How did you come to write Celia?
It actually started with reading an article in the paper about the rabbit muster that Henry Bolte carried out in the late '50s. It was when I was a film student and I remember reading an article about rabbits finally being legalised as pets in Victoria and they were celebrating with champagne and a lettuce leaf. The article went back into the story of how Bolte had rounded up the rabbits and taken them to the zoo. In fact a lot of church people really got behind getting the banned rabbits back to their families. Bolte banned the pet rabbits for really spurious reasons, essentially quite racist, saying Greeks were breeding them to eat, that they were going to be eating myxomatosis rabbits. He made everyone take the rabbits to the zoo or destroy them.
Then, with church pressure and, basically, housewives who had never done anything political banding together to try and get the children's rabbits back because the kids were so distraught, the government actually reversed its decision and the people were ordered to go and collect their rabbits from the zoo. There were thousands of rabbits and hundreds of parents and children and no-one knew whose rabbits were whose. That really stuck in my mind as a fabulous metaphor for government and the way that they'll make decisions and then reverse them under public pressure. It's a sort of insanity.
So Celia is really a political film?
Very much so. It really started from that story. Then I started thinking about my childhood, growing up in Adelaide, and then I combined the two stories. Even though I grew up in the 60s, I set it in Melbourne in the 50s.
The Communist theme was also strong.
It was a combination of things coming together because, at that stage when I was a film student, I knew someone whose family had to move to Adelaide as a result of being black-banned from work at the PMG because they were a member of the Communist Party. They were given a decision: they could either leave the party and stay in the job at the PMG or they were out. And even though they'd started hearing about Stalinism, they didn't want to be pushed in that way, so they ended up leaving the job and moving to Adelaide. They were an electrical engineer and they found it very hard to get work outside the government contracts. It really changed their lives. So Celia was a combination of those three stories.
So you've pictured the late '50s in Victoria with the politics of Bolte, the Communist subtext...
Which was going on at exactly the same time. It was much later than I'd been taught in school. I thought of it as earlier, but it really was going on still in the late '50s - at the very personal family level.
Organisations like the Australian Peace Council were really so forward-thinking at the time. It was mainly the women in the Communist Party who were part of the Australian Peace Council. Yet they were absolutely hounded as being evil Communists who were going to disrupt the whole of Australian society.
Celia herself and the violence?
That was really about growing up in Adelaide. I still find that with Adelaide, where there's the really lovely, light shades of the city yet underneath there's such a terrible darkness. Even though you grew up not locking the doors and everything was seemingly nice in the City of Churches, there was always a lot of really horrible crime underneath that surface, some really scary, spooky things. A story that sums up Adelaide for me, actually, is about a baby zoo at the Adelaide Zoo. It's got little lambs and little pigs and rabbits. Youths broke in one night and actually raped the animals at the baby zoo. That, to me, sums up Adelaide as I was growing up. There were terrible dark things. So I transposed them to Melbourne in the 50s.
Is Celia a seemingly malevolent little girl?
I see her more as someone who is just a kid who has her fantasy world. And then there's reality but she hasn't actually been able to separate the two, so they combine with deadly consequences. But it's very much a child living in the imaginary and trying to cope with what's going on around her in what is a fairly crazy-making world where rabbits are taken away for political reasons and Communists are hounded when they seem terribly nice people.
You received wide acclaim for Celia. Why did people responded so well to it in 1989, both here and in England?
Yes. I saw the nice side of English critics on Celia and the ugly side on Dallas Doll - they were sort of saying, 'Shame'. But I think the fact that it was a story about childhood actually made it very international, which wasn't something I'd expected or thought of at the time that I made it. When I was travelling around with the film, a lot of Jewish people really identified with it in terms of what happened during the Holocaust. They experienced a sort of resonance there. It hit at a number of levels.
Your next project was Turtle Beach? Were you ever going to direct it?
No. I was working at Roadshow at the time, with Matt Carroll as a script consultant, and I was asked to write the adaptation of Turtle Beach.
Are you happy with the adaptation and the film?
The adaptation scriptwise was very different from what was shot, and when I first saw the film I thought it looked like the writer was on drugs or completely insane, because you could see there were two films working within the one film.
I loved working with Blanche d'Alpuget. She was fabulous and I loved the book. There were a lot of different voices in terms of the finance-raising, there was American money, and the producers - many, plural - really had very different views of what the film should be.
Greta Scacchi really liked the book and liked the script and fought for it. But during the process of developing the script, they brought in an American writer and it really changed. I was off directing Police Rescue at the time. Then the cast, when they were in Thailand, said they'd signed on the script that I'd written and wanted to change it back to that. There was something about the American script that was more like King Rat than Turtle Beach. So then I was flown out to Thailand to rewrite the rewrite and the film ended up actually being a combination of both.
Stephen Wallace as director?
I liked Love Letters from Teralba Road and Stir. I think it was really too many cooks on Turtle Beach. There were just too many voices and whether one viewpoint would have worked - maybe it would have as King Rat or whatever, but it was too many...
Then Hammers Over the Anvil? You wrote that as well?
Co-wrote it. It was around for a long time, that project. I'd seen it when I was working at Film Victoria and that was in the very early days. Peter Hepworth was writing. I was brought on as director and ended up doing some writing on it.
An enjoyable experience?
Working with Charlotte Rampling was fantastic. That was marvellous. And working with the Adelaide landscape was wonderful.
What attracted you to say yes to do an Alan Marshall story and a period film?
I actually love Alan Marshall's writing very much, and so it was really his writing and his short story that ended up making the film. And his sense of the Australian landscape and of people within small country towns - that was definitely what attracted me to it. And his fight with polio and the way he got over it.
What about the similarities to The Go-Between? that the reviewers all mention?
That was probably something I'd inherited when taking it on. I must say I wasn't particularly aware of The Go-Between? as I was working on it.
It has been shown on television, but it did not have a broad commercial release as other period films did.
I have to say as a film-maker, I'm probably naive. I don't know. I work very much from scripts in directing and, then, those other things are taken on by those in producer roles. So I must say it's not my area of expertise, and it probably should be my area. When I look around and see directors that really know that end, I think it's a skill one probably needs increasingly.
The re-creation of 1910 in a country town was actually quite complex, the range of characters.
Charlotte Rampling was very committed to it. In fact she hadn't done a film for two years before that and she really liked the script. Hammers was exciting, I must say, as a director working with fantastic actors, a great cast for the film.
It got to a core of an Australian experience which has gone, not quite the 19th century where we saw in so many of our films, but a transition time before World War I.
Yes, that was something that attracted me to take on the project - that my father was born in 1919 and I really identified with it from the stories of his boyhood and what he did.
Sandra Bernhardt and Dallas Doll?
We all make mistakes. Mine was Sandra Bernhardt. Dallas Doll essentially came from being part of and seeing how Australians really worship experts from overseas. I've done some writing workshops where that would happen. An American is brought out - and the willingness for Australians to accept with open arms whatever fraud comes out because they're American, that's absolutely the starting point of Dallas Doll.
Well, that certainly comes through it. It reminded me of those films with the stranger who comes into a family or into a town - like Terence Stamp in Pasolini's Teorema or Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter - challenges and changes everyone's lives.
Interestingly, I hadn't seen Teorema until I'd actually shot the film, so it didn't come from that. But it did come from seeing again, as I was growing up, various Americans come out here - not just the workshop when I was an adult. When I was a child, Americans would come out and be really taken up by the local community. There was this one particular American when I was a kid. I noticed that she said absolutely ridiculous things and everyone believed her, purely because she said it with such confidence. So what I really wanted to explore in Dallas Doll wasn't so much the Americans themselves, but the Australian community and why we accept these people with such open arms. It really came from that more than anything else.
What is interesting in films like Teorema is that Pasolini is certainly looking at the community rather than the mysterious stranger. But there is such a variety of odd or transforming experiences, for better, for worse.
Yes. It is a sort of religious theme in fact. What I wanted to explore with the Dallas character - and this came very much from the workshop that I did with the American - is that, in spite of themselves, they actually work some good. They're tapping into something that's larger than themselves. So they're actually espousing things because they think what they're on about is going to work for an audience. But they're tapping into something that is actually more religious and spiritual than they're even aware of.
And so with Dallas, that's what I wanted her to do. With her workshops she actually does transform people. The sort of beliefs in life that she's adopted means she doesn't actually believe in anything. But because she's taken on other things that she's read about or heard about, she actually taps into a spiritualism that she's completely unaware of.
That's why I brought UFO in. She really doesn't believe UFOs exist and she hates Rastus. The Rastus character is very much the religious character and she's the kid who does have belief, very fervent belief. And so Dallas's epiphany, in a sense, is realising that there is something other than herself that she's been spouting this sort of New Age philosophy where she's the centre, and then she realises there's something greater and it's something she can't name and she's taken away by it to outer space. So the UFO is very much a symbol rather than a serious UFO, which is why it's portrayed in a rather cartoon-like way.
As with Pasolini, a lot of the tapping into spirituality is via sexual experience. What are you saying that about Australian needs, that whatever our spirituality is, it is expressed in terms of an awareness of sexuality or sexual identity?
There is the sexual realm but love is somewhere in the spiritual realm as well, and so people can tap into it that way. However, the most religious character in Dallas Doll, is Rastus and she's the only one who is not sexual. But it's everywhere, I guess, is what I was trying to say, because I really did want it to be quite a spiritual film.
One of the Australian problems is our sexual hesitation; we don't immediately see a connection between sexuality and spirituality - or we get a bit scared when it's linked with spirituality. We make a dichotomy. Was some of the negative reaction to the film because of that. If you'd been Italian, like Pasolini, you could've got away with it, so to speak.
I wonder. I think it was probably a casting thing because I'd written the script with a very attractive woman playing Dallas - much more sort of girl-next-door, sweetness and light. Then, when I thought of Sandra, I thought that would be more confronting for a viewer and more interesting. One of the things I actually deliberately wanted to do in Dallas Doll was to fly in the face of a lot of themes; I wanted test themes. I didn't want to stick by the rules. So I started thinking that to cast Sandra would be more interesting than my original notion.
I think it makes it a much harder film to get distributed. And Sandra was much more like the Americans who I was basing it on. She was the dead-spit, absolutely the dead spit - the eyes, the manner, everything. One of the things from when I was a child and I saw this American, one in particular, and then, when I went to the workshop, was that they weren't attractive people. They were very in-your-face sort of people, and yet the Australians were fawning upon them and wanting to listen to everything they said. So I cast Sandra because I thought that was far more like the truth.
I learnt a big lesson because it was already a script that was taking a lot of risks, and one of the other things was I didn't want to stick by a formula, so every time in the film that you think you know what's going to happen, I wanted to tip that on the audience's head and do something else. In the 90s that's not particularly wise thing to do to an audience. In the 70s it was; in the 90s it's not. So I was already a bit against the norm, and then to cast Sandra Bernhard, I think, actually took it too far in terms of making it accessible to people. And certainly so in terms of distributors. I've sat in audiences around the world at film festivals where the audience responded very well to the film, but distributors were really very frightened of it.
Other films I've made, they either like or didn't. But with Dallas Doll there were people not knowing what to think. I was told a lot that I was brave, but people didn't want to touch it.
Sandra herself was pretty negative by the time she got here, but I'm very wary of what I say about her. I think with Sandra it's "No comment".
Flesh on Glass?
That was really about dealing with repression of one's sexuality inside the church.
What made you write that film?
I wonder. The seance material, I suppose, is a sort of spiritual other in the film. It's really someone trying to switch off from everything that they know and from their little world. So, entering a convent, not for spiritual reasons but actually to escape life, is not going to work. In the scene where she smashes all the glasses, she's destroying the sort of barricade she's put around herself until she can leave and be herself at the end.
This was your student film?
Yes. It's rather crude, I think.
It's more avant garde in its style than what you have done since, visually and in the editing?
That's really interesting because I used to watch it and think, 'God, I should have gone and worked for Crawfords'. I thought it was rather television-like in some ways, although I was heavily influenced by Bergman. I was a big Bergman fan when I was at film school.
It's not linear, your time shifts.
It goes back to the mother swallowing glass. The nuns are in parallel stories, so it goes back in time. It's not really defined.
So, to that extent it's not specifically Australian, going back to medieval-like times. It's very Australian and yet it's not.
I love Bergman films. I remember the best Christmas holiday I ever had was when I went to Adelaide and they had a Bergman festival at the Trak Cinema and I went every day, saw two Bergman films every night. Then, interestingly, I had a bit of a backlash against Bergman. But what I liked was his wrought emotion and the psychological intensity of his films. I still find them striking. I keep having this little tug of war with Bergman. But I loved the intensity of his film combined with the symbolism and the starkness.
You just argued yourself out of your Crawford line.
That's true. You can see why I never went there.
The imagery seems very Catholic. Did you have contact with Catholics?
I suppose my big relationship up to that point would have been with a Catholic guy in Adelaide, and he was very Catholic.
Since then most of my friends are either Catholic or Jewish. I know very few Protestant friends, actually. I think it's 'the guilt thing'.
So it's a substantial use of Catholic icons for an exploration of repression and puritanical attitudes.
While I'm not Catholic, I remember when I was 16 I really wanted to be and I went to church a lot and I went of my own volition. I hadn't had to when I was younger and I went to a church school, Presbyterian from the time I was four years old. I suppose I was really drawn to the Catholic church because it had so much more symbolism and, in general, so much more ritual than the Uniting church. But I was very, very interested in religion, so it wasn't by chance that I chose Catholicism in Flesh on Glass. I was really being drawn to it.
Your short, Bathing Boxes, won some acclaim around the world?
It went to all the film festivals and it showed in a lot of the houses in New York and places like that, London. That was a delightful experience. I have to say of all the films I've made, that was by far the most enjoyable. It was basically commissioned by the Arts Council of England with the BBC. It was part of a series where they asked film-makers around the world to make a 5-minute film based on a work of art. Paul Schrader and various film-makers contributed to the series. It was a really wonderful. Besides the painting and thinking about the painting and working with Peter Mitchell and Frances O' Connor was fantastic. David Hirshfelder did the music. It was all the people I've always wanted to work with. So it was just fantastic.
I have overseas funding for a new script that's about stalking which, I think, is a real phenomenon of the '90s. It's based on a true story, a woman whose husband was working with a woman who started stalking his wife and brought the family almost to collapse. The wife fights back, actually confronts the stalker.
Interview: 16th January 1998