Rachel Ward on a film that came out of ‘rolling around with my pals’ one Christmas

It's a comedy inspired by a real life event – a Christmas in Wales that Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown spent with longtime friends in Wales – that opens the Sydney Film Festival this week.

And Ward is delighted that Palm Beach, her first film as director since Beautiful Kate a decade ago, is getting a home-town world premiere.

Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown in Palm Beach.Credit:Universal

"It's very exciting, particularly when you see the calibre of the rest of the films," she says. "You think 'how did we get here? That's pretty cool'."

At the start of 12 days of screenings at the 66th festival, Palm Beach stars Brown, Sam Neill, Richard E. Grant, Greta Scacchi, Heather Mitchell and Jacqueline McKenzie as long-time friends who go to an exuberant birthday party on Sydney's northern beaches where tensions break out and an old secret threatens to emerge.

Brown, who is also a producer of the film, saw the potential in that Welsh Christmas shared by four couples who had known each other for years.

"I came away having had a great time but going 'what that was about? In some way I need to go further with [it]'," he says. "Five years later we went further with it."

Ward was initially sceptical there was a film in the experience.

Hugo Weaving, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown at the launch of the Sydney Film Festival program.Credit:Cole Bennetts

"He was the one – I suppose as the outsider – who saw it more clearly," she says. "I was just in there rolling around with my pals who always seem to be going through – as we all are – our various existential crises or [significant] times, whether it's becoming first time mothers or careers taking off or whatever.

"He walked away going 'I really see something universal in there' and he was part of it because he was having his own issues. He saw it clearer than I did."

Inspired by a Christmas in Wales: Palm Beach Credit:Universal

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and Ward have written a script that has three members of one-hit-wonder band called Pacific Sideburns and their partners catching up for a landmark birthday. Ward and Brown's daughter Matilda Brown also features in the impressive cast.

Ward sees Palm Beach as a celebration of longtime friendship on set, amongst both the cast and crew, as well.

"The most important choices you make are who you choose to get into bed with," she says. "What divides the great filmmakers from the ordinary filmmakers is who they bring with them because it's a very collaborative thing."

She particularly enjoyed casting Scacchi, who she describes as her "nemesis" when they were competing for acting roles.

"I wanted to kill her," Ward says. "She was always taking all the best roles then I get to give her a great role. How wonderful is that?"

Adds Brown: “You can get so caught up acting or directing that ‘this is so important’. Thirty years later you go ‘look where we’ve come to together’. That’s far more important.”

Festival director Nashen Moodley is upbeat about the strength of all the Australian films in the program including two in the $60,000 competition – the world premiere of Ben Lawrence's Hearts and Bones, a drama with Hugo Weaving as a war photographer, and Mirrah Foulkes' Judy & Punch, a black comedy with Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman as 17th century puppeteers.

Also screening are Kriv Stenders' Vietnam War drama Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan; Standing Up For Sunny, a romantic comedy that stars RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad; Suburban Wildlife, about four young friends dealing life after uni; Slam, about a young Muslim activist and slam poet who goes missing in Sydney; Animals, a comedy about two boozy female friends in Dublin; and sci-fi pic I Am Mother with Hilary Swank.

Ward, who has directed the telemovie An Accidental Soldier and episodes of Rake, My Place, The Straits and Devil's Playground since Beautiful Kate, shares that optimism about the new batch of Australian films.

"We've got a bumper year coming up," she says. "It smells very strong."

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