In 1987 my life changed gears: new educational institution, new home and new relationship. Although I was drained from the breakdown of my marriage to Julia, I still managed to jump straight into a relationship with one of my fellow NSWIT students, Nikki. She was not only very striking but also possessed a sharp mind, a thirst for knowledge and an affinity for animals. She too had just come out of a failed marriage. Everyone was urging us to take it easy and go slowly – but we didn’t. This was mostly my fault. As we both needed somewhere new to live, it made sense to me for us to move in together. So we did – into a one bedroom flat in North Sydney, near Brett Whiteley’s place at Lavender Bay. Just me, Nikki…and her two guinea pigs. Can’t say I was a huge fan of my stinky little flat mates. Unfortunately, as compatible as Nikki and I were on many levels, it was the timing that sucked. Not only were neither of us really ready to move immediately on from our marriages, she was also seven years older and had different priorities. Plus, as in my marriage, my focus remained largely self-involved. So after only six months, our relationship seemed to kind of dissolve more than break up. But about ten years later – fate had a reprisal in store.
Whilst my focus was still on acquiring the skills for a media career, the location had changed from the inner city and NSWIT (now UTS – University of Technology, Sydney) to the suburbs and AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School). Having failed to get into AFTRS twice before, by the time I did – I wasn’t really sure it was where I wanted to go – especially after already having been a student for about five years. Fortunately, my timing was perfect. They had decided to offer a few places for one year ‘extension courses’ for applicants who had already had a bit of experience. So I signed up for an extension in producing and headed out to the boring burbs.
AFTRS, at least back then, was a mixed blessing. Great facilities, amazing industry access and, importantly, you actually got paid to go there. But it was a long way out – a real pain to access via public transport – the building and surrounding area were sterile (a far cry from the buzz of the inner city) and the bureaucracy was painful (though it did teach me how to work a system – like booking a production van for months on end for my personal transport).
It did provide some awesome opportunities, however, like when I went on an attachment to the shoot for INXS’ “Need You Tonight” clip. This will definitely be ‘stand alone post’ (SAP) at some stage. But for the record, I wasn’t really an INXS fan (though I begrudgingly liked a few of their songs). I was far more interested in seeing director Richard Lowenstein, the 80’s indie film and music clip wunderkind. But the person who made the biggest impression on me was, of course, Michael Hutchence. I had never thought that much of him as a rock star but when meeting him – was quite stunned at how different he looked in person. I remember watching him perform in front of the camera and seeing this amazingly good looking, uber-cool dude. Then, I would look at the little tv monitor and there was ‘Michael Hutchence’. Amazing transformation – far cooler in the flesh. He was also quite affable – more than happy to sign an autograph for my teenage sister – who actually was a genuine fan (and who later embellished the truth somewhat by telling her friends that I had actually directed the clip!). Anyway, the experience and the fact that it’s actually such a great song (and clip) converted me into being an INXS fan.
Definitely the biggest advantage of AFTRS was working with other like-minded students on well resourced productions. The first film I ever production managed was Greg Woodland’s “Green”, a bigger than Ben Hur environmental epic, that taught me, amongst other things, that I was never going to cut it as a production manager. I preferred assistant directing, where you were at least part of the action. It was while assisting on “A Telegram for Mrs. Edwards”, a non verbal war tragedy, that I first got to work with the stupendously talented, Kriv Stenders (who years later directed “Red Dog”). He looked the part – with his swept back blonde locks, glasses and white t-shirt. Kriv had been directing for years, starting as a Super 8 whizz kid. I was lucky enough to produce his final year film, “Horrible Man”, where we took advantage of the size of the brand new AFTRS studio by shooting an elephant (though not literally). After film school, we worked together on several music videos, including a couple for my favourite band at the time, “Mental As Anything” (SAP to come). I also produced clips for a couple of other talented AFTRS mates, David Caesar (extremely down to earth, no bullshit director of two of my all time favourite Aussie films: “Idiot Box” and “Mullet”) and Brendon Young, the Fellini fanatic. Interestingly, not one of this trio was actually enrolled in the AFTRS Directing department – they were all Cinematography students.
Although I had moved on from NSWIT, I hadn’t abandoned my ‘baby’ –“Off Air” video magazine. I was able to talk AFTRS into letting me and the Off Air team produce it there – with much better resources of course. It felt good to infiltrate film school with my former NSWIT mates – at least two of whom ended up there shortly thereafter. In 1988, we produced the “Sink the Fleet” issue, in response to all the bi-centennial bullshit that was happening that year. For the opening sequence, we paid these kids to take model ships into the harbour just after it had rained and we filmed them, obscuring the sign that warned people not go into the harbour just after it rained. When the kids said they were feeling sick – we paid them five bucks and then got the hell away. Hope they’re still with us.
While that would become the final “Off Air” ever released, I was still convinced that video magazines were the medium of the future. So after AFTRS, I went door knocking and got a production company on board to help produce a video magazine that focussed on the dance party culture of the time. Hosted by popular Triple J radio personality Maynard F# Crabbes, it was called “Video Manic”. It was an interesting, though ultimately failed project. A definite highlight, however, was getting Mental As Anything guitarist and Mambo artist Reg Mombassa to interview Timothy Leary – the former LSD guru and recent convert to all things ‘cyber-delic’. Reg gave Leary a couple of his particularly out there Mambo T-shirts, which Leary declared were very ‘cyber-delic’ indeed (SAP to come).
Because AFTRS had a limited number of students, it was necessary to enlist volunteers to help crew productions. I had been on the phone to one particular volunteer several times, organising this and that for a film shoot. And then – I met her. Long dark hair, Ray Ban sunnies, black leather jacket and ruby red lips. WOW! She was also very bright, witty and good company. I fell immediately in lust. A fact of which she was obliviously unaware – until I drunkenly threw myself at her while dancing one night a party. Fortunately for me, she was not completely repulsed. And so began my love affair with the fabulous Trish.
We took it slowly. I was by then living in a shared house in Glebe while Trish was part of an amazing household of Adelaide girls. They had moved up to Sydney the previous year into a huge freestanding house in Newtown. There was Corrie – a talented photographer who was the matriarchal figure for a couple of generations of weird and wonderful arty types. She had a teenage daughter, Morgana, who would later become a bit of rock star in an all girl group. And there was Liberty, Corrie’s stunning musician girlfriend. The house, which was chock full of extraordinary art and furniture, was always alive with activity – teens, artists, musos and big dogs – all swarming through a cloud of smoke (Drum tobacco, mostly).
It was through this eclectic household that I first met John, who initially came over to teach us yoga on a Saturday. He was a happy chappy – a bit rotund and not what you would expect from a yoga teacher. It turns out he was much more than that – a man with an amazing story. John had cancer as a teenager, had much of his stomach removed and was given a death sentence. So he ran away from hospital, hooked up with some gypsies, learned tantric yoga, cured himself of cancer and even managed to re-grow his stomach (a fact he claims has been verified through x-rays). He then continued learning from a range of teachers from different cultures and practices: Tibetan, Aboriginal and Alchemic, to name just a few. John is the man who is responsible for my daily yoga routine and much of my ‘pluralist’ approach to spirituality (which is, by its very nature, impossible to put into any one category – though I do tend to put ‘pagan’ as my religion for the census, as it gives me a little rebellious buzz).
After about a year and a half, things between Trish and I ground to a halt and we split up – for about five months. I have in the past referred to this as my ‘slut period’, during which I had numerous liaisons (including time with a Spanish dancer called Salome!). Anyway, Trish and I decided not only to give it another go but to take it up a notch and moved in together soon after into a small house in Newtown, near her ex- Adelaide housemates.
I had been out of film school for a couple of years and was managing to eek out a living producing music clips and training videos. But this was during the recession of the early 90’s and there wasn’t a heap of work about. So I decided to get my taxi licence. While driving cabs was an eye opener, it also had a surprising upside. I had expected it to make me even more cynical about the human race. But it actually did the opposite. I soon realised that, with the exception of some genuine dickheads, most people (in Sydney at least) were actually good natured. I didn’t see that coming. Bloody hard way to earn a living though – twelve hour shifts and no guarantee that you’ll even make any money. My respect for cab drivers dramatically increased (as did my wariness – when I’m driving my car, I never try to second guess what a cab might do – I steer as clear away as possible).
I received a very generous gift at the end of 1991. My Dad, who had returned to Albuquerque a couple of years earlier, flew me over for Christmas. It was amazing to see the city in which my first memories were formed but now with the eyes and experience of a 28 year old. This was when the smell of mesquite smoke was re-booted in my brain – a scent I had not come across in the previous 20 years. I remember that the night before Christmas, after walking around looking at the luminaries (candles in paper bags – non electric Mexican Christmas lights), we went to an abandoned hill and set off some fireworks my Dad had been saving. It was great fun – though the local dogs didn’t agree.
After Christmas we went on what was dubbed ‘The Blues Cruise’ – an epic road trip in my Dad’s brand new blue pickup across Texas, to New Orleans for New Years eve (wow!), up to Memphis to see Elvis’s Gracelands on my birthday and back again. It was a very special trip and worth it’s own post at some point. But I must mention one story that has now become part of Amsden lore. All along the way we had been staying in twin rooms in fairly cheap motels. And my Dad kept talking up the New Orleans hotel he had booked. “Wait til you see it.” Well, when I finally did see it, I was impressed – very posh. Then the porter took us upstairs and opened the door to reveal a lovely room…with one bed. This literally didn’t add up. So I go in and start looking around, even checking out the ensuite just in case. But no – it was bedless. I looked at my Dad, who was by now staring at his feet as he mumbled, “Oh yeah – there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell ya.” And that is how I shared a bed with my father for a few nights. I can not even begin to describe the horror – so I won’t. Let’s just say the phrase “scarred for life” comes to mind.
After returning from the States, I felt a bit restless and in need of a change. So Trish and I started looking for a new abode. And as luck would have it – we found one – a two bedroom unit in Kirribilli that was right on the harbour – opposite the Opera House. Weirdly, it just so happened that this was the building my Dad and I had sneaked in front of on Christmas day 1986. In one respect, it felt like a dream come true – in a city where harbour-side homes are the ultimate prize, it seemed like we had won a housing lottery. The view was always changing, depending upon what the weather and water traffic were doing. Sometimes while watching tv, the room would go dark. We’d look out the window and see a tanker passing by, completely obliterating the city lights. It was an amazing privilege to live there and easily my favourite home ever.
The work situation had also picked up considerably, once again thanks to a bit of luck. Trish had managed to secure a position at ABC Music, the recording label for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This involved her making tv spots promoting their CDs and directing music clips for a range of acts. Initially I helped her out in various ways but when she decided to move across into film production, I inherited her ABC gig. This is how I ended up directing the second ever Wiggles’ music video (Trish did the first): “Dorothy the Dinosaur”. This was before they even had their different coloured skivvies and when there was actually a fifth Wiggle (perhaps not quite as bad as having been the ‘fifth Beatle’ – but close). I discovered recently that I am actually mentioned in ‘Wiggle-pedia” – surely a much higher honour than ‘Wikipedia”! It was fantastic to see them take over the world – they worked so hard and were lovely guys. When my son went through his Wiggles phase, he only ever used to wear yellow – he was in love with Greg the singer. Years later when the original line up did their farewell tour, I asked my son, by then around ten, if he wanted to go with me. He just gave me a nasty look and walked away. So I went with a friend and her young daughter (who fell asleep). I loved it and must admit, got a bit teary as they left the stage in their big red car.
The Kirribilli years encompassed a few significant birthdays: both mine and Trish’s 30ths, and my sister’s 21st (I felt honoured when she came to Sydney to spend her special day with us – which culminated in seeing Lucinda Williams perform in a pub). But the biggest milestone of that period was actually celebrated in Perth when my father came over for his 50th. He still had quite a few mates in Perth and it was decided to throw him a big birthday bash at Clancy’s pub in Fremantle. Since many of his mates were musos, they formed a band for the occasion (which later continued on as “Charlie’s Party”). I decided to attempt to sing a re-worked version of Hank Williams Junior’s “Family Tradition” and wore an especially bizarre cowboy outfit (which came in handy a couple of weeks later when I was nominated for a Golden Guitar Award in Tamworth for a country clip I directed for ABC music). My brother played guitar and my sister two-stepped with my Dad. Priceless.
The Kirribilli years also marked a turning point in my life. Although I still had ambitions to write (I wrote a feature script called “Dinkum Karoke”) and produce (I applied for funding for various projects), I gradually lifted my foot off the pedal. I had a steady gig with the ABC that provided a decent living as well as enough time to develop my own projects. But as time went on and the rejections mounted, I found that I was increasingly happy to take it easy and instead of pushing towards my goals, started having lots of naps (I slept through much of the 90’s).
It’s likely that this growing slothfulness contributed towards the end of my relationship with Trish. It was December 1996, Friday the 13th. She had just returned from a shoot in Adelaide and although we had been engaged for about a month after I had proposed on a recent visit, she had decided she’d rather move on. So instead of marriage and babies, I was staring down the barrel of bachelorhood.