I find things written about the films I've made to be much more interesting than what I could ever put into words myself. I don't consider myself to be particularly articulate. Is it a cop-out to say that I work for myself, the way I see things, and from my own background, which, of course, every director does. I sometimes listen to directors talk and I think, 'God, you're so articulate, to be so clear about it,' because to me, life is a morass of conflicting ideas and conflicting thoughts and, the older one gets, the less black and white one sees the world. It's a lot easier, in the arrogance of youth, to have a position, whereas the longer in the tooth you get, you get to understand the other point of view - I may not agree with it, but I can understand where they're coming from. So it's very difficult sometimes... if that is an apology for my inarticulateness, I'm sorry.
You came to wider attention with Shame and Tudawali, which were both screened in 1988. What were you doing before this?
My history is in theatre. This sounds a little bit Reader's Digest - I've always wanted to be a director. But I wanted to be a theatre director, not a film director. Film wasn't very strong at all. I managed to get into theatre mainly because I wanted to be a theatre director but I studied all the other aspects of theatre. I was a pretty good set construction man and lighting designer and stage manager etc. I did a little bit of acting in between but it was very minor. Then I fell more and more into acting and I was an actor all of a sudden.
I became involved with what is now Curtin University, invited there as a tutor. I played Hamlet in their first production and then I started directing.
They had a very embryonic film school which was led by Peter Jeffrey who is now at Murdoch University. That was in the old days where you worked in Super 8 and black and white, monstrous half-inch porta-packs that you lugged around the place. We were blessed by being in the time of Whitlam where a lot of money was being poured into the arts and tertiary schools and the film school built up very, very quickly. I literally stayed about half a page ahead of my students for at least the first four years, teaching film as well as drama.
I got funding for the first film I ever made, a 45-50 minute film called The Bucks Party. I remember that at the time I got to double-head stage the AFC came out to have a look at it and they were aghast. They thought it was everything about the Australian image that they were trying not to portray in the '70s: you know, brash men, ocker, chauvinistic - well, what a bucks party is about. A few people managed to fight for me and showed it to the Greater Union Organisation. Greater Union loved it and decided to blow it up to 35mm and show it as a support feature. It was combined with some very strange choices, like The Man Who Fell to Earth. They never quite worked out whether it was one of your trenchcoat kind of films or whether it was something esoteric and a statement about Australian men.
In fact, I remember one leading reviewer saying that 'this is either an indictment of Australian culture or a textbook on how to run a buck's party'. They couldn't ever work it out. That really surprised me because I thought I'd been quite overtly soapbox-thumping in terms of what I was attacking about the Australian male.
I would have thought it was an indictment.
It used to get rented out a lot for bucks' parties. Then it got adopted by the gay female movement, so it became, in a sense, an indication of everything that they had held about men. So I don't know whether I ever actually reached the kind of men I really wanted to reach. That was my first film and that did reasonably well. Then I started experimenting with television. So I did everything the wrong way. I did a reasonably biggish film first up. I did a little bit of television, then I did Shame, then I did Tudawali, then I did a lot of television - I came over here to Victoria and I've been really kind of practising and developing my art. So I consider I've done everything completely the wrong way around.
You came on the scene with Shame very strongly, although there was some difficulty about its release, I understand. Cinema Papers took up the cause and printed the screenplay.
It was very curious because the financiers, we finally discovered, thought they were making a completely different film to the film that we were making. I had read the script fairly early on and I thought it was very powerful. I was doing some work with Paul Barron at the time and I encouraged him to read it. We really liked it and we decided to go ahead with it. No-one really wanted to touch it because they couldn't work out what it was about. It was not quite entertaining; it was a little bit too art-house; it was a message film, and yet Michael B.......... and Beverly Blenkinship had always designed the film as a kind of B grade drive-in movie. They did not want it to end up in an art-house circuit. They wanted it to be an action flick that had some things to say in it, so that they get to the kind of demographic that they were appealing to, which was young teenagers and people in their twenties - and actually hoping the girls would drag the men along and, therefore, get across what they wanted to say.
We had lots of arguments with the financiers to the point where, unknown to me, about three weeks prior to shooting we discovered they had actually commissioned a new draft to be written in L.A. The draft was brought out and they said, 'No, this is the script we want you to do.' I remember there was one particular scene where the grandmother had been captured by the boys. It was down under the bridge and the boys were threatening the grandmother. I remember the scene as written by the writer from L.A.: Asta draws a 45 Magnum from her belt and points it at the boys and tells them, something along the lines of, 'Get away from her, you motherfuckers or I'll blow your head off', that kind of thing. In one moment it summed up their whole attitude to what the film was about.
Fortunately we told them to get knotted and we went on with it, but there was that kind of pressure all along - a kind of basic misunderstanding of what we were trying to say and what they felt would be an interesting film. For instance the scene where Aster and Lizzie go swimming, after she's taken her on a bike-ride, the kind of baptism sequence... They wanted us to play the two women naked. Now, they had a fundamental misunderstanding of how a woman feels about her body after she's been raped. We actually played that sequence without the T shirt on, the audiene looking at Asta seeing the bruises, but a woman does not go bathing naked with another woman and not bathing naked with her lawyer - I mean, Asta would not even suggest such a thing.
We had that kind of interface constantly going on, so that by the time we finished, they were willing to shelve the film or give it a video release. Paul Barron, bless his heart, fought very strongly for us and managed to find somebody else who was willing to take over and buy out the film from these people and, finally, the film got onto the screens. It was a hard battle. If there's a lesson to be learned, it's just make sure that your bedfellows are all involved in the same dream as you are when you start.
When it was reviewed, writers looked at the genre and made comments on the use of the western and the bikie film. Was that consciously intended?
Very conscious that it was a western format. We had actually used the genre very strongly. Again, that was how Michael and Beverley saw it in terms of playing it out. I think the major criticisms we got - and I ended up touring with it when we went to the States and we also took it to a few film festivals like the London and it was invited to the New York Film Festival as well - the criticism we got was the fact that we had actually shot ourselves in the foot by having Asta become an action hero and the women had actually resorted to the same techniques that we were criticising the men for, which is a valid point. But I wanted people to walk away feeling angry. And I wanted them to walk away feeling - and hopefully that's what the last image meant - that the community can make a difference, that one person can only make so much of a difference. And Asta had actually caused, if you want to say it that way, the death of Lizzie. But the hope is that, if the community itself takes responsibility for its actions and the actions of its members, then we have a chance of actually changing the attitude of members of the community.
But I wanted people to walk away with a sense of rage. It bothers me most when people walk out of the film with a sense of impotence. I've failed if that's what they walk away with. But it certainly touched a lot of chords in people's hearts.
I was in an unfortunate position because I'm not a sexual assault counsellor and I don't even pretend that I know very much about it. I certainly did a lot of research for the film and we got to meet with people. The actors met with victims and the fathers of victims. I got to confront what it would be for me, as a father with two daughters, to actually go through the same situation. But wherever we went, women would come up to me and tell me their own stories, and I found that the most desperately agonising part of what I was doing, because they felt they could talk to me, was starting to see how rife sexual assault really is in the community.
But I remember in the London Film Festival after we showed the film, - we had a question time and the first question was from a young bespectacled guy in the front who said, 'Where do you get off making B-grade schlock movies?' I don't know how to answer that question. I'm always interested in films that manage to plug people into their psyche somehow, because the level of anger and the level of pain means that the film's tapping into something. I suppose the worst thing one can say about a movie is that people walk away not giving a shit anyway.
Somebody has written that Asta is more of a superwoman coming in, able to solve things, whereas if she'd been ordinary, more women would have identified with her.
There's certainly the element of the hero, the leather-clad bikie, the cowboy who comes into town and leaves the community at the end, but we tried to include elements in there that showed the fact that she didn't know everything. When she's teaching Lizzie how to fight and Lizzie says, 'What if there's six of them?' she says, 'I don't know.' The fact that things go wrong for her; the fact that she reacts with terror when five or so teenage boys attack her - there is that element of the kind of flawed human being in there. But she was certainly the action hero. She became a kind of role model for a lot of women.
I notice you referred to some religious imagery when you were talking about the swimming sequence and baptism. Does that kind of broad religious thematic symbolism appeal to you or is that just something that you draw on?
I think it must be there. I may have articulated that, but in the script, that's immediately what it was. I had a very strong religious upbringing as a Methodist, which is probably one of the harder religions to survive, and I was strongly religious till I was about 15 or 16 and then I renounced it completely, but I remember I was always surprised, when I was studying literature at university, how no-one else seemed to get the gag when the gag was quite clearly there in the poem or whatever. So I'm very thankful that I had that kind of upbringing.
The American telemovie version of Shame with Amanda Donohoe?
I haven't seen it. A lot of my friends have seen it. I think it would cause me a lot of pain to see it. One of these days when I'm feeling really strong in myself, I'll go and have a look at it.
Was it flattering that they remade it.
Well, no. I mean, the Americans remake everything. It's like they take the best of French comedies and turn them into not so good American comedies. No, I don't think it's particularly flattering.
The location scenery was magnificent, the Rockies as an American Outback, Amanda Donohue is a strong screen presence, but it's not so much the western of Shane, it's more the community of The Wild One community. In crossing the Pacific it lost some of the urgency of Australia. It was made for TV, which puts certain limitations on the strength that you can bring to it.
Yes and no. Our shooting was fraught with difficulties all the way down the line. Again it's one of those things where I look back now with what I know about production logistics and, hopefully, a little more skill as a director, and I wonder how the hell I ever managed to survive the making of Shame. It was mostly through ignorance. I just didn't know what I was doing, so we just kept moving.
But I remember shooting on one particular night the death of Lizzie, the whole last part of the film where they find Lizzie's body, take it up to the top and the accusations are made; then Asta is left with the community as the body is taken away. That was originally supposed to be a two-night shoot. Because we'd lost a bit of time, it became a one-night shoot. Then our generator broke down. We were shooting a substantial distance out of Perth and I think we actually started shooting that whole last sequence about 2.00 am and that last sequence with Asta and the community behind them was actually shot at dawn. We had to grade it down to make it dark and you'll notice it's not quite the same as everything else. So we ended up shooting that whole sequence in four hours and that was hell.
But we had such a fabulous ensemble, in terms of the actors, that I could virtually point a camera at them and know that it was going to work. We had built up a very strong feeling, amongst the women especially. Again - and this is an aside - but one of the great things about shooting in Perth was the fact that what people were exposed to across Australia was a whole lot of faces they had never seen before, and that worked strongly because they didn't have to disassociate themselves from the previous role this person had played or, 'I saw them in..', you know. These people were more 'real'. I think there was a great benefit shooting that way, but there were a lot of problems in shooting so far away from the film community.
I remember the atmosphere of the Bicentenary and the aboriginal protest and that same week Tudawali was shown on television. We all remember Alan Seymour from The One Day of the Year. He wrote the screenplay and you did some myth-making with him.
Tudawali had a very interesting start to it because, originally, another director was supposed to be doing it, and that director had written the script and had done a lot of the research on it. I can't tell you the reason why he pulled out. He had another project or something like that, so it was offered to me. I had had very little to do with the project at all. I'd seen it go through the office, but I'd had very little to do with it directly. So I came on board with an extant script and was told that I had to go over and work with Alan Seymour to rewrite the script, so to speak. Alan and I had a fabulous time together. It was very concentrated; it was one of those situations where you fly a long way to be in a house and work five days and fly a long way back. I could have been in another house next door in Perth.
We rewrote the script, no, we didn't rewrite it, we developed the script and worked out what we wanted to say. I then arranged to go up to Melville Island and Darwin to meet with some of Tudawali's friends and colleagues and, especially, his daughter.
She was mentioned in the credits.
The script was originally written around the fact that Tudawali's death was caused over his daughter; that he wanted to take his daughter down to Sydney and give her a convent education or whatever, to raise her and give her some of the advantages of white education that she hadn't got. She was actually betrothed and he had a fight with a member of the family to whom she was betrothed and that's how he died. The whole script was written about that; it was written about the great love this man had for his daughter and how it impacted on everyone's life. It was in a sense a kind of bedrock to which we always came back.
Now, when I got there and started talking to people, the story emerged as patently untrue and the whole spine of our story was busted. We had huge problems. We were three weeks off pre-production and the whole spine of the story was gone. We also picked up a lot of other things along the line, that Tudawali found it difficult to get citizenship when in fact that wasn't true. He was a member of the football club and as a football hero, he immediately was up there for citizenship.
So there were a lot of phone calls to Alan. There was a story of a man, a very powerful story of a man and yet the spine of the story was gone, and that shows in the film. I don't think we ever quite managed to solve that. I think that if you actually look at the film with that in mind, you see the problems that we were up against.
Yes, it was a film about him as an actor and the making of Jedda and all the consequences of that in the '50s and '60s and all that he meant - but what impressed was involvement in rights for aborigines at that time.
Exactly. This was fascinating to me and what happened afterwards - the fact that he was in a boxing troupe for so long, that he a man without roots anymore, trying to straddle two different cultures unsuccessfully. It's true of so many actors today. I've done a lot of children's television and I've seen young children looked after and touted for 16, 26 weeks - make-up, wardrobe people, everyone - they're kings. At the end of the show, they're gone. I think there's a program on television at the moment about what's happened to television soap heroes in Australia who were so good, who used to get tens of thousands of fan mail letters a week and now can't get a job.
The other part of the story which of course wasn't true, was the story of the white journalist with whom he had the friendship. This had been designed originally to provide an entree for the white community into the story. We got into more and more trouble with that relationship, trying to make it work. Probably it doesn't seem particularly sophisticated now in the way we handled it, because we were constantly writing while we were shooting, trying to make things work.
It finally came to a juxtaposition of themes rather than an interweaving.
Yes, it did. But what I'm really proud about is that we got as close as we possibly could to a sense of what his life may have been, and that was largely through Ernie Dingo. Ernie was fabulous. As an ambassador who allowed us into communities - we couldn't shoot in Darwin, so we shot in Derby and Broome - and Ernie's entree into that community and his willingness to actually gather people around and form a supportive team was fantastic helped us enormously.
I remember when we first started making the film, we had to go and see Gary Foley to talk to him because, at this time, the aboriginal community in Australia, its arts community were getting very anxious about their stories being taken by whites and being made into dramas. I sat at a table in a restaurant with Gary Foley and Ernie Dingo, and Gary's doing this, "I don't want any more fucking white people making any more fucking films..." and Ernie's talking and I'm talking and saying what my vision is. And then finally after about an hour and a half he turned to me and said, "All right, you look fucking all right. Okay. But you make a fuck-up of this and you're dead." I mean, I was very conscious about wanting to give it as much integrity as I could, and also have a story that was a drama and that was entertaining.
The audition and the making of Jedda worked very well, then his appearing in Whiplash and Dust and the Sun. With the friendship theme there's some edge like the scene on the beach in Sydney when the journalist's wife is unconsciously patronising towards Tudawali. I had forgotten that Tudawali rants against the whites at the end, so you leave the audience with some rage.
We didn't want to follow the same stream as Jedda. But there was a lot of anger. Obviously, as I got to witness the communities during the shoot, my anger started mounting. And when I went to see Rose, his daughter, and started to see how... I don't want to go into that. Yes, my anger was mounting but there had to be something about the fact that you learnt something. There's still a lot of work to be done and we are still trying to - by rubbing against each other, we will become smooth finally. I don't know whether the film ended up being too overt, too histrionic, but I wanted to have that rough edge to the end of it - Alan, too, of course.
The opening was clever, dramatising the audition and explaining the Chauvels and their film as wellas Robert's situation very quickly.
That was largely true. It was that dance sequence that actually got him the role and it was really quite profound. We had some Tiwi advisers who allowed us into the culture and the community a little, so I started to get a sense of the Tiwi culture. We brought them down from Melville Island to Broome and recorded a whole lot of traditional songs with them, which were used in the film. The sense of the contact with the water was very important, and the sense of the water going to another place, so that's why we used the canoe.
You really did turn Tudawali into a symbolic figure, a mythical aboriginal, with the overtones of Jedda as well as the fight for aboriginal rights. You also symbolise the previous fifty years of white changes of consciousness.
I must see it again. Most films I've made, I have enormous difficulty watching again. I would say this is probably not unusual, that most directors would tell you that there's a little bit of their life implanted in each film they make and it's a reminder of a particular stage in my life that I was at, making those different films. So, in a sense, it's painful to watch them because all that was involved in that bet or your prejudices or your ignorance or your lack of understanding is actually embedded in that film at that point. So, sometimes it's difficult to watch.
I would love to know from a member of the aboriginal community what they really thought about the film. I know we showed it to a lot of the communities. But then again I guess they're going to be wide in their subjective reaction to the film as any other member of the film-making community is.
It would be different from the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys compared with the urban aborigine.
Yes. Like the differences between the people who think Shame is a piece of shock-horror, cut-and-thrust type of blood film and some people who think it's an art-house film that's preaching to the converted. I mean, you can only do what you can do.
Your television work, especially the Halifax fp telemovie, The Feeding, that you did with Frances O' Connor.
That was the first Halifax I did. I really loved that. I'd gone through a stage of directing a lot of children's material, because I was the series director of Leapfrog and I did Around the Twist, a couple of series of that. I was just starting to work in "adult drama" again when the offer of this came along. It was probably one of the most polished scripts I've read in a long, long time - by Mac Gudgeon.
It was a very interesting film, a very interesting story. It managed to touch every bit of our dark side. And yet I was having trouble with the community attitude towards serial killers. A network executive actually said to me, "That's a very sexy story, serial killers", and that bothers me enormously. I'm still not quite sure why people like serial killers and why they romanticise them. That was the aspect that bothered me a little. But the film just happened, everything seemed to fall into place with a very powerful cast and a very lovely shooting period, a strong music score. It was one of those ones where you go, "Wow, it worked."
You created a sinister atmosphere which is interesting because criticism of some of the Halifax films is that she's too nice to be true, so to speak.
Yes, she's a princess.
It's interesting that Australian audiences have responded to both aspects; they seem to like her as the princess, but there is also that fascination with the dark side.
Well, life's about light and shade, isn't it? So maybe it takes somebody from the light to take us into the darker casual side. I don't know. I'm fascinated by the whole aspect of our shadow side, the unexpressed and repressed shadow side in all of us. I found as an actor I always loved playing bad guys - loved it - because I can actually break away from anything that had to do with me. My past and upbringing had me as a kind of a practising good guy, which meant I never had any real expression of my dark side, so I got to do it in acting and now get to do it in directing as well. I can play with all that kind of thing.
Whilst it attracts me and I feel that it's necessary for us to actually explore our dark side, it also scares the shit out of me because I don't have a strong spiritual base. So the possibility of looking at and throwing into relief the dark side fills me with despair sometimes.
That would be an aspect of the Good Guys, Bad Guys series, wouldn't it?
I did the pilot for Good Guys, Bad Guys. I also did a substantial amount of the first series and a block of the second series. That's fun. There's nothing in that. That's fun to do. It's hard but it's fun. The Halifaxes I like because I can get my teeth stuck into them. I've actually done three Halifaxes now. The second Halifax, which was called Sweet Dreams, followed on reintroducing the Steve Bisley character, something we've never done before. And that was quite interesting.
I did a Halifax which is about a mass killing. That was very difficult because we're actually tapping into something that was very much a part of the community psyche. Even the fact that we were willing to attack it ...It is very difficult because you're dealing with very raw and immediate emotions. It's very, very hard for me to imagine anything prior to Port Arthur that galvanised the Australian community. Probably the only thing since has been Princess Diana's death... all the personal emotional energy in terms of reaction to that death. I found it very surprising (I'm talking about Diana).
It's interesting, I suppose, keeping the Nine Network audience in mind, what you can do and what you can't do.
Absolutely. And that's partly the princess creation of Jane Halifax.
The project that you're hoping to get made?
I will tell you one thing: it's that film reviewers are going to say, "He has got an obsession with female lawyers. He's always making films about causes." It's about a female lawyer in the '50s who defends a murder trial at a time when capital punishment hasn't been used for 15 or 20 years and the incoming government decides they're going to use capital punishment, so it becomes an issue. It's a film about capital punishment. But it's been written in a kind of gentle, ironic, whimsical style, a little bit of black humour but it gets pretty tough at times.
Do you want the audience leaving in a rage this time?
No, I don't. I think what needs to be said is said within the film. The audience might say, 'give me a few things to think about, but I think I'll still have a smile on my face when I walk out'. Yes, I think table-thumping days are over.
Are you hopeful of making more films? Have you got that kind of energy?
Yes. Unfortunately in the Australian community, the older you get, the tougher it is to make feature films. There's a lot of young people making films and a lot of young writers, but I think I'm just starting to hit my straps. Now, as against Shame and The Bucks Party, when I'm absolutely clear I didn't know what I was doing, I now feel that I probably know enough about what I'm doing to give it another shot.
Interview: 30th March 1998