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Assange story a real blockbuster
Picture: supplied Laura Wheelwright and Alex Williams in Underground

When Ten's Australian- made telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story became one of the first telemovies invited to screen at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival recently, the world's media went into a frenzy.

Industry bible Variety called it "one of the small screen events of the year". Stars Rachel Griffiths, Anthony LaPaglia and Perth's own Alex Williams (as the young Assange) were flash-bombed by the media throng. NBC Universal bought the rights to distribute the 95-minute telemovie worldwide.

It even planned to do what few telemovies had done before; screen it in selected cinemas around the globe.

Indeed, the coming-of-age tale of the WikiLeaks founder's formative years became as wanted as the world's most wanted man himself, who is currently holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London.

This critic could only see it in the kind of top secret screening Assange himself would applaud and found its gritty game of cyber cat-and- mouse very much like Australia's real- life version of The Social Network.

"That's great," director Robert Connolly beamed after Underground's Toronto premiere. "A Canadian paper here called it 'An Australian superhero origin story' but I like your (Shannon Harvey's Social Network) description better. I love it."

Those plaudits aren't bad for something shot on "a TV budget" over eight weeks in Melbourne. Yet Undergound comes with some heavyweight firepower behind it.

It's based on the 1997 novel Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier by Suelette Dreyfus. It's produced by The Slap's Tony Ayres and written and directed by Connolly, a five- time AFI winner for films such as Balibo and The Bank.

Set during Assange's time as a teenage hacker known as Mendax in Melbourne in the 1980s, Underground looks at the influences that made him the divisive, controversial and wanted man he is today. Those influences include his activist mother Christine (Griffiths), his crew of fellow teenage hackers (Jordan Raskopoulos and WA's Callan McAuliffe) and the girlfriend he gets pregnant at 17, Electra (Laura Wheelwright).

LaPaglia plays the Australian Federal Police officer grappling with the first instances of cybercrime and forms a task force to find Assange and his increasingly daring hacker friends.

LaPaglia reportedly turned down a role in Quentin Tarantino's new film Django Unchained to do Underground. Young Assange is played by Perth's own recent WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate Williams, who bares a striking resemblance to the fair- haired, fair-skinned WikiLeaks guru. "It's a real honour to be playing such an important figure of my generation," said Williams, who won the role with his first audition after acting school.

"It was really important to me to find out what made him tick, and where he got his moral compass from."

Connolly's casting agent wife spotted Williams in a WAAPA production and immediately texted him with "I've just seen your Julian Assange".

Yet Connolly said the 21-year-old actor's resemblance to Assange was more a bonus than a mitigating factor. "You approach it with the view of getting the best actor but you're always hoping you'll find a resemblance," he said.

"I had to find someone who had a sharp intelligence. With Alex, I found an amazing actor who also had this amazing resemblance. So it was one of those things where you can't quite believe your luck.

"I auditioned him twice just to be sure, the poor guy. He kind of reminds me of the young David Wenham when I worked with him on The Boys. Both bring a fierce intelligence to the role. Now here we are at Toronto and the agents and managers are queuing up for him. He's become hot property."

While Connolly had no input from Assange himself, he chose to depict his early years to show the forces that shaped him.

"You can read about him anywhere in the news these days," he said. "This is a hypothetical look at what made him who he is. What made this kid become one of the most significant figures of the 21st century."

While Melbourne's hacking scene plays a large part in that, so too does the political landscape during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the US invasion of Iraq.

"I couldn't quite believe it when I first read it. It was this cocktail of things that came together that drove him in this one focused direction," Connolly said.

Indeed, as Assange fights extradition to Sweden and arguably the US, Hollywood is busy working on its own WikiLeaks films, with Steven Spielberg, Alex Gibney, HBO and Universal all developing separate projects.