You were a teacher for some time and then moved to film, making short features with an education theme, Temperament Unsuited and Sailing to Brooklyn.
Yes, I was a teacher for a couple of years and the first films I made were in that world. They were not autobiographical, but semi-autobiographical, works about a student teacher, a young teacher. Then the first feature film I wrote was Fast Talking. I didn't make it first (Monkey Grip was first), but it was set in that world as well.
Did you enjoy being a teacher?
I did. I wouldn't have enjoyed it had I remained a teacher, but I did enjoy the two years that I taught. It was immensely stimulating. I might not have even been a film-maker if I hadn't been a teacher, because I met Albert Moran. He was a friend then and a really big influence on me, in looking at film in the way he looked at literature. That's when I first started to think I could do it myself, and school certainly gave me a subject.
Temperament Unsuited was autobiographical only in certain anecdotes, certain scenes. It was actually about a teacher that I was interested in, a person that I saw go through all those experiences. These films were all sponsored by the Australian government. Sailing to Brooklyn was an experimental film made for a few thousand dollars, and Temperament Unsuited was a Creative Development Branch film. There were loans given for larger works. Amazingly cheap for those days, about $30,000 or so. It seemed a lot then, but of course it would hardly buy you a minute of film now. Fast Talking was a 10BA film.
Fast Talking received a very good response in the '80s.
It's a very '80s film.
What were you trying to dramatise?
I think I was playing around with an idea of a Ginger Meggs, Junior Ned Kelly, character who was in a state of flight and rebellion from, I suppose, his school as prison. It's a strange work in the sense that it's never really resolved, his story. He remains on the run at the end just as he was at the beginning. I guess that comes from 400 Blows. I think I was very influenced by 400 Blows, by Ken Loach's work. It was an amalgam of all those things. I think at that stage in my career I was trying to graft the things that had influenced me onto the things that I saw in my own world.
Was it well received at the time?
It was well received - it got very good reviews. Probably the reviews were as good as any I have ever had, but it did terrible box office. It was a film like Kes, a film that wasn't a film for kids. It didn't have a big rock 'n roll soundtrack and it wasn't for teenagers. It was about teenagers. It probably was a film that was too problematic to simply be an entertainment. It raised a lot of unsettling questions. When you look at the kid's life, it was awful. The kid's parents had split up and his father was an alcoholic. It was a litany of woes, really, yet it was seen with an ironical comic eye. So I think it was slightly problematic. It wasn't just an untroubled ride. It wasn't a fun picture. And yet it didn't work for adults either, because it was about kids. So it fell into a category: not commercial at all.
But a realistic portrait of Sydney at that time?
I wouldn't say realistic. I'd just say irreverent and, probably, picaresque. It wasn't a realist work. It wasn't rigorously realist like, say, Ken Loach's work. It was more lighthearted than that, and it certainly wasn't a searing and poignantly personal film as 400 Blows. No, it was just an unrepeatable kind of movie that we made in that era. We did a lot of unusual things then - I'm not saying good things or great things, but unusual things that are very hard to do now.
You collaborated in a portmanteau film on education with Jane Oehr?
Yes, Jane's my wife. On the Loose. There were two stories and I wrote a segment.
At a seminar an Irish nun was really angry with Fast Talking because she found it too pessimistic and she wanted the problems resolved. But the younger people argued her down.
A lot of people expect cinema and drama to be cathartic, to offer resolution and to leave a character in a different place from where we first found that character - and I guess that's the recipe for good drama. But some stories are not amenable to that kind of dramatic model. Some people are where they always were and that, probably, is a pessimistic view. I couldn't have grafted a happy ending or some sort of civic lesson on to it because it wasn't in the character to respond like that.
I'm very fond of that film, but it's with a certain sadness because it marked a downturn in my career. It was the end of the 10BA era, the beginning of another era where you really had to do more rigorously commercial work to survive and so it was seen as a failure. It really created difficulties for me for a while.
To go back to success - the reasons that you took on Monkey Grip?
I just did it because I liked it. I had no idea that it would be successful - there wasn't the pressure then that there is now. You wouldn't take on anything now if you didn't think it had a chance of being seen or being distributed widely, but that wasn't an issue then. I just did the film because I liked it. It was about things that I had seen at second-hand. And it was about a whole lot of things that I was interested in and struggling with in my own life. It had such a long gestation; it's terribly hard to remember the precise moment when I committed to it. I was aware of it. I had talked about it for a long time - it must have taken years to do. I got involved with it when the book first came out, but it didn't get made until 1982. Four years is a long time - or it seemed a long time then.
Monkey Grip as a picture of the '70s - realistic, accurate or heightened?
I don't think it is realistic. It was a personal story and the fact that we shot it in Sydney blurred this somewhat. We shot a little bit in Melbourne. I never saw myself, when I was making it, trying to reproduce Loach, but I thought I should be trying to tell that woman's story. I was in another phase then. I was more interested in a cinema that would allow you to do those kinds of things rather than just reproduce something. I was more interested in Bergman's films about women or Truffaut's films about women than I was in simply reproducing the world. No, it's not realistic. It's heightened to some degree, although not heightened to the degree that a film like that would be nowadays. The films of that era look very pure compared to a lot of cinema now, which is much more strident, trying to look as if it belongs on George Street.
One of the strong features of Monkey Grip is Alice Garner's character and how it was the children who were able to guide the parent generation of that particular era.
Yes. It's funny because the book was very hard to adapt and, while Helen didn't actually do it, I have an enormous collection of Helen's letters in which she used to suggest scenes and suggest solutions. So she was very closely involved. I don't know whether she has a credit or not - I think she has some sort of partial credit. She certainly helped me a lot in doing it. But, for her, it was an exercise in rethinking the book. No-one would ever accuse the book of being a slick novel. It was diary-like, impressionistic, a fragmented experience. Trying to make a film from the novel was trying to draw from it things that I could use and which suited the purpose of telling her story coherently. It had none of the shape of a movie at all, not the normal movie. Nowadays I think you would have trouble in doing it. I think anyone who had read the book would say, `there's no film there'. So I don't know why I've taken on these things, but...
Was it well received?
Yes, it was. It largely got very good reviews. It had a nice reception in Cannes in a modest way. It was in the Un Certain Regard section. And it did quite reasonable business. It played in the cities for a very long time, many, many weeks. In those days they didn't mass release pictures; they tended to just run them longer. I can't recall, but it must have run 20-odd weeks or so. It didn't make anyone rich, but it did respectable business for a film of that type.
After Fast Talking things went down, but The Umbrella Woman was your next feature film?
Yes, The Umbrella Woman was some time after Fast Talking. I went off and worked in television to make a living, did series television for a while at Crawfords, things like that - all the time trying to do another feature film. I wanted to do a film that I couldn't do, based on Nigel Kraut's book Matilda, My Darling, a wonderful book. It was about a trip that Banjo Paterson took up north to Winton during the shearers' strikes, and while he's writing `Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong', the shearers' strikes are in progress, barns are being burnt and the man who ends up at the bottom of the billabong didn't jump, he was pushed. He was, in fact, the shearers' leader.
The central character wasn't Paterson. The central character was a private detective hired by the shearers to investigate the disappearance of their leader. So it was set at the beginning of the era of the scientific detective, like a disciple of Sherlock Holmes who goes to investigate this missing union leader who has been murdered and dumped in the billabong. Banjo Paterson was there pursuing a woman who didn't want anything to do with him - this is true - and writes nothing about the shearers' strikes, almost wasn't looking. You would have to guess he was there. But, out of it comes this one poem which becomes more famous than any other and yet, in fact, misses the point.
So it was another doomed work, I suppose. I think it's a very clever work, a terrific book, but a black view of Australian history. It was really saying that Australians prefer not to know. They prefer the legend to the truth. It's not a film that you can imagine ever having an easy reception in any era at any time - not in this era, no. So I didn't do it. I tried for a long time.
Umbrella Woman was something that was offered to me when Philip Noyce pulled out. I was very happy to do it but it was a picture that I think would always be hard to do. It's terribly hard to do Madame Bovary in Australia and it's very hard to graft, say, that European style of melodrama or melodramatically intense view of family and sexual relations on to the Australian landscape. There's something there that refuses to play the game about the Australian country town.
I've said this before, but I think the reason that it didn't work was that there was something very difficult to understand about the relationship between Bryan and Rachel. They were at the height of their public relationship, very well known as a happy couple. It was terribly hard to cast them as a couple who had some unstated problem in their marriage because everything in fact denied that. So it was hard to understand why she would run after the barman when Bryan was there, because Bryan is quite iconic and quite wonderful as an Australian country man. So that didn't work at all.
It might have worked - without wishing Sam Neill away, because I think he's terrific - it might have worked better had Bryan been the barman and if she had been married to somebody like - well, you could name half a dozen Australian actors who could have played the husband that she would throw over, who didn't give her the fulfilment that she was dreaming of. So I think that this was an example of how you can cast a film with great excitement, get all these wonderful actors but, at the same time, in the very act of casting, you're blighting it or preventing the drama from emerging successfully. Like most directors, you really throw yourself into it, you try to make it work with the ingredients that you have, and you silence the voices that say this is not working or it can't be done.
It had some success on American television.
The Americans actually quite liked it because it looked very good. Jim Barker lit it very nicely and Sally Campbell did a lovely job designing it - it looks good, it has a very handsome look to it. It was a terrible disappointment to me that it didn't work. It got very nasty reviews. I can remember reviews were quite pernicious. It came out at a time when everyone had had enough of period movies. I think it was the period movie that no one wanted. Had it been made five years earlier, it might have been dismissed but not so cruelly, but it was really pilloried: `Why are we still doing this kind of thing?'. There was a dislike because Judy Davis hadn't starred in it. She had been originally cast. When Philip Noyce was doing it, Judy Davis and Colin Friels were the couple. It was an unhappy experience because I had such high expectations and hopes for it.
As it turned out, it was actually much better received in America than it was here and, had I known, I probably would have gone to America straight afterwards, because it certainly heralded the beginning of a real drought for me here. I think I was only rescued about a year later by Kennedy Miller when they offered me a telemovie called The Clean Machine and that was the start of the television career. So it didn't open any doors but it closed a few.
The work that you've done with Kennedy Miller has probably been some of the most acclaimed work that you have done, especially, The Bangkok Hilton?
It wasn't acclaimed. It was certainly the most watched, I suppose. It got the highest ratings, exceptional figures. It rated as high as the Melbourne Cup when it was shown, 40 or something like that, extraordinary figures. You couldn't get those figures nowadays. But the most acclaimed work or the most celebrated was, I suppose, Brides of Christ. Bangkok Hilton was certainly the most remembered work. If I meet somebody who doesn't really know me and I mention my work and nothing rings a bell, usually when I get to Bangkok Hilton...
Does the work that Kennedy Miller has offered you, in terms of police detection, crime, law and order, contain themes that appeal to you?
Yes, very much. If we could make genre pictures here, I would be very happy to. Over the years I've dabbled with different scripts, different ideas of crime pictures, but one of the great difficulties with doing those pictures is they depend on stars - genre pictures always do - and we don't really have a robust star system. We don't have any longer any of the male leads that you can simply put into a movie. As soon as we get them, they disappear - Mel went years ago and Russell Crowe went almost before anyone realised he'd arrived. There's nobody that you could cast. You couldn't cast two cops in a cop story here commercially for cinema. You could for television but not for cinema, because there aren't stars. It really it stops us making genre pictures.
You had Steve Bisley for The Clean Machine on television where he's known...
Yes, but had it been a movie... In fact it was offered as an option, but that telemovie was one of a package along with John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke and they asked me did I want to make it on 35mm. Now, I've always wondered whether I made a big mistake by not doing it on 35mm. But I don't think it would have been a success in the cinema. It wouldn't have had the density that it had on television. In terms of big screen, I could not have had the production values; the money wouldn't have stretched that far. So I don't know. There's a turning point. You never know what these turning points mean. But I knew one of the factors was that we didn't have Mel Gibson in the lead. I think Steve's terrific in it, but to release it as a movie in that genre, you almost needed Mel or a star.
It's still relevant, given what's happened in the 90s Royal Commission in New South Wales and the investigation of the police.
I guess it is. It was loosely based on real events then, but those events don't seem to change very much, do they? It just seems to get more sordid - it seems to become less colourful and more grubby.
Anyway, Bangkok Hilton was something I was very happy to do. I was very excited to make a film overseas and to do something on that scale and with Nicole Kidman and Denholm Elliott. They were all big steps for me. That was a period of consolidation and I was very excited doing that, but it was something that was done at the end of an era for Kennedy Miller too. It came at the end of a very long period of doing Australian mini-series and there was a turning away from them. There was a turning towards America or turning towards the international genres. I didn't do anything after that, I didn't make any more mini-series. In fact, after Dead Calm Kennedy Miller almost didn't do anything until Babe. George went overseas and made Lorenzo's Oil, but it was the end of an era.
Brides of Christ and the ABC. What attracted you to this project?
Well, I think I probably tried to say no for quite a while because I'm not Catholic. I didn't even have a religious education or upbringing. I admit I had the usual Australian Protestant kind of benign upbringing - Christian but not assertively so. At first I couldn't understand why they were wanting me to do it. I thought it was just because I had done some quite interesting work with women - that I was known as a director who could work with women and get good performances from actresses, but the rest of it was a mystery to me. I remember taking a long time. I could see it was well written. I had no problem with it on that level. I couldn't quite see myself directing nuns or getting into that world.
I was offered it about January, 1990, and we didn't make it until about September. So I had a very long period to investigate it and research it. I had the help of some nuns and a priest who was very helpful and gradually it started to become a world that I thought I could understand.
Fr Tony Doherty who acted as an adviser said that he thought that you were the best-read person in Australia on theology and spirituality of religious orders.
Films set in closed worlds and unique worlds are always interesting. One of the things I love about film-making is that it does take you into other worlds and it does extend you - this is true of documentary film-making too - it gives you an entree into other people's lives that you wouldn't push yourself to investigate. So, in that respect, it was good. But it was also my past as well, in the sense that we grew up alongside that Catholic world - it was certainly not my world but I was always aware of it - all through the '60s and it was an era I knew well. I think one of the reasons why I was probably a good person to do it was because I didn't have any axe to grind, I didn't have any negative preconceptions - and I think they had offered it to one or two other directors, at least one I know who was Catholic and he just said, `Look, basically I hate them, I can't'.
Tony used to talk about the stages of disenchantment that Catholics went through and I can remember him saying to me once, `Of course, these writers are still at the rejection of the icon stage', but he talked about the stages that you have to move through in order to reincorporate religion back in your life, and it's quite a journey. And I could see that while I couldn't say I'd arrived at the other end, at least I wasn't stuck back at those stages.
It was hard to believe the writers were so young and that they could have re-created that period so accurately.
John may have been at school in a slightly later era but, like Alan Bennett - he always reminds me of Alan Bennett - he has that wry, very, very observant orientation wherever he is. He's always taking everything in. So he wouldn't have missed a thing from those years. He wouldn't have missed a thing.
He might be a decade out of sync at times, but the school world that he grew up in would've resembled that one. I don't think schools changed radically in that era.
Brides of Christ was one of those big experiences that you have that you wish you could go on having. But, unfortunately, that's another era that's gone. I seem to feel like somebody who has been present at every party just as it was folding. But that was the end of an era for the ABC. We all knew at the time that the ABC would never again be able to do anything on that scale, partly because it was never going to be possible to go overseas and get that kind of resale money again. Britain was, at that point, in a stage of embracing the European Union, so that Channel 4 and the BBC were going to co-production partners in Europe rather than Australia. So that was the end of a very fruitful era because it was a very natural partnership.
You notice in ABC drama now they've just had to go it alone. Some programs have an English organisation wanting to do something here, as opposed to a genuine co-production.
I think Brides of Christ brought the best out of everybody, because it was pitched very high and it was a very nice blend of art and entertainment. It was mythic. I didn't want to make it too real because I thought the trap was that, if it had been too excruciatingly real, it would have turned off a lot of people, including Catholics who might have not felt free to enter a dreaming phase. Brides of Christ may not have been your life but you could connect your life with it because it was both representative and mythic. There was a lot of generalisation with it. It had detail but it generalised issues. It was like memory, old photographs, and it romanticised it as well.
It certainly portrayed a world that you could be nostalgic about as well as opposed to, `Well, I'm glad we're not back there any more'. If it had been tougher and nastier, I don't think it would have worked. It would have been fairly pointless because it would have been like bashing a horse that had died a long time ago, or putting the blowtorch to that era way back then as opposed to inviting people to - as Tony Doherty used to put it - grieve for the loss of that way of life, which a lot of people did. It was a way of allowing that past back into life in a fairly robust way, where the audience could see this way of life at its height or in its last hour of glory.
It enabled audiences to see the transition that had to happen and was happening. The third episode is one of the best single hours of television drama.
The episode with Sandy Gore as Ambrose, the superior. It is very good and she's wonderful in it. It's terribly moving, isn't it?
It captured almost everything of what you were saying about that era, the role of a mother superior, the changing of the nun's habit, the lay teachers now coming to the schools, the nun who just couldn't accept the changes and wept, asking Ambrose, `Tell me what to do'. That struck many chords in the religious communities watching it. They were able to go back to what it was like then and remember people that they knew.
People in America love it too. It gained me work in America. It's quite universal. And it was that episode in particular that people like. If you're going to show them anything, you show them that. In fact the Americans screened a stripped-down version. They put it to air as four hours. I've never seen that version but I presume that it uses the first hour, the last hour, that episode and the fifth one about Paul, the priest. It probably discards the two stories about the kids, which you could imagine you could do without and just stay with the nuns.
You were quoted as saying that when you were auditioning the actresses you could tell who was a Catholic or who had been to a Catholic school when they came in.
Yes, you could really tell because non-Catholics were nervous and couldn't relax and gave these strangely stiff, uncomfortable performances, faintly embarrassed and certainly not able to feel emotional about it all, whereas the ones that had obviously lived through it or knew what it was all about just had no difficulty at all in revealing themselves through the work.
Brenda Fricker spoke with hostility about Irish nuns. At the end of filming she was supposed to have said how it had been a kind of exorcising of past memories that she lived through.
Yes, she was a bad girl, she'd had terrible trouble. She had terrible stories to tell about their cruelty and she hated them. In fact on the last day of filming she took the habit, the wimple, everything, off and ground it into the dirt. She took it all off. That was her way of ending the whole thing - put it on the ground and stamp on it. She had had a tough time doing her performance.
The ratings were very high for the ABC and it had people all over Australia discussing the Catholic church and its issues.
Well, I'm very proud of the work. I'm very pleased that it was useful work too. I really believe in the dictum of Van Gogh, who wanted to go to live a religious life before he became a painter, that the cart that one draws has to be useful to others. In other words, what I create in my art has to be useful to other people. Now, you can say that art doesn't have to be useful, but it's useful in the sense that it explains the world to you or it reveals the world to you or it reveals delight - even if it's the awe in an iris growing - whatever it is, it has to be useful to others. I suppose that Brides of Christ is the work that I've done that most answers that. It was was useful to a lot of people.
In terms of Catholicism, Fred Schepisi with The Devil's Playground and then yourself with Brides of Christ have made an enormous contribution compared, say, with dramatising stories of other mainstream churches.
Yes, I don't think anyone knows how to dramatise the Protestant experience of Australia because it hasn't been vivid or it doesn't seem to have a struggle or something that connects it or allows it to be dramatised.
There was the double colonialism of the Australian experience, Irish orders that were now distant from Rome and the fact that the Catholic regime had such difficulty being established in the country during such a long period of Protestant ascendancy.
After Brides of Christ I did a mini-series in America for CBS based on a novel called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which was a very successful book in America, about the devastation to southern family life caused by the Civil War, really. It was about the way southern women would never forgive their men for going off and fighting and losing that stupid war that destroyed southern society. It had a wonderful cast. It starred Diane Lane as the younger woman and Anne Bancroft in the most extraordinary makeup as the 90 year-old oldest living Confederate widow. It was like a cross between Fried Green Tomatoes and Little Big Man. She was Lucy Marsden, this 99-year-old widow, the oldest living survivor, and she talked like Dustin Hoffmann in Little Big Man. It told the story through four generations of her family, of the way the war never stopped being fought. So it began with the Civil War in the 1860s and ends with Donald Sutherland, her husband, as a complete madman. He was a man who just never stopped fighting the Civil War and he inflicted it on the family all through his life. It's quite a wonderful piece of pure Americana. It's four hours. It's quite a rich work. It was a wonderful experience. We made it in Georgia, in Atlanta.
I made another in California, a Movie of the Week. It's called Daldo. It's based on a Jim Harrison book. It's not like Legends of the Fall. It's not a big book.
But I like working in America. It's just difficult to decide whether to go and live there or whether to stay here. I keep hoping things will happen here.
Interview: 12th April 1996