
Waddah Sari grew up in Sydney’s Liverpool, and met Serhat when they were both auditioning for the same part on the groundbreaking TV show Wildside. “I used to hang out at a youth centre,” remembers Waddah. “There was a youth worker who knew a Lebanese actor named John Samaha. John called up asking whether there were any Lebanese youths that might be interested in acting, because there was no one out there to audition for Wildside. It’s been ten years now, and I’ve done Water Rats, White Collar Blue, Bound for Serhat, and Two Hands.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it,” Waddah continues about his desire to act. “My mates wanted to be panelbeaters, builders and tradies. I’ll never forget my principal in high school asking me what I wanted to do when I left school. As a joke I said that I wanted to be an actor. She said, ‘You’ll never do it.’ And I said, ‘We’ll see.’ From then on, that’s always stuck in my head. She looked at me because I was Lebanese and thought that I couldn’t do it…but I did. My family have always been supportive. I used to ask my dad whether I should pursue it, and he’d say, ‘If Omar Sharif can do it, you can do it.’ Simple as that.” Appropriately enough, Waddah says that his inspiration for acting is Bruce Lee, who as a Chinese man had a difficult time breaking into the Hollywood system. “And Al Pacino, of course,” laughs Waddah.
As the film’s first public screening approached at The Sydney Film Festival, Serhat Caradee made sure to send me tickets to the sold out session. On the night, he couldn’t help but rush up in his inimitably manic way to tell me that I was sitting too close to the screen. With the rest of the audience behind me, I sat through the entertaining morality tale Cedar Boys, engrossed by the charismatic performances, Serhat’s unique vision of Sydney, and the heart rending finale. As the final credits rolled and the parochial crowd cheered, I was in a perfect place to appreciate the final line in the film’s credits: a dedication to Serhat’s mother, who passed away not long after the aforementioned first screening of the film. Cedar Boys is personal for everyone involved, and it will surely resonate with Australian audiences, Lebanese or otherwise.
Cedar Boys is screening at Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney on November 13 at 3:00pm. Click here for all ticketing information.