Rituals, routines and scandal

BLINDER is a new Australian film set in a world that's constantly dreamt about, perpetually depicted on TV, regularly written about, but rarely the subject of a movie: the world of sport.

It's not sport at the elite level, however. Blinder is set in a small coastal town that loves its football team, and its story unfolds among a bunch of players utterly caught up in the game. It's also about a scandal that rocks the club, a news story that will look familiar to anyone who has more than glanced at a newspaper headline over the past decade.

For director Richard Gray, making Blinder was an opportunity he'd always wanted. ''I grew up in Melbourne, immersed in football culture,'' he says. ''And I love American sports films, but always wondered why we didn't make Australian [sport] films, given that we are so nuts for sports.''

Watching American movies such as Any Given Sunday or Friday Night Lights, he knew he didn't need to master the rules of gridiron: the important thing was to able to understand what the game meant to people's lives.

Blinder grew out of a script written several years ago by Scott Didier, a businessman and one-time amateur footballer. Gray met Didier when he was directing a TV commercial for him, found out about the script, and started to talk about making it happen. Didier's friend Glenn Archer, the former North Melbourne champion, came on board as producer, alongside former players Sam Kekovich and Adrian Gleeson.

Gray and his wife, Michele, worked on some rewrites, and within six months they were shooting.

One of their models, he says, was the US TV series Friday Night Lights, a spin-off of the 2004 movie, a terrific drama about a small Texas town and its relationship with its high school gridiron team. For Gray, it was a guide to how to make the world of sport count. ''Even at a high school level, it's life or death.''

Research meant close observation of the rituals, routines and details of a local club, and being reminded, he says, of ''how much fun it is at the grass roots level''. He also drew on memories ''of being 17 and 18, when being a player was all you wanted to be''. The key was ''getting to the heart of ''why sport, and friends you make in sport, can mean so much'' and then ''finding a device that would threaten it''. Even at this level, there are always a few players with greater ambition, who might have the chance to play at the top level.

When it came to deciding the details of the scandal, Gray says they wanted to show what took place after the publicity had died down, ''what happened to the people, what happened to their futures''. Blinder has a link with one of the few Australian Rules movies to have been made: the presence of Jack Thompson, playing a coach, just as he did in the screen adaptation of David Williamson's play The Club, directed by Bruce Beresford in 1980. ''When Jack got on board he was amazing,'' Gray says. ''The younger actors just loved working with him.''

The phrase ''after the game'' has real significance. Gray decided his football scenes would involve ''playing games out for real''. There's a fair amount of game time on screen, and the filmmakers went to some trouble to find the right way to depict it at close proximity, and convincingly. ''We rigged golf carts to run with players, and got in handhelds to get under the packs to give perspectives we hadn't seen before,'' he says.

One of the challenges, in filming, was that they selected their cast for acting rather than footballing abilities, although they did their best to build up their actors' skills in the lead-up to the last fortnight of shooting. Of his two leads, Gray says, Oliver Ackland ''is not a massive unit, but he is representative of a lot of the players we saw running round''. Josh Helman - who recently appeared in Jack Reacher alongside Tom Cruise - has more of an AFL footballer's physique. ''He's ripped, we modelled him on the look and walk of Wayne Carey.''

Blinder opens in cinemas on March 7.

This story Rituals, routines and scandal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.