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Lawrence Johnstone

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LAWRENCE JOHNSTONE

How did you move into film-making?

I left school when I was 15 and worked for 20th Century Fox distribution in Brisbane. I used to repair films, standing at a bench all day repairing prints. That was just before video came in. The great thing about it was that we were encouraged to take prints home, and I saw not only 20th Century Fox films, but MGM, United Artists, Columbia, an amazing amount of films, really. So it was through leisure and being entertained by films that I started to appreciate them more. It wasn't till years later that I went to film school at Swinburne, maybe the last or the second last year out of the Hawthorn campus - and that was in 1990.

Night Out was your graduation film?

Yes. I had read a series of newspaper articles about street violence and, in particular, violence that was aimed at men who were gay. So, I guess that was the jumping-off point. But for me it had to be much more. I thought it was interesting to marry the issue of guilt with its association with something that's out of one's control, say, being bashed on the street. That was an underlying factor, but the film was really about monogamy and commitment between two people. The second half of the film explores this. Night Out went to Cannes. It was the film that really helped me be able to go on and make the other films. You know, once you have a success, it helps you develop more scripts and get more work.

Did Night Out reflect more of the '80s than the '90s? Is Australian society still homophobic and violent?

Underneath it's a very violent society. It manifests itself in actual physical violence, but I think there's a lot of emotional violence as well, and every so often it comes out. I personally believe that, no matter how much laws change, there will always be struggles of power and control. You could be alone on the street one night and simply be the victim of a group of people hurting you. It's really circumstantial. That may sound cynical, but power and control have been around since the beginning of time. I think that people can be educated. But so many young people can be drugged or they can be on alcohol, high on whatever it is and, through these circumstances, anything can happen.

The black and white photography, light and shadow, highlight this.

Each of the films I've made is very carefully constructed. Night Out is a contemporary film noir. It's about two men supposedly on the underbelly of society, gay or homosexual, however you want to term them. But the issues were not only about literal black and white; there was a whole complexity underlying the story. I guess the black and white added a stylistic starkness to the story that also made the violence even stronger. I knew if that aspect of the film didn't work, then the whole plot wasn't really going to work. So it was going for something that was bold in terms of, say, the sections at night where the man was actually bashed and taken to the front of the bank in the car. But there's also a romanticism about the black and white that I quite liked. It enhanced the story as well, and the same with Eternity.

From Night Out to Eternity seems an extraordinary leap in theme.

It's funny for me as a film-maker - people always think that you're only interested in one sort of film. Even now people think I'm interested only in very serious, heavy subjects. Eternity has some humour - it's not hilarious, but there's a little bit of humour in its style, but it's affection, it's not derogatory.

Eternity came out of the whole thing about mortality. I have friends who have died in the last few years, died early. And that makes you think, well, how long are you going to be around. Film is such a frozen medium and so photographic - you photograph it and that's the end of the process. But film is also such a wonderful way to be able to tell a story. I was drawn to the Eternity story in that it was an amazing way for someone to spend their life. So, from a story point of view, I thought it was a wonderful yarn. Even though it occurred in the city, it was like the Chinese whispers or the village folk tale in a contemporary sense.

When I first heard the story I thought that it was like a story of London New York in the 30s, because we don't usually sort of celebrate our eccentrics or these kinds of phenomena in our cities. I wanted to bring all that together as well as the influence that the person who wrote `Eternity' had. The word appeared for 20 years and nobody knew who wrote it. It would appear overnight like frost. His name was Arthur Stace and he was dubbed by the Sydney press and known from then till the end of his life as Mr Eternity. He still quietly went around and did what he did after he was discovered.

I was also amazed that it was a story that was of our culture, from here. It seemed as if it should have been a European story. So all of that went into my wanting to make the film, as well as imbuing it with a visual style that was mysterious, hence the black and white.

The visual style is extraordinary, some of the light and shadow in the archival footage, glimpses of Sydney and the re-enactments of Arthur Stace's life.

I guess `Eternity' became an icon around the city, part of Sydney's folklore, really, so what we wanted to do was imbue the film with as many solid icons of Sydney as possible, like the harbour bridge, but photograph them in a way that you could look at them today and say, `Well, the bridge is still there the way it is', but you could also say, `My God, that photography where he's walking past the bridge, it looks like it was shot in 1930'. So it was playing around with the way we perceived the city, playing around with time as well. As human beings we move through spaces, we die, we pass away - but things live on, they are be still bridges, buildings. All of that underlies my story as well.

Other icons include the Moreton Bay Fig tree on the corner of Parramatta Road and City Road where Arthur Stace had his religious experience and, especially, the war memorial in Hyde Park, the night shots, the angles, tracking over the body sculpture, the epitaph.

Yes. We had some night-shoot stuff of the exterior of the Hyde Park memorial. We had some friezes of soldiers that are above the doorway, which are really beautiful, that I wanted to use. We'd photographed them, but through the editing we had to end up dropping them. There was a very beautiful shot of Stace because he had been involved in the war - I found it very poignant when I researched it - he had gone to be a drummer but ended up as a stretcher-bearer. I thought there was great sadness in that. What I wanted to do was have him come back at the end of the film and write his `Eternity' at the base of the war memorial. But with the editing, the music and the scheme of the film, it just didn't quite fit in.

The archival footage?

The archival was not so much to say that this is a particular year or era, but to use it for more of an emotional effect. Arthur Stace came from a pretty low background and there was a period where he was on the drink, and there's one clip of him as a drunk coming out of a bar, which was taken from a 20s film called The Painted Daughters. I wanted to tell the story in documentary form because I felt that if it was told as a drama, people would not believe it if they'd never heard of it before. So it was to be fairly stylised, but also to have talking heads as well, to punctuate the re-creations. It's certainly not a straight realist documentary.

But the thing that the film brings together is the influence that he had on people who saw the word - Dorothy Hewitt has him as a figure in her first novel in 1959; Martin Sharp perpetuated `Eternity' as a pop icon and is now sold through stores in Sydney as greeting cards, bathing caps and T shirts. The Christian Television Association have been using clips from the film for their TV spots.

So, there's a mixture of different things. There's a Movietone newsreel which underscores Reverend Ridley's sermon about eternity. There's also the clip from The Painted Daughters, where a man who's intoxicated comes out of a pub and pigeons fly up, which I found completely surreal. It was slowed up a little in the real film, but then we slowed it up a little bit more.

In telling this kind of story, there were so many aspects to it that were not inherent in my lifestyle but one has to appreciate them and be able to interpret them. I felt that there were ways to give inferences visually of what was happening: when Ridley is giving his sermon, it would be quite easy to just have still photographs of him, which we had, but I felt I wanted a much more poetic, bigger way of showing it. The sermon was about our existence here and about water and land. We had two small figures on rocks with waves. The same with a man out of control, drinking, like in Night Out, with dramatic points like the bashing and the knifing in the car, that. For Arthur Stace we had to make sure that the audience felt that this was someone who had gone down to a point where, if he didn't do what he did, then he wasn't at the right place at the right time, and he would probably have died.

It's a very Australian story with his harsh Balmain upbringing, then the drink, the war and his transformation.

Yes, the little Aussie battler.

Another aspect is the Sydney footage from the 50s, colour material which was very effective, contrasting with the photographic style for the witnesses to Stace's life.

I did quite an amazing amount of research for that because I love archival film, particularly if it's in colour. It's great. Some of it came from a woman called Zina Oliver who donated it to us. We only had to pay the costs for transferring it. Some of it is beautiful, of Sydney and the streets.

There's one piece of archival film in the film that actually has the real Mr Eternity in it. It occurs in the middle of the film where Mrs May - she's in the film briefly - talks about Arthur travelling everywhere to write the word. There's a shot outside Wynyard station and he crosses the frame. Somebody said, `You should have a circle and pick him out', but I quite like the fact that it's just in there.

He was an anonymous kind of person.

Well, that was another thing. I never wanted the actor ever to speak or to naturalistically read his words or have that kind of re enactment. I wanted to just have images.

Your choices of music? Eternity has a solemn, sometimes majestic pace. And then you finish with the Lord's Prayer. These more classical choices have a strong feel to them. It is the same with Life.

I grow impatient with Australian films that are very ordinary - they look like television and there's not much style to them. When I worked at Fox I would see a lot of Hollywood films, a lot of MGM films from the studio period of the 30s, 40s and 50s and I loved big scores and emotional films. I felt that when you go to the movies, it's not like just going down the street. You're going in for a different journey. I think that music, photography and design, particularly, can really come together to produce something very powerful. And so I felt that what I wanted was in some ways to have this incredibly small, very eccentric story, but have the visuals and the sound score to be much bigger.

So I guess my vision for the film was very big. Music can be so powerful, just listening to it and, combined with a good, solid story with good performances, it really solidifies everything.

Even sequences like the moment when he goes up under the fig tree - there are so many references there but for me one is Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind going up under the tree and saying, `As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again'. It's very different, but it's the tree and the small figure.

Is Eternity a religious film?

Is Eternity a religious film? I think I would say it's religious, but I'm not sure, personally, whether it's religious in a Christian sense. What I tried to do was to imbue it with what I felt Arthur Stace was trying to do. I probably sound like I'm contradicting myself or being insincere, but I just feel that as a film-maker you have to tell the story the way that serves it best. Some people said to me, `Oh, the Lord's Prayer is at the end of the film!' and so on. But I said, `Well, that's what he did, that's what he was about. That's what the whole reason for his existence'. I think it's a knockout, the end. I love it. And I love the way the music builds and there's a majesty where the camera slowly moves over the footpath and discovers `Eternity' one last time on the street.

You have been quoted as saying it was archetypal. Is the presentation of such a man, his conversion experience and his subsequent sense of vocation and mission religious and/or archetypal?

It's very classical. I must admit I'm not Christian in the religious sense of being Christian. I think I would be religious and I believe in certain things, but all I can say, is that I was aware of the elements of his life and tried to construct them as finely as I could.

I think it's very rarely allowed to have a voice in films in Australia unless it's, say, for television or documentary. But they were integral parts to that story. The one thing I wanted to get across not only to people who were religious, but to non-religious, was that there was something incredible and passionate to be recognised in his achievement, something unusual and wonderful. It depends on the way you look at it, but I think you can tell that everyone who speaks in Eternity has been affected by seeing Stace and eternity in some way.

The conversation with Blake Prize artist, George Gittoes, about his religious art and his memories of death and the funeral highlight the transcendent.

It's beautiful the way that this theme is planted early on and then the discussion occurs later in the film.

Robyn Ravlich said that she wasn't a believer that she knew that Stace was driven by a Christian imperative. You dramatised how he was driven.

To me he was driven by a Christian imperative, but I think what Robyn is saying is that it is probably a bit more - and I would agree with her in some ways - that there was a survival thing because of his having gone so low. I think many people have things in their lives that help them get through. It was a combination of elements, I think, with him.

She referred to his life and writing as a Christian song line.

Yes, I guess the idea about the song line in our urban society is a contemporary kind of idea. It's usually true to Aboriginals and the country. I don't know of any other culture that actually uses the term `song line'.

Eternity received a great many awards.

Yes. It's amazing how many people have responded to it, particularly Americans, but Europeans less so, which surprised me because it's such a European-looking film. We actually found it hard to distribute the film in Europe. I thought it would go to the London Film Festival or to Edinburgh. There was something about its folkloric nature that I thought would be surely of interest. But it hasn't played there, no.

Moving to Life. John Brompton said he wanted to make a beautiful film. Is that your phrase as well?

No, he said that. I think he would have probably meant by that an affecting film. We wanted to make a film that was issue based but which was also just about human beings and the way they feel about the world.

It was something of a shock to see you making a film in colour. You have commented on the use of red especially...

Because the film was about men who are HIV positive, which is about a person's blood being infected in a certain way - which in this day and age cuts down their chances for a normal life span - that's what's flowing through them. We painted the floors red. In prisons the floors are either brand new modern tiles or, in the older ones, they're painted green or blue. I said to the production designer that we could use red sparingly, so that it is underflowing those men's lives. If you see it you, see it. And the doors are red as well, because the doors are the entrances into spaces. In the final sequence the door opens and it's like an invasion of the prisoners' space and the prison officer comes through. It was a dynamic production design.

There is also the use of grey and red with the uniforms and also with the design of the cells which harks back to a Nazi kind of colouring. It was having what people know of that colour configuration but not hitting them over the head with it. I never ever wanted to make a black and white pretty prison drama. The whole thing was about power and control. You've got the completely separate world of the men's emotions and their own lives outside prison.

You used the device of the dictionary entry in both Eternity and Life. It looks like a signature device. Again the two titles, Life and Eternity are so close. Was Life your title?

The film was actually called Out of the Blue when we were writing it. We were writing it through the time when I was making Eternity and, as the script progressed from the play to what you saw on the screen, I wasn't happy with the title. We were thinking of other ones and, because this film was about so many elements, I just thought of Life as a good strong title. I was very self conscious, having made a film called Eternity and then making one called Life. I thought people would ask, `Well, what's he going to do next?' and think it was a bit pretentious.

But I felt that the title Life, even though it's so simple, really is the regular term of people's lives; but it's also a jail sentence, how long you spend in there, the whole thing of `in for life'. So it just seemed perfect.

And the life sentence of some of these men with HIV?

Yes. The connotations of life can be positive or negative. I think it just depends on the character.

In focusing on these men, you make us realise that they are victims of a `leper mentality' in society. Night Out highlighted the violence against gay men. Marginalised people are part of the underlying texture of life. We know who these men are in Life. It is not a matter of their sexual orientation, but they are infected and we see how they are treated.

Yes. Again, talking with John about developing the work, I never really wanted to make a film where people were thin and dying as we've seen so many telemovies about AIDS. I wanted to blur the edges a bit; there are so many things that people can be sick with, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be dying next week. They could be quite healthy. But once people have the knowledge of something that seems anti social, whether they have cancer or whatever, people treat them differently. So what I wanted people to do was to look at the film and see that these men in fact are basically a healthy-looking bunch but, psychologically, their territories were very mixed. Then it got darker and darker and more complex as the film progressed.

You have spoken about the thematic and visual influences of Sirk and Genet.

I haven't seen a lot of Sirk's films but I've seen a few. I guess it comes back again to heightening the emotions as a cinematic experience. It's like the use of that image which is from the archival film, The Broken Melody, which is in Life, and people ask, `Well, what's that about?' It's quite unnaturalistic but it's about rescuing and there's a series of rescues through Life that are either fulfilled or unfulfilled. It's the power play between men and women or men and men. The young woman in that sequence runs up to throw herself down, but the man comes out to save her. Earlier in the film Des and his girlfriend are in a car, having a tete a tete and then it goes wrong because he gets out of control when he has a fit. And there's a moment where she jumps out of the car and has to decide if she is going to help him or not. She could quite easily have run off and left him alone, but she goes back. I guess I'm a humanist and life's all about whether we help each other or whether we don't. And the same occurs with other relationships through the film.

Ralph has the dream of people disappearing and he's left on his own.

Yes, that speech actually occurred in the original play, and when we were writing it, we talked about where it could occur. The bastion of Australian suburbia is the backyard - it's where we have parties, barbecues, all sorts of things happen - so I said, `Why not have it at a barbecue?' We looked around for a house where we could get the camera far enough back so that we had an icon of the steeple of the house, and then Ralph stands before his friends and gives a soliloquy. We build on it as much as we could: the use of the string of the light that comes from near the camera that kind of anchors the house. And then there's the ephemeral experience of where the people disappear.

There are quite a number of sequences outside the prison.

It's funny, because when people say with Eternity that it's a documentary, I think it is and it isn't. And when they say Life is a prison film, I go, `Well, it is and it isn't', as well.

You say that you did want to make a realist drama but you wanted to explore the psychological territory of HIV.

Yes, because people deal with that sort of thing in different ways, and it was interesting to me because we've seen so many medical films about it on television. It was like people seeing other people dying. I felt there's a lot more to our lives than just that part of it. It could have been very easy to make that kind of film, but it would have been another one on the shelf like a lot of others.

Prison life is a bit like a fantasy so that all the rest of life is unreal.

Yes, it's that whole thing about being in prison. I've never been in prison, I've only visited. To me it was amazing to be able to walk out the door in the afternoon, but then to realise other people have to stay there for 6 months or 2 years, 10 years and people come and see them. It must be very weird to not be able to have that freedom. Having interviewed some men there, I realise the things that they find important and what their lives are made up of are memories and dreams and aspirations.

Religious icons again. There is a striking use at the end with Ralph's death when Des signs, like an anointing, Ralph's forehead with a cross. Was that your idea or John Brompton's?

I think it was John's idea. Again it's one of those things in society that people have reverence for, whether or not they are religious in a Christian sense. It's a ritual. I think we felt that it was the sort of thing that Des would do, even though he would not see himself in any way, shape or form as Christian, but it was something that he did.

Some kind of blessing.

Yes.

You highlighted the cross in Eternity, especially on the war graves. You would have focused on it for the same reasons. It's interesting that it has recurred, unexpectedly, at the end of Life. It's interesting that, in the secularised society that Australia claims it is, you rely on the symbol of the cross to make some kind of transcendent sense.

Yes.


Interview: 30th October 1998

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [02:10:23 UTC] by malone


Language: en