My beginnings were very much in cinema. I joined Cinesound Productions. But before that I joined a company called Kingcroft Productions. I was a young boy, about 15. I left school at 14, tired of school and thought there must be another world outside. Kingcroft Productions, which was run by a bloke called Jack Kingsford- Smith and his mate Jack Gardner. Jack Kingsford- Smith was related to Charles Kingsford-Smith? and they had a production company, I think in Oxford Street near Taylor Square.
I really did learn many, many things about production, neg match, basic lighting, camerawork. I had to load the cameras and look after them. I had to plug all the lights in and do all that sort of stuff because the equipment we used in those days was pretty basic to what we use now. The Cine- Kodak Special was the pride and joy and we would do documentary films using Kodachrome, very slow stock.
Did I read that you were in Maitland?
Yes, I was certainly in the Maitland floods in 1955, but I had left Kingcroft by then and gone to Cinesound, in the camera department at Cinesound as an assistant. I went to the Maitland floods and I was there during all that disaster - in fact, I was the character in Newsfront. The cameraman who was killed was based on my story in Maitland.
That was the '50s?
That was the '50s, and I stayed with Cinesound then for about 14 years and I rose to become chief cameraman and also the news director .......... I think I had 28 cameramen at one stage, 28 in the camera department including Melbourne, and we had stringers in Brisbane and Adelaide, Perth and, I think, in Hobart and a few more around the place.
When did Cinesound actually come to an end?
Well, I had left by then but the Cinesound Newsreel went on for a number of years until the late '70s, I think. I think it was the last newsreel in the world. The one reason and one reason only was that in the legislation with regard to cinema, a subsidy was to be paid by cinemas or by the film studios to local productions. It's probably there sitting in the statute books in New South Wales. Now, the arrangement was that they either put money into feature films or cinema or they produced a newsreel.
Cinesound was the Greater Union Theatres side of things, Movietone was 20th Century Fox. The Kings and the Hoyts - the two cinema chains - produced this newsreel so they didn't have to put money into local feature film production.
Your career as a cameraman?
I was still with Cinesound. It was a charmed life in those days as a young fellow. I think I was 19 when I did my first overseas assignment to New Guinea for the opening of the Coast Watchers Memorial, 19 and a half in Tahiti on the last of the flying boats, 20 I in London and Europe. So as a young fellow it was a great, great time.
Then I went back to Thailand. Actually, that's a bit of a funny story. I had a strange airline ticket. I think it was the British Airways inaugural flight to London, and I went off by myself and took a 35mm Aeroflex - that's what you took in those days - so it was pretty heavy. The camera weighed 45 pounds. I took a lot of 35mm stock plus dry-cell batteries, plus tripod, plus a big metal box and a selection of lenses and all that sort of thing, so it was a fair bit of gear that you actually lumped around with you.
Anyhow, I came back, been to London and done the London shoot, then I looked at the ticket and spoke to the travel person who said, "Well, there's no reason why you shouldn't get off somewhere on the way back," so I chose Bangkok. Before I'd left, the boss had said, "Look, you must come straight back". I was a bit headstrong but I thought that can't be right, particularly as I was reassured by the BOAC person that I could get off quite easily.
So I got off in Bangkok and, of course, it was a very exciting place and I got all this great stuff, all sorts of wonderful material, then went into Laos and shot some stuff there, the Golden Triangle, then back to Bangkok, finished the trip in Singapore, then back to Sydney. In fact that was in the days of SEATO - the South-East? Asian Treaty Organisation - and I'd actually done a story of Australians in the backblocks of Bangkok and up on the Mekong, working away there, and it was a good story. It was a great character-building exercise for young guys - I think I've had plenty of character-building exercises.
So I got back to Australia and I got into all sorts of trouble because I had flouted the ticket arrangements, got off where I shouldn't have got off. But it was a good story, anyhow, good material.
Television started in 1957 and Cinesound was servicing Channel 9, and it was so exciting that one would never really ever have a sickie and you didn't want to take your holidays or do anything like that at all, because life was too good. Of course, it was in the days of full employment and there were plenty of jobs around. The chase of the story was really very, very good fun.
I worked with an English director by the name of Eric Fullilove at Cinesound. Until that time, all the serious directing had been done by Ken Hall. I do think there was an unconscious thing that Ken Hall was the director. And, in those days, it was the cult of the cameraman where you did your own photography and directing or the role of the director was somewhat suppressed or not really appreciated at all. The opportunities for directing were not great because of this business with the cinemas and there was no indigenous production going on.
Anyhow, Eric came along he was a breath of fresh air. Eric had been a director for quite some time in England doing documentaries and had won a few awards and decided to emigrate. He and I teamed up within Cinesound and I became his cameraman. So from him, I really learned how directors behaved and what they did so, eventually, it was a natural progression for me to start to direct my own material, which I had been, to certain degree, as a cameraman anyhow. So I became a director and I had another cameraman working for me.
Then I started to win a few awards as a director and I started to write. I would be writing my own documentaries and then producing them through Cinesound. For six years I wrote, produced, photographed and directed the Sydney to Hobart documentaries. A chap by the name of Ted Roberts used to write the commentaries and another chap by the name of Sven Liebeck used to write the music and we combined on quite a few projects over the years after that. But we were all pretty young and we didn't really know too much about what we were doing.
I then went to Ajax Films, which was a very up and coming, very gung-ho commercial production company, and TV commercials were starting to make their impact on the industry. I stayed there for quite a few years and I directed television commercials for them. Ajax Films had a contract to produce a series called Animal Doctor. This was roughly the same time that Skippy was being made. I was the first assistant director for the first 13 episodes, I think. Then it went into another 13 and I moved from there to director of that series in concert with .
Because I'd come from a technical background and managed to get into the positions that I wanted, I never really had too much formal training as far as working with actors so I decided I'd better do something about this. I became involved with a theatre group which had some very great luminaries of the time. It was called the Artists Group Theatre and we took over the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross after the Stables people moved out.
I'll just have to just retrack a bit. There was a lady came to Australia called Stella Adler. Stella Adler had studied with the Actors' Studio in New York and was very much au fait with the Method form of acting. I attended her course here in Australia. At that time there were a lot of actors out of work and we all got together, all fired up with this new form of acting. For me it was a new area because I started to work in the theatre, which I loved. We decided we would take over the Haven Theatre and, I'm not sure why, I became chairman of the Haven Theatre up there at Kings Cross.
We had with us David Williamson, Carmen Duncan, Pat Bishop, lots and lots of luminaries of the acting profession at that time, Gerard Maguire, Billy Hunter was also a mainstay of that group. Bob Ellis was also one of the writers that was attached to us. Bob somehow managed to buy the theatre from the Nimrod people. In some ways, I had really gone back to grass roots and begun to learn a section of the directing trade again. It put me in great stead because I really then had a superb technical knowledge of film-making then, at the other side, drama film-making, presenting, with actors, the dramatised story on screen. Once again it was a great learning experience.
At the same time I was teaching at the Film and Television School - I actually graduated the first students out of the Film and Television School, a group of camera assistants. I also got interested in the very early days of video editing. It was pretty much a crunch and grind, smash-bash thing. But I got into learning about it and teaching the skills of very early video.
At the same time or maybe a little after, I was fortunate enough to work on Wake In Fright. I was the first assistant director on that. Ted Kotcheff was the director, a crazy Macedonian fellow. We made that film out in Broken Hill and it was the weirdest thing. But it was, I think, a truly great an Australian film because it was an Australian story with many honest Australian elements in it. I was also the Second Unit director.
Did you do those kangaroo chases?
Yes, that was first and second unit. We also shot a lot of kangaroos in the making of that film, but following right behind all the people who did the shooting were the kangaroo shooters, the professionals, so these kangaroos were shot and within minutes were skinned, boned and in the freezer truck. It was quite an experience.
I was exposed to some fairly tough international stars. Gary Bond was the lead and went on to become a star of the West End, a great singer. Donald Pleasence, what a tough character he was. He turned up with his Israeli girlfriend, who was a lieutenant in the Israeli army. She was a beautiful-looking girl and he was a pretty tough nut. There was Chips Rafferty. We were shooting in Broken Hill and that was his home town. Chips had a reputation of being who he is. We had lots of very big drinking scenes and we decided that so our actors wouldn't get drunk, we would give them Horehound beer. And Chips refused to drink the Horehound beer, there's no way that Chips Rafferty was going to be seen drinking this: "All you do is you get it in one end and you piss it out the other, son. What are you giving me this bloody poison for?" He was looking after his image - particularly in his home town.
Many stories come to mind about that filmy. There's one particular scene, the pub scene with Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson - this was Jack Thompson's first big production. We were shooting in this place where we had actually built a hotel, at a railway siding about a hundred miles out of Broken Hill. We kept going. We got to take 10, 11, 12 and Donald kept blowing his lines and Ted Kotcheff was getting madder and madder and the producer, George Willoughby, was in the background and Bill Harmon and they were chewing their nails and saying, "Think of the overtime, think of the overtime. What's going on? It's all going wrong. We should be out of here by now." But Donald Pleasence had decided that the only way he could play the scene was to get drunk. And, of course, he started to lose his lines. I think we got up to about take 45 and the scene ran about two and a half to three minutes.
So that meant you only just got three takes, if you were lucky, in a magazine of film, and a magazine was 1000 feet long. We were going through film like mad. I remember looking towards the east, looking down the railway line that headed off towards Sydney and I could just see the sun coming up and I said to Ted, "Look, we'll have to finish soon, mate. Here comes the sun, another half an hour and it's going to be broad bloody daylight here." So, with that he blew up and George Willoughby blew up and there was a big fight and they fought for 20 minutes and up came the sun, so we didn't finish it and we had to come back a few days later and reshoot the whole thing, which we got then in about eight or nine takes.
But Ted Kotcheff was an incredibly dedicated fellow and he, as far as a director was concerned, was the auteur, the author well and truly of the film. He stuck to his guns. There were many, many people on the way who said, "Stop, don't do this, don't do that." The film was so good, because we could have bailed out on various scenes much earlier and not got to the real guts of the thing.
Out of that came a show called Spy Force, a series with Jack Thompson. I remember the producer, a chap called Roger Miram, rang me up and said, "Have you got a bloke called Jack Thompson working up there with you? What's he like?"
I said pretty good because we'd done a show with Jack, one of the episodes of Animal Doctor, so that's how Jack Thompson got to be in Spy Force.
All that was very much on-the-job learning experience. I guess it's possible now, but maybe not quite so physically practical. Whereas it might have taken me ten years to learn all that sort of stuff, at the Film School the young people there get, at least, the theory and a bit of practice in three years. They have wonderful facilities out there to do all those sorts of things.
Then I went back to Ajax Films and pretty soon after that started Spy Force. Then I left and became total freelance.
For what it's worth about the religious thing in the film industry in those days - it actually came out in Newsfront. There were certainly the Catholics and the Masons, especially in public life. In New South Wales, if you were a Catholic, I think you might have been in the Education Department; if you were a Mason, you were in the Electricity Commission or whatever. There were certain areas of life within Australia with those - I don't know what you would call them really - groups or allegiances. Cinesound was split up, there were Catholics and mainly Church of England. I'm Church of England. Remember how Catholics would come in on Ash Wednesday with a little bit of ash on their foreheads. People would say, "Where have you been?" "Oh, to church, the bishop put some ash on my forehead." And it was accepted as - well, that's what they did. But I would think that, for instance, if you were a Catholic working in the Electricity Commission, there's no way you could do it. The film industry was a bit freer and more accepting.
There were a couple of important things, I think, that happened at Cinesound. I don't know whether Ken Hall was the main instigator but he was certainly one of the major forces behind the opening of Australian Literature at Sydney University. I think as far as contributions to intellectual life in Australia, that chair - it was probably the first - was very important.
He was also a great friend of Doc Evatt. I went out to cover Doc Evatt one day, just towards the end of his career, this grumpy man who was keeping the press at bay. He came to the front door; I knocked, he said, "Where are you from?" I said, "Cinesound." He said, "Come in." So I did a piece on Doc Evatt.
Another thing I did do, which seems to haunt me all my life, but I don't mind it one little bit, is that I actually photographed Paul Robeson in the bowels of the Opera House. It was a dull, grey day. We set up and Paul Robeson came down - and I'd never heard the term before - he called the workers around and said, "Come on, comrades, come around and I'll sing for you." There was only the basic cement underpinning or foundations. It was totally open to the sky and a bit of rain was coming down. He sang Old Man River, and it was fantastic. I see it pops up every so often on television, that piece of film, Paul Robeson singing Old Man River.
Spy Force, we did 42 episodes, hung in there for a few years, and in its own way it was a very good show. There were bad episodes but there were some very, very good episodes. It was a bit Our Boys Annual, but we knew no different. We were running around Narrabeen with 303s and Awasaki(?) rifles and sticks of gelignite, blowing things up and blowing ourselves up - the sort of stuff you could never ever do today.
If we had a big battle coming up, we'd halt production for a few hours, everyone would sit around and we'd load the ammunition - crimp the 303 blanks, make all the blanks so that we had plenty of ammunition.
After that I was freelancing and I worked on many television shows. I went overseas for a thing called Bailey's Birds, went to Malaya and shot that. Other televison programs, Boney was one of them. James Laurence was a New Zealand fellow, a European who had a little bit of Maori blood in him. We dressed him up to be an Aborigine, - the sort of thing you could never ever do today, because he would be seen as a white man playing a black man. He was actually very good at it.
You did some telemovies as well.
Yes, I remember - I did The Scalp Merchant in Western Australia with John Waters. By this time I had teamed up with Roger Mirams, who I'd been working with ever since Animal Doctor.
And I think that gets us roughly to The Settlement. I had actually agreed with Paul Barron to do the remake of Bush Christmas, and we started off casting. We went round to the studio in Sydney. Tony Williams was the guy who ran it down there in Bligh Street. Young people performed for us. There was one very tall girl who was a cut above the rest and I said, "Okay, we'll have her. She's going to be in the film." Of course it was Nicole Kidman, and she was in the film.
I also went right up to the northern part of the Northern Territory, up to Gove and Elko Island and cast the aboriginal boy, who was just sitting in a building somewhere. We just happened to walk past and here was this kid strumming on a guitar. This aboriginal kid turned out to be a very good actor, but I don't know what happened to him after that at all. It might have been just a one-off thing, but he certainly was an aboriginal with a difference.
You didn't direct Bush Christmas?
No. It was very hard to say whether it was going to go or whether it wasn't going to go, and Robert Bruning came along and said, "Would you like to do a film called The Settlement?" I said, "Sure, okay." So I went to resign from Bush Christmas, which was almost up and running at the same time, and I got into all sorts of disagreements with Paul Barron. In fact, I was about to be sued by Paul Barron for not fulfilling the contract, but we had nothing signed. Paul wasn't able to give me a start date so I pulled out of Bush Christmas and decided to go with The Settlement.
Fortunately my friend Ted Roberts had written the screenplay, and Sven Liebeck ended up doing the music and we had a pretty good cast there, with John Jarratt, Billy Kerr, Ken Wilde, Lorna Leslie and Tony Barry. We made that film in four weeks, just out of Brisbane.
It's a very good representation of the '50s, the bush life, the small town and, of particular interest, a very interesting presentation of things Catholic at the time.
Yes, I remember it was. I was going out with a Catholic girl once. She always said, "Not until we're married," of course. We talked about it and she said, "Oh, it's all right to go with boys from other religions or whatever, but you've got to marry a Catholic." All this stuff was around well and truly, and I remember walking past Catholic churches and wondering at the number of people who went, as opposed to the Church of England church down the road where attendances were not all that great. But the Catholics somehow seemed to have this method of getting people to go. My cousin had become a Catholic and she was - I think she was called a Child of Mary or something. She wore a veil and I remember going along to this ceremony. Then we went along a bit later, she was about 17 or 18, and here was this handsome young priest up there assisting. And my cousin had only eyes for this fellow - "Isn't he beautiful?" And I didn't understand what was going on in her mind until I worked it out a bit later. So that's why, when we had that scene in The Settlement, Katy Wilde was really lusting after the priest because it was a safe thing to do.
If anybody told her that, she would have denied it instantly.
Exactly, and it could never be consummated unless there was a breakdown of things.
You had the ladies of the parish going out to stone Lorna Leslie, with their hats and handbags.
Appropriately dressed, yes.
"Whoever is innocent cast the first stone," and the wife did. The screenplay seemed to have the authentic touch.
Ted might be a Catholic because he understood that. It was the sort of scene that I had seen as a child in Yenda, where I was brought up, in the Murrumbidgee irrigation area. On the hot summer days the people would dress up and go to church or they would go to a meeting. The ladies would all have their hats on and the dresses and the handbags and off they would go. There was a narrowness in Australian thinking in those days and, even as a kid I could sense that didn't seem quite right. And yet in that area of the soldier settlements, the irrigation area, you were taught intolerance. It was there. The Italians had come in and they were starting up some of the grape farms, but there was certainly a difference between the way the Italians lived and the way the Australians lived. Intolerance is something that you are taught, really.
There was a lady I used to drive the sulky for as a kid. She was an ex-schoolteacher and I would drive her into town on a Saturday morning and she would be dressed to the nines on this hot day, with clip-clop, clip-clop. I guess that's where those three ladies came from, those impressions on me as a young person.
That's one of the strengths of The Settlement. You've dramatised the narrowness and yet you've shown the three wanderers as very engaging. It makes the intolerance so much more dramatically real.
It's one of these things that one does instinctively. While working on Animal Doctor, we handled all sorts of animals, particularly snakes. You learned not to be afraid of them. There's one scene in The Settlement where they come back into the hut - and I didn't realise how it affected people where there's a snake - and I decided to put the snake in the old fireplace. The John Jarratt character comes in and, instead of going, "Snake," crash, bang, wallop, kill it, he gets a stick and says, "Go on, get out of here," and the snake slithers off. I think it showed a sort of tolerance, an early conservation thing, that there was no need to kill this animal, no need to do that. I guess that probably came from childhood and growing up with sheep and cattle. There were rough times with the animals, but there was also great compassion from the farmers.
And this chap Stephens, Mrs Stephens' husband, lived on what we called the dry area, he didn't believe in tractors. He used Clydesdales or draught horses to pull his header, plough the field and build the soil banks. I was very fortunate as a young kid, I remember at about eight or nine, standing on the header with six draught horses doing the job. But old Mr Stephens - it was always Mr Stephens, I've forgotten his Christian name - he had this great love of animals, tolerance for the horses. He'd look after them. Here were elements that, if you were a city kid, were to be slightly fearful of. But there's this tolerance in the bush - I guess you got it a bit from the workers who used to come to the farm. They wouldn't kill things unless they really had to. They'd flick a bee away - they might kill a mossie, but that would be about it.
You have certainly done a lot of television, movies and other series.
Yes, there's plenty of things. I work overseas a lot. I have been doing that for the last, probably ten years, a series of telemovies overseas.
We did four South Pacific Adventures, we did Mission Top Secret as a pilot and we did a thing called The Phantom Horseman as another pilot, both telemovies, of which Mission Top Secret got up, and they were six telemovies in each set - Mission Top Secret 1, Mission Top Secret 2 - and 1 was shot in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, England and Australia; Mission Top Secret 2 was shot in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Germany. That was 24 hours of program.
I've just finished a thing called Search for Treasure Island, which has been on Channel 7. It's a family show. Strangely enough, they just dump it here in Australia, but in Germany it's a big deal and they showed it as four telemovies.
I have at the moment two feature films on the go, both period pieces which I hope to get off the ground eventually. Everyone does. You've all got scripts in your back pocket or on your desk or whatever. Right now it's very tough to get projects off the ground. It's still possible, and I think in Australia we have as good a chance as anywhere, with the Film Finance Corporation and the system that is set up for Australian production.
I think it's easier in Australia initially to get something off the ground. I'm afraid I do think that the film industry is a little spoon-fed. It's probably pampered just a little too much, and I am concerned about the number of people graduating and wanting to work in the film and television industry. You've got all these places that are pumping out these students and I don't know where they're going to get a job. It's a great worry. I don't know whether you can stop it, but I think you could pull it back a bit. Still, that's life, and the best will survive anyhow.
I confirmed this with Jack Thompson. It's weird actually, but I think it's true and it's good. It's good because it's true. There was a scene in Wake in Fright where there were a couple of local guys that we'd actually picked up as extras, and they were outside the Silverton Hotel and one of these fellows invited him in to have a drink. And Gary Bond's character had said, "No, thank you, I've had a drink." And the fellow said, "What do you mean? a bloke drives you 50 miles," or whatever, "and you won't even come and have a drink." Now, that guy's name was Jacko, we knew him as Jacko. He was in a couple of other scenes I've just forgotten exactly. Jacko was a local guy and what you saw on the screen is what you got. He was just that sort of character.
Now, years later, in the second episode of Spy Force, we were portraying the Burma Railway down in a deep creek. And the story was - and it was true, of course - that, if one of these men got injured, they were sent off with a shot, they were got rid of by the Japanese. Anyhow, they're banging spikes in on the railway and this guy gets hit with a hammer. He says his hands are smashed and he can't work, so he's useless. Jack was in the scene and the thing was to implore this man to "Get up, get up, mate. Come on, you can do it." So for some strange reason I thought, give him a name, I'll call him Jacko. So, "Get up, Jacko, come on, get up, get up, Jacko." Now, the Jacko from Broken Hill had had a car accident and was near death, and for some reason as we said, 'Get up, Jacko', he got his strength back and recovered.
Interview: 2nd November 1998