Are there personal criteria for your choices for film and television work?
To some extent it's haphazard in the Australian industry, especially for someone coming up as I did - I started directing on Bellbird when I was 25. A lot of people these days don't even remember Bellbird, but it was our first long running soap, I think. In those days there were no film schools, no media departments in universities. It was much more learning the craft of film-making or television production - more of an on-the-job learning situation.
The theoretical learning that I acquired was through production courses at the ABC. They were quite extensive in those days; they would select, say, twelve students throughout the ABC in Australia and spend three or four months and tens of thousands of dollars per student, providing studios, cameras, actors and programs for them to learn throughout that period. I don't think the ABC does that now but, of course, we have all the other institutes doing it.
I suppose all I'm doing is harking back to a time when the industry was more haphazard. So, coming up through that period, quite a lot of projects that you ended up doing were those that landed in front of you. But, of course, you do seek out those that interest you intellectually.
Rebel was your first feature film?
Yes. I have to think back now. It's a while, isn't it? Yes, Rebel was. I thought it was a really good story. It was a very ambitious attempt to make something of Rebel because of the era in which the film was set. It was a difficult film to make. It had a lot of music in it.
A stylised film and stylised musical numbers. Debra Byrne singing `Your are my hero' was a special moment.
Yes. Peter Best wrote it for the movie. It's funny, Rebel has attracted some fierce critiques from intellectuals who subsequently liked other things that I've done. But it also won five AFI awards and was the most nominated film of its year. It was a curious piece; it didn't altogether work. I was interested in it because of the basic story about the American boy who wants to desert. It said something about Australia and Sydney in World War II. Bob Herbert's play, No Names No Pack Drill, which it was based on, was a good and popular play, so it inherently had some interesting content.
What appealed in Emerald City?
Emerald City was based on one of David Williamson's plays. It's often publicised as being about the competition between two cities, but it's not really about that at all. It's about the survival of Australian culture in the face of a much more powerful cultural wave such as the American wave which is enveloping the world filmicly. Emerald City is about how you survive in the face of this. The play is quite a moving and poignant statement of this issue.
Chris Hayward's Mike Molloy is the embodiment of all that Australians dislike in the American takeover.
Yes. And John Hargreaves' role as the writer, which was pretty much based on David himself, shows the face of that dilemma - how does it start and how do you survive the process? That's what attracted me to the film.
The film is witty, with David Williamson's one-liners. The dialogue is delivered with great speed.
Yes, we sat down with the piece when it was in script form and we thought, `This is not going to survive if we approach it too politely', so with John Hargreaves and Chris Hayward and with David himself, we decided we would do it as we did - we were a bit inspired by some of the Cary Grant movies of the '40s when they talked so quickly. So we thought we would pursue that line and feed the information to an audience at a fairly fast rate so that it keeps happening for them. There were mixed critiques. We had some friends and some foes. Those that loved it loved it - those that hated it were very angry about how fast we spoke.
In terms of American culture, we could do our own literal fast talking?
Yes. We liked the end result and David's quite fond of the film.
Sweet Talker is a film written by Tony Morphett starring Bryan Brown, what I would describe as a real general audience film, a fairly gentle film about some relationships, almost father-son relationships, single mum relationship with her son. It's not what I would call a film that has major clout to it. It's an entertainment film, but what it says is not bad. It's a soft film - it doesn't really go out there pretending it's saying anything world-shattering.
When you look at a sequence like Rebel, Emerald City and Sweet Talker in terms of your original question about criteria for choosing films, the point I was trying to make was that in this industry quite a few things are haphazard. Sweet Talker is one of the more haphazard projects that has come along. But Emerald City had some content that appealed to me strongly. I think that, if anything, there's probably a more deliberate progression through my television work than through films as such.
Heartbreak Kid has some very direct cultural implications. There are some similarities, though on a much different plane from Emerald City, but it's very much about the multicultural community and a couple of younger members of this community struggling to deal with a problem that comes up in the face of attitudes from their fairly conservative backgrounds. This is particularly true for the young schoolteacher played by Claudia Karvan, who's engaged to be married and finds herself attracted, almost despite herself, to a young boy who persists in chasing after her. So this is a fundamental situation that can be found throughout Australia today. However, I think that the old cultures are gradually becoming more flexible.
The choice of a Greek Orthodox family is particularly interesting for Australian cinema. You portrayed them more graphically and realistically than is usually the case, especially in looking at Greek Orthodox families. Did you have technical advice from the church?
We did. We went into the background quite a bit. You're thinking of the parents?
The parents and their having the priest in the house like a chaplain, giving them advice - and the absolute strictness of the parents' moral code.
Yes, a number of people said to us, `that's going too far', or, `that's not necessarily the case any more', but we ran into so many examples of it that were very, very close to these characters, as did the writer of the play, so we decided in the end to stay with it.
They seem a very tight, inward-looking community.
Yes. We thought the father of the boy, played by Nick Lathouris, broke that down a bit. He was a more broad and tolerant person.
Steve Bastoni, playing the fiancee, was influenced strongly by the tightness.
He was very stitched up.
Shaped by that ethos, even to the violence that erupts when he doesn't get his way?
Striking the girl. We didn't actually `sling off' at that background lightly. Richard Barrett, in particular, who based this play on real people that he knew, felt that this reality was the true one, that the situation was true. We tried to counterbalance it, particularly with the boy's father. The two young characters also show that there is a generational thing going on. Claudia Karvan's character is caught in the middle of that.
While the film and its themes were interesting, that kind of explicitly religious background, which we don't often see, offers valuable awareness of the ethnic theme as well.
Sure. It's interesting, isn't it? A lot of Australians don't understand how intensely multicultural we've now become. We walked into schools in Melbourne when we were doing the film, inner city schools - I think this one was in the Brunswick area - where there was only one Anglo kid in the whole school. I don't think it was because Anglo parents wouldn't send their kids there. I think it was the area itself, so populated now by families other than Anglo families.
So the film and the subsequent TV series are probably contributing to this kind of awareness in a more popular way than other ventures?
Well, I hope so. By the end of 1996 they had done 120 hours of Heartbreak High. This is a lot for an all-film series. Certainly in its original form, the first 40 or 50 hours, it had a strong ethnic feel to it. The boy from the film, Alex Dimitriadis, was in the series for quite a long time. `Ethnic' is not a term I even like; `multicultural' is better. It had a multicultural feel to it. That got whittled down a little for a period when certain commercial pressures came to bear from the television channel where, I think, inherently they wanted to see more Anglos. But now it has come back. This show is, if anything, as strongly multicultural as ever.
The curious irony is that the hours filmed in 1996 were made because they had been bought around the world - but not in Australia. But The Heartbreak Kid spawned the series and, to my knowledge, it's the only time - and this is not related to the quality of the film - that this has happened with an Australian film.
The film of The Heartbreak Kid was commercially successful?
Yes, it was successful in the moderate terms that most Australian films are successful. There's only a very few that actually go out and coin lots of money, but I think its earnings are up to nearly $3,000,000. It must have hit a bit of a note. It did quite well on TV screenings.
Television and The Leaving of Liverpool?
I think that the television projects are probably those that I feel personally closest to. I'm trying to change this at the moment with a couple of films in development. My most successful projects have turned out to be television films, in particular Scales of Justice, which was shot in 1983, The Leaving Of Liverpool, shot in 1992, and in 1995, Blue Murder. They're all multi-part projects: Scales was three by two-hours; Liverpool was four hours and Blue Murder four hours. But in terms of content and filmic achievement, those three projects are my favourite things.
I'm currently trying to take some of that feeling to the film world, but I feel that a film script hasn't arrived at the right time for me to go as far in film as I have probably managed to go in television, but hopefully ...
Catholics audiences reacted to The Leaving of Liverpool, some very favourably because you had dramatised a situation that needed attention; others, of course, were alarmed or offended.
We certainly knew that it would cause indignation, but we approached it in a way that we thought was not overall geared to bashing the Roman Catholic church. There were many institutes involved in bringing young kids from England to Australia and to other parts of the world, not just the Catholic church. We ran into flak from the English front, from people who thought we were actually attacking the English system. No, we didn't see it as being specifically aimed at the Catholic church.
However, as the writers researched the project, they went towards and selected examples that they thought were the most precocious for telling the story. Brother Keaney in Western Australia was one character who leapt out at them; he was hard to ignore. That became the basis of telling quite a lot of the story of The Leaving of Liverpool. And we really did try to say in the program that this was not the only story. So, yes, we knew it would cause some offence, but there are some good people in the story too, with the kids.
Bill Hunter, portraying a character the equivalent of Brother Keaney, was so striking that he commanded our attention.
Yes. But we were hoping and the writers were hoping that what happened would be recognised as having happened.
Television storytelling is a way of educating people. When we see a personal story rather than merely read a headline, then the issue becomes real. Whatever the dramatic licence for The Leaving of Liverpool, it made something of the lives of the children real.
The writers researched at vast length. We also talked at vast length to people. My contact with some of the actual grown up kids made me feel that there's no overstatement in Liverpool. Many of them feel that we understated what happened.
You highlighted the tough work, the brutalising side of life and work as well as the harshness of the living; you merely suggested aspects of sexual abuse which, in fact, have been documented by some of the brothers. The sexual issues seem to be underplayed.
Yes, I think that's true. I think it was probably much worse than that. In fact, it was.
The series seems to have had an impact on the Australian audience. It won awards and solid ratings.
It did. We kept getting letters and responses to it for two years. The writers believe and the producer believes, as well, that it has actually had quite a bit to do with a new wave of these people trying to reconnect and seek some justice. It was also some acknowledgement that Brother Keaney was not deserving of being put on a pedestal.
Had you had much or any contact with the Catholic church or did you come cold to this project?
No, not extensive contact. But I was once involved in a series the ABC did about Catholic priests, a positive series, I can't think of the name of it offhand. We did quite a few hours of it and it was set in a Catholic seminary. So, at that time, I did quite a lot of reading about the Catholic church. But, no, I'm not steeped in Catholicism. I've read a lot of Catholic writers and I think it's a very complex culture. I hope we weren't seeming to be oversimplify issues with Liverpool.
And Blue Murder? It screened on ABC television but it wasn't shown in New South Wales for legal reasons. It was a very vivid dramatisation. It looked real - showing us real characters and events.
Yes. Ian David, who wrote it, is a very thorough researcher. We went into it as extensively as we possibly could. He spent about 18 months just on research before writing it. I've been interested in the police criminal culture for quite a long time. Scales of Justice was related to it. But Ian put a huge amount of time into it and we had to be very circumspect about what we said because we were using real people's names.
There are two things that need to be said: there was the legal problem; but there was also a moral obligation on us not to say things that we thought were debatable, because in Blue Murder things were attributed to people that they hadn't necessarily been charged with. You need to be awfully careful when you do that, that you have got it right. So, to that extent, we left a lot of things out that we could have put in but, given those parameters, we went as far as we thought was okay to do.
It was certainly strong stuff. Reviewers in Victoria recommended audiences to watch it. Talkback radio had a number of sessions on it afterwards. Some people said they wanted to turn it off. But, given the Royal Commission in New South Wales and inquiries in other states, the series actually contributed a great deal to Australian consciousness that justice needs to be investigated.
Well, I hope so. What we were trying to do with Blue Murder was not be too didactic or say to audiences, `You must know all this stuff'. We tried to present the two lead characters, Neddy Smith and Roger Rogerson, as fully rounded characters. In fact, a curious thing happened for all of us in making the series and in being close to it, particularly the actors who feel a necessary obligation to fall in love with the character they're portraying, as bad as that character might actually be. But we were all drawn in some way into those characters, to see their positive side, their sense of humour, their sense of loyalty. We had to try and understand that somewhere way back in the distant past, things went wrong for them and they ended up going down the wrong track. But we tried to be not too judgmental, just to portray them in, if you like, as attractive a way as their life histories would allow us to. And I don't think either of those men, despite what is attributed to them, are totally bleak as people. There's a richness to them which you can't deny.
And the thing we liked about Blue Murder was that we felt it had a sense of humour.
Australian writers and directors make docu-dramas like this very successfully.
It's nice to make something strong, but something that's not too leaden. You can turn on the news at night and get the leaden stuff. Of course, they had a good time, those guys. But the interesting thing is they mostly killed people for one reason, which was informing. They wouldn't kill people for pleasure. In fact I don't think they got pleasure out of killing anyone.
A code of protection, of self-protection?
Yes, it's the same sort of code that a lot of people have followed in the world. But if someone was informing on them, about to turn them in, betray them, that's when they tended to move against them. As I say, I don't think they slavered around in it or got a big kick out of killing.
From Scales of Justice to Blue Murder, television and film - you have done a fair amount of Australian storytelling. We have to tell our stories.
I suppose that's true. Interestingly enough, that's at the heart of David Williamson's writing in Emerald City, the need for Australians to tell our stories. There's a classic speech in there from Williamson's main character on exactly that point. For our cultures to survive, we have to tell our own stories.
Your films and series are moralising without being moralistic or didactic. You have been able to take on moral issues.
They're commenting, anyway. But you have to be so careful not to be solely judgmental, particularly in drama documentaries. If you go back to Scales of Justice, the achievement of the writer and the actors was that you actually liked the characters. The sergeant who went and stole the fur coat from a shop that had been broken into, and stole one for the young constable so that he could put it in his locker and compromise him. That same sergeant you see pulling the bleeding bodies of half a dozen kids out of a huge traffic smash.
Their lives are multidimensional and it's a very hard, shattering job at times, I'm sure. That's all I mean by judgmental. We hoped that Scales of Justice was never judgmental. It's very easy to be judgmental.
But it's so easy for things to get mis-stated. I opened the paper the other day and it was reporting on Rogerson's testimony. A journalist - perhaps she was young, maybe inexperienced - but she credited Rogerson with having been convicted of a conspiracy to murder Drury in conjunction with Flannery. He was never convicted, never. He went to gaol only for having money in a bank account that he couldn't account for. But, there in the press, he's given a credit as a murderer. So you've got to be a bit cautious.
Interview: 25th March 1996