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From Renmark to Hollywood: a life in pictures


South Australian schoolchildren star alongside film industry hotshots such as director George Miller and actor Hugh Jackman in a new documentary charting the life of Oscar-winning Renmark-born cinematographer Dean Semler.

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Dean Semler’s Road to Hollywood, which will air on SBS this Saturday, was set in track when students from St Joseph’s school in Semler’s hometown of Renmark wrote to congratulate him after he was presented with the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award by actress Angelina Jolie in Los Angeles.

They also invited him to visit their school.

“It was perfect timing – I’d just wrapped on Maleficent [the fairytale feature film starring Jolie] when the invitation came through,” Semler said from the US.

He decided to make the trip from LA to the Riverland, and asked long-time friend David Brill, a news cinematographer and journalist, to accompany him.

Hobart-based Brill, formerly a video journalist for SBS’s Dateline, told InDaily the call came out of the blue.

He had been interested for some years in making a documentary about Semler’s achievements – including winning an Oscar for his work on the Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves – but it had never eventuated. The Riverland “homecoming” offered a perfect opportunity:

“I’m thinking, Renmark, Adelaide … Hollywood!

“I went to Renmark the day before and filmed this beautiful little town on the River Murray … I kept thinking of the contrast with Hollywood.

“Then Dean turned up the next day. We go round to the school and it was like a sort of rock star turning up – Kylie Minogue or something. Hundreds of kids all waiting for Dean.”

The documentary opens with Semler reading the students’ letters, and includes footage of his visit to the school and Renmark, where he was also invited by the Chaffey Theatre and Country Arts SA to host a couple of film screenings.

Brill also travelled to Hollywood, where Semler has worked on films ranging from Mad Max 2, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Apocalypto and Waterworld, to Date Night, Get Smart and Bruce Almighty.

He interviewed people the cinematographer had worked with, including Mel Gibson and writer Randal Wallace (Braveheart). Back in Australia, interviewees included Mad Max director George Miller and actor Hugh Jackman.

“Everybody spoke so highly of him … George Miller said he was one of the greatest cinematographers in the world,” Brill says.

“It’s a great Australian story on a wonderful South Australian.”

Brill and Semler bonded while working together for the ABC in Sydney in the late 1960s, but their career paths could hardly have been more different.

Semler got his Hollywood career break after Miller saw a short documentary he worked on called A Steam Train Passes and hired him as director of photographer for 1981’s Mad Max 2. Brill, meanwhile, forged a reputation covering disasters, humanitarian stories and conflicts, including the Vietnam War, and has been inducted into the Australian Cinematographers’ Hall of Fame.

“When I went over to see Dean, I thought I might get jealous, but I wasn’t envious at all … I like to smell the subjects and be right in there.

“I like doing stuff on unsung heroes because you find some great Australians and New Zealanders around the world doing really great work and you never hear of them … I get great satisfaction from getting their stories out there.”

Semler may miss Australia, but he doesn’t seem to have any regrets, either.

“I never for a minute thought when I was living in Nineteenth Street, Renmark, that I would get further than Adelaide even,” he says in the documentary.

“And to think what I’ve done … I’ve been to every country and every major city, and [from] some of the greatest, most luxurious hotels in the world to some of the toughest living conditions – there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since that asbestos house in Renmark.”

Dean Semler’s Road to Hollywood will screen on SBS at 5.30pm this Saturday, January 23. It will available for viewing after that time on SBS On Demand.

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