Your film background and what led you to Dead Heart?
My film background - both my parents obviously had a big influence, big in the sense that they were both heavily involved in theatre, but from an academic background. As a kid I became incredibly interested in film and television and wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with theatre at all. We also knew a number of people from the film and theatre world who were passing through our house. I was always making short films and little things at high school and then at university.
I applied to the Film and Television School. I actually applied three times before I eventually got in, once the year I got into university, once in my second year at university. Then in the third year I didn't apply because I thought I might as well get my degree. Then the following year I applied and with my honours year at the university and got into the film school the following year.
So three years at film school and I made two short films, met a lot of people. I finished up in 1985 and graduated in 1986. That year the Federal Government decided that they were going to can the tax assistance scheme for the film industry, revamp it all and turn the AFC into something new.
Interestingly enough, the other people who were with me at film school, either in my year or a year behind me, were Megan Simpson, David Caesar and Monica Pellizzari and we all wound up shooting our first features - David had made one feature film before, but it was extremely low budget - within about two weeks of each other, and it took us ten years to get there. I think it was a case of pretty bad timing. Had we graduated either earlier or later, I think we would have stood a much better chance of making progress. But, it's an apprenticeship.
But the Government canned the assistance scheme before they set up the new scheme, so there were two years when pretty much nothing happened. So I hunted around for work and projects to develop. My then girlfriend, now my wife, said, "Well, you might as well do something, why don't you apply to NIDA to do the directors' course, because nothing else is happening." Film school was great at that stage because we had a fantastic technical team but, for all practical reasons, exposure to actors was limited. So I would get a second string to my bow, as it were, in that I would be able to work in theatre after that, but I would also get a great deal of exposure to actors, which is something I knew I needed.
So I went to NIDA. I applied and then actually deferred it the first year, and the next year I got in. I had a year doing the directors' course, a fantastic year. I think I learnt as much about film-making at NIDA as I did at film school. NIDA led to all sorts of opportunities to work in theatre. At the end of the year we did a production of between 20 and 40 minutes, presented on two nights as two triple bills. One was doing Pinter and one was doing Tennessee Williams but I decided I was going to do my own play.
It seemed like a completely insane idea at the time, but I'd been working on this play called The White .......... throughout the year. John Clarke was in charge of NIDA at the time - I had to get this idea past him. He'd read an earlier draft of the play and given me some help on it. I kept going back to with this thing. Eventually I went into his office and he said, "Well, this is not a bad play". We talked about it and I left, then realised that meant that I could do it. It was actually a big success in NIDA's terms - it was very filmic; it was like a collage of scenes flooding into one another. It was really telling the story of one man's life from childhood through to old age in the space of 40 minutes.
That led to me writing my first full-length stage play for NIDA, a play called Guest House. I received a grant from the Film and TV Office to turn it into a film.
What's its theme?
It's got a great premise. It's a story of an old man, a blind Russian migrant, 70 years old. Two men turn up, knock on his door one morning and say, "We're working for the Health Department, we're pest control people. There has been a complaint about your flat and we just want to come and do an inspection and if we find anything, we'll treat it and it will go away and it won't cost you anything. It's one of those things we have to do for the Health Department."
He's a fairly paranoid old bloke, but very charming and eventually he let's them in. One of them chats to him while the other does an inspection. They chat about Russia and what this bloke used to do, how he used to be professor of Russian literature. The other man who has been looking around indicates that he can't find anything, so the first man says to the old Russian bloke, "All right, my mate here hasn't found anything, which is a shame because you don't know what you can find in a place like this - for instance, he was working on a place across the street the other day and he looked through the window and he happened to see you with a box of money, counting money by touch, and that's really what we're looking for." The old Russian says, "Well, I'm not going to give it to you. Don't think you can get it out of me. I've been tortured by experts, the KGB has had a go at me. I'm not going to tell you anything." They beat him up and gets the money, which he dumps into a bag and they race out and so on.
The old Russian rings his neighbour across the street and says, "What was the company that did your house the other day?" and finds out the name of the company that these two people work for, and he manages to exact his revenge on them in the course of the play.
Really it's a story about revenge and justice where justice turns into revenge. In the process of trying to get this money back, he becomes the thing that he most hates. Where do you draw the line? It sounds heavy but it's really a comedy. It's a very black comedy but that's essentially what it is. The one who does the searching is just incredibly dumb but well-meaning, gets led everywhere. The other one is much smarter but a bit of a psychopath. Together they make a comedy duo. The focus of the story goes with them after they leave his flat, and the old man's past gradually unravels and they realise that they've actually taken something that's completely different from what they thought they were taking. They thought they were taking some helpless old pensioner, when in fact he turns out to have made his living in Russia as a member of the Russian Mafia and as a smuggler and he has all sorts of skills which he can use to defend himself, provided he's planned things out.
Dead Heart was a play as well?
It was actually the second play that I wrote for NIDA. I was working on another play. I realised very quickly, after the first half, that the play wasn't going to go anywhere because it wasn't any good, so I had to write something else for them. I had this old screenplay, Dead Heart. I'd been approached by a producer when I first got out of film school to write a film based on a true story which occurred in the 1930s, about a young aboriginal bloke who killed somebody for traditional reasons and then was arrested by the police and put on trial, despite the fact he'd never been inside a building, didn't speak English, knew nothing about white man's law, and was sentenced under white man's law. That seemed to be a really interesting premise, so I wrote this screenplay, which was godawful. Thank God it never went anywhere. But I then decided that I needed something that I actually felt passionate about to write for NIDA, to replace this other project. So I produced a first draft and then NIDA paid my bus fare up to the Northern Territory and I paid my expenses.
I spent about five weeks there, researching, and that completely revolutionised the whole project. I came back and the first real draft of the story came out of that. The following year they toured it from Perth to Sydney.
Somewhere along the line I'd given the original draft to Bryan Brown. I had a surreal experience - when I was researching the play I was living in a terrible backpackers' hostel, sharing with eight people, one of whom snored, played a buzz-saw in the middle of the night - I got a phone call from somebody called Bryan and I had to go to a proper phone outside and ring him and it turned out to be Bryan Brown. The conversation went along the lines of, "Look, I really like this film script that you've done. I think we should do it." And I said, "Well, okay, and I want to direct it." And he said, "Okay. Have you done anything before?" I said, "Not really, no." He said, "Oh, you're a producer?" I said, "No, not yet." There was this pause and he said, "All right. Well, let's see what we can do." And that was the style of the whole thing.
Anyway, he had to wait until I'd finished working on the play. Then we went to the Film and TV Office and secured some funding to work on the film and it developed from there. I think the first draft of the screenplay was over 200 pages long.
It's a fairly complex and complicated film with the range of characters and subplots.
It's an interesting question as to whether it's too complicated. We started with a range of characters who fit well into the stage play and were fully developed there. In the process of turning it into a film, I had to get it down to about 110 pages. I think by and large it was successful in the sense that people, having seen the play and then going to see the film, wouldn't really be able to tell you what was left out.
It didn't seem like a play on the screen.
Yes, I think it was successful in that way.
The aboriginal themes and aboriginal law still functioning in the '90s setting?
That was the premise. It seemed to me that you had one of those great situations where, if you put those characters together in that setting, there would have to be conflict. It didn't matter what it was over. The premise or the mechanism I chose to get the story moving was aboriginal man takes white woman to a sacred site, but it really could have been anything. I could have chosen a dozen different things and it would have just sparked the fire that spreads in a community because the situation is so loaded. And what's great about it is that everybody thinks they're right. There are no villains in the film at all. Everybody does what they believe. They're being completely true to their own system of beliefs. And that's what interests me as a dramatist. I'm interested in people who, by their own lives, are acting in the best possible way.
It's rather hard with Bryan Brown, since he's such a genial screen presence, to work out how right or wrong he is in his views and how much is his own integrity.
That's why he was cast, of course. If you cast, say, John Malkovich in the role, I don't think it would have worked. I knew that the character was going to be saying and doing a lot of things that the audience was not going to identify with. I play that sort of a game with myself, developing a narrative as to how often I could make the audience change their mind about the character. I felt that they should start off thinking that he was basically okay, then he should do something where they would think he was lousy, then he'd redeem himself in some way, and then he'd do something which would make them think no, he's a complete turd. Then, right at the end, they suddenly think, "but he's not really that bad, is he?" It's a situation which had enormous moral and spiritual complexity.
It seemed more relevant in mid-90s Australia, given the racism debates, than it might have been five years earlier.
Yes, I know. I wish we had come out five years earlier. I think it probably would have done better. I set out to make something which I thought would just be a great story. I didn't particularly want to hammer any particular issue. In a sense that is why there are so many characters, so many different personalities balanced against each other. I think any audience member can go and see the film and find someone that they can identify with and, at the end of the movie, feel that they've been fairly dealt with.
There is a strong religious theme with Ernie Dingo's character, missionaries and the Lutheran background, his own sense of mission, then his tribal background and its hold over him.
It was interesting to work through. There are different ways of looking at it. In my mind, the white point of view and the black point of view are divided as being materialism versus spirituality. When you arrive on the aboriginal settlements, what you see is appalling. It looks like a moonscape, it looks like the atomic bomb has gone off and this is what was left.
It's a shambling sort of society, and then gradually, as you get into it, you forget about what people look like and what the place looks like and you become caught up in the rules and the regulations and the incredibly complex social system that they've got running there. You're allowed out on certain days but not on others because there are certain ceremonies going on. You can walk in that direction but not in this direction because if you do, you'll pass over a certain sacred site. And they really hate it when you walk on it. They don't like you taking photographs very much because you might point the camera in a certain direction and that hill is sacred. You get caught up in that. There's half a dozen whites and 300 aborigines, and that's the system of law that you live by. Australia's commonwealth law is more or less irrelevant, except in the broadest possible way, to the way the people live their lives.
Ernie's character, I guess, is somebody who is trying to integrate those two systems of belief. His background as I imagined it, was that he had been brought up by a Lutheran minister, that he was orphaned, that he had actually gone to a seminary, then come back and found himself out of place, not really integrating with the community. Whoever takes the role of community adviser in those places finds themselves on the outer; various groups within that community try to form an alliance with you and exclude others. As soon as you do that, you create enemies and, as soon as you create enemies, those enemies start to multiply and, eventually, you get voted out and you know you have to leave the community. So it's a bit of a tapdance that you have to do, say no to nobody, but also not say yes too often - just try and keep everybody more or less not too close and not too far away. And that's the game that Ernie's character has to play all the time. His Lutheranism is a kind of halfway point, I feel, between an entirely spiritual and an entirely materialistic way.
It also gives him a moral code to live by that nobody else really has.
At the end, when he's confronted and has to make a choice, the Lutheran training goes and the tribal traditions come out.
No. Ernie's character was always the soul of the movie to me so he can say his last line, 'I'm just a fella'. So I wanted him to start off trying to straddle the middle ground and then Bryan's character comes in and says, 'well, you've got to make a choice. You're going to be a member of the Public Service, you're going to do the whole ATSIC thing, or you're going to go to jail. I'm going to charge you with something and you'll never get anywhere. What's it going to be?' So he capitulates to the white point of view even though he doesn't want to. He's forced to take a side in that moment. And Nanya Witari's character, Poppy, perceives that Ernie has jumped to one side and says, 'Okay, now I'm going to bring you back'. It's best articulated in the scene where he takes Ernie out to the desert. Ernie thinks he's about to drive back home and Poppy says, 'Actually no, you're going to go with this fella out in the desert and he's going to teach you how to be a real aborigine'. He draws a line and two circles in the sand and says, 'This is white boys' camp and this is our camp and this line, that's where you stand, and we're going to teach you how to put your camp back with us.'
So Ernie's character starts off by straddling the middle line and then goes to the white side and then goes to the black side. But in the last moments of the film, when Bryan has been stabbed and everybody else in the scene feels that he should be left floating face down in the water and they should go and he should die, Ernie finds he can't do that. Even though he has committed himself now to the aboriginal way of seeing things, there's something in him which actually rebels against that and he has to save Bryan's life in order to save himself. Poppy says to him, 'What are you, are you a black fella or are you a white fella?', he says, 'I'm just a fella'. He finds that for good or for bad, whatever has happened to him, whether it's his Lutheranism or his white upbringing or his aboriginality or whatever it has all gone by the wayside because first and foremost he's a human being. When he sees another human being in trouble, he can't stand by. I guess what that line, to me, is saying is that whatever the difficulties about different perspectives, we share the one country and there must be a way through, because we are human beings. And, in a sense, that is the message of the film. Life is difficult. Most of us don't understand how difficult it is. Here is a movie which shows you a little bit - I mean, as much as I know - about how difficult it can be. At the end of the day, if we understand the difficulties, we stand a better chance of getting through together.
Bryan Brown intervened for a better release of Dead Heart.
Releasing a movie is a very difficult thing and we had a couple of things going against us: the nature of the film itself - I took Frank Capra's maxim that the audience shouldn't be aware of the camera being anywhere near the action, which gave it a fairly mainstream look. I thought initially that it was like a western and that it should be marketed as such. It owes much more to that genre than it does to any kind of issue film about black or white issues. The western is the only genre that I can think of that encapsulates it, because the western can take in elements of the thriller, elements of the detective story, elements of the comedy and so forth, and yet still somehow quintessentially remains a western because of its location, because of the fact that the small town in the West or in the Outback or what have you becomes a hot-pot, becomes a microcosm for the society at large.
Now, in the international festival circuit, that makes the film extremely difficult to market because there's a wide chasm between what they call commercial and arthouse, and commercial movies are essentially American movies. Now, we were making gestures towards an international style. We had an essentially American narrative, yet it had a very, very Aussie flavour, Aussie accents, and it was never going to be an American mainstream movie.
The film, stylistically, doesn't draw attention to itself. The camera doesn't draw attention to itself. One of the things I was a little bit disappointed with was that nobody ever really commented on the direction, which I was rather proud of, proud of a lot of different things in it, amongst them the parallel action sequences in which the lovemaking scene intercut with the action in the church and the way that the church action develops and comments on the action in the sacred site, so by the end of that sequence, even though the two sequences together have made a point and also made a point about what's going to happen. Each of those sequences alone could never have made it.
There is Tony's death sequence with the birthday party with the whites in their house and we introduce the party outside with the aborigines. Then we have a couple of scenes inside the house and the lights on the candled cake look like the campfire outside. They comment on each other and both camps are aware of each other. Then Tony's death happens, and the sequence moves so seamlessly into that, and you cut back and forth between Tony running for his life, the singer singing, the party breaking up, Kate taking a peanut, almost choking at the point where we know that Tony is being choked in the car. It's actually a very, very complex theme.
Also I think the sequence where Ray is looking at the video and at the same time another discussion is happening elsewhere commenting on the motivation of what Tony and Kate were actually doing in the sacred site. You see on the video Ray writhing, and they're interpreting for us what grief is really about. And through their speculation, we actually understand what Ray is thinking. They're quite complex things to achieve in a film, and yet I've never been asked a question about it, never been asked a question about any of those sequences or how difficult they were to achieve.
The final montage, the fourth one, which closes the film, where everything's tied up, where the camera goes through empty rooms and you see people waiting on the tarmac and the TV commentary - the two TV news reporters actually make the final commentary on the TV over the action. It's an ironic commentary, and we see the television coverage of Ray being rescued. Those are the sorts of sequences where an incredible amount of action happens in a very short time. I'm probably complaining too much, but I've never been asked to talk about them at all, and I was actually very proud of the way those sequences hold together. I don't know of any other Australian films recently that actually even tackle that kind of stuff.
So I suppose what I'm saying is that the film is strong in areas that people don't particularly notice, and it's not an identifiably arthouse movie and it's not an identifiably commercial movie.
The film was just about to die. I think Paul Sheehan rang Bryan up and said, 'Look, I've just seen the movie. I think it's great. I can't believe people aren't going to see it. Why don't I interview you about it, just about why people aren't going to see the movie. I just want to ask you about that'. And Bryan thought, 'Well, the film's buggered anyway, I can't do any more harm to it'. So the next day the article appeared.
The film at that stage was only being shown at one cinema, the Chauvel in Sydney, and they were winding it down. The next day the box office at the Chauvel more than doubled and it remained high for months after that. The film actually played there for seven months and just about half our Australian box office came from that one cinema.
Now, I don't think that the people that live around the Chauvel, in the Paddington area, are so different from the rest of the country that they're going to go and see a movie that everybody else wouldn't. What that says to me is that there was something about what they did in the way that they marketed their cinema and that particular film that we could have achieved elsewhere and got a much better return on the movie. My fantasy is that one day it will have a return season.
Interview: 19th June 1998