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Bob Ellis

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How do you see your contribution to Australian cinema - as writer, director, commentator or all of the above?

Well, not as vast as it might have been. I've got about 33 scripts in drawers that weren't made and films that were made that irritate me a bit in how they differed from what was intended: Man of Flowers; there's a shocking film called Winds of Jarrah which, would you believe, started out as a very good script and only about one sentence of it survived; another similar one which was eventually called Ebb Tide, which was a really terrific Chandleresque film noir that bears no resemblance to the eventual film.

I'm putting together a book of writings on film which I hope will be formidable and telling and impressive, in hopefully more than one volume, structuring it around the years of my life from when I ran a threepenny cinema in our garage at the age of 10, through university, kind of half-making campus films and working in the ABC and ending with me as a director sort of auteur and so on, a long love affair with the medium.

I'm lucky to have come from that generation that was not Cecil Holmes' generation and those people who really had it hard, who would have been very fine film directors had they had opportunities. But I'm unlucky in not being of the present very young generation where, apparently at 22, they write a good script, are given the money to make it and immediately go to Hollywood and sell themselves, make a lot of money and ruin their promise.

On an Australia Talks Back program on Australian film you lamented the directors who have left Australia to work in Hollywood and overseas.

Yes. I said at the time it's like ringing up Fellini and saying, `I really liked Juliet of the Spirits. We're going to offer you a lot of money to come here and direct A Country Practice.' That's precisely what happens to Australians who go to Hollywood. From Newsfront to Sliver is not a career path, you know. From Gallipoli to Green Card is not a career path. From The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Mr Baseball is not a career path. There's a career path of a certain kind - which is selling out, winding up as a really competent hack in a system which shouldn't be there.

Your contribution to Newsfront and what interested you in the theme?

On the very day that I decided I would henceforth work only on my own ideas, I was rung by Elfick and offered the best idea I'd ever heard, which was the lifestyles and work habits of newsreel cameramen in the 1940s and 1950s, structured around existing newsreels with a hit-list of events. I wrote the first draft in collaboration with Howard Rubie, who was a newsreel cameraman at Cinesound at the same time, and it was understood that he would direct it. Somehow Noyce played meaningful ping-pong with Elfick and was able to displace Howard from the thing.

There was some nonsense about how long it was; we'd set it out, one short scene per page and it finally came out about 300 pages or so but, in fact, it was maybe two and a quarter hours long, which wasn't too bad then or now for something that covered 10 years. But a legend started about how huge it was. When I saw it, I was appalled. I could only see what was missing and abruptly took my name off it. Then when it won all the prizes, I sort of shamefacedly put my name back on it.

It was a quite painful experience and I think a very good film, but not as good a film as might have been made. One of the models for it was the film, Yanks, which was a moment in history in particular culture perfectly captured. It had a lot more than the politics in it but, partly because of the budget and partly because of the length, it was pruned back to the politics. Now, the politics was all there in the original but it was surrounding other things, such as the way people spent their Christmases. That was removed.

And it was round about that time I became known as a contentious person who takes his name off the credits but has never really gone away.

But I've become more philosophical and more Chandleresque about it since. Chandler said, correctly, that you have to be wearing your second-best suit, professionally speaking, to write screenplays. You must learn to care but not too much.

Another aspect of Newsfront is the religious theme in the context of the 50s and the Cold War. Angela Punch McGregor's character, the righteous Catholic wife who gives up her faith, had not been seen before on our screens. Was that your contribution?

That was mine, and my wife wrote a bit of it, too. You needed the Catholic thing because of the politics of the time. The overwhelming event of the 50s among those who remember it was the Communist Dissolution Bill and the threat and, to some extent, the actuality of McCarthyism? in Australia. So you needed the Catholic thing and the soft option was to make the central character a Catholic and to have an unyielding Catholic wife. Then you needed the characters to do something more than stay and simply posture over the 10 years. That's roughly what happened.

Newsfront was also true to the newsreel men of the time - that their marriages were wrecked by their sexual opportunities while travelling. But they were an interesting bunch. We had a phrase for them, `buccaneers on mortgages'. They didn't get much money but they had great jobs and they saw the best of it. But the other side of it was that they were just men who, when they got home, didn't mow the lawn or go into the garage and build something in the usual way or go to the 6 o'clock swill with their mates. And that was interesting. They were, in a way, a peacetime version of the wartime Australian ordinary man who saw tremendous events and was changed by them.

In my memory there was no particular model for the wife. It was written particularly for Angela Punch McGregor?, who at the time was acting stark naked in our theatre and impressing us a great deal thereby from many angles. All the parts were written, more or less, for the people who played them. They were given the roles a bit reluctantly by Noyce after finding that they did the best auditions - the Haywood role was for Haywood and the Lorna Leslie role was for Lorna Leslie. The Hunter role wasn't initially for him, but once I saw him in Backroads, I thought it's got to be him because he had that interesting thing of a ferocious clerk, the way you describe that character.

But it was not a work of passion, it was a work of research, casting, history and filling in between the existing bits of newsreel which we knew we were going to use and bits that weren't used but were intended to be used, like Bradman's last Test and the Queen's first visit, the locust plagues. They were all originally written in. I'm really fond of the original script. It's been a slow acceptance of what you can't do.

It was also the first Australian film of overt political content and, therefore, it was a groundbreaker and, I think, gave permission for the eventual films of The Dismissal, which went at it head-on, and True Believers which I co-wrote, which dealt with the politics of precisely the same 1945-1955 period.

True Believers gave you a chance to come back at the politics more satisfactorily?

Well, I don't know. I've never seen True Believers because they changed lots of it and I've never looked at it. For some reason I think I live in the time about October 1951. That's the place where I'm most comfortable. I've lately written a musical called Man the Musical, set in the offices of Man Magazine in 1951 and 1952. And it wasn't until I lately saw, for the first time, Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, that I thought, `This is my country. This is my country town. Those are my remembered women and school friends and heroes.' So, somewhere in a country town in the 1950s is where I feel at home, so any subject set there suits me - like that very good film The Settlement.

Howard Rubie directed it.

Yes, it's a wonderful film. It's a great film. It's like a film that Lawson never wrote but might have. It's sort of a menage a trois outside a country town. I like, particularly, the man played by Tony Barry. He waits for his wife outside while she goes to church. That's what my father did to my mother.

Unfinished Business and Warm Nights on a Slow- Moving Train? Was making Unfinished Business a satisfying experience?

Well, it was a strange thing. What happened was I was asked, for no good reason, to direct a film, a very cheap film, and to write it. And I said, `Well, why don't we do a film like My Dinner With Andre, in which we have a guided but improvised conversation between two interesting people who shall be John Clarke and Patrick Cook, and we'll call it Business Lunch'. They reckoned this was a good idea and the money, which was about $60,000, was raised. All we basically had to do was set aside about three days and shoot it.

Then Clarke became iffy and wouldn't turn up and we found that there was no time in the calendar when he was actually available to do it. The time to spend the money under 10 BA was running out and the producer, Rebel Penfold- Russell, said to me, `Can you write a script that's basically a two-hander that contains in the title either the word Business or Lunch?' So I thought of Unfinished Business, then remembered this idea I'd had for a long time about the deliberate impregnation of a woman. And I thought, `Well, I'll shoot it here'.

We were in fact in transition from here to a place in Wahroonga; so we had the use of a place in Wahroonga and a place here in Palm Beach and a flat in Bellevue Hill. We used all three locations and wrote it for them. We thought of having this older husband, played by Norman Kaye, and asked Norman to write and to perform the music as well, for a total of $1000 or something. And so it was confected - and it's one of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had. Although the actor and the actress were both acting on stage - one was rehearsing in the daytime and the other was performing at night. The net result was that we'd sometimes converge at midnight and begin shooting, which is about the worst thing you can do.

But it was wonderful. It took 11 days and I wish it had taken 13. We would have got some more close-ups. But it was written in three days and the time between the beginning of the writing and the world premiere was three and a quarter months, which may be a world record. I've always been very fond of it, particularly that lovely kind of marriage with those two gumnut babies, Michelle Fawdon and John Clayton. They have this marsupial, cuddly quality. Neither of them are particularly good-looking but they're very warm and, therefore, the effect, I think and believe, was very sexy and very sad. It was also to some extent a self-indulgence. I always loved Peter Dawson singing I'll Walk Beside You.

So it was just a happy convergence of preferences arrived at very suddenly under a whole lot of pressure, which is often the best way to work - as a lot of people will tell you, including the makers of Casablanca.

It wasn't the same with Warm Nights on a Slow- Moving Train?

It was one of the best scripts I've ever written. We made the grave error of agreeing to let Dimsey produce it and then the worse error of moving the whole thing to Melbourne. So I was away from home. And there was this whole 10 BA set-up with shifty lawyers who, I didn't know, had kind of agreed to fire me at a certain point if I fulfilled certain expectations. Which I didn't. But I got fired quite late in the day and then 64 laughs, by my count, were removed. It wasn't meant to be funny, but it was a viable experience.

I had Yuri Sokol shooting it. He's a wonderful cameraman but he's an awful bastard and he would sometimes light with candles... It was a nasty experience, as nasty as I've experienced. So it really ditched me as a director. Because it would have been - had my cut, which fortunately several people like Al Finney and Bob Weiss saw and said it would have been the best Australian film - had my cut survived and been shown (but it was burnt with our house), I would have then had a directing career not unlike that of, say, Simon Wincer where I would have had some credibility overseas and so on.

The Nostradamus Kid?

Nostradamus Kid was pitched to me as an idea by David Putnam. He sold me the idea of my own life. It was quite an amazing experience, written against his impatience in 11 days in a shed that I rented two houses up, written out of memory and written with a great deal of anguish because I realised what a fool I'd been all my life and I was continuing to be the same kind of fool in the same kind of ways. Various people were going to direct it. Cox was going to direct at one point. Duigan was going to direct it. Carl Schultz was going to direct it. Chris McGill? was going to direct it and didn't. And by the time 1990 rolled around I was already a director and determined to do it myself. I put it in one chook raffle where it was narrowly knocked back and, then, a subsequent chook raffle where it was narrowly knocked back on the grounds that it didn't have an acceptable producer who would sit on me. Then the next time around it was narrowly accepted - when I provided for the producer.

I didn't know Noah Taylor at the time and assumed he was wrong for the film until we auditioned a lot of kids and cast one. And then, correctly, the Film Finance Commission said, `Look, he's okay but he probably won't last in the difficult business of charming the audience for the 98 minutes or whatever. Please look further'. And we called on Noah. He was much less the sort of soft wimp that I'd assumed, and it was one of the happiest experiences I've ever had, working with him and those wonderful young actors.

The cut was less pleasant because we were deceived by the continuity girl and the long cut, which we fully expected to be 125 minutes, was 148 minutes. I thought I'd have to kill myself but the editor said, `No, let's make the best film we can and then defend it'. It was very good advice. We did, and we had a wonderful film at about 124 minutes and an even better film at 122 minutes. Then I pushed my luck, `Let's get it down under 2 hours'. I didn't exactly stuff it but really hurt it in those last two and a half minutes that went. Then a couple more shots were removed by the producer, and one of them, which involved the transition from the young Noah to the old one, really hurt the ultimate effect.

Then odd things happened. We had very bad distributors, Beyond International, who insisted it go to Cannes, which was ridiculous once it wasn't accepted for competition. Then it was going to open in August, which was fine; then, somehow, it ended up opening in October when all the kids who might have otherwise gone to see it were studying for exams and so on. So it didn't quite break out

It was dogged at every turn by The Piano, which I both detest and resent because it is a conscienceless piece of American betrayal of a story that wasn't very good in the first place.

Your treatment of Adventism in the 50s? How much is filtered by your memory? Is the treatment realistic or filtered?

It was a little heightened, a little Norman Rockwellised, I think, but it reflected accurately my feelings of enduring affection and exasperation with the religion. They're quite wonderful people and they were right about many things like roughage, lung cancer, health foods and so on but so stupendously wrong about their central tenet, which was the imminent arrival of the vengeful Christ. It ventilated those memories.

I think that all of us, perhaps, have the girl that's our first love (in a way that's unendurably painful and romantic),
in one's early teens. I think mine dated from when I was either 13 or 14 - and there's that weird feeling you have of being entrapped in a moral system that's not only wrong but a little zany.

If it hadn't been written so ferociously fast and painfully, it wouldn't have been as good as it is. And if it hadn't been written in 1979 but had been written in, say, 1989, a lot of the memory and a lot of the emotional recall would have been gone. The idea of mixing the two stories, which she knew of, was my wife's. I had never actually thought it. But she obviously picked on the notion that I wait impatiently in attendance on the end of the world.

It should've been a nightmare. There were 192 scenes and we shot 194. There were eight weeks and we used eight and a half. There were 50 different locations and a young cast, shooting desperately at all hours and magically warding off the rain. We had about an hour of rain during the whole shoot. If we'd had three hours, there probably wouldn't have been enough strands to put the story together.

Did the Adventists themselves welcome the film?

I sent up a copy to Avondale. I was invited up to lecture them, and I did, on why I am an atheist. And it went down pretty well. Then I sent up the film. I had a notion of either premiering it or having a special screening there or in an adjacent town, and they were horrified - or the principal of Avondale College was - but an amazing number of ex-Adventists and present Adventists came up to me and expressed they were able to imagine their own youth and childhood. A lot of people of other religions, fundamentalist religions, Salvation Army, people like that, did much the same thing. The campground scenes really got to them for some reason. Apparently everybody has been through that kind of organised outdoor hypocrisy.

Adventism has changed a great deal in the last 40 years.

Apparently. In my days you couldn't go to the pictures and couldn't watch television unless it was a factual program. Now it's all different. I don't know if you can dance, maybe you can. They used to say, `Ye are God's peculiar people' - that's a terrible phrase. And the way you were barred from ordinary events, like playing cricket on Saturday because it was Saturday, going to the Saturday afternoon matinees and dancing... it was quite awful. You knew you were special and you knew you were serving God's purpose and doing his work, but you just wanted to be with the others.

And the apocalyptic anticipation which is very strong in the film?

Yes, and very persuasive. I still have dreams where the Adventists are right and Christ comes. The dream always ceases at the point where I'm about to be condemned to eternal hellfire, but it's very persuasive and very sad. I'm moved by the extent to which people wish unhappiness on themselves and on others. I do think masochism is a genuine human and universal emotion in a way that, say, gratitude is not. Actual gratitude doesn't exist. I'm sure guilt exists. I'm sure gratitude is a manufactured emotion. But masochism is a very strong thing and it afflicts the current generation of vegetarians and bodybuilders and people who won't lose their temper for any cause, and all these new ethics.

In view of the changes or non-changes in Adventism and of Fred Schepisi's presentation in Evil Angels, how has Advetnism impacted on the Australian psyche?

Well, I knew she was innocent from the start because Adventists don't tell lies like that. There's almost an edict in the mind to own up to something you've done wrong and, when she decided rather to go to jail for 20 years than to admit guilt and get off with a warning - which is what she did - it's clear that she was innocent. But what it unleashed was a kind of witch-hunting, a Witches of Salem kind of thing, which was very ugly. It showed how the desire to persecute the out group is very strong in any society.

My interpretation of it was that the fiercest pursuers of Lindy were women who themselves had had abortions. They were projecting their guilt on to her, truly wanting to hang her. I think that's perceptive. I wanted to write the film, obviously, and Schepisi talked to me. But he then felt I'd be too close and went, perhaps correctly, to Caswell. But it was a very good film, I thought, and it was Schepisi's greatest grief that he had to cut 15 minutes out of it. Those dinner party scenes were much longer and her time in jail was much longer. It looks like she went to jail for the weekend. But he had the choice of not getting a release and cutting out 15 minutes and he mourned - I'd love to have seen the longer version. It's one of the very few projects that was a much more natural mini-series than a film. Judy Davis rejected the role of Lindy, would you believe - she's a fool on the grounds that she'd already played an Adventist in Hoodwink. She would have been superb. Not that Streep wasn't fine, as she always is, but on the other hand Judy has that manic intensity of Lindy.

Your collaborations with Paul Cox?

Oh, he's a swine. Well, in brief, we wrote Man of Flowers in nine hours, My First Wife in a day and a half. I mean, he wouldn't tolerate working for any longer. I'd write scenes in the dialogue form and he'd take them away and that was it. Then he would, in his view, improvise magnificently on the set, go through sleepless agonies and all that and I'd say, `You don't have to do it like this, Cox. We could spend four weeks writing a film and it would be really good, believe me it would be really good'. No, no, he never believes me. Of course, the insufficiency of many of his subsequent films has shown this insane process of his. The best film he made was Lonely Hearts and it had a producer, a director, a script editor, you know, the usual apparatus and, of course, it's a full and wonderful film. His other ones are like brief, infinitely prolonged screams or sonatas or something...

There has been a large and substantial amount of Catholic material from Fred Schepisi and Devil's Playground to films like The Settlement and Newsfront. What influence has Catholicism had?

There was a point in Australian history when half the population were Irish and that must mean that something close to half the population is of Irish or part Irish descent. I mean, they multiply so thoroughly. It's not till I got to Ireland itself and saw Australian faces staring from behind every bar and down every street corner and all these names which I thought were restricted to Australian politicians up and down the streets that I realised how Irish we are. I think it's probably true to say that Australia is something close to being the first agnostic society on earth, with the expectation of Catholicism which was, as it were, the loyal opposition to the agnosticism which prevailed.

So you've got these strange marriages like the Labor Party and the Catholic Church and Caucus meetings which were delayed until after early Mass on Sunday and so on. It's very endemic and very deep. Some of the best writing has been on Catholic themes, in particular Peter Kenna's A Hard God and Kennealy's early work. I've got the highest esteem for The Devil's Playground, which I thought a formidable act of bravery which, say, Brides of Christ was not. Like Nostradamus Kid, I think, Schepisi got it about right, that mixture of absolute affection and absolute terror that was felt by the central character for the overarching authority figures of that school.

That amazing sequence where the boys go out and mutually masturbate in the dark - in its day it had an incredible shock effect. It's interesting what comes out of that sort of upbringing. It is almost best expressed in that wonderful play The Christian Brother by Ron Blair.

It's a country of the mind that - it's a country in the way that Australia never was. Australia falls a bit short of being a country, I think. It doesn't have enough ritual or enough history and enough tradition and when you go to any European town, watch people promenade at twilight around the town square that's been there for 1500 years, you realise part of what we lack, but the Catholicism supplies a lot of those deficiencies, I think, to such people and the goodness of intention is very upsetting and the imprecision of method, particularly relating to the sexuality of women and so on is very upsetting and you watch it with interest.

My best friend is Les Murray, the poet, and he's a Catholic convert and we have really ferocious arguments on the subject, but he is an only child out of a fundamentalist religion out on a farm on a lonely hill who found that missing country of the mind in (a) university and (b) the Catholic Church and (c) the study of foreign languages and foreign cultures and travelled thereto and therefrom. It's not an overwhelming insight but I think that country of the mind is; what is experienced and what is missed by people who have grown up as Catholics in Australia.

Interview: 13th August 1996

Created by: malone last modification: Monday 28 of May, 2012 [02:00:41 UTC] by malone

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