You haven't directed a feature film since The Odd Angry Shot?
That's correct, 1978, twenty years ago now.
Your background is television, in the 60s and 70s?
I came out of television. I was directing for ABC Television and, in parallel, working with others to get the film industry started. When we did, an opportunity arose to direct The Removalist and I persuaded Margaret Fink that I was the right person for that job and that kicked things off. About a year later I was able to go into full-time activity with a company that I had set up in 1968 in anticipation of one day leaving the ABC and being able to be my own boss.
We managed Harness Fever in Australia, which was retitled Born to Run, managed it for Walt Disney Productions, and that enabled Sue Milliken, my partner then, and myself to concentrate on our own productions.
Why did you say yes to The Removalist at that particular stage? Was it David Williamson, the ideas in the play?
I saw it performed as a stage play at the Stables and, in fact, tried to acquire the film rights to it. But in their wisdom, David and his agent decided to allow Margaret Fink to take up the rights. So I had a keen interest in it from the moment I saw the play, the reason being, I suppose, that it was about power and manipulation of power, of people abusing their positions of power. And that kind of theme interests me very much. I tried to say that with some scenes which no longer are part of the film - or certainly aren't part of the original stuff that I shot - but the film still works, I think. I saw it recently and the performances certinaly hold up very well. I was quite pleased with the late John Hargreaves - it was his first major role as the young policeman - and Peter Cummins and Jackie Weaver and Kate Fitzpatrick and Martin Harris, of course, as Kenny - just a terrific performance. And the wonderful Chris Hayward as the removalist.
That was one of his first films?
I don't think it was his first, but certainly it attracted a deal of attention. And as a director, I just loved working with him because of the preparation that he gave to his part. He came absolutely prepared and came on the set as the removalist, dressed that way - even to rehearsals - and that was just fantastic.
It's interesting in retrospect that it was a small theatre piece early in David Williamson's career and was rather sombre. What impact did it have on the Australian audiences of the time?
I think the stage play had quite an impact for those that saw it. I don't think the film had such an impact because I don't think it was given proper release. I think the marketing and distribution of The Removalist left a lot to be desired, and I don't think I particularly want to discuss that in much more detail. It rankles with me a little bit because I think that the film itself at the time deserved a better airing and I don't believe it got it.
David Williamson is regarded as one of those who playwrights who picks up the spirit of the times.
I think he does. I think he's got this ability to feed off what the current issues and concerns are and society's mores rather than necessarily scoiety's morals; he's very astute in that way. He's got a keen ear and a keen eye to what's going on, and if you look at all his plays, say, The Club, the early plays like that and, indeed, The Removalist, where, if you recall back in the very early '70s and coming out of the late '60s, there was concern about police violence. But that's in the narrow view; there was concern about the power of the media domination by the increasing multinational companies and so on. I think thematically that's what I was seeing in the film, whereas the ordinary person has very little ability to influence the course of history.
In terms of the films of the time and of people commenting on the nostalgia films of the '70s, The Removalist was released i 1975, the same year as Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Yes, quite a different film.
The films that were contemporary did not get as much notice from the critics?
That's right. You had to be trendy, I think, to be noticed. I've never been a trendy sort of guy. I just like to get on and do what I can. I mean, I say that with my tongue in my cheek, but yes, I think it wasn't until we got to The Odd Angry Shot that they actually started taking account of us.
At the time, Weekend of Shadows was said to have worked very well as a morality play.
That's quite right. It was adapted from Hugh Atkinson's book called The Reckoning. Now, I wanted to use that title but we couldn't because Warner Bros had shot a film in the late '60s called The Reckoning. It was based in Ireland or Northern Ireland. So we had to avoid that title. We actually had a number of titles and we settled on Weekend of Shadows but I still feel uncomfortable about that title. I don't think it's really strong enough.
However, I screened the film to Hugh Atkinson, the writer of the novel, after we had finished it and he came up to me afterwards and I remember him saying quite clearly, "You've got it." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You understand the ending." And I still didn't know whether I had it right, whether I was on his wavelength, and I said, "Please explain, Hugh." And he said, "It's about the Crucifixion." And I said, "Yes, well, I didn't really realise that, but if you can see that in the ending and if that's what your original intention was and I've unwittingly achieved that for you, I'm very pleased."
It was a powerful film, its atmosphere of the country town and its tensions, far removed from The Removalist in the city. Again there were the police and power.
The film was actually looking at the power of the group and how it can get out of hand. Reflecting now, twenty years on, I seem to recall that I used to get terribly upset in the school playground when I was a boy, about how one can be bullied or can see bullying. I didn't suffer from being bullied myself because I was fairly well able to look after myself, but it really used to annoy me and upset when I would see groups of other boys bullying somebody else less able to defend themselves or because they might have been outsiders in some way, outsiders from the main group of the school - perhaps they didn't play sport or they wrote poetry, or something of that nature, which made them outsiders.
I think that to a certain extent I was commenting on that in Weekend of Shadows where these people just took it upon themselves and decided that the Pole had committed the murder. They were going to get him and that was going to be their bit of weekend fun, weekend activity, and Rabbit, played by John Waters, who gets pushed against his will into this group, sees the other side of the story, sees what they're doing, reacts against it and prevents them. It's quite a tough end, actually. He, in a sense, protects the Pole from a vicious and cruel death by killing him cleanly. I liked the images. We had great help there. Richard Morris was the cinematographer. Those Adelaide hills - we found some really nice areas there. I love the green hills. You may recall that we had a hymn at one stage with the people in church whilst the hunt is on. The people go to church and I played "There is a Green Hill Far Away" which is, again, something I remembered from my youth, a hymn that I was rather fond of. It also has connections with the Crucifixion, of course.
The theme of the Crucifixion includes the contrast between the Palm Sunday cheering on of Jesus and then the same crowd persecuting him at Calvary. Was Hugh Atkinson wanting to emphasise the xenophobic attitudes of the crowd?
I guess so. I think he wrote his book in the late '40s or early '50s when we had the so-called 'reffos' and all of that. Underlying that book, I think, is the commentary about the New Australians, as they were then called, being outsiders and not being accepted and, if something happened within a community, they would look for a scapegoat and the odd person out was always accused of the misdemeanour or crime.
You don't see it much these days.
It's still around. It used to get a bit of an airing on television. I don't handle the rights to it. It's still looked after by the South Australian Film Corporation. The French seem to like it, amazingly, and they seem to screen it over there every so often. A little cheque arrives.
And so back to The Odd Angry Shot.
We did that almost exactly a year after after we filmed Weekend of Shadows. It was an attempt to have a look at the Vietnam War and the soldiers in it, telling it from the soldier's point of view. When it came out, it wasn't well received by some reviewers because they felt we should have been critical of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War, that we didn't show much of the other side - we didn't show Vietnamese people being killed with napalm bombs and all that sort of stuff.
Well, my answer to them at the time was that it wasn't that kind of film. Our intention was to show how the men survived in that environment. Again it's interesting, isn't it - you've got a group of men and we are looking at the dynamic within the group and how they survived. There was a statement about their loyalty and commitment. They're permanent officers; they weren't National Service people - the main characters - so they had no recourse but to go, no other alternative but to go, because they were professional soldiers. But once there, their concern was about survival.
Now, it took the Australian community ten years after that film was made to actually welcome the veterans home and I have found, since the film was made twenty years ago, that it is still highly regarded by people who had a connection with Vietnam. They remember it well and remember it fondly - or with affection, I should say - and I'm very, very grateful about that.
The other interesting thing is that the actors and I were talking about Vietnam during the course of rehearsal and during the shooting and at some stage we were just commenting on what we ourselves were doing at the time that there was all that social tension within Australia about our participation. And all of us were actively against the war in one way or another. I suppose John Hargreaves was probably the most active in the sense that he participated in that march down Collins Street, 70,000-strong anti-Vietnam protesters. Dr Jim Cairns led it, as I recall, but John was somewhere up near the front. Then, ten years on from that in 1978, we make a film where we're actually examining that war, that action, from the soldier's point of view. I'm pleased that I had the opportunity of making that film.
The other comment I would make from a director's point of view is that there was a certain criticism about the structure of the film itself, that it was very episodic and there didn't seem to be an obvious narrative plotline. Well, in my view there was. We looked at the journeys, over the course of the year, of each of the six main characters. It's not your traditional structure for a film. There was no Holy Grail at the end. The Holy Grail, if there is one, is the fact that they survived. But even in surviving, they weren't happy. They weren't happy they had lost mates, they had lost friends and they wondered what it had all been about.
One of the difficulties was that it was released in the same year as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, which means we were rather overwhelmed by the American examination of conscience or whatever they were doing in those films. It came out before Gallipoli, but it seems to go back to 40,000 Horsemen with the larrikin style personalities of the Australians troops overseas, with that ironic humour as well. So that was one of the Australian angles on the experience of Vietnam.
Yes. I think you're quite right. The structure of the film in that sense was that you would have a black moment and then there would be relief through, as you describe it, the larrikin humour or the larrikin activities of a group of Aussie soldiers. Yes, we're like that as people and, if it came through, I'm pleased about that. The other thing which I've always been conscious of is that in the tradition of the English, Australians, when times are tough, get through it by having a laugh. That's typical of Cockney humour and we poke fun at ourselves or find something to humour us, to get ourselves through.
But I'm pleased and grateful that the film did work, notwithstanding The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. There were a couple of other films just prior to that - the Americans made The Boys of Company C, which worried me greatly, and I went and saw it and I thought it was a load of old cods. So after seeing it, it didn't bother me. But The Deer Hunter was actually the one that gave us a bit of difficulty in the marketplace. We released The Odd Angry Shot in Melbourne in March 1979 and already there were posters up all over the place for The Deer Hunter. It did take away a little bit from the release of The Odd Angry Shot. Notwithstanding, over the years it has done moderately well. It went into profit early on and is still making money for the investors even as we speak. They have re-released it on video here this year, a very good deal. I understand that already - it's about five months into the deal - a lot of the units have been sold. So yes, it will keep on keeping on, I think.
It seems a pity then that you stopped directing.
Every so often I keep thinking it would be nice to direct again, but it is twenty years, as you mentioned, since I have directed. But what happened? I directed something for television in about 1982, but we'll pass over that, a pilot for Channel 7. I found that the producing side of things took over because I co-produced The Odd Angry Shot with Sue Milliken and then we had a number of other projects in development. The first one we got off the ground and financed was a film which became known as Fighting Back, based on a book called Tom by John Embling, about a traumatised boy in Melbourne and John's work with him.
I had been working on the script with Michael Cove and when we came to finance it, it was really demanding. The financing situation was changing and becoming quite difficult. I couldn't find a director that I could feel confident in, and I did consider for a brief - like a couple of months - that I might direct it myself. I have worked with children before, but I felt a little bit ill at ease with it because I didn't feel prepared enough for that journey as a director.
Anyway, Michael Caulfield walked in the door, just coming in to say hello and congratulations. He knew the book. He had been working in theatre, doing theatre for children. We started talking about it and I realised that this person, Michael Caulfield, would be absolutely fantastic to give a go to as director. So it was Michael's first film. You will realise that the performance of Paul Smith as young Tom was absolutely electrifying. I certainly believe that there was no person, in my book, available at the time who could have got that performance. I know of no other director around at that time who could have done that. So I was very grateful and very pleased, and so was Sue, that we found Michael.
It was one of those fortuitous things. Within twenty minutes of talking with Michael, I thought, "He's great." I cut into the conversation and I said, "Michael, would you mind - I just want to say something to Sue," and he went out, not knowing what was going on, of course, and I said to Sue, "I think he's right, I think he would be great for the film." She said, "Yes, yes." So we called him back in and then I said, "Hey, how would you feel about directing this?"
So that's how it started. I then went on and other people asked me to produce things for them, like The Best of Friends, for Michael Robertson. I was also developing my own projects - I did a miniseries called Five Times Dizzy, a children's miniseries, in 1985-86. Producing that took about three years out of my life.
Then I eventually ended up at the Film School for four and a half years, from '89 to '93, the beginning of '94, as head of training. Then coming back into the industry and getting projects off the ground, I realised that there are certainly better-known people around that can direct, and distributors and financiers are looking for the new kid on the block. I'm a very old person on the block, so now I prefer to encourage and work with younger talent. Maybe I can give them a hand to realise their aspirations.
Interview: 12th November 1998