Peter Weir based the movie on two real-life incidents. The first involved two of Weir's friends, who suffered through a number of house-calls made by an incessantly talkative yet incompetent plumber. The second involved Weir himself riding in a cab in the late 1960s with a driver who appeared to be a hippie. When the pair began discussing the Vietnam war, the driver espoused numerous fascist and pro-war sentiments, concluding his diatribe by expressing a desire to see the entire nation of Vietnam destroyed with an atomic bomb.
Apparently, in real life, director Peter Weir once had a plumber over to his house to do some work and the plumber said: "I rented that film of yours the other night. So that's what you think of us eh?"
This tele-feature film was made as part of a South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) three picture deal with Australia's Channel 9 Network. The other films were Harvest of Hate (1979) and The Sound of Love (1978).
This film represents the first ever collaboration of married couple director Peter Weir and designer Wendy Stites. The two have worked on about a dozen of director Weir's films together, Stites (aka Wendy Weir) performing duties in the design areas of production, costume, coordination, consultation and special design.
In the book '35 mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian Film Revival' by Sue Mathews, director Peter Weir said of this film: "I think it was more a case of saying I could go back to something. The Plumber (1979) belonged way back with Homesdale (1971). It was done very quickly and with no fuss, to go straight into television without the attendant excitement of a cinema release with all its highs and lows. It reached an audience and played and I thought that's great, I've got that possibility of working on teleplays...The Plumber (1979) was made from one end to the other and played much better that way, given the tension that built up in the piece and the claustrophobic setting...it was written because I needed the money, which is sometimes a good way of doing things. It is a true story, though that is irrelevant to the audience. The couple were friends of mine and the plumber was based on someone I'd given a lift to once, hitchhiking, and except for the singing in the bathroom and the ending it is pretty much as it happened. In reality the plumber did leave, but my friend told me, 'the strange thing was that it brought out in me a kind of deviousness, a desire for the survival of my mental state that led me to consider doing really drastic things.' She was an anthropologist, studying those things, so I didn't editorialize. Her story about the incident in New Guinea when the chap came into her room, performed his ceremony or whatever and she tipped milk on him, was all from her thesis. I always thought of recounting that incident as an overture - to indicate that it was all going to happen again. And she had found herself treating it as some ritualistic thing. Like the fascination with the head of a weaving snake - she really, for her own self-knowledge, had to go through it. She had a certain pride and strength, she was not going to be forced out by this man. And obviously with a situation like that she swung wildly between that and thinking I'm going crazy with this whole thing, it is as straightforward as others see it."
The disease, Kuru, that Brian Cowper is investigating is a real disease. It is a form of spongiform encephalopathy, like 'mad cow disease". It is only found in Papua New Guinea and is caused by the habit of eating the remains of deceased ancestors, particularly the brains. The disease is incurable and affects the nervous system, leading the sufferers to lose control of their voluntary muscles. It is believed to have died out, with the last known sufferer dying in 2005.
The Italian singer at the restaurant is wearing a jumper with the words, 'Lloyd Triestino', across the front. 'Lloyd Triestino' is the former name of the shipping company, Italia Marittima S.p.A. The company has been in existence since 1836, and used the name Lloyd Triestino from 1919 to 2006.