You began work in the theatre and still direct many plays.
Communicating the message of a work is the reason why I choose to do comedy. I grew up in the theatre. Coming from overseas, coming from Europe to Australia, the thing that I experienced most profoundly was that in Europe theatre was very much for the populace.
I went straight into primary school here. I liked reading poetry and reading plays and picking out little excerpts from Chekhov which, as a 10-year-old, were really important to me. I grew up with them. And it was very strange to find people in the school not really responding to this at all. Obviously it's not strange now but, as a 10-year-old, I found it strange because we were used to theatre being very much a part of people's lives - something that the people made, entertaining and communicating some sort of message during the course of the play. And doing Chekhov as a 10-year-old was fun!
For a long time I think I kept theatre and literature for myself and my family (but at school I became a follower of the Collingwood Football Club, wagging school, going to buy fish and chips and Coke...). Then I continued with theatre through my Pram Factory days and, when my mother owned the Playbox, I found that I was getting right back into or being consumed by a type of theatre that was part of the so-called elite. And that just doesn't suit me. It was the main reason why I decided to move into film. I felt that through film I could communicate with and entertain the populace and, by myself, put a stop to this highbrow, `I'm going to the the-ayter', concept!
You established the Melbourne Film Studio.
At the Melbourne Film Studio we have a lot of people, several Australian producers who are operating out of that space. It's a really good space to be in because we tend to support each other. If one person goes out into the corridor to get a cup of coffee, there are usually quite a few people who will come out. Someone might need coffee but others are being supportive or congratulating. I'm finding the celebration of other people's work is something that actually takes place there.
Of course, there's a degree of healthy competitiveness as well, but a collaborating with other people is something that I had always wanted in creating this studio. I saw it operating with Robert de Niro's company and I would like to do that here. I saw situations or places like this as a young child in Europe as well, mainly within the theatre. So I was thrilled to actually make buckets of money in America, bring it all back here and create the Melbourne Film Studio.
Are you disappointed in Australian audiences and the way they support Australian films?
Well, you can't really force people to go when they don't want to go. What we can do is highlight the good things about certain films so that audiences can be attracted to go. We are competing against American product - which is very entertaining in its own genre - plus we're competing with major stars that our audiences do want to go and look at. Disappointed? I can't say that I'm disappointed in the audience. I'm disappointed in the situation.
I'll go back to Malcolm and use it as an example. As soon as I finished Malcolm, I showed it to a couple of houses. The regular people really, really loved it. A lot of people from the industry came out and said, `Oh, you'll have to recut it' or, `You'll have to do this' or, `You'll have do that'. I think I had the worst review ever from one of the Sydney critics. So I decided that I wasn't going to release Malcolm here until I took it overseas. For one, I saw that the film worked with a regular audience. Now, what I wanted was normal people coming to the cinema, enjoying the film. It's a very, very special film for me because it's about my brother - and I didn't want that message, which is about special people, to go unnoticed and so I took it overseas.
It had a totally different reaction to what it had here. The distributors loved it so much that they paid a heap of money for it - it cost us $1,000,000 to make it and they were paying very close to that just for America. And this was for a limited release so that, in fact, after a time we negotiated a second fee. It was quite astounding.
The critiques were just brilliant. There was one that was bad, and that was from the New York Post, on the grounds of morality, the fact that Malcolm and Frank had robbed a bank and got away with it. This critic felt that this was immoral. But he didn't really talk about the actual production in terms of production qualities.
Now, it had the stamp of approval from overseas, from Japan and from England. It screened at the London Film Festival. The Projectionists, a small group of special people, when they feel that a film in the Festival deserves their recognition, they give it the Golden Sprocket Award. For seven years before that no film had received one, and they gave it to Malcolm - which I was thrilled about. Now, it was only after that sort of recognition that we released Malcolm here. If I had released it at the time that I showed it to the two different full houses that were orchestrated, both from the industry and outside the industry, I feel that Malcolm, would have really not worked, would have died, because we really do cringe at our own product. So there is a major problem. How do we overcome this?
My confidence comes from the fact that I grew up with this sense, that when something works for me on the screen or on the stage, I know that it works in the area that I expect it to work. There's nobody who can tell me that comedy and tragedy can't be put together, because my forefathers told me otherwise and they've proved that over the generations.
I've seen Aristophenes done by peasants in a Greek village.
Australian films tend to be offbeat. They're more challenging than formula films but a lot of people don't want to be challenged, they want to be entertained.
Yes. If they're offbeat, if they're quirky and they're entertaining, if they genuinely are entertaining, I don't think they need to be supported. I think they need to be reviewed for what they are. If they are entertaining, then I think it's important to communicate that to an audience, so that the audiences knows that they are going to be entertained when they go.
My cousins, who are not in film or theatre, they're very normal people, for them to leave the comfort of their homes and go to the cinema, they expect to see something that they're going to be - they use the phrase - `blown away' by.
I'm not saying films have to be comedic in order to entertain. To be really absolutely honest with an audience about what the film achieves is important, so that when the audience comes into the cinema, they have expectations which are real and when they go out, they feel that they have seen what they were told they were going to see and they're satisfied that they have got their money's worth. If we tell them that they're going to be seeing something as powerful as William Shakespeare and it turns out to be Louis Nowra - and I adore Louis, I love his work, - then their expectations are different.
It is wonderful. So was working with Ben Elton. I really liked the message of saving the world and of conveying the message via comedy. The BBC received many calls. If an audience enjoys Stark, the underlying message comes across and the point is made.
Pure Luck was made in 1991 and I can still live off it. I'm still getting cheques. It did fantastic business in America. It's an American film, it's a studio film. It was successful in a financial sense but not in a satisfying sense. It was congenial doing a Martin Short comedy but American comedy is different from Australian comedy. It is broader. American audiences enjoyed Pure Luck, but audiences in other countries did not enjoy it so much with the exception of the Germans. I wanted to do something else with the comedy and so did Danny Glover. I would like to have put a lot more pathos and pain into it. But they wanted a comedy for America.
It was just a `pure fun' comedy?
One of the producers of Mr Reliable says you are the best director of comedy in Australia. Would you prefer to be considered a director of broader range of films?
Well, to get the comedy right, you've got to have all the other elements right, and if you haven't got the other elements right, it's not going to work, especially in the type of humour that I have in my films. It's not your regular sort of farce or slapstick. I use, I borrow from those genres at given moments where I stretch and push the concepts to the edge, but I love comedy. I don't mind being called a comedy director. People probably have all these connotations that it's easy to be a comedy director - you make people laugh. That's the hardest thing you can do.
You hit on the quirkiness in Australian experience. It lights up the screen and audiences smile.
People and situations really amuse me. I'm not a funny person. I don't make people laugh by myself - in fact, everybody knows how serious I am - but it's my observation of the human condition and situations that I really love to re create because I see them as so funny, and then I want to share that perception with the rest of the world.
You show how funny ordinary people are, but not in any put down kind of way.
No, I love people. I love people so much. I think there's so much goodness in people around the world. It's not just one place. I travel so much and I love relating to everybody.
Malcolm was your first feature film and you invested a great deal of yourself in it.
Everything. It's my celebration of my relationship with the most special human being in my life, my brother. You see, he could be perceived as such a useless person, shunned on the outskirts of society, but what I'm pleading for people to do is reassess, look at this human being and see this human being's talent and what he can contribute. Let's embrace these people.
There's a simple goodness in him, which Colin Friels portrays again in a different kind of way in Mr Reliable. It's a simplicity, an earnestness. They might be on the fringes but there is still a kind of - naivety is the wrong word - but there's a kind of nice simplicity which is endearing and which you communicate.
Yes. I look at the world we live in today and we are so sophisticated, or we think we have made it sophisticated. Yet if we just peel off those layers of sophistication, what we'll find underneath is that simplicity that we all come out with.
From Malcolm through Rikki and Pete and The Big Steal to Mr Reliable, you're often on the wrong side of the law, so to speak.
Yes, I know. I'm just a constant questioner of authority. It's not so much that I want to be a rebel. No, I don't. But when rules are set, I want to find out why those rules are there. And I think my brother used to do that, too. We both did it together. Why? What was wrong before? Sometimes, as in bureaucracy and in the establishment, we create rules for the sake of simplicity - for the sake of what? More harmonious bureaucratic functioning? Right. But not for people. It's at the expense of the individual. It's at the expense of human nature, and that's where my bane is. And I think, let's not do this. Let's find another way.
The only newspaper in the world that found Malcolm immoral was the New York Post and that man was the only person who said, `This is an immoral film'. Now I understand where that man is coming from, and that's fair enough. He was 70 years of age, but it's not the age, it's just that the man was totally and utterly set in obeying the rules that were set for him in the American states.
He didn't see the funny side of the film?
And couldn't actually see the humanity of it. This is what's sad. I don't mind, but it gave me an insight into how sad some people are. He couldn't see that Malcolm, before he was introduced to this criminal and his girlfriend, was so lonely, so isolated, so unable to communicate. And through his liaison with these two other human beings who were criminals - or one was a criminal and then the other one joined - this man started to blossom internally. What I'm saying is it's because he was rejected that he wasn't able to blossom.
Now, in this situation, we have a criminal befriending him. In the situation where we, as a society. embrace this man, he's going to blossom again.
Have people made comparisons between Malcolm and Forrest Gump?
Yes, they have. Forrest Gump is a story told in the American way. In sentiment I think it's very similar.
Then you moved to Rikki and Pete. They're not quite outside the law but there's a kind of larrikinism there. There's a distinction between larrikin
and hooligan. Hooligans are vicious but larrikins are lovable. Is Rikki and Pete a comedy of Australian larrikins?
Yes, and they were again questioning, questioning authority. But what they were questioning initially was their father. It was through their father that the system was represented very strongly. Rikki says to the father about Pete, `You made him what he is. You're the one that's to blame', because the father was so immovable, not prepared to see Pete as a person who had individual needs, as a person who needed love. That's what the father never gave.
Pete became a radical and destructive. He was a passive-aggressive. He was demonstrating his anger in the most obtuse way because of this inability for him to be angry over so many years toward his father, for not getting what he needed from the father figure.
A significant Australian theme?
It is. But, you know, I believe that if Rikki and Pete had come out first, before Malcolm, it would have been recognised a lot more in Australia than it was. Rikki and Pete was the one that was recognised most in America. The reviews there were glowing - I was so embarrassed - and I think it's because it deals with the middle class platform.
The dysfunctional family?
Yes, which is very, very common in America, and they were able to identify with that so much more than Australians.
What about the nice larrikins in The Big Steal?
Oh, love 'em. I love them.
The two families are quite different. Is it still the middle-class platform?
It's still that pursuit of middle-class values. Claudia Karvan's father actually gets there. He establishes himself as a middle-class person and imposes all these middle-class values on his family. We can juxtapose the purity of Ben Mendelsohn's parents. It's my constant pursuit of finding the purity of the real human being.
The purity of the real human being?
Because when we deal with other cultures and with other social platforms, we're dealing with a lot more sophistication. We have to unravel so many more layers in order to get to the essence of the human being.
Terry Hayes was absolutely brilliant. He gave me a script to read which was written by somebody else and I said, 'Okay, I love the story, I love the concept, the characters. I can see making a movie based on this concept, but it needs to be rewritten', and he said, 'Okay. How do you want it rewritten?' and I said, 'Like this and I want you to rewrite it'. And he said, 'Fine, I'll do it.' He rewrote it and then, basically, he just left it with me. He was one of the producers. I was three weeks into my shooting in Queensland when he arrived and he said, 'This is so different to what I saw, but it's fantastic.'
The original writer is still credited as one of the writers but he was not a writer while I was working on the film. It's because I felt that I could get what I needed from Terry, and if I was going to make the film, I needed to know that the script was going to be what I wanted. Otherwise I wouldn't know how to direct it. Not that he had to give me the stamp of approval, but he was my producer and I guess he
really had to give me some sort of confidence in my work.
There was a story about the promotion of Mr Reliable?
One of the other producers on board was playing with the money via Polygram. Now, that producer was loosely attached to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Michael Hamlin came on board as well because he is also Polygram and he was the one who responded to the script and said, 'Okay, we'll go into this'. So he is one of the producers, as he was with Priscilla. I saw the trailer for Mr Reliable and it said, 'From the producer of Priscilla'. Now, if an audience hears that on the trailer and they go to see Mr Reliable, they're going to be so damned disappointed, because it's not a Priscilla. It's a film that's made by me. I'm talking about people's emotions, I'm talking about people's pain and pathos and then allowing the audience to laugh, pushing them to laugh at certain moments and then pulling them back into the drama and into the pain of life, whereas Priscilla doesn't do that. Priscilla is a different genre.
So my point is that we, by saying to the audience, by luring the audience into the cinema with the idea that Priscilla worked, made X number of dollars, and that the producer of Priscilla produced this - we're deceiving the audience; we're giving the audience different expectations of what they are going to see in Mr Reliable. It's the morality aspect for me. It's really that I don't want to lose my audience. I want the audience to know exactly what they're coming into to see with my work.
In Mr Reliable we get the sense that writer and director have been upset by the events, the effect on the victims and the stupidity of the bureaucracy. Yet
so much of the film is funny celebrating the genial side of life. But there is some edge with Barry Otto portrayal of the premier, the villain of the
Barry plays the Premier, who is Askin. I did a fair bit of research to find out about this character. I couldn't find too much that I liked there. Hence the sort of character that you saw in Barry Otto. I was thrilled with what we arrived at with Barry - and I needed that sort of stand from this political figure in order for the rest of the characters to play against him.
A question about religion. There is almost no religion in your films except for Mr Reliable. At one stage, Colin Friels as Wally Mellish asks Beryl
whether she had got religion and is relieved when she says, `Oh, no, no, I haven't', and yet the clergyman chaplain played a significant role at the
wedding, as a witness and at the end. Is religion significant?
Me? I'm a Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox from my father, and my children are Greek Orthodox. They've both been christened and some years ago we went to church in my village. Every time my children go into the church they say, `We're going to get that wine again, Mummy', and then I explain, `Well, this is what that wine means', and they go, `Oh, but we hate the taste'! So my position with religion? I want my kids to have religion as something they can use when they need it, something to fall back on when they need it.
Perhaps the film shows the Ocker attitude, `Religion we don't need, yet the minister we do'?
Yes. What is in the film is really a reflection on the society that I'm working with and the opinion of the characters in that situation.
One of the major themes of Amy is grief. You say that grief is all-powerful.
It's insidious and immovable to some people and they're the very people who are less likely to seek help.
Rachel Griffith's performance exuded tension even during the scenes when she was happily married.
Yes, because, as a rock and roller's wife, she was always going to have those moments where she questioned how long she was going to last. That's part of the deal really. The fact that her husband was just such a loving person for her and for Amy is almost irrelevant from the individual insecurities that a rock and roller's wife would have. She tells us that "there's only one of me," when that very thing is questioned by the Kym Gyngell character. The reason I felt a need to put that in there was because that is a question that's always in the fore of wives' mind when they know that their husband is so incredibly popular, that there are screaming girls around him all the time. It's inevitable. It's a bit like Mel Gibson wherever he goes, and it takes a really special type of wife to be able to deal with that situation.
So the suddenness of his death made the grief all the more profound?
It makes it incredibly profound because those times that could have been completely and utterly full, she was spending being worried whether was she going to stay there forever.
We are reminded of Malcolm with the suburban street. You certainly create very interesting inner Melbourne suburban streets peopled by
I think it's mainly because I grew up in that type of environment and I find myself incredibly comfortable in bringing back all those characters that were so familiar to me as a child. The wonderful thing about a working-class environment is that as soon as they embrace you as a community or as being a part of the community, it really becomes a support system for when you need them.
Initially they're hostile because that's how it works. To have, as one of the boys says, aliens come into your street - it's not something they're going to be happy about. You can imagine the criticism so many times with someone like the welfare officer coming through in the suit. They look down their noses because it's as if they have to be at the beck and call of everybody in a suit. Well, the question is why should they.
You didn't cover over any of the domestic abuse there. That was very powerful as well.
It's pretty obvious in our society. That was the reason, plus the couple of swear words that are very, very background, that gave us the M+ rating, which doesn't quite make sense to me.
Are we supposed to not show the public or not show children the very thing that they know about? So many children have seen the film now, and they come out and feel relieved - one comment I had was, "I didn't know that it happens to other people."
That character of the little boy who befriends Amy dramatises that.
And that was a tangent that I really wanted to bring into the film because, if we're going to be working on a canvas like the street, we can't avoid it. Not to include it is ludicrous and it's dishonest.
It's a blend of the sadly serious side with the humorously eccentric with the fellows fixing the car, and also the strange character of Ben Mendelssohn's sister.
She clearly had a very big problem. That's exactly what it was meant to be, that blend of different genres, because life is a blend. Life doesn't just go on in just the drama or just the tragedy or just the comedy. It's fascinating to see how much of all these different aspects actually creep into any one of our days and to what degree. Most of the time, what we do is homogenise our stories, because we are at the beck and call of Hollywood, a Hollywood which says if we create a very simple throughline that's linear, then we will be able to appeal to the majority of people out there who will come and see the film. Which means more money. So it becomes the product. I'm not interested in "the product". I'm interested in actually saying something about the world I live in.
Helping people to have the experience?
The experience and then to actually see in Amy, for example, that, because the mother couldn't deal with her problem, the little girl was not able to deal with her problem. That's why she developed elective mutism. If she was able to talk to her mother about her incredible pain inside and the fear that she had, not just fear but the conviction that she herself was responsible for her father's death, it would never have escalated to such magnificent heights or pain.
It was effective that the solution wasn't revealed until towards the end, so that while we had a hunch that something like that had happened, we
weren't actually sure until we saw it.
I think it was necessary to take the audience through the searching before giving them the solution.
The search for Amy and the surrealism of the singing - how have people responded to that?
Usually audiences erupt in applause and exhilaration, it being the favourite scene of the majority of the people who have seen the film. Filmically, the reason I put it in that position, and the reason I wanted that, was to open up the audience even more, to give them relief from the pain that had accumulated inside them, the sadness up until that point, just before I come in with Amy's revelation which means, hopefully, it's going to hurt a lot more.
Screenings I've been at, both in Australia and in New York, have been absolutely amazing. It actually unifies different ends of the world, because it's something we all experience. Whether we like it or not, grief is a part of our living state.
It's interesting that you've moved, say with Malcolm who was more than a bit on the edge of society, and then Amy who puts herself - unwittingly,
I suppose - through the experience on the edge of society, and that you've moved in a sense from the celebration of the comic to the
celebration of the comic but with grief. That was just one of those observations.
Thank you. When you put it that way - I mean, that's absolutely intentional; however, it is bizarre. I understand how quite ridiculous I must seem in some situations because people don't normally talk about things like this.
I thought that Ben Mendelssohn actually made the whole thing credible with the way that he acted, with the way that he sang and listened to her,
and I thought that was one of the great strengths of the film, that you could believe him and so you could respond to Amy through him very well.
That's great, because that's his position in that story. He's a voyeur, he's a facilitator for what the other characters need to actually develop or unfold the story, and one step back is the audience as the voyeur. Now, I've never actually seen Ben better.
I thought he had a deeper humanity about him in this one than you often see in others. I mean, he's very skilful and clever, but I thought he had
some very nice touches in this.
He's a very, very deep, sympathetic human being, but the characters that he usually is given to play or he accepts don't have these layers in them.
No, it's his skill of being cheeky or something like that.
Yes, the larrikin, whereas in actual fact Ben is incredibly intelligent and he's sympathetic and he's got an amazing ability to be empathetic with the outcasts of society, really.
I thought that came through very strongly. The collaboration with David Parker over the years has seemed to strengthen and I was just wondering
if you'd like to comment on how you work with him in the various capacities each of you has.
We still basically work in the same way we started off, which is - he created this idea, the idea of actually telling a story about this condition, and I responded to it very strongly. So then he went off and wrote the script, came back and I looked at it, then we talked a lot about what he had written, and then he went off and started writing again because we need to keep refining the script. This went on for eleven years. So during that period we were trying to find finance. The finance was not easy to come about. People do not want to know about grief, and financiers want to know even less about grief. Financiers also are told by Hollywood that a mixing of genres stylistically on the screen is more than likely not going to give them their money back. So this is why it took such a long time to actually make this film, but in that time David and I had the opportunity really to keep refining and reflecting on the type of society or the canvas we wanted to create. We used it in a positive way and I think the fact that we did take such a long time to find the money has actually helped us in the maturity of the project. We did go back to David's original draft - by that I mean over the years people would say, "Well, what if you simplified it, then we'll give you the money," and our reaction to that was, "Well, how do you think we should simplify it?" One response to that was, "Well, maybe you should take out Tanya's huge breakthrough outside the cafe," which just doesn't make sense to me. It's totally like the guy didn't get it. Another thing was, "Well, maybe you should take out the singing."
Then you've lost the particular characteristic.
Exactly. What are you left with? You've got no reason to tell a story. Then another person said, "Well, take out all the comedy." Okay. Then what we're dealing with is a drama tragedy. Then it doesn't make sense.
No, I think that point we were talking about with the street and all the people and the support after the hostility gives a great quality to the appreciation of the grief.
And also the fact that this little girl - the power of the little girl's purity of spirit and how it can actually change people's lives in a street. By the time she is actually lost, she has created those wonderful relationships, opened up these people's hearts through her singing and they're all out there searching for her.
Even the lady watering...?
Exactly. Doing the absolute unthinkable, which is singing to find her. I mean, how ridiculous is that? In my way of thinking, it's totally ridiculous, yet these people are out there doing it, which is what I'd be doing if that was a condition that a little girl down the street had and she was lost. So it's the very condition that actually both touched people and opened them up as human beings and actually created the musical aspect of the movie.
Making films in the United States?
Just to do a film and then come back home again.
Better experience than for Pure Luck?
I hope so too. I'm taking every necessary precaution to make sure it is. Another thing I realised is it's absolutely not necessary to be aggressive at all about these things; it's just a case of negotiating, which probably is a lesson that comes with maturity anyway. I think I was just hotheaded and young then.
Interviews: 31st May 1996, 31st August 1998, 3rd-4th November 1998