Logline: a feature documentary exploring the inspirational true story of the world-renowned athletics coach Franz Stampfl – who came to international attention after coaching Roger Bannister to break the elusive Four Minute Mile record in Oxford, England in 1954.
Current Status: In Production
Length: 90 mins
Director: Sally McLean
Producer: Sally McLean (Producer), Ben Steel (Producer), Phil Craig (Executive Producer) Robert L Galinsky (Executive Producer)
Actress, writer, director and producer who trained in London, lives in Melbourne, worked for the BBC and has a bit of a thing for Shakespeare.
Looking for (ie buyer, distributor, sales agent, producer, media interest, film festivals) Distributor, sales agent, buyers, media interest.
Funders: Crowdfunding via Australian Cultural Fund, Documentary Australia Foundation, private investment & self-funding.
Made in association with: Finish Line Films Pty Ltd.
Franzl Stampfl died over 20 years ago but there has never been a documentary made about him until now. Why do you think this is the case?
I think this is completely down to Franz’s own attitude. As we’ve discovered through producing this documentary, there is still a lot of interest in him in the wider community and every second person in the Sports world has a story or an opinion about him! But he just didn’t court that kind of attention as a person. As an example, we know that the late Hector Crawford was very interested in making a drama mini-series about Franz and approached him about it, but Franz just wasn’t interested in the idea.
The only time he has been portrayed on screen was by Michael York in the mini-series The Four Minute Mile, which Franz did have involvement with, as it wasn’t about his life, but rather, his involvement with Roger Bannister breaking the Mile record. Franz, for all of his prominence in the media during his lifetime, including being a journalist himself, was never interested in promoting himself or his own achievements – only his athletes.
You have a very personal connection to Franz Stampfl. How has this connection both influenced your life and the making of this film?
The whole reason this film came to be can be tracked back to my discovery, aged fifteen, that my mother, Marg Woodlock-McLean, was an Olympian (Melbourne, 1956). A family friend mentioned it as an attempt at motivation for me to continue with my athletics career at the time (it didn’t work!).
My mother had never said anything about this part of her life, just because, as she put it - it was just something she did. To me, of course, it was a major revelation!
It was through that discovery that I found out about this Austrian-turned-Australian, Franz Stampfl, who had coached Roger Bannister to break the Four Minute Mile record, because, as it turned out, he was the one to discover Marg’s talent as a teen athlete and became her coach here in Melbourne.
Over the years, as I spent more time with Marg’s fellow Olympians and learned more and more about Franz, I began to realise that his philosophies and take on life had also influenced me, through my mother. Then, as I became aware of his own personal history, I knew this was not just a remarkable story that needed to be told, but also an extraordinary man whose life philosophies could still be applied for success today and should be shared.
But it wasn’t until one of the annual Olympian’s dinners about a decade ago after another Franz conversation that I uttered the words “Someone really should make a documentary about this man.” And it was Olympians Bob Joyce, the late Ron Clarke and Merv Lincoln, from memory, all Franz athletes, who simply said “Well, you used to work for the BBC. Off you go and do it!”
Since filming began, we have been able to interview people such as Sir Roger Bannister, Sir Christopher Chataway, John Landy, Ron Clarke, Ralph Doubell, Kitty Chiller, Ulick O’Connor, among many, many others and have interviews lined up to shoot soon with people such as Herb Elliot. None of that would have been possible without my connection to the story via my mother and all the 1956 Olympians from Franz’s squad, in particular, who I essentially see as extended family.
But, despite this connection, I have always kept an open mind and approached the story with active curiosity. As a result, this film certainly isn’t a puff piece on the man, but even when someone in the chair is telling me Franz was dictatorial or similar, I have found it intriguing that it is still always said with great love, even laughter.
He was seen at times as abrupt, never suffered fools, but also had a great sense of humour and predominately was extraordinarily inspiring. He inspired thousands of people around the world to be the best they could be. And the more I learn about him as a person, the more I can say his story is also truly inspirational and so relevant in an age where many are feeling overwhelmed and powerless to change their world. The ideas and beliefs he formed and applied to his own life and his athletes are just as applicable for us now.
You work in both drama (Shakespeare Republic) and documentary. How do these two genres influence each other in your own work?
Oh! Good question!
I guess the short answer is: as with all filmmakers, I’m a storyteller. Whether I’m writing, directing or acting and whether I work in drama, comedy or factual, my role is to facilitate the story.
To elaborate, I have found that my larger experience in drama definitely influences the way I tell a story in documentary – it lets me experiment with storytelling styles. I really enjoy directing the re-enactment elements in this film from a visual storytelling perspective, as an example, and I guess the style used there is much more in line with drama directing, due to my experience in that genre, even though there is no dialogue in those pieces.
But documentary also influences my drama work. I’m also a playwright and screenwriter and all the projects on my slate at the moment come from actual events or people from history – World War II, Victorian Melbourne, 13th Century Scotland.
And yes, William Shakespeare’s works, which get looked at through both the 16th Century and 21st Century lens in Shakespeare Republic (despite being firmly set in current times). I love the research, the fact-checking, the learning that comes with exploring history.
I also very much enjoy speaking to those who were there, if I can, when writing drama set in more recent periods. My research for my current play, ‘Till The Boys Come Home, meant I spent a lot of time speaking with returned WWII soldiers and women who were on the home front – and I found that an absolutely fascinating and often moving experience. We don’t value our elders or our history enough, I feel, and there’s so much we can learn from both.
You seem very interested in the role of tradition, continuity and influence – making films about William Shakespeare and Franz Stampfl. Why?
Another excellent question. I find history fascinating and working with stories of or by those who came before gives me a chance to explore what life was like before my time, which gives such important context to how we live today (and how much we still have to learn about ourselves and how our world operates, especially on a social and political level).
It also helps to remind me that we’re all part of something much larger and we can learn so much from those who came before us and apply it to our lives today, if we just pay attention.
I have been so fortunate with my mentors in my own life and I know how important a role they play. Thinking about it, I suppose I’m trying to provide what I consider to be good mentors for others through my work, knowing that not everyone has the same advantages.
Seeing what someone else has done, reading a book, seeing a documentary, can be just as inspiring as speaking to a person directly and it’s important to have healthy influences out there in the world and a sense of connection. Our knowledge is only useful when shared with others and one thought can change the world. I want to contribute positively to that ongoing conversation and these projects help me do that.
And I am a history nut. I didn’t used to be, but Shakespeare and drama school changed all that for me, much to my father’s delight (who is an Historian). As an actor, research is vital to me – place and time have such influence on story – and that just naturally translated to my behind the camera roles.
I also have a strong sense of justice and so quite a few of my projects come from a feeling of needing to bring people out of the hazy mirage that history can often be and shine a light back on them, so we can learn from what they achieved and celebrate what they did for their community, country or even the world.
Ultimately, as humans we get so caught up in the “now”. What’s cool now? Who’s hot now? And there is a place for that, obviously – we need to celebrate what’s going on in the present. But we also need to remember what came before, otherwise we’re doomed to just keep reinventing the wheel and never moving forward.
I was surprised to read an endorsement from Ethan Hawke. What’s the story behind his quote?
Ethan worked with Ben Steel (Producer) on a couple of feature films here and became aware of the documentary via that connection. We were about to head into some investor conversations and Ethan offered to write something up for us, as he feels this story is very much worth telling and wanted to help, which was fantastic and so very much appreciated. One of my mentors, Roly Keating (former Controller of BBC2) also gave an endorsement for the project, which again was amazing.
The whole team is very humbled by the support we have received from all quarters with this film – not least of which is the recent addition of Phil Craig (former Head of ABC Factual) to the team as an Executive Producer. We have been blown away by the enthusiasm and engagement we’ve been lucky enough to experience with the global community that has built up around this project and couldn’t be more grateful for their continuing encouragement and support.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on this platform?
“We are moving stories” is such a vibrant community of independent filmmakers, and we are delighted to be a part of it. We are actively looking for a home for the project at the moment, so simply getting the word out that it is nearly completed filming is the first thing.
We want to give people the chance to contribute with their stories and connections to Franz. He is estimated to have coached over 22,000 people, either in person or by letter and tape, over his career around the world, 450 of those also being Olympians, Commonwealth Games athletes, World Champions and National Champions, so we’re building a database of as many people as we can. I’d like to build a separate website that lets people share their stories about him as well, which is in the pipeline.
We’re also looking for more archive materials – photos, videos, audio tapes – that people are happy to share with us. We cover his story from 1930’s Austria to 1990’s Australia, so there’s a lot of archive we’re still sourcing!
And finally, letting people know that we’re still accepting donations via the Documentary Australia Foundation to help us finish these last few interviews (http://www.thechampiondocumentary.com/donate/).
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message and audience?
We are in the process of bringing the film to market both here and internationally, so distributors and/or broadcasters are one of our focuses for making contact. We’d love to keep getting the word out to the general public to help keep building our database and to help with our archive search in private collections.
What type of impact would you like this film to have?
That’s a tough question. Mainly because there are so many areas where I think it will have an impact. Franz’s story covers Sport, the Arts, refugees, war, internment camps, disability (he was a quadriplegic for the last 15 years of his life) and more. He was a Dunera Boy. He was a pioneer of Sports Science and Sports Psychology. He was an artist.
But if I was to choose the top three things, I would say I hope this film encourages people to follow their dreams, to do what they love and know that while it is a story from the world of Sport, it is really the story of how all of us can overcome anything and make a difference in the world – if we just work at it and dare to believe that it is possible. Because it most certainly is, as Franz’s life proves.
Lastly, what’s a key question that will help spark a debate about this issue and film?
Do you believe that anyone can be inspired to greatness? Why/why not?