How easy or difficult is it to adapt a play for the screen?
If you choose the right play, it's very easy. So far I have done it twice and it has been relatively easy because we had a basic approach. I wouldn't take a play that I didn't think was suitable to film. But then I happen to think that modern cinema - or at least modern commercial cinema - has taken a wrong turning and that there are many more things to recommend to discerning, intelligent adults in modern theatre than in modern commercial cinema and, so, I would rather adapt almost any theatre for the screen. I'm not going to say I've got anything against adapting a novel or any other form, but original works of commercial cinema - well, it would want to be a very special script for me to be convinced it was comparable.
Were you satisfied with the popular response in Australia to Hotel Sorrento?
Delighted. I have not seen the play, so I had no sense necessarily of how an audience would respond. Of course I had read it, but I was highly delighted and particularly surprised to discover how many people who would have been attracted to the material, one would have thought, in the theatre, hadn't seen it in the theatre - hadn't even heard of it in the theatre. They went to see the film and said, `What a wonderful thing', which made me realise how many more people go to movies and the extent to which movies can, perhaps, disseminate ideas more broadly than theatre.
The critical response? The film received ten AFI nominations.
I didn't have any problems. One always takes the negative comments to heart and acts magnanimously about the positive ones. I don't think any director who said they didn't read reviews would be telling the truth. But, in general, in the past the good have balanced the bad for me and I've persuaded myself, with a few exceptions, that they've come out on the good side of the ledger. In this case they were predominantly good.
Was it your choice to make a film of Hotel Sorrento or were you asked to direct?
No, it was my choice, but it was recommended to me by my brother-in-law, Peter Fitzpatrick. Peter co-wrote the screenplay.
You retained much of Hannie Rayson's dialogue.
Yes, and if there have been any criticisms of the film - and I suspect more so in the case of Brilliant Lies - the fact that I was pretty faithful to the original and tried to retain the dialogue was a problem. The criticism was ` this is too wordy'. To those who say that modern theatre is worthy by comparison to modern cinema, I can only cite Schwarzenegger movies. I'm sick of films with people grunting and bombs exploding. I enjoy language and I enjoy intelligent dialogue. I like heightened reality and people speaking a little more articulately than perhaps they do in real life. The idea of a Jules Furthman or a William Faulkner being a thing of the past just makes me sick.
You stayed very close to David Williamson's text in Brilliant Lies?
I stayed fairly close but the film has come out a little shorter than I had expected. I cut lines because of David's urging and I'm not quite sure now that I should have done that. But on the other hand, within reason, I think it's arguable that there's no such thing as a film that's too short, just as there's no such thing as a film that's too quick; there are only films that are too long or too slow.
What you cut, was it action or was it discussion?
I cut dialogue.
The film version of David Williamson's Sanctuary, is a two-hander. It was interesting to listen to, but raises questions as to how audiences respond to such amounts of dialogue. The characters kept moving, the camera kept moving...
It's not necessary to keep the characters moving. I saw David Mamet's film of Oleanna. He thought that by moving the two characters between three rooms it would be more filmic than having it all take place in one room. I don't think that's necessarily true. It's very difficult to make broad prescriptive comments about what can and can't be adapted from the theatre. One just has to use one's instincts and intelligence.
Since you actually filmed in Sorrento, what do you think Sorrento itself symbolises of Australia in terms of a place, in terms of the past and the present - a setting for the characters to explore ideas.
I would be presuming if I said that it was my idea, given that Hannie Rayson had written a play set in Sorrento about cultural values and family and old Australia versus various permutations of new Australia. To suggest these were my ideas would be a little unfair - except to say that as I read the play and remembered my childhood and my experiences with Sorrento, I responded positively, got in the car, drove down to Sorrento and read Marge's opening speech on the jetty, sitting on the jetty. I thought, yes, it would feel very good in this setting. Beyond that, all I can say is we went to a lot of trouble to make the town and the foreshore look good.
Funnily enough, I had a discussion yesterday with my editor, who was arguing about whether or not we gained anything by having painted backdrops outside the house as opposed to filming in a real house and I said, `Well, what would the effect of wind have been anywhere other than on the back beach?' He said, `What do you mean?'. And I said, `I recall four or five occasions that we went down to the pier to shoot the opening narration with Marge and Dick and it was too windy'. I mean, any wind was too windy. There had to be something terribly still about the Sorrento of our film. It was a setting in which I felt I could mythologise our culture.
Before going on to aspects of mythologising the culture, what of your sensibility from the years in America and your coming back home? Did your experience resonate with that of your film characters?
Had I made the film from the perspective of a person who had never been abroad, it might have been xenophobic; but then again Hannie conceived the play when she was living in London, so it might not have been. Had I done a faithful adaptation of her play, it might have been xenophobic to the degree in which a director influences the written material. But my concern was not so much about the Meg character or the Pippa character and the expatriates coming home. I was more interested in Hilary's assertion of the rights of people not to go away. Yet I might not have felt that way if I hadn't been away.
A key question following on from that - especially your interest in Hilary - is the theme of life stories and who actually owns them, the sense of privacy and invasion of privacy, interpretation of stories and treasuring or violating the stories. That seemed very significant, perhaps part of the mythology.
Yes, I think it was significant to me, but I only realised to what extent it was significant when I discovered late in the piece that we were working from a published version of the play as it had been performed in Sydney and that when my brother-in-law had first brought the play to my attention, he had given me another published version of the play as it had been performed in Melbourne in its original season, which included the issue of plagiarism. In the current version of the play as published and in the version that was performed other than in Melbourne, the debate about plagiarism was cut. I thought it was a fascinating debate - that is, if this was autobiographical, how on earth could it be plagiarism, unless one went to some broad notion of the collective consciousness. But that fascinated me, the idea of to what extent one owns one's life, to what extent the artist owns what he or she depicts.
I think that was an idea that I had been exposed to first when I saw Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. That's not to say it hadn't been depicted much earlier. Keats' `Ode on a Grecian Urn' is about a similar idea, it seems to me. But yes, that idea did interest me.
These are Australian stories and they have been lived out in Sorrento - what impact did it have on Hilary and the others hearing their story from the outside, so to speak.
Dick was the one who took more umbrage at that than anyone. He said, `How dare you think because you have stepped outside of it, that you are in a better position to encapsulate it'. Some people have said to me, `It sounds very much as if you identify with Dick'.
I don't, but neither do I identify with Meg. If one sees them as the two adversaries at the lunch, then I don't identify with either. I think they are each putting an interesting point of view. But I identify with Hilary, but that's because I'm a romantic and because her life in no way resembles my own.
With reference to Dick and Meg at the lunch - was it a 90s conversation: that we Australians have arrived in our understanding of ourselves, of cultural cringe, of our mythologies? Was Meg doing a personal exploration in her novel, then coming back and wanting it validated in some way, whereas her sisters didn't give her any response? And yet Dick was right insofar as we have moved to a different stage - that we're not lacking in our own culture?
There's no doubt the film and the play do not in any way approach multicultural Australia. So, in one way, perhaps it's not a '90s discussion. In another way it was suggested to me that all of those debates about Australian culture went on at the time of the bicentenary - and haven't we come past that? Well, all I can say is that if we have, how come we don't have a better sense of ourselves? And if we have, why has the film had the impact that it has? People like my mother have started to consider the issues of Australian culture and to feel unselfconscious about their nationality as a consequence. It seems to have had real impact on people of her generation who perhaps had a little more cultural cringe than those of us who grew up in the era of Bob Hawke and the Australian vernacular - you know, the post-Barry Mc Kenzie years. If the film was stimulating, then the argument is not old-hat or dead.
There certainly was a huge build-up to 1988 and the bicentenary but during the following years it went rather flat. But interest began to increase during the 90s.
I had this discussion at length with both Hannie Rayson and Peter Fitzpatrick because I anticipated a lot of debate at a journalistic level and that I would be asked to define the culture. That came about because, while we were shooting, I did a 7.30 Report for the ABC and the journalist kicked off with the question: `What is Australian culture and what, if anything, is worth preserving?'. That gave me the heebie jeebies, to quote one of our negative reviews, and I sort of steeled myself for that sort of debate but, fortunately, the only time it happened to me after the release of the film was on a radio program, again on the ABC, when I was told that these issues were passe. Hannie was with me and bore most of the brunt. As the director, I just said, `Well, look at the film'. It's not a cultural debate. It's not an intellectual treatise. It hopefully has some emotional resonance and it's about other things as well. I would have written a paper if I had wanted to do an intellectual treatise on Australian culture. I think one uses imagery, characters, weather and all of those elements in a way that dry intellectual debate isn't able to do.
Marge was from an older generation...?
Yes, that was added, of course. `You have said something to us' - I'm paraphrasing now - `not just to those of you who grew up here but to those of us who came along later'. Well, in Marge's case, in Joan Plowright's case, she came along about one week before we shot that scene and left, I think, in some ignorance of exactly what the culture was. But that's not to say that she couldn't be a conduit...
Marge's ability to have conversations with Dick, her resonance with the book, that it seemed real, and her empathy with Hilary on the back beach made her a very strong emotional link between audience and characters.
The scene on the back beach still - I'm trying to think of the right word - vexes, yes, vexes me. I asked Hannie halfway through shooting the scene, `Is Marge saying all this oblivious to Hilary's basic pain and angst and dilemma or is she talking in parables to try to teach Hilary something?'. Hannie drew a complete blank on the question and said to me weeks later that having re-examined the scene after seeing it - because I sent her a tape early on - she was at a loss to know whether Marge was totally oblivious and just indulging herself or whether she was trying to say something that would have meaning for Hilary. It's nonetheless my favourite scene in the film, I think - that and the scene with Hilary and her son.
Ray Barrett seemed to embody whatever it was of his particular generation that shows us the absolutely complete Australian ocker attitude...
Yes, he certainly reminded me of my father - a kind of `inscrutability' is how I would put it, a sense that he was a self-contained unit but that you didn't have a real feel for what made him tick. But he had a sense of what was right and wrong yet had no understanding of where the modern world was going. And he was incapable of or unwilling to communicate this to anyone else.
That is also saying something about cultural cringe. It's the next generation that wants to break through some of that inscrutability and can't quite do it.
Yes, I think they had a strong sense of what it was - I was going to say of what mateship was, but I learnt recently that `mate' was a word that came into common use much later, that words like `cobber' were common then - so we define this thing in terms of mateship, at least on a male level, and they didn't even call it that. But I think that's the point we're making, that it didn't matter what they called it. They had a clear sense of where they were and what they were and maybe they didn't have to evaluate it in the international arena.
And yet, conversely, if The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was the first play in the Australian vernacular (but I don't imagine it was - Peter Fitzpatrick has just written a book on Louis Esson so I imagine it wasn't), but it was certainly the first of our era that reached the modern audience - then, if they defined their culture entirely in terms of British and, to a lesser extent American frames of reference, then what was that culture? And yet one has a sense that the Dave Sullivans of the world - my father, my grandfather - knew exactly what Australia was about.
One small thing: a media student, second generation Italian, went to review the film and liked it and didn't like it, especially because it wasn't multicultural in the broader sense. He noticed the Italian fruiterer in the main street of Sorrento as Marge and Dick walked along and he got a bit irritated that that's how this group sees the Italians, simply as the fruiterer.
Well, of course he was right, but then I did add the line about fennel on the railway tracks. I thought it was important to remind the audience that that quintessential Aussie, the Wal character, was also a xenophobic bigot.
Brilliant Lies is about sexual harassment?
I suppose you would have to say that that was the issue one would hang one's hat on, but I think the title would give you a clue that it's about something other than just harassment and that it's about constructs of reality, male and female constructs of reality. And, in the case of Brilliant Lies, not just male and female constructs of reality in sexual politics and/or office setting, but sexual politics and hierarchical politics within a family - and in this case a very dysfunctional family by comparison to the Moynihans of Sorrento.
Ray Barrett plays the patriarch again. Indeed, my desire to use him for Wal was a consequence of seeing him play Brian, the father, in Brilliant Lies, in the theatre. I hadn't seen Hotel Sorrento on stage, but I thought, `what a wonderful father'.
Does Brilliant Lies have something to say on Australian cultural and identity?
No, it's not an issue here. I in no way modified the accents. Indeed Anthony La Paglia had to work very hard to remember his Australian accent. But at the same time I made no specific references to Australian culture. There were a few in the play, about three - you know, `This used to be a great country and what happened?', and things like that. I removed the specific quotes because I felt that sexual politics was a pretty universal thing and that I shouldn't localise it, but at the same time neither did I want to make a film that was mid-Pacific.
Your first film was in The True Story of Eskimo Nell.
That's pretty early. Yes, it was very much of its time and its time was the era of the R certificate - with films like Mc Cabe and Mrs Miller and Australian films like The Adventures of Barry Mc Kenzie and Alvin Purple. There was the desire to assert the Australian vernacular and thereby have a bit of lavatory humour in it, but at the same time I think, as opposed to Alvin and Barry Mc Kenzie, to give a sense of our culture and history in terms of mateship. But basically it was designed to shock and, in retrospect, it's probably a bit tame.
We shot the ice-floe sequence in Canada. We don't have ice floes here, of course. I remember thinking at the time about the idea of people mythologising their culture without being able to avoid inventing iconography from other cultures. So I would say that Hotel Sorrento was my second attempt to say something about Australian culture, hopefully a little more articulately.
And, in retrospect, the thrillers - Patrick and Road Games?
Patrick was really an exercise in homage or pastiche, if you like, as was Psycho 2. Patrick spiritually led to Psycho 2. Indeed, even the logo of Patrick was a rip-off of Psycho.
Road Games came about when I gave a copy of the Rear Window screenplay to Everett De Roche, who was writing Patrick for me, as a pro forma and I said, `Look, if we could set the scripts out this way, we would know how many pages they should be'. This is a system that's universally used now - that if you use the right format, page numbers have meaning. And Everett came up with the idea of doing the story in a truck.
Indeed he did an episode of an ABC show called Truckies which was derived from that idea, and when I came back to him after Patrick and after co-producing Blue Lagoon, I said, `Now, what about that Rear Window in a Truck idea?' He said, `I already wrote that for the ABC'. I looked at the ABC show and thought, well, it doesn't resemble what I thought we would have done with that idea, so we went off and did a different film and I was pretty pleased with the end result. But both Patrick and Road Games were attempts at mid-Pacific cinema, except that in the case of Road Games I made real use of the Australian landscape in a way I think it can be used, without necessarily restricting my casting. Actors Equity had some ideas about the approach we took to casting that film. I would happily have made it with Stacy Keach and an Australian woman, but my US distributors had other ideas and I ended up as the meat in the sandwich.
I looked at it again on television recently and actually called Everett and said, `God, do you think we could do something that good now?' You know, sometimes you get far enough away from something that you're surprised you did it yourself. I mostly remember being the meat in the sandwich between offshore American money and the Australian unions.
Yet it came out as a very entertaining show.
I think it did, yes. It's of no substance, of course. It was made in an era when I used to teach film courses and talk about film entirely in terms of form, which was something I think I really took from studying Hitchcock. It was all about form and not about content. While that can be a lot of fun, after a certain point and a few pretty mediocre thrillers like FX2, at least in my terms, I thought, well I'm sick of making souffles at best and silk purses out of sows' ears at worst. I'd like to do something with a bit of substance and go a little easy on the form and a little heavier on the content - a bit of meat and potatoes film-making.
Link, does not seem to have had much circulation at all except for video release.
It's hard to know what happened in Australia. My impression is that because EMI went out of business and because Greater Union was EMI's distributor and had actually paid money to EMI for the rights, and then Cannon took over EMI and tried to give the film to Hoyts, my guess is that Village tried to heavy Hoyts because they had paid money and Hoyts tried to heavy Village because they had the rights to it, and one way or another everyone decided it was too hard and then it ended up on video but somewhere at the back of the shelves of horror films. I set out to make a film for the company that made A Passage to India and ended up making it for Cannon - I can't think of what they made, but nothing good.
A number of Charles Bronson movies.
Yes. So on almost every level Link was an unsatisfying experience, but I still regale dinner guests with stories about directing apes. It was an interesting experience and made me understand why anthropologists study the behaviour of the other apes in order to understand us, because it taught me a lot.
Was the making of Psycho 2 a satisfying opportunity to pay homage to Hitchcock and his influence on you?
I'd sort of done it before, but it was a chance to do it in Hollywood. From my perspective it was the chance to play centre court at Wimbledon, you know, to actually work on the Universal lot. In retrospect, it was an incredible experience that was perhaps clouded because it was my first Hollywood directing experience. To go on to those sets and direct original cast members of a classic film - I mean, it was really extraordinary. Norman Bates has to be one of the great icons of modern cinema and to actually direct Tony on those sets was a film buff's dream. It was extraordinary.
You also directed the pilot of Beauty and the Beast.
In the States my first feature directing experience was Psycho 2, and my first television pilot the Beauty and the Beast pilot. They were both marvellous experiences. I don't know what one can infer from that - maybe just luck or maybe that they stay well back when you're doing something for the first time and then they help you after that. I mean the executives. But Beauty and the Beast I was very happy with. I was reading Cocteau's book when I was doing it and he said something about how you can't shoot fantasy as if it is fantasy, that is, you can't pretend you are working with gossamer. You have to think of yourself as making something as functional as a table and chair. If you thought, `I'm dealing with something ephemeral, of smoke', you would create nothing. So I had no hesitation in imagining this whole other civilisation living in the underbelly of New York and living a better life than those above the surface. I simply did that as if it were real.
It must have worked, because they continued the series and it was popular. The fairy tale and basic mythology of the Beauty and the Beast seemed to touch the imagination of the television audience.
Yes, it worked very well, although Beauty and the Beast is a transformation story. And the transformation never happened. I kept wondering how much longer they could sustain the piece. It's always a letdown, of course, when the beast turns into a prince, but how long can he stay a beast? There always has to be that possibility. I think it probably wore a bit thin after a while, but I didn't watch every episode and it wasn't my problem, fortunately.
You will continue to adapt plays for the screen?
I think most modern theatre is better than most modern film, but, if it's good, it should be filmed.
Interview: 15th September 1995