You have said that you always have a serious intention in taking on any film project.
I guess I look on film-making not as being a job, but as having a specific role in society; that if you get to the very privileged position of being able to make a film, then along with it come certain responsibilities.
For me, mere entertainment is not enough to warrant making a film, because the whole process is so difficult, so time-consuming and requiring such a sacrifice - not only from me, but from the people around me - that there has to be something deeper if you're prepared to devote years of your life, especially if you're writing and directing. It's probably a minimum of three years of your life.
Would you have spent three years on your early films, like A Street to Die and Backlash?
A Street to Die was probably about two and a half years, from picking up the story through to financing. Probably longer if you take into account the marketing of the film. Backlash took a similar period. Spider and Rose was four years from writing the first treatment through to the completion of the film. It seems that as I progress, my development period gets longer.
Do you prefer to do the writing, the producing and the directing as you did in your earlier films?
I did, yes. I guess as my ambitions get higher - and by that I mean as my need to work on larger budgets gets greater, because you need money to realise the things that you want to achieve - producing becomes much more difficult. Initially I was going to produce Spider and Rose, but I relinquished that.
To be a good producer is a full-time job in itself and sometimes - often in fact - the roles of producer and director are contradictory. Really, for a producer to be doing his or her job well, that person needs to be in conflict at times with the director, and similarly for the director with the producer. The best producer-director collaborations are where there is a point of harmony between the two conflicting needs of those roles.
At the moment I'm reading a book about the making of Lawrence of Arabia, Sam Spiegel and David Lean, some of the rows that they used to have. But the result was, I think, a truly magnificent film.
What films did you make before A Street to Die?
As an independent film-maker, I had done two dramatised documentaries. One was called Cattle King, about Sir Sidney Kidman, and the other was called Shipwrecked, which was about a lone sailor coming across the Tasman in a race. Shipwrecked won the Sydney Film Festival award for best documentary. In many ways it was consistent with the themes of all my subsequent work.
It did, in fact, have quite a strong religious theme because this fellow who got shipwrecked - his name was Bill Belcher, a New Zealander, in his seventies - was stranded on a reef. His wife firmly believed that he was alive. When he'd been missing for 30 days, she was walking past a church, went in, knelt down and prayed, and - at this point everybody had given him up for dead - she suddenly knew that he would be all right. She walked home and the phone was ringing. She answered it and he had been picked up. But the story was really about a commitment between these two, the fact that she never gave up, she never lost faith.
A Street to Die was a very impressive first movie.
There have only been two films that I've made where I've cried during the making of the film. That was one and Malpractice was the other. Both I found to be very, very emotional experiences.
What led you to the story of A Street to Die?
I had seen it in a newspaper, the `Weekend Australian', a story with an aerial photograph of the street. It had all the Vietnam veterans on one side, I think, with the Korean veterans on the other. On the Vietnam side of the street in the photograph they had put all these little bubbles - with everything that was going wrong. The story was about a man called Simpson and his claims that Agent Orange was causing his problems.
I was astonished by this story and was expecting a series of follow-ups, but I looked through all the papers and there were no follow-ups at all. I thought, `This is crazy. This is a great story and it should be out there'. So I contacted the people and got a researcher to spend a few weeks in the street, to check it out, really, before I committed to it.
How much did you fictionalise the story? Did you stay with the facts?
It was hardly fictional at all. I actually worked very closely with the widow, writing a script. Once the script was written, I gave her a copy and she went through it and sanctioned it. She gave her stamp of approval before we went into production, so it was pretty accurate.
There was a scene with the doctor to whom the Chris Haywood character had been going and who had been consistently misdiagnosing his condition. He went to get a second opinion and was diagnosed as having lymphoma. This female doctor, rather than tell this man the news face-to-face, went into another room and phoned from there. I filmed that virtually word-for-word. It's exactly what happened. When it screened to audiences, people laughed. They couldn't believe it.
In making the documentaries and films like A Street to Die and Backlash, Malpractice and Mortgage, how did you see yourself as making
a serious contribution to Australian film-making?
I don't know that I really saw myself as anything other than I just having a very strong desire to tell these stories. Before I did A Street to Die, people said, `You can't write, produce and direct'. But I had written and produced and directed the two dramatised documentaries, so I thought, well, why can't I? And so I did.
A funny thing happened: A Street to Die was invited to all these film festivals overseas and I remember it was invited to the London Film Festival. I was a bit anxious about how it was going to be received and I didn't want to sit in the audience. But they asked me to introduce the film, which I did, and then I stayed outside. But then, part-way through, I went into the projection room. I don't know why I went into the projection room, maybe just to make sure that everything was going okay. Whenever the film's playing, I always do that, I always check with the projectionist first. I remember standing beside the projector and looking out through the little porthole to see the film on the screen, and I had this most curious sensation - as though I had not made the film. I was looking at it as though I was seeing it for the first time.
It started me thinking about what it is that a true film-maker does, the fact that really you are just a conduit. I think the best film-makers are merely a conduit for these stories and that the more you try to clog the channels with things like ego or ambition, or greed or whatever, the more the film becomes corrupted.
How was A Street to Die received in Australia?
It got a limited release. It seems that with a lot of my work, it always seems to be received better after the fact than during its time. That particular year it was nominated for the major AFI awards and I think it got a good response critically.
And Chris Haywood won the best actor award. Did you bring a particular perception of the Vietnam war to the film and try to communicate
some stance on war via the film?
I tried not to, actually, because I didn't see that as being what the film was about. I really saw it as being about the blindness of authorities to accept culpability. To that extent, I suppose, it is an anti-war film, but it was more to do with anti-bureaucracy and a very, very strong sense of injustice, that ultimately what was at work here was the possibility that, if a precedent was established, then huge amounts of money would have to be paid out.
The anti-bureaucracy theme is a link with Backlash.
It's interesting because, as a writer-director, when I start to think about a film, I don't think about it in terms of plot, I think about it in terms of theme. Then I often contrive a plot to explore a theme. In Backlash the theme that I really wanted to explore was, in broad terms, racism, but, specifically, people who are different. That was really what I wanted to explore.
I was also interested in the Aboriginal spirituality, which I tried to get across in the Brian Syron character and the sense of the spiritual aspect of the man.
The transition from city to land was important. How much of Backlash was improvised or did you write a screenplay?
It was totally improvised. I wrote it in the sense that I wrote, as with Malpractice, a scene by scene breakdown and, within that, I knew what dialogue needed to be spoken. But the actual words themselves were improvised. I went through quite a rigorous rehearsal process with the actors prior to shooting. We shot the picture in 18 days. It was very highly structured. I also wanted to shoot as closely as possible the chronology of the film.
The budget was low - $200,000 (and even in 1986 that was very little money) - but again I just had a very strong desire to tell a story. I gave no thought about how it was going to be received, because I figured that it was made on such a low budget that, if it bombed, if nobody ever saw it, then it wouldn't really matter. At least I'd be able to get some money from somewhere to pay the investors back. But as it turned out, the film was probably, per dollar spent, the most successful film I've done.
Brian Syron contributed an understanding of the deepening of the spirituality and the land. David Argue is such an eccentric screen presence so that, with his ability to improvise, the bigotry and the lack of understanding were very strong.
Yes, that really was what the film was about. And again, it was fuelled within myself by a very strong sense of injustice.
Jilted has been screened on television and Dear Cardholder is available on video.
Dear Cardholder was about how credit can really get you into trouble. Jilted explored the notion that people who have had a bad time in relationships sometimes have a distrust of going into other relationships. I look back on those two films and see that they were good attempts, but I think I went into them too quickly and I don't think the ideas were realised as well as they could have been. That's why, after those two, I didn't make another film for quite a long time.
Dear Cardholder was trying to be satirical and comic.
I was playing with that a little. I guess one of the reasons why I moved out of documentaries was because I do think that documentaries preach to the converted. In other words, if you're interested in exploring social themes for a wide audience and hoping to introduce new ideas to an audience that wouldn't necessarily accept them, then I do think that drama is the best way to go. Documentaries can be artfully done and can be very provocative, very profound and very powerful. But the fact is that people who watch documentaries normally go to them with a point of view consistent with that of the film-maker. You're not reaching people who perhaps haven't thought about these issues or are undecided. That's really the reason that I moved into drama, because I figured that I would be able to explore such themes but put them out to a larger audience. And I guess as part of that, I started dabbling in comedy, with Dear Cardholder in particular, which I don't think was very successful.
It was a touch black, with disaster coming at the end, whereas Jilted was more straightforward in terms of exploring relationships.
Yes, it was. Again I think that script could have done with another 12 months' work. After those two films I decided I'd go back and reskill myself and I took myself out of the market for a while and started to concentrate more on developing the skills that I thought I needed to tell stories.
Malpractice and Mortgage come next. Malpractice was certainly very striking. And audiences could empathise with the couple in Mortgage,
their frustration and the smooth sales talk.
I look back on both Mortgage and Malpractice with an honest affection. They were important films for me because I think they brought me back to my roots, to that sort of social realist form that I really love, and they also took me back to improvisation. I'd actually left Backlash vowing that I'd never do another improvised film because I found it very difficult. But I'm very proud of both films. That's not to say that I don't look at them now and know how I could improve them enormously, but Malpractice, in particular, was a very emotional experience for me and for everybody involved.
Film Australia produced them?
Yes, they financed them totally.
And they recur on television?
Yes, they do. Interestingly, Mortgage I've since been told has become something of a cult film in Canada. For some reason or other it just keeps on playing there and they love it. I don't know why.
In the late 80s you made other documentaries, The Chelmsford Scream and You Have No Secrets.
Both of those I did as a hired gun. The first was fronted by Ray Martin and I directed the dramatic story, which was all about Chelmsford hospital. The other was about information technology, about the use of computers and how they can affect us. It was a two hour special. I took it on because it enabled me to learn so much more about that side of a world that I knew nothing about.
You produced two documentaries written and directed by Lewis Fitz Gerald. There was Gadfly, about Francis James, The Last Man Hanged,
about Ronald Ryan.
I'd worked with Lewis on a documentary called The Banjo and the Bard, about the relationship between Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, and Lewis had always wanted to direct. My attitude to Lewis had been, `Nobody's going to give it to you on a platter. If you want to do something, then come up with an idea. If it's a good idea, then I'll help you'. And he came up with The Last Man Hanged which, perversely, was very, very close to my sensibility. Apart from the fact that I wanted to help Lewis get his first runs on the board as a director, the story was consistent with things that I'd done to that point. I certainly had a strong hand in the development of the project.
It is a particularly Catholic film.
Lewis Fitz Gerald is not a Catholic, but that's certainly a theme that came through very strongly. Interestingly, I've only seen one other film that I think has had a similar tone and theme and that's Eternity, which I think is a sensational film.
Ronald Ryan's death and the scenes with the chaplain, Fr Brosnan are striking. They are in the vein of Dead Man Walking. The whole feel is right.
Yes, you can almost smell it. I think Lewis did a wonderful job and it's certainly a film that I was very proud to have my name on.
Your worked for four years on Spider and Rose. You have spoken about comedy with Dear Cardholder. Did you see Spider and Rose
as comic or comic-serious?
No, I never really did. I always thought of it as being a drama that would have some funny bits in it. Right at the outset, in fact, in my discussions with the producers, I told everybody that this was not a comedy. I don't know how it's perceived now, as to whether or not it's perceived as a comedy. But even now I don't see the film as a comedy. I regard it as quite a serious treatise on the way we treat the aged.
This is the case when the focus is on Ruth Cracknell's character and on Max Cullen's. But you wrote Spider's role strongly as well, a kind of
flip style. Publicists and reviewers gave the impression of comedy. But it's certainly more serious when the audience is focussing on Ruth Cracknell's, Rose.
Yes, that's what the film was about. Spider had to be a young man who undergoes a journey, and there had to be conflict between the two of them. I don't know if I have a natural predilection to write characters like that but I know that, in fact, there's a lot of cruelty within Spider in those early scenes. A lot of the humour comes because he is so cruel.
Ruth Cracknell is a strong screen presence.
I kept a pretty tight rein on Ruth. I had a very clear picture of how that character had to be at any given moment. That's not to say that Ruth is not a wonderful actress. The purpose of the Max Cullen character was to show this woman that things were possible, that you can suffer tragedy but you don't need to succumb to it. The irony with his character, of course, is that when the crunch comes, he doesn't have the courage to go with her. It's a feminist film, if you like, in the sense that the men ultimately let this woman down and she has to act on her own.
Which means that the justice background seems very important when you look back on all your films, a strong sense of justice and
a strong humanity. Does the word `humanity' do justice to your films?
Yes, I think that humanity is critical to me, absolutely critical. It's fundamental. I can't go to a film unless there is a basic humanity and I get very tired of seeing films that don't treat people with intelligence or humanity or with respect. Justice, I guess, comes from my early days as a journalist when I saw so many things that seemed to me unfair. What probably rankles with me more than anything is an intransigent bureaucratic system that follows rules mindlessly and doesn't give any cognisance to the human factor. That, probably more than anything, is what gets me going.
Like the hospital scenes at the beginning of Spider and Rose?
Yes, very much so. Hospitals are a particular case in point. That's why Malpractice was made. When I was working as a television journalist for Mike Willesee, I was involved in a very bad car accident and I broke my back. I was in hospital for three months in the spinal unit at Royal North Shore. Probably my antipathy to the hospital system stems from that period. Mind you, I do think there are some extraordinary doctors working in the hospital system, in the public hospital system, but there is also a structure in place that is often mindless and intransigent.
Two If By Sea. What interested you in that project?
From Backlash on, I've been consistently approached by Hollywood. I don't think that's anything out of the ordinary because I think any Australian director who gets even a semblance of profile is approached at some point. I read a lot of scripts and I had rejected all of them. I've rejected some great scripts, some films that have made huge amounts of money.
But this one really appealed to me because it was ultimately about the core relationship between Sandra Bullock and the Dennis Leary character and about this man's dinosaur approach to relationships, the fact that he regarded his role as a male as providing an income - and that's basically where it ended. Because he did provide an income that allowed him then to virtually ignore his partner.
Recently I've noticed a lot of relationships breaking down - and it's the women in fact that are instigating separation - because they're just fed up with the fact that men aren't changing. Women have changed over the last 20 years, they've changed enormously, but men aren't keeping up. That's really what I wanted to explore in this: the fact that men have to lift their game if they want to keep any sort of relationship that's going to mean something to them. That is really the heart of the movie.
The title sounds solemn. But the basic plot of the robberies has the light touch. And Denis Leary has an odd screen presence.
Yes. Denis is a prickly character on and off camera. He himself is an enormously intelligent and a wonderfully contradictory character. He is, in fact, a very kind man. He's a very strong family man. In many ways he's the antithesis of his screen persona. But the characters he wrote are the people that he grew up with. He came from that part of Boston, that Irish part of Boston, and he knows those people. I think that when I got the script Denis didn't really know what he wanted to say. I worked for a long time with him and with the other writer to structure the script to explore the themes that I was really interested in.
The reality is that when you do a Hollywood movie on a budget of $20 million, as that was, and with a big star like Sandra Bullock, the film has to operate on an entertainment level. There were a couple of key scenes in the film - there's one at a dinner party where the Denis Leary talks about how, `We're not going to change. You're a cashier, I'm a thief. Get used to it. We're not like these people around here with these big houses and these fancy cars'. That, to me, was the essence of the film. It was this man saying, `Look, I can't change'.
But I do believe that as a society we can't really move into the next millenium unless we do change and unless there is a mutual sense of respect between the sexes.
I think as far as Sandra is concerned, the response in America might have had something to do, as well, with the question, `what's Sandra doing in a film with Denis Leary where he's swearing at her?', and things like that.
None of the critics have actually discussed what the film is about, and that's what annoys me. No-one has ever mentioned what I have attempted to do, other than Anna Maria Dell' Orsa in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Melbourne critics just crucified me.
So I won't be doing another comedy in Hollywood in a hurry. I want to go back now and do another social realist piece.
Interview: 11th April 1996