1 Muzuru

Peter Weir Gallipoli Essay Contest

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, has published a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.

The term “history wars” is best known in Australia for summing up the fierce debate over the nature and extent of frontier conflict, with profound implications for the legitimacy of the British settlement and thus for national legitimacy today.

That debate, though hardly resolved, is now taking something of a back seat to a public controversy focused on Australia’s wars of the 20th century and particularly on the war of 1914–18, called the Great War until the Second World War redefined it as the First.

If “history war” is a public controversy about past events that raise disturbing contemporary questions about national legitimacy and identity, then this Great War controversy also qualifies as such. The polemic unfolded in a familiar fashion. “History warriors” from the political right have publicly insisted that historians and left-wing commentators were distorting the past and violating cherished understandings about the First World War.

In various forums, they stated and restated their now-familiar case: Australia’s vital interests were at stake in the Great War and it took part to protect these interests. The warriors insist there is a left-wing “orthodoxy” arguing that Australia’s national interests were not served by participating in the war and that Australians were duped by the British into fighting.

The recent past and the present loom large in the warriors’ anxiety. They insist that Australia is not in the habit of sending troops overseas to fight “other people’s wars”, as critics suggest, and that participation in overseas wars throughout the 20th century (and since) has been overwhelmingly in Australia’s interests. They have loudly condemned, and continue to condemn, historians and journalists who see this differently.

Broadsides along these lines have been heard for a generation. I’m not certain where it started, but an early shot fired in Quadrant in July 1982 by columnist Gerard Henderson merits closer inspection. Henderson was unhappy with the then-emerging field of social history and its emphasis on “waste” and suffering, because – in his view – it undermined the rightness of the cause.

Henderson targeted the distinguished social historian Bill Gammage, whose celebrated “emotional history” of the war, The Broken Years, was based on soldiers’ diaries. Gammage was guilty, Henderson claimed, of distinguishing “between the Anzacs as individuals and the cause for which they fought” – of feting the soldiers but condemning the war. Gammage was a consultant on the Peter Weir film Gallipoli wherein the same distinctions were evident, and equally odious, to Henderson.

Henderson stated his belief that the war was right for Britain and Australia. He took issue with the notion of the war as tragedy:

The Great War was “futile” and a “waste” in one sense only – in that the Western Allies in the 1920s and 1930s surrendered much of what had been won in 1914–1918 due to their all-embracing guilt.

So the tragedy “in one sense only” is to be found in foreign policy errors made after the war. Had these errors not been made, nothing about the Great War would be tragic, “futile” or a “waste”. This, presumably, is the hard-nut indifference to suffering (even on a massive scale) that is required by the men of high politics.

But I find this interesting for another reason.

At the time, Gammage was researching and writing social history, or “history from below”. He was determined to show how this war was experienced by ordinary people and to document their terrible ordeals on the field of battle and, yes, the horrendous waste of human beings, talent and potential.

Australian history probably followed literature here, for it was a novelist who put the human legacy of war on the national agenda. George Johnston’s bestselling novel My Brother Jack was published to great acclaim in 1964. The novel explored the disastrous impact of war for a single family on the home front. It opened up a national conversation about the true legacy of war. Gammage picked up the baton and ran.

In this capacity, Gammage was a part of – or more accurately ahead of – a cultural shift in the history business, with a newfound concern for the traumatic impact of war experience right across the wars of the 20th century, and thereafter.

Historian Christina Twomey wrote about this shift in the December 2013 edition of History Australia. Twomey argued that social history’s focus on suffering in war is but one part of a fascination with the traumatic in contemporary society. She called this change “the rise to cultural prominence of the traumatised individual” and argued that this rise is not peculiar to Australia, or even to the military sphere, but is evident throughout the Western world.

In this vein, though years earlier, Gammage explicitly rejected the label “military history” for The Broken Years. He wrote “to show the horrors of war”. The book has never been out of print and trauma is now a field of study in Australian history, with titles such as Joy Damousi’s Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-War Australia, Stephen Garton’s The Cost of War: Australians Return and Peter Stanley’s Lost Boys of Anzac, among others. But this new focus is perhaps best summed up by Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War.

In her article, Twomey concludes that the “trauma” perspective – this understanding of what war does to people – has been the principal reason for the resurgence of enthusiasm for the Anzac tradition. No doubt there’s some truth in this idea of a congruence between the personal and the political, empathy working to bind people together in solemn tribute to our nation’s military endeavour over a century and more. But it’s a shaky foundation.

A military heritage understood as trauma and suffering will always threaten to undermine narratives constructed around strategic necessity. Tragedy can too easily extend to critical evaluation of the political necessity for war, both then and now. To emphasise the human side of the war might even break the airlock that shields high politics and belligerent journalism from such considerations.

Perhaps this tension is behind one of the oddities of the current “history war”: never has the Anzac tradition been more popular and yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints. One only has to read the Murdoch press editorials, features or op-eds on Anzac Day (or thereabouts), or the polemics in Quadrant, to know this.

Every year the hard heads kick in – “we got it right”, they say – and serve up the summary analysis, column after column, never failing to fire a shot or two at the doubters, the usually unnamed “orthodox” school that peddles the fiction of “other people’s wars” or “futility”.

New inclusiveness but a greater intolerance

ANU historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that it is precisely the renewed cultural authority of Anzac – the popular enthusiasm for remembrance – that has had unanticipated and, for some of us, unwanted consequences, notably a declining toleration of any critique of Australian military endeavour.

In an edited collection, Bongiorno charts how Anzac commemoration has changed in recent times. Ethnic groups and Aboriginal people claimed a part or a familial connection in one or another of Australia’s wars across the 20th century – somewhat like Australians finding a link to a convict ancestry and with it a newfound pride in their national identity.

There is now a small wing of Australian publishing that is busy with books about German Anzacs and Irish Anzacs, Black Diggers, Ngarrindjeri Anzacs, Chinese Anzacs, Russian Anzacs and so on.

The new inclusiveness is one of a number of causal factors underpinning the resurgence of enthusiasm for the Anzac tradition. There is, also, the metaphysical pull of the occasion – the obstinate or perhaps eternal need for the sacred in a secular society. There is the rise of genealogy, linking families to forebears who fought and suffered and died for us. There is the progressive broadening of criteria for participation in the marches.

And there is the all-important role of governments (Labor and Liberal) in the lavish promotion of a war-centred nationalism going back at least to the Hawke government.

It has been noted, for instance, that Anzac Day works better as a national day because it avoids the contentious matters that Australia Day brings to the fore – Aboriginal dispossession and colonisation.

So, Anzac’s popularity is on a high and, buoyed by this popularity, the ideological guardians of the tradition seek to press home their advantage. As Bongiorno points out:

There is a long history of contention over the significance and meaning of the Anzac legend. But once a tradition is defined in more inclusive terms, those who refuse to participate can readily be represented as beyond the pale. To question, to criticise – to doubt – can become un-Australian.

The vitriol has been warming for some time. An editorial on April 26, 2013, in The Australian is instructive. It had suggestions for the bureaucrats responsible for organising commemorative events in the centenary years to come:

The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion. They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac. It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism. Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking. They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.

Two days later, Andrew Bolt chimed in on cue in the Herald Sun. Intent on vilifying academic critics of the Anzac legend, he suggested they were lining up with Islamic extremists. He named two respected scholars – Marilyn Lake and Clare Wright – and suggested that their expertise had abandoned them on matters Anzac. Doubt and debate in Bolt’s worldview is not only unpatriotic, it is the mark of fanaticism and treachery.

Now the Great War centenary has arrived and the history warriors have chosen their weapons. Paul Kelly set the tone in August 2014, when he railed in The Australian that Australians had been mugged by an anti-war mythology. The film Gallipoli got another blast, as did:

… the legacy of poets and “anti-war cultural practitioners” who, since the 1960s, have peddled the lie, the “delusion”, that the Great War was a terrible blunder … that saw millions sacrificed in vain.

In Quadrant, the busiest critic of late has been Mervyn Bendle, an untiring polemicist. His concerns run entirely contrary to the historical project – he wants the Anzac past to be fixed and sacred. He thinks the issue here is “respect for Australian society”, and describes critical interventions in military history as:

… an elitist project explicitly dedicated to destroying the popular view of these traditions.

The agents of this conspiracy are at one time “little more than a pampered coterie” and elsewhere a more considerable force (one assumes), since they are:

… led by a cadre of academics, media apparatchiks and some disaffected ex-army officers.

Bendle seems entirely uncomfortable with the vigorous, contested nature of the discipline. He caricatures these rival interpretations as “an iconoclastic holy war against the Anzac tradition”, and in one instance as “a jihad”. Quadrant has published Bendle’s denunciations regularly since 2009.

Bongiorno’s take on such intemperate reaction is well put:

Anzac’s inclusiveness has been achieved at the price of a dangerous chauvinism that increasingly equates national history with military history, and national belonging with a willingness to accept the Anzac legend as Australian patriotism’s very essence.

But if the new inclusiveness of Anzac commemoration provides backing for this kind of intolerance, it is also true that the centenary (now with us) has heightened anxieties about the legitimacy of the so-called Great War, as has the widespread questioning of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The context for intolerance has, in this sense, been overdetermined.

The debate is not closed elsewhere

In the past two decades, as the centenary has crept up, the scholarly contest around the origins and the meaning of the Great War has intensified. The anniversary has lifted the game to a new intensity – nowhere more evident than in Britain, where historians and politicians have eagerly put their case. Some of the most intemperate interventions seem designed to caricature critical reflection and shut down debate.

Michael Gove, then British education secretary, set the tone in January 2014 when he tore into “left-wing academics” for peddling unpatriotic “myths”. He cited satire such as Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder as grist to the left-wing mill that encouraged these myths and denigrated the “patriotism, honour and courage” of those who served and died.

The bizarre edge to Gove’s intervention suggests a fear that the contest may not be going his way. As Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan put it:

He is mistaking myths for rival interpretations of history.

Gove had tried to enlist MacMillan to his cause, referring favourably to her important (if oddly titled) book, The War That Ended Peace. But MacMillan said he got it wrong:

I wish we could see understanding the First World War as a European issue, or even a global one, and not a nationalistic one.

Good advice.

The history business is more richly resourced, sophisticated and nuanced, more exhaustive and rigorous and more openly scrutinised by a fascinated general public than ever before. A vigorous contest about the origins and meaning of the war continues unabated.

Broadly, two schools of thought have been contesting the ground at least since A.J.P. Taylor’s War By Timetable. One insists Germany was hell-bent on world domination and had to be stopped. The other (including Taylor) sees the great powers as collectively responsible in varying ways and to varying degrees.

And inextricably tied into these two schools are views set on a spectrum between “high and noble purpose” and ghastly “futility”.

The complexity of this debate should not be understated. My grasp of it suggests the “collective responsibility” school of thought is far more soundly based in history than the nationalistic “evil Germany” version. Perhaps the best example of this headway is Christopher Clark’s celebrated volume The Sleepwalkers.

Clark is an Australian, and now a professor of modern history at Cambridge. His delightfully readable account of the polarisation process that led to war teases out this collective responsibility against a background of ethnic and nationalistic ferment in Europe at the time. He writes:

The outbreak of war is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.

Clark sees smoking pistols in many hands. He sees a Europe in which all the great powers were pursuing their own interests, willfully indifferent to the interests of others and, to that end, ready to risk a major conflict, having no idea of the horrors they were about to unleash.

The point is this: the debate in Britain is not closed. It is perhaps more wide-open than ever and well able to resist the forces that would shut it down and render history into a hammer in the sectarian tool box.

An elite ‘hell-bent’ on war

In Australia, the scholarly scene is similarly robust and, one trusts, similarly resistant to bullying and coercion. Here, too, the coming of the centenary has heightened critical scrutiny and a reactive anxiety that insists the past is sacred.

While social historians continue to track the personal cost of our wars among soldiers and their families, and the cultural industry produces countless books, movies, TV series and tours of battlefields, a more political line of inquiry has in recent times tracked the “militarisation of Australian history” since the 1980s.

The evidence of this obsession is found in patterns of government funding, in the media, publishing and education, in documentaries and electronic media programs devoted to the history of Australians at war – to the detriment of our many other pasts. The imbalance here has dire consequences for the breadth and depth of understanding of the past, as Henry Reynolds has pointed out:

The implications fly off in all directions – nations are made in war not in peace, on battlefields not in parliaments; soldiers not statesmen are the nation’s founders; men of blood are more worthy of note than negotiators and conciliators; the bayonet is mightier than the pen; a few fatal days on the shore of the Ottoman Empire outweighed the decades of civil and political pioneering by hundreds of colonial Australians.

The centenary has galvanised this concern with numerous authors, several key titles and website Honest History raising the critical standard. In What’s Wrong with Anzac?, edited by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, the contributing scholars sought to explain how this obsession with military history has been manufactured and to highlight how it eclipses a rich and diverse history of nation-making, civil and political traditions of democratic equality and social justice.

It must be said that the book has sparked fierce criticism from within the history community. Distinguished scholars Inga Clendinnen and Ken Inglis contested the “top down” explanation of the resurgence of Anzac and others pointing to misapprehensions about “propaganda” being fed into schools and about both teachers and students as passive recipients. But there is much in the book that merits attention. It set out to provoke discussion and debate. In that, it has been entirely successful.

Other scholars have indirectly shaped the critique of the obsession with Anzac by contributing to a broadly conceived cultural history that places Asia (and thus our racial anxieties) at – or near – the centre of our national story. Australia’s Asia, edited by David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska, is a key text in this regard. Within this framework it has become possible to rethink Australia’s entry into the Great War, notwithstanding the voices that insist there’s nothing more to know.

A number of authors have taken up this challenge, notably John Mordike and recently Greg Lockhart, who charted the secret commitments that shaped Australia’s entry into the war and the racial fears that motivated Australian politicians to make these commitments. Mordike, Lockhart and Walker, and predecessors such as historian Neville Meaney, have reshaped the way we think about the racial frameworks that governed political thought and the fears that underpinned Australian defence policy leading up to the First World War – notably the obsession with Japan.

The great irony here is that Japan was a reliable British ally throughout those years of war – yet it was fear of Japan that drove White Australia’s commitment to an expeditionary war long before war broke out.

Another constructive contribution is Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent. The title suggests the author’s revisionist perspective. Newton’s aim is to:

… interleave the story of Australia’s leap into the Great War and the story of the choice of war in Britain.

Newton’s interpretation sets Hell-Bent firmly in the collective responsibility camp, with Australian government intent – if not impact – as culpable as Britain and the rest. Newton’s book surveys the obsession with racial fitness, the post-Federation longing for blooding in battle, the searching for confirmation of racial virility and the almost universal belief that the one true test of national vigour was war.

Newton quotes Australian prime minister Joseph Cook’s diary of Monday, August 3, 1914 – the same day that he promised the Royal Australian Navy and 20,000 troops to Britain:

The good to come, [the] moral tonic. Luxury, frivolity and class selfishness will be less. A memory for our children, bitter and bracing for many.

Cook’s earnestness was at least preferable to Churchill’s effervescing glee at the prospect of war in July 1914, and his enjoyment of war thereafter. He could still call it “delicious” in January 1915.

War as socially uplifting and purifying was a common theme among Australia’s political elites in 1914. War was an antidote to “effeminate thinking”, ‘sentimentalism" and the way that too long a peace “can rot all manly thought and action out of our race”, as Melbourne academic Archibald Strong put it. War was a curative. War was a way to rescue the British race from the brink of destruction.

Such were the attitudes that underpinned a political elite “hell-bent” on war. The celebrants today would have us forget this. They would have us forget both the racial framework and the obsessive paranoia that inspired the push to war in Australia.

They would have us forget the lessons, too. In Gallipoli: a ridge too far, edited by Ashley Ekins, historian Robert O’Neill describes how “blindness and miscomprehension” about Turkey’s ability to defend itself was repeated in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan:

How strange it is that Winston Churchill, a voracious student of military history, thought that a force of some 60,000 men, backed by the Royal Navy, would rapidly induce a Turkish collapse leading to the seizure and occupation of Constantinople.

O’Neill goes on to note how the decision-making process was dominated by Churchill, and to record Charles Bean’s observation in The Story of Anzac – how through the:

… fatal power of a young enthusiasm to convince older and slower brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born.

Bean was the great official historian of the Australians in the First World War. He will be quoted liberally in the course of the centenary, but his blunt summary of the Gallipoli venture as a reckless fantasy may not get the attention it deserves.

No chance of that with James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow, an unusual intervention that has stirred debate and critical reflection, and fury in the Quadrant ranks. Brown, a former officer who commanded troops in Iraq and served with Special Forces in Afghanistan, was the military fellow at the Lowy Institute when the book was published. He writes:

This year an Anzac festival begins a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon.

Brown argues that Australia is spending too much time, money and emotion on the Anzac legend at the expense of current serving men and women. He rejects the sophistry that suggests any criticism of the Anzac myth is anti-military. He also provides a sharp critique of the clubs and corporations that exploit the Anzac theme for commercial gain.

Brown does not dwell on the particulars of Australian involvement in the Great War but he does stress the importance of informed memory, of knowing Gallipoli for what it was:

A century ago we got it wrong. We sent thousands of young Australians on a military operation that was barely more than a disaster. It’s right that a hundred years later we should feel strongly about that.

In history, nothing is sacred

Politicians and a retinue of warrior commentators want us to be proud of our martial history, lest the nation fall apart. Historians worth their salt want us to know that history critically, lest the nation be deceived, or simply dumbed-down.

This is a great divide. History is a cautious, ever-questioning discipline, well aware that all historical truth is contextual and contingent and thus open to revision or to new ways of seeing the past. Politics is a profession played out with dogmatic certainties that are wielded like baseball bats. Where historians must be ever critical, ever ready to go deeper, politics – and national history as set down by politicians – must be unimpeachable.

Drape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct. History will not stand for that. In history nothing is sacred. History is open inquiry; politics is slogans.

Australia’s finest historian, Inga Clendinnen, explained the great divide between politics and history in the following way:

The discipline of history demands rigorous self-criticism, a patient, even attentiveness, and a practiced tolerance for uncertainty. It also requires that pleasure be taken in the epistemological problems which attend the attempt to recover the density of a past actuality from its residual traces. These are not warrior virtues.

Political agendas require a national story that is simple, fixed and inviolable. Thus the Anzac centenary is committed to locking in a glorious military past but, like the 1988 Bicentennial, it is raising more questions than the celebrants want. Centennials can backfire. That is the heart of the problem for the history warriors on the conservative side of politics.

That, more than any other factor, explains their bellicose insistence on the rightness of what happened.

You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.

Peter Weir
from35 mm Dreams
Conversations with Five Directors about 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 direction.'



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 University.
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 too.

    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.

Working with other agents, not your father?
    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 to happen.
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.
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 sketches.
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.

    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, The 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.

What sort of movies were you watching?
    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 Ithink 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 the movies?
    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 they were.
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.

    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.

Were you aware of this lobbying for a film industry?
    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 and 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 to you.
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.

    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.'

Another interesting thing in that film is the way you use rock music to tell the story.
    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.'


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 atmosphere.

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 Sydney?
    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 me.
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 the lecturer.
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 was 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.

    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 different.

    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.

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?
    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.

    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.

Anything that you can remember specifically?
    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.

    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.

Because it was your own script were you more open to making changes than if you were working with something written by another person?
    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 I haven't seen it for many years, I haven't been game to look at it.
The Plumber

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. The 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 The Plumber.

    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 the film?
    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 soldiers?
    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 of women?
    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 starting point.
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 for you?
    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 roles.
    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.

    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.


Watching Movies

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 months.
Are there filmmakers who have been particularly influential for you?
    I didn't really investigate any film history up until 1978. I was making The 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.

    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.

Are there any of your own films you don't like later?
    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 directing drama?
    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 Picnic we 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 very arduous.
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 way.

    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.

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 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 tension.
    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 interesting discovery.
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 you?

    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 LivingDangerously. 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 by academics.
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.

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