How a potential Fyre Festival for sunflowers became a beautiful story about ‘Growing Happiness

In the heart of the unforgiving Outback, a relentless drought tightens its grip on the land and small town of Kalbar, Queensland. Two resilient farmers; Jenny and Russ, hatch a daring plan in an attempt to save their dying town.

Undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable odds, they rally the community to stage a vibrant Sunflower Festival, an audacious celebration against nature’s harshness. As sunflowers bloom, so does hope, and their small idea not only rejuvenates the spirits of the town but sends ripples of happiness on an International scale, demonstrating the extraordinary power of optimism in the face of adversity.

After it’s premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival, and leading up to it’s screening at the upcoming Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival, Nick L’Barrow had the chance to chat with Growing Happiness director Neil McGregor about how he came across Russ and Jenny’s story, and the impact his time with the two sunflower farmers had on him personally.

Nick: Growing Happiness is not your first documentary, so I’m curious to know what your process is when finding a story, like this, that’s worth pursuing? When did you know that Jenny and Russ’ story would make a great feature length doco?

Neil McGregor: Yeah, fantastic question, Nick. What point does a story become a film… is a tricky moment for a filmmaker. Sometimes you have an epiphany moment. And sometimes it dawns on you like a slow burn, when you’re already in amongst it. 

With this one, from the outset, I thought there was something there. I stumbled across this story that Russ bought his wife some sunflowers on a shopping trip just to boost her morale. They were going through a drought, and that kind of was the catalyst of this fantastic idea. 

Then suddenly, it literally blossomed and bloomed into this potential Fyre Festival! It sort of grew beyond their control a little bit. Terrible puns! But the seeds of the story were kind of there from the moment I saw their website and tickets were on sale.

I wasn’t really looking for a film. A lot of projects coming out of COVID in Australia weren’t really supported a lot. But I just stumbled onto this sweet story. And I called Russ and asked if I could do a documentary about their festival. Might be something, might be nothing. Maybe he’ll just get some nice cinematic landscapes out of it! 

And went to visit them, and within 10 minutes of sitting on their back deck that you see in the film, having a cuppa with them, I could really see the characters, the story, and this impossible goal they had set for themselves.

Nick: How long did you end up spending with Russ and Jen from when you met them until finishing filming?

Neil McGregor: Yeah, we spent not a lot of time, but a lot of quality time. Probably from that initial conversation, to the seeds being planted, there might of been a couple of days. And then from planting the seeds, then growing into sunflowers, takes 66 days.

We couldn’t afford to film everyday, even though I would’ve loved to have been there everyday, but probably about once a week. We had to scatter it out, and when we weren’t filming, find support and financing. But no one really wanted to give money to a film about sunflowers!

I think it ended up being about 25 days of filming out of the 66 days. And then with Russell and his cancer, he couldn’t be in the sun, so we would only film half days. We’d leave Brisbane at 2, 3am to get those sunrise shots. And then of course we filmed the 3 days of the festival, plus the master interviews.

Nick: You mentioned earlier about the story of Russ buying Jenny the sunflower being the catalyst for this festival, and that story is such a lovely way to introduce the film, and these characters we will be following throughout. Was that always how you intended to begin Growing Happiness?

Neil McGregor: I think when you approach a documentary, or any kind of film, you have an idea, you want to explore the characters and some sort of theme or question. You try to remain agile, then go and shape the story.

I thought this event could’ve been the next Fyre Festival. These are sunflower farmers that have no event management experience, and they’ve got 15,000 people showing up to their small farm outside a town of 900 people. That’s a recipe for a good film!

But as I sort of steered towards getting to know Russ and Jenny, it became this interesting experience. Because when you make a documentary, you step into people’s lives. And I understood that they were growing happiness for other people. I thought that was quite powerful. No matter what curveball was thrown their way, they steered the course. And that’s what the film really became about.

Nick; I interviewed director Bill Bennett recently about his film recounting his experience of the Camino Trail, and I asked him this question, and I’m curious to find out your take on it too.

This is such a personal story about Russ and Jenny, and their loving and giving personalities, but their personal story affects the audience in such a personal way too. I feel like you can compare that to filmmaking in the sense that making a film is such an arduous personal journey, but your film will affect people as well. Have you ever thought about that as a filmmaker?

Neil McGregor: I think that’s a really fantastic question, Nick. I think it takes a film buff to really kind of see film like that, and see what’s behind it, and understand what it takes to make them. I’ve had very unique experiences in filmmaking, from crew roles on Deadpool and Godzilla, and production design where I’ve stood in the snow in Canada to help other people make their films!

And even on this film, I had to tell my wife that I was getting up at 2am to go film sunflowers at a very specific time of day! There’s certainly moments where you question yourself. What is the importance of this? Sometimes it’s really a bloody grind to get the story and film it.

But if you’ve got a good story, and it’s worth sharing, it’s always going to be the thing that drives you. It doesn’t make it easy, but it’s important. And it helps you get out of bed at 2am to drive off and film a sunrise.

Nick: Part of Russ and Jenny’s journey that we see in this film is Russ’ battle with cancer, and the unfortunate news that he passed away not long after filming. I’m just curious to know what is something you will take away personally from spending this time with Russ, and the humanity he and Jenny shared on screen?

Neil McGregor: I think it’s exactly that, Nick. They embody what humanity should be. And I think stepping into their lives, and having people share their story is such a humbling experience because they open themselves up to be so vulnerable.

We couldn’t have known what would happen to Russell’s journey. It’s a very difficult, challenging process. But when we were wrapping up filming, and post-production was kind of happening, Jenny asked me to speak at Russell’s funeral. So we took a couple of shots from the film and played them, and it was a fantastic send off for Rusell.

You know, with documentaries like this and Ramblin’ Racer, you continue these relationships with people beyond the production, and the festivals, and the publicity journeys. So it’s important to be loyal to your subjects and to share the story you truly set out to achieve. 

What really rubbed off on me was that Russ and Jenny would turn on the 6 o’clock news, and the world is just tearing itself apart. People are increasingly divided. So it’s things like this festival, these moments, that connect us all with the common threat that we are all the same. If we took the time to grow happiness with other people, we would connect in a way where we can see the world from someone else’s view, on a personal level. Jenny and Russ are the kind of people that can create that change.

Nick: Growing Happiness is playing at the upcoming Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival. Can you tell me the importance of this festival for you, and your excitement about showing the film to this audience?

Neil McGregor: It’s a phenomenal event! It’s kind of like Sundance Film Festival in the outback! It’s an outdoor cinema in outback Queensland, and you sit in this big chairs, watching a film with shooting stars and everything like that.

It’s an amazing experience, and it’s such a humbling experience to share Jenny and Russ’ story with this audience, and be reminded about what’s really important in this world.

Thank you so much to Neil McGregor for his time, and to M4M Agency for organising the interview! You can find out more information about Growing Happiness and it’s upcoming festival screenings here!

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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