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Bruce Beresford

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BRUCE BERESFORD



What appealed to you in Brian Moore's novel and its themes to make you agree to direct Black Robe?

It was my idea to make the movie. No one approached me about the film. I read the novel when I was passing through Los Angeles in 1985. I had always been a great admirer of Brian Moore's novels. This is a historical novel quite unlike his others. It struck me for a lot of reasons. One was simply the novelty of it. I knew nothing whatever about pioneer life in Canada in the 17th century and suddenly to read this story about these insanely savage Indians and these brave, courageous French voyagers trying to colonise them was very striking. In particular the priest, Laforgue, was significant, trying to convert the Indians to Christianity and baptise them. He travelled right across the known world to try to convince the Indians that they're living their lives all wrong because they've got to go to this place, heaven, which doesn't even exist.

Looking back from the 20th century, this seems, in many ways, a mad thing to do. But they had their own approach to the world worked out and in terms of 17th century views, they thought they were doing the Indians a great favour. It is fascinating that someone's faith could be so strong.

What interested me really about Black Robe, apart from the fact that it's a great story, is that clash between the European and the native American cultures. Period films are always hard to do. The further back in history you go, the harder it is. Everything changes - the look, the manners, the thinking, everything. You have to understand the way someone like Laforgue thought. He had an obsession with getting everyone into heaven, a concept which few people these days take seriously. My job is to convince the audience that this is important.

In Australia, your films had comparatively little explicit religious material. But, you went to the United States and made Tender Mercies, a fine portrait of Southern Baptists.

I think I can tell you why this is. Religion plays a much bigger part in the life of the average American than it does in the life of the average Australian. When I met people like Horton Foote who wrote Tender Mercies and Brian Moore, I found religion was a fundamental part of their lives. Horton Foote grew up in the American south where everybody goes to Church on Sunday. Everybody goes. In fact, if you are arranging to meet people on Sunday, you always arrange to meet them on Sudnay because everyone assumes you go to Church. Brian Moore had a Catholic background in Ireland. Religion was part of his life. In Australia it's not - and it does not come in so strongly to our films.

And King David?

Some time ago I was in Los Angeles, having dinner with Barry Humphries, and he said, `you know that film of yours, King David, it is nowhere near as bad as anyone would have you believe. There are many, many good things in it. I think the fact that it was a disaster has been somewhat self-perpetuating'.

I had a look at it again on video and I think there are a few things in it that are interesting. But, I think there are so many things that are wrong. We never licked the script, whereas I think we basically got the script of Black Robe right.

In King David we never really caught the friendship between David and Jonathan. There weren't enough scenes between them. And David, himself - I think Richard Gere was miscast. He is a wonderful actor but he is much better in contemporary pieces.

The screenplay's use of the Psalms of David for voiceover seemed to get to the spirit of the times and the religious development of the characters?

That's interesting to hear because that was something I added quite apart from the scriptwriter.

You tackled aboriginal themes in The Fringe Dwellers.

A number of people told me: `nobody wants to watch a film about a bunch of aborigines'. So I dropped the project until I had enough clout to do it.

It's about a group of very recognisable human beings. It is not political, dogmatic or didactic and it is free of all the usual cliches and political posturing. The treatment of aborigines over the years by successive governments and by whites with whom they came into contact is something that has moulded the aboriginal character and is largely responsible for the way they present themselves today, but the past - colour, racism, mistreatment and all the rest of it, is not a central theme of the film. It is implicit, but to me the story is one of a family, their relationships, struggles, aspirations.

At the end of Breaker Morant, Peter Handcock declares that he is a `pagan'. Perhaps many Australians would identify with that stance. How do Australians respond to Black Robe?

Perhaps Australians not being so religious will make it more attractive to audiences. I'm not particularly religious myself, in fact, and I think my philosophy agrees more with that of the Indians in the film, especially the dying Indian who says, `Look, the world is a cruel place, but it is the sunlight - and that's all there is'. This is my feeling too. But, at the same time, it's impossible to research a film like Black Robe and not come out without immensely admiring the Jesuits and their beliefs.

I read thousands of the `Relations', the letters the Jesuits wrote back to France. These men were extraordinary. They were courageous, and then did everything they could to understand the Indians. They wanted to help. They were so well-intentioned.

The film is a critique of the missionary methods of the past, methods that were taken for granted even thirty years ago but are now being re-assessed in terms of `inculturation' of Christianity; not just going out like Fr Laforgue and speaking `the truth'. Black Robe seems to be a helpful and respectful critique of the past.

Yes, I think it is. I was chatting to a publicist and she said, `What they were doing was cool, wasn't it?' Yes, but not by the standards of the times. We have only started to re-evaluate this kind of society in the last twenty or thirty years. To the people of those times it did not seem like that; this was not an issue.

At the press preview, some reviewers breathed in audibly or laughed at some of the expressions of faith by Fr Laforgue. Some people these days seem somewhat embarrassed that he was so intellectually convinced of the truth that he spoke and that the Indians had to believe this truth and, if they were not baptised, they would not go to paradise. This would not be a Catholic approach these days although some of the fundamentalist churches would still take these stances.

Certainly some of the Churches I saw in the American south would. But it was part of the way Laforgue and those like him thought. A number of times in the film he says to the Indians. `let me baptise you and you can go to paradise' - and there is another point, a lovely line, when Laforgue says to the Indian, `when I die I'll go to paradise; let me baptise you and you will go there also'. And he fervently believes this. That is why I was so keen to get Lothaire Bluteau to play the role, to get an actor who can convincingly portray faith, the hardest thing to portray on the screen. You can portray anything, but religious faith is very difficult to fake. Unless I could get an actor with Lothaire's conviction, the film would have been a farce; people would have laughed at it.

He was impressive in Jesus of Montreal. One of the difficulties is that, while we can admire his absolute conviction, he is very hard to empathise with as a person, Perhaps it's a reaction to the old-style missionary effort. But you took us on his journey of faith, from an utter intellectual conviction of truth to a love and service where Laforgue remained with the Indians. This is impressive.

Yes. But the audience would not have noticed this at all had Laforgue been a different sort of person at the beginning.


I think it was purely a business thing. When I was trying to raise the money with the help of the Canadian company, Alliance, who owned the rights to the project, the head said to me one day, `are you aware that there is an Australian/Canadian co-production deal? so that we can make films collaboratively that neither of us could afford by orselves?'. So, I contacted Sue Millikan, who, in fact, had produced The Fringe Dwellers, and she investigated the arrangement.

So, we sent a copy of the script of Black Robe. After a lot of discusssion, the Australian Film Development Corporation said, `yes, we'll put money in on the basis that we use a number of Australian technicians and two Australian actors'. There was employment for Australians, otherwise the film would not have been made at all. I think that any wider ramifications, like the similarities between the Indians and positions on Aborigines - and there are some - were really not an issue at this stage.

How do you think Australians respond to Black Robe, given your earlier comments about our religious attitudes? Will audiences be drawn in by the plot, the characters, faith, the Indians?

I think that, even if you have no religious faith whatever or, even if you despised the Jesuits, you would still find it an interesting story. It's a wonderful study of obsession and love. And it is a wonderful adventure of the spirit and of the body. What those people did, going to a country where winters were far more severe than anything they had known in Europe, meeting people who were far more fierce than anyone they had ever encountered... Having to deal with these people shows us something of humanity at its greatest. It's the equivalent of today's people getting into space shuttles and going off into space. It takes unbelievable courage to do this.

When Laforgue farewelled his mother, he knew he would probably never see her again. And missionaries died young. They were full of zeal and faith.

Yes, it's obvious from reading the Jesuits' letters that the fervour they had was colossal. When I was in Africa making Mister Johnson, I met an American missionary who was a Baptist. His group had been going out to Africa for many, many years. He himself had been there for 27 years. He told me that, of course, in West Africa everyone can have anti-malaria tablets now, but he told me that in his Church records, the average life of a missionary in the past was under six months.

Many have commented on the violence of Black Robe. In fact, at the preview one radio commentator stood up during the torture scene and proclaimed loudly that she had seen enough and walked out. Catholics in the past were brought up with the stories of the martyrdom of Jesuits, Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf, (contemporaries of Laforgue). Words have their impact but to see the torture on screen, however briefly, is much more frightening.

Well, of course, you're right. The story of de Breboeuf and the other martyrs is so famous in north America that to try to tell the story of this period and not to convey a sense of the violence that was part of it would have been a travesty.

People make comparisons with The Mission.

It's years since I've seen The Mission now. I think that the main difference between Black Robe and The Mission is that in Black Robe the Indians are major characters, have a large proportion of the dialogue and are the main focus of the drama. In The Mission, they are a group of people being argued about by the whites. My Indians play leading roles. When I read Brian Moore's book, I thought `this is what it was like in 1634' and I believe it, absolutely believe it.

Interview: 7th December 1991



SECOND INTERVIEW


When you worked in Nigeria in the 60s, did you ever dream that there would be an Australian film industry?

You know, I don't think I gave it any thought. No, I always assumed there wouldn't be because no one had shown any kind of interest. When I was at university I felt that I was almost alone screaming that there should be a local film industry, with local movies and directors. No, I don't think I thought it was ever going to happen.

But The Adventures of Barry Mc Kenzie was one of the first breakthrough films. How did that happen?

It's so long ago. I was working in London and I read in one of the English papers about the film commission being set up in Australia. I said to Barry Humphries that we should do a script from the comic strip because they had money available to make films but it hadn't occurred to them that they had no one to make them. I said, 'I don't think they've thought about that but if we whip back to Australia with a script, with you starring in it and we're all set to go, we have a good chance of getting the money. There wouldn't be all that many going for it'. And that's more or less what happened. When I came back, I remember I had a meeting with the Film Commission and they said, 'we can't give you the money because you haven't directed a feature'. And I said, 'Well who has? Nobody.' Except, I think, Tim Burstall had. I'd done a lot of short films and I'd had about twelve years in the film industry. But somehow it happened. I loved working with Barry and we're still close friends.

What influence did it have on the way people saw Australian films and Australian comedies?

I'm not sure what influence it had. Personally, it was a massive mistake for me to do it, a massive mistake, because the film was so badly received critically. Instead of getting me work, even though it was successful commercially, it put me out of work.

But the sequel?

That was an even bigger mistake. I couldn't find anything else to make because the films were so reviled critically that I thought that, with these two films, I'll never work again. Luckily Phillip Adams saved my life by offering me Don's Party. But that was a couple of years later. I thought the Barry Mc Kenzie films were very funny but the reaction was so hostile that I realised very quickly that I had made a massive mistake. They were the wrong films to do. What I should have done was something that was going to get better critical reviews.

You did it with Don's Party.

Yes, Don's Party saved my life. The play was extremely acute and perceptive and the film didn't do anything the play didn't do. It analysed the groups of friends at the party who were an interesting cross-section. The film worked because it was lively and very well-cast.

The Club?

The Club was nowhere near as successful. Football movies are hard to do. In fact, sports' movies are hard to do unless you're doing boxing because then everyone understands what's going on. Other games are very difficult.

The best way to look at The Club seems to be to see it as a political comedy with a struggle for power.

It was and, on that level, it quite worked. People went to it, if they went at all - certainly people who weren't AFL fans - went expecting that they were never going to understand the football game or that they would hate the game. But the game itself wasn't that important.

The Getting of Wisdom was a quite a different film.

Well, that was actually the film I wanted to do first. I had read the book when I was about fourteen and I always thought it would make a wonderful film. When the Film Commission got going, it was the film I wanted to do. But I thought that maybe it would be better to do a popular comedy, something that makes some money and gets me some credibility and then I can make a film like The Getting of Wisdom which would be a much harder film to make and to sell. But I miscalculated terribly. My whole line of reasoning was totally wrong. It would have been better to do the artistic film, even if nobody saw it. And got good reviews.

Germaine Greer, when asked to contribute to a series in the Daily Telegraph in London about the most influential novels of the 20th century, chose The Getting of Wisdom.

Well, I think it's a great novel. I don't know if anyone reads Henry Handel Richardson these days, but I thought she was a great writer. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a complete masterpiece.

The film is a fascinating look at religion and education in the 19th century.

I think it was fairly accurate. I based the script, not just on the novel, but on her autobiography, Myself When Young. She covered the same ground. There were things not in the novel that I put in the film. I always thought it would be fascinating to make a film with virtually an all female cast. It turns out now I've done a whole lot of them.

In Leonard Maltin's TV Guide, you are listed among the directors but Money Movers is left out. Has it been overlooked?

Well, it's a pretty terrible film. Perhaps that's why it's overlooked. It was a kind of stop-gap thing. When I signed a contract to do some work with the South Australian Film Corporation, I originally signed to do a film that I never actually made for them, the Ferryman, a script I'd written. Then, after I'd signed, they said they didn't want to do that. I said that I understood that that's what we were going to do. They told me to have another look at my contract. They said they were going to do a film with me but not The Ferryman. I re-read it and saw that this was in fact true. They had a number of other projects, none of which I liked, and we finished up with Money Movers as a sort of compromise.

It worked as a thriller?

No, nobody went to see it. I went on the opening night in Melbourne and there were three people there and me. I was sitting up the back wondering what time the session started and then the film came on. I thought, 'this is going to be a disaster'. And it was.

Breaker Morant was a significant film.

Yes, but, again, it was a film that nobody went to see. But it was an important film. In terms of actual audiences, nobody saw it. Critically, it was important, which is a key factor, and it has kept being shown over the years. Whenever I am in Los Angeles, it's always on TV. I get phone calls from people who say, 'I saw your movie, could you do something for us?' But, they're looking at a twenty year old movie. At the time it never had an audience. Nobody went anywhere in the world. It opened and closed in America in less than a week. And in London, I remember it had four days in the West end. Commercially, a disaster, but... It's a film that people talk about to me all the time.

What do they talk about, the war situation, the character of Breaker Morant, the trial?

I think it's the moral conflict. It's a good story. I read an article about it recently in the LA times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were railroaded by the British. But that's not what it's about at all. The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time. Look at the atrocities in Yugoslavia. Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits. That was not what the film was about for me. And I never said that.

And Puberty Blues?

Well, I'd almost forgotten it, actually. It was quite a popular film. I was very taken with the novel when I read it. It was written by the two girls when they were at school, one of those privately printed things or printed by one of those small presses. I bought it while I was waiting for a bus in North Sydney. I went to get a chocolate or something and I saw a pile of these things sitting on the counter. I thought I'd buy one and read it on the bus going home. It was remarkable, a very well-expressed book. And the girls were only fifteen. It was a sort of insight into the way of life of those kids, which was a revelation to me. I've no idea what that film would look like now, probably not very good. Kathy Lette was a real livewire and so was the other girl, Gabrielle Carey.

From a religious point of view, Black Robe was quite significant. What appealed to you in Brian Moore's novel and its themes that led you to direct it?

It was my idea to make the movie. No one approached me about the film. I read the novel when I was passing through Los Angeles in 1985. I had always been a great admirer of Brian Moore's novels. This is a historical novel quite unlike his others. It struck me for a lot of reasons. One was simply the novelty of it. I knew nothing whatever about pioneer life in Canada in the 17th century and suddenly to read this story about these insanely savage Indians and these brave, courageous French voyagers trying to colonise them was very striking. In particular the priest, Laforgue, was significant, trying to convert the Indians to Christianity and baptise them. He travelled right across the known world to try to convince the Indians that they were living their lives all wrong because they've got to go to this place, heaven, which doesn't even exist.

Looking back from the 20th century, this seems, in many ways, a mad thing to do. But they had their own approach to the world worked out and in terms of 17th century views, they thought they were doing the Indians a great favour. It is fascinating that someone's faith could be so strong.

What interested me really about Black Robe, apart from the fact that it's a great story, is that clash between the European and the native American cultures. Period films are always hard to do. The further back in history you go, the harder it is. Everything changes - the look, the manners, the thinking, everything. You have to understand the way someone like Laforgue thought. He had an obsession with getting everyone into heaven, a concept which few people these days take seriously. My job is to convince the audience that this is important.

More recently Paradise Road took up the themes of war and women.

Paradise Road was the most disastrous film I ever made.

But it did well in Australia.

No, not really. A little bit. It was one of the worst reviewed films of my career, including Barry Mc Kenzie. The American reviews and the Australian reviews were dreadful - a few good ones but mostly they were terrible. And the worst of all were the English reviews. They were just lethal.

But I liked it. When it was finished, I thought this was actually pretty good. But I was quite taken aback by the reviews. They were the worst I have ever had.

You wrote the screenplay yourself?

Yes. The original idea was brought to me by a couple of guys in Western Australia who had actually written a script. In retrospect, I probably should have filmed it. But they hadn't done any research, didn't know anything about it. They based it on old movies, which was pretty silly. So, I went and read a lot of diaries. A lot of women in the camps kept diaries. They're now in the war museum at Lambeth. You can read them up in the dome and I spent some time there reading and making notes. That's where I got the information. There were also some published diaries as well.

It was a great idea to have the women's memories of the wars and the camps. So much had been presented from the men's perspective.

That was one of the key things that made me want to do it.

Your cast was excellent, Glenn Close portraying goodness in a credible way.

Yes, and Pauline Collins was marvellous. Johanna Ter Stege was also a wonderful actress, really down to earth. Yes, that's what they were like. The music was great.

Speaking of music you directed a segment of Aria, but you also direct many operas. What is your special love for opera?

Well, I've always loved opera. I first heard it when I was about sixteen, I think, and I just became completely fascinated by it. It's enormously dramatic and you have, or you should have, good stories mixed up with fabulous music, sweeping everything along, and this great wall of emotion. I find them terribly powerful. They affect me and I could watch them over and over and over and never get sick of them.

The Imax film on Sydney?

Well, I didn't actually direct that one because I was working on a film in America and it went way over schedule and I couldn't get back to do the Imax. It was directed by Geoff Burton. All I did was come in and help with the cutting and the voiceover. I worked on the script with a couple of other people but it was very difficult, actually. It's about forty minutes.

A history of Sydney?

It's meant to be a history of Sydney but it's not really. It's very slight. One of the problems was the council who were putting up some of the money. In fact, there were some of things in the history of Sydney that they didn't want in it. Well, you can't mention convicts - but it's pretty hard to make a history of Sydney without mentioning convicts. They said convicts aren't important. They had a whole list of things. So, by the time you got in things they OKd, there wasn't much time for anything else. They really only wanted aerial shots of the harbour. They didn't want mention of anything that was unpleasant. They didn't want mentioned the fact that people came out in chains, that the aborigines around the harbour died, anything that looked to be rather ghastly. The result is rather bland.

A nice little film for the year 2000?

Yes. It's quite a pleasant little tourist film.

Of your American films, do you have a favourite?

You know I've never seen any of them again. In fact, I never watch any of the films I've ever done again. Just my memories of them. My guess would be Driving Miss Daisy and Black Robe. People do like Driving Miss Daisy. I think I get as many comments on that as I do on Breaker Morant.

Part of the problem with Last Dance was that just before it came out there was Dead Man Walking with the same story. I was pushing the studio to release our film before that one and they didn't want to because there was another Sharon Stone film and they said they didn't want two Sharon Stone films out at the same time. I said that I hadn't seen Dead Man Walking but I had read the script and it seemed identical. If we were to come out after that everyone was going to say we pinched it. And that's exactly what happened.

Phone interview: 15th May 1999

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [01:32:48 UTC] by malone


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