There are two scenes in director Nadia Tass’ film Matching Jack, a peerless story of courage and grace, that typify her understated approach to making movies in an industry which revels in excess, sensationalism, comic book heroes, and over-the-top-in-your-face hyperbole, and both are more revealing than any on-screen explosion. Both involve the matchless Irish actor James Nesbitt, who radiates decency and provides an example of how life should be lived even when that of a loved one is being snatched away so cruelly.
In the first scene, after Nesbitt, playing an Irish father, has lost his son, Finn, to cancer in a Melbourne hospital, he goes into a shed he keeps by the water while a mother he befriended, whose son was in the same room and is suffering from leukemia, hesitates. While most Hollywood directors would have put the camera inside, Tass shrewdly leaves it out and, after a few seconds of silence that linger tensely, Nesbitt releases a roar and items are tossed out. After he takes his son’s ashes out to the sea off Ireland and prepares to release them, Tass brings the camera back to a respectful distance so that the audience shares the grief with compassion, and not as voyeurs. What has inspired that restraint?
Speaking to an audience in the Greek capital after a showing, Tass said she didn’t want to make a made-for-TV movie nor indulge herself. “The difference between cinema and TV is vast …. We need to have space and not get too close …. I wanted to stay apart. I thought it would have been wrong to go inside the shed when he was mourning,” she said. She was right, of course, and it shows throughout the film, a sensitive and lyrically moving story of two boys who are terminally ill – Finn, and his new hospital friend Jack. Jack desperately needs to find a marrow donor to stay alive, as his mother knocks on the doors of her husband’s many mistresses trying to find if he had another child who could supply the match.
Tass, primarily through Nesbitt, who brings the knowledge of a father’s pain while watching his young son’s fight to live, shows that even as life is ebbing away there is a need for breaks of joy and laughter. An American film would probably have flooded the screen with maudlin sentiment. It may be because Tass, 55, is not given to talking about herself and was raised by parents in the northern Greek town of Florina, a life she said kept her grounded. Her parents had the pluck to move the family to Australia when she was eight years old. It wasn’t long before she threw herself into theater, a background which has helped her frame her movies and television productions, in Australia and the U.S., where she lived in New York for two years in the 1980’s.
When it came time to make Matching Jack, she said she chose Australia instead of America because it was a movie that seemed more suited to a more intimate environment. “I wanted to make the film I saw in my head,” she said, although she was able to land 20th Century Fox as a distributor. Matching Jack, which should have earned Nesbitt an award as well, won Tass the Best Director prize at the Milan Film Festival, and stemmed from a pitch made by Lynne Renew, who shared the Screenwriting Award with co-writer David Parker. Tass said when Renew came to see her, they sat in the foyer and hammered out a film deal by the time they finished talking. “It was gripping when she was telling me the story. I did a whole lot of research at hospitals and exposed the writer to that. I was able to take the story to different targets.” Tass said she applied the same formula she believes makes all films great, and for which the story was perfectly suited, despite its tragedy. “It’s part of life and of always going towards the truth,” she explained.
Tass began her film career in 1986 with her first feature movie, Malcolm, the story of a socially inept man who nevertheless has mechanical skills he uses to rob banks. It won her 21 international awards, eight Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film, and showed the film world the promise of a director who understood bombast is no substitute for the universal truths that move most humans. The movie helped launch a series of other successes, including American films where she worked with actors such as Danny Glover and the late Sam Wanamaker. But she prefers the smaller stage of independent films, not surprising for someone with a theatrical background.
“Theater is about finding the truth in any one moment, it’s not about accolades,” she said. “When I’m about to do a job, if it’s a studio film, it’s an easy exercise because you know you have the money … as an independent film, it’s more difficult because you have to have the tools,” she said. “It’s not an easy task being a director and making films … but it fulfills me and I’m happy telling stories,” she added softly.
In Athens, she spoke of her craft after the showing, and pointed out her mother, Katerini, in the audience. It made her remember her time in Greece. “I had a really good time. It was a perfect childhood,” she recalled. But her parents decided to head for Australia in search of more opportunities. “Dad was a very aware man and he wanted a good education and better life, not to be stuck in the mountains.”
She entered school in Melbourne in the fourth grade and rapidly immersed herself in learning English. “We were part of the country and it was a conscious decision to be part of the world,” she said. “I retained my Greek, but as soon as I got there I entered the theater world right away,” and joined the Girl Guides, the Australian version of the Girl Scouts. “We had a lot of exposure to theater in Greece,” she remembered. She became part of the country’s national theater while a student but dropped out of law school and then studied child psychology. “I wanted to understand the behavior of human beings,” she said. Her exploration of the psyche, rather than baser elements, shows in her films. As she stood before the Matching Jack audience in a downtown Athens theater, Tass, who’s not given to screaming messages in her sublime films, had something to say about this project, a message that lingers. “I hope this will stay with you, and the essence will echo with you,” she said. Not many directors can match that.