Long way to the Top End Top End Wedding stars Miranda Tapsell and Gwilym Lee talk to Hannah Story about incorporating a connection to Country into a traditional rom-com.
iranda Tapsell’s reason for writing Indigenous rom-com Top End Wedding, with co-writer Josh Tyler, is simple: “We both love rom-coms,” the Darwin-born, Larrakia woman enthuses. “[Tyler] had been up to the Territory, my hometown, and I was incredibly proud of coming from there, so he was saying to me, ‘Why don’t we set one up in the Northern Territory?’ It almost seemed too good to pass up.” Tapsell also stars in the film as Lauren, alongside Welsh actor Gwilym Lee, who plays her fiancØ, Ned, as the pair head from Adelaide to Darwin to get hitched. When they arrive, Lauren discovers that her mother, played by Ursula Yovich, has gone missing, so she and Ned set out across the Territory to find her. Lee recalls reading the script in 2017, and initially thinking he knew what he was in for. “I kind of recognised some of the tropes,” Lee begins. “And then it just became something that I had never seen before: that it was about family and that it had this real true heart and depth about identity and belonging and home — that’s what I kind of fell in love with. “And then I got the opportunity to meet the person who wrote it and recognised how personal it was to you,” Lee turns and gestures to Tapsell, “and how much it was your story, and so that made me wanna just get on board and try and do justice to this.” There’s a “missed opportunity”, Tapsell says, when people don’t visit the Top End of Australia, loosely defined as the northernmost part of the Northern Territory, from Alice Springs in the south all the way to islands off the coast, including the Tiwi Islands, where part of the film’s action is set. “We wanted to reflect Australia in a different way. We wanted to point out all the great things that this country has and so that means showing just some of the most beautiful, romantic parts of the Territory: Katherine Gorge, First Rock, Hawk Dreaming in Kakadu National Park, and of course, the Tiwi Islands.” For Lee, it was a privilege to be able to contribute to a rich canon of Indigenous Australian stories. “I remember the day that we were shooting the wedding in Tiwi in the church and being on set and hearing Robbie Collins speak in Tiwi language. I don’t speak Tiwi [and] didn’t understand what he was saying, but the hairs on the back of my neck were stood on end just knowing that this language was being immortalised in film and preserved in that sense.
“In particular, we wanted to celebrate the Tiwi — not only do they have incredible stories and art [but] their love of family is undeniable. And I think sometimes that can be overshadowed by a whole heap of other negative things and I just really wanted to pare it back and go, well this is what I know about community, and the communities that I grew up with. So I’m really glad that that got to so many people.”
“It’s great to be a part of that, and I think the Tiwi community were really welcoming towards us because they were so grateful that we were telling their story faithfully and we were kind of preserving their cultures and history and traditions.” Tapsell and her collaborators, including director Wayne Blair, with whom she previously worked on 2012’s The Sapphires, are grateful to Australia’s Traditional Owners
visit [NT], but to be welcomed by the Traditional Owners — we weren’t tourists, we were kinda engaging with the Owners of this land.” For Tapsell too it was easy to find the emotional honesty in the part of Lauren, as she, like her character, was raised away from her ancestral lands, in Jabiru, around Kakadu National Park: “I had to be really honest about not growing up with the Tiwi community either.” She qualifies, “Not that I had been cut off in the same way Lauren had at all, but I just mean that I grew up on Mirarr land in Kakadu, and I knew my Tiwi family, but the film really brought me to that community and I got to learn my family tree better. “I got to learn my language and I’m still learning my language, so it was a real honour to do that. And I was so lucky that I was embraced by my family and that my family embraced all the crew and cast that had come along with me.”
“I was so lucky that I was embraced by my family and that my family embraced all the crew and cast that had come along with me.” Lee had never been to the Northern Territory before filming Top End Wedding. He says it was “special to go to these parts of the world for the first time”, but also notes that it helped him to approach the role of Ned from an authentic place. “[It was] great for the character, because the character’s a fish out of water as well, so there’s no acting required, you just kinda take it all in. But [it was special] not only to
for getting behind the project, saying that their knowledge “grounded” the film. “We really owe a lot to not only the Tiwi, but the Larrakia, the Jawoyn, the Mirarr, and also the Kaurna in Adelaide just because they just backed the film,” Tapsell begins. “The Traditional Owners backed the film 100%. And the knowledge that they shared with us and all of the help they gave, it really grounded the film.
Top End Wedding screens from 2 May.