Leaning back, rubbing his head in disbelief as he pours praise on just about everyone who ever did anything for him, George Pank is the kind of guy everyone just loves to see winning.
It’s 7am UK time (the Flinders University Law, Screen Studies and Politics grad is based in London these days) and the co-producer of the Oscar winning documentary Amy is on Skype sharing the story behind his triumph.
Softly spoken, but intensely focused, he seems genuinely touched, even surprised, to hear that everyone at Flinders is so excited about the Oscar.
“Really? Wow. That’s really good to hear. Thank you. Honestly? Really? Wow. That’s really cool, thank you.”
A 50th birthday message for his old uni … a special ‘hi Flinders’ message to everyone back home … an early morning interview after a ‘slightly surreal’ week – Pank’s willingness to oblige is as humbling as it is refreshing.
“Sure, of course. Does that sound OK? Is the picture clear? Should I move forward, or back, so you can see better?”
For a very busy guy who, in the key role of Legal & Business Affairs Consultant, has also played an important part in making movies like Slumdog Millionaire and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly happen, Pank is remarkably open and giving of his time.
Maybe it’s because he has come at movie making from the hard end, working his way up, so he never takes anything for granted – or maybe it’s because his standards are so high that he never quite feels like he’s done well enough to get big headed.
“I really want my path to feel achievable and to be honest with the students who read the article,” he says.
“It’s not all about the Oscar for me, it’s about finding and pursuing something you are passionate about, whatever that might be. It’s about creativity for me personally, and film has been my medium to get closer to that.”
Either way, it makes for a fantastic interview opportunity – and listening to him talk about how it all started in South Australia is an inspiring experience.
“I started off doing a straight law degree at Flinders but I realised early on that I was a bit immature for it, so I took a year off and worked in a ski lodge in Fall’s creek, and stacked shelves at Coles, before going back to study Screen Studies and Politics as well,” he says.
“People would ask me if it was a real thing, this going to university to watch movies, but I grew such a passion through watching, analysing and writing about all kinds of movies, and especially through learning from people like Mike Walsh (Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University).
“Mike Walsh was just so passionate and engaged. We studied classic Hollywood cinema, the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, 1970s Indie American cinema, Australian cinema, and it just blew my mind.”
While Pank admits he did receive encouragement and support from Australian film makers like Geoff Simpson (Green Card, Shine, Sunday Too Far Away, The Sessions, Little Women), he says it took him a long time to reach the point where he would have the confidence to pursue a creative career in his own right.
“I felt like there was this pressure against creativity at the time; that being an artist meant being on the margins, and that to pursue something purely creative would be too difficult, so I came across this middle ground of being a producer.
“I saw a first step towards that as being a film lawyer, so I went and did a Masters in Entertainment and Media Law at UNSW, before getting a part-time job with Nina Stephenson in Sydney, who in my opinion is the best film lawyer in Australia.
“Working as a film lawyer gave me the chance to learn more about the business from producers, and while I was working for Nina I had my first break, making the short film A Family Legacy (dir Rory Williamson), which screened in front of 120,000 at Tropfest.”
A seminal moment in Pank’s career, its reception made him realise he could “draft a million contracts and it would never give him the same buzz as making a great movie”.
“I was so confident that I turned down a full-time role with Nina and worked as a landscape gardener so that I would have time to write screenplays,” he says.
It also provided the inspiration for him to “take a chance” and move to London – after a stretch with the ABC’s legal team helped him to further develop his legal skills in media – where he secured a position as Business Affairs Manager for the PATHÉ! film production company.
“I knew absolutely no one in London, but I found a job with the very best film law firm Olswang, then got poached by their client PATHÉ!, one of the oldest film companies in the world.
“They did everything from scripting, to producing, to distributing and marketing movies, so it was really like its own kind of film school for me, but probably more importantly, it meant I got to meet some important producers.”
One of those producers, James Gay-Rees, who had a comedy in development with PATHÉ!, and had also developed a habit of calling Pank first if an invoice needed paying, would turn out to be more important than the rest – but not before another unexpected twist.
“We had just won an Oscar at PATHÉ! for Slumdog, and we all got to hold it and kiss it, then the next day they cut the business in half and I lost my job,” says Pank.
While it wasn’t an enviable position at the time, sudden unemployment turned out to be a make, not a break, moment for him.
“Weirdly, the morning I lost my job, I said to my girlfriend at the time that I felt like I really needed to just get out there and do it,” he says.
“I knew that I wanted to produce and that I’d have to go out in the cold at some point, so when PATHÉ! made me redundant, the package that went along with it made that possible.
“I contacted all of the producers I’d met at PATHÉ! and said I’d do their legal work for them as long as I could become more of a partner.”
In the end it was Gay-Rees who accepted the offer; beginning a close collaboration spanning almost a decade, four films, and ultimately leading to Oscars glory with Amy.
“As it turned out, the street artist Banksy was making his movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was so top secret that I remember James saying, ‘I’ve got an opportunity for you that you can’t even tell your missus about’”.
“I worked on that movie, which ended up being nominated for an Oscar, for 18 months and never met him once. In fact, I still work with Banky’s team, and they’re amazing. That was another very formative experience, to get so close to such a successful artist.”
The success of Exit Through the Gift Shop gave Pank the opportunity to bring his skills back home and make the Australian movie All This Mayhem, directed by his childhood friend Eddie Martin, about the rise and fall of the famous Melbourne skateboarding brothers Tas and Ben Pappas.
“Eddie and I worked on that movie so hard and for so long, and we are so proud of it,” he says.
Behind the scenes of All this Mayhem, Pank’s relationship with key members of the eventual production team of Amy was building, with leading editor Chris King, who edited Senna, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Amy, and James Gay-Rees both coming on board to help guide it to its eventual release in 2014 – and a 100 per cent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes
It also won three AACTA Awards, and remains the biggest UK cinema release for an Australian documentary.
Pank’s emotional investment in All this Mayhem is clear as he describes the battle to make it happen, but something else was happening off camera that would change everything for him and launch pad him to Oscars glory in his own right.
“Even before we’d finished the movie, James was approached by Universal Music UK boss David Joseph, who was interested in the team that had worked on Senna, and then asked him to make Amy,” he says.
“To be honest, I was so consumed by All This Mayhem that I didn’t want to do Amy initially because I just didn’t have the head space.”
Thankfully, Gay-Rees convinced him, and it proved to be a pinnacle moment for the young producer who had fallen in love with movies under the guidance of Associate Professor Mike Walsh back at Flinders University in Adelaide.
“From not being so keen, I soon found myself drawn into the story so deeply; Amy’s issues, her talent … her humour. I was just captivated by her and the film making process,” he says.
“’Amy’ for me was the culmination of two sides of my skill set, merging my producing brain and my legal brain into one.
“This was an intensely difficult movie to make in terms of how some of the individuals were portrayed, from a copyright and privacy issues point of view. It was such sensitive material that it had to be done right, and because I had those legal skills from studying law, as well as production skills experience, I found myself at the heart of the creative process.
“Those skills gave me real value as part of the team, and I’m very proud of the movie.
“My time at Flinders studying law and movies helped me develop a critical faculty that I’m still using in my life and film making to this day.”