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Gillian Armstrong

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You made documentaries and short films before you moved to features. They were your grounding in film-making?

My first short was The Roof Needs Mowing, my Swinburne graduation film. After I'd been out in the wilds working as an assistant editor for a year, I was accepted into the first year of the National Film School, and in that twelve months we were given the budgets to make three short films. The brief for the first was to choose a short story by a well-known Australian writer. They had approached a number of writers for ideas and Alan Marshall had sent an excerpt from his book, How Beautiful Are They By Feet(?), which was One Hundred a Day.

The second film was meant to be a documentary but I was quite pigheaded about wanting to be a drama director. I actually went to Storry(?) Walton and said, "I've only got three films and I really want to keep going in drama," and he suggested doing a dramatised documentary. One of the people I was sharing a house with at the time, Stewart Campbell, told me about this event in his life and we partly re-created it, Satdee Night. It was really one of the first gay films in Sydney. I structured the film so you knew it was a big Saturday night out and the audience was meant to feel that he was going out to find a young woman: he was getting ready, he was nervous then, when he finally gets to this dance, it's an all-male dance. We did film in a real gay dance at Glebe Town Hall. It was very big deal in those days to actually allow a film crew in.

I thought the story had a lovely comic-tragic twist because, after this build-up, which actually did happen to Stewart in real life, he got so nervous and drank so much before he went to the dance - these dances used every two months, so it was very hard for young gay men to meet each other at that time - and he built his hopes up so much that when he got there, he passed out in the first five minutes, woke up next morning on the floor, locked in the empty town hall under all the streamers.

That was a true story and I thought it had a lovely poignancy, so we re-enacted it with Stewart playing himself and really getting drunk and really filming at a gay dance. He has run into many people over the years who said it was quite a seminal film, one of the first films where they saw an Australian gay young man, his pain and problems.

It turned out to be quite hard to make three films in one year; we were very busy and I was desperately looking for a final script, so I went back to the original pile of Australian authors and chose a Hal Porter short story, which was Gretel.

I think David Stratton selected Gretel for the Sydney Film Festival and One Hundred a Day was in the Dendy short film awards at the Festival which was pretty amazing. It won Best Cinematography and Best Editing. So those films and the profile, I suppose, that they gave me really kick-started my career.

You won the Dendy award for The Singer and the Dancer. Another Alan Marshall story?

Alan had been a delight to work with on One Hundred a Day. At the film school we were very privileged to have access to these wonderful writers. He was very encouraging and told me the details because he really did work in a shoe factory as a young man in the '30s, so he gave me great background details to think about visualising it. But I always felt that, as a story, it was very filmic because it was written in a rhythm, the rhythm of the factory. So we struck up a friendship and he was very happy with the film.

After I graduated at the end of that year, I worked in art departments, for Tom Cowan's Promised Woman and worked with John Duigan as his designer on The Trespassers. Then Gretel was selected for the Student Film Festival in Grenoble. It was the first time Australian student films had been submitted, because we were the first year of the National Film School. Philip Noyce and I were chosen. So we both did everything we could to make sure, as we got the fare to Europe, that we could go and see the world.

So Philip and his then wife, Jan Chapman, and I backpacked around the world for a year. It was a wonderful thing because we met all these other student film-makers at the festival and we visited them in their countries as we were on our little Eurorail passes. We met a film-maker again in Vienna and someone else in Munich and what we realised at that time was how lucky Australians were that we had this experimental film fund, it was called then, for money for short films. But all the time we were away, there was all this talk that there was going to be a change in government and that Labor would be out and all the grants would go. So Phil and I both decided by the end of the year that we'd better get home and we'd better make something fast.

When I got back, I started working on a number of scripts and Alan had actually sent me another story that he thought I might like. It was about Old Mrs Bilson - it was even called Old Mrs Bilson. I liked the central part of the story and the character of the woman, but I really wanted to do something contemporary because both Gretel and One Hundred a Day had been set in the past. I rang him and said, "What if I make this a story where she meets a young woman and this is really the beginning?" He said, "That's fine, but I can't write what the young woman would say. I'll write what the old woman would say; you write what the young woman would say." And that's what we did. I came up with the characters who went to the country, Charley and a boyfriend, and we mingled that with the story that had always been there about Mrs Bilson. You find out about her past through the story.

It was a great insight into those women of the country, the changing times and their stubbornness. Ruth Cracknell personified her.

Yes, it was funny because Ruth played older then - she was actually quite a young woman. Part of the plot was that she had to run down those hills; she used to sneak out and have a feeling of freedom as she ran. The real story was that Neva Carr- Glynn was going to play Mrs Bilson. I met her and talked about it and the next day it was in the paper that she'd died. I was actually the last person to see her alive, and I got such a fright because the last thing I'd said to her, "Now, you're sure you'll be all right running down those hills?" Imagine what would have happened if we'd all been out and she'd died running down the hill. I would have felt it was my fault forever!

After that I thought it was too risky and I'd better look for someone younger. Then I met with Ruth and she has such an extraordinary presence and power. It's funny that all those years later she became famous playing in Mother and Son, because we made her look that age in The Singer and Dancer. I'm very proud of Ruth's performance in it. I think she did a wonderful job.

The documentaries, especially the Smokes and Lollies series?

The South Australian Film Corporation had set up a unit in the early '70s. It was called the One to One Unit and it was to encourage women film-makers and subjects about women with women on the crew. They got special funding because it was helping the employment of women. John Morris was the head of the SAFC and Penny Chapman was the head of this unit and they approached a lot of young women directors. I went down and was actually assigned a project. I didn't have any say. They said, "We want you to do this one about what it's like to be fourteen today," and I know they chose me to do that one because I always looked so young for my age - I had a big round baby-face!

I had a researcher who had started work and it was pretty open about what sort of fourteen-year-old. The first night I was there, she said she'd found out about a youth drop-in centre in an inner-city area and asked would I be interested in coming along. So we went together. Kerry, Josie and Diana were the only three girls there, if I remember correctly. But there were forty Greek and Italian boys and three girls, because it was an inner-city area in Adelaide that had quite a big Greek and Italian population and they weren't going to let their daughters out, even though it was a government-run youth drop-in centre. Anyway, the girls came up and started chatting to me because they thought I was coming to join, so Penny's instinct about my baby face paid off - and they thought the researcher was my mother.

Because we were discussing age, they said, "Well, how old are you?" And I said, "Well, I'm over 21." I think I was 24. The first thing they said to me was, "Are you married?" And I was really quite surprised because part of the brief, what I think we originally all thought the film would be about, was the new 14-year-old, the more modern liberated 14-year-old. And I said, "No. When am I meant to be married by? Am I over the hill at 21?" And they all said, "18".

I was telling Penny this the next day and she said, "They sound great. Go for it." So I went back to them and said, "We're making a film about what it's like to be 14," and they all thought about it and said, "We'll be in it but we only want to be in it if it's honest, if it's really what it's like to be 14." I said, "I want you to be honest. That would be great." And that was the beginning.

It was really very low budget. I remember the editor, Rhonda MacGregor?, and I actually brought the footage back to Sydney because we had only seven days to cut it in Adelaide and Rhonda had her own editing equipment. I had quite a lot of footage, I generally do. I'd overshot a bit, the producer would say, but they were fantastic subjects and they they let us follow them around.

That film had an extraordinary effect that I was very proud of. It was run at places like the Institute for Adolescent Studies, Children's Hospital in Melbourne. The feedback I got was that they were using it as a teaching tool because it's so hard to actually get the real feelings and opinions of young girls for psychiatrists and doctors to really know what they're thinking today. Because I had spent the time with them and they had got very relaxed with me and they had also decided the whole point was to be honest, it became a very important teaching tool.

As time went by, I thought it would be really interesting to go back and see what happened to them. I've always been interested in time and what happens to people over time and I thought, I've caught them at 14 and they talked so much about being 18, why don't I go back. So Hilary Linstead became my co-producer and we raised the money - South Australia didn't have any money that time, so we went to Film Australia and managed to get the money to do 14's Good, 18's Better.

Once I'd shot the second one and we'd cut the two together, I realised how extraordinarily lucky I was, capturing people growing up, talking about the hopes and dreams, because the three, well especially two of them, had done a lot of living in the four years, more than most of us, so there was great story material there. But just to have captured somebody and then to have that time gap and to see what happened, their physical changes, how their faces had changed in that time. That was the first time anyone had ever done anything like that. I had no idea about Seven Up. I think it came out in Australia about the time I was going back to do number three.

It had an extraordinary effect, people were really moved by it. I remember I went to Canberra to lobby for the film industry - we went to have a dinner and Bill Hayden, Susan Ryan and so on wanted to ask me about Josie and the blonde girl in the old car, and I felt very pleased. They said they had really learned a lot about people's lives. And you think, well, these are the people who are making the decisions about health and welfare and education, and I felt fantastic that by just having a chance to get to know some people intimately, it broke down a lot of the cliches, the cliches of the school dropout or the unmarried mother. And, of course, once I'd done the two, I had tremendous pressure of, "You've got to go back. Everyone will want to know what's going to happen to them next."

You went back almost a decade later?

After I did the 18-year-old one I thought normally the most significant age in life is 21, but that was only three years away, so I thought I'd come back when they're 25. But I was shooting High Tide that year, so I actually went back when they were 26. So that's how I ended up with the seven-year thing, which starts paralleling Seven Up. Because Diane had the new baby at the end of 14's Good, when we came back it was her seven-year-old's birthday, so we got into the pattern of seven for the next one.

Then, of course, it was natural to do another seven because I wanted to come back when that baby was 14, the very age her mother was when we started. None of us ever thought that in such a short span we would get that cycle and see another adolescent generation.

There is great change from the '70s to the '90s. You were surprised when they initially asked about getting married. You've seen their marriages, the break-ups and the families. Not 14 Again is very optimistic in terms of their having a life and having dealt with the problems of the past.

Yes, it's a great advertisement for being in your late '30s. All of them have really come of age and found themselves as people and are very comfortable with who they are and what their lives are. They've all still got the normal ups and downs, things that aren't necessarily easy. Kerry's husband with his bad back and he may have to give up work; Josie trying to make ends meet with the pub and a young family. But I really felt that as people they had really matured and were very happy with themselves in their lives.

With the last film we had some money from BBC and they were completely amazed. "Well, this just doesn't happen in England. People from poor families, you don't suddenly see them with nice houses and nice clothes." And I said to the English producer, "But listen to their stories, how hard they've worked." In that middle time Josie was working two jobs and Kerry delayed having a family until they could put the deposit on the house - they've worked very hard.

The films capture so many changes in Australian society in that 20 years, from the food we eat and consciousness of diet and health to the male role in a marriage. Two of the families have done complete backflips where the woman has become the breadwinner and the father has been the one looking after the children, and it's no longer any guilt or a problem. I think it shows a very positive side for all those fathers, how they've been much more involved in the bringing up of their children than the generation before.

You're lucky to have been asked to be a chronicler of almost a quarter of a century of Australian society.

Yes. It went by very fast.

My Brilliant Career was a landmark film and important for you. How do you see it in retrospect?

I find all my films are very painful for me to look at, because I just see either my creative or technical inadequacies. Certainly in all the films there are moments, and all the actors' performance that are a joy. If they're ever on TV and I'm walking by I may stop because I remember that wonderful moment with Ruth or with Judy or Claudia. I don't think I've seen My Brilliant Career for ten or twelve years. I think it was on Australian television maybe about ten years ago and I thought, I'll just have a look at the beginning to see the quality and whether the print looks all right, and I did get caught up in watching the story again. And you say, "Oh, look at Judy, she's so young, so beautiful. It's sad." For me, it's like watching old home movies.

There are a lot of things that came together. I was very lucky to have Don McAlpine? as cinematographer and Luciana Arrighi as the designer, and finding Judy and Sam. But all the cast were great. Robert Grubb and Aileen Britten and Patricia Kennedy and Wendy Hughes - they're a wonderful cast and that's what I enjoyed when I watched again, watching them, and also remembering how much humour was in it.

After Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Getting of Wisdom a criticism started to emerge that our cinema was going back too much to stories of our past. But we have to do this, otherwise who are we?

Yes. You don't say we mustn't ever study history. At the time Margaret Fink had a hard time raising the money because they said Australians don't want to see another film set in the past. She fought and we all fought and said, "We think it's not the same as the others. It's got something very contemporary to say." I've done interviews in recent years with American journalists who were probably still at primary school when it opened, and it sounds pathetic when you say at the time, it was actually extremely radical that at the end a heroine did not end up in the arms of the hero, riding off into the sunset together; that was considered to be so brave and outrageous.

It probably did a lot for the independence of women.

I have met women journalists in America who started their career because of that film. You feel humbled. At the time I had letters from people saying, "I was so affected by it and I went home, talked to my mother and then took my mother to see the film." A woman interviewed me on the set of Little Women and she had a high quality Victoriana antique magazine and she said, "I opened this magazine after seeing My Brilliant Career. It was so beautiful and I've always loved Victoriana."

When you make a film, you hope that it will work, that it will touch people, but it's certainly even more wonderful if it has had effect on people's lives.

There was a message in the middle that says you've got to find what you love and what you're passionate about and you should search it out. It has had that effect on a lot of people. It's also had an effect that everyone has thought for the last twenty years that that character is me and that that character is Judy! She finds it a greater chain around her neck than I do, but they think that we are Sybilla.

Your three Australian-made films, from 1982 to 1992, have contemporary settings.

I went looking for something that was contemporary after My Brilliant Career because I was showered with scripts from America and everywhere and I realised how easy it was to be categorised - endless scripts of the first woman to fly a plane, the first woman to ride a camel, the first woman to climb a mountain. I was suddenly the director who does women achievers in the past. Really My Brilliant Career was a book that Margaret Fink found. It was her passion and she brought it to me, then I read it and fell in love with it and wanted to do it. But I always thought that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing films that were only about young women battling to achieve. There are a lot of other parts of me and there are a lot of other types of cinema that I like.

I think I was developing something that was set in the near future or a futuristic world when I heard through friends about Stephen McLean's script for Starstruck and they all said, "You've got to read it, it's great." We chased after David Elfick and his reaction was, "Oh, she's that director that does lace." It was very lucky that I met Stephen McLean? separately found out he was the writer. I told him how much I loved his script and then he spoke to David and put in a good word for me.

But I did see Starstruck only two months ago on Los Angeles TV on a Sunday morning. I was flicking channels, there was Jo Kennedy doing She's Got Body, She's Got Soul. I was so thrilled. I didn't know who I could ring to tell them because it was Sunday morning in Los Angeles. It looked good, it was a good print and sounded good.

So it was in the inner city and battlers, family and joy?

I always thought Stephen wrote with great love of his characters. He actually grew up in a pub in Port Melbourne and his mother was a barmaid, so in some ways it was a tongue-in-cheek take-off of Mickey Rooney and Judy, "Let's put on a show," but it was also a sweet story of a brother and sister and how the brother was the brains and the sister had the talent, how they had been an inseparable duo who then, finally, will be pulled apart. And it's funny because all the people who wanted to categorise me, that my only focus was women achieving, immediately said, "Oh, now she's done this film with another redhead; she only likes redheads who are trying to achieve." I related to the brother-sister story. It's Angus's story. Jackie's certainly the star, but it's Angus's story. But I suppose it's very loving about fighting to get there - in a show business sense, yes - as they do.

Is High Tide about a non-achieving woman?

Yes, definitely, and she hasn't got red hair.

What brought you to High Tide?

I went to America, did Mrs Soffel, which was the first American script that was sent to me where I was hooked and really felt connected to the story. I knew it was based on a true story about a middle-aged woman who fell in love with a prisoner, left her husband who was the warder of the jail, and helped two prisoners escape. The thing that fascinated me in that story was why? Why would she do something that was so immoral at that time?

And she was such a biblical person.

Such a biblical person, and it was the fascination with that sort of great passion that they had for each other that the writer and I felt. We read all the research. After the breakout, the press all thought that they would find them separately, that she was obviously used and would have been dumped. The thing that was incredible and that attracted both Ron Nysweinner and myself was that they stuck together. This was the suicidal thing to do, because she slowed him down, and they were much more easy targets. So it was the fascination of what happened between these two people who were so disparate, a very conservative, God-fearing woman and this terribly handsome, charismatic and a poetry writer that Mel played.

Then I came back to have my first child. Even though I had a lot of other offers from America, I thought it was a whole new world dealing with the studio system, a much more stressful one, suddenly having ten bosses and a committee and all the politics that are involved with a film with a higher budget, working with the studio system that just doesn't happen here when you've got an independent film and one or two producers to answer to.

I didn't know how I was going to manage to still make films and be a mother, and I thought the number one thing is to try to do it with a team of close friends in an unstressful environment. Film-making in any case is stressful because nothing ever goes right, you never get the right weather and so on - it's battling the compromises every day. I'd met Laura Jones - she and I had worked on developing Clean Straw for Nothing which was never made because it was deemed too expensive. It was around the 10BA time. Producers like Margaret Fink and Pat Lovell were having a really hard time raising the budgets. Suddenly the money-raising had moved into the hands of the stockbrokers and the accountants. They would listen to anyone who had a suit and a briefcase. It was a complete change from a lot of the visionaries who had started the film industry. They were actually the ones finding it hard to raise money. It was the business types who could come in with the facade of raising the money but were not making very good films.

We went to Sandra Levy who had been our script editor and said, "We want to get something made and we're going to try and make it a very small film to keep the budget as low as possible." It's very hard starting from nothing, thinking you're going to write the great film, because by the end of two weeks you feel like all you're doing is, "That's not good enough, that's not good enough." So we said let's pretend we're writing a tiny, tiny film, it's just going to be very small and doesn't really matter.

I had stayed at a caravan park years ago, driving between Sydney and Melbourne with my sister. It was in the Eden area and I thought it would be a wonderful setting for a film, the people who are permanent dwellers in caravan parks. I had also, as a teenager, been quite interested and followed the surfing culture and always thought it would be great to do a story there. At that time the adoption laws had just been opened up in Australia and there were a lot of stories about people finding their birth mothers. I remembered I had cut out one article which was about a woman in her sixties who had found her mother in her eighties and how much it meant to her. I was intrigued by that, the strength of that blood tie.

So, juggling all these things with Laura, she went off and came up with this idea. It was originally written for a man, a surfer who came to a small south coast town and in the water he got to know this young girl who's surfing. She turns out to be his daughter. We had raised the money with Hemdale and we'd started casting and looked at a list of twenty men's names. Then that night I saw Wrong World at the Chauvel. I rang Laura and Sandra and said, "You know, it really worries me about about the alienated drifting man being affected by the truth and honesty of a young girl. I feel we've seen it before and I just saw it last night in Wrong World." It was my husband who said, "Why don't you just change it to a woman?" And I was saying, "No, no, everyone thinks we're going to do something about women because it's a woman producer and a woman writer. We don't want to do something with women. We're going to do something with a man."

So I rang Laura. I talked to Sandra. Then we went in the next day to cast with Liz Mullinar and I said, "You know the man in his early thirties? Well, that's now a woman in her early thirties." And she said, "Oh, well! Then you know who there is. There's our four best leading actresses and one of them is Judy, and if you want Judy, I know that she's been offered a play at the National Theatre in London and she has to decide by tomorrow." They all looked at me and said, "So, do you want Judy?" And I went, "Well, I suppose there's nobody better." So we had to send Judy the script and say that the main character called John is the one we want you to play, but we will rewrite it around you." Laura and I went to meet with her, "Look, it's totally open. Do you want her to be a working-class girl or middle-class or whatever?" And she said, "Well, actually I've never played middle-class, close to myself." I knew she had been a back-up singer after she left high school and went around Asia with a tacky little band. Because we needed a reason for her to be drifting, going from town to town to run into the daughter, I said, "Why don't we make her a back-up singer? Wouldn't that be great?" So that's how we wrote the script.

When I was doing Little Women and when you're working with crew and props people and they are going out trying to buy props or get a location, they have to tell people what the film is and who they're working with. A lot of them said to me, "I told them about High Tide, everyone knows High Tide. They all saw it on cable." So even though we all wish our films would be shown on the big screen, you feel thankful for cable and for video, that at least they're found.

The Last Days of Chez Nous and working with Helen Garner?

Jan Chapman approached me because she'd had a relationship with Helen for the play they did for TV, Two Friends, with Jane Campion. It was Helen's first screenplay. She wrote it as a film. I really loved it because I love Helen's writing. I think she has incredibly acute observation of people and wonderful poetry in her writing. I did think the biggest challenge was that so much was in one house, but I took that on board and thought, well, we'll just have to do everything possible to make people still feel they're watching a movie. After all, the house is also a character in the story.

You could see up the street, the spire in the distance.

And it was a house where there were comings and goings. You saw people walking by in the street, in through the front door and so on. We did a couple of drafts, Jan and Helen and I together, then I went off to America to do Fires Within and then came back and, because Fires Within went on and on - it was actually recut for almost six months and what they basically did was take a lot of the politics out - when I came back, I had to literally get off the plane and start location surveys for The Last Days of Chez Nous, which in a lot of ways was very good for me because it had been such a horrendous experience with the film being recut and all the fighting and backstabbing.

It was wonderful just to get back and make another film because, once you go through an experience like that, you begin to think, maybe it was my fault that the film didn't work in the beginning, so it was nice that I had to sort of get back into the car after the accident and work with so many old friends again. Actually, Jan and I had never worked together. We had known each other all those years ago when she was Mrs Phillip Noyce and then, over the years I had seen her work on ABC-TV, and I was a great admirer. She was a wonderful producer to work with, very supportive and encouraging. The key thing was to cast the two sisters. Then we had to search for our Frenchman.

We actually cast Lisa Harrow from meeting her in London; she did a screen test we sent to Australia. Kerry Fox was here. I had both their tests on video and had to try and move the two TV screens together because I couldn't actually put them in the one room. We really wanted to make sure there was going to be a feeling of sisters. Then we went to France and tested for our Frenchman, and the thing was that none of the Frenchmen were likeable. We actually had a fantastic reaction. We met some wonderful French actors - you know, the man who was in Betty Blue, who is actually only 5 feet tall, Jean- Huyghes Anglade. He came in with this long coat and entourage and everything. I mean, he does have charm and he's an incredible actor, but he wouldn't be up to Lisa's kneecaps!

Helen's point was always that she felt the woman was at fault in this relationship. She really was exploring the situation she felt. Here was a woman from a generation that had to fight for freedom and had to help try to turn the tables, but from all those years of having to assert herself, she'd actually started to become too bossy for all the people around her and being a big sister with a younger sister. She had been too controlling of their lives and they were beginning to break away from her. So, even though the story is about a husband who has an affair, it was a delicate balance.

The point was not that the husband necessarily was a villain. Jan and I felt, having seen all the Frenchmen, that people would think the film was completely anti-male, because there is this thing that a lot of the French actors have, this inbuilt arrogance.

As we were in London, we thought we should perhaps widen our brief and see some of the other leading European actors. I've been a huge fan of Bruno Ganz for many years. Anyway, he came in and we both thought, here's someone who you could forgive, because he is so adorable. But, the French never forgave us for casting him. We were not invited to any French film festivals. It didn't get a release in France. They were very upset that Bruno was playing a Frenchman.

The journey with Lisa Harrow and Bill Hunter in the desert was very strong.

Yes, I thought Bill did a fantastic job. I'd never worked with him. I think he's really underrated as an actor. He had to age himself 20 years for us. I can remember he put the wardrobe on and just walked into the rehearsal. I thought it was my grandfather walking into the room for a second. Once he had those clothes, he just became that man.

You enjoyed making Little Women?

I had a wonderful time on Little Women. I was very nervous about going back to America again because I'd had that bad experience. It's a different system and you have to accept it if you go and make a film in an American studio. It is going to be a whole different system and there are going to be a lot more people who are going to give you notes and make comments. I realise that I was very lucky on Mrs Soffel with Edgar Sherrick, my producer, who fought for and supported me in my vision of the film. What went wrong on Fires Within was that I had inexperienced producers who panicked.

So, when I was approached about Little Women, I said, "Well, I'll come over and I want to meet with the studio." A key thing that I learnt from my bad experience was that you have to make sure the film you want to make is the film the studio wants to make, otherwise you're kidding yourself - it's that "I'll marry him and change him"! With Fires Within, I always loved the political and moral dilemma of this triangle, but the studio in their mind thought, "This can be a hot sexy story set in sexy Miami." The two were never going to meet.

The female executive at Columbia who had developed Little Women had actually been trying to make it for many years and was very passionate about it. I met and talked to her and I felt that she was both very bright, and other people said so, and had very good taste and didn't want to over-sentimentalise it, didn't want it to be a Color Purple Little Women. The the producer Denise De Novi had been Tim Burton's producer for a number of years, I also felt that she was very experienced and knew the game. Anyway, we all seemed to be very much in sync.

The final thing - because Winona was attached - was whether or not I thought Winona was right as Jo, and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't felt she was right. When I met her, I felt there was a whole side of her that we hadn't seen on screen, that, as a person, she was very passionate and alive and quite strong and, because she has a sort of haunting beauty, that had been the side of her that had most often been shown. Because of her pale skin and dark eyes and hair, she has quite often played poetic, enigmatic characters. And my instincts about that were right.

Actually, it was a very tight budget Hollywood film. They allowed me to bring my Australian team, Nick Bowman the editor, Geoffrey Simpson came over and shot it. We finally did get it through the studio. Amy, whose project it was, had by then gone. By the time we finished the film, she had moved on to head Turner's company and we had a whole lot of boys, but I have to say our one argument was that they kept saying, "This is a kids' film and we'll put it out at Christmas for families," and they made this really corny poster. But after they saw the film, actually they all cried and I was thrilled. Not only did they cry, they turned around and said, "You're right, grown-ups like this, but how are we ever going to get them into the film, especially men?" But they worked very hard to do it and we got fantastic reviews. And it was a box-office hit for a film of its size, so everyone was very happy with that.

Oscar and Lucinda was a very ambitious project.

Yes, very ambitious. Peter Carey used to live in Birchgrove and I was in Balmain. He and I had known each other for a number of years because I tried to do one of his short stories, and we'd sort of kept up a friendship because I was the young film-maker, he was the young writer, then I did my first film, then he did his first novel...

When he gave it to me to read, I really did think this is too ambitious. We'll never ever raise the money for this in Australia. I said, "Peter, I love it, but I don't see how you can ever make it." We'd spent three years with Pat Lovell on Clean Straw for Nothing and, in the end, they said to us, "It's so expensive shooting in two countries." That's why the budget was so high.

Then Oscar and Lucinda was published and I read in the paper that Robyn Dalton had bought it for John Schlesinger and I was very pissed off and thought what a fool I was. Of course, it can be a co-production. Why should I be thinking about how to raise the money, it's not my job anyway.

I've told this story before in print, but because Luciana Arrighi, who designed Mrs Soffel, My Brilliant Career and Starstruck for me is an old friend and she also does a lot of Schlesinger's films, I really just said as a joke, "How's my Oscar and Lucinda going?" I didn't know Robyn at all, but I said, "If you're ever talking to Robyn Dalton, please tell her if John changes his mind, I'm waiting in the wings." And lo and behold, 18 months later, I got this call from Robyn Dalton, "They've done a number of drafts and they feel it's beaten them, the adaptation, and the budget and John Schlesinger's booked up for three years of operas and things now and he's let it go and said good luck." She was coming out to see family here, so I said, "Let me introduce you to Laura Jones, who I think would be fantastic and who loves it as much as I do."

So we started work on it. This was way before Little Women. We were writing that script for five years on and off.

You're back in the 19th century again. You also explored many aspects of Australian Christianity.

Yes, Peter does. It's there in the book.

The Plymouth Brethren sequences were striking.

I had to study it. We all had to do our crash course in theology. There's still the Brethren movement and one of them came to speak to us, to the cast, in rehearsals. Peter did actually based it on a famous naturalist Brethren whose son wrote a book called 'Father and Son', about his life growing up in Cornwall with his father and the division - on one hand there's scientific interest and on the other hand there's complete belief in a faith that's absolutely based on the Bible and the facts of the Bible. He took this as his inspiration for the relationship with the father and the son.
But Peter's real inspiration is - that this person becomes a gambler.

Even Oscar's decision to become an Anglican rather than something else was a gamble. But that ingrained, very strong puritanical streak underlies it - the Christmas cake, being cut off by his father, the fear of the sea. Then the transition to an Anglican tradition, the priest who takes Oscar in and his destructive gambling, Oxford...

The tragedy for us was how much we had to leave out. Peter's insight into those characters - there's a terrible cynicism: this boy with his Puritan faith, moving into a house where really all that man thinks about is money; they are very, very poor thought Betty came from a wealthier family, so he feels the burden of their poverty, that they're completely hopeless as farmers; everything goes wrong, and they're losing the congregation to Oscar's father, who's such an impassioned preacher; they're losing their livelihood as well. It's wonderful writing.

The great black irony is that when Oscar really feels such guilt about his sinning and he feels he must go away and start afresh and he wants to be pure and save his faith and he'll go and save the aborigines, he gets put in a church at Randwick, next to the racecourse. I mean, that's the wickedness of Peter Carey's storytelling which is so wonderful.

Oscar goes to this land where he thinks he can get away from the evils of gambling and, of course, Mr Carey brings him to the country where gambling is like a national pastime. Even the bishop is gambling.

And the elegant lady, Lucinda, is also gambling. Oscar's confession sequence, his sitting, praying in the glass church, is a powerful confession sequence.

It's interesting that the people who didn't like the film - the main criticism - said it was cold. But when Ralph did that confession, which I thought was so simple and so true, we were crying standing there. The boom-holder, the entire crew, we had tears in our eyes because it was so effective. Also his final word was "To my father" and a couple of members of the crew had actually lost their fathers in the last year or so, so they found it particularly devastating. So it just amazes me when somebody says it was cold.

And then at the end, with the contract in the box, to think that this whole folly, transporting the glass church was a gamble and these two people who were certainly so right for each other, destroyed everything with their weakness, that one devilish weakness they shared. It was the thing that brought them together and the thing which finally killed Oscar. I thought Cate was completely devastating in that scene.

In terms of religion on screen - there's the beginning of Carey's Bliss, of course, but Oscar and Lucinda has the Brethren and the atmosphere of 19th century Anglicanism. With the symbol of the glass church, there is a spirituality that Australians acknowledge, even if they're not religious.

Yes. It was interesting here because, I suppose, because there's so much baggage about the film: Peter's book and then it was going to be made into a film and what's she going to do with it and so on, and Ralph Fiennes was here - somehow or other, no-one actually talked about the content. Even the reviewers talked about whether or not they thought Ralph was any good. No-one talked about the content. It really disappointed me.

Both in England and America we had incredible reviews and articles. I remember talking to one journalist for hours and so did Ralph. He said it's so wonderful because you're not seeing this in films any more, films that are actually dealing with faith and with spirituality. Peter's story works on so many levels. It was a huge challenge to bring off. My biggest regret is that we couldn't have had even a little bit more of Oscar's childhood, but it was already a very long film.

It's interesting, it became quite a cult film in America. It was appallingly released - actually both here and there. Here there was very little respect for it, and I have to say particularly in Melbourne. All my family are in Melbourne and Neil Jillett has hated all my films. So I arrive home for Christmas and I run into relatives and they go, "We're sorry about your film." I'm like, "Well, everyone else all around the world likes it. I can't help if I get bad reviews in Melbourne." I mean, I did an interview with him with High Tide before I read the review, and he said something about, "I don't get it with Judy Davis. I don't understand the fuss." And I was, "What do you mean?" Then the next day I saw the review. He didn't say he didn't like Judy. I think all right, if you're going to review something and you really have a strong like or dislike for the main character, you should state that in your review because - there are certain actors that I would never find appealing, too, and so the film won't work for me. So I think you should be honest, and he wasn't about Judy. So Hemdale made all their money back with the Australian release and American Cable sale and their tax scheme. I mean, they were begged by, for instance, Germany wanting to release it because Judy has such a following there. They didn't want to release it anywhere. And it had a short release in America in a cinema where it had a cut-off date - it was only on for like three weeks in New York and LA, and Judy won the New York Critics' Award for best performance of the year, which is pretty amazing for something that had such a short release.

People who went to see it loved it. I mean, it was really - unfortunately David Stratton didn't like Ralph, so he didn't like the film, and Paul Byrnes gave us a very strange review in Sydney as well. He said it was too big a book for a movie. Then he said he hadn't read the book.

Interview: 4th September 1998

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [01:21:35 UTC] by malone

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