Does the basic plot of Children of the Revolution come from your grandfather?
Yes, in part. Well, not from him, but I it came through thinking about him. I wanted to write something about blind faith. I had contemplated this after an argument I'd had with a friend, a born-again Christian, wondering how he would respond if the existence of God had been disproven. I didn't actually set out to make a film - and I hope the film doesn't appear to be bashing communism. It's about people who have really good hearts and good minds and are really well-intentioned, but they take their idea just a bit too far - and what are the ramifications of that.
My grandfather was born in 1900, was a communist, I think, from his early twenties. He was a card-carrying Communist and he never recanted - he died in 1979 - despite the fact that he was an intelligent man and the writing was on the wall. When I was thinking about this, I said to myself, `I can understand this. But, how do you, at the age of 60 or whenever it was when Kruschev's denunciations started filtering through - how do you cope with someone saying not only was the ideology to which you devoted your life incorrect, but that it was actually pernicious? Do you say, `All right, it was all wrong. I'm sorry', as some people did? Or do you stick to your guns and cling on to your personal history? In his case that's what he chose to do. I hope there's some empathy for Joan Fraser in terms of her even becoming more vehement, as she gets older.
You have used the language of faith, `blind faith' and even your grandfather keeping the faith. Do you think Communism in Australia substituted in some ways for religion and used that kind of religious language, for instance, referring to the awe and dedication to the ideology.
I think there's a direct correlation. Was it Marx who said, `Religion is the opiate of the masses', or was it Lenin?
It was Marx.
Well, at least in the Soviet experience, they created their own deities and they created their own adherents, devotees and disciples as well as the Communist cant and the rhetoric, particularly when they were big after the war, even big in Australia. People would fire out quotes just as people fire out quotes from the Bible, firing out quotes from Marx. I guess it's something that I've been critical of with certain religious institutions in the past and it's good to see that ceremonies stopped being in Latin. Much as I love the theatre and all of that atmosphere, it makes it too mysterious and too inaccessible. And when you have something like Communism, which was preaching to the proletariat, the working class, and Communists crying out incomprehensible Marxist dogma at them, there's a disjuncture there.
It formed a creed that people could recite.
You worked on Children of the Revolution when you were a film student?
In 1989 I decided to apply for film school, and most of the work I'd done in terms of film-making or writing had been for revues at university. I was putting on shows - probably the best fun I'll ever have in my life, doing that sort of thing. But I decided I needed something a bit more meaty and that line of thought we were discussing earlier about blind faith came to me. I thought of my grandfather and I conceived this story. This was pretty much what got me into film school because they weren't very interested in discussing anything else I'd done. They were much more interested in discussing this script.
But I more or less left it in the drawer throughout film school, but just before graduation I thought I should have something to go out and peddle when I finished. So I whipped up this 203-page draft, a ridiculously unshootable thing. I met Tristram Miall at graduation and he said, `Come on over, let's have a chat', and I dropped this draft on his desk. He loved it, and it started from there.
It seems a particularly Australian story in its quality of imagination and its irony. Do you see it as distinctively Australian?
For me, a very important part of it, in terms of the structure of the film, was the idiosyncratic nature of our communistic spirits. The fact that we were so removed from Europe where the realities of it were prevailing, so removed from America so that we didn't have a Mc Carthyist movement of any substance - Menzies tried the anti-Communist referendum and failed. We had a broad but not deep band of Australians, academics and miners, nurses and business people, and they were all embracing the faith. But at the same time most people had a job and life was pretty comfortable. One of the ironies for Joan Fraser is that everyone's a bit laid-back - she can't see how the revolution's ever going to get going with 6 o'clock closing. She looks around herself in such frustration. She can't get these people really motivated. You wonder, if they got the call, would these people actually get out of their beds and, say, storm the opera house.
The Balmain Pub was nice and cosy, even with 6 o'clock closing.
Yes, exactly. It gave people something to believe in that I think for many didn't necessarily have to be tangible.
Welsh, the Geoffrey Rush character, believed in it only because he loved Joan. At least it gave him motivation for a while. But the humour of the film - we are always saying Australian films are quirky. Here we have a kind of quirkiness that is even more quirky.
Out-quirks the quirks.
How did you come to imagine Stalin as you did?
There were two things: one was casting Stalin, and I thought we needed an icon. Stalin is an icon. Judy Davis is playing the kitchen-sink communist. We needed someone big out there and preferably foreign. I unashamedly say that, someone who comes from another culture. Any culture will do, so long as he can put on the accent - and Murray agreed to play the part. That enlarged the scope. It was my idea to cast someone of that stature.
Secondly, I thought that there's a traditional expectation of the Kremlin and I didn't want to give that. That would not be Joan's point of view. If you follow Joan's ideology right through, she probably was expecting a reasonably austere bunch of guys living life through books and speeches and trying to work. But whilst it's got this Speerian architecture - which isn't how the Kremlin is at all, it's much more ornate - there's a great deal of opulence. So, what is bizarre about that? The irony is that Stalin loves American films, smokes French tobacco and sings Cole Porter. It had to be bizarre. I think it was a Czech who wrote a book about the three meetings he had with Stalin, and each meeting was more bizarre than the previous one. Even normal things were bizarre. So, I thought, we've got to go down that line. And instead of singing The Internationale, which Joan sings back in Sydney, in Moscow they're singing, I Get a Kick Out of You.
That certainly prepared for the plausibility of Joan having Stalin's son and then coming back to Australia. Children of the Revolution is, in some ways, reminiscent of Forrest Gump.
A couple of people have said that.
It's the possibility of doing an overview of 40 years of history as Forrest Gump did of 25 years of American history. It depends on how old one is, checking out what one thought at that time, for instance the late 60s and early 70s with the anti-Vietnam moratoriums... Did I agree with that? Did I think that? What do I think now? For Australia the film offers a great opportunity to review all kinds of attitudes, a kind of examination of conscience in an ironic way. Is that reading too much into the film?
No. That's a tremendous thing if people do take that from the film. I'd like to think of it as Forrest Gump with a bit of edge. Forrest Gump was just happy accident after happy accident and I found that got a bit repetitive.
You have the opposite of the idiot savant. Joan is too wise for her own good. But you reviewed history with the disign and lighting of the film.
The colours too. Working with Roger Ford and Terry Ryan as the production designer and costume designer and Martin Mc Grath, who is the DOP, it was really important to us that the film started in a very bright, warm way, and you may or may not notice that the film has more reds and oranges and browns at the beginning but it ends quite cold. And, for me, that is how the experience, the metaphor works.
That's why the film always had - for me, irrespective of what anyone said at script stage - it had to end sad, it had to end with Joan's death, because that's the metaphor. It was all over then. It ends in a sad way on a Balmain Street. And you cast your mind back to the 40s and 50s and you have all these wonderfully bright, dedicated, passionate people and, you know, for a lot of them it ended in watching the collapse, of seeing the statue of Lenin being torn down on the television screen.
And Gorbachev and Reagan are indistinguishable.
Gorbachev is Ronald Mc Donald, yes.
Some audiences have had difficulty with Joan's death. Perhaps too stark for what they were expecting, but it makes sense in the context of the whole metaphor of the film.
As I've just implied, we did discuss it a lot. But for me it always had to be like this. And if some people have a problem with that, there's nothing I can do about it because I was never going to finish this film in a happy family sort of way.
It is very strking how Stalinist Joe becomes, especially in the Australia of the '80s and '90s. How were you commenting on 80s' and 90s' politics, the possibility of revolution or not, ppolitical and police cover-ups and the role of spies?
One of the things that has always fascinated me is not so much whether in our history we could have had something else in terms of our past, but the question of whether we actually did have something else in our past. I was taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and that was day one of history for me. I was shocked and horrified to hear at the age of nine about a fellow called Dirk Hartog - it was very confusing for me and I didn't get it. And at this stage the Aborigines still hadn't been mentioned, apart from a few references to Bennelong.
There are obvious statements, particularly about the 80s, about factories and Reaganism, the grand plans to make super ministries of government and super unions, areas that seemed to me, at the time at least, to reflect what I think we're discussing now in terms of media, which is concentration of ownership and, really, how many people are now holding the cards of this country, or indeed any other country. All it takes, as you see in different examples that litter history, is for a reasonably strong charismatic figure to seize a moment and an opportunity and a wave can break.
Joe's problem is, of course, that no ideas were planted in him. For me, part of the question of the film is the socialised versus innate nature of human beings. As Joe says to Stalin, `How does someone become a monster?' It can't be as simple as poverty and child abuse, surely. Joe's problem is that he doesn't know whether his path was chosen for him or he chose his path. Joe's story is a bit like Macbeth for me, that the prophecy is made and it's all too terrible but he can't escape it. And you wonder if he'd never heard those things or if Anna had never known, whether his life would have been different.
It's a very bleak picture of post-communism. But if Communism was pernicious, is there much difference with Thatcherism, the media control, cover-ups - and the death of Joan? What is the difference?
But the other difference, of course, is that you can make a buck out of it. Everyone's selling their story, even the historian. That was important to me, to tongue-in-cheek start something with a historian who says, `Well, this is it', because when you put historians in documentaries, everyone thinks it's true, `He's a historian, he's going to give us the true perspective'. The reality is that he turned out to be selling a book and he's been in prison for fraud - he had his own angle.
You offer a lot of ambiguity as well as inventiveness in your characters: Sam Neill as Nine and being on both sides, Rachel Griffith's policewoman Anna carrying on with and marrying Joe and then marrying Nine... It's actually a very funny collection of odd characters. Do you enjoy that kind of humour?
Yes, I think it makes things interesting. I do think that if you look at human lives, there is a lot of the unexpected that happens, people trying to promote themselves as one thing, but they may be something else; and they themselves may not know what they really are, and later on in life there could be a big left or right-hand turn and they could end up in bed with someone who was a distant relation or worse.
That comes with Nine and the massacre of Anna's family, and the ironic connections there, as well as the arrangments for Joan's murder. How did you expect audiences to come out of the cinema - with Joe's final remark about selling the rights to his book? A tongue-in-cheek chuckle?
Yes, that's right, because it does get a bit bleak. I very much wanted people to experience a bit of a sting in the tail. That's also part of the reason why I had the scene with nine and Anna at the end, the sense of irony and satire is slightly reintroduced at the end, so that it's not a total weepy.
Welsh seems to be the most normal of the characters. Did you see him that way - whatever normal means?
I guess he is. We always thought Geoffrey's character was the glue, the one who doesn't participate in the fights but goes to make the cup of tea, anything for a peaceful world. But of course history conspired against him, as it conspired against everyone. History is very much the enemy of these characters, hence Welsh becomes a sort of traitor in the end. He is someone who doesn't really care about history. He loves his wife, he loves his `son', but still history conspires against him in a most unbelievable arcane way. What are the ramifications? It's the old saying, you know, the butterfly flaps its wings and there are tidal waves in Japan.
If that's the case, would you see yourself as optimistic or pessimistic?
I think I'm optimistic with a heavy dose of cynicism about our institutions. I'm a bit Jeffersonian. I believe that every hundred years or every couple of generations all the major institutions, be they legal or governmental or indeed religious and media, anything that has great power, we should be looking at it and asking, is it still relevant? is it still working? how can we improve it? I think by being a little critical, you can, hopefully, provoke people to think about these institutions.
I'd like to make films that are funny - not always, but I think my bent is to make funny films that have something to say about something.
Interview: 18th December 1996