The Cult of Director Esben Storm’s 27A and In Search of Anna (Part One)

*contains spoilers and course language

“We were the three musketeers of the film scene,” said Brisbane born actor Richard Moir (1950-) about himself, director Esben Storm (1950-2011 heart problems) and producer/director Haydn Keenan (1951-). For a period, from their late teens onwards they worked and socialised together, creating some classic Australian cinema.

(From left) Richard Moir, Haydn Keenan and Esben Storm at Cannes in the mid-1970s. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

The three of them collaborated on the early New Wave of Australian films 27A (1974) aka 27a and In Search of Anna (1978) and were thus key figures in the industry at the time, even if those two movies could be termed ‘arty’ compared to the tits and arse and colonial features which were being churned out by mainstream Aussie filmmakers at the time. But the truth is that these two films, particularly 27A, are key to the emerging art of cinema which had already swept the world in the 1960s – social realism being one strand… While In Search of Anna was even more ambitious and original in its cinematic predilections.

27A (1974) DVD cover

Once upon a time, Australia wasn’t the progressive country it is seen as today and some of its filmmakers tried too hard to change this in the beginning! Esben Storm, Haydn Keenen along with their friend, Richard Moir, did it all with young and fertile imaginations and small change. They believed what they delivered was something special… and this led to a case of perceived hubris. But more on that later.

The film 27A, which was directed by Storm, produced by Keenan and features Moir in a small but effective role, also features an award-winning turn by actor Robert McDarra (1931-75 long illness, possibly alcoholism) as it tells of a mental institution where patients are kept virtual prisoners by a law which, in fact, did once upon a time exist in the Australian state of Queensland.

Director Esben Storm

The trio followed it up with another cinematic exercise, a masterpiece in fact, in terms of narrative, In Search of Anna, starring Moir this time, with Storm as director and Keenan in the lesser role of sound editor.

It is these two films which I will concern myself in this article as well as a couple of Keenan’s later movies which are cult items in themselves.

Storm was a Danish immigrant who came to Australia as an eight-year-old after unscrupulous lawyers displaced his farmer father in Denmark. Storm’s father Laurits built his son a darkroom using his own labour and it is said Storm’s “little man fighting the system” in 27A was inspired by his father’s plight.

Producer of 27A Haydn Keenan in his youth. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

Storm met Keenan at University High School in Melbourne where they fell in with a group of like-minded students who loved to create photography and film. Before they were eighteen, the pair had lied about their age and formed their company Smart Street Films. With little work available in Melbourne, the pair moved to Sydney where they got jobs at the Commonwealth Film Unit. It was there that Richard Moir worked as well as a fellow “shit-kicker”. Moir had been to the National Institute of Dramatic Art but dropped out after the tragic death of his younger teenage brother David of a heart attack during a track meet.

Actor Richard Moir in the early 1980s

Storm and Keenan started to make short films, which would eventually win the pair awards.

“There was a lot of dope-smoking and acid,” admits Moir, who said he even tried heroin for a spell in the early 1980s, only to quit when he woke from an overdose in his garage one day. It shook him.

“Richard gave me my first joint, actually, in the back of a Hillman car listening to Astral Weeks,” said Keenan about the days, when as students, they were all investigating themselves. “I miss the acid,” said Moir, recently, as he broke out the book on The New Science of Psychedelics to show that the drug is now taken more seriously these days.

To talk Moir and drugs seems to make him and his associates appear to be druggies when he and they are not. It was just a sign of the times and Moir had a successful career as an actor before it was curtailed by Parkinson’s Disease in the 1990s. it was no secret that Storm liked to celebrate as well… it was the late 60s and early 70s and they were young.

Cecil Holmes was a mentor to Storm and Keenan

But back to Storm and Keenan and their surprise win one evening at a Sydney competition for their short films in the early 1970s…It was something which led to their mentor from the Commonwealth Film Unit, Cecil Holmes (1921-94) to encourage them in their dream to make a feature film. Holmes was a Communist who had been blacklisted due to his politics. He had made the film Three in One (1955) in the 1950s which featured a story by fellow Communist Frank Hardy (1917-94 heart attack).

“Get out there and just f*%king do it, son,” Rhodes told them about their dream.

What remains today of the Wolston Park psychiatric hospital

So, Storm spotted a newspaper story about Section 27A of the Mental Health Act in Queensland which told of a lawyer in Brisbane who got a patient, who had been kept against his will in Wolston Park psychiatric hospital for around two years for simply being an alcoholic, released… and therein the seed of the screenplay was eventually sown.

To raise the budget for the movie, which was around $37,000, Keenan picked up a suit from a charity shop and got a briefcase and went to the richest street at Point Piper in Sydney and knocked on doors. After a couple of refusals, Keenan came across one of the richest stockbrokers in Sydney “with a crystal glass of whiskey in his hand” and “he said: I’ll give you three minutes and four minutes later I had the budget”. The only proviso being that the stockbroker’s son would have a role in the production of some kind.

The production office of 27A on Crown Street. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

Money sorted, next came the casting and by now Storm and Keenan had a shingle outside an office, which was decorated with one colour posters of their short films, on Crown Street. In walked Bill Hunter (1940-2011 liver cancer), who after 27A would become a stalwart Australian actor winning awards for Newsfront (1978) and Gallipoli (1981) and appearing in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and as the dentist in Finding Nemo (2003). He would play the male nurse in 27A and following his appointment came the casting of the lead in real life alcoholic Robert McDarra.

Robert McDarra as he appeared in 27A (1974). Photo by Haydn Keenan.

“He was a fantastic actor,” said Keenan about McDarra, who was a Shakespearian actor of some note in Australia during the 1950s. Piecing together a possibly apocryphal story about McDarra, and it begins when Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh visited Australia in 1948. They saw Peter Finch perform with his Mercury Theatre on a factory floor and were impressed enough to invite him back to England as they said he would be a hit and he was. Cut to 1957, and McDarra was appearing in a production of Macbeth at the Independent and Finch was in Australia around that period making Robbery Under Arms (1957). Finch asked him to come over to England where he said he would be a hit but McDarra declined.

Peter Finch in Robbery Under Arms (1957)

“I think he regretted it for the rest of his life. I think he drank a lot,” said Keenan.

McDarra helped form the Q Theatre in Sydney which, like Finch’s Mercury, also performed on factory floors and building sites and McDarra worked as a producer for Q Theatre too but his credits aren’t plentiful beyond its first productions. His founding performance of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter for Q Theatre in 1963 was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as “impeccably professional… characterisations were vivid, exact and idiomatically correct”.

Actor Robert McDarra

So, McDarra was versatile enough to be performing various types of plays in the medium from not only treading the boards but also on work sites – all to good reviews. Thus, he remains a bit of a legend.

McDarra would do other productions at the Independent Theatre up to around 1971 and had appeared on television, occasionally, from the late 1950s. He appeared with another well-known alcoholic actor John Meillon (1934-89 cirrhosis) in My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? (1968-69). Radio also kept McDarra busy and he also had a minor role in the classic Australian film about alcoholism and drinking Wake in Fright (1971).

“McDarra kept it together for the filming,” said Moir about the actor when they worked together on 27A. McDarra looks painfully thin in 27A and he would die in 1975, only a year or two after the shoot.

The film was made at a real hospital and the crew pitched tents on the grounds, with each tent containing its own microcosm of vegetarians or drinkers or acid people. There was a communal bonfire.

Richard Moir (left) at the tent city which sprung up for the shoot of 27A. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

“…It was a fantastic, wonderful experience, one of those things you get into film for,” said Keenan about the eighteen-day shoot of 27A.

The filmmakers knew at the time of making it, that they had something special in the can in terms of performances. Keenan admits they wanted to shoot in Super 16 but no-one would adapt their camera in Australia. So, it was shot in 16mm and it wasn’t until the last 20 years that the “full aesthetic of the film came into its own” according to Keenan, when it was restored digitally. At the time, when the film was finished, Storm and Keenan didn’t have enough money to blow it up to 35mm which was a set-back for the film’s distribution.

A scene from 27A with Bill Hunter and Robert McDarra. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

27A could be termed social realism as it follows McDarra’s alcoholic character Billy as he finds himself in an institution and unable to be released, due to Section 27A. He must escape half the time to get a break from this hell where he doesn’t really befriend any fellow inmates… or he must rely on compassionate means as his wife lies dying in a hospital at one stage. Not that he cares for her enough to speak to her and he is slightly estranged from his daughter who gives him a few bucks when they meet. The end of the movie reveals the full tragedy of the family.

Esben Storm (left) on the 27A set with sound recordist Laurie Fitzgerald. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

The horror of Billy’s predicament is shown at the beginning when he is marched down a hallway by Hunter’s nurse, stripped and forcibly made to shower in front of other patients. It’s a great scene and the hand held camera gives it a sense of immediacy as they go down the hall to the bathroom. It’s one of those things you couldn’t do with Panavision! You can see why Storm and Keenan admired the Cinema verité or truthful cinema of filmmakers like Haskell Wexler (1922-2015 in sleep) who made the classic Medium Cool (1969) which was filmed during actual riots in the United States.

On set of 27A with McDarra (left) and Storm both shirtless. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

Storm’s, as well as Keenan’s, aesthetic was of the New Wave in France, England and the United States. Storm was more interested in making films of that sort at the beginning of his career before he got distracted by easy to fund mainstream productions. While the film should have been shot in Queensland where the 27A law originated, it was shot in Sydney, which gives it a sense of dislocation and alienation which adds to the realism in a way in that those who are kept in hospitals get removed from society and are further alienated themselves. There is a certain depth to be found in that element.

Richard Moir tells James Kemp he ain’t nice in a scene from 27A. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

The film begins and ends with the voices of alcoholics rambling in the darkness, some of them singing badly in the ether and on the ether. It could be some sort of purgatory – and it is, the beckoning limbo of 27A! It is a chorus of lost men who want to remain lost.

Poor Billy, after his humiliation in the bathroom as an introduction to the hospital, they won’t even turn off the light in the bedroom to let him sleep – it turns out that if they do want you to sleep, they will just drug you.

Out in the yard with the other patients, including Richard Moir, Billy admits to being a “pisspot” to which Moir replies: “A psychopathic personality with schizophrenic palpitations plus and enormous amount of alcohol substituted for the self.” Moir seems to be the modern and sane voice among the ‘inmates’ of the hospital. He tells us that it’s only the indigenous, immigrants and the poor who go mad.

Bill Hunter (centre) would go on to win awards for his acting. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

The film got nominated for a couple of AFI Awards and that was in a Best Film category and McDarra for Best Actor. As Storm and Keenan were sorting out a distribution deal for the film, they went down to Melbourne where they surprisingly won both categories.

Call it naivete, of whatever you like, but they got up on stage and said to the audience that all those people who thought that young people couldn’t make a movie could all go “get stuffed”. It is something similar to what the first female Melbourne Cup winning jockey Michelle Payne said in 2015 to those who thought that a woman could never win that race… But whereas she was congratulated, Storm and Keenan had trod in it. Producer Hector Crawford (1913-91) who was head of leading Australian tv production house Crawford Productions wrote a letter to the newspapers saying that this was “appalling behaviour” and this isn’t the type of people we want in our film industry!

The type of thing dashed off by Hector Crawford in the 1970s

“We flew back to Sydney at Market Street to sign our distribution agreement and there was the press clipping on the desk to greet us,” said Keenan, and the distributors tore up the agreement then and there and threw them back out on the street.

It took some time, and a Government subsidy, but, thankfully, 27A got a release finally at the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne mainly due to the theatre getting that subsidy which guaranteed against loss.

A newspaper ad for the Melbourne season of 27A

But the film “went down really well”, according to Keenan. And there at the opening in Melbourne something happened…

“…In the foyer afterwards, women were making a bee-line for Richard – and Esben and I were looking at each other… I’ll never forget it… we were looking across the f*%king foyer and, hello, we’ve got a screen idol here!”

And that was the beginning of Richard Moir’s Australian acting career.

“It was palpable,” said Keenan, about a star being born.

Richard Moir went on the star in Heatwave (1982) with Judy Davis. Here’s the trailer

Moir, incidentally, gets a credit for assisting in the editing of 27A under T. Richard Moir, the T standing for Thomas. His father was a Thomas also but the actor was called Richard as is the practise. Moir had a number of jobs as a film editor before his acting career including one for a current affairs programme featuring award winning journalist Mike Willesee (1942-2019 brain cancer). But his graduation to acting, due to being attractive to women, would eventually make him an Australian star for a time. And he proved he could act too!

“It’s a bit rough around the edges,” said Moir about 27A, although he affirms: “but it’s pretty good for an Australian film.” Smart Street Films had a contract to make a number of short films after they had finished with 27A and it led to the production of In Search of Anna.

With Storm writing the screenplay and directing and with a budget of $250,000 which, according to Keenan, “wasn’t very much considering what it was” … In Search of Anna is Storm’s masterpiece.

We look at In Search of Anna and Haydn Keenan’s cult films in PART TWO.

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