I would like to start with your father and his career and influence on you.
He started at the ABC, where he was production design, set design and so forth on all sorts of operas and musicals. Then he did a series of documentaries called Alcheringa with Graham Pizzey on birds and aboriginal sites. Then another series of documentaries, Yoga Australia or This is Yoga, which was the first film Ravi Shankar ever wrote music for and which he recorded in Melbourne. Of course, my father spent an enormous time in India studying eastern philosophies and lived in ashrams in Madras and so forth.
He made a documentary on rice in Griffith and what have you!
When we were living in Camberwell, he had the room out the back where he would edit on 16mm. Then he was an associate producer on 2000 Weeks, Tim Burstall's film. What happened after that is really connected with 2000 Weeks because it was a total flop and was savaged by the critics. There was a belief that existed for quite a while that Australians would not see Australian films. So Philip Adams, with Bob Jane's support, decided to see whether Australians would go and see an Australian film, and with John they did The Naked Bunyip, the two and a half hour documentary on sexual attitudes in Australia, which John produced and directed - Philip always claims everything, so I have to be precise on that. It was a huge success, which John then roadshowed round Australia. Then, as he often did, he disappeared off to India for more quiet times. I wasn't involved in any of the productions, I was too young. Naked Bunyip was shot in 1970 when I was 19 and at uni.
What did he really want to do with The Naked Bunyip? I remember it had those famous blacking out of frames. Dean Fred Chamberlain of the Catholic Film Office also appeared in it, so that it had a rather interesting mixture of ingredients.
He wanted to talk openly and frankly about things but the censor disagreed and insisted on all these cuts. John wouldn't agree to the cuts; he just blanked them out, because the cuts were visual. He didn't think the soundtrack should be removed, and he felt that if he just made a cut, the censor was having power over you without your having any control. The censor was furious with him putting the stencil of the bunyip over the frames, but there was nothing he could do. Legally John was complying with the Act.
I just wish it had been a technique followed because in the next four or five years films were massacred, murdered, butchered in this country and people weren't aware. Point Blank, for example, was banned three times, I think, and reconstituted so often that the film that went out is so totally different to the film that Boorman made. I'm writing a study on Borowczyk. His films were cut and banned. The critics denounced films like The Beast, which had twenty minutes missing in the print released in Australia. The films bore so little resemblance to the originals the critics shouldn't have ever discussed them. I think John's technique would have been very effective - if you had had twenty minutes of black space in The Beast, it would have got home that what you were watching was not the film the director intended. I think the censor's work was insidious. I'm particularly upset with the censor because the material was always sexually related. I can see arguments about violence conditioning children in negative ways and I believe very strongly in classification, particularly of violence. But I think nudity and pubic hair corrupting people is one of the most insane notions. If it had been pointed out how ridiculous it was that one pubic hair creeping into the side of the frame could get a film banned....
The effects are still noticeable today, where nudity still is rare. It's frowned on. Mainstream American cinema doesn't go near it yet, in a film like Air Force One, you have a very long scene of a man putting a gun in a 12-year-old girl's mouth, very sexually, threatening to blow her head off - he's just blown someone else's head off, so you know he means business. The sublimating of natural sexual desires into violence has very much been increased, I believe, because of the attitudes of the censors in the '70s. I'm passionate about it.
It was all obviously significant for you at 19 and studying at the university.
I've always fought against being deprived of being able to do things which aren't demonstrably antisocial. I mean, you can't say you have a right to kill someone, but I do think you have a right to read anything or watch anything. Clearly there was great censorship in the '50s and '60s, but it was at a time when film wasn't really challenging that censorship, but the late '60s, early '70s were, the time I was brought up. I'm having great fun at the moment, probably because of a retarded adolescence, catching up with lots of films from that time that were cut and banned and that I felt deprived about. Now I've seen some of them, and some of them I shouldn't have worried that I missed them, but I want to make that judgment for myself.
One of the glories of the Internet, which I think is the Antichrist in all sorts of ways is that it's also a great tool for good. I think my being able to get films that I haven't seen, foreign films and others, tracking them down via the Internet, is a fantastic tool for me as an adult, to make my own decisions.
I've been watching Borowczyk. If I had children, I would not let them see his films, not because there's anything that I think should be censored. It's because they're so profoundly moving and powerful films, so disturbing. Each time I see one, I can't write or think about much for a couple of days. It could be a that a child would not be moved by them the way I am. But I'm very glad I can see them now, and I've been very angry that I wasn't allowed to see them then.
The last question about your father: was the only other substantial film he directed his section of Libido?
Yes, he sort of oversaw producing and he directed the last episode. The idea was to get four or five writers, novelists, to write short scripts. It was done as a very low-budget film. Fred Schepisi did one, Tim Burstall and David Baker and John. I think John got the short end of the straw. He got last pick and it was the least liked and it was savagely reviewed. The Monthly Film Bulletin described his section as being "directed with witless insipidity".
John then went overseas and Philip Adams always describes it as "John retired hurt". I never said any of this to John and he may not know of Philip's response, and he would argue that he didn't, but John has always had a love-hate relationship with film. He hates aspects of it, as we all do. He did come back and did Lonely Hearts, which was a nightmare. The account in The Avocado Plantation bears absolutely no resemblance to the truth. John was unhappy with the screenplay and got John Clarke. It was his idea and Paul threatened to resign from the project, but they ended up working together and have worked together many times since.
In post-production Paul just vanished, went off to a Greek island with Wendy Hughes, and John had to finish the film. It was massively over-length and John had to cut it down. When Paul came back, he disowned the picture. I'm told he wanted to take his name off it. Then, of course, it won the Best Picture at the Australian Film Institute Awards, which goes to the producer, and this caused even more ill will. So John and Paul have, unfortunately, never spoken to each other since. David Stratton, as he did throughout The Avocado Plantation, only ever gets one voice on any film and he got Paul's. That was incredibly damaging to my father, what was in that book.
I was around for all of that film and I know the little quirks of history. You know there are all these sorts of flashbacks that were cut out of the script - and they all turned up in My First Wife. Paul's a good recycler, as all artists are, and I think it's a great tragedy that Paul and John parted ways, because I think Paul is a very interesting person. Nothing I have said, I would see as critical of Paul, because film is a hotbed. You always have disputes and you go your ways. I think that if John and Paul could have continued... John, of course, is a director as well as a producer and I think that may be difficult for some directors. John also did We of the Never Never, but left early on when he and the director saw things differently.
It was a case of two weeks into the production and they'd got about a day's rushes, they were massively over budget. John as producer took responsibility. The director went to Philip Addams. Philip Addams took the view that the only way to get the film finished was with the director because it was the director's vision. John didn't leave the production altogether; he came back to the Melbourne office of Southern Cross and Greg Tepper went up on location and they finished the picture.
John has a different view to most Australian producers; he believes that the responsibility of the finished film, the money, everything is the producer's. It's a heretical view, but it is the correct view. Most Australian producers disown the pictures once they're shot. They do no work, they don't try and sell them, they don't keep books, they don't know where the prints are. When I did the trailer for 100 Years of Australian Cinema, most of the producers we spoke to had no idea where the negative of their film was. It's an incredible thing in Australia. Admittedly, they get paid appallingly, they've got to get on to the next project. But John takes his responsibility seriously; he believes you are responsible for the money that has been raised.
So after those two unhappy experiences, I think he was ready to go back into an ashram again. Then he decided to do, with his new partner Peter Collins, my film. So that's how we ended up together.
There seem to be two different influences on your film-making: the family and production influence, then yourself as a cinephile and your interest in and work for Cinema Papers.
I never had an interest in Hollywood films. I never wanted to see the matinees on Saturday. I like American film now more than I did, but it's mostly the '30s and '40s and finding some good things in the '50s through cable, but I've never seen Hollywood as the best cinema. I think most of the great directors are European and most of the great European directors are French.
The biggest influence on me was Erwin Rado at the Melbourne Film Festival. You had to be 16 or 18 or whatever the law was, and I started when I was 14. He knowingly let me in. We used to have endless arguments. I would walk out of the shorts all the time; he would find me sitting on the steps of the Palais and he would abuse me in his very dogmatic Hungarian way. I absolutely adored the man. I was terrified of him. I think his festivals were superb for someone interested in European cinema. Obviously he wasn't interested at that stage in independent American - not that there was much of it - or Asian to the same extent as the festival is now.
So, when I got my own car, I would go off and see European films. The fact that they were more salacious than anything else may have had something to do with it, as my father - he was a particularly puritanical man; how he made Naked Bunyip is one of the great mysteries of the world - he kept denouncing me, "You're going to see this because it's got nudity in it." It was hard to argue, but I think that's a perfectly okay reason. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But whatever reason got me into these films, I got a great love of European cinema.
Then in 1969 or 1968 I saw my first Bresson, and that was really it, that cinema could go so beyond what it traditionally does. I think he's the great creative force of the 20th century. It's a purity and a power. His films seem so flat and controlled and monotone, yet they end so powerfully. Diary of a Country Priest - I think that if anybody is ever going to create a sense of faith in cinema, that's the film. And it ends with a five or six-minute shot of a crucifix. I mean, is there any more powerful five or six minutes in cinema?
Bresson's a man who denounces Catholicism yet he makes the most profoundly Catholic films, a man who denies God's existence and yet all his films seem to be an affirmation of that existence. These are all the contradictions I love in him.
Then I wanted to become a film-maker. I ended up at Latrobe University. I met someone who said, "Go and write for the student newspaper," so I did. Then Peter Beilby, who's a film producer now, head of production at Artist Services and Philippe Mora, who's a famous Australian director overseas - they were starting up a tabloid version of Cinema Papers. It had come out once roneoed in '67. Then in '70 and '71 we put out eleven fortnightly broadsheets which I wrote for. I wasn't an editor.
After I graduated, I went to teach at an experimental school called Brinsley Road, where I did maths plus the film course. It's interesting because of the people who were in it. There was Richard Lowenstein, Ross Lander as he was then (he became Ned Lander), Sharon Connolly, who's head of Film Australia, Ray Argyll, Lisa Roberts, who made an extraordinary short film and I think is now a photographer and painter, Daniel Sharp, the producer. They never listened to a word I said, they disagreed with every opinion I uttered, so I can't take any responsibility, but it was a great year.
Then Philippe Mora had whizzed through Melbourne and said to Peter, "Why don't you start up Cinema Papers again?". This was 1973 when things were starting to bubble. Peter and I went and saw Philip Addams on a Wednesday and he said, "Get an application in by Friday," and on the Monday we got the money from the Film, Radio and Television Board, which was then run by my father - which led to all sorts of allegations in Sydney. Of course, anybody who knows Philip Addams would know that nobody has a say if Philip's around. John was thrown out of the room, Philip hadn't even told him we were applying for Cinema Papers. Philip just said, "Give them the money." People started to argue, he told them to shut up, it took about two minutes, and we were off and running. I had little idea that it would take up so much of my life.
The idea was that there were three of us and we would each take it in turns to edit for a year, go off for two years to do film. But, of course, Philippe never edited an issue. He just got on the plane again. Peter and I alternated for a while, but it was impossible to juggle and I went off and made short films, an hour-long film and some documentaries. I had done a documentary at Latrobe with a group of us which, in many ways, is the most profitable thing we have ever done.
Then I was at Cinema Papers for a long time and wrote various screenplays. I came along a bit late because the Phil Noyces and Gill Armstrongs, they were the first batch in the '70s of the new young directors and I was a bit behind them. They were the first graduates of the one-year course of the Film School, and all the money was going to them. There were the official directors like Ken Hannam, Don Crombie who just made film after film in the '70s, getting worse and worse and worse - starting really well making terrific movies like Sunday Too Far Away, but their films by the end of the '70s... Then you had this strain of Weir who was making a film a year, Noyce and Armstrong and a couple of others, Stephen Wallace, and I didn't get anywhere trying to make films.
I am told by many people who have worked at the AFC that I hold the world record - I'm up to 18 script rejections in a row - and it was clear that I would never make a feature under the government system. Then fortunately 10BA came in, which I still think is the best thing that ever happened to Australian film, because I don't think it should be decided by bureaucrats with vested interests. It's quite corrupt the way some people get to make films, friends and how there's always money just before 30th June and it gets parcelled out to certain people. Some people get five, six script developments in a row and never make a feature while other people who make features can never get money.
But, fortunately, under 10BA I was able to make Devil in the Flesh, which went to Cannes in Critics' Week - still the only Australian film there - and I've been rejected by everybody and company ever since! But we're getting closer at the moment with some Americans on a very big project. They loved the idea but had reservations about aspects of the screenplay. We're now in full agreement on all of that and we're going to the next stage, so you just don't know. I want to make more films. I left Cinema Papers to do Devil in the Flesh and I was away for five years. Then everything I tried to do didn't get anywhere. I was asked back to Cinema Papers and went back for a very brief period to try and help out - I've sort of been ensnared by its tentacles ever since.
I'm lucky in the sense that I love the writing on film and I love books and magazines and I love film-making, so I'm very blessed that I've been able to have two things because if I could only make films, it would have been harder. But at the moment I'm certainly wishing I had somehow been able to make films. I'm very proud of the books and the magazines I've done, but I still think of myself as a director and I really think I have more to contribute as a director - but this is not necessarily a view shared by all.
Devil in the Flesh - why is it the film that you actually did direct?
I had done a Thomas Hardy short story adaptation with Gordon Glenn, a very interesting director. I had read the novel by Raymond Ratigay, who was a friend if not boyfriend of Jean Cocteau. It was written when he was 16 and, unlike most coming-of-age stories, it's rock-hard. What it captures, which other books don't capture, is the cruelty of many boys at that age, when they notice that they're sexually attractive - and the power they have. Men trail women by quite a bit most of their lives - I mean, girls are so much more intelligent, sophisticated and bright than a boy the same age. It's embarrassing to watch. But there's a brief period in late teens where boys are very sexually attractive, they have a great sexual aura about them, and they're often attractive to older women. Yet they're so emotionally immature - far less mature than girls of the same age - and I think they often act quite cruelly and manipulatively. Ratigay captures that aspect. It's not dreamy and soft and romantic. It's a very tough story.
His story was set during the First World War in France, and I decided to set mine during the Second World War in Australia. In the book the husband is a French soldier at the front. Here, obviously, the husband couldn't be going to and from the front, though it could have been in Papua- New Guinea, so I decided to make him an Italian POW. I did a lot of research on that. And out of that came secondary interests about Europeanisation of Australia. We come from a European culture with the convicts, Anglo- Celtic. But, post-war, with the Italian POWs who were sent here and who, then, when they went back to Italy after the war and saw a country in ruins, in massive proportion, 90-plus percent, came back and started families here.
While they were interned here and in the absence of Australian men, many had affairs because they weren't kept in the camps all the time. They would go out farming and so they had started families in Australia. I think this had a profound effect on this country. It was the start of multiculturalism.
I grew up in the '50s and '60s and I think that middle Europeans - the French obviously, less so with the Italians and the Greeks, changed Australia profoundly and much for the better. There are aspects of pure Australianness I adore and my next story is set at the turn of the century and on the battlefields of World War I; but that's lost, that Australia's gone. There are a couple of 100-year-old men who still personify it, but there's not much left.
I think that Europeanisation was marvellous for this country, and there are aspects that I show in a very subtle way. For example, the ending. You know that the husband is away, she has an affair, she becomes pregnant. You would expect the reaction of a hot-blooded Italian if he found out would be murderous and horrible. The film actually goes beyond the end of the book, the scene where the husband comes back and has to deal with the affair and the child, and he deals with it sublimely well.
I'm not interested in someone behaving badly over this. There are people who have the strength and understanding that life presents situations where your rules and your beliefs have to be understood in the context, and there's a bigness and a generosity which I love so much in the character.
It caused some problems here. Some people said I was trying to make a French film in Australia and was trying to make Australia look like France and all that boring sort of comment. It was the height of the nationalism in cinema - you could only make films about working-class Aussies who spoke in a "G'day mate" tone at the turn of the century when no-one spoke like that. They all spoke like English people. The countryside I filmed it in was central Victoria. It's very beautiful. I love the Australian landscape. It is not all Back of Bourke, it's all sorts of things. I was just rendering lovingly what I think is some of the most beautiful country in the world. Then I was told I was trying to make it look like France. My God, it doesn't look anything like France. France I adore, but Australia looks as much like France as the Irish countryside in Saving Private Ryan looks like France!
Ratigay actually wrote six endings for the book and Cocteau threw them all out. In fact, it was an idea from one ending that I took up, so I didn't feel as if I was cheating on Ratigay. I don't necessarily believe that the ending Cocteau chose is the best ending of the book and I hope Ratigay, wherever he is, has not been upset with me, because I tried to be absolutely faithful to the book. I never saw the French version directed by Claude Autant Lara, the famous one with Gerarde Philipe. I've seen the television feature they made after mine where they copy shot after shot, but I'm told by many French people who know the Autant Lara very well that my film is very faithful to the book in a way that his is not - not that it's a criticism of his film at all; he can do whatever he likes as far as I'm concerned. But I did want to be faithful to the spirit because it was the spirit of it that I thought was interesting.
Interview: 6th November 1998