It's not so much film per se that's interesting to me, it's film as a vehicle for ideas, and for exploring human psychology and personality, and love and political oppression or whatever it is. (On the wall under John Duigan's photo in Parliament House, Canberra.)
Mouth to Mouth, Winter of Our Dreams and One Night Stand - do they have a spiritual dimension?
I hope so. Certainly by implication I think they do. They're all dealing with the complexities of human interactions and often the complexities posed by the tension between the individual and society, between people who find themselves on the fringes of society. But I hope that the human beings in them are treated with dignity. I try always to give due complexity to the various aspects of the characterisations.
Mouth to Mouth was probably, in my early period of film-making in Melbourne, the film that I value most. I feel it is closest to what I set out for - and probably was the first film that I got close to achieving what I set out to do.
Comments you made indicated that you had been impressed by some of the nuns and the Catholic layworkers you met in Manila, that their work was part of the genesis of Far East. You were quite benign towards the Catholic Church, with the priest who gave information to the reporter and the layworker, her room with the crucifix and the portrait of the Pope, her total commitment and her decision to stay in the Philippines. There seems to be some anticipation of Romero.
Yes, there's a connection between the two films in that both of them portray characters with strong Christian beliefs. The beliefs take a humanist form and the characters fight in whatever way they can against very repressive regimes. I've always been impressed by those people like the nuns in Far East and the radical priests around Romero who risk their lives for essentially political and humanist - or political ideals that are always fundamentally humanist in their nature, and that are really independent of any specifically ecclesiastical aspect. I think that individuals of this kind are strengthened by their beliefs, but they're not attempting to impose their beliefs as part of their political expression.
The layworker is invited to go to Australia for talks with the universities, the churches and the unions.
Some of the trade unionists that I met when I was over in Manila doing research for the film had very strong ties within the church. So I was, yes, quite struck by that.
In 1987 and 1988 you made two films, Fragments of War, the Damien Parer Story and Romero which, for a Catholic audience, especially an audience comfortable with the nuances of things Catholic, they can immediately identify with. The opening of Fragments of War with Cesar Franck's Panis Angelicus is particularly Catholic. Some of the conversations that Damien Parer had about his sexual morality sounded authentic - and the scenes of him kneeling down at his bed and making signs of the cross and saying his night prayers as people did so readily in those days. The discussion you included about God's will and the permitting of suffering rather than the willing of it seemed to come straight out of the philosophy texts studied at the time. You seemed to have absorbed that ethos very well and communicate it, along with the whole range of his life and activity at that period, the world war and his reporting. Catholic audiences like it a lot.
It's interesting that you say that. It's a television film, not a cinema feature, but I actually regard it as one of the pieces that I'm most pleased with. Damien Parer was an intensely religious man, so one couldn't really deal with anything that was going to approach accuracy without facing that head-on. His beliefs inhabited all of his relationships. In some ways he was, to me, quite a conservative Christian. But again he was someone who, coming from that position, saw the opportunity of working with his camera to get as close as possible to observing and recording human courage and human suffering because he felt this was the contribution he could make to spreading the gospel of the frightfulness of war. And, of course, that meant he had to risk his life, in the end fatally, to get those graphic shots. Perhaps he was the first of the great documentarists to take those risks that sadly have led to so many others falling along the way in more recent conflicts.
I found when I was developing the character and when Nick Eadie was playing it that it was very moving, the portrayal of his beliefs and commitment. I found myself quite affected, listening to him expressing those views with such disarming conviction.
You talked with Damien Parer's widow to get detailed information. What about those philosophical/theological elements as the conversation about God's will and permitting evil? You see yourself as a philosopher. Was that an important part of your research?
Yes, it was. I have found that particular question of God's will and evil always a difficult one so I thought it was a good opportunity to face it and to try and get at what I thought Damian's attitude would be. I think I took a lot of the dialogue in that scene from a letter of his since I had access to a few of his letters. I also had conversations with Maslyn Williams, who was a friend of his - he's depicted in the film also - and both he and Damien's widow were very helpful in the evolution of the screenplay.
Romero and your career - its effect on you and the subsequent history of the film?
Congress had a special screening of Romero in the United States - and I like to think that it played a small part at least in the relaxation in American policy towards that part of the world. It was shown to the Salvadorean bishops. Some of them who were very close friends of Archbishop Romero reported back to the producer that they felt that we had got quite close to him in our portrayal and they liked the film very much. The civil war has come to at least a temporary halt there and the film hopefully will have a theatrical release. However, the conservatives have been returned in elections and some of those conservatives were very, very active supporters of the army during the long reign of terror of which Romero's death was a small and tragic part.
The same dimensions seem to be present in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting - what drew you to exploring the character of Danny Embling and in that particular period?
I suppose I use the character of Danny Embling to a degree as a sort of partial alter-ego in that I think his behaviour and the evolution of his sensibility are parallel to my own - although I often give him very different experiences. So it's not autobiographical in any strict way. I like the opportunity of being able to follow through characters that I've come to really like - characters that are played with the kind of accessibility and complexity which Noah Taylor has brought to the role. I like the idea of being able to follow through that character's journey perhaps over several more films and maybe in conjunction, sometimes, with some of the other characters that we have got to know.
Starting the series at that point of adolescence seemed right to me because adolescence is always a conjunction of the most massive degrees of change that an individual has to face. We can confront change at any time in our lives, but the freshness that we have at that time, the fact that we haven't been bruised too much or jaundiced by life's traumas, gives a particular piquancy to that particular time of life.
A country town with its small population was a helpful setting to bring the character alive.
Yes, in The Year My Voice Broke and in Flirting there are two miniature societies: one is the isolated country town with its secrets, with its bullies, with its peer group pressures, and the three principal characters are all on the edge symbolically, but they're literally on the edge because their outpost is this little beautiful curved range of hills where Loene's and Noah's characters always liked to stay. In particular, The Year My Voice Broke is dealing with a sense of their pantheistic relationship to nature and to the land. They both have it - in particular, Loene's character has an almost primal connection with the physical environment. As Noah puts it, it's almost like, to her, the rocks and the trees are living things. This is something which I believe in. This is our kinship with the land, which is something so strong in Aboriginal beliefs and in the beliefs of North American Indians.
It is something which is eroded by our immersion into society, so it's something which Danny is fighting to retain as he becomes more and more embedded in the second society that he encounters (in Flirting), which is the society of the boarding school. I think that the whole tapestry of rural life had the ability to put us in touch with nature, with the currents of the wind and the changing of the seas - it's something that's much harder to retain when one is constantly surrounded by concrete.
People have railed against this since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The followers of the notorious Captain Ludd, the Luddites, in England were doing this when they destroyed farm and factory machinery. This was a very strong primal reaction. But I think that they could see that the life of having to go and work in the dark satanic mills of the early factories in England was going to crush a part of their nature. I would like to do a film about the Luddites at some stage.
You brought in Aboriginal themes explicitly with Jonah, the Bruce Spence character, in The Year My Voice Broke.
Yes, Bruce Spence's character, Jonah, was writing Australia's first erotic novel and living in a railway carriage, but I gave him some of the philosophical views that I ascribe to myself, and he was able to play those moments very, very well. His is also a character that I would quite like to see revisited.
In Flirting, the next step was to genuine relationships and an intensity in first love for Danny Embling's development? You also introduced international racial overtones with the African student played by Thandie Newton.
The relationship that developed between Noah's character and Thandie's character was the relationship that he would have liked to have had with Loene's character in The Year My Voice Broke. More than anything else, these two characters are misfits and the fact that they can find in one another mutual recognition from someone they respect is an incredibly strengthening, fortifying thing for both of them. They don't really need to have their peers acknowledging them once they have actually found each other because their very differences are valued by each other, and for anybody to encounter a relationship like that, to suddenly feel that they're not as peculiar, as odd, as separated from everyone as they've been taught to think and as they've been belittled by the pettiness of others - that's what makes the relationship so amazing for both of them.
You have been successfully subversive with the character of Danny Embling in presenting your alter-ego as an alternative to the standard ocker image of the Australian hero. Here is someone who doesn't go in for sport, who likes to read and who lives in a different kind of world, an imaginative world. It is surprising how Australian audiences responded so well to this unlikely hero - and each film won the Best Film Award from the Australian Film Institute.
The peculiar thing about Australian culture is that one of its strongest dimensions is its anti-authoritarian nature and its celebration of the nonconformist, and yet the peer pressures that have occurred, particularly towards masculine stereotyping, have been as strong in this country as, probably, in any other country in the world. It seems a peculiar dichotomy because what the culture has celebrated is somebody without any reverence for authority, but the challenges to authority have become stereotyped in themselves. So we have the larrikin ocker. It's that kind of thumbing the nose at authority which has become institutionalised since last century. It's not a particularly interesting or wide-ranging form of rebellion or a particularly interesting type of outsider. So, yes, Noah's character is definitely presenting something which is a marked departure.
When speaking about your writing and directing the telemovie, Fragments of War, The Damien Parer Story, as well as your decision to direct Romero, you said you thought Christians asked the most interesting questions.
Yes, very much so, and I find the discussion of religious issues very stimulating. I think that the whole spiritual dimension of life has been diminished, to our cost, in recent decades of the second half of the 20th century and we really do need an active and rich and searching spirituality in our lives, maybe now more than ever. I think that we're still probably spiritually reeling from the terrors of the first half of the century, the world wars.
There was a brief glimmer of hope at the end of the Cold War, but then again the reminders of the constant savagery in places like Bosnia, in South Africa, in Northern Ireland returns people to this overwhelming sense of pessimism, that humanity seems to be fatally flawed, and a spirituality that can give us optimism and can renew our endeavours to face the problems posed by human imperfections remains constantly a desperate need.
Sirens has quite explicit religious and Church issues in its portrait of Norman Lindsay and his art. What drew you to this story and its Australian setting?
The starting point was the idea of doing something on the tension between the church's teaching and the sensual side of life. I have always felt that the church's actual teachings on this issue - since I experienced it first-hand as a boy at school - reflected some biases, particularly against the place and role of women in the church, and the place of women's sensuality.
I wanted to deal with these sorts of issues but I also wanted to explore them in a comic context. It's a film about sensuality but if you don't have a humorous aspect, then I think you're missing out on a particular dimension of the sensuality.
Your context highlighted the fauna of the Blue Mountains, not in any realistic way, so the koala, wombat and snakes were all part of that humour?
Yes, they were. The joke is that Australia, as far as the English couple, Anthony and Estella Campion can see, seems to be peopled by all kinds of creepy crawlies and threatening mysterious animals, serpents and spiders and the like - plus, Lindsay's models, these rather Amazonian women. But in fact this country house world is a very benign world and the snakes go about their business without disturbing anybody, except pulling over cups of tea.
There is a reference made by Norman Lindsay to `wowsers and Wesleyans'.
It's a direct quote from him, The whole big speech where he talks about how his mother used to tell him about the sad story of Jesus - a direct quote from an interview that Lindsay did in the latter part of his life. We got it from the ABC. Sam Neill was particularly keen to speak his precise words so we put it in verbatim. I think the specific reference to Wesleyans was simply Lindsay's choice of alliteration.
Was the Church of England the target?
Yes, well... kind of. It is more broadly tipped at the Christian churches' teachings on this area. As Lindsay says, ever since Eve was seen to be responsible for the downfall of the human race in the Garden of Eden, women have been taught by the church to feel guilty about their sexual nature and men have been taught to fear it, to fear women's sexuality. I believe that there is a link between this guilt and fear that can be traced right back to early disputes about women actually taking office in the church hierarchy.
It seems to me to be quite preposterous that women are not allowed to become priests in the Catholic church and in some other Churches. This seems an utterly indefensible position to take, to discriminate against 50 per cent of the population - and these issues remain just as pertinent today as they were in those days.
You actually have Elle Mac Pherson speaking a line about there being a woman Pope.
Yes, `Why can't we be priests or popes?' she says.
The Anglican priest played by Hugh Grant sounds very prim on the one hand and yet tries to be open-minded on the other. Is he meant to be a realistic open-minded Anglican of those days or is this the kind of dialogue that would be more comfortable on the lips of contemporary church men?
As in any other occupation, there are people who are on the conservative side and people who are very enlightened - and there are some marvellously enlightened members of the clergy. Archbishop Oscar Romero, the assassinated Archbishop of San Salvador, an extraordinarily erudite and passionately humanist individual and an inspiring member of the church.
As regards Hugh's character, he begins by appearing to be a somewhat arrogant and superficial individual who, in Hugh's own words, thinks of himself as being rather groovy and able to talk about the avant garde with just as much acumen as the practitioners, but he suddenly finds himself in a world that he finds very confronting. In spite of those early impressions, he actually does have some, quote, `tangible victories' in his debates. I didn't want to make him completely one-sided.
I think that one of his very potent moments in the film is where, in a conversation with his wife, he says he thinks they should have some secrets between them because, if everybody is completely frank with their partner about every aspect of their life, almost no relationship could survive. The film, amongst other things, is a plea for mutual tolerance of one another, including tolerance of a fantasy life, and I think all of us, men and women alike, need to have and need to be allowed a sort of mental space for our imaginations. Yet we have always been taught to feel guilty about that. And I think that's the incredibly damaging thing that Lindsay was constantly railing about - and I have him doing so in the film.
Tara Fitzgerald is strong as the priest's wife. Audience sympathy lay with her, sharing her journey from British primness to experiencing the sensual and the sensuous in the Australian bush, leading to the fantasy life you spoke of. She arrived at a kind of honesty which her husband, as a minister, couldn't face. He wanted to keep the secrets. But she had, in those couple of days, gone through the journey of tolerance, understanding and self-acceptance that you were advocating.
She is the emotional centre of the film. She is the person who takes the audience on a journey with her. Tara Fitzgerald is a very fine actress in being able to take an audience with her into her world and into her feelings. But I believe what I was attempting to achieve with her and her husband was that the film should actually end quite optimistically. A part of Hugh's achievement in playing the clergyman is that about two-thirds of the way through, he suddenly reveals himself to be very vulnerable and very deeply in love with his wife. All of the brittle facade has dropped away and the transparency with which he plays those emotional scenes is really very telling and very moving. His wife responds to that. He is trying to struggle with opening himself up to change, as she is changing. The atmosphere of their final scene together in the train carriage is very playful and humorous. It is rather a wonderful moment between them. The film ends with the optimistic expectation that perhaps they both will be able to accommodate one another's changes and the relationship will flourish.
All the kids in Springwood (where, in fact, the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney had its seminary) had Irish names or Catholic names.
That was a little joke about them all being Irish, yes, with all the Irish names coming out. I really wanted Siren's references to the church to be across the board, so there are references to Wesleyans, there is the Anglican priest, there are references to the Pope and specifically to some of the contemporary Catholic policies towards the admission of women priests. So there is no particular comment which says that any one part of the church is more enlightened or less enlightened than any other. For myself, I would just like to see more members of the clergy grappling with some of the issues that the film raises.
You chose to play the part of the preaching minister yourself?
Actually, the decision to do this role was more a pragmatic one initially because the person who was going to play the part suddenly became unavailable. I could have certainly cast someone else. We were already shooting; it would have been a little bit difficult for me to do auditions at that stage, so it seemed easier for me to play him. I used to be an actor and I've always intended, in fact, to go back to acting and to do some more acting as the years pass, so I enjoyed it. I tried to play the character fairly straight. I didn't embellish him too much. Interestingly enough, when I was coming back into the church after the lunch break, I was following some of the women who were playing the part of extras, just locals living in the area, and one of them was saying to the other, `Well, if we had a minister who spoke as well as he did, the church would be a lot fuller than it is'. I was delighted to hear that. I thought, well, maybe I've got another occupation that I could move to if the film industry dries up.
Then you moved overseas. Wide Sargasso Sea?
It was probably the only really unsatisfying interaction that I've had with a production company and I found that I had major disagreements with them and with the producers. It was unfortunate. Jan Sharp, the producer of the film, had the tenacity to get the film made, but she and I had differences of opinion. She was very well informed on the book, and I'm sure her opinions were arguable, as I like to think mine were, but when you have a situation like that, I think the overall project can suffer. I think the film did suffer from that division. But curiously enough, it got quite wonderful reviews from most of the heavyweight American reviewers like the New York Times and the New Yorker. So there were some people who felt that it worked very well. I felt that it had some major flaws so I wasn't particularly happy with it.
As a PS: the clergy in Dimboola - any comment, or was it just a chance to be funny?
Well, I was attempting to be, I suppose, true to Jack Hibberd's vision, but the priest who's the celebrant of the wedding is a stereotype. He's very funny and whimsical and rather an attractive man in his own right.
The Journey of August King, with a script by John Ely, is about a man who lives in a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Ely is a man in his seventies who has written about five novels of different generations of people in that part of the world, and it's a very beautiful script. It's basically the story of a friendship between a runaway slave girl, played by Thandie Newton, and the actor is Jason Patric, who plays the part of a rather shy and retiring farmer whose wife died a year before. It's a very, very deeply felt and tightly written two-hander. It's a sort of road movie, as well, a road movie set in 1815 as these two travel along the mountain roads of North Carolina.
I'm very pleased with it. It's a small film in terms of its perceived commercial appeal, but it's an intensely moral story, the story of a deeply wounded man ultimately finding himself through an act of helping another person. Through this he regains his dignity and probably regains the possibility of continuing his life. The reciprocal part of the transaction comes from the girl's point of view. She is wounded for quite different reasons. At the beginning of the film, she has an abiding suspicion of everyone but, through contact with somebody who, for once, treats her as a human being with respect, she, likewise, will be opened up to a life with some optimistic possibilities.
Is The Leading Man a small-scale film?
I like to imagine that it's a big film, a film which can entertain a lot of people! It's a character-based piece. I think that it offers a rich and surprising plot. There are delicious ironies running all the way through. I think it also speaks about relationships in the last part of the 20th century in a quite telling way.
Your sister, Virginia, wrote the story?
It's not particularly from the London experience. In fact, originally she set it in New York. It needed to be one of the two big theatre centres of the world. I loved the screenplay, so I thought about it for a while and I said, `Look, if we can reset it in London, I think I can get the finance for it.' She agreed, so that's what we did.
I think it was a good choice. The theatre scene there and the Broadway theatre scene are of similar size but the sensibilities of the story probably work better with the outsider coming in from America, rather than the idea of a British actor going into the American scene. It's marvellous being able to get such terrific actors in the smaller roles, David Warner, Patricia Hodge, Diana Quick and Harriet Walter, people like that - wonderful actors who play leading roles in film and television - to get them to do a few lines. It adds a terrific sense of verisimilitude to it.
And Barry Humphries?
A lot of people don't remember that before he created Dame Edna and her entourage of characters he did a lot of straight acting, particularly in London. In fact, he was telling me how he in fact acted on the stage at Stratford East in the 60s, which is the main theatre we used as the theatre set. I think he enjoyed the opportunity of playing a straight role, so he was quite eager to do it. He's always quite busy, so the difficulty is to catch him at a moment when he can fit it in. He is a remarkably fine companion. He's a very erudite man, remarkably well read.
It's a terrific cast. Lambert Wilson is not known widely outside France, but he's very well respected in England. He trained there. He had auditioned for me for a film several years ago which didn't get off the ground and I always remembered meeting him. I asked him if he would audition for me again, which he did, and he just did the best audition for the role. He's tremendously sympathetic, in spite of doing this quite frightful act of betrayal and, in that respect, he makes the film something of a tragedy. It is the story of an essentially decent man who, in one single act, undermines the credibility of his life. Anna Galiena is somebody whose work I'd admired very much from films like The Hairdresser's Husband and Jamon Jamon, so I went across to Paris, where she lives most of the time, and met with her and she liked the script.
The theme of betrayal is very strong.
It's one of the things that I think the film speaks of. These days there are so many temptations that are thrust down our throats by contemporary imagery in films, television and magazines that I think we do make those sorts of choices. It's very difficult for people to believe that the relationships that they're in match up to these other relationships portrayed all around us that seem more glamorous and more sexy and all the rest of it.
Jon Bon Jovi's plan for seduction and betrayal gets to the audience.
It becomes very unnerving and increasingly hard to bear because Anna's character is so completely desperate for affection. So she grasps it. But the assiduous detail that he employs seems so cold-blooded. But then in another layer of irony, it may be the case that he actually genuinely falls in love with her. The audience is left to decide that for themselves.
But she is transformed. Of all the characters, hers is the biggest arc, in that she really does blossom and regain her self-respect and her latent writing abilities. She is strong and vigorous and, actually, the only person in the story to deny Bon Jovi's character when she declares that he is completely unsuited for the role in her script. Perhaps that's a part of imagining that he could finally be turned into a genuine partner for her.
The ending for the other couple was, as you say, tragic.
Yes, it's a truly appalling moment, that moment where Thandie Newton is left stranded outside Lambert's door. That was one of the images that I'm happiest with. It is a very simple image, just the door between them and the tapping away of the typewriter.
The episode with the gun is highly theatrical.
I think that I'm attempting to play around, structurally, with the merging of the theatrical reality and `reality' all through the film. It begins with Lambert's embracing of the deal because, as a writer, he is used to controlling the characters he creates. When he starts to try to control the characters in the world around him, he is starting to cease to recognise the distinction between the two realities. That becomes more and more apparent until the final point where it's tantamount to a complete breakdown where he is no longer thinking rationally and attempts to kill Bon Jovi. So, for me, it's exactly appropriate that that moment has to embrace the two realities. It has to be theatrical. It's important that the audience thinks as he does, that he's killed him.
Interviews: 28th April 1994, 16th May 1997.