March into the archives : Stone

This interview with Sandy Harbutt, director of the classic Australian biker movie Stone, was published in BMA Magazine in 1999.

Five years before Mad Max drove across cinema screens around the world, ‘Stone’ provided a local version of the 70s cop movie. It’s got car chases, gunfights and machismo with sideburns. If an Australian Dirty Harry had gone undercover in ‘Easy Rider’ it might have looked something like this.

Live to Ride magazine called it “The best biker movie ever produced” and it has a fondness for these outlaws. Sandy Harbutt says he made ‘Stone’ as a reaction against the representation of bikie culture.

“They put bikies in ‘Homicide’ and they’d be pathetic guys about seventeen years old, weighing six stone and riding Honda 250s. I thought it was a lie. The truth was something dynamic and it was just a matter of coming up with a story to frame it.

"There were other contemporary stories to tell but I knew I’d have the support of the motorbike community. Which helped as I pretty much conned everything in that film. It was made for almost nothing. It was all begged, borrowed and stolen. You’d say that the shots themselves were stolen.

"While shooting the race sequences the police would turn up and say we couldn’t do this. We’d ask where they were from and they’d say North Sydney. So we’d tell them that we got it cleared with some bloke in Chatswood we’d spoken to about something else three weeks earlier and it would be okay. We got away with it but it took enormous discipline to get it down and get out.”

Audiences in 1999 might think that the last 25 years have been unkind to ‘Stone,’ it’s so retro that it can provoke laughter. But the film needn’t cringe because it offers an interesting window into Australian society of 1974. Aside from images of policemen driving HQ Kingswoods there is thinly veiled discussion of how returned soldiers from the Vietnam war had been marginalised by society, a subject which didn’t appear in American cinema until ‘The Deer Hunter’ in 1979.

‘Stone’ is also prescient in featuring a rally for the environment, a theme which was popularised in the 80s. Harbutt explains that the shots in the opening sequence were a contemporary event which had been integrated into the screenplay. “I was sitting at home on a Saturday morning and heard on the radio that Georges River had been polluted and all the fish were dying. The signs saying No Fishing, No Swimming and Pollution were all real. A lot of people have said they look fake but it was actually true.”

Harbutt says the two themes of Vietnam and the environment were part of a larger argument he wanted to make. “We were seeing pictures of B52s bombing Vietnam and pictures of napalmed people in the streets. They were telling us that napalm could clear 50 hectares of forest so that they could find the enemy. And for what? ‘Stone’ reflects part of what was going on in the world. In those days people were keen to fight capitalism, something they’re not doing today. With the Soviet Union gone there is no check for capitalism except for the voice of the artist.”

It’s an interesting argument coming from Harbutt, who learnt filmmaking through working in advertising. But perhaps it is because of this that he is aware of how effective entertainment can be as a method for provoking thought. “I believe the cinema is the most powerful medium because if you get someone sitting in the dark with no choice but to look, listen and take part with the audience in this experience then you have a chance to say something to them. There are genuine intellectual battles to be fought and I think the motion picture screen is a great place to fight them.”

Whether audiences have recognised these political messages or not, ‘Stone’ is definitely a lot of fun. So much so that in 1991 there was an unsubtle American rip-off made called ‘Stone Cold’. Sandy Harbutt says he thought about suing them but admits “I ‘spose that’s a compliment.”