Your earliest film was Love Letters from Teralba Road?
I'd made a couple of short films before. Love Letters from Teralba Road came from a series of letters that I found in a flat in Birchgrove. It was $19 a week flat, basically two rooms, three rooms, and I found these letters in a drawer under newspaper. And I had a quick look at them and noticed that they came from Teralba Road in Adamstown in Newcastle, where I come from.
I didn't actually read them. I put them away. They were about ten years old at the time. Anyway, Dick Mason from Film Australia asked me about a year later if I wanted to write a story about the city- they were making dramas at Film Australia. It had to be half an hour long. I said I'd got these letters and actually had a quick look at them. There were four letters, I think, and a note, and the note said, "Get your dinner, your dinner's in the oven. Blah, blah, blah. Eat it yourself. Got home, found you weren't here, and left." It was a note from him to her, a really rough note. Then all the letters were from the woman to the man.
So I read the letters - they were set in 1959 - and they were very painful. They were about the man trying to get his wife to come back to him. I thought this was a great idea for a story about the city. I didn't really think about all the implications. I wrote the story and used the letters and realised I didn't know the ending. So I thought I wouldn't have an ending, I'd leave them in limbo. I tried to, from the letters, make out who he was. But I knew these people, I'd come from Newcastle - I felt I knew them - and my mother came from that same sort of background. I never showed the letters to anybody; just got excerpts from them. I thought it was a good story about a man coming down on a flight to Sydney to see this woman who's obviously been bashed.
I also wanted to make a film about something that really came from me. When I was making it, I lived in Erskineville. I had this negative attitude about my life and I lived in this really tough area in Erskineville, deliberately lived there, so that when I made the film, I would feel like them. I thought the film mustn't have anything fancy about it. When I cut from one sequence to another, there's no fancy cuts, no fancy movement or camera movement or dissolve. I wanted to reflect the true feeling of working-class people. But I mean battling people. I wanted to get the absolute feeling of their situation.
David Stratton refers to it as a story of an ordinary Australian bloke.
Yes. We got Bryan Brown to play the role, but I actually wanted someone different. I was looking for someone different, for a short little guy - I think this would have been more like the real guy - a short little guy who had hair sticking up at the back, blonde hair. He was short, tremendously insecure, violent, and you couldn't talk to him - but very vulnerable. I couldn't find an actor like that, and still can't. I didn't want a big handsome-looking guy. Bryan was the nearest we could get, and I'm glad we did.
Captives of Care was a documentary drama?
It was always going to be a drama. Rosemary Cresswell showed me the book. I trusted Rosemary and had a good relationship with her. They came to me with the book by XXXXXXXXXX, "What do you think about making this book into a film?" They took me out to meet John Rortie and when I met him and talked to him, I said, "Yes, we'll do it, but we'll do it with the handicapped people and we'll build actors around them." They had a scriptwriter who really couldn't write it, and we struggled and battled with the script, trying to get it right. In the end it was a bit of a mess and the producer took over writing it. But they raised the money through 10BA and through the bank. It cost $110,000, and we decided we would improvise it with the actors.
I wanted to do it because I like John XXXXXXXXXXXXX and I liked what they were trying to say, very articulate people. In the end the handicapped people were much more interesting than the non-handicapped people to talk to. But I thought it was a good subject, but it was a nightmare to make, a very difficult film.
The handicapped people weren't the problem. It was really more the production. I realised I was dealing with very inexperienced people, and I was a bit inexperienced myself, and I was unused to not having support. And the producer was very inexperienced. Although it was 10BA, we couldn't get any cameramen, we couldn't get a sound person, so we had to use a documentary guy from Byron Bay, the only person we could find. The sound person was very inexperienced - I was actually teaching them things on the job - and I got very angry with the DOP because he wasn't doing it properly; he was treating it like a documentary, and we had to experiment with improvising - how do you link the sound up when you never know when people are going to talk!
So that was why it was difficult. The amazing thing is we shot for three weeks, and the entire last week we didn't use. We completely wasted a week's work. We put the first cut together and it looked appalling. Then the editor and I - we had a very good editor - we said, "We're going to throw out the script and we're just going to cut it". Because we shot a lot of documentary material and because there was a lot of good stuff in it, we said, "We're going to throw out the script, we're just going to hack it around in our own way. We're going to have all these ideas and we're going to cut the last week's stuff, we're not going to use any of that." And we put it all together and, somehow, it started to work. It was just magic that worked.
Everyone thought Julieanne Newbold was the wrong person for it, but I always loved Julieanne and I thought she was right because she's a very warmhearted girl. I know she's a little bit soap opera, but I think it was right for her. Anyway, it worked in the end, but it was a messy film to make, very messy.
You focussed on people on the margins. That brings us to Stir.
The Prisoners' Action Group approached me - would I make a film about Bathurst? I said no, I can't do anything. We didn't even have a script. Then we went to see Bob Jewson, the writer. He was an ex-prisoner and he gave me a whole pile of stuff to read, completely formless, just a lot of dialogue he had written in prison. And when I read that, I said, "This guy can write, and he's seen it all."
I think it's my problem in life, in a way, that I've always been very sympathetic to people and wanting to tell their stories. I've always felt a bit on the fringes myself - I don't know why - and so I identify with them very strongly. But, at the same time, I didn't want them to be unfair to the warders. It was a great struggle with the Prisoners' Action Group because they thought all the warders were brutal. And I said, "That just isn't true." It's like in the French Revolution: all the nobles weren't awful people, yet everyone wants to believe that, and all the revolutionaries weren't good people. So you've got to take a balance.
When I went to Italy, a girl came up to me and said - and it's the most insightful thing anyone ever said about it to me -"It's a good film, but if you only realised, you could have made it into an exceptional film - it's Dante's Inferno. If you had made Dante's Inferno, you would have got a film that got beyond that." It's very hard when you've got the Prisoners' Action Group and bashed prisoners around you looking at the script and saying, "Aren't you going to represent us properly?" They wanted a polemical film. So that was hard. I thought you could have both. Now I could probably do it. I couldn't do it then.
The riot scenes and the oppression had the Inferno atmosphere about them. But there's Bryan Brown again, early in his career, embodying the ordinary Australian victim of injustice and prisons.
Bryan Brown has always embodied, to me, something very special. He hates me when I say this, because he doesn't want to know, but there's no other actor that I've met who embodies what I feel in the way he acts. Whether I have or not, I always feel I've got tremendous integrity, and Bryan Brown has it in his face. At the same time I feel very ordinary. I had very ordinary parents. I come from an ordinary background, although I was sent to Scots College. But I feel ordinary underneath, yet with lots of energy, and I think Bryan has got that. I've also got a lot of suppressed energy and I think Bryan has got that. And underneath it I feel very sensitive. I won't argue the point, but I feel sensitive and I think Bryan underneath is very sensitive too. And yet at the same time he's larrikin, he's what I'd like to be - a larrikin. I feel I'm a larrikin underneath but I can never express it, but Bryan expresses it. That's why I like him. And that's why I liked him in Stir.
Max Phipps was excellent as the embodiment of smouldering authoritarianism.
Yes, the neurotic authoritarianism. I've always liked Max Phipps. I was in ensembles with him years ago. I always thought he was an exceptional actor under-used, and I fought very hard for him in that film. I never had the same rapport with him that I did with Bryan.
Critically Stir was acclaimed, what of government response?
The Liberal Party was in power when the riots happened; when we made the film, the Labor Party was in and Neville Wran came to the opening. The man in charge of the Police Department at that time - he became the Commissioner - told me, "Keep making films like that." He was one of the honest commissioners, Avery. I know the New South Wales Prison Department use it now as a training film.
Bob Jewson said one thing - and I think this is what we tried to make the theme of the film, although it was very hidden - that riots don't happen out of the blue. The prison authorities make you believe that all these criminals that are incarcerated are at all times dangerous and they're trying to get out. But Bob said that's never true; most of them have accepted their lot and they're trying to serve their time. They only get into a riot situation when they're treated badly and unfairly over a long period. He said most people don't want a riot; they know what it's going to mean, longer in jail.
The public's response?
They came to it. It cost $460,000 or $480,000. I know it's made a profit. It ran for six or eight weeks. That was the time when Australian films were taken off as quickly as possible. It had a run on television and it sold quite well overseas.
So your next film was more autobiographical?
The Boy Who Had Everything, yes, was pretty autobiographical. I was always very unhappy about it because originally I had a different story. He was older, 27, at university, struggling, couldn't pass. He had been a star at school and he had a girlfriend, his same girlfriend. He was going to prostitutes, and trying to resolve things about his life. Dick Mason and Sandra Levy wanted him to be younger and Dick said, "We can get the money for it if you make him younger. Everyone's interested in a young boy; they're not interested in a 27 year-old." I thought, give me a break.
So I said okay. And they said, "Can you set in a college or somewhere?" I had been to St Andrew's College - I didn't really want to make a film about St Andrew's College, but I knew about the system. So I did. But it was really never meant to be about St Andrew's College; it was meant to be about, well, the people I'd seen at the school. It wasn't exactly myself, but it was people like my brother, people I'd seen at Scots, and partly myself, who had been stars, had all the material goals, had achieved these, but everything else had been left undone. The boys themselves didn't know what was happening to them later on in their lives. They didn't know why things weren't satisfying for them.
I knew this happened. It happened to me at St Andrew's. I'd been a top rower, footballer, but when I wanted to give it all up and do drama, everyone got very upset. It happened to a lot of boys. Even though the film itself is not the greatest film in the world, it sold very well, particularly in Europe. I think most people get the message. Everyone in Australia hated it because it didn't reflect a lot of things accurately. But that theme, was something I wanted to make. I want to make films about things I think are important.
You can't just expect someone who's a prefect at school and is good at sport - all those things are easy at school - but when you leave, life is much more complex. I've seen them fall apart time and time again. Originally I had the father in the film and the mother was supposed to be very working-class, but all of it just went by the wayside because there was a lot of commercial pressure.
It was very glamorous with Diane Cilento.
She tried to play working-class, but it just didn't work. Robyn Nevin wanted to play that part, and I think she should have. Jason Connery was very young then and he was very nervous about the film and thought it would ruin his image, and he was never very friendly to me. He did the film, but he thought I was ruining his career.
It contributed, along with John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting to a rethink during the 80s and 90s of the Australian male image.
Yes, I had hoped it would because I had struck so much of it. I found that I couldn't talk to men my own age much - still can't, really. I can a bit more now, but in those days you could never talk about anything. It was what football team you were in and how you did. Everyone went to university and did Law and did brilliantly and nobody grappled with anything. It's wrong because a lot of men want to talk about these things and why should this be left to the women, which is what it was.
I often wish that I could make The Boy Who Had Everything again and make it the older man, because I thought the issues came out - but maybe they were right, it wouldn't be so entertaining and you wouldn't get the college life.
Christina Stead and For Love Alone?
The French liked For Love Alone, too. Again it wasn't very popular in Australia. It ran here for six weeks, got some scathing reviews. Mainly they're criticising the script, but I collected all these reviews from women's magazines. Women's magazines and the feminists hated it. They thought I had murdered Christina Stead, that I'd simplified it beyond belief. Patrick White liked it, though; he went to see it and said, "It's better than the book"!
I don't think the feminists really liked Christina Stead's attitude to men, because she was praising of men and praising of love. I met her and talked to her quite a lot. She did not believe in feminist separatism at all. She believed that men and women should be together and that love between a man and woman was the very best thing that could ever happen to anybody, that love did exist and it lasted a lifetime. And I believe in that. I didn't then. I asked her, "Do you really believe that?" and she said, "Yes, it happened to me." I think most women would acknowledge that now. They had to go through that stormtrooper period.
I couldn't understand it, I was shocked. They attacked it so viciously. So I guess it wasn't a totally competent film. I know it was a bit slow and clumsy and I have to accept that.
Did you enjoy going back into that period of Australian society?
Yes, but I think it was a bit arch. I enjoyed it but I don't think I ever really got a handle on it. I don't it was that different from now, people weren't that different. I think I tried to make them a bit too different. I did enjoy it. I liked the theme. The reason I made the film was that I read the book and, while I thought the book was very clumsy and awkward, there was a moment when she was sitting on the train, talking about love and what love meant to her. That moment on the train was why I made the film - her attitude about love; how she'd worked out what it meant; this man had loved her and given her the freedom to go and sleep with another man. This was a blooming moment for her and I thought it was worth making the film for that moment. That's what I was trying to get. I thought the feminist critics could have been a bit more understanding, but they weren't.
In terms of criticism, Blood Oath and Australian memories of the war?
A lot of people criticised it, I think, because it wasn't as accurate as it should have been - and it was a bit melodramatic. I think that was all true in the script. I thought I could overcome some of that, but I couldn't really. In America and in Japan they didn't criticise this at all; in Australia they did. But the people who had actually been there didn't. They said it was an exaggerated version of what really happened.
I grew up at a time when soldiers who had returned from the war were talking about Japan and the hatred of Japanese and what they did. I was happy to make the film, whatever the final result is. I wanted to make a film about the Japanese treatment of our prisoners of war. It wasn't Japanese soldiers fighting - that was fair enough; they fought ruthlessly, but no Australian ever complained about that. That was war. What we complained about was the way they treated their prisoners of war, and we thought that was unfair because they were helpless. You don't treat prisoners of war like this, no matter who you are.
There were criticisms of the accuracy. The original writers brought the script to me after they worked on it a lot. They would have been better to have stuck more to the actual truth. It's much more interesting.
The character of the Christian Japanese prison was unexpected.
Yes, that was true, absolutely true. He came from Nagasaki or Hiroshima. He was executed with the Rosary in his hand. He was a Catholic and did voluntarily give himself up like that, although he was innocent, in exactly those circumstances - although it wasn't radio messages that got him; it was just his confession. He wasn't actually executed until six months later. We had him executed the next morning and it was New Guinea - he was taken to New Guinea and executed. But there were many protests on his behalf, including the priests in Nagasaki. But he was executed along with a lot of other people. The other guy was executed, he didn't commit hara kiri.
It made it a bit more complex for an Australian audience thinking about Japanese cruelty, and suddenly you've got this theme of Catholicism. How do you reconcile the atrocity and justice?
The theme was true and the Australians found it very hard that this guy was actually a Catholic, a Christian, and that he had been told to come and do the execution. He did do the execution. He didn't ask any questions, because he was also told to do it. He wasn't lied to so much as he just didn't ask any questions. He went along and did it. He sort of knew it was wrong and he knew that they were innocent, that they hadn't been tried properly. And he said that. He gave himself because he believed in God, Christianity and justice, and he got punished for it.
When he was blindfolded, all that was absolutely accurate. A priest was there and said to him, "I don't need a blindfold, I'm not afraid of death." "I'm sorry, it's regulations." That's exactly what was said.
So he becomes almost a Christ-figure in that sense?
Yes, he does. I wish we had made more of that. It's an interesting theme.
The Americans were never in the original story about the Ambon trials. I don't think there were any Americans there. The leader of the Japanese did get off like that. In fact I think he's still alive in Japan, a very old man - probably running Mitsubishi or something.
A lot of critics said it was simplistic and, in a way I suppose it was. But the point is it's true. Americans are always doing that. In the Tokyo trials, the Emperor got away and a lot of other people got away. The Americans wanted to run Japan properly and they didn't want to make the mistakes of Germany.
I don't think many people realise how horrifying the killing of the 600 on the airfields was. Basically they were bayoneted to death on the airfields and buried. And the Commander knew about it. And he wouldn't come back and face trial because the Americans were protecting him. So we wanted to dramatise that somehow. In my bloodthirsty way I said, "I'll tell you how we're going to start the film. You're starting is no good. What I'm going to do is have 600 men all lined up on the airfield. I'm going to track down as each one of their heads is cut off, so people realise what we're dealing with there." We found that young Australians weren't very interested. They didn't want to know about the war. They didn't want to know about the Japanese. The film didn't do all that well here but it did very well in Japan. The Japanese soldiers at Ambon came to see it, had a big dinner and they said they were very glad the film had been made. It had been worrying them for years, what happened at Ambon, and they were glad it all came out.
You were back to Asia for Turtle Beach.
I loved the book and I really wanted to make the film. I think in the end the script really wasn't good enough and I had a terrible run-in with the producer on it. It was just a nightmare. I wanted to make a film about Asia again, because I thought Asia was misunderstood in Australia and I thought the more light we can shed on Asians, the better. I wanted to make a film about Australians up there and us dealing with Asians. I thought this was central. - It's a much bigger issue now, us dealing with Asians. We have got to deal with Asia and Asians and Asianness. That's why I liked the book.
But unfortunately in the film, it all went haywire because I think Greta Scacchi was wrong. I got offered Turtle Beach straight after Blood Oath because they were thrilled with the film, the same people who had funded Blood Oath. It looked like a big step forward. I read the script and said it's not for me because it's not good enough, it doesn't work. Then my wife read and said it's a wonderful opportunity. But I was right in the first place, the script wasn't good enough. And I was too tired to make it. I was exhausted from Blood Oath. Anyway, that's all by the by. I went ahead and did it.
The producers all wanted to make Pretty Woman. I said, "It's not Pretty Woman, it's a film about Asia." I had to fight to get an Indian to play the Indian; it was a struggle from start to finish. There was plenty of money, but I kept compromising on it. I kept compromising about the place where the beach was, about the roughness of the set. I wanted it really rough.
Then there was this whole thing about the disco place, which was actually Matt Carroll's idea, something he'd seen in Thailand. I hadn't researched enough on Malaysia. If I had researched on Malaysia, I would never have had the disco scene, because it just doesn't exist in Malaysia. Also the massacre on the beach. Everyone was worried, the massacre had to be built up, whereas the massacre was wrong - emotionally and morally wrong. All this was pushed and I felt I'd lost control of the film.
I fought with the producers all the time and, as soon as they got the director's cut, they removed me and the editor from the film and then finished it, I thought, in a most appalling manner, and I should have taken my name off it. I got advised by my agents not to, but I should have. I don't feel the film is mine. A lot of the shots are mine, but extra stuff was shot and my name is on it, so I've got to take responsibility for it. But it's the one film I've made that I feel ashamed of.
And you haven't made a feature since.
I haven't made a feature since, no. It had a big emotional effect on me. I was never offered another picture. I was sent various scripts but I didn't really want to do them. I think if I'd just made Blood Oath I could have gone on, getting offers from America. Making Turtle Beach stopped everything. People were totally cold on me. That's why I should have taken my name off. It was Matt Carroll who made it.
I still don't know if I'm going to be able to do this - it's been nine years. But, if I was going to make films, I'd go back to The Boy Who Had Everything, only not compromise like I did on The Boy, and just try and make the films that I really want to, or work with writers that I really want to. I've work with Keith Thompson and developed two scripts of my own and I'm hoping I'm going to make one very soon. We're trying to raise money.
You have spoken about Scott Hicks and Rolf de Heer and how they broke through expectations with personal films.
And it happened with Peter Fisk when he made True Believers for television. Scott Hicks had made two or three features before Shine and Rolf de Heer had made two before Bad Boy Bubby. These directors are making quite competent films, nothing special, and sometimes not so good. All of a sudden, out of the blue, they make a film which startles everyone. It's just extraordinary. And my question is: Why? What's happened? Something different has happened for them. It happened to Bob Connolly in documentary. He had been working for years at the ABC on Big Country and Four Corners and had made nature documentaries, documentaries in Tasmania. All of a sudden he made First Contact.
Basically what happened with Rolf de Heer and Scott Hicks is that they decided they would make a film they really cared about, that came from their hearts, came from inside themselves, and they weren't going to compromise. They would wait years to make it, if necessary. I think they found their voice. You've got to have a bit of freedom and you've got to fight for it and it's got to be something you really care about, something central to you, something about your life, a deeper film. And still try to make it entertaining. That's what's happened to them, they found their vision and their voice. And once you do that, you've got something special and people respond to it.
In your television material there's a strong voice, again with compassion for those on the fringe. What attracted you in your segment of Women of the Sun?
I liked the story of the Aborigines being put under pressure and standing up. I suppose I always like those stories of people standing up for their rights. I love the story of the French Revolution. A lot of things went wrong, but I like people standing up for their rights. I liked the fact that the aborigines all walked off, that sort of frustrated gesture of defiance. I suppose that's true, I do like people on the fringes battling. I used to think I wasn't like that at all. But I came to realise that I am actually quite political, even though I don't think I am. I don't think of myself like that, but I do like those stories because I think they're the heart of our life.
Mail Order Bride again has the Asian connection.
I wish it had been made a bit better. I got sent three scripts by the ABC; I could do one of them. They were very generous to me in those days. It wouldn't happen now. But that's the one I wanted to do. The Ray Meagher character always reminded me of my brother, who's a sort of inarticulate Australian with a loving heart. There's an awful lot of them about, big yobbo-looking guys who've got soft hearts. It's very typical of Australia and something that I can identify with very strongly and I never have any problem with it. Talking to Ray Maher I said, "What does this guy want in his life? What's driving him?" And he thought about it for a long time and he said, "He wants to build a home, he wants a home," and it's something you can't say to another guy, "I want to build a home". But that's what he does, and that's what a lot of Australian men want. Rhey want a home, they want a wife, they want a woman, they want some love in their life, but they can't talk about it.
Filipino groups sometimes express concern about Filipina brides.
Filipinos didn't like the film very much. They thought it was insulting. They didn't want anyone to see the film. They were ashamed that this woman would be called a whore but I don't think they understood the western subtleties of the film because it wasn't doing that. The woman who played the role understood, but she'd been living out here a long time. I think they just felt that they didn't want this sort of thing even to be said. But that's the impression I got. They liked the film, but they were very uncomfortable about it.
And with Louis Nowra, Hunger?
I never wanted to do that film. I got talked into it. I always thought it was a bit strange about this guy doing a hunger strike. I got attacked by the Communists saying that I should have been more loyal to Romania. I kept saying, "Loyal to Romania? Do you know anything about it?" And most of the Communists said, "Oh, no, but we can't be seen to be attacking the Left anywhere." I thought, I can't stand this. The one thing I've never been is a rabid Communist or a rabid Left-winger, ever. I said, "You have to see it for what it is, otherwise you start believing in Robespierre. You've got to see the truth of the situation." The truth of the situation is Romania was in a shocking state, even if it was a Communist state. I felt it was a good story, but I thought it was a bit static.
Yes, Olive has had a tremendous effect on people. People still talk about Olive. Olive was a woman dying. I thought, "Oh, God, I can't make another one of these dreadful films," but I met the husband. I actually didn't want to make the film until Olive told me - and I couldn't tell this to the husband - but Olive was an actress, she had come to Australia from South Africa, and she really wanted to break away from her husband. Her husband was a good, decent, ordinary guy. A woman therapist told me that a lot of women are married to good, decent, ordinary guys who don't do anything wrong, yet they want to break away and they can't. So a lot of them, to get away, die. And, in a way, that was my theme for the film. The husband said, "You can have that theme if you want to, but I can't accept that". I thought this filming the process of dying was a painful thing to do, but maybe was worthwhile, a painful film to make, even though we were acting.
You did a science fiction story for the Winners series?
Yes, that was Tony Morphett and he had religious themes as well. I was very religious when I was younger, Church of England, but I broke away because too many questions couldn't be answered for me. But I like people who are religious and I like things with religious themes, because I think it's all connected to humanity. So he put all that in, basically Christian and themes of bonding. The trouble was we ran out of time to shoot it properly. It rained and it was a nightmare, but I'm glad I made it. It's still running in Europe.
Gordon Bennett in the Bicentenary series of Willesee's Australians?
It wasn't great. We had to shoot those films in two weeks. They actually lost a director, rang me up on Friday to start on Monday, then two weeks later I was shooting. The thing about it was that Gordon Bennett was a decent man but much maligned in this country. The film comes down heavily on his behalf and - although people still argue - the Army still acknowledges him as a hero. He was a very good general but he was castigated because he left his troops. But it was such a quick job, it's hard to comment on it.
The last contribution to a series was one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Yes, Envy. That was with Keith Thompson. Keith was working-class and it's a good story, but I always felt it stopped halfway through and started on a new film. The best thing about it was I was trying to do interesting things with the style, but I always was cross that he didn't follow the theme right through. I thought it would have a bigger effect than it did, but I think it got a bit lost in its cleverness. It's about a girl who's a loser. She was supposed to be a mouse, they described her as a mouse. I remember saying to the casting agent at the time, "One of the interesting things about this is to cast a mouse". But they said they didn't want to cast a mouse. They wanted a sexy girl who plays a mouse. I said, "I'm going to cast a mouse and you watch the shit hit the fan."
So we cast this mouse, Ross Mac Gregor's daughter. She was a very good actress and she looked exactly what the film said, a mouse, a girl who will never get a man. But she's got this guy and she's going to hang on to him, and that's what turns her nasty. And Bob Weiss, the writer, the person who had written it turned on me, and so did Penny Chapman. They reckoned they were never going to accept this girl under any circumstances. So we had to find another girl in Melbourne who was sexy. They never said that. She was a very good actress who has since done very well, so perhaps they were right. But I always felt the film didn't have any impact because of that. They turned her into a neurotic girl to make it work. The mouse thing couldn't work with her because she wasn't a mouse. I thought if they kept it as a mouse, we would have had an extraordinary film, but to this day Bob Weiss says, "You were wrong, Stephen, you were wrong." I said, "Well, I didn't have a chance, did I, because basically I had to leave the film if I wanted that girl, I had to resign." But I decided in the end I would do the film. The other girl wasn't that far off it, but she was far enough to make the film unmemorable. And what's happened to the film? It's been totally lost. I reckon that's the reason.
I've just done things like Flying Doctors and Water Rats. Water Rats is fun. It's all over the top. I quite like it but I don't take it all too seriously.
But it does mean that over twenty years you have done a great deal.
Yes, I've done a lot. Sometimes I think I've done nothing.
Your themes have been humanity and social justice, and in the Australian context of decent people and integrity - and marginalised people.
I think that's true but I want to go a bit further than that, a bit into the terror of life. Someone said, "You're always showing dignified people, maintaining their dignity no matter what". I think it's really about ordinary people who are battling in life, who find a way through, because that's how I see myself, an ordinary guy battling my way through to find a voice, to say something in the society, to be important. They aren't extraordinary people, but they're trying to be part of society and be decent people. They've got a decency about them. I feel that very strongly in Australians - that's what they're like, their greatest quality. Like my mother. She was very insightful. She thought she was ordinary but she was a very insightful, strong character who was - she always used to say about her family - poor but honest.
Interview: 21st November 1998