Did you expect such popularity for Babe in Australia, let alone worldwide?
Well, I spent seven years on that film. That involved a great deal of faith on my part and that faith was born when I first read the book. And it was sustained all the way through trying to keep that thing that I got from the book alive and translating it into another form, and I never ever lost that faith and that sense of excitement that this was going to be something that could traverse normal boundaries.
Part of the reason for that faith in it was that I thought the story was extremely solid and very uplifting and very real - it had real things to say to people - and at the same time as a film it had a gimmick, which was talking animals. So I thought the gimmick would get people in just to see what the fuss was about, but the story itself was so solid and had the potential to get under people's skin that it would actually deliver to those people who just came for the gimmick. So I had tremendous faith in it and I would be less than honest to say that its popularity shocked me. I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been far more popular and I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been a lot less popular, because my sense in it was complete belief, I had total and utter belief in it. So in a way it's a shock that people just didn't stop making movies after it; there was no point.
A lot of that is there in the delight - for instance the mice, I must say, the chapters, and James Cromwell. The music was good, but him singing and dancing had such vitality about it that again it was those kinds of things which made it even better than it was, so to speak. Were they your inventions?
They were invented during the writing process. Actually, the mice were something that happened towards the end of the editing process - no, the mice were used about three times during it, but not for the chapter headings; there were never going to be chapter headings. The use of the mice in chapter headings occurred after a test screening in America where we had our chapter headings and it was a screening for mostly children - a mixed audience of children and adults - and we watched them watch the movie and we saw, when these chapter headings came up, which were just words, all the children would turn to their parents, asking them what the words said. And we thought, "Of course, a lot of our audience can't read." So we decided that we had to have speaking, we had to speak whatever those things were, and that sounded so boring - you have your narrator speak these words, and it all sounded like it was dragging it down, and we searched for a way of making it fun. So we ended up bringing the mice back. It was fun developing those mice.
What about the dancing and singing?
What can I tell you about that? What I love about that is that without that - see, Hoggett was always conceived, even by the writer of the original book, as this completely taciturn Easter Island statue sort of figure who never expressed anything, in complete contrast to his wife who expressed far too much most of the time. I was worried about this character and certainly the actor, James Cromwell, was very worried - in fact it takes a lot to get an actor to express nothing, I mean really nothing, not even a little grin, nothing; has to be a comic strip taciturn sort of character, which I believed was the key to making him work, because everyone would read so much into his behaviour. But without a pay-off of that withdrawal of expression somewhere - he would have worked dramatically within the story but you wouldn't have loved him as a character, and I think it's like someone who withholds affection all the time: unless you actually see them show affection once, you're not quite sure about them. We talked about this a lot and felt that he needed some moment when he could express himself, but preferably later, after we had had the opportunity to delight in the contrast between his taciturn qualities and Mrs Hoggett's expressive qualities. So the idea emerged in the writing, which was basically George and I sitting down for many, many, many months, that this was the perfect place to do it, where it provided an opportunity for Hoggett to show how much the pig meant to him and how deep was his concern for the pig. So it provided an opportunity for an expression of love which was respectable between a man and an animal.
That was carefully choreographed, that dance, and it was very much based on Celtic patterns of dance and music, that whole little incident. What did you feel about that scene?
It was, somehow or other, a moment of joy for him. I like your word "respect", I hadn't thought of that, a kind of loving respect and just the joy and him breaking out - I now realise it was really from an Easter Island kind of thing, and I think obviously now that you say it, that's what delighted me, but I couldn't believe that he did it and it just seemed so right and joyful.
That's it, it's completely out of the character that has been established for him, but because he has been so withdrawn, there is the potential of it there, and I believe that even though when the audience first sees it and they sort of go, "What? This is confronting, it's too forward and outward for this man," there's something deeply satisfying that this person who has been so withdrawn has let it go, and there's something deeply satisfying about that.
I think that's probably a lot of its success, the mice, that kind of thing, and even the villainy of the cat. And that one that I read, that when Babe sings, apparently the pig wouldn't behave, so you had to invent, but yet of course it's a wonderful moment. And it's probably such a collection of wonderful moments then which combine the whole thing that made it a success.
That's true, but without the structural backbone which is so solid, you couldn't play to the degree that I was able to play. You just couldn't allow that sort of freedom to sort of say, "Let's just have him sing here." It would just feel like another little effect; "just something else to entertain us." But I think it was integrated into it so that Babe singing in particular was a lot more than just a delight in the pig singing. It was a whole new expression of his innocence of his fate.
You wouldn't have read a book called St Paul Returns to the Movies, the chapter on Babe in that?
An American evangelical writer - it's a good book - he did St Paul Goes to the Movies in about '93 and this one is '98 or '99. He's actually talking about Paul's understanding of the ethos of the Roman Empire and how Paul's letters are continually critiquing that, and he's done a terrific job on a whole lot of contemporary films. But his one for Babe is on courtesy to others.
I'm very interested.
He has chosen sections from St Paul where everything was on merits and judgment in the Roman Empire and here's this whole breakthrough that Paul has which Babe exemplifies
Which is about courtesy?
Courtesy is the particular theme was chosen.
Did you enjoy Babe 2? Is that a fair question?
I didn't. I didn't like the idea of a Babe 2 because I felt the first story was complete and - in fact I was there when the idea was born, and it was born through Universal's desire to have more of it - this has been good, let's have more. I mean, I don't want to imply any motivations on the people who actually made the film, but I felt that it was born out of - you know, the reason it was made was a desire for money, for more of the same success in the financial sense. The first one was built from a desire to do something that was almost cheeky - you know, wouldn't it be incredible if we could make a film that had talking animals and people would accept that. There was this sense that we were being naughty and very cheeky in doing something that was as bold as that was. And I felt that the way it was presented to me when I was approached about it was - the motivation was all wrong for me and I said no.
In a sense the public response has been to that, though I have to say I really liked it, because I like the darker side and I was interested in Babe in the City context compared with the innocence of the country.
I actually think in some ways it's a more sophisticated film.
Yes, I think a lot of adults, if they went to see it, would find it very interesting because of those themes, whereas perhaps the children who were delighting - there wasn't enough to delight: talk about the cityscape, the different cities, the terror of the dog, not liking Mickey Rooney. Many children did enjoy it but it's entirely different process - cheekiness and delight - something quite different)
Yes. But for me it was simply that I just couldn't see the point in pushing it further, and I had put so much energy and so much of my life into that first one - in a way I was disappointed to see it - okay, now it had moved from this group of people trying to get an idea across, moved across because of its success into the realm of big business - it wasn't a cause that I wanted to fight for any more. So that's why I said no.
To go back to the '80s - working in Cowra Breakout, then Vietnam, the Joh Bjelke-Petersen? movie - that's a decade in which you were reflecting a lot on Australian identity, politics, in a sense that Babe doesn't.
Will I go back to Australia, to Australian reflection?
What do you feel that you were able to contribute to our understanding, especially by those popular series, of our self-identity, even with the bicentenary coming at the end of it?
Of what is Australian? It was the last thing on my mind during that process. For me there was no intellectual analysis of what is Australia and what am I trying to say about Australia in that process. It was much more, for me, about - just to qualify that, there was a leftist slant, there was a sort of humanitarian humanist slant on what went on during the Vietnam War, the way the war twisted people's lives up, which was really about war itself more than about the Vietnam War, and the way in which selfishness of politicians and so on and their drive for self-aggrandisement disrupted people's lives and ruined people's lives, and these people who were supposed to be there to look after people's welfare were neglecting it for their own benefit. But what drove me within those stories were the personal stories more than the sort of geopolitical ones. I don't see myself as an authority to wax lyrical and lay down the law about my views on Australia's development. I don't think it was what any of those things were about and it's not where my interests really lie. My interests lie much more in the personal and in the power(?) relationships within personal relationships. My view on the subject matter of those things was very much through that telescope, in a way through the big end of the telescope looking small, rather than the other way around.
It sounds as if you enjoy the telling of the stories drawing on your experience but not checking thematic contents or
Thematic contents are very important to me and I would hate to subscribe to something that I found politically abhorrent, but essentially I think the point of view that I've put across is a humanist one in the sense of looking after the interests of the human beings involved in the story rather than a sort of grand Machiavellian, Bonapartian sort of strategist.
Just back on The Riddle of the Stinson: when you were talking about the faith there - just a bit more about what interested you perhaps a bit more explicitly in that Green Mountain story.
I guess what it did for me was to - there's a terrible phrase that keeps being bandied about in Oscar award ceremonies and in the American media generally, which is about someone following their dream, which has become the most suspect sort of concept; it's become cliched because it has been used so much and it's been taken over by the American Dream manufacturing machine and turned into what everyone should do is follow their dream. But it still is an important thing for me that if you have faith in your destination, if you have faith in the goodness of something in its likely good results, if you feel it will bring good to the world, then for me that is what drives people. It's what drives me. And if I'm looking at ten years of work on something, then if I believe that the end result is going to bring good to people, then the work can go on; I can drive myself like a slave with a belief in the ultimate benefit to people of that work. If I feel it's purely for my own self-aggrandisement or purely that it will make a lot of money, a lot of people buy something and you'll make a lot of money, it won't drive me in the same way as if I feel something is going to bring a lot of good. And I think that's the sort of faith that Bernard O' Reilly had in that story of the Stinson. First of all he was curious and there was an intellectual curiosity that he felt that he knew what had happened to this plane and had faith in his own intuitions and his own sense of what had happened, to the degree that he would inconvenience only himself by wanting to pursue it and find out what had happened, partly because everyone else was giving up and there were real human lives at stake. I suppose it was a sense of responsibility to these people he had never met but only read about in the newspaper, but he couldn't rest as long as he felt he knew what might have happened, where they might have gone, and no-one else was finding them, so he had this sense of responsibility that only he knew, only he could solve the problem, and I loved that concept.
It sounds like you as a writer and film-maker.
In a way, perhaps. Perhaps there's a connection. But certainly I saw that in his story. I identified with him.
What are you doing at the moment?
I'm writing a story that's based on an American book which I'm not telling anyone the title of at the moment because I don't have the rights totally tied up in a contract, but it's sort of under negotiation. It's a book by Russell Banks and it's a coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old boy. It's a tough but very hopeful story set in the US and Jamaica.
Would you make it there?
Yes, I would have to. So it's not reflecting on the Australian identity very much, but...
Interview: 9th September 1999