You say that comedy is most important to you, more important, perhaps, than drama.
I think comedy comes out of drama. I think comedy comes out of pain and how people relate to it or are afraid to deal with it. An old cliche is that comedy is very much in reaction; it's how someone reacts to adversity, or it's the pain that makes us empathise with the suffering they go through. So you laugh at someone else's pain because you share and understand and it. You can relate to it.
So, ironically, when I write comedy I get really serious about it. I spend a lot of time working out what I want to say in the story - I try to create a dramatic story first - then I look at what's absurd about it. Looking at the way human nature causes suffering for itself, thematically, is how I got into writing. Why is our family Christmas such an unhappy scenario for so many people? Why such a stressful scenario? Why does the family Christmas potentially attract so much conflict?
And the answer came that it is a result of trying to meet unrealistic expectations in the face of family history, that the past has accumulated many dramatic scenarios that have been left unresolved and they get brought to the Christmas lunch. The Christmas lunch, on the other hand, is a facade that people want to believe in; they like to believe that they have a family which is a haven, a sanctuary where they can spend time with each other, where they're unconditionally loved and accepted. And, as a Christian ideal, I think we all want to believe in it. We all want it but, in reality, we have to find and deal with the ghosts of our past.
So the past does rear its ugly head again. It's been repressed or suppressed for a number of years, depending on what incidents have occurred. And, after a while, these tend to rear their head creating volatile conflicts that people dread. On the whole, I don't think we like conflict.
So, in terms of what you were saying about pain, the lack of resolution as well as the repression with the heightened expectations mean that Christmas can be, as you have shown it in Crackers, quite a catalyst for pain.
Yes, it's ironical. It's a two-way street. It's that old analogy: the same well that brings you pain and suffering also brings you joy and, the greater the depth in the well, the pain and the dealing with suffering ultimately bring you greater joy. I suppose the up side is that, if we can survive the catharsis of conflict within family, we're always better off for it. A relationship is always stronger after trial by fire. It's just the fear that, if we don't survive this conflict, the family will disintegrate, our home will disintegrate, we won't have a home any more. And we really want this thing (symbolically and metaphorically) called home and what it represents for us.
So it's a two-edged sword; we ultimately have to deal with conflict. It's a question of how adept we are at conflict resolution, how honest we can be and also how lovingly we can express honesty rather than reaching a tumultuous point of frustration that explodes in a moment of fury. Then, of course, the words are fiery and they burn people and people go into reaction. You've got a drama of somebody dealing with the issues, getting caught up in the emotions of what's happening. Pretty deep for a comedy, isn't it?
Your short film, Bonza, also featured families - and dogs!
Bonza was a true story based on a family who were successful financially, well off, upper middle class - but they had enormous difficulty relating to each other in a loving, honest way, although they all wanted this love and acceptance from each other. Ironically, what happened in their family was that the dog became a catalyst for unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, loyalty, forgiveness. The family members could express all of their woes and frustrations to the family analyst, the dog, who would unconditionally love them regardless of what they did, warts and all.
In the true story the dog ends up eating half a packet of snail pellets and suddenly there's this approaching death catharsis which brings all the family members together because they all unconditionally love the dog. The tragedy and the comedy came out of this absurdity that they related to an animal in a way that they ultimately wanted to relate to each other. Sad but also very funny. I'm interested in that duality, between looking at pathos and looking at the absurdity of what happens when people can't ultimately express their inner truth.
In the end scenario the dog dies but then we realise it's actually sleeping pills. I changed the story so that there was a resurrection scene in the film. So, at the very end when they ultimately realise they do love each other and they express that, the dog's sort of reborn from the coffin in the backyard and wakes up. It had a very Christian-like mythology. There's a scene in it where the son really wanted to be a singer and a dancer and he was doing Jesus Christ Superstar at school, but his father wanted him to become a dentist, because dentistry earned 30 grand minimum when he got out of school. The son had failed the Higher School Certificate a couple of times. His dad had just lost his job, couldn't tell the rest of the members of the family because suddenly the breadwinner had lost his sense of who he was. He started wearing toupees, going to the gym, pretending to go to work when he wasn't. The son really just wanted to follow his heart for his path in life.
His dad catches him practising Jesus Christ Superstar, where he's put a crown of thorns on the dog and for rehearsal purposes is singing one of the songs from the show. Then gets severely beaten up the bum as a result of getting sprung. They're similar themes, both stories.
Staying with the dogs, the dog in Crackers is actually the opposite, it's the killer, and the family identify their hostilities with the dog.
Yes, the dog became an external representation of this kid's anger at not being able to accept his own father's death. The dog was an external manifestation of his rage and frustration at being unable to accept a new father figure in his family, so the dog causes quite a lot of havoc in the film as a consequence. Joey loves the dog but the dog hates Bruno. So, basically, it's an extension of his frustration and fear to embrace change.
Talking of the deaths of dogs - what made you kill the dog in the barbecue?
Well, it's interesting because I asked myself what's ultimately absurd about anger. Anger is incredibly destructive. I've rarely seen a good purpose for anger - and I've spent a lot of my life being angry for a lot of reasons and I've usually only created misery for myself and other people. At its worst it's nightmarish but, in a humorous light, it's ridiculous. It's an incredible waste of energy and time so I wanted to show how this kid's anger could ultimately show the audience just how life-threatening this expression of anger could become. The dog's in a situation where it's let off the leash and goes to maul Bruno but inadvertently dies in a very slapstick fashion. The irony was that the anger ended up imploding on itself. The source of anger ended up being its own downfall.
That's what I wanted to say about anger: you always end up getting more burnt by allowing yourself to be engulfed in those sorts of flames, literally and metaphorically.
It gets a big laugh, that scene.
Well, it's interesting, isn't it, that that's probably one of the biggest laughs in the film, yet you would think you can't kill a dog. In the context it works because you understand the premise is very real and the scenario could happen in reality. And isn't it ridiculous that this level of anger has reached this point of absurdity? It's ridiculous.
To take you further on Joey and the generations: at one stage, you have the photo being taken with the four generations of Australian males. You were saying a lot about Australian males, repressions and the angers. Where did that all come from?
I look into my own experience as a male in life and my own family, trying to identify who my stepfather was, trying to understand where his sense of values came from. There was a man who worked, came home, wanted the meal on the table - life was fixed. But suddenly he was thrown into a situation where that wasn't the case any more. His wife was also working, my mother, and it upset his applecart something shocking that she was earning more money than he did. The impact it had on him was quite extraordinary, to his generation.
This social revolution is still taking place. As a consequence men, ironically, because of their fear and ignorance, become victims and, because they become victims, the women they have relationships with also become victimised. So I was interested in exploring, I suppose, how each generation's dealing, from a male point of view, with the social revelation and revolution that's taking place in regard to identity, what is a man today, what do they represent, what are their values, what do they stand for? I find the whole area fascinating as a man myself, being a father and a husband, constantly redefining who am I as a husband, who am I as a father and who am I just unto myself.
Most women can identify themselves. The first thing they will tell you about is who they are, not what they do for a living, whereas most men are still caught in this trap of identifying themselves with the work they do. As a consequence, when they lose their job or they lose their partner, they're thrown into this incredible void of potential depression, frustration and desolation because, innately, they haven't defined who they are outside those other role models. And a lot of women are now leaving; they're saying, "Jack, I've had enough, I'm out of here." And suddenly Jack goes, "Well, who am I if you're not supporting me?" They're suddenly going to a psychologist for the first time in their life. And the psychologist says, "Well, you're not alone, mate. There's a lot of other men out there who are struggling to deal with the lack of identity and they have to go on that quest."
You created a lot of pathos surprisingly at the end with the theme of who can weep and the grandfather, Jack, crying. His father's generation had gone off and left family but now he speaks with some remorse for what he'd done and the consequences. The great grandfather relates best with the youngest generation. It was like Nobody's Fool with Paul Newman. He was a grandfather and he could relate better with his grandson than with the son. It seems important that the alienated son should unexpectedly weep at this father's death.
He's the one who really feels it the most. There's an old adage that women grow through pain and men grow through grief. Now, I don't know whether it's true in terms of women but I think childbirth is probably a good testament to that. But I think the grief thing is really interesting. It's a cliche to say that men aren't connected to their feelings. But rather than just saying yes or no to this, it's more important to ask what does it mean specifically? Grief is a huge issue for men. Symbolically, it represents aspects of death in their lives. The film deals with literal death - but it can be the death of innocence, the death of childhood, the death of an aspect of ourselves that's left ungrieved for because, as a society, we don't like dealing with grief.
We don't like dealing with death any more. It's a taboo. Once upon a time it used to be your granny was laid out in the lounge room for three days and you experienced death in every aspect and facet. Sex was taboo whereas now it is not so much taboo. But death - it's whisked away under the carpet and we're living in eternal youth according to modern science and the cosmetic products they advertise on television. So grief is an unknown quantity. But I think male groups in America now, especially the leading area of New Age, the Men's Movement, are dealing with getting in touch with the graves we've left on our path through our life and that we really have to revisit.
I know that's true of myself. As a male losing my father - he died of cancer when I was seven and the story's partly inspired thematically because of this - it was only when I was about 18 and it was Father's Day, I heard it on the radio as I was driving along, and I suddenly just started sobbing. It was the first time I think I really acknowledged the loss, of what losing my father meant. That started the journey of dealing with what it meant to lose that role model in my life and what it meant to grieve. I was so ill-equipped to deal with it emotionally and I think, as a man, I'll probably be still working on that until I put one foot in the grave.
Yet you spoofed a lot of the surface New Age stuff in Bruno's character and dialogue.
I think the really important thing about the New Age is to keep an element of scepticism - not just to embrace any old thing that rocks past and say, well, this is the latest thing, jump on it. It's saying be open to what is on offer, but be thorough enough to examine it properly so that you can sift through all the things that are on offer and discover what really has any meaning. There are some fantastic things in that movement that have been logged under this one banner. There's a lot of junk as well.
Bruno's a character that symbolically represents my generation to a certain extent, the Baby Boomers who suddenly started asking questions: "Why is my family so dysfunctional," and the word "dysfunctional" became the buzzword and a lot of self-searching followed the '60s revolution: "Who am I, why am I, what am I doing here, why are my parents like they are, am I like them, what am I going to inherit from them, do I want to inherit this or do I want to change?".
Joey has a chance to break the cycle of inheritance of prejudice and fear. He has a chance to break the chains. And that's very much the times we're living in. We're faced with this very large responsibility. Do we have the courage to do it, because it requires an enormous amount of self-examination and the courage to be honest - not just to be honest and intellectualise it, but be courageous enough to actually experience the feelings associated with what it all means. That's scary territory for men.
The women were more honest, even within the limitations.
I think women are. I think they spend more time networking with each other. Their communication skills have always been so much better than men's, by nature being a communal sex. Men are much more separate. They go out individually and they don't collaborate as much. But things are changing so fast. A year now is a hundred years in terms of change so having four generations of men in the story fascinated me. A man in his late eighties might as well be 1000 years old now, in terms of the values he represented and where he's come from, from a land of absolute certainty to a land of total uncertainty - and the shades of grey in between.
Joey's looking at the three generations above him and asking himself, "Which one do I align myself with?" In a sense, he aligns himself with all of them but, at the same time, there are things about all three that he doesn't align himself with. He's really having to try and sift through each archetype and try and work out what he wants to keep. He's faced with the dilemma, "Will I go down the same road or will I have the courage to change?" I'm optimistic enough to believe that men can change.
Religion? You showed the Christmas pageant at the end and the chaos. With Bonza you alluded to death and resurrection.
I've always been a Christian and I think, generally, Australian society is Christian, whether they acknowledge in language any more what those specific values are. I think they've lost the terminology to define what Christian ethics and values are but, intuitively, they still know what they are. Therefore, there's still a very strong empathy for the basic Christian principles. I suppose I relate to that very strongly in that it's still a part of me and I'm fascinated by the fact that, as a society, one of the few rituals we've retained historically is Christmas.
At Christmas we sing Christmas carols mindlessly but, at the same time, there's a part of our heart that gets touched, "This is a wonderful thing, there is real love in this whole ritual." In essence that's what it's about, about what love is, and we all want to experience that at Christmas time. We all hunger for it, ultimately more than anything else, that we are loved. So we go home, which is the heartland of love - we all like to believe that it still exists somewhere - and we celebrate a ritual that historically connects us to the most fundamental figure in our history that personified unconditional love, being Christ. We don't say that any more, but we still sing the hymns, we still do the ritual, we give of ourselves in the form of presents, even though it's highly commercialised and there are trashy elements associated with it.
But deep down, subconsciously, it's still embedded in all of us, that we want to be a part of a communal sharing that ultimately represents greater ideals than basic materialism and greed and selfishness. We want to believe that we are a part of something that is positive, loving, nurturing and caring, in the face of economic rationalism and negativity and suicide and drug abuse and the Channel 9 News.
So it's one of those few windows that's still there, as is Easter - and that's something I'm looking at incorporating into another story - of the absurdity on the one hand that they all go back to this house because they want these things, but all their prejudice and history is dragged to the fore and a lot of conflict ensues, but overall I'm an optimist. Even at the end of the story when chaos reigns again, they're all together. So what's happened in the story? They've been fragmented and you think this family is going to stay shattered forever. But the last scene in film says no, even though the scenario is chaotic and life is still and will remain even more demanding and more chaotic, they are still in the same space with each other, they are still working on how to knit this relationship and how to keep the family together.
I'm also optimist enough to believe that, symbolically, family is a microcosm for the larger aspects of the world and that's why I suppose I like writing about that theme, that I'm ultimately an optimist and believe that the light - call it love, what have you - will ultimately win out against the darkness, and that's what we're looking at in apocalyptic terms. I think the world is very much in the grips of this. We're in a battlefield now and, because we've lost clearly identifiable weaponry and shields to do battle with ignorance and fear and greed and racism, we're having to redefine what our tools are to deal with those. And that's a revolution we're having to do very quickly because the dark side's growing at such a rapid rate because of that level of ignorance and that level of self-neglect. So I try and look at it from the point of view that, if the family can redefine itself through the so-called nuclear family being disintegrated (which I don't think is so much the reality), it's just going through this enormous metamorphosis where extended families are now part of a family, that interracial relationships are now part of one family and this country as a whole is like a large family and we're having to learn to live with each other, we're having to learn to co-operate, to communicate and to be more loving and accepting, because the reality is we don't have a choice, we've got to go one way or the other. We'll either end up killing each other or we're going to learn how to live with each other. So I'm an optimist enough to believe that we can achieve that. Otherwise I'd stop, I wouldn't make films, I wouldn't ultimately use it as a platform to preach from the pulpit.
In terms of preaching from the pulpit and comedy and spoofing, the Australian imagination has tended to respond best to comedies, from Crocodile Dundee, the nice Kerrigan Castle family, as well as Death in Brunswick and Strictly Ballroom - we respond best to the nice larrikin. Does your sensibility (with your television spoof background with Let the Blood Run Free) lead you that way?
I've always been a very rebellious sort of person, an anarchistic sort of person, and I think that's very much a large part of the Australian archetype. We don't like authority figures and with good cause we're sceptical about totally trusting them. On the one hand, and there's a naive archetype that will follow a Pauline Hanson's point of view out of fear and ignorance. To go back to The Castle, it's really interesting because I was doing some teaching in Melbourne with scriptwriters and we analysed The Castle. It was quite controversial. The students thought it was unreal, the family a joke, one-dimensional, cardboard characters, it's ridiculous. But what we finally realised was that it was so successful because it was a fairy tale; the family weren't real, but they are what people wanted to be real so, therefore, they were perfect, totally and utterly unconditionally loving of each other, regardless of the adversity that their life had encountered, including armed robbery and the son being in jail. And you think, "Well, they don't seem to bat an eyelid about that. He could have been a mass murderer but they would still love him and he knows he's got a home and he loves Dad." Deep down we all say we really want this. It's absurd but we still really want it. In that sense I find it quite reassuring.
On the other hand, with Crackers, I think the characters are closer to being real in that they represent the sort of comic mix of foibles that make us all who we are. We have traits in us that are very nurturing and forgiving and, in Christian terms, quite empathetic and loving, but we also have aspects of ourselves that are on the dark side of the fence that get caught in anger and resentment and refuse to forgive. I suppose I try to explore that whole nature, that battleground between the light and the dark, which is what it is in reality. The comedy comes from heightening those particular idiosyncrasies. But there's light and dark in all the characters in the story, they're not just one-dimensional, they're hopefully a lot more believable.
Interview: 23rd June 1998