Almost every Australian has heard of the Great Emu War, a military operation undertaken in the 1930s to cull a massive population of emus that was destroying valuable wheat crops. It’s so well-known because it was such a catastrophic failure – and even after being equipped with machine guns, the army had to give up and let the emus continue grazing.
A new film created by the prolific Australian comedy outfit Hot Dad Productions, The Emu War is a very loosely inspired and unhinged take on this infamous story. It stars a number of Australian comedians, including Damian Callinan, Lisa Fineberg, Aaron Gocs, Dane Simpson, Ben Russell and Lena Moon – and it’s about to get a national cinema release.
In this version of the Emu War, a rag-tag platoon of soldiers is driven into a brutal and bloody battle against Australia’s deadliest flightless beasts. Haunted by the kidnapping of his son at the hands of the Emus, Major Meredith (Callinan) leads the platoon behind enemy lines in order to kill the emu’s leader, The Queen Emu.
‘Umbrella Entertainment could not be prouder to support the retelling of one of Australia’s most ridiculous and entertaining moments in history,’ said Ari Harrison, Umbrella Entertainment General Manager.
‘The Hot Dad team have created an original Australian comedy film featuring iconic local comedy talent, which is best experienced on the cinema screen, surrounded by a raucous audience. Get ready to laugh … and maybe cry … and develop a very rational fear of Australia’s largest flightless bird.’
Ahead of the film’s recent premiere at MonsterFest, Aaron Gocs, Dane Simpson and Damian Callinan sat down with me to talk baby emu puppets, dead sheep, and how to know when the comedy’s gone ‘too far’.
Hi, guys. I gotta say right off the bat that The Emu War is the most fucked up, cooked shit I’ve ever seen. Well done.
Damian Callinan: I’ll take that as a compliment. We haven’t seen it yet – it’s been a secret operation. We didn’t even know there was film in the cameras.
Aaron Gocs: I thought I was actually saving the country.
Callinan: You were, mate.
Who came up with this idea? Is this the work of a singular genius mind, or is it a group effort?
Callinan: The creators were Jonathan Schuster, John Campbell, Jay Morrissey and Lisa Fineberg. We were just called in to bring the lunacy to life. There was a script written up but they’d just leave the cameras rolling at the end of every scene to see what we would come up with.
Dane Simpson: I jumped in a little bit on the writing process, but it was minimal compared to what the other guys did. I remember having Zoom sessions during COVID where we just kept trying to top each other’s jokes until it would go too far, then we’d stop.
Callinan: We knew the audience would get bored pretty quickly if we stuck to the actual history, so the idea was to take the Emu War military story and completely subvert it.
It sounds like there was quite a bit of improv on set – did things get pretty loose, or was it mostly cool, calm and collected?
Gocs: I’ve got this problem where I can’t stop giggling when I’m working with friends. So I’d be smirking a lot during takes, and on top of that I’m trying to talk to puppet emus and get all this dialogue out. It was so hard to take seriously – but the improvised moments helped.
Simpson: That scene where you’re chatting to a little baby emu kept cracking us all up. It was so bizarre. But as Damian was saying, they did a few takes that were faithful to the script and then just let us do whatever we wanted with it. And I don’t actually know which takes they’ve ended up using.
Callinan: I remember riffing around the fire during one scene. We ended up talking about camels having threesomes. Then there was another scene were I had to break a bunch of bottles that were made out of sugar instead of glass – except most of them broke prematurely so I just ended up breaking two and then riffing for seven minutes.
Dane and Aaron, you probably learnt a lot from Damien, who’s very experienced in being funny onscreen. Can you think of anything specific that’ll stick with you?
Gocs: He’s very intense. There was a scene where his character, Major Meredith, has a seizure, and Damo really committed. I thought ‘jeez, this guy’s actually having a seizure’.
Callinan: I don’t even remember that, so it probably was real.
Simpson: I’ve never really done a lot of improv, so to be in the presence of and learn from a king of Australian improv was amazing.
I really want to know everything about the emu puppets – what was it like to work with them?
Gocs: They had a professional puppeteer for the emus. I don’t know a lot about filmmaking, but this person was wearing blue so they could edit them out and CGI in emus, I guess. Sometimes Jonathan Schuster, one of the creators, was the one wearing the blue suit. It was unique, I’ve never done anything like that in my life.
Simpson: I think Jet, our puppeteer, was trained by the Henson Company. So they’re full legit. And the emus had replica M16s – which caused a bit of a stir when the trailer was released, because people complained that they wouldn’t have had those guns during the real Emu War.
Callinan: They wanted our art department sacked. I was just like ‘…it’s an emu holding a fucking Russian military weapon’.
Did you do your own stunts?
Gocs: Oh yeah. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it was so fun. I’m not the fittest bloke, so it was quite hard physically, but I’m a huge fan of action movies so I had to give it a go.
Simpson: There’s a little bit of Tom Cruise in all of us, I think.
Callinan: There was a scene where we were just running across a paddock to attack the emus, and the place was crawling with snakes and there were rocks everywhere. All of a sudden I went down like a bag of shit and split my knee open. The crew started looking for our first aid guy, but he just so happened to be in Geelong that day. So we got the kit and treated it ourselves.
So there’s your literal blood, sweat and tears in the movie?
Simpson: There were also these scenes we filmed in a shed that was filled with bugs. Caterpillars, spiders, you name it. As the sun went down, the place would just come to life with insects.
Callinan: And I won’t forget the scene with the dead sheep where we ended up crossing property lines and getting into an argument with the land owner.
Gocs: It was such an awesome experience, though, and quite charming compared to some of the bigger budget things I’ve worked on. The homemade meals were definitely a highlight.
When you’re all playing such over-the-top characters, how do you access the parts of the character that are relatable to you? Or is that more about what you’re putting in to them?
Gocs: Well, my character is quite different to me – he’s not overtly nasty or racist but he has a lot of ignorant qualities. So I tried to channel my own experiences being around people who are like that. I’ve been in some footy teams and around blue-collar worksites, for example, that tend to attract people like that and even though I’ve tried to block them from my memory it was still useful to have those experiences for playing this character.
Simpson: [Aaron] Gocsy’s character is like a counterbalance to mine. For me it was more about finding that balanced partner dynamic. I’m a proud Aboriginal man, and I didn’t want my character Archie to be minimised or put down. He is quite similar to me, so I made sure he was proud of his Aboriginal heritage, too.
Callinan: In my case, Major Meredith was a real figure in the Emu War, but I did absolutely no research on him. I just tried to access that stereotype of the old-school Australian military guy but with an extra layer of being unhinged and ridiculous. It’s really fun to play an over-the-top character.
The Emu War has premiered at MonsterFest, which is exciting. What’s the plan for it after that?
Simpson: Umbrella [Entertainment] has taken the reigns on that. I’m hoping that it goes gangbusters. The first show at MonsterFest sold out which meant they had to do a second screening, which is really cool.
Callinan: I believe they’ll try to get it into a bunch of different festivals next, and then, ideally, a major cinema release.
Great plan. I think it could go down in the great tradition of lies we tell foreigners: first it was dropbears, now it’s emus with guns.
Gocs: It should definitely be taught in history class.
Callinan: I might even go along to schools to tell the story dressed as the Major.
Umbrella Entertainment will distribute The Emu War in Australia and New Zealand and handle world rights.