Was Heaven's Burning well received by audiences?
Every audience that I've seen it with has reacted slightly differently, so I'm still coming to terms with it but, generally, it's always been favourable; we tried to gauge how audiences reacted to humour in different parts of the world.
Your background was not originally in film-making. You worked in a computer company?
Yes, I went from university, where I did a science degree in physics and computing, straight into a computing company called ICL, an English company, and I worked there for about five years as a sort of consultant and salesperson, systems engineer in project management and critical path analysis. I'd travel quite a bit and consult on different sorts of industries and apply computerised production planning to projects, including shipbuilding. We set up a project with the ABC when they converted from black and white to colour television. I think that was useful in giving me certain skills to go out and actually approach people and raise finance for films. It was a roundabout way of getting some producer skills.
What triggered the move into films?
I always wanted to be in films. During the last couple of years in school, a friend had a 16mm camera and we'd go out and shoot bits of footage. I did a bit while I was at university as well. Then, when I finished, I thought I'd just spend five years in computing - not many people last longer than that. I was getting a bit itchy to have a go at doing what I really wanted to do and I was getting a bit worried that if I didn't have a go, I'd miss out. So I started trying to get work with the South Australian Film Corporation when they were doing films like Picnic at Hanging Rock. At the same time I was doing an MA in film at Flinders University. So I did those together and then started making short films.
Your first feature was Coda?
It's very much a telefilm. I suppose it's very Hitchcocky - and de Palma inspired. I co-wrote it with Terry Jennings who produced it. It took a while to work out the mechanisms of how to finance it, but that was the first full-length film.
You moved on to Fever.
I actually raised the money for three films and basically did them one after the other. We started shooting Fever almost immediately after we finished Coda.
Fever had quite an amount of tension as a thriller, but it was also interesting on the psychological level.
I think it's quite a good little film. A few people have asked about remaking it. It has a very good structure. Where it probably needs some improvement is in the characterisations and the dialogue. It was done on a very low budget but it sold extremely well and was selected for a couple of international film festivals, including Montreal and did really well. But we didn't get a release in Australia.
It had a couple of AFI nominations
Is Strangers in the same vein?
Yes, it's very much inspired by Strangers on a Train and, again, a very low budget. It's basically a video movie, I suppose - no cast to mention. It's actually the first film the FFC financed that recouped its budget back in sales. We got a letter from John Morris congratulating us. It sold very well. It's a suspense film and that's all there was.
You seem to have liked the thrillers and the suspense and the Hitchcock influence.
I enjoy the actual process of film-making. I like the visual and editing side of it, the actual form. So, if you want to do something stylistic, thrillers are a good way of doing it. Also, when you're working in the low-budget area and you're trying to make films, it is difficult to get good writers and get the funds to use good writers. So, it's somewhat easier to do a thriller, which doesn't rely quite as much on characterisation. So that was a choice to pick the thriller pathway to make films which were commercial and had a ready market because they were in a recognisable genre, and to keep making them. Yes, that was an intentional pathway to learning the craft of making films.
Between Strangers and Ebb Tide were there any films?
There was a film called The Dreaming which I financed and co produced. I didn't direct that; I got somebody else to direct that, Mario Andreacchio. It was something that got changed a lot, so in the end I decided not to do it because I'd got the deals in place and followed through to produce it. Tony Ginnane came on board and there were quite a few differences of opinion on what should be in the script. It got changed so much I wasn't interested in doing it.
Ebb Tide has a writing credit which refers to Robert Ellis. That's a very dignified way of referring to him.
Yes. That's what he wanted on the credit. Maybe that's a way of saying he disapproved.
He doesn't speak enthusiastically about it.
Bob did a script and it was very difficult to raise money it. It was more of a personal film. It had a particular style to it which might have been better if Bob had shot and directed. But in the end, because I'd spent a lot of money and time on it, we tried to give it a different approach and got another writer, Peter Goldsworthy.
Yes. He's working on another script we're doing and he's also co-writing a script with Rob George on Percy and Rose, on Percy Grainger.
Ebb Tide had political implications as well as the suspense of the thriller?
Yes, it we attempted to give it an air of a political thriller. It was the first film that I think had been done with the American Broadcasting Company, the ABC in America, to capture their interest and get involved. The unfortunate thing was that they had a fair bit of script involvement and also casting, so I ended up with Harry Hamlin as lead. He wasn't my choice of actor, and while he was very good to get on with, it changed the feel of the film, whereas I would probably have done it in quite a different style and cast other people differently as well. It was just a matter of completing the film and doing the best I could and trying a few stylistic things.
You had a freer hand with Heaven's Burning.
Yes. We got the actors we wanted - I think part of this comes out of having a good script that people want to do.
It's not the kind of script one associates with Louis Nowra.
No. There's another side to Louis that likes to get out, I think, and maybe he hasn't found any film-makers in Sydney who want to do that. That side probably came out of our discussions that we had in trying to find projects that would suit both our temperaments and interests.
You speak about its operatic style. Was that your choice?
Because it was part of the way of handling the material and because it covered quite a range of different genres and was over the top, it seemed to work with giving it an operatic style.
How well do Australian audiences respond to the operatic style of the home-grown film? We can accept spagghetti westerns or a director like Robert Rodriguez doing Desperado. We are not quite used to operatic styles done here.
From people we've had so far at screenings response has been really good.
The cross-cultural themes are important, Australian audiences responding to Japanese protagonists.
Yes, I think that's one of its main features. We had a bit of criticism saying it could be seen as being racist because there are some racist characters in the film, but at the very heart of the film is a love story between a Japanese girl and an Australian and there's certainly no cultural barrier that gets in the way of that. That's the central focus of the film, so I think it's the opposite of racism.
It's the redneck type of Australians who make the racist remarks. What of the family of villains with their Islamic background?
If you want to have a theme with somebody who was a torturer, unfortunately you have to seek some sort of character who's going to be immediately believable and whose background will lend itself to brief development or exposition in explaining how he got there. That criticism could be levelled at the film, but at the same time I suppose a lot of films are made here and,perhaps, not enough different cultures are used in them. I mean, one might say as to that criticism, `Well, why not?' The thing is with the film, it's not a social document, it's not a realist film, so I feel you can have a bit more life in how you tackle the material and casting.
A scene with Ray Barrett talking to the Japanese husband about the war and Japan has been omitted in the Australian version.
Yes, but it will remain in the other version which has been sold all round the world, so it's only the Australian version which we will probably leave in a shortened form.
What did Ray Barrett actually say to the husband. He initially seemed a bit hostile to the wife, but at the end he was quite affectionate when they went to the beach.
What actually happens is that the Japanese husband tries to get to where the lovers have gone and Barrett refuses to tell them. So he starts shooting Barrett, shoots him in the arm first and then asks him again and he refuses to tell - he's not going to give away the whereabouts of the lovers - and he shoots him in the leg. He knows he's going to die, so he rubs it in by giving an account of karma, trying to explain it to the Japanese who doesn't have much of a grasp of English, how he's going to get his karma. There's a reference to Japan starting a world war and then becoming a world economic power and that being unfair. But Japan will get its karma. He says this in the knowledge that he's going to be shot anyway, and he's just trying to have one last go at the person who's going to shoot him before he dies.
It sounds very interesting for the characters, but dramatically, cutting Ray Barrett altogether and having the husband simply discover the information from the photo on the wall and then go on with his pursuit kept the plot moving.
The film is very strong on environment, the various environments of Australia so that the landscapes and the countryside become a character as well. The Japanese see Australia as a land of freedom.
It was quite intentional to try and shoot figures in the landscape. That's partly the reason I chose wide-angled lenses a lot of the time. I remember the Japanese actress Yuki Kuno saying to me, when we were shooting at the farmhouse which is Ray Barrett's father's home - it's only an hour and a half out of Adelaide, at Port Wakefield, `This is the first time in my life that I've been able to see the horizon, 360 degrees of horizon'. These are things we take for granted. The Japanese were quite excited by it. We were in this fairly arid area and they felt that sense of freedom, the openness that this landscape gives them.
The locations presented a challenge for the filming. There were fifty speaking parts and 48 different locations, so that made it logistically very complicated. There were a lot of country locations. In some of the towns we had to use, there was no accommodation for the crew, so we would spend a lot of the time driving up and driving back every day, which cut down our shooting days. With fifty different actors, sometimes you wouldn't have the opportunity to talk to them prior to the shoot, except during the casting sessions, so it would sometimes be six weeks since you last spoke to them and you'd go to lunch and then, suddenly, you meet a couple of them, discuss a scene, then try and get it shot in the rest of the day, which is quite difficult.
How has the film has been received in Japan?
The Japanese distributors were involved during the financing, but they also had the script and they really loved the it. They saw the film and at some of the screenings in Cannes. The Japanese from the distribution company thought it was fantastic and liked the humour
Is your next project action and thriller?
No, it's more political, more film noir. It's mainly a mystery and it will have some political content in it.
Interview: 4th August 1997