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Donald Crombie

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DONALD CROMBIE

We never thought or I never thought - I imagine I wasn't alone - that there would ever be a feature film industry in this country. I never thought I would ever make a feature film. I always thought it would be nice. Through the '60s, I was working at Film Australia doing documentaries. The only reason I started doing drama was that I had been to NIDA - not as an actor - it was a technical course and it fitted you for stage management and for directing plays. But it demystified the actor, so when there was a demand for dramatised documentaries - and they were public service training films - Stanley Hawser, who was then running Film Australia, thought I could do it because I'd been to NIDA. So I got to direct, along with others. Peter Weir did one too, and a couple of other directors who went on to do feature films.

So, when the renaissance occurred in the '70s and I got my chance with Caddie, I never thought I would ever make another one. In fact, making one was almost enough. I thought, oh, well, that's fine, and I'd done it. When it was successful and it actually worked and people went to it, Tony Buckley, the producer, said, "We've got to make another one." I said, "How do we do that?" I mean, we were very naive.

The other thing that was amazing, it never occurred to me to go and work in America. Today directors seem to make one film and they're off to Hollywood. Of course, the reverse is true. The Hollywood industry is very, very interested in looking for new talent wherever it comes. But in that era I don't think they were so interested in taking on Australian directors, because it was quite some years before even people like Peter Weir got offered a Hollywood film as opposed to going there. I think we were seen as an exotic species, although it was fascinating. I remember once we went to a man - he was an agent, I think, in America but he represented Warner Bros here - and he had the box-office returns for every day and he could just look and say, "Oh, yes, such-and-such did so-and-so in Melbourne." So they were watching us and they knew about us, but they didn't rush to us with offers. It was strange. Then I think they realised subsequently down the track that the best thing to do is just hire Australians and away you go.

Do I Have to Kill My Child? and Who Killed Jenny Langby? What attracted you to these docu-dramas?

Jenny Langby was for Community Welfare in Adelaide. Basically what they wanted was a film that said, "Look over the fence. The person who's living next door to you could be in trouble," a la Jenny Langby, who was obviously going under with a multitude of personal and social problems and no-one knew. The message in the film is with the neighbour coming and lookinging after the kids, after the event, of course; it's all too late to save the woman.

That's where I met Anne Deveson and we first worked together. We brought her in to front it, because it was written by myself and Greg Barker, and Anne came in because we were sort of faking it as a documentary, a dramatised documentary which presented as a genuine story. At that time Anne had the profile of being a front person.

I think we instigated Do I Have to Kill My Child?, Anne Deveson and I. Anne Deveson came up with the idea because she had a personal interest in child abuse, baby-bashing we should call it, as opposed to sexual abuse. That was just being discovered. It was really creepy that there was virtually nothing written about it, it didn't happen. I don't think I'm revealing a confidence here, but I think with her third child she had felt the impulse to injure the child. She was a young mother with three kids and it was all too much. So being Anne Deveson, she started to explore and discovered there was this hidden syndrome in society. The research that Anne did was quite extraordinary: women admitting that they would literally lock themselves in a room to stop them getting to the kid. Pretty horrific stuff. And you realise when you get out into the suburbs, or not even the suburbs, there are people with immense loneliness and huge problems that no-one knows about.
Around the time the film was made, it was just starting to come into medical literature, so it really was ground-breaking thing and so she and I decided we would try and do a dramatised film. We went to Film Australia and they put up some money and our friends at Channel 9 put up the rest, which is amazing when you think of Channel 9 today - they wouldn't touch a film like that with a barge pole, being a one-off for a start and an hour-long drama. Anyway, we made the film and it was hugely successful. I think it rated 40 in Sydney and something similar in Melbourne. It did numbers you only get with Test Matches and one-off big sporting events today! Anne received hugee mail from that one film. She said the people rang in and wrote that they thought they were unique, that they were monsters, and then they realised. So that was an extraordinarily satisfying experience. It really worked.

We tried to do another one after it. Anne wasn't involved in this one. I was asked by the Tasmanian Community Welfare to make a film which we called Slippery Slide, basically showing how, if you send a kid to boys' prison, the slippery slide means he will end up in jail, or a very strong likelihood. I went down and read copiously. I was given access, which is apparently pretty rare, to the Community Welfare files on these kids, and some of them are just shocking. You could start at the back of the file and go forward and it would end with the kid at 18 in Risden Jail.

We made the film and, again, Channel 9 took it. But it didn't rate nearly as well because we realised that, with Slippery Slide, you tend to say it's somebody else's problem, that wouldn't happen to me. So it didn't have a wide appeal.

These films were significant and you have often stayed in the suburbs with your feature films. How does Caddie seem in retrospect?

A long way away! What can you say about Caddie? It was fascinating because it was a period of Australia I didn't know about. I didn't realise what went on. I suppose there are similar themes: a woman who was left on her own had to make do with two kids before the era of Social Services. It's so long ago, I suppose I should look at it again one day.

You created an atmosphere of inner Sydney suburbs, the pub atmosphere.

Yes, we got that right, apparently. I think the nearest I ever went to that was in Adelaide, where they still had six o'clock closing. I never saw the six o'clock swill here. By the time I was able to have a drink, it was back to ten o'clock. But I remember going to Adelaide with Film Australia and experiencing something of it, but perhaps not quite as frenetic. We did the research and talked to plenty of people who remembered it. We got the whole craziness of men ordering ten beers and then drinking them as they were shouting, "Time, gentlemen, please," and the girls behind the bar, what they went through. We spoke to barmaids who gave us quite a bit of background.

You got a real feel for the women and the rapport between them.

With Helen Morse and Jackie Weaver again, Melissa Jaffer.

And the Greek connection.

Yes, this was based on the book. The Greek was killed in real life. I'm not quite sure where he was killed, whether it was here or in Greece, but Caddie's life was very sad, a battler story.

You said you weren't expecting to make another feature film, but you directed The Irishman.

That's because, as I say, we were naive and just thought, that's nice, we've done that, and then Tony Buckley's saying, "you've got to get out and, what will we do next?" We didn't have anything. I had read The Irishman some years before and I had liked it. Because my family came from western Queensland, I've always found the Australian outback very evocative. I really like working in the outback and I love those sorts of stories and people. Tony read the book and we wrote the script and away we went and raised the money.

Strangely, it wasn't easy. I remember saying Matt Carroll saying to us, "You'll be able to write your own ticket," because of Caddie being successful. "You'll be right, you can make anything you want." Well, that wasn't true. It was as hard to raise the money for The Irishman as it was for Caddie. But people didn't rush forward with money and investors didn't come out of the woodwork to give us money. But I think it was a film that was pretty true to the era that it was set in, and to the characters. Again we researched fairly carefully what life was like in that particular era.

I went up to north Queensland. The Irishman is a true story, that's what actually interested me about it. It's based on Elizabeth O'Connor's husband's father. She wrote it at a place called Forest Home Station, in the Gulf just out of Georgetown. I went to the place where she wrote the book and sat on the verandah. She had just sat there and wrote what she could see. I can't remember the fictional name of the station, but it was actually Forest Home, and her husband, Phil, was the manager and his father was the teamster.

I found out later that it had a better ending in real life, but I suspect it wouldn't have been satisfying in the cinema. He had the fight with the boy. Since horses were coming to an end, motor transport was running him out of the Gulf. He went down and started working in the timber, which was in the movie, but he ended up pulling cane trains. The last use of a horse team in north Queensland was pulling cane wagons, and the old man ended up there.

Phil, the son, who was Michael in the story, when he was a man, 24 or 25, I think, went to look for his father. He found him somewhere around Tully and they went and had a drink. They had the one drink and the father said to him, "Well, I suppose you've got something to do." He interpreted this as meaning don't wait around and go, so he went and never saw him again. He died in Brisbane. It wouldn't have been a very good ending in a movie; it's probably better he fell over a cliff. But it was, I thought, a very human story where they actually did meet up and the old man cut all his ties with the family.

And family ties in Cathy's Child?

I was commissioned to make it. The producers came to me with a script, so I didn't have anything to do with the writing or the evolving of the project; it was just a directing job. But I actually liked that. I think of my feature films, it's probably my favourite. It was probably the most successful for me, mainly because I think we were extraordinarily successful in creating that character, Cathy Bikos. Michelle Fawdon is obviously not Maltese, but she pulled that off brilliantly, I thought. The accent, I'm told, is perfect. She lived with a family and that's how she achieved it. That was a very good project to work on.

Based on newspaper stories?

Yes, Dick Wordley was still alive. It's an absolutely true story. I think that was his first, but he made a bit of a profession out of chasing runaway kids around the world after that. He never gave up. He was a typical journalist, a drink problem and a few other problems. I did meet him.

It raised issues of post-war migration and intercultural and multicultural problems, such a contrast between Australia and Greece.

It was that Greek patriarchy thing, wasn't it? The father believed he had the absolute right to take the child and go wherever he wanted. She was a strong woman in the sense that, once she went, she had to do it all on her own.

The Greek focus is in The Heartbreak Kid, patriarchal Greek dominance sanctified by the Orthodox Church, and Head On, the same kind of strong Greek family focus. It would be an interesting study to look at those films and see what they're telling the Australian audience about multiculturalism. So Cathy's Child would be significant in that development.

I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. A Greek in Caddie, a Greek in Cathy's Child.

Then you went back to social questions in The Killing of Angel Street?

That was a labour of love. That was the film we really cared about and wanted to make. Ii was very difficult to get going, to raise the money. We went through several writers. Michael Craig ended up writing - he and Evan Jones, the West Indian writer who wrote Kangaroo and Wake in Fright. He came in in the end. I went to England. I wanted Julie Christie to play the lead and, by this stage, we thought with Caddie behind us and The Irishman, we had a bit of a chance to attract a star. And sure enough we did, we got Julie Christie, but unfortunately she came at a price that the market wouldn't wear. We went to America. We actually did the whole waltz through the studios and I discovered for the first and only time the expression "vehicle dependent", which described Julie Christie - unless Spielberg was directing or she had a big male star with her, they wouldn't back her, so the money that her agent was asking was just too rich, so we eventually had to let her go.

Then we offered it to Helen Morse and she said she would do it, but she didn't like the script and wanted it changed, so that's why we brought Evan Jones out. We sat up in a motel unit somewhere on the North Shore for weeks, getting the script right and, then, on Christmas Eve she withdrew. It has never been explained why she withdrew. Helen, I think, had her own demons about film, so she pulled out. But, of course, with her went the money. So we then had to start all over again.

I think Elizabeth Alexander did a good job, but you just lose your judgment. Originally, Bill Hunter was going to be in it and, for some reason, I felt that Bill and Elizabeth didn't work as a combination, so we had to let Bill go, and he's never spoken to me since. And maybe he was right, maybe he could have worked, but I felt John Hargraves and Elizabeth worked, but Bill was designed for Julie Christie.

John Hargraves was always very good with the larrikin side of things.

Yes, he was terrific in the film. I'm quite pleased with the film. I think it worked and it did what we set out to do.

The background of Sydney politics?

Again we researched it pretty thoroughly and we got fairly close to the beast, I think. We were peculiarly warned off by none other a person than John Dowd, who's a judge now, I believe. He rang Tony Buckley and said that this film was a bit close to the bone and - talking about me - he said, "He's got young children and he should be thinking a bit about what he's doing." It didn't put us off, but you did look under the car for about two days afterwards because you thought, hang on a minute, what's all this about... And the nexus between government and big business and crime. They're very comfortable together.

Did Heatwave have the same problem?

Yes, Heatwave and Angel Street came out at the same time - a bit unfortunate because I think they're quite different films. I remember having almost a physical altercation with a character in Berlin because Angel Street got taken to Berlin. I was bailed up at a party by a journalist who had a few wines too many and he started abusing me because the wrong film was in competition, and I was saying, "Well, I'm sorry. What can I do?" And he lambasted it, said how dreadful it was, that it was a disgrace, that Heatwave was a masterpiece and hadn't been recognised. And I thought, "Talk to the festival director, not me." This bloke was pushing me and being very aggressive and I thought, this is all crazy. But Heatwave is very different. Some people prefer it to Angel Street and other people don't.

So then it was Kitty and the Bagman?

That probably shouldn't have been made. It was a bit of an aberration. That only got made because we were flush with funds. That was when it became ridiculously easy to make films. Kitty probably didn't deserve to be made. There were better things we should have been doing with our time. I don't have any great brief for it now. What was interesting about Kitty was that it was our own particular crime scene. I was very annoyed to hear that the American distributor had put on a frontpiece to the film, a card or something, that said that it was a homage to the Warner Bros gangster films of the '30s. And I thought, absolute bullshit! How dare they? Again, what they were really saying was we didn't have a crime culture of our own in Australia, therefore they were trying to put it into - and I suppose in some sort of weird way they were trying to make it more palatable to American audiences, which didn't work, so it didn't do any good in America.

.......... it had a touch of the Damon Runyans as well, I suppose.

Yes, but it was again - Phil Cornford, he's a writer whose byline you see a lot in - he works for the Herald now, but when we were doing that, he worked for Mr Murdoch. He's a journalist and he and the other fellow, John Birney I think, were both sort of hardboiled old newspapermen - John Birney was older than Phil. Phil Cornford was a man who shouldn't have been born in this century. He was a buccaneer. He really should have been born a hundred years ago. He did things like dressing as an Afghan and crossing into Afghanistan and he used to do crazy things to write about. He just loved that era and he loved the way those women ran their crime empires and they were at each other's throat, so it was probably a valid dramatic thing, but I don't think the film was all that good. We didn't quite capture - - -

Well, crime of the last century in Robbery Under Arms?

We all knew that we were making a giant western and we would never have another opportunity like that in Australia. I mean, the budget was huge by contemporary standards. I think it was $7,000,000 then which was probably about 12 or more today. It was a very big enterprise. Ken Hannam was the other director, so we just shared it. I did the first three hours and he did the last three. I had never done a mini-series.

It was a great opportunity to actually experience - probably the closest I would ever get to the experience of what it would be like making a big western in the United States. I mean, if you wanted 500,000 head of cattle, you got them. It was all there. It's a great book, great characters and bringing them to life - and I think we cast it well. Ken and I did the casting and we found these young actors just out of NIDA, Stephen Vidler particularly, who has gone on to be quite a name in the industry. The girl I thought was terrific in it was Jane Menelaus. She's now Mrs Rush. She was very, very good in that and she has gone on to make quite a career as a stage actress in Australia, but now of course she's probably looking after Geoffrey.

She was in a play just recently in Melbourne. And Sam Neill, I suppose, has that kind of flair for being the Captain Starlight?

Yes. You read some criticisms about why he did that. I don't know, I suppose it depends how you see - I mean, I obviously saw the Finch style. I thought he and Finch were somewhat similar. I didn't think they were a mile apart. And I mean, when you read the book, I think the way Sam portrayed the character was pretty right as far as that book.

At least it's there as a visualising.

Yes. I think the choice of locations - doing it in South Australia was interesting, because I think it was set around Goulburn originally, and the Wilpena area of the Flinders Ranges was a very spectacular backdrop for that. Actually, they did the other one down there too, didn't they, I think.

The Finch one?

Yes, I think that was done there.

There are two more films, then I will ask you about mini-series and telemovies. Playing Beatty Bow.

I think that worked all right. I'm amazed now, when I'm still working and I meet young actors and actresses who were all brought up on it. I mean, they have never heard of Caddie, but if you say Playing Beatty Bow, "Oh, yes, we saw that when we were in year - whatever." So I think they would have made quite a lot of money out of that, the producers, because the cassette runs were huge. It was helped by being in the curriculum too, which is a great start for a film.

It was a fun thing to make.

It was a nice imagination of Sydney in the last century and re-creation.

Yes. There was an example of having a very good designer, George Liddell. He designed that whole set, which was again based loosely on what The Rocks were like back in that period, and he just imagined the rest. I always remember the snakes. That's one thing Imogen didn't have to act about; she was terrified of snakes. And when that woman pushed her into the - and the snake struck the glass, Imogen wasn't acting. That was for real.

I haven't seen Rough Diamonds.

Nor have I. I mean, Rough Diamonds is something I never talk about. Actually, I should have taken my name off it because there was a case where the distributor came in and altered the film without my agreement. See, one of the things that really annoyed me about it was that - the history of Rough Diamonds was that I was in north Queensland, it must have been when we were doing The Irishman, and we were going around doing the location survey, and the chap who was showing us around said - we had passed a road gang and there's a character leaning on a shovel or something, and he said, "That's Bill Bloggs and he owns - some station that was 60,000 hectares of prime grazing country," and I said, "What's he doing in a road gang?" He said, "He's broke." So then I went into this and found that in the rural crises that come every now and again, the people who own these huge properties can actually be cash-strapped.

So I thought this was the subject for a film, so I came up with a storyline which was Rough Diamonds basically, and took it to Film Australia. It was too rich for them. It wasn't a feature, it was an hour - this is in the same era as we're doing Do I Have To Kill My Child - and originally it was going to have Michelle Fawdon in the lead. Anyway, it went into the bottom drawer.

Then some years ago Damien Parer came to me and said, "Have you got a feature?" He was going to Queensland and they have a scheme where they would help producers, give them money, if they had a couple of feature scripts. I said, "I've got this thing," so I showed it to him and he read and thought it was terrific, but it needed to be developed. Then we introduced - I mean, it was a very serious story. It was about a chap who's going to lose his property because the banks were coming in on him. Then we introduced an element that he was an untrained but good singer, and he meets a girl who's a singer who's fleeing from a bad marriage, and they have a romance and he ends up - I can't remember how it ends now, but anyway they end up together and he starts making some money in the country and western circuit, which helps keep the bank off his back and saves his property, that's right.

We were originally going to have Craig Mc Lachlan, then he got a job in London, so we went for Jason Donovan. We had six or seven songs in it and away we went, and anyway when the distributor - the distributor, I believe, sold it as a musical and sold it very well to Rank in England, and when they saw it, the went, "It's not a musical. It's actually a very real social realist drama with some songs." So what they did then, they cut out all the bit that mattered to me, which was the whole story about this bloke losing a property. So the whole reason for the film, the reason I got involved in it and evolved the whole thing, was taken away by the distributor. The FFC in their wisdom backed the distributors and said, "If they think it's got to be like this, it's got to be like this." So I said "Fine," and we parted company. I've never seen the film and I never will, I don't think. It's terrible, I believe, because it doesn't have any heart; there's nothing there. It's never been released, thank God. But I wanted to take my name off it and I was talked out of it, and I now regret that because I realise I should have taken my name off it, because otherwise you wouldn't have mentioned it, and they're the reasons.

And he's got it in his book.

Yes, I noticed that and I thought, "Oh, my God." It was interesting because I remember years ago Tony Buckley, Anne Deveson and I wanted to make a film about the Ingham rapes. You might wonder why anybody would want to make a film about the Ingham rapes, but we thought there was a good story there and Anne was very keen. It certainly was a very dramatic story - I don't know whether you knew about it. I won't bore you with the details of it. It was ritualised rape. Basically, these men in Ingham were raping the women, and because they didn't know it wasn't like this in the rest of the world, they just accepted it. It went on over a period of years.

Anne and I actually went up to Ingham and interviewed people about it and there was a script written. Olivia Newton-John? and I got together and we were going to do a film in America. Anyway, that fell through, so we thought, Olivia Newton-John?, terrific idea. She'll be good. And she was looking to do a straight drama. So we went to Dave Ling(?) and said, "Would you like to be involved in this?" and he said, "No. That would be completely wrong because it's a straight drama and the audience will walk into the cinema expecting seven songs, because we've got Olivia." And of course the same thing with Jason Donovan. I should have realised that, and that's what happened, I think. The distributors all went, "Jason, he's going to sing, that's good. It will be a light entertainment." It was a romance, but ...

Just a word about the fact that you made a lot of mini-series and some telemovies now. You found that satisfying?

Yes. What happened was it became increasingly difficult to finance films and easier, conversely, to do television. I really like the mini-series form; I think being given four hours to tell a story as opposed to 90 minutes is actually terrific, and the few that I've done that I like, I think have been good. The Two Heroes were, I think, terrific. I think they're some of my most memorable and pleasurable experiences making film, because I thought that story was terrific, a really very strong story, and I was quite pleased with the results.

The other one that - because as you can probably see, with the theme - if I have a philosophy about what I do, I like it to have some meaning. That's why I've never gone to America. I just couldn't go over there and work on - I mean, you look at some of my colleagues like Phil Noyce, who's gone to America - fine, that's his bag. But I've no interest in going over there and making Clear and Present Danger or one of those sorts of stories.

I suppose the most successful mini-series I did was a film called The Alien Years, which was done - Peter Yeldham wrote the story and it was done for the ABC. It was basically the story of the World War One Germans in the Barossa Valley, and it was actually true of the whole of that period all over Australia, where they were persecuted because they were Germans - even though they might have come to Australia in 1840 when the first settlers came to the Barossa from Germany to escape persecution. These people - if your name was Muller, you didn't have a very good time. A lot of it was economic bastardry - there were two bakers in town, one English, one German. Well, it didn't take a lot to suddenly say, "Well, I heard old Hans down the road saying that the Kaiser is great." And the enmities that had flowed from that period were still in existence in the mid-'80s - that's when that show was made, '87 I think it was.

When it was screened - I mean, it did quite well; I think it was one of the highest-rating ABC mini-series of that period - but of course, they all watched it down in the Barossa and the result was extraordinary. For a start, in Adelaide the talkback radio, the one they have at about 9.00 in the morning, for three days was just people ringing in with their own stories. A huge healing went on. Families who hadn't spoken to each other for three generations buried the hatchet, and I was invited - and I regret not going - to have lunch with the patriarch of the Grant family, the Orlando winemakers, they came out here in 1840, and he wanted to have lunch with me because he thought the film was so significant, and what it had done for that community.

And one of the ABC commissioners in South Australia is Peter Lemann's wife, Margaret - Peter Lemann, the famous winemaker. I think she was a commissioner. She reported back what this film had done for that community, and I imagine for other German-English? communities. So I thought that was well worth making. That was a terrific film to do.

You also made some of the ..........

I did that for money .......... See, unfortunately what has happened is that it's got harder and harder to make what I would call meaningful television. In fact, conversely, it's now come round the other way: it's easier now to get a film up, or it seems to be, than to get a television drama up. And what you're seeing now - I think it's becoming more and more just entertainment, if you have a message or you want to make something with a bit of soul to it and get it on television, it's Very difficult.

Well, you're not seeing very much, are you? The ABC may be your only port now. The commercials seem to be - for a start they only seem interested in long-form series. You don't see many mini-series. I know there's one being made, Channel 7 is doing something that Tony Buckley is producing from one of Bryce Courtenay's books, Potato(?)(?) Factory, which is a four-hour mini-series, but there seems to be very little of that sort of work, because mostly the prices went up. But you couldn't make a Heroes today or an Alien Years - I just don't think they would be interested. I don't think they would buy anything period - although Potato Factory is, so I'm probably wrong there.

Then you have this terrible trouble with casting, where the networks, for putting in a third of budget - probably not even that, insist on casting control, and then they want Ray Martin or somebody to play the lead because it's the only way they think the audience will watch it. So the directors - I mean, the last thing I did, that Feds thing you mentioned, that was a nightmare, absolute nightmare, the casting, dealing with television network executives. They have never heard of half the actors in Australia and they're not interested. They say unless you can get them on the cover of TV Week, that's it, that's the way you cast them.

It's an uphill battle. Looking at the .......... especially, say, between '75 and '85 - that's a very good body of material with a very strong humane Australian streak, it seems to me.

Yes, well, as I say, I'm quite pleased - and there's a couple of films you've probably never even heard of - I think one of my best films was a film I made in Adelaide called Parents, which was about parenting, which was made for Community Welfare. It was just made on tape, it was a very cheap production but it was dramatised. We've had four kids and we had probably the usual problems, and I wrote this from the heart and it was designed to show to parents, when their kids go into teens, what they're likely to expect. I think it's one of the best films I've ever made, because of course no-one has ever seen it, apart from - it's shown in community groups in South Australia.

We did another one down there which was about sexual abuse. It was again designed for teachers - how they could recognise in their classroom a kid who may or not be being abused. They were quite worthwhile films to get involved in. There's no money in it, you just do it for love, but I would rather do that than make a Movie of the Week in Los Angeles.


Interview: 18th December 1998

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [01:41:37 UTC] by malone


Language: en