There’s several points along the way in Meal Tickets, Mat De Koning's documentary which follows the punk rock journey of the Screwtop Detonators, their inept-roadie-cum-aspiring-rock-star Will Stoker, lothario manager Dave Kavanagh and multiple others, where someone either off-camera or on, mutters something along the lines of, ‘oh, so you’ve brought your camera then, Mat?’
These serve as reminders of the utter stickability it has taken to film and put together this film, shot over a decade from the mid-2000s from Perth to Melbourne, a myriad of US cities on a two-week tour and what can only be described as a left-turn LA Odyssey, whereby Stoker and his beloved friend/artist Matt Doust (RIP) paint the whole town whatever colour they bloody well want to as life-imitates-art-imitates-life.
Then there were the hours/days/months/years editing and here we are. Meal Tickets is completed and ready for the world to see.
“After that amount of time it’s kind of like a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario,” says Screwtop Detonators vocalist/guitarist. Benny Ward. “You hear, ‘I’m doing this film, I’m doing this film’ over and over and over again and you feel like ‘I don’t think this thing’s ever gonna get finished’. And when I’d speak to Mat he’d made even more changes. So it was kind of like an artist working on a piece of art and adding more paint. It seemed like it was never gonna get done and I sort of stopped taking interest in it, to tell you the truth. I just had to step away. ‘Tell me when it’s done and we’ll watch it. Until then I just don’t want to hear about it’. I had to tell Mat that because it was pretty draining and a whole lot of shit to go through with something that you don’t even know is ever going to happen.
“Then lo and behold I’m listening to Double J and hearing Mat talking to Myf Warhurst about us and I was like, ‘what the fuck? How the hell did this happen? When did this happen?’”
“Look I always knew I would finish it, eventually,” says De Koning. “The wind got knocked out of my sails multiple times throughout multiple years. From legal issues, once we actually tried to get the film up off the ground and running – I didn’t get release forms signed for this thing until I actually started editing. Maybe if they’d signed a release form knowing I could have done what I wanted, there might have been a bit more hesitation about the camera being around. So getting everyone to know what they were signing up for, and then convincing a few of them to sign it was a fucking nightmare. So that was a struggle.
“Obviously losing Matt (Doust, who passed away in 2013) was a struggle and that set things back emotionally and affected my drive. But I always knew that I was going to finish it. It was just a question of when.”
A bunch of skateboarding mates dating back to their days at Kalamunda High School, De Koning and the Screwtops (also featuring guitarist/vocalist, Lee French, drummer Charlie Austen and bassist Mitch Long) had been through much together before filming even began. The quartet were modestly in the upper-echelon of Perth punk bands in 2004, when Dave Kavanagh ‘discovered’ them, became their manager and spirited them off on a two-week tour of the US to pursue the biggest of rock dreams. Along the way they were told how to dress, act and who to be friends with and fought it every step along the way. De Koning and his camera were close-up from the get-go.
“I was always a big fan of Spinal Tap,” De Koning says. “I wanted to make the modern-day Spinal Tap. I remember ages ago when I was shooting Snowman I wondered ‘is this the modern-day band you’d do it about?’ And then Screwtops thing came to fruition when Dave joined the scene it was like, ‘this fucking guy’s straight out of central casting!’”
It was a clash of punk rock cultures, with the members of the Screwtops not comfortable with offering up ‘versions’ of themselves or becoming a cartoon in order to achieve success. The band split with Kavanagh and moved to Melbourne.
Meanwhile, Stoker – who had left the US tour halfway through, was chasing his own dream back home and also in Melbourne, with his own band, Will Stoker & The Embers. While each had their defined role on the tour, Stoker was inexperienced and uncomfortable with his, and daydreamed of his own career path rather than being an inept roadie/outsider.
“I just wanted to hang out, drink some beer, meet some girls and party or whatever,” Stoker recalls. “I was such a flake of a roadie. This daydreaming pussy. I sold that version to them.
“It’s very strange for anyone to look back upon themselves 10 years ago and how anxious and emotionally immature one could be back then. I’m just so incredibly apologetic for existing around anyone (laughs). I was nervous and self-conscious and I’m so embarrassed by myself.
“For Mat De Koning to capture what he wanted to for the sake of his film-making was for my part, at least, a very important part of the artistic process. When you consciously give yourself over to art, your personality doesn’t matter that much.”
Life within any band is generally a pressure-cooker environment. Add a filmmaker asking questions at any time of day or tick of the clock into the equation and the drama can only expand. Opinions were strong then… and now.
“Mat was such a close friend and you became completely desensitised to the point where you’d say what was on your mind as if you were just talking to him in a room,” Ward recalls.
“In that respect, it was so natural because you were comfortable having him there because he was a best mate. It’s funny, sometimes I look back on the footage and I think, ‘you were so stupid to say that, there was a camera in front of you, what were you thinking?’ Thing is, sometimes you might’ve had no sleep, or you might have had a fight with someone, and that shit would’ve been completely different had you been asked those questions the following day, but it’s there now. It’s etched in stone you and don’t get to change that.
“The whole juxtaposition of the Will versus us and everything… in my mind that was just a two-week trip to America which he came along and roadied for and that has been blown up into this saga of him versus us,” says Ward of the depiction of Stoker’s seemingly rising career as the Screwtops continued on their path with its own ups and downs.
“I’m telling you now, when we went to Melbourne, he was the last thing on my – or our - minds. And I’m sure we were the last thing on his mind.”
“That was something they struggled with,” De Koning says, “that I was taking it all in and I liked that there was some form of rivalry. But, Benny, less so than the other three – the other three were more the ones that picked on Will – they fuelled the fire for Will’s ambition in a lot of ways. He was out there to do good things and make his band work. So there clearly was a rivalry, in my opinion.”
Meal Tickets is a tale of individuals with the kind of reckless, left-hand turns that only real-life can manufacture. But it is a universal tale in that life and responsibilities catch up to us all, whether we want them to or not.
“Twenty-six drafts and four years’ worth of editing,” says De Koning of the post-production path that resulted in the completion of Meal Tickets. “When you say that it resonates because it’s such an every-band story, the amount of people who would say, ‘dude, what the fuck are you doing following bands no-one really knows or gives a shit about and you think that people are going to fucking care?’
“I never wavered. I was like, ‘man, people are gonna get this. This is like the every-band story that every band will relate to’. Why wouldn’t this find an audience?”