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John Ruane

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That Eye the Sky received nine AFI nominations.

I was very pleased and very surprised that we got nine nominations. They gave us one for the Young Performers' Award, for Jamie Croft. It was uncontested. I think Jamie should have been nominated for best actor rather than just be given an award outright, but I'm glad that he has got the recognition for his performance.

Your earlier films were short stories, Queensland and Feathers?

Queensland was made in 1975. What we were trying to do then, strangely enough, was trying to imitate The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in reverse and to imitate Midnight Cowboy, a sort of Northcote version of Midnight Cowboy - not the story, but the fact that they were headed for a dream. Their dream was Miami. Our film was obviously about heading to Queensland.

The film came from an article in a newspaper that said this guy, who was a slaughterman, had killed his de facto wife. Then he had got drunk for two days. They found her body under the bed. Now, from that grisly and unlikely tale we decided not to make him a slaughterman and not have any killing, but to see how a relationship broke up, how they parted, came back together and then broke up.

I know this sounds a bit pretentious, but the film was quite poetic in a way, especially with the final image of the man pushing the Holden uphill and trying to make it to Queensland while the camera did a big crane shot. We stumbled upon this shot. There was a big staircase and I thought this shot would be a good idea. So we bought a round of beer for somebody on the Northcote City Council and they brought the trucks to wet the road down.

Even though Queensland was made in 1975, it seems to be an even more old fashioned film than that, in a weird sort of way. It's about a vanishing breed of Australians. But, then again, I suppose they haven't vanished, because there are still people who are poor, there are still people who live in boarding houses. John Flaus, who plays the lead role of Doug, always tells me it's one of Australia's first social realist films. I think there is a truth to that because we were trying to capture the way people spoke or the way those particular characters spoke. No-one said what they really meant. We were trying to get some kind of subtext to the dialogue. I think we did. Recently I saw Queensland again. It creaked and groaned but it still stood up in a way.

But then I didn't do another film for 11 years, until 1986. That was Feathers, which was a Raymond Carver short story. That was a big break between lunches! I did a telemovie in 1985 called Hanging Together - which no one has ever seen. Strangely enough, it was a comedy. It was based on a play, a comedy about the second-last man hanged in Australia. It was a bit like Steptoe and Son set in Northcote. I learnt a lot from it. I ended up doing a bit of writing on it, but it was basically a play and we did it as a play. It was mostly set in one location. It had Gary Day in it, John Larkin and Pat Evison. It was produced for the then Australian Film Theatre.

Feathers was a big difference for me because it was the first time - I know this sounds strange - I had worked with a professional crew. With Queensland we were students; with Hanging Together we were being trained or learning on the job. With Feathers it was interesting to come in contact with people who got paid to do their various functions. So it was a much more efficient machine and I think I had matured a little bit - I hope I had - between Queensland and Feathers. When I say `matured', the main difference is that I had a sense of humour. While Queensland was an interesting film, there was no room for humour. I was able to make Feathers poignant in places, but also keep the humour going, a sort of blackish humour.

Over that 11 years I developed a kind of black cynical approach to funding bodies and how things went. I was lucky that I got two projects in a row, Hanging Together and Feathers, both of which were black. Then, of course, came Death in Brunswick and its black humour.

The scene in Death in Brunswick when Sam Neill's Carl goes to Mass with his mother and had no idea about the changes in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council is a very funny `Catholic' scene?

I think it's actually in the book, Carl standing there in the church and he says, `What's happened to the Mass, mother?' Mel Gibson saw the film when Sam Neill did a special screening in America. I met Mel Gibson briefly in America and he said to me, `Yeah, you're the guy who did Death in Brunswick'. He said, `There's a wonderful scene in that film. It's the funniest scene in the film, where Carl turns to his mother and says, `What's happened to the Mass, mother?'' And I thought, only he would pick up on that because he's such an ardent right-wing Catholic who thinks they shouldn't have changed the Mass.

I'm not a Catholic, but I went to that church the Sunday before to go to the Mass to see if I could pick up on anything extra. I rewrote the scene that we did the following week. I can't remember who the priest was there, but he was quite an interesting priest. I tried to put a bit of him, I think, into Dennis Moore who played the priest. The microphone bit is a little over the top - but maybe it's not. They tell me some priests walk around with the microphone.

The graveyard scene and the church scene, I thought, were the best two scenes in Death in Brunswick. I was proud of that scene because we shot it all in a day. It's a weird kind of scene because the rest of the film was straight and that scene had what I'm always scared of, a dream sequence (with Mustafa), but I think it worked. I added some of that extra stuff about `Amongst us today we have adulterers and we have so-and-so and we have so and-so'. Dennis Moore is a great actor. He did that role very well, the priest.

It's a strange film. In many ways it limps. Again, it's a film that works and then it falls down, then it gets itself up again. And it's a bit too long. But if the audience hooks into the film, and I can tell in the first three minutes when Carl comes into the kitchen after he has stopped the cans and he finds mum has got her head in the oven, if the audience laughs at that point, then they enjoy the rest of the film.

I was in an audience in Adelaide who didn't laugh - one or two people laughed - and I watched half of the film with them and they didn't get it. The thing about the mum became the signpost.

Another gap before That Eye the Sky?

After Death in Brunswick I wanted to do a serious film because there seems to be four years between each film, Feathers in 1986, Death in Brunswick in 1990 and That Eye, the Sky finished in 1994.

And, to castigate myself, I suppose, I think the mistake I made with That Eye, the Sky is not to have more humour in it, because the book had a lot of humour. But, unfortunately, with the novel being written in the first person, a lot of the humour comes from the little boy interpreting the events and the situations he finds himself in and that he observes. So we are party to his sense of humour via his inner thoughts. When you pull that away, you have to come up with an orthodox third person approach. I really wish we had come up with more humour.

The stage play is very humorous, certainly, but its shortcoming was that it wasn't poignant. The stage play, instead of having the father in coma and using an actor, once he went into the coma, they used a dummy, which removed him from reality. The actor who played Fat played the chook as well, a very good device on stage - you simply put a cap on the actor. It was very theatrical and it made it very funny. They also used an adult to play Ort.

With the chook in the film there was, at least, some humour early in the piece, so the film had something of that humorous flavour.

Yes, we got a bit of humour. But, the film is what the play can't be, it's very visual. The countryside is quite majestic in the film. As well as working as putty between the scenes, I was hoping that the countryside would give the audience a sense of power and of beauty, of a sort of spirituality, with the ever-flowing river.

Your landscape was very dry, some water, but a desert-isolated atmosphere and countryside.

The film was shot in Wentworth, about half an hour's drive from Mildura, and the house was actually on the edge of the desert. It had previously been on a citrus orchard. The people had moved out of the house because it was built on a concrete base and the droughts, over the years, broke the concrete. Although the walls standing on the outside were all intact, inside the house was all topsy-turvy, so the people moved out. But that house used to be the centre of local social activity. It had a tennis court, its own sprinkler system. And the lady who was born there and lived there as a child, now lives up the road. When we put the house back to life, she was quite excited. But then, of course, once the crew moves out, the house goes back to its old condition and the desert has reclaimed it again.

It's a very interesting story how we found the house. We sent the production manager all around the country trying to find a house that had character. He ended up contacting friends of his, rang them in Wentworth and said he was looking for a house for the film and, if it could be near a river, that would be great. Then he asked how this particular lady's husband was. They told him that he had had a car accident and had been in a coma. He told them that that was what the film was about. So, in a way, we were guided, led to that house. I wish I had exploited the house more. It had more potential.

How were the special effects created for the house's aura?

In the book, the house has a cloud of light that rests above it which only the little boy can see. We couldn't do a cloud of light, so we wanted to do a yellow aura that sat above the house. It should have been done by computer animation, which would have cost us about a quarter of a million dollars, but we had only about 15 per cent of that. So Michael Bladen did it the old fashioned way, through opticals. I think the people in the laboratories who know how to do opticals were buried in the '50s. Everything is now done by computer animation and moving, travelling mattes. So he had a lot of trouble doing it on no money. How they made the actual light was with cooking oil, vegetable oil with aluminium flakes in it, just shot in a tank.

I think at times the light above the house looks a bit like a '50s movie, sometimes it's a little bit too theatrical. But I think that if people like the film, if they get into the film, they forgive some of the film's sins, so to speak, because every film has shortcomings; if they get into the story, they go with the flow.

I was always in two minds about what the light above the house represented: was it the father's soul? I suppose it's a combination of the father's soul, of hope, of faith. And when you say `faith', do you mean spiritual faith, do you mean faith in God or...? So it is open to many interpretations.

The guys who were the gaffers, who set the lights up, they called it `the mother light', then they started calling it `the God light'. So they would say, `Bring God over', and they would bring this big light over the house. So, for me, it was a mixture of God and the father's soul because the light appears only when the father has been brought back to the house and the little boy is talking to his grandmother. She is the mother of the man in the coma. Ort is cursing, saying that his dad is better than any other dad so why was he taken away? It's at that moment, when he goes outside, that the light appears. So it's as if there's a core response. It's as if it's the father, whichever father, answering the little boy with a miracle or a visual message that only the little boy receives.

How does this compare with the light in the novel?

Of course, in the book it's much easier because, as a reader, you paint the picture of the light that you want. You imagine how it is in your own head. Also, you can say in the book that none of the other characters can see this light, although they're bathed in it, glowing, but they don't know. This is magical stuff - obviously that's why Tim Winton is such a great novelist.

When you come to the film, you have to work concretely which makes it much more difficult. If you show the light, you've got the Casper situation: who sees it and when does it go? I didn't really want to have some kind of big electric switch that, once the boy went inside the house, click, it goes off, and then, if he walks out, click, it goes on. I couldn't have a backyard light going on and off. So I had to make the decision. We decided to leave the light permanently there.

In a way it's like saying there's a permanent flying saucer above the house, particularly when you show it. When the boy walks inside the house, we still see the light is there. What this says to an audience is that it is real, it's 100 per cent concrete, because the light didn't switch off. But, at the same time, I'm hoping that the audience will get a feeling that the film is always from Ort's point of view. We are, therefore, in his story.

I think - and I'm being very critical of myself again - the film loses its focus and then drifts back again. There is a point in the film where it loses its focus from Ort's story; it moves on to Henry and then comes back. For a moment the pace of the film drops. This is a mistake. But in some ways you have to make the film to learn how to make it. It sounds a stupid thing to say, but each time you go into a film, it's uncharted water and you learn something different. The reason why I didn't want to do another comedy after Death in Brunswick is that, while I haven't mastered comedy, I wanted to have another challenge. I wanted to do something different. The first film, Queensland was a serious film and I wanted to do something serious again.

Henry Warburton and God?

We had the challenge of having a little boy who feels that God is talking to him from a novel that explored what this boy thought some of the stories in the Bible meant. I wanted us to feel it to a degree as, I think, the novel does. But we extended it. I wanted audiences to feel that the stranger, Henry, when he arrives at the front door, is a fallen angel. The audiences doesn't know who he is. When the little boy says to him, `Can you see the light above the house?', he replies, `Yes, it's a marvellous thing', but he's referring to the constellation. So there's a blurring of what he sees, and the audience is not quite sure with the music, the wind and the way he looks, the way he looks around - you feel that he may be a Bruno Ganz (from Wings of Desire) who has come from Berlin.

Peter Coyote as Henry Warburton?

Of course, one of the controversial issues was using an American to play Henry. But it gets down to two things: one, you want to make the film but the people who put money into it need some kind of safety net and, two, I actually thought an American worked because he was an evangelist and that kind of religion seems to come from across the water.

If we had made him English or Irish, I'm not sure how it would have worked. But, at the same time, I must admit I was very keen on the French actor, Tchecky Karyo. But the man we had actually playing the role of Henry, but then the arrangement collapsed, was Scott Glenn. I think Peter Coyote is in that same school of acting as Scott Glenn. They're kind of B-grade actors for the public. They don't recognise their names, but they recognise their faces.

Henry describes his religious experience. How real is it? How much is of God? How much is subjective?

The difference between the book and the movie is, I think, that the book is much more black and white. In the book, the character of Henry is much more the stereotypical tortured sinner-cum-penitent who has found God and who's more insane, given to falling on his knees and yelling out for the Lord's forgiveness.

I was motivated by trying to make all the characters totally credible, so that if an actor said to me, `Why do I do this?' I could answer him. There's a big soliloquy that Henry delivers towards the end of the film, which is supposed to be the justification for his thoughts. Rightly or wrongly, we shot it and then we removed it. It was at the beginning of the film, when he talks to Alice on the landing. He talks about his father who was a bishop, that he was never close to his father and, when his mother died, his father had called him to him and said, `Now neither of us has anyone in this world'. So he had gone off religion, wandered around the country - he tells these stories in the book - and he then found religion, kitchen-table-like religion, not in a church, but out in the fields and from people. So he had come back to God. But he felt that he had been given a gift which was a burden, like Paul's Road to Damascus experience, when he had been struck down in the boarding house for three days in a fever and he feels, after he comes out of the fever, he has had a light bulb, a burning light, in his head for these three days. And his landlady says, `God has been with you'.

So he has travelled around the countryside or around the world with this burden/gift, wanting to try, I think, to save people but not knowing how to do it. And strangely enough, if you were to say that God has to work in mysterious ways, I would say that Henry goes to the family telling himself he wants to help them. But he lusts after the daughter, Tegwyn. In a weird way, it was the right thing for him to take Tegwyn away - not that their relationship would work, but he was the key to get her to move out of the house, to move on.

I think that even if he hadn't turned up, Ort would have still seen the aura. The miracle at the end, whether it's a miracle or whether it's a dream, would still have happened. But Henry does make the whole family think.

The miracle at the end - do you do it realistically or do you do it as a dream?

I suppose I wanted to film it as something open-ended. I wanted it to depend on the audience's view of life for how they would interpret it. I shift ground on it. In a way, I think it's a dream and it starts when the little boy is on the seat at night, looking out into the river. I wanted it to be that it's a dream and that it's unlocked by his grandmother playing the piano. This wasn't in the book. I put it into the film, because I wanted it to be a physical thing to unlock the father as well as a spiritual thing. I had read in a book about comas that sometimes people are unlocked or brought back as people talk to people and hold their hands. But sometimes it's early memories that are the little keys that bring someone out of coma.

What was in the book and what was in the film, earlier before we cut it out, was that from the beginning Ort felt himself the guardian of the family. He goes around at night, looks in keyholes, checks that everyone's okay. He says at one point that he hopes that grandma would play the piano once more before she died. So that was a key plot point which we lost, which was in the book.

Another point occurs when Tegwyn is feeding her grandmother. The story that the grandmother recites over and over again concerns Sam - Tegwyn's father - when he was a baby. She used to put him in an old wooden box on top of the piano when she played. Here's a key that I thought Tim Winton should have used himself. The little boy hears the piano and that should trigger in him a realisation that something is going to happen to grandma. He should lay his father's head - grandma's son - on the piano and the noise will come up into his dad's head.

I also read that people don't speak when they come out of coma - they don't come out 100 per cent normal - sometimes their emotions are so great but they can't express them, so they might cry. So that's why I wanted to have the close-up, to show that there was a tear that came out of the father's head, The key had turned in the father. The boy goes to sleep that night and there's the big dream or the big miracle. Because you're dealing with a film that does not have an orthodox narrative, the film is rather dreamy. It's the kind of film where you need to put in some of your own thoughts for it to actually click.

I have met people who have absolutely loathed the film while some people have found the film pro-Christian. I have had distributors tell to me that they wouldn't take the film on because it was too religious. I don't know quite what that means, too religious. It's as if you're allowed to be religious only if it's in a controversial way. It's all right if someone vomits green bile or a film like Priest, about something very controversial within a church. But if you are tackling an issue which comes down to - I don't know what - I find it confusing myself to even speak about whether it's belief in something, a faith in something or whether it's a faith in an orthodox God or your own father, and how it all clicks together.

So it's a strange film. When I went into the project, I said it was not a mainstream film. It's not a commercial film. It's an art house film and it has a very small audience.

It's the kind of film that former Age reviewer, Neil Jillett, used to categorise in a derogatory way as mystical - The Navigator, Fearless. Is it Australian scepticism faced with the mystical?

Yes, but part of the interesting journey of the film is to read what people write about it. It's strange, but I feel that the print media will rubbish the film and the television critics will like it. But it will be interesting to see how the public responds if the film survives.

When Ort and his mother went to church at Christmas, the Church looked like a Catholic church. Were they Catholics?

It was a Catholic church, the Catholic church at Mordialloc - with an amazing red and white interior. It could have been any denomination. But what I liked about it's being a Catholic church - in the book it's a Catholic church - is that there's a large crucifix. There was supposed to be a parallel between Christ on the cross and the little boy recognising the man suffering like his father. Whether there was a physical resemblance or not, there was a resemblance of someone in pain, someone whose head was hung down. There was supposed to be a correlation.

And when I got into the church - not that I did it very well - I was trying to show as well that there was a correlation between the saints having a glow, a halo above their head, and that the house had a halo above its head. Haloes date from way, way back, for someone who is pure, who has an inner truth or some special knowledge. Through the painting or whatever way they're represented, it is acknowledged that they have a glow of knowledge or faith, truth or whatever, above them. I didn't really get that across in the film, but that's what I was trying to do.

It would be interesting to revisit the film in years to come. If only you could correct some things in it. But some people will appreciate it, some people won't, and people always get the most amazing interpretations from films.

With Dead Letter Office you broke the four year pattern and directed a film after three years. What attracted you to this film?

I liked the idea of being able to look inside someone else's culture in a way that I would normally not be able to do. I liked the fact that part of the film was going to be shot in another language. I liked the themes of home and what constituted a home and how you couldn't move on to a certain point of your life until you complete one part of the journey. Family is very important for Alice in the sense that it is very important for her until she finds her father and gets that search out of the way. It's as if she blames this for what's happened to her, that she can't carry on with her life, so to speak, except for him.

Frank is someone who has his family in a drawer. He can't put them on the mantelpiece until certain events in his past have been re-explored. So I liked all those themes in the film. You got to share them - it was a serious picture.

The Australian problem was the typical enough broken family, whereas the Chilean problem was deeper, the destruction of family by political persecution.

Yes, which is probably stereotyped, as one reviewer said, but most likely stereotypes have some reality sometimes. I also liked the fact that it had some romance in it, but it was not an overt romance. It was all very subtle. So I like that and I like the fact that the film had a melancholy sense to it.

Alice meeting with her father was unexpected but moving.

That's the highlight of the film itself, I think, seeing the two mad Ottos in the one frame - and the fact that the father is slightly tarnished and is a disappointment. Nevertheless it's an important meeting.

It was a film that had many things happening in it - the metaphors, the pigeon threading its way and drawing everybody together, and the chance to look at the slightly eccentric characters in the dead letter office itself.

The eccentric characters highlighted themes of downsizing, privatising and the harsh aspects of economic rationalism.

I think the reason they chose me to direct was on the basis of Feathers. They felt it had a bittersweet quality to it and that's what they were hoping would come to the fore in this film.

The Chilean subtext. It was very moving when it dawned on Alice that there was a whole world of suffering she had no apprehension of, an important insight for an Australian audience.

Yes, the film is very timely in that sense that it lets you see someone else's culture, someone else's story and you see how it rebounds on Alice. I think one of the best moments in the film is the cut from her looking at all the photographs of the people in the book to her standing in the dead letter office looking over to the picture of the mountains with "Congratulations Frank, 10 years." It's a good cut, that. I think that one's a very powerful moment.

Another powerful moment was also the sympathy for Carmen in the park, then when it emerged that she was a fascist, you were jolting our romantic presuppositions about migrants and taking them a bit deeper.

That's right. Not all migrants are here for correct political reasons, or our perceived correct political reasons.

You made an arresting comment about your work in an interview with the Sunday Age.

Yes, about directing. It's like the priesthood. You don't do it for the money; you do it because your insane. It's a calling.

Interview: 22nd August 1995

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