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Tim Burstall

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TIM BURSTALL

Your background to film-making in the sixties - what started you on the path to being a director?

Really, I started out wanting to write. I remember it being in the old university days where we all used to think in terms of what we called 'the big vehicle'. The big vehicle was the 250-page novel, the three-hour play or the 90-minute film. In those days it was thought very difficult to get up a 90 minute film from Australia. Somehow or other that was something that was done by the Yanks.

I tried a novel, that's how it began, though at the same time I was always very interested in film and I was a foundation member in the Melbourne University Film Society. We were all trying to get hold of 16mm equipment and so forth at that point. My first job after university was at the National Film Library, which I thought might lead into getting into the Commonwealth Film Unit as a writer. But they were all doing nothing but docos, so I got out of that fairly rapidly.

I did found a film society out at Eltham, but I really began by making a film on the weekends. I'd seen a film by Lamorisse, Le Crin Blanc, about a boy and a horse and how he tames the stallion. I lived out in Eltham, which was almost rural in those days, and I had a few goats and geese and my kids were young. The lead in my film was six and the girl next door was five, so I made the story about a boy and a goat. We put it into an overseas film festival, Venice, got a prize with it, and distributed it through Screen Gems. It got a release here through British Empire Films as a support. That floated me and I got some backing from an old school friend and we formed a company called Eltham Films and away we went.

You made documentaries in those years as well?

When you say 'documentaries', I really was not interested in documentary. I remember hating the very idea of documentary - this is perhaps from my period in the National Film Library. The Grierson-type documentary is my idea of total boredom. It was nearly always from forest to newspaper print or you followed some industrial process. It also had that dreary socialist colour, too. It was always collective Man, never a story. So, after The Prize I made a set of art films because Arthur Boyd was a very close friend and I knew people like Nolan and Charlie Blackman fairly well. They belonged to the same bohemia we all lived in.

I sold them to the ABC and some of them won prizes. Of course, when I say art films, they weren't documentary in the style of the usual art film; they didn't say, 'Here is the painter. What are his great thoughts?' They just looked at his pictures. I eliminated the painter. I just took the thematic material. In other words, I wrote a ballad, say, about Ned Kelly and fitted that to the pictures. They were like mini-cartoons almost.

In the case of Arthur Boyd, he did a series and I called it The Black Man and his Bride, which was really about aboriginal integration, an aboriginal shearer wanting to marry a half-caste bride. But I turned it into a narrative or into a mini-narrative. The thing I was interested in was drama, fiction material. I was interested in the theme business.

The other things I did were kids' films. We were just trying to find a market, trying to find a niche. The series of kids' films was called Sebastian and the Fox made with a man called Peter Scriven who had done The Tintookies. That was a puppet film, one puppet and the real world. They were like early Chaplins. It was meant to be comedy for kids but we used the same principles that Chaplin was practising.

After that I a Harkness Fellowships, one of those wealthy American fellowships that took you to America for a couple of years. You could study where you liked and that made it possible for me to work with professional actors at the Actors Studio and work on a couple of feature films. I came back, then, ready to make some features.

I did see 2000 Weeks when it first came out. It seems a long time ago.

It sure is. It's about 30 years ago. I actually still look on that as part of my apprenticeship. It's written up in the histories as if it was an important breakthrough picture, but to my mind it wasn't. It was based on something when I was in the States. The current wisdom was that nobody could compete with Hollywood except countries with a language of their own, like Sweden or France. They could have small industries of their own but nobody else could, and if you were English-speaking, you were really in a problem situation competing with Hollywood.

Anyway, this fellow from United Artists said, 'But you could still make adult pictures, say in Sweden or France or Australia. What does it matter? You know, there's a hundred thousand in the art-house market. You should be able to make a picture for that,' and so on. So the intent was really to make a sort of universal art-house film, something that would work globally in a small way for the art-house circuit.

I didn't know enough about writing. I didn't know a lot about a lot of things and I personally think the picture didn't work. I look on my professional career as starting with Stork.

I think the themes were interesting. It took a theme which I dealt with later on in Petersen. Whereas 2000 Weeks was about a journalist who wanted to be a writer and who felt that Australia was in a colonial situation and somebody was making a series and he doesn't get the chance to do it, by the time I got to Petersen three years later, he was converted to an electrician who aspired to go to university. I was able to make much more use of the class element in Petersen. Anyway, it didn't work for the audience in 2000 Weeks and for me that was pretty important. I didn't think it was any use making pictures that didn't work commercially and work for an audience.

Stork is considered your breakthrough film.

Well, it was the breakthrough historically. First of all, I took exactly the opposite advice that I'd been given in the States, the advice which led to 2000 Weeks, which was to take, as it were, a kind of universal theme - it's safer - and aim it at a market that is art-house. With Stork, it was unashamedly, very heavily, Australian and was based on a play written, of course, by David Williamson. One of the points you have to make is that it was the first thing that the public heard of from him.

This play was put on at La Mama. I saw it and thought, 'We can convert that to a film.' And it had a kind of gaiety and brio. It was good-natured and it celebrated our own lives in a very straightforward way. It wasn't the precious or arty. It was Australian comedy of a pretty straightforward sort, but also of a pretty well-observed and accurate sort. And David has emerged over the last thirty years as a very prolific comic writer and a very shrewd observer of the Australian scene, I think.

You wrote an article in The Bulletin in 1977 in which you categorised our films and you talked about the ocker comedy. Did Stork herald the emergence of the ocker comedy?

I don't think it did. It preceded the Barry MacKenzie? stuff, which is much more condescending; it is both more brutal and is genuinely ocker - I mean ocker in a very cartoony style. But it's also seen through the prism of Humphries' idea of what's funny. I mean, Barry was a Camberwell boy looking down on Moonee Ponds, which is a different colour from what Stork was trying to do. Although there are parts of Stork that are ocker, the general feeling is robust. Stork is a virgin and he's also a hypochondriac. There are characters in Stork, whereas the characters and the colours in Bazza MacKenzie?, well, they're poster colours and they're much more caricatures than genuine characters.

A distinction I've found useful is the difference between a larrikin and a hooligan: the larrikins are attractive and hooligans are brutal.

Yes, I could buy that distinction.

In that vein, how does Alvin Purple fit?

After Stork I formed a company called Hexagon with Roadshow. The deal was that our production company and their distribution company could have a veto on any sort of project. In other words, they wanted a say in what kind of pictures we made, and we wanted a say in what sort of pictures we made. So if either party, the creator or the distributor disagreed, then the project was vetoed.

My next film was, in fact, Petersen. That's the one I commissioned from David and which we were working on, but I couldn't get it up in time for Roadshow - they wanted a picture straightaway for that Christmas. The R Certificate had just come in and they'd run a very successful Danish picture called Bedroom Mazurka. Now, I'd never seen a sex comedy in my life, literally, and Graham Bourke, in charge at Roadshow, said have a look at it. So I had a look at it and said, 'Well, if we couldn't do something better than that...'. It didn't seem to me a particularly difficult thing to do.

I then wrote off to a vast number of Australian writers, asking whether they had any ideas for a sex comedy. I got ideas back from people like Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, probably thirty ideas. But one of them was a fully-written screenplay which had been written originally in England by Alan Hopgood for Tigon Films. Anyway, I read this thing and I thought what it was getting at was really the joke of sexual therapy, where the therapist gets off with the patient.

It started off as comedy then, halfway through, it turned into a serious sort of Four Corners: 'What is the nature of this? This isn't really so funny, is it, chaps?'.

I thought the Hopgood thing was a one-joke idea, but if our film was to be a comedy, then this was clearly the story that had more mileage in it than any others. But all the serious part, I thought we've got to throw that out. I tried to get Hoppy to do certain things with it but, in the end, I wrote quite a lot of it, using almost every schoolboy joke that one could remember. I suspect it was because we were seeing our Australian girls in the nude for the first time and it was R-certificate - actually I haven't seen it for so long, for probably 25 years, so I don't really know how it would seem now - but it was intended to be good-natured.

I would imagine you'd feel rather odd seeing it in the days of AIDS because it's suggesting full liberation. But it was phenomenally successful. We took, I think, $4,000,000 in the days when it was $2.50 a seat. It was seen by something like one in ten Australians. I think it was the business of getting your rocks off and it being okay, the end of puritanism, something like that. But it was laughing at liberation more than urging it upon us, I hope.

Graeme Blundell's Alvin was good-natured.

I remember Bourkie saying, 'You've got to cast somebody like Jack Thompson.' I said, 'Absolutely not. You've got to cast somebody who wouldn't, on the surface, seem a stud or even particularly attractive'. I actually thought that Alvin wasn't, that the comic element was connected with having a Woody Allen or a Dustin Hoffman figure who is not very obviously sexually attractive, and the girls rushing him. This becomes much funnier than if he was a stud figure. Anyway, that's history.

And Alvin Rides Again?

I didn't direct that. We wanted to make a follow-up Stork but Roadshow wanted, for commercial reasons, the follow-up Alvin. It was directed jointly by my cameraman Rob Copping and David Bilcock, the editor. And, really, I don't think Graeme Blundell wanted to do it except on terms which to some extent endangered the premise, a double identity thing. There was the real Alvin and then there was a figure called Balls McGee?, a sort of horrible crim. Part of the joke - again it's a sort of Woody Allenish idea - was him being mistaken for one and having to front as the other.

But when it came to the crunch, Graeme didn't distinguish between Alvin pretending to be Balls, and Balls. I think the comedy was lost and the audience identification with Alvin didn't work properly. But Alvin Purple had been so successful that it still worked commercially.

You also directed the short segment, The Child, for Libido.

Actually I made that straight after Stork. The producer, Christopher Muir, had a year off from the ABC. He was in a mid-life crisis and wanted to do something else. At the Producers and Directors Guild of Melbourne we cooked up the idea of a portmanteau film with different themes. I suggested, together with the committee, that we bring in the writing talents of people who normally never worked for film. The idea was to get somebody from the Patrick White, Randolph Stowe area, the mythic, epic side of Australian writing, and we'd throw in somebody from the new theatre, David Williamson. Hal Porter came in. I recommended him very strongly, but I must say when I was given his story, I had problems with it.

Hal was very cross with me because I changed the nature of the story fairly radically. I've got the original story and my shooting script and a piece in Overland on it with my comments on how I did it and why I made the changes I did.

Your company was successful?

Well, all those films were. Stork made money, both the Alvins made money, Libido made money. The first six pictures all returned their money and gave a return to the investors. They didn't make that much money for me because we had our arrangement with Village that we put up half the money. So, in actual fact, we were taxed on what the films had made and then we had to put up the next chunk of money. Stork provided me with enough money to put up my share on Alvin, then Alvin provided enough to do the next. Unlike the bulk of the early Australian film-makers, we were actually financing our operation. We were protected in the sense that we had a distributor, but we were penalised by being the entrepreneur as well.

Then Petersen.

I was surprised by how heavily attacked it was on the grounds that it was pornographic, but when I saw it again recently, I wasn't that surprised. It was very much more of a commercial for sexual liberation than Alvin ever was.

When David and I were talking about it, I can remember saying it was important for us to kick him off showing a warm domestic side, the marriage relationship. We then show him on with his mistress, Wendy Hughes, the lecturer. Most romantics say, 'Well, it's fine to have a wife and a mistress.' But the next move was to show him in what I described as 'the public fuck', which was the deal at the university where he's performing as a political act.

However, we then follow him up with a pass or a pseudo-pass being made at the wife of his best friend. That's when they go off on the holiday. The girl in question says, 'I've had this dream about you'. And Johnny Ewart finishes up saying, 'To make a pass at your best friend's wife is pretty crummy'. But the last we see of him, he's putting in power points in somebody's bedroom and it's quite clear he's going to get off with her, and now he's become a kind of sad case. But it really hammers the notion. It surprised me that in the States they retitled the picture Jock Petersen. That wasn't what I chose.

This is again pre-AIDS. But for my money, when I saw it again I thought it really is more of a sexual affront than I thought it was at the time we were making it. I thought that we were striking a blow for all the things that should be said. I really wanted to say that there was every range of colour sexually. There was the romantic love of the girlfriend as against the one-night stand. Most people know all the different colours, and sex can be as deep and meaningful as you like at one end of the spectrum and it can be as shallow at the other. But it's all human.

I was also surprised when I saw it again because I thought, one, we were making a point about class and, two, I thought we were making a point about examinations. At the time they'd done experiments with various examiners and discovered that there were huge discrepancies, certainly in arts subjects, in the results being given. That also seemed rather important to be saying, that there was a sort of corruption in academia.

I think I probably would take a very different line now. I'm pro-examination and I also think ranking is terribly important. I think there's a discipline - but, heaven knows, I shouldn't go into that.

However, I still think that Petersen was about an important subject and also it was about - irrespective of whatever Jack did with the role - the idea of somebody who had been an electrician and did think there was more in life than putting in powerpoints and crawling around underneath people's houses putting in wires. It was about the aspirations of a working-class hero for more, for knowledge, for making more of his life, finding more meaning in it. I think some of that came through, anyway.

Bud Tingwell is Petersen's father, the minister, standing in his pulpit, groping for faith or meaning in the 70s.

We thought that was a very critical thing. My preamble should be that, when I was at Geelong Grammar, we had Manning Clark, who had all sorts of odd mannerisms. He was an interesting mentor figure. I wanted the Bud figure to be robust but exactly where he'd gone...? I knew a man called Father Coldrey. He used to be at the Brotherhood of St Laurence. He was active and strong and rather impressive. But I myself am an atheist and, in fact, that figure says, 'I don't know if I believe in him.' Well, that sort of priest interests me a lot.

Keneally and Fred Schepisi did interesting things with that kind of struggle in their Libido story, The Priest.

Yes. I thought it was interesting but I thought it was more despairing than I would have wanted, and it was sort of morbid. It seemed as if it was anti-body, anti-sex, anti-things. Do you remember him looking in the bowl as he washed his things in the washbasin? I think it was a little bit despairing for me. See, Tom is not despairing at all; he's the opposite of that. Schepisi's not - the great thing about Fred's contribution on the Catholic stuff, to me, is that it comes out of Italy, so you don't have this awful Irish Puritan thing. There's a sort of robust thing about the Catholicism of Fred. Fred's given it up, but you get the feeling that it's central. I may be misjudging the Irish thing, but I've always had the feeling that the Irish priesthood - perhaps I'm judging by Joyce, by my perception of Mannix - to some extent had something morbid and hellfirish.

Look, I'm ignorant on the church, but I know in terms of my own experience, one of my closest friends is a man called Brian O'Shaughanassy. He was brought up as a Catholic. Although I went to an Anglican school, I probably had more Catholic friends than anyone else. And if I was ever to be religious, I suspect that, in fact, that would be the only one I'd go for. But since I can't come at the very notion of God, it's a problem. I'm one of the very few people I know who was actually brought up an atheist. My parents were English. My father was a scientist, an engineer, professor at Melbourne University, and my mother was a biologist. I've never had a religious phase in my life. But I've always thought it's all much more mysterious than religion suggests.

End Play, was it just a thriller?

After all the ocker criticisms, I certainly didn't want to be locked into doing only ocker stuff and I also wanted to see whether the public would buy a whole range of other things. I suppose everybody else was trying to do the same thing at that time - we're speaking of 1974. That was when Peter was embarking on Hanging Rock; we were all trying to widen the scope of what the public would come at.

Russell Braddon's a good writer. I have always been a consumer of detective stories and that sort of thing, murder thrillers ... though I suppose Macbeth or The Brothers Karamazov are thrillers. The brothers' struggle was part of End Play, but it really was just something that was midway between one film and the next. We were doing two a year at the time.

Do you look back on Eliza Frazer affectionately?

I had originally written a version back in the 60s. The first film I wanted to do was something called Man in Iron, which was Ned Kelly. The next one was Eliza Frazer. I don't know whether that was the influence of Nolan, who'd done versions of both those stories, but they struck me as connected to our mythology. I would have seen Ned Kelly as a sort of Viva Zapata rather than a psychopath or anything like that. The magical thing is that mad armour, which visually and in terms of what it's saying, looks backwards towards knights in armour and forwards towards robots and space stuff. Visually it's so weird. It's a fairytale - to make a set of armour out of ploughshares is a very funny and curious idea.

What interested me about the Mrs Frazer story was the different accounts that had been given of it. So the original screenplay that I wrote in the late 60s was really a kind of Rashomon, each person telling a different story, because two different convicts claimed to have saved her. And her own story. When she went back to England, she performed in a sideshow tent describing, 'I was nearly raped by an aboriginal chieftain,' all that sort of thing, a highly sensationalist account. She was a younger woman married to a much older sea captain, but it made you feel that she was a totally unreliable witness.

Then there was the story that Bracewell gave. Bracewell was an escaped convict from Moreton Bay and who was living, like Buckley, with the natives. He is supposed to have saved her. She promised to get him a pardon. They walked back. When they arrived at Moreton Bay - he led her back there - she then said, 'Out dog, out cur!'. He then has to fade back into the bush and she goes back to England to tell her absurd stories.

Now, in fact, it was Graham rather than Bracewell who did do the rescuing. So it's the different accounts. I was sure, and certainly David Williamson was, that the aborigines were given a very bad press and, of course, we wanted to correct that. I think the account of the aborigines in Eliza Fraser was probably something new in Australian film.

People talk about Australians as being ocker. The Brits now feel we are sort of vulgar. There's a way in which, when I go to Britain, I have the feeling they can't actually place you properly. They certainly feel our directness is crude. I think the ocker thing is just the John Bull Englishman of the 18th century. We are descendants of the John Bull Englishman. Think of Tom Jones - the ocker characteristics are the characteristics of an Englishman in the 18th century: very vulgar, very straightforward, very robust, very direct. And the wenching and the drinking. Any society is strongly influenced by its first founders. The Yanks are descended from the 17th century. Really the Roundheads were the ones who won in America, whereas the cavaliers won in England. And I think that the parts of America that I'm continuously reminded of and feel strange about are the 17th century parts, whereas I think we are the 18th century. I certainly had in mind Tony Richardson's Tom Jones when we were doing it. I wanted it to have some elements of a romp. The story itself is an extraordinary story.

Did the audience respond to the satiric interpretation?

I don't think they did. I think the real problem was the story wasn't well-known. It would have been known amongst a few people. Sid Nolan and Patrick White knew it and a few historians might have known it, but the general public really had never heard of it. To work a satirical angle on something which is well known is fine, but if it's not well-known enough, then the satire is to some extent lost.

A lot of people complained that they didn't know whether the picture was a drama or a comedy. But when they accept what the mix is, they like it. The picture did quite well, but the reason it didn't do very well was the cost. It cost $1,300,000. Interestingly enough, it was not my company. I wanted to do it with Wendy Hughes and Frank Thring. My theory in those days was that you couldn't get more than $300,000 back from the Australian market. All the other pictures had been under $300,000. But Roadshow really saw it as very big. They had what we call in the business 'a touch of the Hollywoods'. They insisted on overseas stars and all that sort of thing.

You went back to a smaller budget for The Last of the Knucklemen. And the ocker thing.

One of the funny things is that again it was pretty misunderstood in Australia - or maybe they just thought it was ocker stuff. I was trying to take the ocker stuff and cross it, as I think John Powers' play was, with anthropology. Before I rehearsed the cast, I got them to read 'The Territorial Imparity of the Native Aid'. I wanted it to be seen not just as ockerism but as anthropology. But the only people who got that were the French. It was bought in France and it's done terribly well there - much better than it ever did in Australia.

There are a couple of pictures which haven't worked here but which have worked elsewhere. I'm sure the French aren't missing something, but what they're getting is something which was never got here. Mind you, it never had a decent run. I don't think they knew how to market it. A lot of women said to me, 'I'd never go to a picture that had the title The Last of the Knucklemen'. But nobody ever looked at it as an analysis of the way men work. It's a right-wing view of unionism.

After that, there was Duet for Four.

That was a script I commissioned straight after Petersen. Roadshow didn't want to make it and I was left with the script. Later we talked about it. I was going through a mid-life crisis of some sort and thought - 'What is the nature of work? Have I wasted my time? Am I doing the right thing?' That sort of thing. And toys was the industry we decided to use because it was being taken over by the Yanks. It was a sort of image of what was happening in film at the time. I don't think the picture works very well.

And Morris West and The Naked Country?

I was a hired gun there; I didn't choose the material. He wrote it in 1945 and it really was a potboiler. It had the rudiments, the beginnings of land rights issues, but I took this and converted it absolutely into a land rights thing. To me the problem was I thought the business of Stanton versus the aborigines was okay. But there were indigestible lumps in the script like the adultery. And the Ivar Kants character was too melodramatic. I had to make him a mercenary from South Africa.

You took over Attack Force Z after it had gone into production?

The picture was made by Fauna, Lee Robinson and John Mc Callum. It was the first co-production in the East that we'd done, and the Australian Film Commission was very keen on seeing it happen, even though the director - in this case Phil Noyce - had fallen out with the production company. He wanted to make it a sort of national liberation film. It was a story set in the Second World War and, although we shot it in Taiwan, it was really meant to be Dutch East Indies but with a Chinese population, obviously.

The man who wrote the original screenplay was an Englishman who had done The Avengers. It was competent, like a mini Guns of Navarone, people sent off on a very difficult mission. I was very interested in this Z Force. I'd known some of the people who were in it. It's all very well going off and being a spy in a European war. But if we are in the Second World War here, those people who were sent off to operate within enemy territory were so obviously European and stuck out so hideously that, for the most part, they were nearly all wiped out. Those missions were highly dangerous. Some of them worked but, although we sent lots of people off, a vast number of missions were aborted and a lot of the people were beheaded in rather horrific circumstances.

I was talking to Lee about it when I first got there and he said, 'Well, the guys were given a number on each other - that is, if there were four in the party, if so-and-so gets hurt, you have to shoot him.' Each person had the job of shooting one other of the group if they came to grief in any way. So I said, 'Let's put that on the nose of the picture, let's have five instead of four and let's bring in somebody who's almost a star.' So we brought in Johnny Waters and I shot him in the first ten minutes of the film. Mel has to shoot him because his knee is buggered which, of course, used to happen. That was our real attention grabber in the first ten minutes of the picture.

It was an exotic war picture of a small size. It sold everywhere, sold all over the world, and it got its money back. And it did perform the task of getting some co-productions going with the East, which was useful and very important. But it's always awful when you take over from somebody else - and Phil is a friend - but he really wanted to do something quite different and I was regarded as much more of a whore, I suppose.

But you had your own control?

Well, I work half the time as a hired gun on other people's projects and the other half I try and do my own work, but in either case you're working through narrative that has to be intelligible pretty well first-up with an audience. It seems to me that it's an art which you can't be too precious about. I'm very interested in making a picture as professionally and as well as I can, but I think you've got to work within what your audience can absorb.

That's why, in one sense, films that you see forty years later seem so odd; it's because you and the audience have moved on - the battlefield's somewhere else. So you often wonder, 'What was it? why was it so important?' Of course, it doesn't mean it wasn't important, but its importance was connected to when it was made, the people who made it then, the people who saw it then.

You had planned Kangaroo with Helen Mirren and Leo Mc Kern.

Originally we were going to make Kangaroo with the New South Wales Film Corporation. Their bankers had all the money and they were prepared to make it - the budget in those days was $4,500,000. But in 1981 there was a slump and their bankers could not deliver and the picture collapsed halfway. We were making it at that stage. I'd already hired and we'd begun on pre-production with the people I had. I had Leo Mc Kern for Kangaroo. He would have been marvellous, though a little bit old. But by the time we finally did make it, which was four years later, he would definitely have been too old. It would have been hard to see him getting on a horse, I think. But he would have been absolutely perfect ten years before that.

I finished up with Hugh Keys- Byrne who was a very good Kangaroo. I had originally seen and met Hugh when he came out here with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But I discovered that his father had been a general or a brigadier, quite high up anyway, and was rather contemptuous of Hugh becoming an actor. So Hugh had some understanding of certain sides of Kangaroo, and I think his English background gave him that extra colour.

I didn't want an Australian writer for the picture. I wanted somebody who was seeing Australia for the first time, in the same way that Lawrence did, so I hired the writer of the screenplay for Wake in Fright. His name is Evan Jones and he's Jamaican, not English. He also did a lot of screenplays for Losey like King and Country, a terrific screenwriter. Anyway, he was the one I fixed on to do that job, and I think he did it very well.

The novel is a shambles as a structure, but once you compress it, it can work. But the real difficulty, the indigestible credibility problem is the nature of the Kangaroo figure. It stands or falls by whether you pull that off. And I'm still unsure. I know a lot of people think it's impossible to pull off. I think Hugh did very well in it.

I think the dramatic initiative is between Kangaroo and the Judy Davis character, Harriet, that is, Lawrence's wife. She kept opposing the private life to the meddling with politics and getting into social questions. But she has all the dramatic initiative and I think the best sequences of the film are really her encounters, her arguments with the Lawrence figure.

I like what Colin Friels did. It's difficult to do what he did. Certain people did criticise. Colin's people come from Glasgow. His notion of the sort of accent to use was a bit wavy now and then. He's supposed to be Midlands. Lawrence came from somewhere near Nottingham. But in arguments and when he was getting angry, Colin still finished up with a sort of miner's dialect: 'tha', a version of thou - 'Tha shalt not,' that sort of stuff. But you'd have to be a real nitpicker, I think, to worry about what Colin did. His is a recessive role but it's very important. We see the whole picture through him.

The D.H. Lawrence Society sent me a long thing saying that they had decided it was the best version of Lawrence as a film, apart from Women in Love. They thought Women in Love and Kangaroo were miles better than any of the other versions, which is interesting.

Fascism in Australia and the origins of the colonies and Australian attitudes towards authority?

Yes, alongside the democratic egalitarian tradition there does exist a Nietszchean tradition which you can see as early as Henry Handel Richardson. If you think of Henry Handel Richardson and, certainly, Patrick White, they are interested, and always have been, in the individual alone, the great individual, the great leader figure. I think there's an authoritarian streak amongst most of the organisations, in the trade unions and in the Labor Party, a very strongly authoritarian streak.

If we ever got a fascist movement in Australia, it's much more likely to come out of a Labor Party. Remember Hitler was a national socialist and a great populist. I think it would be national and I think the emphasis would be on the collective as against the individual.

The idea for Great Expectations and to make the mini-series was your son's idea?

We were talking one day, he and I, about Great Expectations and the idea of making it. Because we're Australians, obviously the person who interests us, and the only figure who was an Australian in the whole of Dickens, is Magwitch - although Dickens does send Micawber to New South Wales and he sent a couple of his sons to Australia. I think of Dickens as the greatest 19th century novelist. I suppose you've got to put in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but I think Dickens is up there with the greatest. With Magwitch, the interesting thing is that, as soon as you start saying, 'What did happen to Magwitch and why was he fixated on this kid? Why did he want to turn him into a gentleman?', you get into that class stuff, into certain sides of Australia which I think are interesting. When Tom made the suggestion, I immediately thought of all the business of emancipist versus colonist, what he must have gone through, this figure.

Although the novel was written in 1862, Dickens seems to have based it on family. There's a fair amount of evidence that Dickens's grandfather - his father was a rather feckless figure - is supposed to have actually embezzled some money and was on the run and lived in the Isle of Man. And it has been suggested that perhaps this crazy old grandfather, the wanted man, is a memory of Dickens's childhood, this figure visiting him, visiting the family. It's a possibility, anyway.

The other thing was the premise of the story that had a convict return to England where he would have been hung, killed or disposed of. But that was no longer true in 1862. There are a number of indications that Dickens set it much further back, in the 1830s. So that meant that we had to think where did Magwitch go, what happened to him. When I started reading around it, the most interesting book was Price Waring's, 'Tales of the Old Convict System'. I used, for instance, the part where Magwitch becomes the hangman. That's taken directly from Price Waring.

Of course, one of the things that interested me a lot was Dickens's descriptions of convicts in England, then the descriptions of the convict experience in Price Waring. One realised that they were all part of one system. And you also realise from reading Price Waring that what we think of as Dickensian, melodramatic, a moralistic way of looking at things was in fact the 19th century, the world they all lived in. It was quite seamless.

As soon as you say, 'The hero is not Pip, the hero is Magwitch', it does turn everything around. I originally had the same ending as the novel. I made the rules that I worked on, that I could write anything provided it fitted with what Dickens had written, but I couldn't cheat and alter what had happened. So, even if Magwitch survived, he had to appear to die in the hospital, but he would have to go.

As soon as one investigated the novel in any detail, it was interesting how complexly and how intricately developed Dickens's plots and subplots are. For instance, Compeyson was was the lover of Miss Haversham and jilted her. Miss Haversham's ward is the daughter of Magwitch - that is, Estella is the daughter of Magwitch and Jaggers's housekeeper.

That's in the novel, it's all true. And she is supposed to have been a murderer; to have murdered somebody on Houndside Heath. Miss Haversham's brother is, I think, ruined by Compeyson, and Compeyson has to go to Australia with Magwitch. Anyway, to me, it was a very interesting exercise. It's lovely working with great writers. I mean, a writer like Dickens or a writer like Lawrence, so enormously rich. They were great.


Interview: 30th March 1998



Created by: malone last modification: Friday 25 of May, 2012 [01:10:48 UTC] by malone


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