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Michael Thornhill

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In the '60s and '70s when you were working on film reviews and lecturing, did you imagine that there was going to be an Australian industry?

I was basically a propagandist. First of all, I didn't have a formal education, although I'm spasmodically well-read, and I actually started as a technician, not as a critic. I started as an apprentice film editor, for want of a better description, so that in my twenties - you have to remember contextually that this is before there were any film schools or anything like that; there were a few tech college courses - I started writing articles. So I had a concurrent career, as it were, as a film editor and a film reviewer.

I didn't get the film reviewing job straight away; I did it part time, filled in and then I was offered a job as the reviewer on The Herald and got fired eight months later. Then I was immediately hired by The Australian. I saw my position as proactive on two fronts: one was fighting censorship and two was trying to do anything to help get an Australian film industry established.

I think the people who did the real groundwork were Sylvia Lawson and Cecil Holmes and that Philip Adams and Barry Jones have taken all the credit. I think the intellectual framework had been laid. Basically, I tried a new tack: I was very influenced by, in Left- Right terms, the kind of Left Liberal attitudes which were not just Marxist, but Left Liberal anti-Americanism. I always thought that was crazy in this country because I actually thought that various American administrations and various Acts of Congress had been far more radical than anything that was proposed by a kind of cranky Left Liberal Marxist push, any nationalistic thing. What I started to do was to look at the Sherman Anti- Trust Acts of the 1890s passed by the US Congress. My form of attack as propaganda, basically, was an attack on the vertically integrated nature of the industry, which incidentally, was outlawed in the US.

So that was where I came from. I also believed what Truffaut said in an interview, "If you want to be an artist in the afternoon, you have to be a businessman in the morning." (That's in pre-feminist terminology.) What I was doing in my kind of reviewing in commenting on the industry was not pushing the "this is our birthright" line, but pushing an economic rationalist line, which was that the marketplace is not free.

Now, I think that position is far more sophisticated than pushing a purely nationalist point of view, so that's really what I consider my contribution, humble and modest as it was. I think that kind of thing freaked them all out a lot more than the Left Liberal tub-thumping.

When you started to make films yourself, how were you able to work within the context that was developing in the '70s.

Well, it's all gone backwards now, of course. But I believed in the Lyndon B Johnson theory of being inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in. So, I thought that a combination of public and private support was essential and that you were not going to get finance just through public support. I thought that the thing to do was to get the distributors involved, if not investing and putting up guarantees, at least putting up money against distribution rights.

The other thing that I did was to distribute a film myself, so I learnt about the deal side of it and the advertising side, all of that. I think I'm fundamentally an arthouse film-maker trying to survive in a commercial world, and that means convincing people that you've got something that is commercial when, in fact, you don't have a Megaplex or Multiplex film, you've actually got a smaller film. Basically, I never saw myself as making mainstream populist films. I've got nothing against mainstream populist films because they keep the thing turning over.

You collaborated with Frank Moorehouse over many years?

We've got to put this in context. He collaborated with a lot of people. We did one short film together and we did two feature films, of stuff that got made. I executive produced but didn't direct a TV telefeature that he wrote, The Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. He's an ideas person, I think. He doesn't earn and has never really earned a living writing screenplays, although he's collaborated with other people on various projects. I really saw him as a far better, more succinct ideas person than I was, and that was the basis of the relationship.

Everybody evolves in different directions. I evolved. My work, small as it is, is now evolving towards a more modernist, collaborative approach. I think the most interesting Australian films are the modernist films - and there are very few of them.

Mad Max I was really interesting because that was apocalyptic, raw, morally primitive, a combination of moral primitiveness in an aesthetic sense and a kind of Greek revenge tragedy, and that's a one-off special event.

The other interesting Australian films for me are Bliss, Love and Other Catastrophes, Kiss or Kill. They're what I call modernist things, the antithesis of Prologue, Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Epilogue television-inspired drama, which a lot of Australian films still are. So, my collaboration with Frank was right for the time, where what I was attempting to do was to solve mis-en-scene problems with ideas. Now I'm trying to do something quite different, which is to create something from the ground up, with ideas and with actors. My latest project has probably a 65-page rather than a 110-page script and, while some scenes are totally written out, others are not and, therefore, I keep changing it. When I know what actor may be playing what role, I rewrite it completely to fit that actor. And even then there will be a two-week reading rehearsal period where we will keep push-pulling characters. That's basically where I am at the moment.

How do you see Between Wars now, almost a quarter of a century later?

I think that it's got - to use the sort of neo-classical dramatic terminology which I don't like using now, but for the purposes of communication - I think it's got a very weak Act Three. The last third is too compressed; it's not elongated, the characters are not elaborated enough. I think it's got a very powerful Act Two and an okay Act One. I think Act Two has captured something beyond the ideas. It captured certain emotional vicissitudes of the country in the way that Act One and Act Three didn't. Act Two is successful because it's measured and it's lyrically lackadaisical - whereas Act Three is almost all about imparting information. Act One has interesting moments, but Act Two, between the wars, is the most successful because it goes beyond a narrative expression of ideas. It goes into the feelings, both personal and wider community feelings, and that's why I think Act Two is quite successful. Also it's far more successful in getting the feelings of innate conservatism rather than directly expressing it.

Presenting those ideas in the '70s, of the liberal and the conservative, the exploration of psychology in the context of World War One and then what happened in the '30s was unusual.

I think Frank was more interested in looking at the evolution of a psychiatric practice than I was. I was more interested in a kind of social psychosis, so there were two different things going on. He had a lot more knowledge than I did of Havelock Ellis and stuff like that. Also he had researched case studies that I was unaware of, and he had a much more profound and better knowledge than I did. I was more interested in how you translate or, a better word, how you 'realise' ideas. I was much more interested in the peripheral aspects of it all. His major contribution was that he came up with ideas that I could never have come up with; but having said that, I think Act Three doesn't work. I think it's too compressed and it needed to be double the length and we needed to slow down. Instead of taking big ideas, we should have taken one idea and expanded that rather than having three or four ideas and compressing them.

You take one idea and you toy with it and play with it and tease it rather than having a series of thematic things that you've got to get into a series, which makes for compression. I think the most successful thing in the film is Arthur Dignam's performance as the other doctor, because what it did was show the urbane side of a colonial society. With a less urbane actor, that wouldn't have been possible to do.

With the nostalgia films of the time, it's interesting that you were going back to a more recent past but really wanting to show - your phrase - social psychosis. With The FJ Holden and The Journalist you became contemporary.

Well, FJ Holden was probably the one people liked the most. I think the academics have got it all wrong. There's been reams of stuff written about it being social realism. I don't see that it's social realism at all. My idea of social realism would have been to document unemployment - which there was quite a bit of at that stage - do all that sort of stuff, kids sticking up camera shops, the whole ethnic mix. Whereas I actually saw it, and still do, as dreamlike poetic kind of thing. I had more French poetry than British social realism. I never saw it as being factually accurate. It was always fascinating to me how you can just get it totally wrong in terms of perceptions. Everyone saw it as social realism. And I think they're still wrong.

People look at it now, they review it now and they see it totally differently. They see it, now, more like I saw it. But then it was seen only as searing social realism. And it caused a lot of censorship carry-on.

You see, I think some of the content got in the way so that people were looking at the narrational content rather than actually feeling what was in front of them. The thing still works because it's not rushed. There's some quite fast montage, but the linear thing is not rushed. It also captured a series of what I call monosyllabic feelings rather than articulate feelings. I'm talking about the visual style as well, not just the characters but the actual milieu of the whole film.

The Journalist was a misfire completely and I think it was my fault entirely. We should never have had Jack Thompson. He was just miscast. He's not a comedian. He's a serious, solid actor. We should have had Sam Neill in the lead role and you would have had a debonair roue - it was meant to be a debonair roue. It was meant to be a piece of fluff, a piece of effervescent fluff that came out feeling like lard.

Again people do a content analysis, like they did with FJ Holden. If you could imagine, say, Sam Neill in the Jack Thompson role and Arthur Dignam as he was then in the Sam Neill role, I think you would have an entirely different perspective on the film. I don't think it ever had anything particularly profound to say, but I think - and I'm not saying this by way of defence because I'm saying it doesn't work, myself - it would have been more effervescent.

I also thought that the women were all better than the guys, and I think female actors are less prone to nationalistic, stereotypical behaviour.

The Everlasting Secret Family screened on television recently.

You didn't watch it in a strip, did you? You watched it full screen? You should look at it in letterbox format. It's shot on Super 35. Titanic was shot on Super 35 which is a format that blows up into an anamorphic squeezed image. When you see The Everlasting Secret Family in a strip version - and I've had people actually look at the full screen and then the strip version - in the strip version it's far more analytical and far less character-driven. It's unbelievable, the difference. In the strip version it's far more distant. On cable television now, especially Channel 32, they play the films and alternate between the strip version, letterbox version, and the full-screen version.

Now, with an ugly directed film like How to Marry a Millionaire, it doesn't make much difference. But when you see The Longest Day in a strip version - okay, it's all been superseded now by Saving Private Ryan - you actually get to see, despite all the guest stars and all the rest of it, you get to see how unimportant each individual person is, and it's a series of tableaux. Full up, it seems like a character-driven thing.

Now, that's the same with The Everlasting Secret Family. In full-screen with 20 per cent of the image missing off either side, in other words, 40 per cent of the image missing, you've got a different film. I'm not comparing this to the Mona Lisa or something, but you could go in and chop the Mona Lisa down the middle and take 20 per cent off the sides and you get a face like...! So I think you need to see this film on the big screen.

In retrospect, especially now with lurid headlines, royal commissions and judges in court, was it ahead of its time?

But you see, the trouble - in my opinion what I screwed up really badly - was that the finance fell away and came together and I lost some technical people that I originally wanted. Now, if I had my way, the film would be far more stylised than it is. It's a bit stylised, but it looks like a regular film, and I wanted it more stylised. So I think it has nothing to do with any reality.

I get people leaving messages - "How did you know all that?" But it's bullshit because that's not what it's meant to be about. It's more like a medieval thing. It's a gothic horror.

And the gay community is split down the middle. I was on the phone doing radio interviews all across America, some from here, some from London. And I reckon it was about one-third got it and two-thirds said it was homophobic. One-third said they knew exactly what was going down and they didn't think it was homophobic. They thought it was a sort of medieval fantasy or what have you.

It was always meant to be funny. I don't know about Frank. I can't speak for him but I'll speak for myself - it was always meant to be funny, humorous. It was always meant to have a dark, humorous side. But on television that comes out a lot more than it does in the more abstract letterbox format. By the way it ran 16 weeks in London in one cinema. It just died the death of a dog here and David Stratton said it was the worst film ever made. I actually went to Variety and demanded another reviewer do it for them. So, although the film didn't get a good review, it got a reasonable review in Variety compared with what David Stratton would say.

But to answer you question, I think that the mistake was it wasn't stylised even more. Even though that wouldn't have worked in Australia, it would have worked internationally. There's no social documentary aspect, I wasn't making a documentary about Oxford Street. But people keep saying, "How did you know that?" And I say I didn't. "Oh, no, you knew about all this." I say, "Look, it's not about that" but no-one believes me. I mean, I say, one, I wasn't poofter-bashing and two, I wasn't attempting to do a documentary.

I say to people, "Let's take out the gay thing and let's put in a heterosexual Masonic issue, okay?" I say, "It's the priesthood, it's the Masons, it's the police, it's any kind of society". What do you think was going all through medieval Italy? There was more 'protestantism' in medieval Italy than anywhere. It's about secret societies. And people still say, "Oh, no, it's about this gay judge," or something. There's nothing I can do about that.

That's interesting in view of what you were saying about your other films, your emphasis on feeling and on the visual, drawing the audience into that experience rather than just simply focusing on or eliciting an analysis of the content. Is this true of your television, Harvest of Hate and The Robbery?

Harvest of Hate was a gun-for-hire job. I didn't complete the film. They re-edited and I just walked away.

Robbery has been extremely successful internationally. I mean, it was made for 2/6 - that was at a time when you could get much more interesting projects through the television system here than you can now. I'm pleased with Robbery. It's a film noir that people didn't understand here as a film noir. Its basic theme is the revenge of the underclass and what the French would call the Petit Bourgeoisie, and what we might here call the lower middle class who are led by a disgruntled leader. It's a kind of revenge film noir thing, and because it's in 4 to 3, 133 to 1, it's made for television and that means the framing's exactly right. So I think it stands up rather well, actually.

It doesn't get shown much here. It does overseas. It's continually playing on cable systems in France and England. The French dubbing is fantastic. In French voices it's all that spivvy, mock ironic spivvy lower middle class petit bourgeoisie stuff, while the officers have Ecole Nationale-type voices. It even actually went out on video in the States.

I like it, I'm not ashamed of it, I think it's a nice little thing. But, because here it's seen as a B-genre thing, you've just got to put up with that here, roll with the punch, not bitch about it.

The Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain?

I executive-produced it. I executive-produced a number of TV things. I don't have strong opinions about it. There are quite a few cheats in it, but at least what it did do - I'm not emotionally close to it - was put the audience in the view of I, the Jury. It has an enormous following in northern Europe. I think Judy did a terrific job. I think it was interesting but, again, it's not a personal project.

The work you're doing now?

I've been working on consultancies and scripts and things but what I've decided to do is to try to make a film for about a million dollars on the latest digital technology. The camera we're going to use has only been in the country two months. There's a test sitting there, a hundred feet, which we've transferred to 35mm and non-technical people can't tell the difference.

I guess where I'm going is to combine aspects of genre with post-modernism. That's what I'm interested in. I'm not interested in telling a story. I'm interested in the audience. I'm wanting to strip melodrama out of the thing and I'm interested in the audience experiencing emotions. Whether, for instance, it's Pulp Fiction, The Sweet Hereafter, The Spanish Prisoner, these are all films where you don't identify with the characters, so therefore you're not being sucked into the vortex and going on that kind of journey. It's a journey, rather, where you're responding to the emotional situation in front of you. But you're not being hooked onto prologue, act one, act two, act three, epilogue and Bruce Willis saves the world sort of thing - though I've got nothing against that. I see all those movies.

I think Saving Private Ryan is a most interesting film. It's an act one, act two, act three film: - it's really The Dirty Dozen being revisited, where we take the eight or ten people and go behind lines to save this person, act two is that journey and act three is a fantastic battle scene where everybody loses. So it's quite a conventional film except for act one. If there's a major war, this film will be withdrawn like All Quiet on the Western Front, because its major thing is its first 25 minutes, no more than 20 lines of dialogue, tops, but that's what it's like to be in war.

Now, if it had continued in that vein... I thought the only good thing about it is the first 25 minutes before it becomes a far more conventional film. It's getting harder and harder because the distributors want megaplex films, which means that you can take a film that takes $3,000,000 at the box office and still not earn a cent, because it's all gone in exhibition percentage plus the amount of cost to promote the film.

With the Scott Franks- Steven Soderberg film, Out of Sight, the audience goes along and is confused because it's not a traditional narrative film. It only gives the appearance of being a traditional narrative film. And David Mamet, he just fights the system, he does a script for Hollywood - John Sayles is the same sort of person - they do a script for the mainstream and then they do their own thing. In The Spanish Prisoner it's not the scam, it's the journey along the way. Therefore, the journey along the way, in a non-megaplex film, has not to be about identifying the characters and sucking you into the story. I would say that in The Spanish Prisoner, people sit there for half an hour wondering what's going on but slowly getting sucked in. So 100 minutes later they are totally mesmerised. Being mesmerised, as distinct from being hooked for 100 minutes - those kind of films have refrigerated questions. A refrigerated question is something where you have a cup of tea or a couple of beers and say, "Hey, that didn't make sense and that didn't make sense". Too late!

Interview: 2nd November 1998

Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [05:41:27 UTC] by malone

Language: en