Retracing your film journey from Freedom to Shine, what are your memories of Freedom?
Freedom was a very mixed experience. On the one hand, it was heady and exciting and intoxicating to be making your first feature film but, on the other, there were difficulties in the way the production was organised. The writer, John Emery, and I were kept separate from each other. In retrospect this was a huge blunder because the film was never totally focused in its vision, and I think that's reflected a little in the sort of schizophrenic nature of the film.
Of course, it received very mixed reviews and it didn't do much at the box office. But there were elements about it of which I'm still extremely proud. And then there are things which, if we had worked this material better as writer and director together, we could have done something more substantial. So it was a mixed experience and a little scarifying in the end that it didn't work. And, you know, the director really cops it for good or ill.
You mentioned the word `vision'. What was your vision of the film and what themes did you want to explore in the early '80s?
It's such a long time ago now. I think at the heart of it there was a character that I liked and that I recognised, someone with enormous frustration - not unintelligent, but obsessed with cars and in some ways constrained by the unemployment experience that was so rife then and indeed is, of course, now. So it was about someone trying to break free and trying to define himself. It had shades of Walter Mitty about it as well.
I used the word `schizophrenic' before. Freedom was a story that fell into two parts: one was about the whole environment, the whole milieu that Ron had grown up in; the second was about his hitting the road. When he tried to realise his dream, stole the Porsche, found the girl and did hit the road, it became another movie and I don't think those two elements were ever fully reconciled. So you had some people who loved the first half and hated the second and vice versa. When you have that happening with an audience, it's hard for it to jell.
This may be irrelevant, but I was looking for locations for Sebastian and the Sparrow; I drove across the Nullarbor and I stopped at various petrol stations along the way, and twice people said to me as they were pumping petrol into the car, `So, what are you doing?' I said, `I'm looking for locations for a film'. `What have you made before?' `I made this film called Freedom.' `Oh, my favourite film!' So there were people out there who really got something from it but, in broad terms, it simply didn't work. Sometimes that happens.
With Sebastian and the Sparrow you moved from themes of freedom and frustration to something for children and the family?
That really came about as my own son entered his teens, my elder son, and I became so forcibly aware, as you do as a parent, that your kids have a life that is quite separate from yours. It's like a secret life in a way, because there's the life they live with you and then there's the life they live with their friends. So the encounter between the rich kid and the street kid had something of that expressed in it. I wanted to explore the idea - it was a kind of junior buddy movie with the theme of two people who envied each other's life. To Sebastian, Sparrow has the perfect life: nobody's on his back, he can do what he likes. It looks like glorious freedom. But to Sparrow the constraints of that life are very real. There is Sebastian with the luxury of a home, a family and a very well-to-do existence which was Nirvana to him. I love the way those thoughts could jostle together.
In part the film becomes a road movie too, because they go and search for the street kid's mother. So, probably, it was the first expression for me of the theme of family, relationship, defining who you are and how you become yourself and how you establish your own identity.
One of the things I wanted to do with Sebastian and the Sparrow was make the kind of film I felt I could go and see with my own son, because I felt that as an early teenager, he was neither in the Rambo category or the Bambi category. There had to be something in between and there wasn't anything filling that niche. I think there was potentially a huge audience for the film, but I simply couldn't get distributors to commit to it and to pick it up properly. Where it played, it received fantastic reactions and at film festivals overseas it won several major prizes for a children's film. I distributed it personally in Adelaide and on its first weekend it out-performed Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours and Tango and Cash. If only we could've parlayed that into a broader distribution, it would have been a different story, but the fact was that people didn't want to know about what they saw simply as a children's film. That was that.
The impact that David Helfgott had on you?
Well, David is quite simply one of the most extraordinary people that I've ever met. When I saw him first that night in Adelaide in 1986, I was so struck by the contradiction that was presented in him. There was this shambling, awkward, confused exterior coupled with the brilliant virtuoso who was making thousands of decisions a second about what was happening in his music. And I thought that somewhere in this gap must lie an incredible story. So it became a journey, really, to find out what that story was and, also, to develop a relationship of trust with David and Gillian that would enable me to make that story. Naturally they had concerns about the sensitivity of the material and how it would be handled. So it was the start of a long process. I had no idea how long it would actually be, but it was the beginning and it really took possession of me in a way which was very, very powerful and continuously re-motivating through the long process of trying to get Shine made.
In Shine, you show David having that kind of effect on several characters, Sylvia and her fellow worker as well as Gillian herself.
David seems to have this effect on people. He does sort of `possess' you in a strange way. It's quite a phenomenon, but you can't fail to be moved by the experience that he's been through. This was what first fascinated me about the story, this extraordinary, unique character, and the gap that lies between this and the incredibly focused piano virtuoso that he is. Much of the dialogue is derived from conversations with David, and everything that is performed by both Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush is scripted. There's no improvisation. Every last word is on the page.
I think people tend to recognise elements of themselves that they've long suppressed or have repressed in the process of growing up. We bury those childlike elements. David seems to me like a person who has never really grown up, so what you're responding to is this eternal child. Part of the story, for me, was about failed rites of passage, as it were, of someone who is not allowed to grow up but, having been created by this father who decides he wants to make his son a little genius, he's then broken because this father doesn't want to share him with the rest of the world. That's the struggle at the heart of the story.
The amazing legacy, though, for David is his music. As the father says, the music will be his only friend and, for David, it is. It's what ultimately sustains him until he finds a relationship to give him stability.
While the story of Shine is inspired by David Helfgott's life, in telling a story of a life in cinema, it's obviously necessary to select very carefully the fragments of that life through which you tell the whole story. Naturally there is a lot of compression. You don't have the luxury of 600 pages to tell a story, as in a biography, so you compress and you select and you condense. What I've tried to keep are what I saw as the important themes and find the fragments of that life which best express those themes: the power of the father-son relationship, the problem of growing up, letting your children go, and find a way to express this cinematically. Having said that, everything in the film has some basis in reality that derives from some incident or some situation that David has experienced. The film is very much David's point of view.
The music and mental collapse?
Actually trying to play Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto would drive anybody nuts, but what I was trying to show in these scenes is far more than someone simply playing the piano extraordinarily well. This is somebody undergoing a process of psychological disintegration. What it's expressing is an artist really going so far out on the edge that he simply topples over. He is consumed by the very music that he's trying to express. I deliberately did not want to become too clinical or diagnostic or psychiatric in my interpretation of David's situation. That was too limiting a way to look at the subject. I wanted it to be much more expressive and ambiguous, to show piano-playing as it's never been seen before that, in a way, it's a dangerous thing - to express yourself like this is not a simple, dainty thing which you do in a salon or a drawing-room. It's very demanding, potentially damaging and some people get hurt.
There are not many Australian films with Jewish themes. What did you want to communicate in terms of Jewish culture, Jewish secularism and Jewish religion?
I was fascinated by that part of the story because it was a whole culture that was alien to my own. I was fascinated by the idea of this Polish Jewish father, with his family in the Australian suburbs in the 50s and 60s, who had actually rejected Judaism and embraced a sort of Stalinist dream and ideal and was somehow wrestling with these different forces. It's a powerful element of the story because it's so unusual. We don't hear a lot of these stories in Australia. This was an area of the story which I was terrified of, because the cultural references are so deep and so pervasive that I felt I had to be so careful not to put a foot wrong. I had to get this right.
And the tremendous response that Shine has had from the Jewish audiences, particularly in America, has been very rewarding because I feel that they would have been very quick to reject it if it had put a foot wrong in their cultural domain.
I have had letters from people in the film community who are Jewish saying how moved they were at the attention to detail, like the Mazutska on the door of Rosen's house and the importance of its being there, this kind of detail that is so important to any cultural or any religious belief.
David was born in Melbourne and grew up in Perth, so he's an Australian, but his father's very much the Polish Jew and his mother's very much the Polish Jew, very much a background figure. I think that's a very broad cultural experience in Australia - not specifically the Polish Jews, but people growing up as young Australians from a family whose first language isn't English and whose first culture is not Anglo-Saxon? in the way that the majority predominantly are.
The socialist background of the film is very interesting, especially with novelist, Katherine Susannah Pritchard.
Yes, Red Kate from the West. That was a touching relationship. Here was this elderly artist in the twilight of her career embracing a young man about to embark on his. Katherine, the writer, speaks of David Helfgott in her letters and he's referred to in her biography as being someone who really moved her with his talent and his ability. She tried to nurture that and give him some warmth in an otherwise difficult experience of growing up. So she becomes something of an icon to David.
As with many of the characters in the screenplay, the character of Katherine embraces other people, actual people who had an impact upon David's life. You can never show everybody, so you have to draw together the themes and try to dramatise them through individuals. That's why there are a number of fictional characters in the film who are essentially condensations of a number of different real people - plus a little bit of fiction thrown in. It's a creative process, all the time searching for an emotional truth, while being very much aware of where the reality occurs and how that has had its impact on the story. This is part of the challenge of telling a story inspired by a real life.
Armin Mueller Stuhl's performance was very persuasive in terms of a father living through his son. It contrasted beautifully with the warmth in the performances of Googie Withers, John Gielgud, Sonia Todd and Lynn Redgrave. Working with Armin Mueller Stuhl to create such a portrait of a father?
When I first met with Armin to talk about the character and the role, he said, `This is a very dark character,' and I said, `Yes, there are very dark passages'. He said, `I think he's a monster,' and I said, `No, no, he's not, and it's vital that we don't see him that way'. I said, `Look, the writing is very dark and some of the things he does are dark, but the way you're going to play it is that we're going to read his own pain in your eyes. It's not just in the words, it's how you communicate,' and I think he really took to that. You do read such a depth in his performance where we feel for him enormously. I sense him as his own victim. You have compassion, I think, for the life he has come through and the confusion in his nature: he loves this boy desperately but really loves him too much and that's as destructive as not loving him at all.
The father was absolutely vital to the film, a man who has indeed lost one family in the war, in the Holocaust and is determined that he will not lose this family that he has created. He simply would not let them go. He loves them all too much. When I watch this performance, I feel for him and read his pain. I see his dilemma.
So Armin was an absolute find for the film and for the character. His explosive power as an actor was tremendous. He's like watching a fuse burning. A lot of the time he likes to keep it like that, but I said, `Look, Armin, there have to be a couple of explosions; you can't just be a fuse'. I don't think that Hollywood has yet discovered that tremendous power he has or, perhaps, is a little reluctant to explore it. So in his Hollywood pictures he tends to be a rather genial, amiable, grandfatherly or avuncular sort of figure. But there's a darkness in there which is fantastic and he was able to bring so much of that to bear on the character as it was scripted by Jan Sardi.
The fact that the father didn't visit David during all those years in the institution was harrowing. Then when he came to David's flat, gave him his medal and disappeared, this was very powerful.
Actually, that part of the chronology is another example of the jostling of reality that one does. While that kind of encounter did take place, in reality it didn't happen at that particular time. I always felt that it was vital that there was an attempt by Peter Helfgott to try come to terms with what had happened or as nearly as possible try to convey his sense of regret and loss as to what has happened. But he can't find the words to express it, so you have this extraordinary scene which is, on the surface, about nothing. He comes, he opens a tin, he gives David a medal and he leaves. But in it is written the loss of these years and when he dredges up again the old story about the violin and what happened to him as a child with his father, it is tragic, absolutely tragic. And in that moment, I found it hard to retain my composure, watching Armin while shooting the scene, sitting next to the camera. This is very unusual - you're normally very much focused on the technicalities of what you're doing, but I was close to tears when he did it at the time. I found it astonishing.
And, of course, with Geoffrey Rush opposite him, the scene has great tension between the two. It's one of the huge rewards of directing when you get actors who just play scenes like that so brilliantly. One of the strange things was that this was a huge scene in terms of pages and pages of script. We really had only a little bit of time in which to shoot it. And the production office kept saying to me, `You're never going to finish this scene on that day. Look at it, it's four pages of dialogue. You're not going to be able to do it in three hours'. And I said, `Look, if the actors are good, we won't have a problem, and look who we've got. We've got Geoffrey, we've got Armin, we know where we're going. Don't worry about it'. And in the event, it was one of the most painless scenes to do. I wanted to keep it very simple because it was about what the actors were going to do, not about how clever I could be with the camera, just getting the camera where it was going to read those faces. And that was going to tell the story. It's probably the simplest piece of direction that I've ever done, and yet, at the same time, one of the most rewarding moments.
Noah Taylor's performance is one of his best. His playing of the Rachmaninoff and what he communicated about genius and stress was particularly powerful. There was continuity of performance between Noah Taylor and Geoffrey Rush, with the speech patterns, the verbal play and the puns.
Noah has become something of an icon in the Australian cinema as carrying our collective male dream of growing up. I think he's probably sick of that now because he's a mature man in his mid-twenties, but here he was playing another teenager through to early adulthood. But the point I made was, `Noah, you carry the transition. You are the one who charts the disintegration. So it's very much a transitional role but it's not just another rites of passage story. It's a failed rites of passage, which is a whole new experience to explore, and he embraced that challenge enormously.
We have a character - and this is often true of a prodigy in any endeavour, be it chess or mathematics or music - we have someone who has developed one small slice of their personality to an enormous degree, the talent to play music, but almost at the expense of everything else. And ironically, that is both their making and their undoing. Out of this you're going to create a highly competent human being, a social human being. You create, maybe, a great artist, not a social human being. But at the end, the music has a redemptive quality for David. There's a scene which is dear to me in the film: the older David is playing the piano in the lodge where he's living; he's playing almost literally for his life because he has nothing else. As his father said to him, `Music will always be your friend. Everything else will let you down. Everything'. We see that enacted in the frenzied piano playing with Geoffrey Rush doing all his own stunts at the keyboard. Yes, I think music can be both the making and the undoing of a prodigy.
Noah is an instinctive performer, but like any performer he's a part of a bigger picture and I found him very responsive to ideas, often very simply expressed. I think he's an actor who's probably in some ways too used to taking care of himself on film. It's very difficult for actors: they've got to come and do all this stuff. Nobody wants to be made a fool of and yet they have to do very difficult things. And sometimes it takes a while to build the trust with an actor where they realise you are not going to let them down, so when you ask for more, they're willing to give it, and I found that with Noah. If you pushed him for some more, it was there. He was going to give it, but he needed to feel confident, like anyone, that he wasn't going to end up making a fool of himself. There was no way I was going to let that happen.
Working with actors is what I enjoy, so it's always a learning process for me with each personality I deal with.
In 1995-1996, Australians saw Angel Baby, Cosi, Lilian's Story and Shine, all with themes of mental breakdown and institutions.
Well, you can go back to Bad Boy Bubby and it goes on and on. It's a curious thing, isn't it? I don't know what it's to do with, but you could point to things like the Collective Unconscious, the Jungian notion that somehow these ideas are present and somehow they get discharged through different forms of expression. I feel that Shine is exploring a different part of that territory.
A word that I always use about Shine came from talking with Geoffrey Rush early on when he asked me, `What is it about in the end? I mean, what is it really about?' And I said, `Well, it's about redemption. It's about someone who can go through terrible experiences in his life but emerge on the other side in love, playing music and accepted for who he is.' That sparked something with Geoffrey. He felt there was a big theme behind this, not just the playing out of an everyday story.
Cosi was looking for the comedy, I think. It was an utterly different kind of expression. I also felt that we were dealing not so much with madness, which seems such or too much of a generic idea but, to me, David is an eccentric, is a glorious eccentric who doesn't have to be moulded into anything approaching what we call normality. If you take another line, you can say he's another manifestation of the Australian innocent abroad. You can look at Crocodile Dundee, you can look right back to Barry McKenzie? and look at the fact that in our cinema we've often dealt with incompetent males struggling in the broad seas. So there are all sorts of different ways you can look at the thematic elements.
In Lilian's Story, Lilian finally goes to her father's grave. Jerzy Domaradski says there is a kind of reconciliation. Shine also has David go to his father's grave and there is a kind of reconciliation. Part of the Collective Unconscious may be that there is some need in children, if parents have oppressed and abused them, that they experience a reconciliation. Lilian's Story and Shine show the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness, where you might think it could never be.
It's interesting because, when we shot the film, that wasn't the final scene. That scene came about 10 or 12 minutes before the end. There was a whole other story element which ultimately I removed in the editing, but when I removed this story strand we had shot, the film had no ending. It then occurred to me that the cemetery absolutely was the right place for the story to conclude. It was like the coda to the piece.
Many people said, `Finish it with the concert, with David taking a bow', and I thought, `Well, that's the obvious place to finish it, we'll freeze on it' - in fact I ended Sebastian and the Sparrow that way. It's like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, `Let's put on a show', and that then is end of the picture. But no, it was important that there be that moment where everybody gets a pay-off in the concert. You see Rosen, you see the mother, you see the family, but where's the father? Well, the answer is that he's in the soil and David has to move on. So you have this lovely moment between these two, in their own way, wonderfully eccentric people who have found each other and they're moving through the graveyard into the future.
I loved the ironies that jostled in that. It was like having a film called Shine which was all about rain.
Shine seems to have spoken to the Australian psyche and contributed to our understanding of identity and the resilience of the human spirit.
Look, I hope so. It's beyond a dream, really, as a film maker to imagine that that kind of thing can happen, but it would be enormously fulfilling to have a sense that you have contributed something simply by trying to tell a story that presented itself as being so powerful. I just wanted to share that with people and, in a way, it's been a dream ride - not without its difficulties but, you know, that's not really the point. It could've been as difficult as it was and not had this kind of effect. So yes, I hope there's something in there because I found the story inspirational.
Interviews: 5th August 1996, 7th September 1996