Your main focus in film-making and television has been on children's films?
It's been primarily children's films - I like to call them family films because what I do with a lot of the films is I try and hit three levels. Of course, it's got to appeal to the kids and be relevant to them. It's then also got to appeal to the parents in some way so that they can get something out of it, but then there's the grandparents as well.
What makes this style of film-making very difficult is not only do you have those three generations that you have to appeal to, but you also then have to appeal to the three generations in other countries. So you're dealing with an enormous variation in taste and style and attitudes, which then, in the end, means that you have to resort to the universal themes because they're looking at what is it that we all have in common rather than what it is it that actually separates us.
How does that work for Napoleon and The Real Mc Caw? What's for the children, what's for the parents and what's for the grandparents?
In both of them there's an adventure story. Both are driven by a sense of adventure, a sense of exploration, a sense of a child going out of an environment that it knows into an environment that it doesn't know. And, along the way, the central character actually tests itself - tests itself against the major elements, both physical and ethical, and they finally get to a point where - usually I like to set my climactic scenes in the midst of a flood. You'll notice in Napoleon and in The Real McCaw?, as well as Captain Johnno, the major climactic scene happens in the middle of a flood and there's redemption and cleansing and rediscovering.
That imagery of the flood - where does it come from in your experience? Is it religious, psychological, both?
It's actually both, because I trained as a psychologist and I did a major research project looking at the development of storytelling, and I applied motivational theory to storytelling. I looked at the Bible, the Bhagavad Ghita, the Koran, ancient Greek tragedies, Roman tales and modern cinema and television. I got a perspective on the development of storytelling. And one of the things that I noticed really strongly was the use of water. Most of the major religions of the world are desert religions and water has a really strong meaning. And that's percolated through our thinking, the whole use of water and the cleansing effect of water.
I also believe that having parasites in the Sydney water system is actually going right to the root of fundamental psychology, because water is supposed to represent purity and cleansing and to have it impure is quite amazing.
You symbolise water in the sea in the three films, you've chosen the harbour and the open sea?
That's right. In a major scene in Napoleon there's a flash-flood and the dog gets whisked away. But then within the flood, he actually finds himself. The same with The Real McCaw?. There's wind and water and it's right in the midst of that environment. Thematically, I think that it touches all the different generations because it touches kids but it touches buttons within adults and grandparents as well.
You're a family man yourself?
Three boys. That's how I've lost so much hair.
You've focused on boys in the films as well?
Yes, I have, but my next movie is called Sally Marshall is not an Alien and it is actually all girls. I specifically went for that film because it did have girl characters. It's the same sort of thing; it's looking at really fundamental ethical questions in an entertaining medium. I think it's really important that, while there is such a huge amount of family material, there's very little family material that has an Australian voice. And that's really what I'm on about.
Speaking of voices - talking animals and talking birds. What's the attraction of the animals?
Well, animals have been around in storytelling since Aesop's Fables. There's something about an animal representing a human character that immediately reduces all the complexities of this human character to very simple, very accessible and very understandable terms. We can see and we can project so much of ourselves onto an animal. Anybody who has a pet can do that. I found that the use and the symbolic use of animals is, in fact, extremely appealing.
You won an Emmy for Captain Johnno. How significant was your contribution to the movement of Children's Television and Film in the '80s and '90s?
Reasonably significant because, with a film like Captain Johnno, we moved away from the idea that kids' films need to be froth and bubble. Captain Johnno is actually quite a serious film. Lots of people said to me, "Kids aren't going to watch this. Kids aren't going to relate to this. They want fun." And it proved them all wrong. In fact, I think there's such a need that kids have to have some strong moral pillars or ethical pillars around the place, so they can get a sense as to where they stand, that when they see films like Captain Johnno, they gravitate to them like bees to a honeypot.
I did that and I did Sky Trackers. I also did Lift Off. They were all attempts to try to add something or contribute on a level that went beyond what was being done at the time. Then I got to a point where I thought, well, rather than going with other people's ideas and other people's scripts, why not become involved in myself and have a lot more control, rather than always getting to the situation where you've got to go through explaining the storytelling, what you're trying to do and so on.
Relationships are important in your films. Part of yourr ethical consideration seems to be the family as in The Real McCaw?
Absolutely. It doesn't look at family in an analytical way, but it's really trying to look at those instinctive human emotions that push and pull people. We need to see that represented and we need to acknowledge that it is a conflict we all have. We need to see how some people resolve it, that this is what we're all striving for and how important it is - then I think we've achieved something. When I look at the fact that I'm still getting letters from kids around the world who have seen Napoleon ten, fifteen times, it makes me realise what an impact cinema can have. And I just hope that I can contribute in some small way.
The Dreaming and Fair Game - where did they come from?
Fair Game came out of a situation where we were wanting to make a movie that was a B-grade video suspense thriller. I wanted to treat it like comic book violence - it was always like a comic book study of violence. What amazed me and the thing I found quite disappointing was that it started to become a cult film in some parts of the world and people were taking it seriously. And that, for me, became a real turning point. I thought, if people are taking this seriously, then I don't think I can make this sort of material.
Some reviews said it was misogynistic and sexist. Did you see it that way or was this more of the comic book style?
Yes, it was very much comic book. It wasn't really saying anything. It had references to other movies and it was more like an experience. In the end it's the woman that wins out: it's a growth in strength of a woman who's being harassed by these three guys.
But then I went on to The Dreaming, which was originally a script that was tackling, quite strongly, the issue of the past treatment of aborigines, the white-black conflict. Unfortunately, there was a time when the script was changed right in front of me and I was subject to other people saying, "No, you can't make that film, you've got to make this film". So, when you're in that position where you're starting out and where nobody trusts you, nobody really has total faith in your vision because you haven't actually got a track record. Then they take the prominent position.
You would have been able to make some statements about Aboriginal problems?
Absolutely, yes. But it's that trial and error process you go through. It's finding where you actually stand and why you want to make the sort of films that you do.
The South Australian perspective pervades a lot of your work.
Yes, very much so. I was born in South Australia in Leigh Creek, a coalmining town. I think one of the good things about Adelaide that I've found - because I actually lived in Sydney for nearly four and a half years - is that in Adelaide I can have an individual voice. You've got to find your own voice. For instance, a film like Priscilla could never be made out of Adelaide. That's a Sydney type of film, whereas you look at a film like Napoleon, it's looking at the Australian landscape and Australian characters from a completely different point. That, to me, is what characterises Adelaide.
Out of Adelaide - well, what have you had over the past five years? You've had Bad Boy Bubby, you've had The Quiet Room, you've had Shine, you've had Napoleon - it's an environment that actually encourages individuality, which is the thing I really love about the place.
20th September 1998