We chat to director Kasimir Burgess and producer Philippa Campey about The Leunig Fragments, an intimate portrait of Michael Leunig.

Fifteen years after first reaching out to Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet Michael Leunig as a young filmmaker, director Kasimir Burgess has created a revealing portrait of the enigmatic artist in his debut documentary feature, The Leunig Fragments.

We asked Burgess and producer Philippa Campey about the genesis of the film, how they built trust and rapport with the notoriously elusive Leunig, and what were the challenges in making a film about an Australian icon.

Kasimir, what drew you to Michael Leunig as documentary subject? Why did you want to tell Michael Leunig’s story?
KB: I started purely as a fan of his work, wondering why there hadn’t yet been a feature film delving into his process, art and life. There is something enigmatic about Michael – the cartoons offer glimpses into the artist but never quite reveal his true nature or inner machinations. One day you open the paper and it’s whimsical sweetness, ducks and Mr Curly, the next it’s gut wrenching insights into war, politics and humankinds’ darker side. He’s unpredictable and undefinable, and I suppose it was this complexity or duality that drew me to him. He has within him the lightness and the dark – depth enough to sustain a feature film.

Philippa, how did you come to collaborate with Kasimir on this project?
PC: I was first drawn to the amazing access that Kasimir had established with Michael, after years of considered discussion with him. Kas’ delicate and thoughtful, human, approach to all of his work is so impressive and I felt sure that he would handle the story of Michael’s life beautifully.

Michael reveals much more of himself in The Leunig Fragments than in previous interviews. Tell us how you built trust and rapport.
KB: When I was in my early twenties, I sent Michael a short film I’d made with my friend Ed, called Booth Story. It was the story of a lonely car park attendant who forms an unlikely friendship with a Leunig-inspired duck. Michael responded with a lovely email, told me he used the film to put his kids to sleep – a kind of back-handed compliment I suppose. At any rate, this early correspondence must have built some rapport because 15 years later he agreed to take part in a film.

And so, we started with trust and rapport but honestly, there were many difficult conversations along the way to maintain this. We danced the notoriously treacherous dance of subject and film maker, sometimes stepping on each other’s toes as we delicately negotiated boundaries, aesthetic, practical and personal needs.

How much of Michael Leunig’s cartoons and art can we expect to see in the film?
KB: There are hundreds of Michael’s cartoons and artworks in the film, however, this is only a fraction of his life’s work. We included many of his most iconic pieces and many less iconic ‘doodle’ masterpieces, which may have slipped under the radar. Often I favoured his more graphic work, which was able to convey a story without words – somehow this felt more cinematic.

In addition to his art, Michael Leunig is a writer, philosopher and poet? Does his written work feature in the film?
KB: There are a few key moments, such as when Michael’s son Sunny recites his dad’s poem, Come Sit Down Beside Me, a meditation on being alone:

Come sit down beside me
I said to myself,
And although it didn’t make sense,
I held my own hand
As a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.

In a way, this piece is key to understanding Michael, who is an outsider – both in society and his own family. As Sunny suggests, he’s sacrificed everything for his art.

Other pieces of Michael’s poetry is used to illuminate some of the ideas in our film too, taken from Leunig Animated, the lovely series of short animations made by Michael and Bryan Brown with Madman in 2002.

Michael is widely considered an Australian icon and has lived in Melbourne and Victoria his entire life. Does The Leunig Fragments show him in his environment, both in Melbourne and the bush of northern Victoria?
KB: It’s funny, most people associate Michael with the country and presume he’s living on an idyllic farm surrounded by ducks and green pasture, however I only ever filmed him in urban spaces. Actually, I did film him amongst suburban trees a couple of times and had a strong sense that he was in his element.

During the years of our filming we didn’t get a chance to visit him at his country property, in the north of Victoria, but his rural life is depicted in some archive footage we uncovered, from the 1980s.

Have there been any particular challenges in making this film? How is it different to your previous projects?
KB: Initially I had thought the film might take a year or two. Five long years later I have a whole new respect for documentary filmmakers. It’s hard to script real life, I guess that’s the main difference to my previous work in drama. It’s such a rollercoaster marathon journey – you’re recording a life unfold quietly and naturally but with all the drama of a Greek Tragedy. You’re living in fear that you’ll miss something important and you’re feeling the burden of responsibility to do justice to one of Australia’s greatest artists, a National Living Treasure for crying out loud.

Throughout all the challenges though, I was incredibly lucky to have the support and guidance of my very experienced producer Pip Campey, who has the patience and tact of a monk and the strength of a warrior. I don’t think I would have made it past the second year if it wasn’t for Pip.

Film Victoria supported the project with production funding. What was the impact of this?
PC: We are so grateful for the support of Film Victoria. We had such a rigorous and intriguing creative meeting. Their financial support, for this very Victorian story, was invaluable in the overall production budget.

What do you hope audiences will take away from The Leunig Fragments?
KB: Ideally audiences will be intrigued by the complexities of one artist’s creative commitment – sometimes at the expense of his personal and family life. We’d like them to also come away thinking about how it is to be an engaged citizen, somebody who tirelessly works to make our society think, change and progress.

What advice would you give early career documentary filmmakers?
KB: Follow your passion and always surround yourself with a team of creative people who you admire and can openly and honestly collaborate with.

The Leunig Fragments is screening on ABC Arts on Tuesday 5 May at 9.30pm and will be available on disc and digital from 20 May.

From 4 June, applicants will be able to apply for production funding at any time, with decisions made within four to eight weeks. Find out more.