The Australian: Wayne Darwen's High There stoner's film is a labour of love

THE AUSTRALIAN  May 18, 2015


I coulda been famous. I coulda been somebody. I coulda been The Judge! But I said no and I missed out on my big chance for stardom. 

I kid you not. A couple of years ago I was invited to play a small role in a movie. 

Because of my grumpiness, stern features and stentorian voice I was offered the role of the judge in what I perceived as a wacky low-budget crazy movie idea being pushed by an old journalist mate of mine.

I declined, mumbling something about being too busy.

That movie has just won the viewers’ choice award at a Californian film festival. It is being hailed as a minor masterpiece and its producer/star is being described as the new Hunter S. Thompson — the new king of gonzo journalism.

Mind you, it is a specialist film and its festival award was decided by folk with a specialist interest. The film is called High There and it won at the first Cannabis Film Festival staged in Garberville, California, at the heart of the Emerald Triangle. (Who knew of such things?)

High There was conceived, written, co-directed and co-­produced by its star, Wayne Darwen, playing (if that is the word) investigative journalist Dave High. His co-director and director of photography was Henry Goren, aka Roland Jointz.

Are you getting the picture? High There is a stoners’ movie about sex, drugs, booze, idiocy and persecution — “all the things people want to see”, according to Darwen. It reignites a film genre made popular decades ago by the likes of Cheech and Chong.

According to the festival blurb, the movie is “a 2014 dark, nonfiction comedy film about a real-life, legendary but down-and-out tabloid television journalist who heads to Hawaii to film a marijuana travel series, only to become lost in a fog of drugs, sex and paranoia as he uncovers a secret government war to control the marijuana trade”.

That sounds as if the movie has a point to it, but I doubt that. I have seen only the trailer online but from earlier discussions with Darwen the whole point of the exercise was to not have a point. Well, I think that was the gist of it. When I inquired about a script for the judge’s role he told me not to bother about that … we would just see where it took us.

Hold that thought. None of us know where life will take us. In the mid 1970s, when I was news editor and later editor of the Sydney Daily Mirror, I was called on to nominate a candidate for a job as a correspondent in our New York bureau.

It was an unexpected call to fill one of the most prized positions available. On that day we had scooped the opposition with a great yarn that was the result of a young reporter’s skill, intuition, terrier-like tenacity and creativity; Wayne Darwen had stayed up all night and trawled the streets of Kings Cross to bring home the bacon.

It seemed to me that Darwen had, not for the first time, exhibited the attributes we wanted in the highly competitive Sydney afternoon tabloid wars and on that basis I offered him the job. It also helped that he could write.

It was proposed as a six-month posting. He took it and he took off, never to return. He worked in the bureau for a while, then joined the team of Aussies rewriting the American television story with A Current Affair, the program that became the powerhouse that helped generate the viewer attention that inspired the Fox network in the US.

The ACA team’s antics were amazing, preposterous, amusing, appalling, genius and sometimes — often, perhaps? — dubious. They were part of Rupert Murdoch’s early push into American TV and they adopted an “anything goes” culture that caused their immediate manager, Ian Rae, to tear out his remaining hair. But it was their devil-may-care, whatever-it-takes approach that got the stories that people watched.

ACA was headed by Peter Brennan, another former news editor of the Mirror who cut his teeth in TV on Ten’s Good Morning Australia and went on to make and lose various fortunes as owner or producer of TV reality and current affairs shows such as Hard Copy and Judge Judy.

ACA’s star reporter was Steve Dunleavy, the legendary Sydney reporter who, amazingly, has survived his hard-drinking, hard-living past to become a gentleman retiree on Florida’s beaches.

If you want the full story on this extraordinary group and their antics, ACA’s Burt Kearns (also a co-producer of High There) told it all in his highly readable book Tabloid Baby.

ACA was eventually killed off not because viewers got sick of it but because advertisers thought it too hot or too close to the bone to want to associate their products with it. Darwen became a freelance producer.

He also became known as the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s role in the movie Natural Born Killers. Steve Dunleavy may dispute this but either way, both were contenders for the Hunter S. Thompson crown of gonzo journalism.

From time to time Darwen made quiet trips to Australia and each time we would catch up for a yarn and a beer. We discussed making an outback discovery program but decided Australian audiences didn’t need another man in a wide hat chasing camels in the desert.

High There has been Darwen’s passion or plaything — you can never be quite sure — for several years and it is good to see his persistence and dedication to a seemingly absurd proposition pay off.

His movie was made on a shoestring and I haven’t seen it — it becomes available online on June 23 — so I don’t know if he found anyone to play his judge, or whether that character made it into the final cut.

But it serves to make the point that if we don’t know where life will take us, journalism is a good place to start.

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