You come from Western Australia and you have spoken about nature and the sense of isolation and remoteness. What influence has that had on your films?
I read Tim Winton's That Eye the Sky and thought, wow, this is a film I want to make. I got in touch with Tim and realised that the option had already gone. I started to read all his other work and came across In the Winter Dark and I recognised it as being his darkest book.
It's not an easy story to tell. The more I spoke to him about telling the story, the more I realised that it had quite a lot of elements that I could relate to on a very personal level and from my background, because I grew up on a sheep station in outback Western Australia.
My mother was a city girl who married a bushie and finished up in the backblocks of Western Australia. She didn't see another woman for three or four months, back in the '50s, and the woman that she came across was toothless, had a face like an old boot and was in her late seventies. This was a girl who wanted to be a ballet dancer and was interested in music and there she was, stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
Certainly in that aspect of Ida, who Brenda Blethyn plays in the film, a person who actually finds herself in the wrong world, I related very strongly to my mother. There's also that sense where, when you're that far out in isolation, you have to be so resourceful that in a lot of ways you consider any sort of help from outside as a weakness. There's a lot of that in Tim's book: that sense of - if they get help to solve their problems from outside, it's considered a weakness. You deal with your problems.
Not only that. On an emotional level, if you have emotional problems, you deal with them yourself, to the point where you almost don't even talk to your partner about them. Ida and Maurice's relationship is very like that. And it's internal and very difficult to bring to the screen. But that's what attracted me to the story.
Before going back to In the Winter Dark, could we consider your short films. You made them in the West?
I won the Young Filmmakers Festival in 1981 in Perth, a documentary about the concept of shearing. That was a long time ago and I shot it on Super 8. I was interested in showing the concept of shearing and the whole sense of what goes into shearing as being a beautiful, a natural thing. I'm not sure how else to explain it. Part of the Young Filmmakers Festival was to study at the Film School, an open program, so I got to study there for a week. But I just cashed in my return ticket and stayed in Sydney and finished up working on documentaries for Michael Willesee. Then I started shooting rock clips, video clips and making short films, and one thing led to another.
The first big project I did was a film called Kadaicha, which was made for David Hannay, a producer who was doing low-budget horror-thriller flicks - just very commercial stuff. I did that in the late '80s.
There was a great deal of interest in aboriginal themes at the time. In the mid-'80s there were quite a lot of films, like The Fringe Dwellers, Short Changed and Crocodile Dundee. Then there were thrillers like Kadaicha and The Dreaming.
That was, I suppose, the trend of the late '80s. Then there was an economic recession in the early '90s and not a lot was happening. I finished up making Mad Bomber in Love, which was a no-budget video feature. That was more like an event than a film, just to make the statement that, if you really wanted to, you could actually make a film for nothing. It took about a year to complete, as it turned out, even though we only shot it for 14 days.
But, looking at all the films I've made, I've been interested in some kind of sense of primal fear, and that's something I found in the book that Tim offered me. Certainly Tim's The Rider is about that. Tim's religious and I think he tends to have a great interest in the fact that some people in life are begotten by tragedy. He has a great interest in how they deal with that - but it's all part of life, the way we live. In some ways, even with something as recent as The Riders, there's this foreboding feeling: perhaps everything isn't right; perhaps things are going to go wrong. He's interested in situations where people are put to the test.
I love that about his characters. I love it, because Tim's characters are good people and they're trying to find a way, they're really trying to find a way. It doesn't matter how lost they are, they're trying to find a way to deal with themselves and with the world. They're not, as I see it, evil.
The screenplay uses the language of redemption but by the end, with the tragedy, were any of them saved or redeemed with Ida's death, the couple disappearing and Maurice sitting on his verandah wondering why the police did not come for him. It's a very pessimistic and tragic perspective.
It is, isn't it? In fact, I think the book In the Winter Dark is a lot darker than the film. When Peter Rasmussen and I were writing the script, we were fully aware that there was the mirror image between the older couple and the younger couple, in much the same way as in, say, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where, as an audience, you can see contrasts and comparisons in how the two worlds are shaping. We wanted to get that into the text even though it is not necessarily part of the book.
I think that at the end of the day we wanted to allow the younger couple to escape, for there to be some hope whereas, in the book, Ronnie gives birth at the site of the accident, loses the baby and goes mad. And Jacob stays in the valley. Everything's a bit more insane. But I think it's important cinematically to give hope to people. Certainly with a story that's as serious as In the Winter Dark, there's also a great sense of humour in it. And there's the ability, with just minor shifts, to give some sense of hope that maybe you don't need out of a novel, but maybe you do need out of a cinematic experience.
You have said that the landscape and the season almost became a character, the weather itself.
We always imagined that the country and the weather would combine to be a fifth character. That works when you are telling a story about people's incapacity to communicate about important things and how that incapacity after many years just implodes.
Because I grew up in the country. It's very hard to do, but I think it's important, certainly in this story, that the country has a sense of power about it: if you don't respect it, it could actually take your life. I mean, it can drive you to things that you wouldn't necessarily do. Tim's interested in that. Tim's interested in the idea that white Australians tend to gravitate to the edges of the continent and, if you look one way you've got the ocean and it will take you if you aren't careful, and look the other way, in Western Australia and you've got the desert right behind you, at your back.
You've chosen mountains and valleys for the film?
Yes. The book is set in the south-west of Western Australia where there's very big jarrah and karri, probably the biggest timber in Australia. I went down there and did a recce. I looked around to see whether it was suitable for filming down there, but all the country around there is very much dairy country, quite rich and very green in winter. Tim's taken poetic licence, I suppose, in establishing that there's big timber in hard country, which never happens. They don't go together.
So I finished up shooting in the Blue Mountains, on the other side in the Megalong Valley, where the country is very tough. And, instead of using big timber, I used the escarpments to close the valley in to give it that dead-end valley, cul-de-sac feel.
Tim Winton has a religious perspective. Would you share that specifically religious perspective?
I've never actually spoken to Tim directly about this. It feels to me like there's a spirituality about the book that we share. I'm not religious myself, but there's a spirit about the book and, I think, in all his work, where you get a sense that you need to respect who you are and what you are, what you're doing and how life is in its particular way.
I think one of the things that makes his literature popular is that it doesn't matter who the characters are, you can always understand them. Because even though he writes very honestly about characters, there's always a sense - which I would love to believe and I'm not sure that I do - but there's always a sense that people are actually trying to find their way in life. That's the way I am, so I can relate to that. But I'm not sure I believe everyone's like that.
On the psychological interpretation, since you mentioned Virginia Woolf, what about such films as Forbidden Planet, where the destructive Id of some of the characters surfaces, so that in In the Winter Dark, they are themselves symbolically/realisticaly creating the creature that is killing the animals?
Yes, indeed, and I think in some ways Tim grappled with that in the novel but never actually sorted it out.
The book didn't sell as well as some of his other novels which means that it was slightly ill-conceived. It's as if he thought about the Nanup Tiger. There is this whole mythology - and you find it in every state - that there is a big cat out there. The Nanup Tiger is famous in the south-west of Western Australia, a mythological idea that there is a tiger out there. It's like the Loch Ness Monster. But, when it came down to it, when he was writing, I think he was interested in adventuring into different territory. This is my opinion. He usually writes idiosyncratic and sprawling character-based stuff that is colourful in its own way, but accurate in an incredible way about characters who are finding life difficult. And that's what we relate to.
In the Winter Dark is like a thriller, and it is only a hundred pages long. In fact it's probably the best of his books to translate to the screen. He has that capacity to write about the fear within but he was also writing about the fear out there. What we had to sort out as screenwriters was, it's got to be either one or the other: are we going to make a genre pic about a big monster out there or are we going to make a psychological drama about the internal struggles of the pain of life.
You visualise the dreams and the mingling of identities. We wonder just what the dreams are expressing of the characters. Once you moved into identifying one person with the other, the mythological and dream aspect came to the fore.
When you read a book, it's very easy for a novelist, I suppose, to jump around into dreams and memories, flashbacks and time-frame jumps and all sorts of things whereas, cinematically, you have to be very careful about that because you confuse the hell out of people.
We had to work out a formula. We didn't want to use morphing or opticals in any sort of normal way; Peter Rasmussen and I decided, when we were writing the script, that we should try and design reality shoots where people don't change in their age but visit a different time. So, it all happens in the art direction, shot for shot. You go through these montages where a character doesn't change in age, but visits the different time then comes back. There's not a lot of camera movement. Most of the shots are locked on - and then they come back.
Having grown up in the country, I think you have so much time to think about things that dreams and memories tend to invade your presence on a very personal level, in a very personal space. You allow that to happen and to some degree give them disproportionate elevation in importance. We were interested in that form and there's one basically every ten minutes. That was the way we decided to deal with Tim's magic realism.
Having become involved with the characters, I think the audience will look at the choices the characters made and wonder if they would have done the same thing in those circumstances. It is about fear overtaking love and I think that makes the sensibility of the film unique.
You're working in the tradition of films with the bush as a place of mystery and the bush as destructive - Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bliss, The Well.
In the Winter Dark is definitely not a fashionable film. It's not a trendy film. It's the sort of film that will still be read the same way in 10 or 20 years time. That's the film I was trying to make. So the fact that it isn't as popular at the moment as some other films doesn't really bother me.
Winter is in the title of another project? Are you fascinated with winter?
I'm not sure about that, but it just so happens that the book is called Closed for Winter!
Interview: 7th October 1998