When Sandy Harbutt’s biker classic Stone rumbled through cinemas in 1974 few would have thought the trail would still be smoking in 2011. But Stone’s five-gallon metamorphose of counter-culture, violence and motorcycles remains as pioneering as ever. Since 1974 Stone has galvanized a worldwide fan base, spawned motorcycle clubs such as The Vietnam Veterans (who now proudly wear the actual Grave Diggers crest across their backs) and horrified the critics.
But the world has turned since 1974. When I spoke to writer and film maker Richard Cartwright in 2010, he could attest to this. He was in fact preparing to ‘take the trip’ again and begin shooting a reworking of the iconic Aussie flick – in 3D and with a new generation of bikers. “I am actually using the word recreation or reinvention,” he enthused. “I think some pieces of art you just don’t touch. And I think I will refer to Mr Quentin Tarantino’s line, which is that ‘Stone is just too good to remake’. This will be more of a homage”.
Harbutt’s 1974 Stone – about an undercover cop thrown into a bikie group while trailing unsolved murders – transcends its obligatory plot to capture a vital pulse. It champions a lifestyle, a creed that challenges the establishment, charts its own moral ground, finds freedom in volatility. It is possibly satanic, definitely violent, and has a great rock n roll soundtrack. In other words, the original Stone remains as relevant as ever.
Developing the material for the 21st century was itself proving to be challenging. “The bike clubs of 1974 are not quite what they are today,” conceded Cartwright. “So there’s an element of looking at the biker legacy. I’ll also be bringing back into the script some of the original characters from 1974. The Undertaker will be reprised, as well as a couple of the other characters from the original gang. They will be older versions. They will ride into town and say ‘Hey, what the hell’s going on here?’”.
Cartwright’s approach was not so different from Harbutt’s vision. Which is fortunate, as Stone’s creator remains unwaveringly loyal to his inspirations. “You have to have a dynamic subject to make a movie in Australia that anybody is going to go and see,” Harbutt told me. “I was a motorcyclist, I’d been riding my Triumph around for a while and I had a real interest in those types of people – and the Vietnam War was on. I thought the ideal outlaw motorcycle gang would be a group of returned Vietnam veterans who had every reason to reject the current corrupt society.
“There was a lot of reason to be angry. In fact, when I was raising the money for the film I actually had to lie – until I got the money they were called The Grave Robbers rather than the Grave Diggers. Simply because it was just so controversial. And the people who had the money were the Establishment”.
Since wrangling his film into existence Harbutt has himself kept a low profile. But the myths surrounding Stone – which confounded critics by becoming one of Australia’s most successful film ventures – have thrived. Witness Stone‘s legendary budget of beer and dope. Or the violent brawl scene outside the pub, featuring brigades of enlisted bikers who pummeled, jackknifed and beat cast members out of pulpy character and into unscripted reality. Before being paid in beer and dope.
Not entirely so says Harbutt, bringing it back down to earth.
“These stories just get a little out of hand really” he tells me, discussing the brawl scene. “What we did was invited people to come, and they came. They all took part – not including the Hell’s Angels, who didn’t take part in any of the fighting. I’m too smart for that… The fight was completely choreographed by Peter Armstrong, and the non professional guys… well, part of Peter’s skill was that he could stage huge fights like that and people would think it was for real. Peter was such a great stunt choreographer, as well as being the best stunt man in the world. But yeah, so that was completely choreographed. The only thing that wasn’t choreographed was the arrival of the Black Hawks, when the guy falls off the bike and onto his face. And then after that, basically what we did was told the guys that over the next hill was a pub called The Dry Dock and we had free beer.”
“So basically we paid for the bar, and everyone went over there and got drunk and went home. We didn’t actually say if they came we’d pay them in beer. Even though some of them were drinking while it was going on we certainly didn’t want people to be drunk while they were doing what they were doing. It was just guys having a bit of a drink on a Saturday afternoon. The whole cast and crew were always paid professionally. But then, once we invited people to come for the funeral scene – 400 turned up. All we paid was their dole. The other thing was, as for paying the Hells Angels in dope – they didn’t actually smoke dope in those days. That came along a bit later.”
It is no secret that Tarantino is a big fan of Stone. Cartwright and the inimitable QT shared their enthusiasm at Cannes, where Cartwright was lucky enough to gain an audience with the director. “I met with Tarantino and his exact words to me were: “Sandy Harbutt – that guy is a visionary!”. Cartwright meanwhile gave Tarantino an original 35mm print from Harbutt’s own collection. “Tarantino’s face was like a five year old kid in a candy store! The film was in an authentic 1974 can, slightly rusted, with Goulburn Theatre and Darwin Cinema stamps all over it”. The possibility remains open that Tarantino may play a role in proceedings, although Cartwright admitted at the time that he was not precious about the capacity in which Tarantino would be involved.
Most importantly, however, Harbutt had given the project his blessing. “One thing I will say is that Sandy has not imposed his point of view at any given time. He has made some wonderful and helpful suggestions. Sandy has said to me ‘Richard, I’ve made my film – now go and make your film”. And I think that was a wonderful thing to say. And I couldn’t be more humble. It is now my goal to do justice to Sandy’s great piece of iconic Australian cinema”.