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Simon Wincer

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Have you a favourite amongst all your films?

It's always a very difficult question because it's a bit like asking a parent which is the favourite child - and I suppose that's a fairly standard answer. Phar Lap is very dear to me because it's a wonderful story and Phar Lap represented so much of Australia to so many people. I was also a great admirer of Tommy Woodcock. He was such a wonderfully genuine human being who was, I think, an old-fashioned Australian hero who had wonderful old-fashioned values. That's very dear to me. But I suppose every film is like giving birth. You live with them for so long - each one takes at least a year of your life - that it's hard to say which is the favourite. I suppose Phar Lap might be slightly more favoured. It was also the film that got me recognised internationally and set me on the path to a much wider career with a lot more options.

You made Quigley with an American in Australia and Lightning Jack with an Australian in America. Quigley was originally written as a western?

It was, and it was actually written a long time ago. Quigley was written originally and developed for Steve McQueen's company but it floundered when he passed away. Then, I think, Clint Eastwood's company, Malpaso, picked it up and kept it for quite a while. The first I heard of it was when Kirk Douglas thrust it at me when he was out here doing The Man from Snowy River and said, `What do you think of this?' It was a pretty average sort of script, very American.

When MGM was reformed under the direction of Alan Ladd Jnr, he sent it to me (it was just after I had made Lonesome Dove) and said, `Look, we know the script needs a lot of work but Tom Selleck's attached to it and we think he would be terrific for this character'. I was very anxious to do something in Australia and I liked its potential, so Ian Jones, the Australian writer, and I reworked the script to fit it into an Australian historical context.

I also think it presented an important side of Australia. But I know the film was absolutely damned in Australia (which I was very upset about), probably more than any film I have ever been involved with. I was more upset that it was totally dismissed in Australia because I thought it had something very important to say about the treatment of aborigines and genocide because there was nothing in the film that did not actually happen, although the story itself was fictitious. All the aboriginal people involved in the film were really great fans of it because it showed a side of history that so many Australians just aren't aware of. My children learn history from Australian history books now, but when I grew up, I learnt Australian history from a British history book. The bias was totally different and we didn't hear about these events.

There are some striking sequences in Quigley, scenes of aboriginal massacres. They are difficult to sit through, but all Australian audiences need to face them. One of the massacres was of shooters firing on the aborigines (but perhaps we are somewhat used to this from American westerns). The other was of the aborigines being herded to the top of a cliff and being pushed over.

It's very powerful and quite confronting. Probably why it was dismissed here was because people didn't want to see an American come to Australia, be the hero, and solve all our problems. But on the other hand, Australia in that era was not really so much `Australian' as it was a British colony and populated by a melting pot of races from all over the world. First-generation Australians were probably not involved in anything like this because they were growing up in the major centres. But the outback was still populated by all sorts of ruthless people, very much rulers of their own little kingdoms.

There is another brief but telling sequence where Tom Selleck meets Alan Rickman, the landowner. At the table it emerges that Rickman wants Selleck to hunt aborigines rather than dingo; the elderly aborigine who's serving at the table stands silently listening to the racist statement that the American Indians have no word for `wheel'. Later there is vindication with a vengeance with the death of Rickman and the aborigine walking silently from the homestead. This had a great deal to say to a wide audience.

Yes, and, in fact, the film was well reviewed in America, particularly in the trade magazines, because they thought it was a frontier classic. It did pretty well theatrically and in America it has done very well in video release. So I was really disappointed in the way it was just dismissed in Australia.

The contrast, then, is the Australian in the United States. How do you see Lightning Jack within those western conventions?

I was not really involved in the genesis of Lightning Jack. Paul Hogan never saw it as a fish-out-of-water story in terms of comparing it to Quigley. Crocodile Dundee was, of course, a-fish-out-of water story but I think Lightning Jack is simply a Western. It doesn't depend on Paul being Australian or anything like that. He is Australian. You can't get away from that. In fact, when he wrote it, he was thinking of just being an American cowboy, but I think it was Greg Coote of Roadshow who said to him, `Paul, don't be silly, you've got too big a persona, you can't suddenly be doing accents and stuff', and he was absolutely right.

But the genesis of Lightning Jack was, in Paul's thinking, bank robberies. We always see a bank robbery in a western with the guys either riding off or getting shot, or, maybe, the third cowboy from the left gets away. Who is this character? What does he do? What is he like and what happens to him after this? So that's really how Lighning Jack came about, the sort of mystery guy who's an underling in a bank hold-up - and he happens to get away. These characters, like anybody else, have flaws, have egos and so forth. That was where Paul really took it from. He wanted to poke gentle fun at the western genre.

He also wanted to make a more traditional, old-fashioned sort of classic western that was not revisionist like, for example, Unforgiven or Lonesome Dove. It wasn't too dusty or too sweaty or too bloody or anything like that. There was more of the feeling that John Wayne could ride over the hill at any moment or canter down the street. So we actually went to all those older classic western locations. I think you can see that, visually, there's a great deal of familiarity with the more traditional westerns and with slightly larger than life baddies and heroes, virtually no blood, and a more up-market saloon than the reality of those days.

So that was the approach. In fact, Paul really wanted to get right away from the fish-out-of-water thing because he felt he had already covered it. And in the 1880s there was not a huge difference between what was happening in America and what was happening with Australia. They were both in the hangover period of goldrushes and land-grabbing.

Reviewers commented on racial themes and the character, Ben, played by Cuba Gooding Jnr. They thought the portrayal and the mannerisms
were racist and a retrograde step. In radio interviews Cuba Gooding denied this. Paul Hogan has said that this was not the intention and that,
in fact, he hadn't thought of it at all.

We were floored by some people's comments - probably more so in Australia than in the United States - about the sort of `Steppin Fetchitt approach' criticism. First of all, the part of Ben was written not for a black actor, nor for a white. We just happened to cast Cuba because we felt he was best for the role. In fact, I think the first actors we were considered were Christian Slater or Johnny Depp, actors like that. They weren't available.

There was not a line of dialogue or piece of business changed for Cuba. But it all takes on a totally different meaning, of course, when suddenly there's a black actor and everyone is so politically sensitive. It had never even occurred to us and I think we were all a bit hurt by some of the comments. For example, criticism was made when Cuba shoots himself in the foot and rolled his eyes - if you shoot yourself in the foot, I defy anyone not to put on some weird expression. Of course, on a black face the eyes look that much wider and that much whiter. While we were all a bit hurt, we have to live with that sort of criticism because certainly nothing was intended by us. At some of the preview screenings, we questioned black members of the audience and they didn't seem to have any problems with the film at all.

Was it successful in Australia?

It has done well in Australia, yes, very well. It's interesting because it took off with a big bang and it was, I think, the twelfth biggest opening of all time in Australia and did very solidly over the Easter period and then gradually, as all films do, started to fall away, then levelled off. Later, older people were still going as well as people who take four or five weeks to make up their mind to go to the movies. I think it grossed eight or nine million dollars in Australia, which is pretty solid, and the film, will, I think, break even throughout the world. I think America was a bit disappointing because again it opened really strongly but the distribution company, Savoy Pictures, didn't have the muscle nor the financial resources to really support it.

The earlier films, Snapshot and Harlequin, were local thrillers. In Harlequin, Robert Powell portrayed a character who was based on Rasputin,
a diabolical figure, a Devil-figure.

In the earlier days of the Australian film industry, I had been working at Crawford Productions with the writer, Everett De Roche. We were toying with some ideas for movies and he often said he was fascinated by the Rasputin legend; that it would be good to do a story on it. I said that it would be nearly impossible to do something Russian and in period. He said, `Well, why don't we do an updated version of the story?'. That's more or less how it came about. We were very lucky to get Robert Powell because he had gained a huge following, particularly in Catholic countries, through his portrayal of Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth.

Robert, I think, is an extraordinary actor because he has a great stillness which is almost frightening. He can simply twitch the corner of the lip or move an eye. I think a lot of the strength of that character in Harlequin is so effective because of the way it's played by Robert - terrifying and yet fascinating. In a way, it's a little like Ralph Fiennes' character in Schindler's List. Amon Goeth is an appalling character but you can't help being drawn in by him because he's just so awesome. Interestingly, Harlequin was most successful in, of all markets, South America - again because of the popularity of Robert Powell.

It's a long time ago, and if I were to remake that film, I think it would be pretty different now - simply because of growing up and experiencing a lot more of life. In those days production was really hurried - I think that film was made in five and a half weeks, or something like that.

The particular angle, the diabolical figure, as part of our Australian screen fiction is an interesting highlight.

It is, yes. Everett really has to take the credit for that rather than me. I was the one who put it on film but it's his creation. I suppose I steered Robert in the direction we thought it should go, but I can't claim credit for having created the character. But it is interesting to create characters like that - there was something about him that women found very attractive too.

In talking about values and devilish characters, are you interested in any explicitly religious themes? Do you have some religious background?

Not really. To give you my background: I'm sort of middle-class Church of England, went to a private school in Sydney and was pretty happy - a very similar background to Peter Weir's. I grew up in Rose Bay and he grew up in Watsons Bay and he went to Scots College, which is up the hill from Cranbrook, where I went to school. My only dealings with Catholicism in those days was football, when we played CBC Waverley or Joeys (St Joseph's, Hunters Hill) or some school like that. They were always tough and they always seemed to have hairy legs.

I was, of course, confirmed and Liz and I still occasionally go to church - at Easter time. And, quite often, in Los Angeles on a Sunday morning we'll get up and go to Church - she's a Presbyterian and we just go because we enjoy the experience. I regard myself as a Christian - not what you'd call deeply Christian - and I've tried to instil those values in my children, who have all been brought up Catholics because their mother was Catholic.

As regards religious themes, Operation Dumbo Drop, a job for Disney, delves very slightly. It's about a rag-tag group of soldiers that have to escort an elephant across Vietnam - a true story and wonderful story - and they suddenly realise the religious significance of this elephant to the group of people they're trying to take it to. There's a very powerful scene where the young boy who's attached to the elephant as a mahout walks into a temple in the middle of the night. It's somewhat overgrown by the jungle. It's an elephant temple. I've been into some of these temples and they're extraordinary. The group realise the significance of this being, an eye-opening experience for them.

You made The Girl who Spelt Freedom, another Disney feature?

That's right. George and Prissy Thrash were Baptists from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Through the church they both felt they had a calling and took on the care of a Cambodian family, all of whom I've met - a most lovely group of people. I'm sure Lin Yan would be capable of running America one day, she is so bright, so articulate.

That was a very interesting experience. When I cast Mary Kay Place and Wayne Rogers and all the kids, we were filming one night at Vancouver Airport, which is where we made the movie because there is a large Cambodian population there, and the real Thrash family came up with Lin Yan's family from Chattanooga. They all met each other that night and it was fascinating because they all turned out to like each other and be so like each other. The only difference was that George Thrash is actually quite small and Wayne Rogers is very tall, but Mary Kay Place and Prissy Thrash are almost identical and they just hit it off at once.

These are more serious-minded Disney films.

That's interesting because, when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over Disney in late 1984, they decided to get back into this sort of movie for the Disney Sunday night movie and this was the first of them. I thought it was such a good one because it was really the story of children of the killing fields, a true story about a little girl who had never been in a classroom in her life, got to America and became the shining star in the spelling bee and got to meet the president. I think it was a wonderful heartwarming story.

Values, legends, myths seem to appeal to you. What is your approach to myths in doing The Young Indiana Jones films? And you have
explored, especially in Phar Lap and The Lighthorsemen, the Australian ethos and myths.

Yes, and it was the same for my involvement with The Man from Snowy River. I suppose we all like to dream about being the best or creating the best. I remember at school wanting to be the best at football, the one that people looked up to. I've always looked up to people so, I suppose, legends and heroics go back to that sort of thing. But I am fascinated by this. I guess, I don't quite know why. It's always easier for the critic to look in and say, `Well, this is probably why', than for me to be analytical about it. I've always liked the classic story and the mythic proportions. I've had a few conversations with George Lucas about this, an extraordinary person that I really enjoyed working with.

I bought him a beautiful bronze lighthorseman as a 50th birthday gift, because I did an episode in Turkey about the Australian Lighthorse, a sort of remake of The Lighthorseman. It's from a different perspective, where young Indy's in Beersheba as a spy, trying to save the city from being blown up as the Australian horsemen come in. Cameron Daddo played the leading Australian character, delightfully too.

So you have made The Lighthorsemen twice?

Revisited it, yes. What happened, in fact, was that George Lucas actually bought the film from RKO in America so he could use footage from it. So we've intercut footage from the original into the new. It was very interesting because we had Turkish horsemen playing the lighthorsemen. It's fascinating to see them dressed up as Australian, the men that were firing the guns at them out of the trenches. Anything heroic gets the old heart beating - and that's a heroic story, 800 men who galloped across a three-mile open plain into Turkish cannons machine guns and entrenched Germans. They didn't question what they were doing but did it because they were told to. To me these are wonderful values that seem to be fast disappearing from this sad world we live in.

You invested Phar Lap with something of that same kind of drive for success. Tommy Woodcock had it.

Phar Lap was an icon to the Australian public especially during the Depression. There was something about that horse - he came from the wrong side of the tracks, he was half owned and trained by a battler, he wasn't part of the Establishment; he was a working-class horse, if you like, and he became an icon because people knew they could go to the course and put a bob on Phar Lap and they would get their money back. I think that has very deep roots in the `them and us' thing which has always been big in Australia. I suppose that goes back to the convict days because not only was Phar Lap trained by a battler and half owned by a battler, but the other half-owner was Jewish and American to boot, so that was really shoving it up the Establishment and the squattocracy.

Do you think that the editing of Phar Lap for the American audiences altered its dramatic impact?

We talked about this a great deal. Everyone in Australia knows the horse died and we wanted to deal with that and get it out of the way and end the film on the note of his greatest triumph rather than his death. I preferred the film the Australian way but obviously in America it's not a well-known legend. It took the film a while to get going over there. But, again, if I remade the film now, it would be interesting to see the approach we would take. We just learned so much over the years. David Williamson and I talked for ages about it, and with John Sexton for ages. That's the approach we decided to take because we knew that otherwise the audience would be sitting there waiting for the final death scene. I said we wanted people to leave the cinema up rather than down.
I would love to work again with David Williamson. I'm a great admirer of his but nothing has presented.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man?

After doing so many period films, it was nice to do something that's very contemporary. I do like doing action films, films with a lot of action, and so I guess that's the reason I did it. Probably the script could've been a lot better. But it's interesting that when was shown on Australian television, a lot of people who didn't see it in the theatre here - it did okay but not great - particularly of my son's vintage, came up and said, `I really enjoyed that film'. I had just got back from the US opening of Lightning Jack, and was quite surprised that all sorts of people came up and said how much they enjoyed it.

Finally, Free Willy?

Again it's them and us, it's the good triumphing over evil. What appealed to me about it (and all my films apart from, say, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man), is that they're all pretty much family-based films. They have very broad appeal. I like every kind of film as part of an audience but also as a film-maker. Because you have to live with something for so long, I'd rather live with something that I personally enjoy. I love ending films on a note of triumph. If all my films have a common thread, it's that they have a very strong emotional thread, all of them.

You received unanimous favourable reviews for Free Willy.

Yes, pretty much everywhere. When I read that script, I knew if we could deliver that moment of the whale jumping over the wall we had a movie. It's a very strong story, the little boy, the parallel stories: what appealed to me about the film was the theme of family, the boy who has no family, trying to come to terms with foster parents and new family and the whale that has been plucked away from his family, the two of them being drawn together and having a similar background and, somehow, forming this unusual friendship. It really appealed to me a lot.

Interview: 8th May 1995

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [02:26:20 UTC] by malone

Language: en