Aliens on the football field! On the set of Australian sci-fi Occupation

When was the last time you saw an Australian sci-fi movie involving a football game interrupted by invading aliens? Oh that’s right: never. With the spectacular Occupation now in cinemas, Blake Howard shares his experiences visiting the set of this ambitious production. 

In the picturesque town of Murwillumbah, in the shadow of the aptly named Mt. Warning on the far north coast of New South Wales, Australian sci-fi film Occupation has descended on a local oval.

It doesn’t feel at all like the thick of an alien invasion. Except for a sea of trailers, camera tracks and cranes for the numerous shots they’re aiming to get in the day’s shoot, it could be any Saturday afternoon footy match. There’s a little string of markets lining the base of a grandstand, fake radio personalities and fake local politicians filling in all of the colour.

If you’ve seen the trailer for writer/director Luke Sparke’s highly ambitious movie you’ll know that the people of this sleepy Australian town are not in for an average night at the footy. Instead of the game providing the fireworks, the oval becomes ‘ground zero’ for an alien invasion.

In the words of star and contributing writer Felix Williamson – who played Henri in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – Occupation is about “an occupying force who comes and takes over this whole area and these normal people all have to get along (or not get along) and basically become some kind of guerrilla fighters.”

Charles Mesure, the seasoned character actor with an intimidating list of credits including Desperate Housewives, Xena: Warrior Princess and most recently Once Upon a Time, says that the major difference for Occupation is that, rather than telling a national or global perspective, it’s “how a tiny country town deals with invasion.”

Mesure elaborates on what appealed to him about the script: “It’s only when the crusty old characters and the young characters and the kids join together can we defeat the enemy. And I’ve never done anything like that before.”

Pictured: Charles Mesure

As you would expect, the filmmakers (and indeed this writer) wouldn’t want to spoil the film by revealing all the details of the plot. However, the eclectic, multicultural cast and crew are keen to share the films that influenced it. Star Rhiannon Fish feels it echoes Tomorrow When the War Began. Fellow star Zachary Garred feels it bears a resemblance to Children of Men, with the same sense of impending dread as The Last Wave.

Producer Carly Imrie says Luke and their core team were “going for that War of the Worlds, Red Dawn sort of thing. So it’s very universal.”

While the scale of Occupation is only hinted at on the set, we can now see in the early trailers that it’s pretty damn huge.

While the scale of Occupation is only hinted at on the set, we can now see in the early trailers that it’s pretty damn huge. The legendary New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison reveals that there was a strange sense of déjà vu reading Occupation. He’d had a dream while directing a short film many years earlier, in which giant alien aircrafts came down from the sky.

Pictured: Temuera Morrison

“I remember yelling ‘take me, TAKE MEEEE’ and I woke myself up,” says Morrison. “I just realised I shouldn’t have said any of this, (about) the similarities to my dream, because I just gave the whole movie away.”

Fortunately, that turns out not to be true.

Occupation was modelled in the mould of Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day and the producers relished the opportunity to cast a deep multicultural ensemble. The cast includes Morrison, Australian stalwarts such as Jacqueline McKenzie, Bruce Spence, Roy Billing and Charles Mesure, as well as an emerging cast including Dan Ewing (star of Sparke’s first feature Red Billabong), Stephanie Jacobsen, Rebecca Fish, Izzy Stevens and Zachary Garred.

Canadian Australian Home and Away alum Rhiannon Fish joined the film after another Sparke project stalled. Fish says Sparke is “a fantastic writer, so I would sign up to anything that he’s a part of. He writes these really powerful women.”

The Hong-Kong born Jacobsen, best-known for Alex Cross, The Sarah Conner Chronicles and Battlestar Galactica: Razor, says getting the opportunity to play a character with an arc from “innocent to lethal” and Sparke’s “genuinely collaborative” nature was “something really special.”

Morrison is surely worth the ticket price alone. His young co-star, Garred, calls Morrison the “shit-scariest individual in the world.” On the subject of what drew Morrison to the film, he jokes: “I don’t read the script, it’s winter in New Zealand, it’s bloody four degrees. This was on the Gold Coast.”

After trying to get a little deeper about why writer/director Luke Sparke cast him, Morrison leans close and whispers: “Don’t tell anybody, but I think he loved Jango Fett in Star Wars and maybe my name was on top of the list.”

Pictured: Stephanie Jacobsen

This global occupying force does not seem to be the challenge for the filmmakers to wrangle. Rather getting Occupation into cinemas is the primary challenge.

“Distribution in Australia is just a hard target market,” says producer Carly Imrie. “You can have a great script with a creature or a force, and they’re like ‘no’. They just want drama. People are itching to have creature features, horror and thrillers.”

Since these conversations, a little over a year ago, films like Get Out, A Quiet Place and Hereditary have been occupying the public conversation. There’s something in the collective consciousness yearning for genre movies. Co-writer Felix Williams revealed that writer/director Sparke has three genre films in the pipeline that all share “really genuine humanist ideas.”