20 April 1927|
|Died||19 April 2004
Burstall was a key figure in Australian postwar cinema and was instrumental in rebuilding the Australian film industry at a time when it had been effectively dead for years. He created groundbreaking Australian films including Stork, Alvin Purple, End Play, Eliza Fraser, The Last of the Knucklemen and the 1986 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel Kangaroo.
Burstall also launched the film careers of many well-known actors including Bruce Spence, Jacki Weaver, Graeme Blundell, Jack Thompson, John Waters and Judy Davis. His wife, Betty Burstall, an important figure in her own right, founded the pioneering La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in the late 1960s. Many leading Australian 'new wave' playwrights including David Williamson had their first successes there, and Burstall was an integral part of the fertile creative scene that centred on the theatre.
Speaking just after Burstall's death, Williamson said that Burstall "couldn't stomach" Australia's lack of a film industry. "He was determined to do something about it and he had the energy and spirit to do it. (He) was a very important cultural figure: highly intelligent, widely read, with a succinct and often highly controversial opinion on everything."
Burstall was born in Stockton-on-Tees, England in 1927 and his family came to Australia in 1937 when his father took up a chair as professor of engineering at the University of Melbourne. He attended Geelong Grammar, where he was taught by historian Manning Clark. His parents returned to England after World War II but he remained in Australia. He graduated with an Honours Arts degree from the University of Melbourne in 1946. He met Betty, whom he married, at the university. They built a mud brick house at Eltham, Victoria.
Burstall originally wanted to be a novelist and thought that if he worked in film it might be a way he could get into writing. He went to work for the National Film Library with a view to getting a job at the Commonwealth Film Unit as a scriptwriter. He worked on a series of documentaries, editing and writing for the Antarctic Division. He became interested in film making when he saw The Wild White Stallion at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
He and Patrick Ryan established Eltham Films, in 1959.
Burstall's first film was a black-and-white short, The Prize, which won an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. It is the story of a boy who wins a goat in a fairground competition, then has it stolen from him, and it featured Burstall's two young sons in acting roles.
Working with other leading Melbourne film identities including David Bilcock, Dusan Marek, Giorgio Mangiamele, Gerard Vanceburg, Allan Harness and composer George Dreyfus, Eltham Films made many short subjects, including acclaimed documentaries on modern Australian art and the early children's TV puppet show Sebastian the Fox, which first screened on the ABC in 1962-63. Burstall later described Sebastian as "one of the first recessive Oz heroes".
Eltham's Australian art films encompassed the contemporary internationally recognised artists of the Melbourne set—including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, John Brack, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh -- and these films proved influential in the formation of Burstall's views on Australian cultural identity. The Eltham documentaries also covered Australian historical figures, aboriginal bark paintings and the treasures of the National Gallery of Victoria. Together, Eltham Films and Collings Productions were the main contributors of a filmed record of Australian art in the 1960s.
In 1965 he made two films for the Commonwealth Film Unit -- the documentary Painting People, an overview of the work of some of the artists he had surveyed in his earlier documentaries, and the children's film Nullarbor Hideout. He also collaborated on the Eltham Films production The Magic Trumpet, an animated feature co-directed with Dusan Marek.
From 1965-67 he travelled to the USA on a Harkness Fellowship and studied scriptwriting with Paddy Chayefsky, directing with Martin Ritt, and acting with Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in New York.
La Mama Theatre
On 30 July 1967 the La Mama Theatre opened in Carlton, Melbourne. The theatre was the brainchild of Tim's then wife Betty Burstall and was modelled on the "off-off-Broadway" theatre of the same name in New York City. It was inspired by their trip to the United States - they wanted to re-create "the vibrancy and immediacy of the small theatres there". It became a hub of cultural activity—within the first two years of its life twenty-five new Australian plays had premiered there, and La Mama also fostered new works from composers, poets, and filmmakers. The theatre gained considerable notoriety in 1969 when Alex Buzo's controversial play Norm and Ahmed premiered there, leading to the arrest and charging of several of the actors by the Victorian Vice Squad for the use of 'obscene' language.
Post USA career
Burstall earned a place in Australian cinema history as the writer and director of the feature 2000 Weeks. Released in 1969, it was Australia's first locally-made feature film since Charles Chauvel's Jedda in 1955. Although it was a commercial failure and was savaged by the critics, it was an important influence on Bruce Beresford and Phillip Adams when they came to make The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in 1972. The poor critical reception of 2000 Weeks affected Burstall strongly. It's clear that the hostility to the film and its serious tone, combined with his close contact with APG, were instrumental in changing his views on film-making, and led to the making of the more populist Stork and Alvin Purple.
Burstall then formed a new company with Pat Ryan, David Bilcock and Rob Copping, Bilock and Copping with the view to making commercials to fund features. They made the short Hot Centre of the Earth, then Burstall briefly returned to documentary for the making of the cult surfing film Getting Back To Nothing (1970). He looked at making a film called Filth and had money to develop it but then decided to make Stork instead.
Stork appeared in 1971, and was a moderate commercial success. Burstall raised the money for the film by selling several of his Arthur Boyd paintings. It also marked the first screen credit for acclaimed playwright David Williamson, being an adaptation of one of his first plays, The Coming Of Stork, which had premiered at La Mama in 1970. The film featured most of the La Mama/APG ensemble including Bruce Spence, for whom the title role had been written.
Williamson went on to work with Burstall on three more films, Petersen (for which Stanley Kubrick praised Burstall for his direction and Jack Thompson for his acting), Eliza Fraser (the first major Australian period drama) and Duet for Four. After forming a new production company, Hexagon Productions, he produced, directed and co-wrote (with Alan Hopgood) his next feature, Alvin Purple, which held the record as Australia's most successful film release between 1971 and 1977, and is one of the key works in the revival of Australian cinema in the 1970s. Alvin Purple was a defining work in the so-called "ocker" genre, films that were deliberately pitched at the mainstream popular market. It was a huge commercial success in spite of almost unanimous critical disapproval, and it was also very significant as a marker for the revival of the local industry, being the first locally-made feature to include significant backing from a local theatrical chain.
Burstall estimated that he made $120,000 from Alvin Purple. Later Hexagon films performed less well at the box office and in 1980 Burstall made a film for another company when he took over filming of Attack Force Z.
He also worked extensively in television, directing episodes of series including Special Squad, Return to Eden II, The Man from Snowy River and Water Rats. His miniseries Great Expectations: The Untold Story was the first co-production between an independent filmmaker and ABC TV.
Recognition and achievements
A portrait of Burstall won the 1975 Archibald Prize, but the artist, John Bloomfield, was controversially stripped of the honour after it was revealed he had painted it from a magazine photograph (the prize stipulates that portraits must be painted from life).
Burstall won a number of Australian Film Institute awards for his work and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Honours 1996. His wife Betty had been similarly honoured in 1993.
On the evening of 18 April 2004 Burstall suffered a massive stroke while attending a screening of his short films, organised by Eltham Council, the Melbourne suburb where he made his first feature, The Prize. He was taken to hospital, but died soon after, in the early hours of 19 April, aged 76. He is survived by his wife Betty and his sons Dan, a cinematographer, and Tom, a film producer and husband of actor Sigrid Thornton.
Awards and nominations
- 1960?: Venice Film Festival. Award for The Prize
- 1969: 6th Moscow International Film Festival - Golden Prize for 2000 Weeks
- 1987: 15th Moscow International Film Festival - Golden Prize for Kangaroo
- 1996: Member of the Order of Australia
- Sebastian the Fox (1961, director, children's television series)
- Nullarbor Hideout (1964, director, children's feature)
- Hombre (1967, assistant, feature)
- 2000 Weeks (1969, director and scriptwriter, feature film)
- Getting Back to Nothing (1970, director, documentary)
- Stork (1971, director, feature film)
- Libido (1973, director, one part of the four part feature film - "The Child")
- Alvin Purple (1973, director, feature film)
- Petersen (1974, director, feature film)
- Alvin Rides Again (1974, producer and co-director, feature film)
- End Play (1975, director, feature film)
- Eliza Fraser (1976, director, feature film)
- High Rolling (1977, producer, feature film)
- The Last of the Knucklemen (1979, director, feature film)
- Attack Force Z (1982, director, feature film)
- Duet for Four (1982, director, feature film)
- A Descant for Gossips (1983, director and co-scriptwriter, three-part miniseries)
- The Naked Country (1985, director)
- Kangaroo (1987, director, feature film)
- Great Expectations: The Untold Story (1987, director and scriptwriter, miniseries)
- Water Rats: Dead in the Water (1996, director, telemovie length first episode of Water Rats)
- The Prize (1960)
- Nullabor Hideout (1964)
- Kropp's Last Tape (1966)
- The Hot Centre of the World (1971)
- Three Old Friends (1974)
- Blues From the Jungle (1977)
- Australian Art (1960-63) - 13 x 10 minute films
- Painting People (1965)
- Sculpture - Australia (1969)
- Getting Back to Nothing (1970)
- Man in Iron (1960) - Burstall's first screenplay, about Ned Kelly - he only managed to raise half the £50,000 budget required 
- From the Other Island (early 1960s) - treatment about a juvenile delinquent who escapes from French Island prison
- Filth (1970) - based on an incident involving John Romeril's play Mr Big, The Big Fat Pig
- Pendegast (1974) - meant to be a follow up to Alvin Purple but they made an Alvin sequel instead
- Perry (2004)
- Murray p491
- David Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus & Robertson, 1980 p21
- MUP publication presentation.
- Hilary McPhee personal blog.
- MUP promotion video.
- ABC-TV appreciation.
- ABCRadio National-LateNightLive.
- Murray p493
- Murray p 495
- It's an Honour: Tim Burstall AM
- It's an Honour: Betty Burstall AM
- "6th Moscow International Film Festival (1969)". MIFF. Retrieved 2012-12-20.
- "15th Moscow International Film Festival (1987)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- Murray p492
- Murray p495
- Murray, Scott 'Tim Burstall', Cinema Papaers Sept-Oct 1979 p491 - 577.
- Obituary on Ninemsn
- Perry, Roland (2004) "Not just films but an industry too: Tim Burstall, Filmmaker, 1927-2004" (Obituary) in The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 2004, p. 30