Why were you drawn to Lilian's Story?
There are not many stories which could be so involving emotionally. I found, reading one of the first drafts a few years ago, a fantastic universal story about a woman who was, at the end, victorious over oppression and horrible experiences from her childhood and adolescent years. And I said, `wherever it was written doesn't matter, but there's a story here which I want to see on the screen'. And each time I asked myself whether it was worth it to make the movie, was it the right movie for me to make at this moment, I also asked myself if I really wanted to see this story on the screen. And I was absolutely sure that it was worthwhile doing it. The next stage was when Ruth Cracknell came in as a lead. Then I was a hundred per cent sure it was the right choice.
Sydney people remember stories about Bea Miles. Were you interested in the question of what is normal, what is sane and how do people judge? This seems to be a strong theme emerging from the film.
Yes, I think I would agree with this. Pascal said that we are half angels and half pigs, there are two parts to our nature. At the same time, it is difficult to say, `Well, we are normal', when there is a crossing of these borders. All of us have some kind of schizophrenia, our mind is in some state of schizophrenia. Only social control keeps us within a framework and very few of us are ready to cross these borders.
And Lilian - why is she so fascinating? Because she is sad at the end. Mediocrity? Mediocrity is something which some people can't stand. They have the courage to cross the borders - not in the wrong sense, moving against other people, but moving against the rules, against social conventions. For Lilian the conventions are what she grew up in. She grew up in a rich family. In most cases like this, her life would be probably have been easy at age 20-something - she would find a husband, have children and so on. But she wanted something more. Of course, what she wanted was a desperate acceptance, acceptance by her father.
She sought acceptance by a looking for love, which is like a motif for the film. You have people looking for love, even prostitutes. For Lilian, this looking for love and finding love is like a necessity of life. But it is love, not in the physical sense, but in a much more metaphorical sense, an acceptance of why we are here, what we have to do. This life must be terminated sooner or later, so why are we here? So Lilian's story is a more general story, universal. It doesn't matter if she's living in the street or is living in a rich house. She's trying to understand the why of life, the reason for life - because when she was young she couldn't follow her ideas or her destiny in any way because she was stopped by her father. She was rejected by her father.
When, finally, she is older, she still has the chance for that experience. She tries, in a short period of time, to get everything. She finds a lover. She is like a surrogate mother to her young friend from institution. Finally she finds the acceptance she wants.
A very important element we wanted to show was that she is capable of forgiveness. She is the one who could forgive her father. Her father is never able to forgive her. She's also completely opposite to her brother, John, who is always around the home without being comfortable, present at home from the beginning. But the only time when he is really himself is when he is playing the tuba.
While there is isolation for Lilian, it is as if she wasn't really exiled because she found Shakespeare and Shakespeare is real life, because in Shakespeare you can find character, the big crime, emotion, love, hate, everything. That's why, even if Kate Grenville does not use Shakespeare in her novel, not direct quotations, we decided to do so because in Shakespeare you can find answers for many questions. And Lilian's emotional life is expressed by Shakespeare and his lines. It would be great if some people after seeing the film came back to Shakespeare and read him, it would be fantastic.
Where was Lilian going in the taxi at the end of the film? Realistically? Symbolically?
There must always be some ambiguity because we cannot expect that, at her age, Lilian would have a bright future. I think it is, as Dostoyevsky said, that a man is equal to the gods when he is not afraid to die. Lilian is ready for the final leap, to die -, but without necessarily dying tomorrow or a week later nor, necessarily, after months or after years. She is ready for a new experience. She is not afraid. That's why the metaphorical black angel with very different, smiling Bob Maza eyes is the taxi driver. I wanted to find somebody who is from a different culture, from a different perspective. Aborigines aren't afraid so much to die because they have lived through generations and now through the period of white culture. Death is something scary. Not for them. Physically, maybe they're scared, but there's a different build-up in the rhythm of nature. So the struggle is through the desert, through the endless landscape. This was intended to be more symbolic but it's difficult in a film to use strongly symbolic language because it could be very pretentious. But in some way something is opening for her, a new horizon is opening up. She speaks a line about the past, future and the present - and now she is somebody who is ready for everything, for whatever comes next, for what's happening around the next corner. Or something like this.
The film treats a theme which has come up so much in recent years, that under the surface respectability of families is an extraordinary amount of abuse. This is one of the striking, even shocking parts of the film, especially the portrait of Lilian's father.
That was a problem from the beginning for us because we didn't want to deal with child abuse. We knew it's the fashion and it is hard to know how much is true and how much an exaggeration. I don't know if it really happens so often now, maybe more in the past. But it is a real subject so we couldn't completely cut it away. Each time we tried to tell the story without the sequence, we couldn't. It happened. We have to make the connection. Something horrible happened, and if you can't talk about it for forty years...
It's not that she was really an intellectually disabled person with schizophrenia or a similar mental illness. She found a place where she was secure. It's not that she chose this mental institution. But it was locked and she locked herself away.
I asked for some advice on what the law is in Australia. Since the beginning of the 70s, you can't lock somebody up against their will. It is difficult, even if the family very much wanted this to happen. We had an example a few days before the film was released, the young man who committed the massacre at Port Arthur. There are too many mad people out there. But Lilian is not a lunatic at all. She simply chose to leave home in order to be safe from her father. So it's not a story about some experience of abuse - but we couldn't reject, completely remove this. We tried, but if there were to be some conflict and she was simply locked away - then we would be starting a completely different problem: how is it possible to keep somebody enclosed for so many years without a court decision or something official. It was a completely different issue. But, for dramatic effect, it's important something horrible happen between two people, otherwise why they are in such opposite worlds, why does she want his acceptance so desperately?
Forgiveness was another element which was very important for me: she could stand on her father's grave, giving him back this Lilian, the Lilian in the photo, her past - but without any hate. She wants to say sorry. She is very happy to say, `Sorry father', because his behaviour towards her was not simply the act of a person who had a normal sexual desire; it was the act of a dominant, authoritarian father. He was pressing her in order to control her. And, probably, behind this was a very strange but great love. It was not just a love and hate relationship. This gave some kind of dramatic edge to the whole story.
It came out completely independently, not our intention. Otherwise we would have tried to make the film about sexual abuse. I would prefer such a film to be really confronting. I have seen stories between brothers and sisters, love stories. But to show the story of a relationship between father and daughter, I have never seen this kind of film. It would be probably such a taboo that it would be rejected.
A few days ago, I read a story that in Japan it's not so unusual in fact. More often than we imagine, there is a sexual relationship between mothers and sons. This is a really strong taboo and probably we are not ready for this theme yet. I remember a dramatic story about this relationship; home becomes a madhouse for both of them because their bond is so close, so strong. It's very easy to cross the line but it is irreversible later. You can't forget it. But it was not our intention to make something extremely confronting. It was like the logic of Kate Grenville's book and in our treatment it helps for the characters in finding some kind of better understanding of why Lilian was like she was.
A quite different question - your vision of Sydney? It is not a Sydney that we immediately recognise as in more realistic films or series. But your cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, worked with Kzrystof Kieslowski on The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Blue. In Lilian's Story, Sydney is filmed through filters. Fractured images of Sydney are offered which made the film different to look at and very striking.
There are two reasons. First, Sydney is connected with many features which are well-known from the many photographs, so it's like a tourist attraction. It's not only the Opera House, but Sydney has this very popular look. I didn't want to make the picture in a place which has been seen so many times. At the same time, Sydney is a unique city for me. This kind of story has a fantastic background and the city is high-rising, it is buildings in the background. So we tried to find a location which could help us more for the inner story, given the life of this big city, a 20th century city, of the new becoming older. There is something about Sydney and Lilian not being in this place which is for everybody. So we looked at Syndey from a different point of view.
Second, I wanted to make a picture this way, that it be recognised, as I said, but, at the same time, for people from outside, there would be a more universal story. This story could happen in any big city and probably in most of the big cities they have this kind of bag lady living on the streets. When you look closer at her life, why she was like this, you can discover very strange things.
I remember seeing a documentary on television about a woman who was living in Central Park, an incredible woman. She was a hippy in the '60s and she was quite successful living where they made this strip through the Park for the horses, this riding path. At one stage she fell in love with another hippy. She got pregnant. One day he left her one day and she lost her mind, simply. But she decided to stay and she lives in this place under the bridges because there's such a lot of them. It is a really dangerous place, Central Park. But she never left and she is building a completely imaginary world, that she is connected to the family of the Kennedys. In part it is true, but at the same time it's her fantasy story. I said look, that could be Lilian in New York, Lilian in Paris. You have these kind of people living along the Seine River in Paris. A few months ago I met a lot of beggars living under Waterloo Bridge in London. Nowadays more and more people are living on the street. I remember in New York, downtown, I met a man and we started talking. He was a professor at a university. Now he is living on the street. So it can happen that some tragic events trigger this and that's why I think Lilian's story is a universal story.
With regard to universality, your Polish background and that of your cinematographer seem to indicate that, along with the universality, you are bringing a European- Polish sensibility to an Australian experience.
Yes, but it's not for me to judge. It's as if I am growing up. Slawomir and I, we started together in film school. Slawomir, in recent years, has been working with many leading directors. He worked with John Duigan, with Kieslovski before that and with many, many others. He's not working now in Poland, he's working mostly in America. So, properly, his background is from Poland. His attitude to film-making is different. It's less commercial. It's more - and the industry loves to say it but hates to use it - `arty'.
I remember when I went to New York at the beginning of the 80s with one of my movies. There was a screening in the New York Museum of Modern Art. I was praised and everyone said, `Oh, it's a fantastic art movie'. I was so proud. Then a friend of mine who had been much longer in the States said, `You have no chance in Hollywood', because 'arty' is not commercial success.
Now, it's changing - you can be arty and make money if you can. So it's not so bad. But at the beginning of the 80s still, arty was not really a compliment from an American point of view. He was a fantastic collaborator because each time he said, 'Don't worry about these images. We'll find them. You have to know exactly what you want to say through the scene.' He's not the kind of cinematographer who wants to make a beautiful picture. It's nothing that he has made more than 40 feature movies - for him just having a nice look doesn't matter. He wants some intensity and if I, as a director, gave him the chance with actors acting with some emotion, he said, 'For me it's very easy to find the equivalent with the light, with the colours'.
The worst is when the scene is about nothing. In those cases he was lost. He said, "I don't know how to do it." He was very honest; he admitted it. Because he's a very sensitive person and he could react to the scene, watching it, very often he would change the decision we planned and did it in a different way, 'Have this different light, or use the sun', because we were shooting a lot of it in the streets. It was difficult to predict some events. There can be different weather, like today or tomorrow it can be rain and we have to shoot because there's no option in eight weeks' shooting. So that's why when somebody told me, 'Oh, you have a European way of filming,' I said, 'No, we have simply a way of filming by reacting to what we have around us'. It would be stupid if I planned shooting this way and planned that there would be rain. I could do it with a Hollywood production because they could cover the scene with rain or whatever. They can make it up in the studio.
But it's not the same with the actors. If the actors are giving me something I didn't expect, something new, my task as a director - and I tried to work this way with Barry Otto and Toni Collette - is to give them a free hand and say, 'Show me whatever you feel. If it is too much, I will tell you when'. The worst thing is an actor trying to keep too rigidly to what is written. It doesn't matter what is written. It is what you feel - you have to create a character. So it's more difficult to improvise but, as Milos Foreman said, to improvise, you have to be very well prepared, because improvisation is very dangerous if you take the first idea as the best one. Improvisation should be as a result of many ideas. Finally, you are taking something which became new because of all this work around.
Some reflections on Struck by Lightning?
It was my first film in Australia and I made it less than two years after I arrived. I came to Australia as director in residence at the Sydney Film School. When I read the script, written by Trevor Farrant, I said to him, `Look, I don't know how to do it, how to work with those kinds of actors'. I had worked with professional actors, but how to combine professional actors with non-professional? I didn't know how to do it.
But it isn't a really great task. I think Trevor has, as a writer, an enormous sense of humour. What I like is that we tried to make this a bittersweet comedy. I don't know if we succeeded at the end because of many factors, because it was low budget, shooting in South Australia. Unfortunately, I hadn't the chance to invite the best actors, to choose whoever I wanted. I had to work with whatever cast was available in Sydney and Melbourne. I was also limited because I had the Downs Syndrome amateurs. They can't act in the same way. It was difficult. I didn't want to risk manipulating them because that would not be fair. But I had Garry Mc Donald and that was a great experience for me.
Secondly, I was probably a little at a distance from the culture - not now, as I understand it more after nine years in Australia. But it was a fantastic experience for me and it took great courage from the producer to risk this. Finally, I think, we didn't do badly. It was a small film, but in some way it was different. I know people are very often surprised when they watch this film on video. It's a different kind of movie.
Humane, yes. There was a different factor and it's coincidental, people from the fringe. This was the script they gave me and I preferred this script to a different one. As you know, sometimes it takes many years before a film comes to fruition. But I think the fruition this year, 1996, already means that there are too many films that are similar in some way. But I think the distributors are ready to take the risk because most of the films could have been done five or six years ago. I can imagine that Lilian's Story could have been done four years ago - Shine, Cosi, Lilian's Story, Angel Baby - but probably there was a time when the distributors decided they wanted to take the risk. And, accidentally, they came from different companies - from Miramax, from Fox, from Beyond and from South Australia. Maybe Rain Man, My Left Foot were the movies which gave us more encouragement to risk. We're all always looking for the theme which has a different emotional expression when we focus on some extreme situation that characters are put in. Because a movie is not about life, it's something more, in some way it's compensating life.
So having a character like Lilian, immediately you can exercise your imagination. And, for actors, the play is much richer. It's very difficult to make a film about a very average life. There is a flaw like in the water, but you have to take a magnifying glass and look at it. And, taking a magnifying glass, everything is bigger.
One of the reasons why more and more film-makers are trying to explore this kind of territory: what is normality, what is abnormal, what is schizophrenic?, is that society, and we, are under pressure from all sides. We are not as we were. Normality is a very different category, especially after the events of Sunday, the Port Arthur massacre. It's not about who has the right to have a gun - that's the wrong question, that's not the subject. What is the difference? They should reduce possession of guns to a pistol or rifle with only a small magazine with bullets. I say, 'So what?'. He could have a few magazines. He could do it with the one revolver because he was shooting from a very close range.
So the issue is not 'how?', but what created the mechanism that he could do this? That's the question. And it could be fantastic and a great movie, not that he is schizophrenic, but why this schizophrenic is goes in this way. We have to be positive and explore how this person has tried to cope with this very traumatic experience from his earliest years.
Bea Miles and religion?
I didn't introduce religious themes, not even once was the name of God mentioned. But that was a real question, especially with Bea Miles at the end of her life. She was close to religion, to the Catholic church. She was in St Vincents. But, at the same time, maybe there was a reason that she was older and she was simply being taken care of, so I couldn't find a deeper reason except that, for her, Shakespeare is like looking for God and looking for love is her life at this stage and looking for love is looking for God.
Interview: May 1st 1996