The major distributors did not take up No Worries. It was left to independent theatres in the country or like the small Lumiere cinema in Melbourne to give the film some exhibition.
Well, I mean, that's life. Perhaps the major distributors couldn't work out its market, but it came to the Lumiere in Melbourne and it found a very good market. Perhaps there was some sort of justice that someone like manager, Paul Coulter, took on a film which is at this moment in its 15th week and still bringing the crowds in. So I'm not unhappy about that. I was always for the little guy, anyway.
No Worries: what was it in the screenplay that appealed to you and drew you, an experienced producer and director, to direct this film?
It began by my actually reading the play. The play was written to be performed by a very small ensemble of actors, playing many parts - including the sheep as well as the humans. What I thought was interesting was the humanity of the piece. I realised that while, for the play, the audience is required to use its imagination to set the scene, if you made a movie of it, you could take the cinema audience out there and enable them to experience what it was really like to go through this cathartic experience, sharing it with the young girl, Matilda.
Even though the play was written in the 80s, it very much a 90s film. What does it mirror about the situation, both in country and in city, for the Australian audience?
First of all the difference between the 80s and the 90s: we seem to be forever plagued by droughts or floods or pestilence or famine, whatever. But I think the difference in terms of transition from play to movie is that so many people are being forced off the land and it's really destroying the communities in the country.
The rural councillor, played by John Hargreaves, is a character who was not in the play. But this kind of councillor has taken on a very important role in the rural community. In the past and now, the men of religion would help a community find its footing and assist families in times of crisis. The good thing about the rural councillor is that he not only gives the family some sort of psychological background and something to fall back on, but he also has the advantage of being a tough economic manager. He can go in and fight the banks and try to get as fair a deal as he can for the people in the country.
But in terms of the 90s, I think that we are still faced with the stances and policies of the economic rationalists. I think we are still faced with the problem that we have two societies in Australia: we have a rural Anglo-Saxon? country society and we have a multicultural city society. They are very, very different, and I think that any government running Australia has to face the difficulty that the votes are in the city but the country is, in fact, our heritage. It's something that I would hate to think we would lose. It distresses me because I finished shooting the film in April 1992 and yet the plight of the people on the land hasn't improved since then. It has probably deteriorated. And I feel when you go to the country - I'm a person from the city - you are struck with the nobility of country people, the way they are hardworking, that they are honest, decent people.
Something that really struck me was that I thought I knew a lot of things that country people didn't know. And, in terms of city life, I certainly do. But I realise that country people are not ignorant; they just have different knowledge; and I felt very ignorant in their presence when I saw how much they knew about things that I had no idea of. So I came away quite humbled by the experience of working very closely with people over a six month period in the Gilgandra area. I think it's very sad that farms that have been in families for generations, that are part of our Anzac spirit, our heritage, are being lost. Australia is very light on heritage in many ways and, while traditions, I think, can be stultifying, they can also give people something to hang on to.
It's a shame that so many of those farms are just going to rack and ruin and that people are walking off the land. It's also well worthwhile keeping in mind that their produce is the best in the world. They're not inefficient, bad farmers. Our farmers work bloody hard. They're very efficient. And, yet, because of the way the world is working, with the economic managers of the world, trade and tariff conditions and all the different elements that are working against people who are earning an honest living, the farmers are just losing their livelihood. And I think that's very sad.
There's another significant thing that really struck me as I worked in the country and that was the role of women. I always knew that women in the country basically managed the farm, in other words, ran the household. But I was surprised to see that women, in fact, have roles on three other levels. One level is that they are mothers and they manage the family. Secondly, they also help on the farm. At shearing time they're not only cooking the food but helping with the actual shearing, rounding the sheep up, branding them... And, of course, the third area is their being the economic managers of these vast businesses which are quite often changing in terms of the conditions and the saleability of product and new ways of dealing with the way their crops are sown, marketed. And all this is done on a home computer late at night. They're extraordinary women and modest about their achievements, but I was so impressed with what they do and how hard they work and how uncomplaining they were. I felt, I must say, very humble after making No Worries.
You created quite a different atmosphere when the family got to the city. They began to realise that not only was their country knowledge not so helpful in the city, but that the multicultural city was almost overwhelming. This was especially true for Matilda herself.
One thing I didn't want to say was, `Country good, city bad. I think that if the film has a message of hope - and I believe it does - it is that they can overcome the bewildering differences in the city, these people from their very organised rural Anglo-Saxon? background moving to the multicultural city. It's bewildering and frightening to Matilda at first, for Ellen as well and also for Ben, the father.
Ellen doesn't even know the difference between a Chinese person and a Vietnamese. They're all just strange, foreign people to her. But by the end of the film I think there is a message of hope not only for Matilda but for the rest of the family, in that there are rich rewards, cultural rewards, personal rewards to be gained in our multicultural cities.
And one would hope that the friendship which Matilda is forging with Vin, the little Vietnamese girl, in the final minutes of the film, is a friendship which will benefit Vin, who is an orphan and desperately wants to have people to love her and to relate to her, and also benefit Matilda in so far as her outlook on the world will be broadened by having a friend from Vietnam. Two small girls who have both undergone enormously cathartic experiences in their short lives can probably draw on their friendship to go forward and become well balanced and productive citizens of Australia.
In your comments on John Hargreaves' rural counsellor character you mentioned the word `religious'. Is he supplying what churches used to supply in service and support to country people? The film presents the family as traditionally religious.
I felt the Bells were like many country people; for them the church forms a meeting place. People work every day and quite often they work when they get back from church. But going to church is offering a time to get together, to sing together (which is a thing which helps one emotionally). So Matilda is brought up in basically a Christian household and she is taught, as most kids want to believe, that there is right and wrong, good and bad and, if you do the right thing, you will somehow be rewarded. She finds it so confusing that she has never done the wrong thing; she can't see her parents doing the wrong thing; and yet they lose their livelihood, their history, their whole lifestyle - and that is what she finds so bewildering.
Life is like that. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do the right thing all the time, but you shouldn't expect necessarily that you will be rewarded for doing it. You should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. I think it's very important that when she comes to the city and she runs away from home, she's running through Central Railway Station - and she sees these tall, fuzzy-haired black people with a Christian banner, singing one of the hymns that she knows from church. But they are singing in a foreign language, in an island language from the Pacific. Again it's a confusing thing for her as she sees her religion being celebrated by people that are so strange to her. But that's all a learning experience.
I think that it's hard to say to kids, `Do the right thing and be honest and play your part in society'. But we don't necessarily think it through - I mean, our whole society now is all about winning. If we turn on the television and if it's sports coverage, it's not about playing the game, it's about winning. The fact is that in any game that's played, 50 per cent of the players are going to lose. Now, shouldn't we be teaching them more about playing the game rather than winning?
In Love in Limbo there is a satiric comment on some of the traditional attitudes towards religion in Australia through the Russell Crowe character, with his Welsh Chapel background, his experience of going to Kalgoorlie with his mates from work, going to the brothel, getting drunk and his return home to his strait-laced parents.
Love in Limbo is a comedy. It's meant to show young men with a strong libido but completely inept with the opposite sex. It shows how they stagger forward into their first sexual encounter. Russell, who's a wonderful actor, took up the challenge and played his part of an anally-retentive Welsh Baptist virgin. Of course, it is caricature. But we wanted to show his parents as being so out of touch with what was happening in the '50s with rock and roll music and fashion. He had been cocooned in their lifestyle like so many immigrants - the film also showed the immigrant experience - then suddenly there are two of the boys from work with an old car, a sense of adventure and a few bottles of the demon beer. We see how easily he was seduced into having some fun because his parents' idea of fun wasn't really fun. It's his birthday and yet it's such a boring, old person's celebration that he's going home to.
But we also wanted to show that, at the last minute he really didn't want to go into the brothel. He was terrified, but he wanted to know all about it. I thought that the film was also an examination of adult love. It's a story about love, the story of a widow who was like many widows after the Second World War. They were young attractive women deprived of a man because the men had been killed in the war, but with children and all that parental responsibility. The film wanted to show the difference between the kind of sexual experience or love that young Ken has in his first sexual encounter in the brothel and how his mother, who has been denied love for the previous ten to fifteen years, bringing her twins up, could still love. That's why we intercut the two strands of the plot.
I would hope that it was a film that had some amusing and endearing qualities and that people could have a laugh with it without finding it offensive. I don't mean that I tried to pussyfoot in the making of the movie. It has got a bit of bad language in it and it's a bit sexually explicit at times, but I hope that it has an endearing quality. When it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in the Panorama section, people really enjoyed it. People in there 30s, 40s and 50s came up to me after the screening and said, `Gosh, that brought back some memories', and, `Isn't it better now that we're more honest with our children in the way we talk to them about things?'. So I was pleased. And they enjoyed all the clothes and the cars and the music of the period - that was all part of it. And, of course, all the songs are about unrequited love, songs that are always on the hit parade.
Newsfront and your participation in it along with Bob Ellis and with director, Philip Noyce. It offered a very striking picture of the Catholic Church in the '50s, especially in the character played by Angela Punch Mc Gregor, her personal shift from absolute strictness to her divorce. There was the atmosphere of The Split and the anti-communist attitudes of the Menzies era.
What Newsfront did was give Australians some great characters of the period. Philip Noyce as director can take enormous credit for the film; it's his film but I felt very privileged to be its producer and the instigator of the original project. We had, with Angela's character, someone whose life wasn't working out, the exploration of how she struggles to cope with it, a strict Catholic, who by the end of the film had moved away from her church. I feel that we see in the Bill Hunter character a flawed man, but a man of integrity, who wondered why he was on earth.
I like the idea of his being a man of integrity but with personal flaws. I think of the central character in Schindler's List, a man who's a womaniser, a member of the Nazi Party, who thinks it's completely wrong to waste human resources and to waste the talent of intelligent, talented people, that that is the crime, and will go against the system, risking his own life because he believes that every person is worthwhile preserving. I liked the fact that in Newsfront, Bill had integrity in terms of his work ethic, his loyalty to his country, but felt that religion had deserted him because it hadn't moved with the times. And yet the times had moved him into being an anachronism.
What I hoped with Newsfront and with any films of quality - and I certainly think Newsfront is one of those - is that it raises questions for the audience to talk about rather than come to finite conclusions. We were not making a diatribe; we were not making a political statement; we were trying to show in all those films our society and the foibles of the human beings in that society.
But I have made a lot of quintessentially Australian films and I hope that the films I've made, as a body of work, reflect something aboutg Australia.
Even looking at a little film like Emoh Ruo, which is about the hazards for the first home buyer, of someone moving away from their idealised life in a caravan park where they can go fishing and have quite an interesting lifestyle, albeit in very modest accommodation, to a more lavish house where there are no facilities, where it's boring and culturally and emotionally sterile, and how that tears a family apart. It's also a comedy, but I think it has something to say about the way we're going in contemporary Australia.
Starstruck is the classic example of two quite crazy children whose loyalty is to their family. At the end when Jo Kennedy wants to get some money and goes in the concert, she wants to win the money to save the pub. The family sticks together in the end, although it's a pretty eccentric family. So Starstuck is almost a celebration of the family. It highlights another aspect of family - we've all seen where kids often relate to their grandparents more than to their parents. Here you have the eccentric grandmother, played by Pat Everson, doing the fortune-telling and living in the twilight zone. Then the kids, quite crazy in their own way, and mum and dad in the middle, trying to run the pub.
So it was great fun doing Starstruck and it says something about ordinary people. A Frenchwoman was doing a doctorate at the Sorbonne University and she came to me and said, `I'm doing my doctorate on the working-class heroes in the films you've made'. I thought, `My God, I've never thought about this', and she rattled off all the films. And it was absolutely true!
Interview: 29th March 1995