About 26,000 expatriates live in Los Angeles. As such, they are part of a decades-old diaspora, in which ambitious Australians have long sought new challenges abroad.
LA is geographically and climatically attractive. Compared with London and New York — the traditional expatriate bolt holes —it is cheap. It is also arguably more closely attuned to the global zeitgeist, as a migrant city in which the best and the brightest from around the world exploit an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit to pursue their dreams in the world’s sixth largest economy.
Karyn Lovegrove, 37, arrived from Melbourne eight years ago. Today, she owns a thriving gallery in a hip art complex near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I ran the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Melbourne and did very well,” she says on a summer’s afternoon at the new Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in LA. But something was lacking. When her music business boyfriend, now husband, Peter Leat, suggested it might be a good idea to move to LA (he now manages Dido) Lovegrove agreed. “I had reached the limits of what I could do in Melbourne,” she says.
For Lovegrove, LA presented a chance to raise her game. LA has a large collecting base. There is strong interaction between artists, clients, museums and galleries. That kind of interaction is essential to a strong art scene. Collectors and art institutions have far deeper pockets. “In Melbourne I showed important artists,” she says. “Tracey Moffatt, for instance. But I could count the number of museum acquisitions in eight years on one hand.”
And in a business where travelling to art fairs, mostly in the northern hemisphere, to represent clients (her roster includes Australians Bill Henson, Ricky Swallow and Tim Johnson, currently on show at her gallery) is critical, LA is closer to the action. “It’s much more difficult to do this from Australia. California, on the other hand, seems to be at a great stage. It’s become an important centre for contemporary art. People come here to find artists.”
Fashion photographer Nicholas Samartis, 38, arrived three years ago. After five years with Australian Vogue he was successful but, like Lovegrove, felt the need to spread his wings. He now shoots for US Vogue. “LA’s like Sydney with money,” he says. “It’s a nice trade-off — America without the inhumanity of New York.” But, he warns, “no matter how big your reputation is down under, it can mean nothing here. You get to sit at the table but have to play another hand.”
One of the recurring expatriate themes is that many never intended to settle in LA. Ross Grayson Bell, the producer of Lambs of God — Judy Davis and Winona Ryder are interested in starring — saw LA as a round-the-world stopover. Instead, he scored an internship with legendary low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, who gave a leg up to Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson and Jonathan Demme.
Bell met the great man when he overslept; he was crashing on Corman’s office couch and, to cut a long story short, was asked to write a buddy movie script for $3000 in two weeks. Bell did it in four, and Corman sponsored his work visa.
“It’s a factory here. It’s a real business,” he says. In contrast, Australia is a sheltered workshop. It’s a heavily subsidised industry because there are so few funding sources, with producers beseiging the AFI. In LA, there are half-a-dozen studios eager for projects.
Indeed, where else could he set up a film company, take a book, put together a script, film the highlights with a bunch of unknown actors, pitch the footage to a studio head, and get a deal? The result was Fight Club, Bell’s debut as a producer. It just cemented the fact that LA is the place to be. “It helps that almost everyone in showbiz is just a couple of calls away.”
This is especially true of Australians. I hadn’t spoken to Max Sharam, 35, a musician who left Melbourne on the back of 1996’s A Million Year Girl, since bumping into her at an anti-war demo earlier this year. Yet hours after we spoke, I found myself sitting opposite her at a dinner party.
Trying to make it in LA demands Herculean effort, but the rewards can be enormous. “I’ve seen a lot of Australian friends struggle here, doing the shittiest jobs,” says Sharam. “And, next thing, they have their own TV show. The pay-off is this incredible satisfaction which we all share. There is also the pleasure of living in an intensely stimulating creative environment, rubbing shoulders with peers from around the globe, that encourages artists to expand their talents.”
Besides music, Sharam has published an illustrated book, Snakes Live Under My Bed, an allegory for immature adults, mounted a show of her drawings at a LA art gallery, and is writing a comedy revue she plans to take to New York.
Of course, LA has long been the Mecca for aspiring movie actors. Zoe Brock, 29, hopes to trade an international modelling career — that took her from Melbourne onto runways in Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York for Vogue and Elle — for film. “I had a role in Going To California, a TV movie in Miami, and the people on that show suggested I give LA a shot,” Brock says. “I had never intended to go there.” Instead, she fell heavily. “I love the nature. Being able to drive through wilderness minutes from my house. Living the American Dream.”
Like Sharam, Brock has expanded her creative horizons, working as an architectural consultant for a friend who wants a Byron Bay home and on a comic book, in-between auditions and shifts at a posh restaurant favoured by movie folk to pay the rent. “I have so much hope,” she says. “It’s strange to be in love with a place that stands for so much that offends me. But the US is like a drug. Politics aside, it’s the energy and boundless enthusiasm that fuels me.”
There’s also the good life. Jason Schepisi, 37, would seem to have it. He lives in George Clooney’s old pad beneath the Hollywood sign, hosts regular poolside parties, and has a succession of Australians crashing in his spare room. Schepisi is Brock’s Byron Bay client, another example of the two degrees of separation familiar to many Australian expatriates.
“One of the great things about living in LA,” says Schepisi, is that Australian talent comes here. “Half of them come to this house. So I have access to them. Paradoxically, this wouldn’t be possible in Australia; there’s no focal point.
In the movie business, and increasingly in spheres as disparate as high-tech, aerospace and music, LA acts as the hub. Movies may be shot in Australia. But the deals invariably go down in LA. “This is where the decisions get made,” says Schepisi.
Schepisi runs Baby Lemonade, a company supplying Australian talent and crews to Americans who want to shoot commercials down under. Runaway productions have been good to Schepisi, who turns over seven to eight a year at about $1 million each. He’s also setting up a film division to offer the same services and also, he hopes, to get him in the director’s chair, making Australian movies.
Of course, behind every Hollywood pool is a lot of hard work. Schepisi learnt about Hollywood at Propaganda Films, a famous, now defunct, LA outfit, and understands that being here is crucial for success.
Americans like face-to-face business, he explains. “That’s why I stayed, to get the jump on my competitors by being in the same time zone as the Americans.” He also needs US funding to make movies.
With the minimum budget for a mainstream US feature now pegged at $60 million, Schepisi says Hollywood is desperate for cheaper features, a desire that gives Australia, with its state-of-the-art production facilities, top-rank crews, and stars, a decided edge.
And then there’s what used to be called the brain drain. Almost everyone I spoke with mentioned that at some point their careers had hit a ceiling in Australia. Bernard Balleine, 41, a neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles, was lured to LA from Sydney, via Cambridge, because his work on the neurobiology of voluntary behaviour is so specialised that he could find few professional colleagues.
The advantages of relocating to LA, besides tenure at UCLA, are obvious. About 300 people work in his field, with a pool of post-graduate students to help with research, and several wealthy institutions — southern California boasts a fantastic concentration of high-tech medical facilities. It is a stimulating work climate that Balleine just couldn’t find in Australia. Indeed, the dominance of southern California in his, and other, fields — whether medicine, technology or entertainment — tends to be self-perpetuating, just because it is dominant.
There are large endowed bodies, such as UCLA, the Scripps Institute, and the Salk Institute, that are set up to run clinical trials, explains Balleine. “They’re integrated from patient populations down to basic research. It’s very exciting.” He feels that while such opportunities have declined in Australia, southern California is a magnet for foreign talent. “The benefit of having an international education, so to speak,” says Balleine, “by working with people from around the world, is really useful.”
Nonetheless, many expatriates still call Australia home. While they live as privileged guests in LA, able to compete successfully, full membership of the US club is still denied — a distinction made more obvious in the repressive post-9/11 political climate — unless they take out citizenship. “I’d like to go home and make a contribution,” says Balleine wistfully. “It would be a pity if that wasn’t possible. But I haven’t found the route yet.”