from 35 mm Dreams
Conversations with Five Directors
the Australian film revival
by Sue Mathews
'Gallipoli was my graduation film,' says Peter Weir. It was then,
he believes, that his technique caught up with his inspiration. Inspiration
is central to Peter Weir's filmmaking: his approach is intuitive rather
than cerebral. It is almost a point of honour with him.
Weir's first two films, Homesdale (1971) and The Cars that
Ate Paris (1974), were quirky black comedies, developments of the amateur
revues he had been staging in his spare time. Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975) and The Last Wave (1977) were more conscious attempts to
deal with the fragility of commonsense reality, with the recognition that
'within the ordinary lies the extraordinary'. Picnic at Hanging Rock,
based on the Joan Lindsay novel about the unexplained disappearance of
a group of schoolgirls in the last century, was a turning point in the
development of the new cinema in Australia: it was the first Australian
film that was clearly a 'quality film'. Weir became the first Australian
'auteur' as Picnic legitimated Australian movies for the middle-class
audience still ready to believe in the inferiority of Australian culture.
Picnic and especially The Last Wave, about a lawyer who
finds himself psychically drawn to a group of Aboriginals he is defending,
reflect Weir's interest in theories of myths and dreams. A concern with
ideas and experiences that were outside the realm of commonsense everyday
understanding was shared by many people in the sixties. Like many young
people at the time, Weir was very influenced by the new ways of thinking,
and was a strong opponent of the war in Vietnam. Weir's award-winning Three
To Go, produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, is a classic statement
of some of those values.
A lapsed radical - 'I detest dogma' - Weir nonetheless remains faithful
to some of the attitudes of the era. 'Just because the decade ends doesn't
mean we stop wondering about the enormous gap between the Third World and
our world; we don't stop thinking about love or about how to construct
some sort of moral system' he says. He is profoundly individualistic: 'I
always marched in the non-aligned section of the anti-war marches,' he
affirms, and he is emphatic that his interest in mysticism does not extend
to cults that demand abandoning independent thought and action.
Though they came to the conclusion by different routes, Weir shares
with George Miller the opinion that 'greater detachment is ultimately a
freedom' for a director. Aside from making you more vulnerable to the sting
of critical rejection, working to intuition rather than to plan can threaten
the coherence of a film, as the director risks losing control. After some
experimentation Weir has moved away from the 'exhilaration' of extreme
openness and spontaneity on the set. There is the danger too of 'the filmmaker
as god', in Weir's phrase: in placing him or herself at the centre of the
work the director can grow self-obsessed, and the audience's view can also
become unbalanced, the director being seen as some kind of guru.
In Gallipoli (1981) Weir employed a more structured approach
than before, but his distinctive sensibility did not disappear. The luminous
shots of the pyramids under which the Australian soldiers camp on their
way to the Turkish battlefield are arguably more potent evocations of the
dislocation of past and present, the eternal and the everyday, than the
more pointed mysteries of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last
Wave. In The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), adapted from
Christopher Koch's novel about the coup of the Indonesian generals that
toppled Sukarno in 1965, there is a harmonious integration of the imagery
of the traditional wayang puppets into the substance of the story. The
Year of Living Dangerously sets a fine romance in the authentically
turbulent Indonesian setting, the great events of the time moving just
beyond the grasp of the Westerners who are the film's subjects. As in Gallipoli
Weir's interest is in the people rather than the events; his concern is
with personal rather than political morality. For some it is his most successful
film yet; others are frustrated by the diversity of its concerns and the
absence of a clear political stance.
Financed by the giant American MGM movie corporation but produced in
Australia by long-time Weir associates Hal and Jim McElroy, Living Dangerously
represents one way for a director to work with the American film industry
without having to move to foreign territory. The 1980 Gallipoli
also represented a new approach to financing, being funded entirely by
expatriate moguls Robert Murdoch and Robert Stigwood through their Associated
R & R Films.
Weir's personality is clearly stamped on his films, yet he appears to
be less engaged in the construction of individual shots than some directors;
he prefers to collaborate with a trusted camera operator and director of
photography. An important contribution to the look of Weir's films has
also come from Wendy Weir, the director's wife, who was credited as production
designer on the 1979 telemovie The Plumber, and as design consultant
on Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously.
In conversation Weir has a youthful intensity, choosing allusive literary
phrases to capture nuances of feeling as he recalls the past. He is more
comfortable talking publicly about events and stages in his life than reflecting
on more general issues and approaches, either to his own work or to the
Australian cinema in general. This interview reflects that: in checking
the transcript Weir excised many of the analytical and interpretive comments.
His lucid, evocative grasp of language make him 'excellent copy', but Weir
clearly finds public discussion of his work an ordeal. Though relaxed,
direct and professional in the recording of this interview, agreement in
the final transcript was difficult to reach and the published version is
the last of several proposed revisions.
Weir lives just north of Sydney in an old house overlooking a remarkable
tree-framed view of sand and water. 'I don't really feel as if we own this,'
he says, and you know what he means: it is a view almost too beautiful
to be private property. The house has a comfortable yet slightly exotic
air. Furnished with timber, bamboo and Asian fabrics its large windows
make the interior seem continuous with the surrounding garden. Weir's study,
apart from the house and past a small rock garden and waterfall he built
himself, has a similar atmosphere. Volumes of war history and a collection
of World War One helmets and weaponry are ranged a little incongruously
alongside the novels on which his films have been based, and diverse works
of fact, place and theory from Montezuma to the Australian Stony Desert.
Weir is one of the most successful of Australia's directors, both at
home and overseas. He is polite and quietly spoken with a boyish look.
A man of strong attractions and dislikes, he vehemently defends his films
against criticism from those writers he labels 'academic' who expect a
different sort of clarity from him, demanding that conclusions be drawn
and answers be given. Such critics have, he says, a view of art and life
so remote from his own that he doubts he will ever satisfy them: 'I can
only wave across a distance,' he says, 'as the person heads in another
Sue Mathews: Where did you grow up?
Sydney. We moved quite a bit until I was about twelve; my father was
a real-estate agent and he would buy a house and move us into it for three
or four years and then move us to another one. At one time we settled in
Watson's Bay which was the beginning of a wonderful period. The settings
are very exotic around there and I was fortunate enough to be brought up
in the pre-television generation, so after school I'd be out in the streets.
They'd be full of kids right through to dark; there would be balls bouncing
and bits of things rolling down the street and neighbours chatting to each
other and sitting outside, it was almost a village feeling. There was always
a gang of kids: we would go over to the Glen and jump on trams as they
went through, or explore caves that were supposedly Aboriginal, or go to
the Gap which was nearby. There seemed to be a lot of danger, which I think
adds so much to a child's life, the forbidden things that one shouldn't
do or go near. When I was 12 we moved to Vaucluse. We were at the top of
a little hill that led down to the park at Parsley Bay where there is a
big suspension bridge. I was never out of the water, snorkling or spear
fishing. Those years were linked with the water and the sea. I used to
watch the ships going out, those huge liners going to Europe and from as
early as I can remember I used to think that I'd like to be on one.
This was before television was introduced in Australia - did you
have much contact with other areas of popular culture?
Comics! They were a big part of a kid's life, I used to collect them
swap them, sell them. I liked the Phantom and Scrooge McDuck - always preferred
him to Donald Duck - especially the ones that were about adventures in
South America and Lost Cities. Then there were the pictures, the Saturday
afternoon flicks. My father used to take me to the Wintergarden in Rose
Bay. I loved Westerns, and the serials.. it's interesting to see Spielberg
and Lucas reproduce those for other generations.
Did your parents mind you collecting comics - did they feel you should
be interested in other sorts of pursuits?
No, not really. From my earliest years I played very elaborate games.
They took various forms, though they were generally war games, beginning
with lead soldiers. There were very strict rules: if you got shot you really
had to lie down, and you couldn't go 'pow', you had to make it sound like
a gun. When I was twelve or thirteen, my parents became very concerned
about these games, and had a talk with me, more or less saying that these
sorts of games have gone on too long. I remember that conversation at the
breakfast table really having some impact on me, and I moved onto other
things after that.
Do you think that constructing those games was a precursor to an
interest in making films?
Well, I think there is certainly a link between games and creativity.
For example, many Japanese are very concerned because their children don't
play anymore, it's all scholastic achievement from a very early age. My
problem at school, however, was the study side. Actually I don't think
I ever stopped playing games. In my teen years they took on a certain bizarre
aspect. I would go to parties disguised as various characters - a visiting
American student, a trainee priest, or a German merchant seaman. I very
carefully rehearsed the friends who collaborated in these elaborate jokes.
Most of them worked far too well and caused all sorts of problems, but
they certainly livened things up.
Did you read novels?
I don't remember much reading. My father was a good storyteller, so
when I was a child, rather than reading a book before bed, my father would
tell me stories. He had one enormously successful serial which ran for
about two years. It was called Black Bart Lamey's Treasure, an exotic
tale of the South Seas in the pirate days. I did read adventure stories
- the Famous Five, Biggles, things that were popular in those times. Then
when I hit secondary school, books were introduced as part of the examination
process. I was one of those students who reacted extremely badly to that
and saw reading books as a chore. It took me many years after I dropped
out of university to get back to reading novels, and I've only just begun
to get back to Shakespeare. Poetry I still can't touch.
Biggles and the Famous Five are English books - did you have a sense
of England as home or where we really belonged?
Not really. I do remember an intense period of interest in who we were
and getting out the family Bible and looking at some old photos. I was
astonished that our family hadn't kept any records of where we had come
from and who we were on either side of the family. I've asked other Australians
what records they have, and have found the same story. A most extraordinary
experiment in immigration: Anglo-Saxon people who left the past behind,
left their myths behind and began again. It's helped me to understand why
many of our films have been period films, and why Australian audiences
have been so drawn to them - because of this need for myth.
How long ago did your family come to Australia?
I'm fourth generation - my great-grandfather and mother on both sides
were immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland. I think it's the Celt
side that has come out most strongly.
Were you aware of things from America and things from England as
two separate sets of influences on Australia?
I was less aware of the English than of the Americans. In the fifties
American culture had a kind of exotic quality about it. I remember once
a friend of the family bringing us back long strips of chewing gum, before
we had that shape here. After 1956 I'd see odd American television programmes
and I was fascinated with those.
Were you aware of a tradition of Australian filmmaking?
Not really. I saw Bush Christmas and liked it, and I certainly
loved Charles Chauvel's Jedda, seeing it as a kid. I can still recall
the powerful highly coloured images from that film, but it was like looking
at a film from another culture. Everyone knew of the actor Chips Rafferty.
He was the industry in a way. A sort of one-man band.
What about Australian literature?
I had very little interest in our literature and history - I always
felt that the grand events and the great adventures lay outside this country.
The image of that ship sailing out summed it up: the world lay elsewhere.
You've described your experience of literature at school as a fairly
unhappy one - what was school like overall?
Well, the word 'unhappy' is something I've come to apply since. I was
happy enough - but it was after school that things really began. I remember
running down the hill, ripping my tie off and jumping on a tram and getting
down to 'real life'. I went to a private school where the emphasis was
on sport and academic achievement and I was not particularly good at either.
I failed the Leaving Certificate and went to Vaucluse High where the atmosphere
was very different. We had a history teacher called Bill Kneene who in
the first class asked us to come up with our own ideas about the causes
of the First World War. I recall that day very clearly: he was asking us
to do our own research, telling us it mightn't be all known! History came
alive for me that day. Of course, we didn't find any illuminating facts,
but from then on that year just took off and I passed and went on to Sydney
Rites of Passage: Uni and OS
It sounds like that was a more or less automatic transition?
It was what I wanted to do. I'd built up a picture of what university
was going to be like. It was really a picture that might have been true
in about the fifteenth century, you know, 'the student life', where we
would all be singing and arguing into the night. But the 'first lecture
I remember was on the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I looked around and I couldn't believe it - there were 599 other people
in this vast lecture theatre and an ant down the front with a microphone
squeaking away for an hour about the meaning of the novel. I just looked
at a couple of friends next to me and we all raised eyebrows and it wasn't
too long before I was cutting those lectures and going to the pub. I went
to a poetry lecture where we'd been asked to read a Blake poem. I loved
the poem and though we had to write something on it I Couldn't. I was so
moved by the poem, so excited by it. I thought, well, it'll come out when
we talk. Then in the classroom the lecturer put the poem on the board -
it was very short - cut it up with his chalk into various sections and
proceeded to introduce the seminar by saying 'this is really a poor example
of Blake's work and a very bad poem for the following reasons...' I looked
around and everyone was writing it down and I felt a flush come to the
cheeks - I felt embarrassed that I had been moved by it. I didn't say a
word during the whole thing and crept out - and began to cut those lectures
Working with other agents, not your father?
So I failed the first year, and pulled out and went into real estate.
My father was glad I was out of University; he liked me getting down to
business and earning some money. He had a one-man business and the plan
was pretty clear that I would join him, and in the meantime get a couple
of years' experience with other real-estate agents.
Yes, from about eighteen to twenty. I sold land. I went and visited
all my blocks and made notes on them and then went back to the office.
I remember the boss coming out and saying 'what are you doing?' I was ripping
all those ones I didn't like out of the listing book. I said 'well, you
can't sell something you don't think is any good.' Anyway I sold the lot
and I'll never forget when I came in one morning and, there was one of
the other agents, ripping out all the houses in his book he didn't like.
With the money I made I bought a one-way ticket to Europe with the intention
of working in London, and set off on what was supposed to be a three or
four months' visit.
How did it feel to be on a boat sailing out?
It felt like a beginning; I knew that whatever it was, it was going
You've said that the trip itself was quite a formative experience?
It was a Greek boat heading for Piraeus where it was due for a refit
and I came to know, when a ship is due for a refit, there is a kind malaise
amongst the crew. This affected the entertainment side of things and the
Entertainments Officer had organised something like, a fancy dress night,
but not much else. So a few of us suggested a ship's review and he said
'if you want to organise it, go ahead.' We also found a closed circuit
TV on board - God knows what it was used for, but there was a little studio
and TV sets in all the bars and some very bored passengers, so we asked
if we could do a show.
On the TV?
Yes. We'd left Australia in the heyday of The Mavis Bramston Show,
the Phillip Street Review, and Barry Humphries, so we did a kind of review
format of satire and interviews with passengers. We got off the ship pale
- we used to live in that little studio.
Did being in Europe alter your perspective on Australia significantly?
It was such an innocent time to travel - a time that was about to come
to an end, as the ship voyages were about to end. It's one of those things
that I responded to in Christopher Koch's book about 1965. You could draw
a line through that year: it was a beginning and an end; it was the end
of the 50's. It was just prior to the hippie wave and every young person
hitching was a student. One evening in Spain I was dropped off towards
sunset and climbed a hill with some bread and wine. And during that evening
it struck me very strongly that I was a European, that this was where we
had come from and where I belonged. That was probably the beginning of
an interest in thinking about immigration to our country and where we were
in the world. Those of us who went to Europe for the first time by ship
were very lucky - that understanding of the distance, of just how far away
we were from our culture.
Were you working in England?
I was there for ten or eleven months. I had various jobs - grocery
driver, lifeguard. They were great days - a feeling of optimism, of change,
a wonderful period to be in London. In fact, it's always been difficult
to go back. It was like a membership in a giant club, just to be young.
1965 - it was 'Flower Power', anti-Vietnam marches, rock and roll, and
'swinging London', as it came to be known. It was a feeling that I carried
back with me and no doubt it contributed to my decision not to go back
into real estate but to do any sort of work until I could get a job in
Television and Vietnam
Did you come back with a clear plan of working in films?
No. There was no film industry. And somehow with the optimism of the
sixties there was a feeling that everything was going to work out, that
you didn't need to plan. I knew I vaguely wanted to get into the entertainment
business - writing or acting, but I had no clear idea. Television was the
biggest employer, but it took several months before I could get a job.
Eventually I was taken on as a stagehand at Channel Seven. During this
period I'd begun producing amateur revues. I'd decided I wanted to do a
revue at Christmas in 1966. So I got together the nucleus of my old school
friends. I found a little church hall we could hire and we put on a revue
called A Little Night of Etc. I directed it and wrote a lot of the
What was Channel Seven like at the time?
Seven was the only station doing Australian drama at the time. They
had My Name's McGooley which was a very slick show for its time.
I liked working on that. Then they did You Can't See Round Corners
and Motel - they were really gambling on Australian drama, rather
than purchasing American shows. It was a wonderful period to be there.
In 1967 I decided to make a film for the Channel Seven Staff Social Club
Xmas Revue I'd been organising. It was called Count Vim, and took
a year to make and was about 15 minutes long. I think they got a surprise
at the station because they thought it was going to be a comedy on funny
characters around the place, the doorman and the head of the Channel or
something with funny hats on, but it wasn't.
What sort of movies were you watching?
The station executives liked the film and asked if I wanted a job directing
the film sequence of what was then the last year of the satirical revue,
Mavis Bramston Show. 1968 was a very tough year because I really knew
so little. I had to edit my own clips - it was a very hard school to go
through and a very good one. I used to cut the original film which added
to the tension - each time you made a splice you had to be very careful
not to damage the film or cut in the wrong spot.
The commercial cinema. And I'd go to any of the 'underground' film
screenings put on by Ubu films, the alternative film society at Sydney
University - they took up Count Vim and put it in a program, Underground
'68 I think it was called. A film of Bruce Beresford's was shown
too - he was working at the British Film Institute - and a couple of others
who went on to do things, Albie Thoms being one. There was this magazine
at the time called Lumiere. It used to have a little section in every issue
headed 'Australian Feature Film Production', with underneath it, 'Nil'.
The next film I did for the staff was Buck Shotte. I left someone
else to do the revue in '68 and I made the film, which was much more elaborate
in every way than Count Vim.
Did you do any writing for the Bramston show?
I was always submitting ideas and sketches. They took a couple, but
mostly my stuff was considered too black. I continued to write, direct
and perform in revue and film (working with Grahame Bond) until I saw the
Monty Python show for the first time in 1971. At that point I decided to
leave the revues and concentrate on film. When I saw that show I thought
'they are better than we are' and I never wrote or acted, in that sort
of thing again.
Were you developing an interest in making films through going to
Not really. The films from overseas were big impressive productions
- we didn't really make a connection between our 16mm films and the 35mm
wide-screen film. A more important factor in the rebirth of the Australian
film industry, I think, was the Vietnam War.
Was this through a rejection of American culture because of opposition
to US foreign policy?
It wasn't as clear as against America, don't forget, because there
was that tremendous kinship with, and borrowing from, the American anti-war
movement. It was anti-establishment, and you saw one's own establishment
as connected directly to the American establishment. It was very much about
youth, really. A lot of it is embarrassing now in some ways - a lot of
it is really very dangerous, I think. It doesn't change one's view of what
that war was and that what happened was right, but when you saw the Vietnamese
cross over into Cambodia and earlier when you saw Pol Pot take over there,
you found your so-called new-left views in tatters and realised how naive
Had you become aware of Vietnam in England?
Oh yes, one of the friends I had met on the ship talked about Vietnam
as much as he did about Dylan and marijuana; it was my introduction to
these changes that were about to enter society.
How were the effects of the war and the film industry connected?
The war unleashed energy and conflict, passion. You always have to
look at movements in society, to look at any sudden movement in the arts.
You never get a sudden rash of painters, opera singers, dancers or filmmakers
just like that from nowhere. In this case it coincided with this great
movement that I had become aware of overseas. Phrases were coined like
'do your own thing', 'the alternative society' - they've become cliches,
but they had power then - and then there was the daily bombardment of songs,
from Simon and Garfunkel to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. It was starting
to come out of Hollywood with The Graduate and M.A.S.H.;
even there a fresh direction emerging.
Were you aware of this lobbying for a film industry?
It was a period of our own cafe society - there were groups of people
meeting and talking and sharing ideas. And there were great changes happening
in theatre - Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy wrote The Legend of King 0'Malley
which burst out on the scene as a fresh direction, and the underground
films were happening through organisations like Ubu films. I think it came
out of the passion in the streets, this feeling of a beginning and an ending,
and somewhere people like Philip Adams and Barry Jones began to look around
and see the potential, and to talk about government support for film-makers.
No, and if I had been I probably wouldn't have been interested. It
all sounded a bit too institutionalised for me, too formal or academic.
Those ghosts of the university experience were still around. I liked the
life in the streets, I liked just music and laughter and talking, the camaraderie
that was coming off that ... I was suspicious of organisers like that at
the time. It became a reality for me when my friends began to lose interest
in giving up their Sundays. I was getting a little bit too organised, saying
things like 'don't be late, learn your lines, the production manager will
call you'. Production manager? I had begun to think about Homesdale
I was working on the script through '69 to '70. Somebody suggested that
I apply to the Experimental Film Fund - Richard Brennan was the producer
(he was at the Commonwealth Film Unit with me) and we worked out the budget
to the last dollar. I think I was in the second batch of applicants and
got $ 1912. It was a grant - I couldn't believe it: they gave it
Why did you decide to leave Channel Seven?
Well, after year of doing these film clips, in which they hadn't raised
salary, the Bramston show folded. I had a short holiday, and when I came
back I found my name on the roster as a stagehand again. I went to the
guy in charge and said 'you didn't give me a raise, and now you're just
dropping me back' and he said 'that's right' So I said 'I resign. Right
now. I'm leaving today, goodbye.' He said 'fine, good luck.' 'I was out
of work for months. I knew the only place I wanted to go then was the Commonwealth
Film Unit. After about three months took me on as a director.
The Commonwealth Film Unit
Was there a sense of a community working towards a film industry
at the Commonwealth Film Unit then?
It was like a film school and Gil Brealey and Richard Mason were our
tutors. Gil had been in America and knew the way a film was made, about
the simple formalities of constructing a script, of moving actors around,
and so on. He ran a course for us really, and financed this with a series
of Public Service Board training films. Some of the others there were Don
Crombie, Brian Hannant, Arch Nicholson, who all became directors, and later
Don McAlpine and Dean Semmler who went on to become leading directors of
photography. I liked the atmosphere; it was the university that I had looked
for in 1963. Gil Brealey came up with the idea of Three To Go -
three directors, three views of youth. My section was titled Michael.
Michael opens with a newsreel-style scene of tanks and soldiers in
the Streets of Sydney, then switches to the conservative young man Michael,
in his everyday office job, and follows his attraction to a group of young
people who represent freedom, anti-authority, humour - all those things
that got called 'liberation'. How did you see the connection between that
aspect of counter-culture and the armed struggle you show at the start?
Those ideas of armed struggle were aspects of my own political naivete
and the naivete of the times, but the anti-Vietnam war feeling had reached
such a pitch in the late sixties that such speculation didn't seem out
of the question.
It is interesting to see it now because it says so much about the
times. The critique of conformity, for instance - you have some really
funny things, like the line of businessmen waiting for the bus, all wearing
the same suits and reading the same newspapers.
It was so simplistic, looking back. It's propaganda of the then 'new-left',
but of course why I'm embarrassed about a shot like that is you could have
put someone as unconventional as Magritte in that line. We put so much
emphasis on the outward display. In those days you could see someone with
a beard and you could probably walk right up and start talking about how
we should get out of Vietnam.
Another interesting thing in that film is the way you use rock music
to tell the story.
Later I remember getting caught out on that. I picked up a couple of
hitchhikers who looked just as I did, jeans and long hair and so on. It
must have been just before the end of the war and the Americans were launching
their last offensive. There had just been news of a terrible bombing raid,
and I said 'did you read that today - terrible, wasn't it?' And one of
them said 'oh, the only solution is to nuke 'em.' It wasn't long after
that John Lennon sang 'Let's get the hair off and see who's who.'
In those days it was a substitute for dialogue. We didn't know how
to write dialogue for Australians and the actors were frightened of saying
it. The sound of the Australian accent in films was totally unfamiliar.
So I pulled a lot of tricks to have minimal dialogue in the picture. David
Williamson had only just begun working in film at that stage. His influence
spread later, as did that of other writers, like John Dingwall and Margaret
Kelly - those who enabled us, or helped us, to speak.
In terms of technique, it's very much a montage approach with lots
of fast editing and juxtaposing of images.
More so than was planned in the script. It was a case of the editor,
Wayne Le Clos, helping me get out of a lot of trouble. Even though I had
reached a reasonable technical level and the film won the prizes of the
day, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was always one step ahead
of myself, just charging right on out there and letting the techniques
come after me. I still think that's the best way to go, and it certainly
applied to all the early films, going right through until Galllipoli
that was my graduation film. The terrifying thing in those early films
was not knowing why something had worked, even more than understanding
why something hadn't worked.
I remember giving a lecture once to a media course. In the class before
my lecture they were practising the various technical functions a film
crew. I watched them for a while and said 'what are they doing?' There
was one group queued up in front of the camera, rather like divers on a
diving board. One at a time they'd come forward and primp or make some
movement at a certain spot and then go back to the end of the queue. 'They're
practising hitting marks,' I was told. Other groups were writing up clapper
boards, or dressing sets or something. 'I think it's important that they
realise what an actor has to go through, in hitting marks, and performing,'
the guy running the course said. I said 'if they've only got a two year
course, why waste time on something like that?' So I said to the students
'right, - let's get all this gear out of the way. This has got nothing
to do with it, nothing. Let's just talk, about anything, everything, about
stories, experiences. You've got too much of this gear. It's summoning
up the idea that's the hard thing - the inspiration, the passion. Without
them, this stuff's useless.'
MAKING THE MOVIES
Homesdale was a haunted house story, about a mysterious hotel
or mental home. Where did the idea come from?
It came from an old house we rented in several acres of land at Church
Point. It was one of those properties that really had a story clinging
to it. People would say as they came 'it reminds me of a hospital in the
Crimea; with its wide verandahs and cream stucco.' I used to imagine rows
of patients stretched out there recovering from their wounds. Others would
say 'it's like a plantation house in South America.' It had a romance about
it. 'A guest house' someone said- and I remember we talked about guest
houses and how, of course, they were going out of fashion by then, being
replaced by motels. When I was young, some friends and I had gone up for
a weekend and stayed at a place called Homesdale at Katoomba in the Blue
Mountains. It had a dance and a host and hostess and was a very old-fashioned
place. We'd gone up there under fictitious names pretending to be bank
clerks or something. We got up to a lot of mischief. So Homesdalegrew
out of all that.
Homesdale was your first film made outside the Commonwealth Film
Unit. Was it a very chaotic experience?
It was difficult. Also, I think it surprised friends in the cast and
crew, because with the excitement of making this more complex film, we
had come together with a very positive feeling. It was shot over a week
and we were all living in the house or in tents in the grounds which didn't
help because everyone had different hours - some liked to stay up till
two drinking and playing guitars and others wanted to go to bed early.
It was a highly organised film, which also contributed to the tension.
But more importantly than that the subject matter of that film came onto
the set as it has in all my films. It was a lot about mockery and bullying
and nasty games of one kind or another and we lived and worked in that
There was a four year interval between Homesdale and The Cars
That Ate Paris, what were you doing in that time?
After Homesdale I went back to Europe on a grant from the Interim
Council for the Film School. They were sending a lot of people around the
world to study. England provided a breathing space and I spent my days
on feature film sets out at Pinewood and Elstree, mainly working with special
effects people. At the same time writing madly.
Yes. It was a great creative burst. We travelled through France and
one day we came to a road block where there were some men standing in orange
jackets with a portable 'Stop' sign. They said 'you can't go down here,
you have to go back and use the side road.' I asked if it would link up
to where I was going and they just said 'go'. It seemed rather odd, because
there was no sign of any roadworks, just that little barrier. The detour
led all over the place and it took us ages to find our way back. Why had
I accepted the authority of the roadworkers? Probably because of their
day-glo jackets, like the guy in a white coat is the doctor.
Weeks later in England, I saw a front page story in the paper about
a shooting, some crime of passion, while down in a very small column was
the fact that in Britain that weekend 23 people had lost their lives on
the road. I put it together with the French thing and thought, if you were
going to kill somebody, you'd do it with a motor car accident - it's accepted
as an act of God. I wrote a short story that became The Cars That Ate
Paris. Also over dinner with some friends someone told me of the awful
time she had been having with a plumber who had been in her place for a
week terrorising her.
Then on a holiday in Tunisia, I found a buried Roman head, a beautiful
piece in marble which I somehow knew I was going to find. It was an extraordinary
experience. I wondered what it would have been like if a lawyer had found
it, someone for whom It was a harder to assimilate, the rational man rather
than the filmmaker who deals with the imagination. Back in Australia I
met the Aboriginal actor, Gulpilil. I mentioned finding that Roman head
and he was most unimpressed. 'Oh yes,' he said, 'that happens to me all
the time. Of course you know things before they happen.' This became a
starting point for The Last Wave. So on that trip to Europe I came
back with what became ideas for three films.
The Cars That Ate Paris
Was it very hard to raise the money for The Cars That Ate Paris,
which had a much bigger budget than Homesdale?
At the time it seemed enormously difficult, but it happened in the
great excitement of the time and it certainly wasn't as difficult as the
experience the producers, Hal and Jim McElroy, had with Last Wave
which was very hard to finance, as was Living Dangerously.
That's surprising. The Last Wave came straight after the success
of Picnic at Hanging Rock - I'd have expected finance to be easy.
Oh no, you can talk to most filmmakers, you'll find that. You'd think
that for people who win academy awards and make a hundred million dollars,
the next one would be fine. But it's rarely the case - more often they'll
be told 'the last one was excellent, why don't you do another one like
that?' The conservative financial sources tend to go for what's proven.
Mind you, I've always made what I wanted to. Firstly, I try to keep the
budget down and secondly, I only have one project at a time, unlike the
American system where a director will have five or six going because one
of them will go into production and five won't. I might have five scraps
of ideas that I'm turning over, but only one takes me over.
Cars was shown at the Melbourne Film Festival, wasn't it?
Yes. At the end of the picture it was both booed and clapped. That's
been the pattern of my films ever since in one way or another.
You were working with very experienced actors this time.
Joon Meillon for example. The crew too - they were largely people who'd
worked and been trained on foreign feature films that had been made in
Australia. Johnny McLean, who'd been camera operator on Wake in Fright
was lighting cameraman. Some had worked with Tony Richardson on Ned Kelly,
or on Walkabout with Nick Roeg.
You cast some comic actors from the Melbourne theatre scene. I Were
you aware of differences in the style of comedy coming from Melbourne and
I was aware that in the sixties Melbourne took a different direction;
it was far more hard line and political. Sydney is always that rough old
seaport, that may take up a trend and play with it; in Melbourne there
was far more intensity.
I was struck by the strong kitsch sensibility in Cars, in the depiction
of the Mayor's house and the character of the Mayor's wife.
Well at that point in my life, I don't know for what reason, I was
dealing with the overwhelming normality of things, the ordinariness that
sometimes could choke you. And one of the reactions in those days was to
satirise. But in Cars it was also part of the plot; here was this
nice old Mayor and his wife - who looked like anybody's uncle and aunty,
with the ticking of the clocks and the tea cosies - and by night these
people were killers.
In those early films, parody and satire are an important part of
your humour, yet in Gallipoli the humour is of a very different kind. Why
did that change?
I think I became fond of the people I satirised. The satirist really
needs to self-destruct at some point, if he's interested in going further.
It's a cul-de-sac and can lead to great bitterness. I had a letter from
a friend about Gallipoli and he said 'one thing I couldn't get over was
the way you treated those characters, those louts in Egypt. As I remember
you, you would have satirised them, yet you almost seem to be condoning
their actions.' Of course, David Williamson had a greal to do with the
humour in Gallipoli, and that was a new and refreshing stimulation for
The character of the mayor is rather similar to the manager of the
guest house in Homesdale
It was a constant figure in those early films - the bully, the teacher
His pretence of concern and sincerity.
It ties in with Homesdale, and is very much of that post-Vietnam period.
I never took that as far as I wanted to, the feeling of a country in some
sort of economic chaos. There were to be troops in the countryside, anarchy
in the air, odd radio reports of massive road accidents, politicians being
attacked, and so on - there was a whole subplot there. It's interesting
when you look at Mad Max and Mad Max 2, because George Miller said the
same thing: that in the first film he got done what he could, but in the
second he was able to put in all the texture he'd wanted to in the first.
The grotesque violence and blood in Cars is also very different from
your treatment of violence in Gallipoli.
Sometimes when you don't know what to do you just make a lot of noise
combined with shocking images. There are more subtle things in the film,
like the scene after the minister has disappeared and Bruce Spence comes
up and just puts his hand in the bloody collar he's wearing and the Mayor
looks up. You're constantly trying to hold your audience and it's tempting
to lead them with a shock image. But unless it's very carefully arranged,
you trigger such strong reactions that you lose the audience for a while.
You may want them to do that while something else happens, but generally
you get that 'ah' or 'wow' or 'God' and the echoes last up to minutes before
they rejoin the picture. And you ask what they thought of the scene and
they say 'oh, the scene with the head off' or 'the scene where the lady
stands up starkers' and that's all they remember.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
The way the rock is photographed is an important part of Picnic
- how did you decide on all the locations and angles and so on?
I went down with the executive producer, Pat Lovell, about a year before
the film was made and I took photos of the rock. I remember being quite
alarmed when I first arrived there that the rock didn't have an impressive
distant view. I had expected, with a rock called Hanging Rock, that there
would be some fascinating outcrop that gave the place its name. But it
didn't look in any sense threatening or particularly powerful and for a
long time I planned to do an optical for a wide shot, where I would matte
on a further outcrop of rock above the peak, or even move to another location
for wide shots. That bothered me for a long time until one morning when
we were going to work there was a particular mist across the plain that
gave the Rock that element of drama.
Did you shoot that on the spot?
Yes, we stopped all the cars and sent for a camera and anxiously watched
the clock as the sun began to heat up the plain and the mist began to rise
but we managed to get the shot in.
The artist Martin Sharpe gets a credit on the film - he's called
artistic assistant to the director - what was his role?
He was obsessed by the book and had a lot of interesting theories.
He came with us to Hanging Rock - we didn't really have a title for him;
but he was always around the set making suggestions. It was great having
him there as somebody to bounce off.
How important are painters and paintings to you in conceiving the
look of a film?
I find I gather a folio of prints and photographs before each picture,
and the walls are covered with them prior to going off to shoot. There
can be all sorts of odd things. For example, the whole desert in Gallipoli
represented in my own scrapbook by Salvador Dali - those desert landscapes
with the huge clocks melting. I always saw Frank and Archie in one of those
paintings, walking past one of the clocks.
What about Australian paintings?
I can't recall an image that I carried with me from a particular Australian
painting. People often talk of a Tom Roberts influence in Picnic,
but I wasn't aware of it. I think it's a question of sheer chance- I think
I would have as many photographs, postcards, and advertisements as paintings.
They are particularly useful for framing and lighting. Sometimes you collect
them and you don't quite know why. But I carry the key ones with me, and
sometimes show them to the cameraman in a discussion. I was very interested
in Picnic in a book of photographs by Lartigue, the French photographer
and his early experiments with colour. There's a sort of desaturated look.
We did some tests like that, then pulled back from it. I think any time
you're dealing with a technique you explore it to its extreme and then
attempt to pull away from it, so it's hardly there.
A lot of Picnic does seem quite muted and softened.
That was what I wanted. Wendy worked on a monochromatic look. There's
something about strong colour in a period film that can disturb. I think
it's probably exposure to so many black-and-white photographs.
A lot of people remark on a pre-Raphaelite look about Picnic. Was
that something that you were conscious of at the time in the way you made
the girls appear?
Very much. I knew how they had to look from photographs and paintings.
The hard part was finding them. Between Pat Lovell and me, we saw a couple
of hundred girls in various States, but by chance found this particular
face, this pre-Raphaelite, nineteenth-century look only in South Australia.
You can still see it there - perhaps it's something to do with the way
of life. I think of the twenty girls, the large majority were from Adelaide.
It was staggering to see the difference in the girls between Sydney,
Melbourne and Adelaide, in one trip. You found in Sydney and Melbourne
you had to go younger and younger to find someone who looked right, but
that meant other problems. You'd see a fourteen-year-old Sydney girl who
might get away with playing a seventeen-year-old nineteenth-century girl,
but even then they often looked wrong. It was partly a question of age
but more importantly a kind of serenity, or innocence. I think that innocence
is in the story and the faces I was drawn to complemented that. Finally,
put those faces in that setting, against that rock, and you've got what
the book's about.
I've been surprised to hear of classes of schoolgirls today dressing
up and going on Picnic at Hanging Rock picnics: I had the feeling that
the film's point of view was that of an outside observer - almost a voyeur
- looking at schoolgirls, rather than coming in any way out of a schoolgirl's
sense of herself.
Films viewed at different times and different places can seem very
different - shorter, longer, better, worse, didn't ever know it was so
funny. This film is obviously viewed very differently now from then, and
by schoolgirls with a different view from others. It is a simple and emotive
series of images that obviously are still going to touch some people, perhaps
young schoolgirls in particular. It is often hard to remember what you
intended at the time - the more powerful and ingrained memory is the difficulty
you face with each project.
There is a scene during the picnic where Miranda cuts the St.Valentine's
cake with a huge butcher's knife. Were they things that were added in as
you were going or that you conceived in advance?
With much of Picnic at Hanging Rock it was clearly dangerous ground
I was treading on, given the audience's preconditioning, with a mystery
that had no solution. I had to supply an ambience so powerful that it would
turn the audience's attention from following the steps of the police investigation
into another kind of film. I began some technical experiments (which I
continued in The Last Wave) with camera speeds for example. So within
a dialogue scene I would shoot the character talking in the normal 24 frames
a second, then I would shoot the character listening in 43 frames, or 32
frames. I would ask the character listening not to blink or make any extreme
movement so that you didn't pick up the slow motion, then I'd intercut
those reactions and you would get a stillness in the face of the listener.
These things were not discernible to the eye, but you would get this feeling,
as you sat in your theatre seat, that you were watching something very
With the soundtrack I used white noise, or sounds that were inaudible
to the human ear, but were constantly there on the track. I've used earthquakes
quite a lot, for example, slowed down or sometimes mixed with something
else. I've had comments from on both Picnic and Last Wave saying
that there were odd moments during the film when they felt a strange disassociation
from time and place. Those technical tricks contributed to that.
Most of them were preconceived. It was part of the challenge to switch
the audience's expectations, and I was forever looking for things like
that knife which would build up a mood where anything was possible. I had
to do that as there was so little plot. It was to take the idea of the
red herring and to embrace that cliche and pass through it and beyond it,
to make so many allusions and connections with images that they were no
longer red herrings, but something powerful and unknowable.
The image of the swan that appears towards the end, representing
the vanished Miranda, is that from the book?
I think it is - it was pretty outrageous. I was always in two minds
about whether to leave it in. I think it's like a lot of things - you make
a decision and gamble on it.
The Last Wave
The Last Wave was the film that followed Picnic. You've said that
the origins of that film lay partly in a conversation with the actor Gulpilil,
who plays a lead role in the film.
Certain scenes in the film were all his, such as those about getting
messages from his family through a twitch in his arm - those details were
added either by Gulpilil or by Nandjiwara who played Charlie.
How did you find working with Nandjiwara? When you flew up to Darwin
to meet him did you find him willing to talk to you about such things?
I spoke initially with Lance Bennett who was director of the Aboriginal
Cultural Foundation in Darwin. Obviously you can't just turn up in tribal
areas and hope to sit down and talk about a movie. Lance listened to the
story, he read the script and we had several meetings before he would even
consider it. At first he thought we'd be better off dealing with detribalised
people, urban people, but he read further drafts and came to believe that
this was a worthwhile project and that there was only one man who could
help and that was Nandjiwara, who is a highly respected tribal elder and
magistrate on Groote Island.
Anything that you can remember specifically?
So he talked to Nandji about it and showed him the script and after
some weeks a meeting was set up. They were actually in Darwin with a dance
group from Groote Island, practising prior to leaving for a dance festival
in Nigeria. I spent all day with them at Fanny Bay, watching them dance
on the beach. I was introduced to Nandji when I arrived. He had a very
commanding presence. He indicated that I come and sit with him and we had
tea and smoked cigarettes as his people rehearsed and talked in their language
about the rehearsal.
In the first break I turned to him to begin the conversation - I was
going to ask what he thought of the script and to expand on it further
- and I just looked at that magnificent profile and decided instinctively
that I should say nothing at all and left it. That was quite early in the
morning and I said nothing all day about it. Then he turned to me at the
end of the day and said 'can I bring my wife?' And I knew he was going
to do the film. He had been assessing me all day. I'd brought up a book
to show him, a book of Celtic mythology which had struck a chord with me.
And he was interested in that. I wanted in the film to show the contrast
between the European without the dreaming and the tribal person with the
dreaming, and we talked about some of those things. Later, Nandji changed
quite a bit of dialogue and asked for certain things to be put in.
The dinner scene with the family, which is my favourite scene. It is
really constructed by Gulpilil and Nandjiwara. Nandjiwara put in all the
lines about the law and the law being more important than the man, and
that is really the heart of the film. It was a marvellous day's filming,
one where you call 'cut' and nothing really changes, the conversation continues.
In lunch break they didn't particularly care about leaving, the conversation
went on between Richard Chamberlain and Nandjiwara.
What was it like for the white actors and for you as a director working
with the Aboriginal actors?
Nandjiwara has such a powerful presence on the set that in a sense
everything came off him when he was working with us. You couldn't help
but be aware of him and one of the points of the film was quite clearly
demonstrated: that very few of us had ever had any contact with tribal
people. There were treasured moments when Nandjiwara was on the set and
one was free to sit with him and have a cup of tea and talk. It was quite
a unique way to meet, given also the heightened drama and tension of a
film set - a sort of no-man's land between European and Aboriginal. But
it was one of those dangerous situations that occur where the making of
the film becomes the film, and that can be an important experience for
the film crew, but a lot of it may not be communicated through the film.
Did you change much from the written script? How important was spontaneity
in what we see looking at the picture?
Anything with the Aboriginals underwent change. Nandjiwara was the
key. In accepting to do the film, he accepted the principle of recreating
a lost Sydney tribe and their symbols and tokens. Initially we made the
naive request to use some of his tribal symbols to which he said absolutely
not, nor should we use any existing tribal symbols nor should we use any
of our collected paintings and drawings of the vanished Sydney tribe. So
Goran Warff, the art director, created a fictional series of symbols and
Nandji approved them.
Because it was your own script were you more open to making changes
than if you were working with something written by another person?
Nandjiwara had completely grasped this difficult idea, given his perception
of the world, of what 'fiction' is, of what a fiction film is and how it
can give you a truth within its own set of lies. Some of these concepts
were very difficult to get around - the idea of mulkrul, for instance.
It was a word Gulpilil used to describe the other white people who'd come
here before the Europeans; and Nandjiwara had another word for those people.
That was the fascination of this film - Heyerdahl's theories that the sea
is a highway and there have been many groups and civilizations who have
crossed to other countries and perished or stayed briefly or whatever.
And that led me to what I think was probably too complex in the film: the
possibility of a South American contact, and the, idea of mulkrul.
Firstly, it was co-written by Tony Morphett. Looking back we should
have gone to another draft because I found myself rewriting it during the
shooting, which is a hellish experience.
It did well in America.
Yes, on the 'art house' circuit. It has its adherents, and there are
those who admire it, particularly in America, much more so than Picnic
haven't seen it for many years, I haven't been game to look at it.
The next film you made was the TV movie The Plumber. Do you see
that as a transition?
I think it was more a case of saying I could go back to something.
Plumber belonged way back with Homesdale. It was done very quickly
and with no fuss, to go straight into television without the attendant
excitement of a cinema release with all its highs and lows. It reached
an audience and played and I thought that's great, I've got that possibility
of working on teleplays. I have another short story written that I could
do in that style at any time I want to. The change I'd make is to have
it on a channel that didn't have commercial breaks. I would only do it
as a complete piece, or with one interval in the middle. The Plumber
was made from one end to the other and played much better that way, given
the tension that built up in the piece and the claustrophobic setting.
If I could control my feature films on television I would. My plan would
be to take a lower fee and hold on to the television rights around the
world and only sell them to people who make one break. But I don't know
if it was any sort of 'transition'.
I suppose what seems transitional is that while there are mythical
elements, as in your earlier films, you seem much more distanced from them.
Well firstly, it was written because I needed the money, which is sometimes
a good way of doing things. It is a true story, though that is irrelevant
to the audience. The couple were friends of mine and the plumber was based
on someone I'd given a lift to once, hitchhiking, and except for the singing
in the bathroom and the ending it is pretty much as it happened. In reality
the plumber did leave, but my friend told me, 'the strange thing was that
it brought out in me a kind of deviousness, a desire for the survival of
my mental state that led me to consider doing really drastic things.' She
was an anthropologist, studying those things, so I didn't editorialise.
Her story about the incident in New Guinea when the chap came into her
room, performed his ceremony or whatever and she tipped milk on him, was
all from her thesis. I always thought of recounting that incident as an
overture - to indicate that it was all going to happen again. And she had
found herself treating it as some ritualistic thing. Like the fascination
with the head of a weaving snake - she really, for her own self-knowledge,
had to go through it. She had a certain pride and strength, she was not
going to be forced out by this man. And obviously with a situation like
that she swung wildly between that and thinking I'm going crazy with this
whole thing, it is as straightforward as others see it.,
I suppose it seems fairly obvious, but the water motif and the idea
of water going berserk is something that has recurred in your films...
In Living Dangerously there was a pool scene and I thought I
should cut it out because people had begun to comment on my recurring use
of water images. But it's in the book so I went with it. I love working
with Ron Taylor who's shot a couple of underwater scenes for me; I'd like
to do a film with him sometime, all set under the sea.
There is an important underwater shot in Gallipoli, which followed
That came from the fact that when I first went to Gallipoli I did begin
a day down at the beach and swam underwater and was struck by the idea
that they had this other particularly peaceful world, where you could float
underneath the battlefield so to speak. Down there nothing had really changed.
Then I became intrigued when some old soldier told me about being underwater
when they were shelled.
Did you know when you visited Gallipoli that you were going to make
No, but I knew my next film was going to be on the First World War.
Probably France. Had it been set in France, it could have been more fictional
because so little was known about it, it would have been an entirely different
sort of film. The visit changed all of that and I left the peninsula knowing
that the film would be about Gallipoli.
Did being there give you a different sense of Gallipoli and what
it means for us as Australians?
Not at the time. I was really quite confused by my own emotion there.
It took alot of thinking about. I felt an overwhelming emotion on the evening
of the first day and was puzzled about that. I'd had no relatives there,
I'd been in battle areas before - I kept thinking it's ridiculous. I think
the only comparable feeling I've ever had was at Pompeii which I'd visited
back in '65. At Gallipoli, you have an archaeological site really, and
it is quite untouched. It's a military zone, no farming and no tourists
to speak of because it's so difficult to get to. The war graves are carefully
tended, and sited where the men fell.
Are there remnants of the trenches still there?
They are all still there. Now they are only knee deep, but you can
wander through the key areas and make your way down Shrapnel Gulley, and
you do find a lot of relics there. I brought back a few things. There was
a bottle I used in the film and some pieces of shrapnel.
Why do you think Gallipoli has become so important as a theme in
Australian culture and ideas?
It was 'the birth of a nation'. Not just the battle and our part in
it, but most importantly the referendums on conscription. The troops had
landed at Gallipoli in April 1915, and the first referendum on conscription
was in 1916. I think that during that twelve months people in Australia
had absorbed what had happened over there. It became part of the 'no' vote
from the people in the face of the establishment calling for a 'yes' vote
to conscription in this hour of Empire's need. And they were so obviously
staggered at the 'no' that they called for the second referendum and got
another 'no'. It was the beginning of a turning away from the Empire.
The relationship between the two boys is the central experience of
the film - was that emphasis something you got from talking to the returned
Yes, given that there are very few first hand accounts. That and the
diaries of the soldiers, as compiled by Bill Gammage in a book called The
Broken Years. It was a way of looking at 'mateship'. When David Williamson
and I first looked at it, it seemed a kind of taboo subject almost too
worked over to deal with, but the film became a way of understanding mateship.
That's what must have driven us because the drafts became successively
less complex as we stripped one element after another out. Earlier drafts
dealt with wide aspects of the battle from Churchill and the meetings of
key figures in London through to the conscription issue.
How important to the concept of mateship is the fact that it's exclusive
It's fundamental. You have to look at the isolation of the outback
settlements with women having to cook and have the children, the men going
off to work with other men. Mateship came from the bush. Although the bushmen
may not have been the majority in the first Australian Imperial Force,
Australia's volunteer army, they gave the AIF its flavour. The songs, the
poems in The Bulletin, and so on were all drawing from their experiences
and attitudes. It's often said of male filmmakers that we don't deal effectively
with women. I think what's more to the point is that we don't deal effectively
with emotion with feminine aspects of the personality, which are also contained
in the male. In a stridently heterosexual, macho society, these are doubly
dangerous things to deal with, because they can be easily misconstrued..
Why did you choose to set the early scenes in Western Australia?
In the final attack scene the wave we wanted the boys to go out in
was West Australian. The first two waves went fairly quickly, but that
third wave had that 20, 25 minute wait to see if the attack would be cancelled.
They were West Australian boys and the words of the officers sending them
out was very close to the lines in the film.
Why was the desert so important as a setting for part of the lead
up to the departure for Gallipoli?
It always felt right. At one point we'd planned to intercut the early
outback scenes of Archie with scenes of Frank and his group working in
Perth, contrasting city life with the country. But part of the process
of stripping it down, refining it, was getting Frank out into that setting.
I wanted to give the film that more abstract start - it was an interesting
way to approach a great European war. It also seemed more truthful, given
the importance of the men from the country in the AIF so I tried to free
it from a period feeling to increase that abstract quality. I kept the
costumes to things like khaki shirts, avoided scenes of city life with
cars, horses and carts and so on. In a sense the 'three acts' of the film
took place in three deserts: the Australian desert, the Egyptian desert,
then the desert of Gallipoli - and over each was that clear blue sky.
The Year of Living Dangerously
Your next film The Year of Living Dangerously, was set in Asia.
For many people in Australia an interest in Asia and in Eastern ways of
thinking began in the sixties. Was that the case for you too?
No, not really. On my first trip to Europe in 1965 the first foreign
port was Colombo. I only spent a day there but it did have a great impact
on me. My interest has increased with the years, and further travels.
How did you make the decision to make The Year of Living Dangerously?
I don't know - you're going back to a choice made in 1978, prior to
doing Gallipoli, when I took the rights out. So it's always a curious
thing that you make a choice to do something on a certain inspiration at
a time, then you find you're dealing with it two or three years later with
certain changes of perspective. I was excited by the book, that was the
One of the most interesting aspects of The Year of Living Dangerously
is that it is set very much in an Asian context and yet the sensibility
of Billy Kwan, which is so central to the film, is essentially a Christian
sensibility. Do you identify with his attitudes?
Only some of them - I think that's what I found interesting about the
character. I've certainly softened him rather - I think he was less likeable
in the novel. What I did like about Billy was his talk about the wayang,
the Indonesian shadow puppet plays, and its possibilities. I felt Billy
finally perishes because he gives up his own belief in the wayang. It was
the Eastern aspects I was drawn to, not the Western but they are in opposition
and that is part of the story. I just altered the balance in the mix. And
Linda Hunt, who played Billy, altered it further.
Making the Chinese-Australian dwarf, Billy Kwan, an androgynous sort
of character represents a real change from Christopher Koch's book where
I gather he is a much more unequivocally masculine figure.
I needed to equal the originality of Koch's creation in the novel.
It was an accident or rather sheer desperation that led me to Linda though
now it seems to form a sort of pattern. I was dealing with an almost mythical
character - something like a Grimm's fairy tale character who had been
transformed by a witch into a hunchback, or a frog. Then of course, there's
Beauty and the Beast and Quasimodo. I had to ask myself how important was
the question of height, because on screen, close up, the height difference
would be far less perceptible so even casting a very short man (which had
proved very difficult) would not capture the feeling I needed. I needed
something more. I did at one stage contemplate putting a hunchback onto
the character, going much further in a grotesque physical way to make him
a prisoner of the body. I got very excited when I began to think of the
implications of casting Linda. So I built the film around that and embraced
that casting. A risky decision, but it paid off.
Certainly many people who don't know that Linda Hunt is a woman read
the character as a man.
I've had all the reactions and they all seem to join up to the same
point: finally it doesn't matter. Her performance is what matters.
The image of the wayang is carried through in the love story and
the interaction between the characters. How happy do you feel with the
translation of that imagery in the political sphere. Were you trying to
develop it in the same way?
It was an interesting background for me. There was a glimpse of a dictator
who had begun with all the best intentions, and a quick sketch of a patriot,
Kumar, giving another angle on 'communist' which is such an emotive word.
But they were quick sketches, they didn't really interest me terribly.
I wanted a rather timeless setting in that background. The film was about
Asia to me, and the background was to reflect that. I always felt that
if you didn't know anything about it, it wouldn't matter. But I don't think
you are ever truly happy with a finished film. It was a complex adaptation
and over a dozen drafts David Williamson and I were constantly altering
the balance of the elements. I think there is enough of the political story
there, but you often have to look into the frame to find it.
So the specifics of the coup in Indonesia were not of primary concern
They gave rise to certain attitudes and reactions from the characters,
as with Gallipoli.
You were asked some years ago about the similarity between your work
and Nicholas Roeg's and you observed that Roeg uses sexuality as part of
the tension in his films where you use other systems. But in Living Dangerously
you decided to deal with sex directly.
It was part of the story; it was simply appropriate to use it. I was
quite interested to take it on as it was my first attempt at that kind
of relationship. I think it is probably there in my earlier work - there
is obviously a sexual tension in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The character of Guy Hamilton in The Year of Living Dangerously makes
a decision that is fairly unconventional in movie terms in that he chooses
to join Jill Bryant and leave Indonesia, abandoning the chance of reporting
the biggest story of his career. The character of Jill Bryant herself is
fairly unconventional - less passive and mindless than many female film
I made some quite major changes from the character in the novel - I
didn't see the Jill of the novel, I didn't like her. And so I worked with
Sigourney Weaver on constructing a woman that we found interesting - a
combination of strength and femininity.
In the book she is pregnant when she gets on the plane. It makes
a very big difference that she is not pregnant in the film.
I thought it would be dangerous in a movie: I don't know how one would
ever separate guilt from desire in the action of Hamilton in joining her.
It is desire not just for her, but to rejoin his own personality. He is
like a man who has lost his shadow towards the end; the only way he can
ever continue to be a good journalist and a complete human being is to
take that plane. It was one of those significant choices, which Hamilton
might have found hard to explain to people, those who could not comprehend
his leaving the job. It is in those lines of Kwan's: 'why can't you give
yourself; why can't you open yourself up; why can't you learn to love?'
They are from the novel and they seem to me to be true.
The filming of the last sequence seems to get a mixed reaction from
people who watch it. Had you always had that ending in mind?
Yes. It never changed. I always knew it was unfashionable.
Mel Gisbon's walk across the tarmac...
One of my favourite moments in the film is the mid-shot of Mel as he
crosses the tarmac. We did several takes and I think the only thing I asked
him to do was to smile, which was the only major development in the scene.
I said 'I can't describe it, but there's a special smile, a kind of release.
Not from getting out of customs, but in a sense of rejoining yourself;
it's like two images that come together.' And he did that thing of tipping
his head back... and to me the film was over.
REFLECTING ON DIRECTING
It's what the film has been about. I realise that some people don't
follow the clues through from the beginning and the danger is that if you
expect the film to conform to a traditional genre or to one's own view
of life and people, then all the earlier fragile elements will be missed
and the result will be confusing. Some of the more didactic critics asked
in their reviews 'what kind of film is this - is it a love story, is it
a thriller, is it a political story?' You could say that it unsuccessfully
fails to fuse these elements, but to ask why deal with all those elements
together, why not choose one of them, reveals a view of life and films
that is very different from my own.
Some said 'oh yes, here we have the old moral malaise of the Westerner,
the dilemmas from the sixties that we're all so familiar with.' But I'm
sorry, these issues don't just go away - we don't stop wondering about
the enormous gap between the Third World and our world; we don't stop thinking
about love, or about how to construct some sort of moral system, and all
those elements are touched on within the film. Most of my films have been
left incomplete, with the viewer as the final participant: I don't like
the didactic approach. One is constantly left wondering and I love it when
that's done to me in a film.
How do you want your films to affect people?
I like to think that people get their money's worth, that I've entertained
them, because I belong to that tradition of entertainer or storyteller.
There's this cartoon upon my wall of an old lady at a ticket box window
saying 'I want my sense of wonder back.' I like that idea. It's a desire
to feel that sense of not knowing, that sense of danger and potential interlocked.
It's very difficult to achieve, but the screen is one of the few places
where it is possible.
Do you enjoy going to the movies?
Very much, yes. But I'm very selective, very careful - if I see a film
I really don't like it depresses me... in the sense of what a waste of
time this whole occupation is. I tend to watch them at home, because you
can take them off. I don't have a video because I don't like the format
as much as I do the screen, but I have my own 16mm setup and borrow from
the libraries and film exchanges. It seems to go in bursts: - I might have
an 'on' period when I watch dozens of movies, then nothing for weeks or
Are there filmmakers who have been particularly influential for you?
I didn't really investigate any film history up until 1978. I was making
Plumber in Adelaide for the South Australian Film Corporation, they
have an excellent film library there and I used to watch four or five features
a week - I put myself through a film history course. The emphasis was heavily
on silent films and many of them just took my breath away. Of the early
Russian filmmakers I came to admire Pudovkin, to my surprise. I thought
it would be Eisenstein, but although I appreciated his intellect, I found
him too much propagandist. I liked the naive, almost primitive approach
of Pudovkin, and his passion and emotion. I couldn't do anything but admire
the lighting and composition of the Germans, but they didn't move me greatly.
I loved Hitchcock's films, his wit, his effortless quality. In the commercial
cinema it was Kubrick who had an enormous effect on me. I would go to the
Sydney Film Festival, and I was interested in European cinema. And Kurosawa,
I still carry around images from his films.
Are there any of your own films you don't like later?
But I'm not aware of any direct influence, perhaps because I am a little
like a primitive painter myself - you know, those painters whose trees
are a little too big or whose cows only stand sideways, and who paint out
of sheer joy and intuitive understanding. I have been aware of the dangers
of refining the craft and losing the art. In latter years I have been inspired
by Woody Allen - I admire his recklessness. He's an original and that is
true of all the filmmakers I have mentioned. I've turned away from the
more academic filmmakers, or the social workers. Godard reminded me of
that university lecturer who had demolished the Blake poem.
Yes. Although when I say dislike, that's excepting certain scenes.
Then there are others that at the time you thought were less successful,
but seem to age well. It's a curious pattern.
Working on the Set: Democracy and Intuition
Do you consciously do things to engender an atmosphere on a set?
Do you have established approaches at the start of a film?
I think it just happens. An extraordinary feeling of the proximity
of chaos hovers around a film set. That is dangerous to the director because
it is all-pervasive and you can get very rattled. People are under great
stress and are very excited and determined to do their best. I presume
it's true on every set; the feeling that you have been selected for this
position and that you're going to have to prove your worth. And in the
early days of a shoot people trip and knock things over - the old jokes
about people on the set bumping into lamp-stands are literally true - until
the unit is in rhythm, which sometimes doesn't happen until quite late.
Then everything settles down, but in those early weeks it can be very chaotic
and you need to develop your own approach to combat that, to harness it,
or your ideas can begin to disintegrate.
Is your approach to directing actors in comedy very different from
It's the same thing really. I build an atmosphere on the set that is
conducive to the performing of the scene. The script to me is only a starting
point. Coming from a tradition of ad-libbing and improvising, I need that
atmosphere. So I try to keep the equipment to a minimum, and to keep it
out of the way of the actors. It's a case of creating a powerful mood,
a kind of 'super-reality' out of which the actors' responses will be both
irresistable and inevitable, be it comedy or drama.
Shooting on location must make a difference to the atmosphere of
the film, as opposed to being in a town.
If the weather's good and the period is not too extended it can be
wonderful. For example during the week that we shot all the outback scenes
for Gallipoli we were in a caravan city attached to an old cattle
station. The weather was perfect: hot during the day and crisp and cool
in the evening. We had log fires and people told yarns or sang songs. With
started off in Mount Macedon where we were billeted in various old guest
houses. It was a beautiful area - it was idyllic. On the other hand shooting
in Manila, where we were on location with Living Dangerously, was
Francis O'Brien, the American executive producer on Gallipoli, commented
on the degree of democracy in that production, and as a general characteristic
of the Australian film industry as opposed to the American. Is that something
you're aware of?
I'm sure its cultural. In Britain, and to a degree in America, they
do call the director 'sir', and some of the older Australian crew members
who'd gone through foreign features here used to call me 'sir' in the early
days, to my amazement. I said 'don't worry about that' at one stage, but
then I realised that's as much an affectation as wearing baseball cap,
in the Australian context. In America it's very highly competitive, people
have really fought their way up and won the right to be in the position
of assistant director or cameraman or whatever and there can be a much
larger degree of compartmentalising, and respect for those above you. And
a keen awareness that you can be fired, which is much more the American
Do you prefer in general to be completely prepared before you get
onto the set? The Last Wave sounds like an example of considerable spontaneity.
That's not been the case in Australia. Obviously we couldn't do it,
we've had to inspire each other - in the seventies there was one of everybody.
We were all learning together in those early days, so you were pooling
knowledge, with that one common desire to make the picture look as good
as anything from anywhere else. But more importantly it's probably just
part of our way of doing things - you can see it in the army during the
war; there was much more negotiation between officers and men in the Australian
forces than in the British.
That was true of that film, but generally I don't like that way of
doing things. I did in my early days but I've simply found it too difficult
- you run the risk of losing control.
When threats were made by a Muslim extremist group during the shooting
of The Year of Living Dangerously in the Philippines, you moved the shoot
back to Australia, saying 'life first, movie second'. Earlier you might
have been tempted to stay and explore the possibilities created by that
I prefer it that way, as did most of the cast and crew. Filmmaking
is a craft for me. I like the approach of the Japanese master potter who
turns each bowl out one after the other, the last exactly the same as the
first. Occasionally the gods descend and touch his hands as he makes one
of those bowls and that one is inspired, a work of art. The danger of movies
first, life second, is the danger of the filmmaker as god. So I have been
drawn away from that toward the craft aspect, leaving these other things
to chance. And I don't think you necessarily lose anything, that's the
Constructing the Pictures
The relationship between the director and director of photography
seems to be a very key one. You've worked a lot with Russell Boyd - have
you developed a special way of working together?
Yes. Of course, until Living Dangerously there was also Johnny
Seale who was a very important part of the camera team as camera operator.
He is now working as a director of photography. So it was really very much
Russell Boyd, John Seale, myself, and Wendy Weir. Few people realise when
you talk about the lighting of a picture you must also talk about what
light is falling on. Here two important aspects come into play: firstly,
and most importantly, it's the faces that are being photographed, whether
extras or key cast; and secondly, the settings into which they are placed.
That team interlocked very well. Russell would light those faces very well,
would respond to the faces and the setting, and John Seale would move the
camera beautifully amongst and through and around them. Wendy has looked
after colour on all those pictures. Not only the colour of the sets and
the costumes but the key colours of the film in Gallipoli for example,
you have sand, khaki, and blue. And Russell is absolutely superb in exterior
situations. You'll find a number of cameramen who are very good with candlelit
ambience in a room, but there are very few people who can use a landscape
well. To work in the middle of the day in Australia where you've got that
harsh overhead sun which is a very unflattering light and to turn it somehow
to advantage takes real skill. In the films that we've done together, I
think particularly of the actual picnic in Picnic a Hanging Rock.
That was done over a period of a week for one hour only, I think between
twelve and one, when Russell found the light was at its most interesting.
He scrimmed a parachute silk or something above them to soften the light.
The techniques are well known but the difference is that it took, with
a very low budget, an enormous amount of clever juggling of the schedule
and Russ's insistence that we shoot only at that hour to capture that look
which became a key element of the film. And also, I think of his photographic
work in the scenes of the boys crossing the desert in Gallipoli, and the
way he used the light in those sequences.
Where are the decisions about the composition and framing of a shot
made? Do you look through the camera much yourself?
It depends on the operator. When you build up a strong rapport as I
did with Johnny Seale - we worked together on Picnic, Last Wave
and Gallipoli - you don't need to look very often. I don't do a
storyboard because for me a lot of the pages are blank. There are sequences
which I know must look a particular way, and those ones are easy: I'd say
'I want to do it this way' and Johnny would look through and improve it.
But with scenes that were unplanned, I'd throw myself into the rehearsal
and Johnny would watch closely and then I'd turn to him and say 'what do
you think of that? Did you see her when she turned?' and he'd have got
all those things. So, in other words, the ideas would come from me but
the framing and realisation were often John's. I was constantly impressed
with the way that he would take that idea, and with a different framing,
he would come up with a new idea. And given that as a director you want
to conserve energy and throw yourself into breaches in the wall, so to
speak, I could leave a lot of the framing and movement to John.
Music, Philosophy, Success
You've mentioned the importance of music. I take it you weren't
talking about music on the soundtrack, but about music as a source for
An inspiration really. I have a fantastic collection of tapes, of many
different kinds of music. I'll find that I play half a dozen tapes constantly
during the writing period. Sometimes they find their way to the film, because
I realise that I directed the scene with the music mind. That happened
with the piece of Vangelis in Living Dangerously. Maurice
Jarre was booked to do the music, but I'd this piece from an early Vangelis
album and I used it in two places - the scene where they drive through
the roadblock and later where Sigourney Weaver comes up the steps to Mel
Gibson at his office.
You will actually play music on the set while a scene is shot?
Quite often. Though I think it's only a last resort during the actual
shooting. And I'll only do it if I know that the music won't disturb the
cast, otherwise I'd be imposing a mood on them which might inhibit their
performance. But it's a way of blocking out the creak of the camera dolly,
the ping of insects on the lights, or the sound of distant laughter from
outside the studio. It's a way of detaching them, and me, from the dozens
of pairs of eyes that are watching, and it helps me fight back the overwhelming
weight of ordinariness that surrounds you in daily life, to recall the
inspiration. For some actors, of course, it's of no particular interest.
Mel Gibson, for example, finds it curious that I play odd bits of music,
but it's not his music and he's particularly interested - he doesn't need
it and I keep it away from him.
There has been a continuing current of interest in mysticism in your
films. Are you attracted to any major thinkers or groups?
I react against the organised aspects of 'spiritual' studies, which
is probably a better word. Writers who interest me are those who span several
disciplines: Carl Jung has probably been the most important me. To Jung
I'd add Thor Heyerdahl, and Emmanuel Velikovsky with his books Worlds
in Collision and Ages in Chaos where he puts together theories
using elements of archaeology, astrology, geology, and biology. But any
of these writers, Freud as well of course, have been ostracised and condemned
by the leaders of individual disciplines. That spanning of so many disciplines
and possibilities seems to me to be particularly applicable to films. Yet
tragically even in its brief history, film is becoming formalised and institutionalised
How do you measure the success of a film for yourself? How important
is it that a film does well at the box office?
In the end I look back to see how close I've come to capturing the
original inspiration. The percentage of success varies from film to film.
As for the box office, it's like they say - luck and timing.