At home with The Truth: interview with director Hirokazu Kore-ada

By © Jane Freebury

After winning the top prize at Cannes festival last year for his film, Shoplifters, the director Hirokazu Kore-ada went to work on a new project in France.

He had something quite different up his sleeve. It was to be set in a grand old Parisian home with a leafy garden, the domicile of someone rich and famous, and a world away from his impoverished band of thieves who live together as family on the fringes of society in Tokyo.

Actually, The Truth had been in development for some time with Juliette Binoche, the French star of renown. And Kore-ada had a screenplay to polish up and already one or two other actors in mind. American actor Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise trilogy), who is an ease in French language cinema, for starters.

Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) with daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Kore-ada’s other idea was getting Catherine Deneuve on board. An icon of French cinema since the 1960s, Deneuve is an imposing 76 years old, with a leonine head of hair and a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ expression on her classic features.

He wanted her for the character Fabienne, an ageing film star still performing who is estranged from her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), who lives in New York. Things come to a head when Lumir returns to France to celebrate the publication of her mother’s memoir.

A French person would never think of that. That’s wild

How did Kore-ada get the two of them, Binoche and Deneuve, in their first ever collaboration on screen?

‘I was developing this with Juliette Binoche for years. When I suggested that we ask Catherine Deneuve to play the mother, Juliette said it would be a big challenge for her, as well as a great honour.

‘When I told the French staff it was the direction I wanted to go in, they came back and said, you know, a French person would never think of that. That’s wild.’

Wild, indeed. Yet there is ample space for both onscreen in this subtle, layered family drama. The Truth is an intriguing double act with two iconic French actors, a generation apart, who share the screen. Ethan Hawke is there too, as Hank, Lumir’s husband, a TV actor as often at rehab as he is in work.

What was it like working with Deneuve? ‘She will always be able to give you the take you want,’ says Kore-ada. ‘The really interesting thing is that she knows when she has given it to you. She’ll have a moment of inspiration, then, bang, it will come out, and she’ll tell you “oh, that was the one”’.

I have read elsewhere that she tends not to arrive on set until noon and prefers to work in Paris, though Kore-ada does not mention this.

Bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent

In The Truth, Binoche and Deneuve each play both a mother and a daughter at different points. Lumir has arrived with her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) and Fabienne’s current role is as a daughter in a time-travelling story, ‘Memories of My Mother’, a tale with a far-fetched plot that pokes a bit of fun at the high seriousness of science fiction.

The beauty of Kore-ada’s films is their exploration of family, family in its many manifestations, family with blood ties and ‘families’ without. He has observed that one of his major realisations in life is that bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent, and that the concept of family needs constant reaffirmation. Will he continue exploring this fundamental human relationship?

‘It’s one of those subjects that you never arrive at a final definitive answer.’ But we shall see.

Kore-ada, incidentally, speaks neither English nor French. This interview a couple of weeks ago was conducted through an interpreter.

How is it possible to make a film in France when you don’t speak French, or English? Kore-ada works closely with his Japanese-French speaking translator, Lea Le Dimna, who he met at the Marrakech film festival. ‘In the past five years since I met her, I’ve consistently hired her services.’ Her familiarity with how Kore-ada communicates his working methods has made her indispensable.

How did he find it working with a French cast and crew? ‘One of the key differences working with French people is that they pretty much say what they think and tell you face to face, whereas if you are Japanese you might hold back, and stay silent about those things.

‘I was sort of aware of that difference and wanted to incorporate it, that they would say what they think, and that much is a very integral part of this film.’

It’s such an interesting observation that seems to fit with the observation that Shoplifters offers another perspective on the official narrative about well-being in Japanese family and society.

I suggest that The Truth plays with the naked truth, the embellished truth and the unspoken truth, while it develops a recognition of the position that each character is coming from.

‘You’re absolutely right,’ he says, to general laughter. It’s more important than agreeing on the truth.

‘The story as I approached it was that there was this daughter who was to confront her mother with the truth. Whatever it was. Yet when she recounts her own history, she realises there are other truths or things that have been glossed over.

‘So, that’s the account I really wanted to cover. That she does have these moments where the trick is that the truth is actually less important than finding out where she stood in relation to her mother.’

‘In the story, it is the performance that actually helps heal those gaps.’

The Truth was selected to open the Venice International Film Festival in August this year. It opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

Interview With Writer/Director Rolf de Heer

Credits include Charlie’s Country; Ten Canoes; The Tracker; and Bad Boy Bubby

It is a surprise, and no less so for Rolf de Heer himself, that he has made another film with David Gulpilil. The filmmaker and the Indigenous performer have now collaborated for a third time, which naturally leads to talk of a trilogy. An ‘accidental trilogy’ at best, if it is one at all, observes de Heer whose restless creative energies have led to his reputation in the media as a bit of a maverick, an esteemed but elusive auteur with a body of work that is tricky to define.

The three films that carry Indigenous stories have each emerged from a different time and space. The Tracker (2002) came into being after de Heer read about the brutal hidden history of the Australian frontier. Ten Canoes (2006) came about when he saw the possibilities of making a film in-language in and in-country with the Ramingining community in Arnhem Land. Charlie’s Country has come about ‘because David was in gaol’.

The news that Gulpilil had been sent to prison for a drunken episode of domestic violence was distressing yet also something of a relief: ‘Towards the end of 2011 I learnt that David was in gaol. My first thought was tragedy averted. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his imprisonment, whatever the reason, I was grateful for it because it probably saved David’s life.’
The circumstances of each film is vastly different and it can be argued that there isn’t a clear connection between the films, were it not for the towering presence of David Gulpilil. Even though he did not appear as planned in Ten Canoes, the unmistakable voice of his mischievous narrator guides us through in voiceover.

It was one of those intense bright Canberra winter mornings when I met de Heer for our interview. It is at least the 30th occasion that we have talked, mostly over the phone, about his work. He had been in Canberra to introduce Charlie’s Country at a screening at Parliament House. It was very well received.

So why had he made this new film with Gulpilil? ‘The exercise was to make a film that helps him find his way but that also gives him a chance to get on with what he wants to do. And a film that would really celebrate, probably for the first time, his extraordinary talent because it’s not yet been seen to best effect, not even in The Tracker.’

Gulpilil did not to wish to accompany de Heer to the Cannes film festival for the screening of Charlie’s Country in official selection in May. Where is the actor now? Back in his traditional lands and so far away from the red carpet that it took five days for de Heer to reach him by phone to tell him he’d won Best Actor in Un Certain Regard.

Charlie’s Country is the fourth film of de Heer’s to screen in the official selection at Cannes. The Quiet Room (1996) and Dance Me to My Song (1998) were screened in competition, while Ten Canoes won the special jury prize in Un Certain Regard in 2006.

The internationally-recognised Indigenous actor has long been held in great affection with the Australian public. He first appeared in a haunting role in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout at the dawn of the revival of the local film industry, has received many accolades particularly in recent times, and was the subject of a prize winning portrait. Yet Gulpilil has long had trouble with substance abuse and alcohol, to which he had been introduced by certain hell-raiser actors from day one. De Heer has for some years been concerned for his friend, and written articles about how he perceives his predicament, caught between cultures and comfortable in neither.

Gulpilil was instrumental in persuading de Heer to at least consider making a film in his homelands, it was not possible to follow through. ‘David had left his community of Ramingining in 2004, because of a tribal dispute I was never quite allowed to know the details of. From that time on, David lived largely in the long grass in Darwin’. They saw less and less of each other. From time to time there was news of his friend: ‘None of it sounded very good’.

For Charlie’s Country, de Heer determined that Gulpilil had to be front and centre, and dominate the screen. He would anyway: ‘It was something I was sort of aware from the beginning: just put the camera on David, and it works’. The strength of Gulpilil’s presence was the starting point, ‘a long, unwavering close-up’ of the actor, taking in the dignity and grace of his bearing and close-ups of the face that conveys so much, wordlessly. Even after the prison barber has had his way with Gulpilil, shaving off his wild greying locks and beard, transforming him into a prison inmate, the well-loved face radiates presence.

When de Heer first met Gulpilil he recalls that his reaction was ‘F**k, I have to direct this bloke!’ He didn’t know quite what to say to him, and felt there was nothing he could say. But that was 14 years ago, when Gulpilil was cast to appear in The Tracker.

So, does the fact that you continue to work together mean that you get on very well? Something I have discovered over the years while researching my book on de Heer’s work is that he remains unpredictable: ‘No, we don’t get on very well,’ he returns. ‘It’s hard work being with David. I love him, he loves me, but it’s hard work being with him. It’s the cultural gulf, it’s David’s mercurial character…’ Of course there are things they share. ‘No doubt about that’.

Prior to the shoot for The Tracker, the two went bush together in Gulpilil’s homelands, and spent a few days camping out, hunting, fishing and talking. In very different circumstances, they went bush again before Charlie’s Country, visits that proved ‘powerfully restorative’ for Gulpilil.

Charlie’s Country was shot by Ian Jones, the cinematographer who worked with de Heer on both The Tracker and Ten Canoes, and the rest of the crew is largely the regular group of compatible co-creatives. Peter Djiggir, who co-directed Ten Canoes, co-produces and performs again and some members of the Ramingining community are also represented.

The cast has a teasing hint of familiarity about it, with many actors returning from past de Heer films, even in bit parts. There is an appearance by Gary Sweet the infamous ‘fanatic’ character in The Tracker, selling alcohol—over the counter, one should quickly add, Damon Gameau who was the ‘follower’ in the same film is seen side-on as a hospital nurse. Jamie Gulpilil who was the lead in Ten Canoes appears briefly as a trainee constable. Like many auteurs, de Heer has built a singular cinema that maps a country all its own.

It is a guessing game wondering with de Heer. What will he do next? Ten Canoes was preceded by a drama about marriage breakdown, followed by a black and white silent comedy, which was followed by a surprising comedic foray into feuding neighbours. Is there something down the track for de Heer and Gulpilil? ‘In the phone calls we have, once every two days or so, he still talks about other projects. He’s got a number of them.’ Time will tell, and all bets are off.

Interview With Writer/Director Nils Tavernier

Credits include The Finishers

Just how well fathers and sons relate to each other tends to get quite a run at the movies. It’s there in the backstory of a comic superhero movie, or it’s in the foreground of a family drama as father and adult son work it out – as they finally do in Silver Linings Playbook. Other dramas with a lower profile than this audience favourite have of course featured this important relationship. Life as a House, for example, in which Kevin Kline plays a recalcitrant, ailing father opposite teen rebel Hayden Christensen, and Beginners in which Ewan McGregor has to sort out his filial feelings before he is ready to move on.

French director Nils Tavernier (son of veteran director Bertrand Tavernier) has made a new contribution to the conversation with The Finishers. It is the sweet and sentimental story of a boy with disability who wants to reverse the growing alienation between himself and the father who began to inch away when he realised his son was never going to walk.

Fabien Héraud, who was cast in the role of high-schooler Julien, suffers a form of cerebral palsy himself. On the big screen over the years, we’ve seen actors playing characters with this condition, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in his celebrated turn as a writer-artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Occasionally, directors such as Tavernier jnr and Australian director Rolf de Heer, have directed actors suffering the condition themselves.

Tavernier coached Héraud for four months to prepare for the role, his first appearance in a film. ‘He tired very fast. It is part of his pathology. So he needed to rest twice a day.’ But it wasn’t that difficult to manage if you compared it to actors who may need costume changes and their make-up fixed.

The Finishers opened the French Film Festival in Canberra last month. Unabashedly feel-good fare, it tells of a 17-year-old who convinces his father to do the Ironman triathlon with him. And not simply enter, but cross the finishing line before being timed out. The French title, De Toutes Nos Forces, which roughly translates to ‘with all our might’, conveys the effort that would be necessary for a 3.86 km swim, a180.25 km bicycle ride and a marathon 42.2 km run, without a break.

Julien’s family home is located near the French Alps, about eight hours’ drive from the Ironman championship locations. ‘I didn’t want to shoot loneliness in the kitchen,’ says Tavernier. ‘I wanted to have it in a huge, big area which also gives a sense of the distance between the characters.’

Tavernier’s filmography is largely documentary and this is his first fiction feature. In preparation for this shoot, Tavernier spent two years as an observer of children being treated for neurological problems in the Necker Hospital, Paris. He was moved by the young patients but also moved by their parents. In his film, the father Paul carries a lot of baggage, Tavernier observed in our face-to-face interview late last year. ‘He just can’t deal with it.’

The filmmaker says he was acutely aware of the impact on parents, including high levels of guilt, of a child with disability. ‘I was listening and observing families with problems like these over a long period of time. I saw a lot of fathers who just wanted to run away.’ On the other hand, there were fathers who wanted to shoulder so much of the responsibility for their children, like the mother in his film, that their over-protectiveness made their child feel acutely trapped, without any freedoms or agency. However, he says, ‘I also saw fathers who became a real hero for their child, for whom the difficult parental experience bought out the best in them.’

The protagonist Julien feels his father’s rejection keenly and watches his parents growing apart until he decides to make his move. ‘It’s not a big deal if we don’t finish,’ offers Julien. ‘Yes it is,’ counters his dad, Paul (played by the versatile Jacques Gamblin), warming to the idea. ‘I want to go to the end with you.’ Tavernier thinks that Julien understands that he needs to get back to basics in his relationship with his father, from where it may be possible to set things right. It is no surprise what happens in the end of The Finishers and there’s not a lot of depth, but for all the predictability, there is the naturalism of the lead performances, Héraud’s engaging presence and the film’s open heart.

Interview with Tahar Rahim

Credits include The Past; Un Prophet

It is hard to forget actor Tahar Rahim in Jacques Audiard’s rivetting prison drama Un Prophet of 2010. As Malik El Djebana, an illiterate minor offender and newcomer to prison, his character is absorbed quickly into the criminal matrix of gang culture behind bars, and then rises to the top. He cuts a fellow prisoner’s throat to stay alive. When due for release back into the community, his transformation into ruthless crime lord is complete.

The quietly spoken Algerian Frenchman actor was just 27 years old with two screen credits to his name at the time he worked with Audiard. The writer-director says that transforming Rahim, ‘the gentlest boy’, into Malik was one of the best things he has done in his career. Some twelve films and five years later, Rahim has now clearly secured the career he aspired to at the age of 14 while growing up in a working class community in Belfort, a small city in north-east France.

Mad for the movies from a young age, Rahim liked to go to the cinema to escape, and who doesn’t? He also used to source it for the clues it offered about the mysteries of adult life. ‘Movies can teach you how to talk, how to talk to a woman, how to be aware, and yeah, how to be.’

Sitting across from me in an interview in Paris last November, Rahim speaks English well and we don’t need a translator. He is handsome, polite, personable and ready with his smile and it is easy to imagine him fitting in anywhere. As the late Roger Ebert observed, the actor played El Djebena as an enigma, a character whose coming of age in prison taught him you did anything to save yourself and you revealed nothing. Since Un Prophet, Rahim has managed to avoid being typecast in similar roles and to explore a certain chameleon quality that allows directors to test his versatility on screen.

In Asghar Farhadi’s new film, The Past, Rahim plays another maghrebi (North African), Samir, a man entangled in a complex web of intimacy because he is not sure of his own heart. There is the beautiful Frenchwoman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist), a mother of two a little older than him, with whom he lives, and there is his French wife confined to hospital. His partner’s estranged husband arrives from Iran to finalise the divorce, but this complicates matters further rather than provides closure. What’s past is not yet past.

I ask how Farhadi works. ‘Rehearsal was not like where you came and played your scene, it was more familial and kind, a supportive exercise with music […] for which we did improvisation of the characters’ past, how they met, their wedding and they way they behaved […] Then when it came to the shoot, Farhadi became very precise.’

It was the first time Rahim had worked with Farhadi, and the first time the writer-director had worked in France. Is this a story that could have unfolded in any community or did it have to be an immigrant community? ‘It’s not an Iranian story, it’s a French story but it’s a Farhadian movie.’ By which Rahim means it’s universal, ‘about relations between people, it’s about love, death, children, birth…Everything is there.’

There is something Rahim particularly likes about Farhadi’s films: ‘I always like how in his movies, because he is doing something interactive with the audience, he is always interrogating the audience’s ability to judge people.’ He’ll show the audience how they can be wrong about people, how perceptions can be way wide of the mark. ‘You thought this guy was an arsehole? You gotta understand life is not like that,’ Rahim is now pretty animated. ‘In a way, he gives a lesson to people. I love that!’

In The Past, Rahim’s Samir owns a laundry. His French wife lies in a hospital bed, in a coma as a result of an attempt to commit suicide (in front of their son) over his affair.
What was his approach to this character? He shakes his head. ‘ I can’t give you three or four words to describe him… It’s not a question of English. This guy’s in construction, or deconstruction… What can I say? He’s just in the middle. Between two choices, two wives, two kids, two temporalities. He’s just trying to go the distance with all this weight on his shoulders.’

In true Farhadian fashion, Samir’s emotions are complex. ‘I think he’s still in love with her (the unconscious wife), that he fell in love with Marie by default…’ We then agree that Marie still seems to love the husband who has returned from Iran to divorce her, and he with her.

The Past is a marvel of subtle and engrossing detail like Farhadi’s gloriously complex drama, A Separation, which in 2011 became the first Iranian film to win an Oscar.

Rahim has recently played in romance opposite Lea Seydoux, had a part in Kevin Macdonald’s film about Roman Britain, The Eagle, and he is slated to work this year with Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen, Head On), a young Turkish-German filmmaker of distinction. For this ‘boy from the countryside’, it couldn’t have gone better to plan.

Interview with director Benoît Jacquot

Credits include Farewell, My Queen and Three Hearts

French director Benoît Jacquot makes no secret of his interest in women, in a good way. At the French Film Festival recently he was asked whether he agreed with an article in the New York Times last year that described him as a director ‘who loves women’.

He hardly paused to think. ‘Why not?’ he replied, cheekily. ‘It’s all true…My passion for actresses is indicative of my passion for women.’ The audience at the Q&A after his film Farewell, My Queen laughed along with him.

Jacquot is in Australia as a guest of the Alliance Francaise festival to present his most recent film, set when the French Revolution was gathering pace. It picks up exactly at the moment where Sofia Coppola’s film about the doomed queen finishes, and covers four days in July when the Bastille was stormed and it was announced that 286 heads had to roll before necessary reform was possible.

In my interview beforehand, I asked him about how the idea for the film began. Two things in particular appealed to him when he read the award-winning Chantal Thomas novel on which his film is based. A unique perspective and the compression of time. Coppola’s film takes place over 15 years. Farewell, My Queen takes place over four days and three nights in July 1789, moments before ‘everything was turned upside down’ and changed the course of history.

This unique perspective belongs to Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader, her lectrice in the last days of the ancien regime. ‘ What interested me was the point of view of someone who was very close to the events but who at the same time could not entirely comprehend them.’

Played by Lea Seydoux, the ingénue Sidonie is a radical change from the novel, in which she is around 50 years of age and reflecting on her past life. It was very important for Jacquot that Sidonie was on the verge of adulthood. An empty vessel, I ask?

He likes the expression. ‘An empty what? Vessel? That’s nice. She is an empty vessel because she is very, very young and has not yet left her childhood behind. She is very impressed by the Queen and at the same time it renders her incapable of understanding the adult nightmare that she is living through.’

Sidonie, however, never existed. Queen Marie Antoinette had readers, but there is no record of Laborde.’ She is the only fictional character in the film,’ says Jacquot. ‘She exists only in the film. We could say she comes to life as she wakes in the first scene and dies at the end.’

She is a commoner, a girl of accomplishments who also knows how to embroider and cook, but this is all we have to go on. Her character is a device through which the lives of famous others can be explored. Like James McAvoy’s naive young doctor to the notorious African dictator in The Last King of Scotland, she is a device to access and observe a private world.

In Farewell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette (played by German actress Diane Kruger) is infatuated with the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, the lead in Jacquot’s A Single Girl of 1995). Is the relationship between the two women historically correct? ‘Marie Antoinette is known to have had two ‘favourites’. One of these was the Princess of Lamballe, who was executed by the revolutionaries early and her head presented to the queen. The second favourite, the Duchess de Polignac, managed to flee in disguise.’

The relationship between the women in the film is based on the expressions of mutual affection in their correspondence—and also on newspapers (or gutter press?) of the time. And anyway ‘her life was such a bore, that I hope she had some sort of distraction!’

The shoot took two months. Jacquot prefers to work quickly, and besides it was expensive booking time at one of the world’s great tourist attractions. ‘We had to adhere to the authenticity of the decor of Versailles to shoot within the palace. Once the decision has been made and the green light given, we could only film when it was closed to the public, which is to say, on Mondays and in the evenings.’

No, he doesn’t see his film as being in competition with or being offered as a comparison to the creative blend of pop culture and history that was Coppola’s in 2006.. ‘ And then, what interests Sofia (who he knows) is the fashionista queen. It’s charming, very entertaining and ‘tres snob’, but what interests me is her schizophrenia at that point. Marie Antoinette was both the princess of the music hall and the queen of tragedy. She had a foot in both camps.’

Jacquot’s point of departure for his film’s aesthetic was reportage, as though documenting developments in a momentous historical, political event. The grand palace, as it is gradually emptied of life, gradually becomes a cavernous haunted metaphor for the political nightmare taking place within it.

His approach to period drama is to be as accurate, precise and the least anachronistic possible, and ‘once this exactitude is in place…it becomes the reverie of a cineaste of the 21st century’. Once satisfied he has the details right, he has not felt overwhelmed by further demands for authenticity, and as a result his study of the queen and her dying breed is somehow allowed to breathe, despite the weight of the wigs and the elaborate fashions.

Sixty-six year old Jacquot knew he wanted to work in cinema from an early age and was once an assistant to some of the greats like Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. In his career, Jacquot has not confined himself to fiction features. He has also directed documentaries, opera and theatre. Indeed, he is slated to direct a production of La Traviata at the Bastille in the near future.

As his body of work contains a number of literary adaptations, what are his views on turning novels into film? When most of the audience won’t be familiar with the book anyway, fidelity or lack of fidelity to the original text is, he says, of more concern to the filmmakers. It presents no problem at all for this urbane and mischievous Frenchman. ‘For me personally,’ he confided, knowing it will raise a laugh, ‘I really like being unfaithful!’ There you have it.

Interview With Director Jean-Marc Vallée

Credits include Café de Flore; Wild; and Dallas Buyers Club

Music has much to say in the work of Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. His music choices are front and centre and sometimes even take over to advance his narratives, like the way it does in his latest film Café de Flore with the unmistakable first bars of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at the start. Tracks from that extraordinary pop classic re-emerge throughout the mix.

Besides laying down soundtracks for his movies, Valle enjoys creating playlists—which he believes is a boy thing—and manning the turntable at parties. ‘I’m a frustrated DJ,’ he jokes through some disconcerting reverberation down the line from Montreal. ‘I make playlists for friends—and for every single woman that I’ve loved in my life’.

To add to the fluidity of the narrative in Café de Flore—itself the name of a music track— screenwriter Vallée tells two love stories than run in parallel, located on different continents and set 42 years apart. In Montreal in 2011, a woman and mother of young daughters is struggling after her husband of more than 20 years has left her for another woman, the beauteous Rose (Evelyne Brochu). In Paris meanwhile it is 1969, and a hairdresser is battling to bring up her Downs Syndrome-affected son on her own. Against the odds, Jacqueline (French singer-songwriter Vanessa Paradis) has created a formidable learning program for her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) to disprove the prognosis for her disabled son, and she pursues it with a fierce and intense devotion. The loving relationship these two portray on screen is really utterly astonishing.

The character Antoine the DJ, played by Kevin Parent, a singer-songwriter well-know to Canadian audiences, appears to take the lead at the start, but Vallée agrees that the film can be read as though it is the product of the imagination of Antoine’s former wife Carole (Helene Florent). It can be seen as ‘more the story of Carole who tries to understand why she cannot let go. And she’s going to invent herself a past life in order to accept and move on, move forward and be at peace with herself’. From the point when she realises ‘that’s she’s finally got it’.

Although the linear shape of the narrative becomes apparent in the end, it is not before Valle has made a virtue of foregrounding his characters’ subjective memory and states of feeling. He wanted ‘to make a beautiful love story with some sort of element of the supernatural’ and ‘to put some magic in it, make it bigger than life…almost like a fable’.

Other music that has found its way onto Vallée’s eclectic soundtrack includes work by The Cure, by Cole Porter and by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and there is a particularly haunting sequence by Icelandic postpunk band Sigur Ros—’Svefn-G-Englar’, which may or may not mean ‘sleepwalkers’! Even if, as Vallée suggests, the name of the track has no meaning, not even in Icelandic, the repetitive refrain that sounds like ‘It’s YOU-OU-OU-OU’ has meaning enough. And then there is the heartbeat, the strong chords, the lunatic laugh and the astonishing vocalisations from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ accorded a special place, as it is in Vallée’s exuberant coming-of-age hit C.R.A.Z.Y. of some eight years ago.

When did the Pink Floyd album first speak to Vallée? He first heard the track ‘Money’ as a single on, vinyl, the old 45. For a 9 or 10-year-old it was ‘cool’, with its tinkling cash and ringing register. However, he continues ‘when I was older I listened to the album and discovered they were very avant-gardiste, very skilful for the period and very daring. Special, very moody. Bizarre and cool. … and what was your question about that?’

Since C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée has directed The Young Victoria (2009), a humanising portrait of the icon of 19th century Britain that is a touching love story, politely eroticised, between the young queen (Emily Blunt) and her consort (Rupert Friend). Nothing inappropriately trippy here. The biopic of the monarch is more conventional, but an entirely charming new take on the woman before her name became synonymous with a particularly straight-backed brand of moral rectitude.

With Café de Flore taking the hazy form of a waking dream, Vallée was clearly determined to confound audience expectations. The concept of ‘lucidity’ is given a burl, only to be used to demonstrate that it comes to nought in matters of the heart. The recurring images of people with Down’s Syndrome suggests another strand for interpretation, including the angelic youngsters in Sigur Ros’ ‘Svefn-G-Englar’ However, the immersive experience continues to elude explanation until a connection between the twin narratives is finally made with shocking impact. Near the ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ finale.

Vallée leaves us with some advice. ‘This film is like a puzzle, a big puzzle. You want to play the game of trying to solve the puzzle? Sit down, watch this, take it easy, you’ll have answers. You’ll be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together at the end. Maybe you’ll need another screening—and why not?’

Interview With Writer/Director Olivier Assayas

Credits include Hours; Irma Vep; and [segment in] Paris, Je t’aime

Set in the rambling provincial home of a middle class French family, the latest film from Olivier Assayas could be a surprise for those who remember the director’s Irma Vep (1996), the film for which he is probably best known. Starring Maggie Cheung, the Hong Kong actress who was for a while his wife, it was a playful comedy about a middle-aged film director struggling to make a remake of a silent vampire film. The subtext was the state of the French film industry.

On the other hand, perhaps you noticed Assayas’ name among the 18 director credits for the recent Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films about that city’s many moods and personalities. Maggie Gyllenhaal had the lead role as a junkie.

Summer Hours is altogether different, set in a house in the country where little has changed for generations. It is a reflective piece with unobtrusive style, raising issues that many families face today when children grow into young professionals who find jobs abroad, well away from the influences they grew up with. I spoke to the writer/director Assayas about it last week, over the phone from Paris. His responses are carefully considered and his English very good, so nothing gets lost in translation.

His new film opens on a rare family event with everyone together in the one location, for once. Helene’s eldest son, economics professor Frederic (Charles Berling) and his overseas-based siblings Adrienne (a very different looking, blonde Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) have arrived for the occasion of their mother’s 75th birthday.

There is a leisurely birthday lunch in the garden and over the roast lamb the conversation turns to career. Frederic, who has remained in France, has inherited the issues that challenge his homeland, while his brother and sister have escaped them abroad. Binoche’s Adrienne, a designer based in New York, is the most combatative personality, having disagreements with her mother and younger brother in particular.

As Assayas is both writer and director of Summer Hours, I ask him about the contribution his actors made in light of his comment that the film he wrote and the film he’d made were different. Was he referring to the contributions from his actors?

‘I always have this notion that when I choose an actor he will know more than I do about the character. I’m always pushing my actors to contribute to the character, to add things and even to contradict whatever I’ve been writing.’

With a film about family, everyone will bring the unique experience of their own family experiences and much of themselves to their role. ‘In the case of Juliette Binoche, she’d had a much more conflicted relationship with her family than I had written…In the end, she was more angry, more like an aging teenager’. And in the end he understood it was her way of finding her path into the story.

The youngest sibling, Jeremie, ‘a materialist and pragmatic businessman’, lives with his wife and family in Shanghai. I asked Assayas about his own strong connection with Asia, and in particular China. ‘A long story,’ he said, that began when he was writing for publications such as the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1980s. ‘It was pretty early, (and) before it became trendy to be interested in Chinese cinema’. His book on Hong Kong cinema in collaboration with Charles Tesson was published in 1984.

‘At that time I was one of the first Western (film) journalists to travel to Taiwan, and that’s where I met a group of filmmakers who were just beginning to make movies, and would become known as the new Taiwanese cinema.’ The group included Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But not Ang Lee? No, the internationally famous director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet), who is also from Taiwan, was already in the United States. Assayas maintained a connection with this cohort in Taiwan and helped them get recognition abroad.

Assayas has said Summer Hours is his ‘most Taiwanese film’ with its themes of our connection with nature, the passing of time and the challenge of modernity to traditional values, themes that for him inform Taiwanese cinema and Chinese art in general. ‘It has all inspired me,’ he says.

‘It is also something which has influenced French Impressionist painting, with the discovery of Asian art by artists of that time.’

The long-deceased great uncle to the adult children in Summer Hours is a fictitious artist called ‘Paul Berthier’. Was the character based on painter Claude Monet? ‘I would say that ‘Paul Berthier’ is closer to Pierre Bonnard’. Assayas has a passion for the post-Impressionist Bonnard.

Are Helene and her children and grandchildren a typical French middle class family? ‘I think they are representative of something to do with European society. Meaning societies that still have a strong connection with the past, with their traditional culture and with their roots. Many people have not so much a country house (as we see in the film) but a family house where they gather.’

Shortly after the birthday reunion, Helene suddenly dies, and her adult children must return to decide how the house and its contents, including 19th century glass vases and early art nouveau furniture, will be divided among them. Will they keep the house in the family or will they sell it? It could even be sold to a buyer overseas. Who besides Frederic’s family, the only ones still in France, would make use of it if it wasn’t sold?

Assayas’ own response to the dilemma seems split between regret for the loss of cultural roots and a willingness to embrace the new. France, he says, has been trying to escape the issues of globalisation, while obviously being absorbed by it. ‘You can’t escape the way the world is, you have to face it!’

As we become more aware of other cultures, ‘we have a broader notion of what the world is about, a broader knowledge of the present, and we feel the past is less and less important. So a nice family house, which they would have been fighting over a couple of generations ago, now it’s just a burden.’ A holiday home in Bali would be more to the point.

Interview with Yung Chang

The Yangtze, that great waterway of China, starts in the Tibetan plateau and winds its way across over 6,000 kilometres to the sea at Shanghai. ‘No matter what part of the country you are from in China,’ says filmmaker Yung Chang, ‘you have a deep connection to it.’

‘The thing about the Yangtze is that it is the lifeline of China. It is known as Chang Jiang, the ‘long river’ and you can even just call it The River, in fact.’

As a Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang’s connection with the Yangtze was remote but his maternal grandfather used to tell him stories about it. His grandfather had escaped from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 during the civil war and had plenty to tell his young grandson about the country of their ancestors. Yung Chang first went to China in 1997, and then he and his grandfather took a trip along the Yangtze together in 2002.

Yung Chang later returned on his own to make a documentary about the river, using his grandfather’s stories as a reference. In post-production one of his grandfather’s songs, recorded only a few years ago, was laid on the soundtrack.

The result of Yung Chang’s personal journey into the land of his forefathers is a highly-regarded, prize winning documentary that has won best doco awards at festivals in the US and Canada and a highly-prized nomination for the Joris Ivens prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. It recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival and I spoke to Yung Chang over the phone soon afterwards.

He told me that Up the Yangtze was filmed in Chongqing municipality, home to a mere 30 million people. It is actually that part of the river that lives in the collective Chinese cultural memory as the place where fierce battles were fought before the Three Kingdoms were established. Today, this part of heartland China is where the controversial Three Gorges Dam project is flooding the cities, towns and countryside where people have lived and worked for millennia.

‘Around two million people have lost their livelihood to the dam,’ says Yung Chang.

‘I think it was reported statistically that in 2004 – and the number is increasing yearly – there were 70,000 reported incidents of civil unrest. I think the Three Gorges basin really is very contentious. The major question being how do you put a monetary value on your ancestral home, on your ancestral farmland, or the land where your ancestral tombs stand? It’s a central question. It’s a difficult question and it has met with quite a bit of controversy.’

The film sets out on a ‘farewell tour’, aboard a one of the cruise ships that punt up and down through the areas where the towns, villages and farmlands along the banks of the Yangtze will be claimed by slowly rising waters. Shots of the already empty ‘ghost city’ of Fengdu are eerie and unsettling.

The film moves at a languid pace. ‘River travel is so different from riding in a car. And I especially wanted to reflect the eyes and minds of the subjects I followed, their day-to-day rhythms.’

To bring this extraordinary piece of population relocation and social engineering down to a personal level, Yung Chang chose as his subjects a young girl Shui Yu and a young man Bo Yu Chen, of very different backgrounds and dispositions, who work in hospitality jobs on board Farewell Cruises. The girl is so painfully shy that she doesn’t seem like a particularly good subject for the film, but her story is so compelling it eventually takes over.

‘Despite being a very shy and introverted personality she seemed to have something very complex within, and then beyond that there was the fact that her family was living on the banks of the river.’

I suggest that Cindy (Shui Yu’s English name) struck me as a typical teenager – grumpy, resentful of her well-meaning parents, both illiterate, and the life in a makeshift hut on the riverbank that she wanted to escape. ‘Yes, I think it’s sort of universal. What resonates with me in particular is the scene where the parents go to visit the girl on the boat, and the sort of awkwardness and embarrassment at having your parents around.’

Bo Yu Chen (English name of Jerry) is an altogether different story, boasting about how he’d received a $30 tip ‘for nothing’ and how he was only attentive to the middle-aged men and women who he expected would tip him well – the elderly and infirm left to their own devices.

How did Yung Chang get him to reveal himself like that? ‘It was very funny. In fact I did nothing. When I first met him he struck me as someone who was raised in the West. He was very brash and no matter how hard I tried to make him not interact with the camera, he loved to look into the lens, talk to us the filmmakers. He would never listen to me. Eventually we let Jerry be interactive, and it works. It defines him in the film.’

Canadian author and journalist Jan Wong has mentioned to Yung Chang that she thinks the future of China may be in the hands of boys like Jerry. ‘Part of this post-Mao (Zedong) generation of children who are growing up in the world of MTV, who perhaps will be responsible for carrying democratic reform forward in China. Partly based on their individualism, on their ‘little emperor syndrome’ as a result of the one-child policy and growing affluence. It’s quite an interesting theory.’

‘I don’t know quite what is going to happen to Jerry, but I have a feeling he will figure it out.’

In the end Yung Chang thinks his film is about perspectives. ‘About how one culture sees another culture and vice versa and that’s what interested me in making it. The culture of tourism.’

Interview With Producer Patricia Lovell

Credits include Picnic at Hanging Rock; and Gallipoli

There are nine Australian films ranked among the all-time top 100 posted on the ABC’s My Favourite Film site. At the top of this list sits the Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by Amelie and Blade Runner. Among the Australian films scattered throughout are Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, both films in which veteran Australian producer Patricia Lovell had a key role.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was a landmark film of the local industry revival in the 1970s but were it not for Lovell’s tenacity, her success in raising the finance and then dealing with distributors, it might never have happened. Miranda’s lingering backward glance as she disappeared forever into the folds of the rock may never have been seen.

Patricia Lovell is to give the Longford Lyell lecture at the National Film and Sound Archive on Tuesday 23 October. It will explore how she became a film producer, with Picnic at Hanging Rock, following on early in the 1980s with Gallipoli and Monkey Grip.

How would Pat Lovell describe herself these days? ‘A producer-in-waiting,’ she said in a phone interview from her home in Sydney, ‘with another project I want to get off the ground.’ She won’t, however, divulge any details.

When Australian audiences were turning out to see ocker comedies like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in the early 1970s, it looked like Australians really had an appetite for local films, and she bought the rights to Picnic at Hanging Rock while working in television. The Joan Lindsay novel (on which Picnic is based) clicked with her instantly. ‘I bought it off a newsagent’s shelf, read it overnight, and thought it was fantastic.’

She had just seen Peter Weir’s (short movie) Homesdale and thought that there was a fit with themes in Picnic of Europeans trying to survive in the Australian bush: ‘Oh my gosh, this would probably be up his street.’ When a busy Weir eventually got back to her it was with a ‘I’ve got to do it and when do we start?’ She had her director.

But she recalls that finding the finance was no easy matter. ‘The bureaucracy informed me I wouldn’t be able to produce, I was “a television person”,’ recalls Lovell, but she managed to find funding to stitch the project together.

She and Peter Weir became location scouts. ‘I remember us driving on the way to Hanging Rock, and talking about how we might save money making the film in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney.’ But when they drove down into the valley and saw the rock formation, and experienced a feeling of intense ‘unease’ in its ambience, they knew they couldn’t film anywhere else.

We know in retrospect that Peter Weir (The Truman Show; Master and Commander; Witness) would prove himself an extraordinary director, but what was it about him that made Lovell so sure then? “I thought his short films were so different to what anyone else was doing,’ she says, simply.

It so happens, I discover, that Gallipoli is a personal favourite of Lovell’s too. Whose idea was it? ‘It was Peter’s. We’ve always had a bit of a giggle, because I took Picnic to him and he brought Gallipoli to me.’ She was more fortunate with funding this time, as Rupert Murdoch and entrepreneur Robert Stigwood were backing.

“In the first script of David Williamson’s…there were landings on the beach and there was this and there was that.’.[Big money! I interject!] ‘Yes, and I talked to both of them and said “wouldn’t it be better if it were a more personal film?”‘

‘Working together, they (Williamson and Weir) came up with those two great characters, those two great boys – Frank and Archy, characters played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee – as it were, overnight.’

When she took the film to the UK it got excellent reviews. ‘And the wonderful thing was the late, great Alexander Walker, film critic for the London Evening Standard, one of the toughest critics of all time…gave it a marvellous review.’

Initially he’d had breakfast with her and said ‘look, this is what’s wrong with it’. Understandably, she was expecting the worst, but a surprise arrived in the post, ‘Suddenly this review came, cut out of the newspaper, with Happy Christmas written across it in red biro. It was a brilliant review.’

Today, Pat Lovell keeps up with the latest in Australian film. She was delighted to see that among the co-producers of Lucky Miles, were two former students of hers at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Jo and Lesley Dyer. ‘I was thrilled when I saw it and thought oh, they did learn a lot!’

Once she had been helped by patronage herself in the past, through a mentor relationship with Ken G. Hall. She met him when Picnic at Hanging Rock had its grand opening night at the State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney.

Hall, who had prolific output during the 1930s including films like On Our Selection and Dad and Dave Come to Town, was Australia’s most commercially successful film director before the revival of the 1970s.

‘I was standing in a corner and this voice said “congratulations girl, I know what you did”. I looked up and here was this man, 6’3″ tall, and I thought “oh, my lord, it’s K.G., K.G. Hall”.’

He became a sort of mentor, and even though he ‘frightened the hell out of a lot of people’, Lovell just adored him. ‘K. G. gave me the courage after Picnic to continue. I think if he hadn’t done that, I may have just …given it away.’

Interview with Tom Zubrycki on Temple of Dreams

Temple of Dreams is Tom’s documentary on Muslim youth

Attempts to close down a youth centre in Sydney’s south-west is not the kind of news that attracts headlines, but the threatened closure was quietly noted in the Sydney and national press over recent months. Efforts by a group of young Muslims to keep the centre open is, on the other hand, the subject of a new film by widely-respected documentary maker Tom Zubrycki.

This is a filmmaker with the nose of a journalist, who has had a way over the years of locating himself inside a significant story as it unfolds, be it an Afghani in love with a local during controversy over refugees in the community (Molly and Mobarak), the final year of the campaign to secure independence for East Timor (The Diplomat) or a strike in a Wollongong coalmine (Kemira: Diary of a Strike).

The building in question is an old masonic temple that stands tall in the industrial suburb of Lidcombe. A venerable old building that once heard the rituals of freemasons and now hears the sounds of weight-lifters, boxers and men working out.

A group of young Sydney Muslims obtained a lease for the old temple and converted it into a youth centre that began operating early last year. It has a boxing gym, where real champions train alongside aspirants, and a fitness gym, to encourage young men to train, look after themselves and maintain a disciplined regimen. Auburn Council has however deemed the use of the former masonic hall illegal and threatened it with closure.

Zubrycki had decided that he would make the Lebanese Muslim community the subject of his next film when he came across a community worker called Fadi Rahman in the Sunday papers. He drove to Lidcombe to find him, visited the centre, while community tensions elsewhere came to a head on a Sydney beachfront. ‘A week later the Cronulla riots broke (and) Fadi was all over the media.’ People were looking to Fadi for answers after he’d played a prominent role as a peacebroker.

In an interview with Tom Zubrycki during the Sydney Film Festival where Temple of Dreams premiered, I heard that Zubrycki hadn’t found Fadi particularly open at first, understandably perhaps. They ‘circled around each other a bit’ then. Like another outgoing media performer, Zubrycki’s former subject Jose Ramos-Horta, Fadi found it hard to be personal. The public persona sits more comfortably.

What appealed to Zubrycki about Fadi was that he was really ‘out there.’ ‘Fadi had leadership skills and a strong mandate from a broad spectrum of people.’

Zubrycki even started working out in the fitness centre himself – ‘and every now and then (I) would do a bit of filming’. Moreover he had a ‘calling card’, the film Billal made in 1996, which documented the tragic aftermath of a hit-and-run accident which had left a young Lebanese Muslim seriously injured.

When some young female volunteers whom Fadi had recruited to help him realise his plans appeared at the centre, that clinched it for the filmmaker. ‘They were really such fabulous characters. They accepted me immediately, and once that happened I was away.’

These three attractive young women in the film – Zouhour, Alyah and Amna – all in hijab, university-educated and professional, are a revelation. A trio of warm, assertive personalities who might be any group of young Australian women. Without their voluntary help, it is hard to imagine how the Muslim youth conference Fadi organised could have ever got up.

At one point in the film, tempers fray as the women argue over their tasks, while Fadi sits in silence as they trade angry accusations and counter-accusations across the room until he snaps, ‘Please, we need to work together as a team…a goddam team…Isn’t it enough that the whole world is against us…?’

Temple of Dreams is a generous and heartfelt film that yearns for goodwill between Muslims and the rest of the community, the work of a filmmaker deeply committed to the multicultural ethic.

Temple of Dreams premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and earned an extra screening due to popular demand. The session I attended included a Q&A with the filmmaker and his main cast, among whom Fadi in particular must have felt buoyed by the warmth of the audience response.

There were a few searching questions too, touching on multiculturalism and the thoughts of Muslim youth in general. I think the film invites other questions too: the gym is useful, but what about creating opportunities for trade, literacy, numeracy and IT skills-training for young Muslims? How is the strength and fitness developed at the centre expressed in society generally?

In an encouraging development, the centre which is due to close by the end of July has a reprieve. According to Zubrycki, Auburn Council has undertaken to find property it owns to offer to lease as new premises.

Interview With Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

Young American film director Jeff Nichols is barely out of school. He graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in 2001 and has written and directed six short films and a single feature film.

But he carries an old head on his young shoulders and has captured the attention of film writers and festival juries with his low budget revenge drama set in the American South. The prestigious film monthly Sight & Sound singled his film out from the pack at this year’s Berlinale in February. It was under-whelmed by the CIA saga The Good Shepherd and by The Good German with Blanchett and Cooney, but the magazine was impressed by the taut, clean lines of Nichols’ work and noted he was  ‘a talent to watch’.

Several months afterwards, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories won the Grand Jury Prize for New American Cinema at the Seattle International Film Festival. That was on June 17, a day before Nichols was due to present his film to audiences at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), and you just can’t be in two places at once.

As a guest of the SFF and the Australian Film Commission’s IndiVision, Nichols had been invited to present a masterclass, one of several special sidebars for the professional Australian film industry at the festival.

Other guests of the SFF included Sisse Graum Jorgenson from Denmark, whose company Zentropa has produced the films of Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Brothers), and Dutch director Nanouk Leopold, who had three of her films showing during the festival.

Nichols held a filmmaker dialogue on June 19 with a group of 30 or more indie filmmakers. ‘The masterclass surprised me a little. I expected to be talking to younger filmmakers who had probably not made any feature film. I was surprised to find out that I was talking to some of Australia’s leading indie filmmakers.’ And he shifted the focus to discuss in detail how he made Shotgun Stories.

It was a quick and clean operation, with little or no room for rehearsals and the film was shot in three weeks, over 12-hours days. “It was really the only way to get things done.’

Set in Little Rock, Arkansas where the writer/director grew up, Shotgun Stories is made with a spare and uncluttered technique, striking imagery and telling performances that are the mark of a director in command of his craft.

The sound and fury of this revenge drama is set among the cotton fields and dusty roads of rural Arkansas. A man who has fathered two sets of brothers by two different women dies and a feud erupts between them when the eldest son spits on his father’s coffin at the funeral.

The first three sons, Son, Boy and Kid, left behind to be brought up by a ‘hateful’ and implacable woman, are listless and barely functional and have suffered the most through their father moving on. The younger four brothers have at least been properly named and are making a go of it on the family farm.

What has been the response to the film’s title, while violence has become so everyday? ‘It’s a blessing and a curse,’ Nichols says, acknowledging that the title of his film and the violence it conjures up could turn some viewers off. The description in Variety magazine of ‘a point-blank buckshot blast of inarticulate American rage’ could too. Nichols agrees that it was risky. “But young audiences are up for it.’

Despite the ugly mood the film sets up, it plays out differently. Revenge is, after all, “an inappropriate response’ says Nichols, and this is no film of simple oppositions.

‘There are no bad guys in Shotgun Stories. The only character who perhaps constitutes a “bad guy” is Shampoo, who has a role like a Greek chorus.’  Urging people on, precipitating a confrontation.

Nichols says that literature has been a strong influence on his work. Yes, William Faulkner for one, and he is greatly inspired by contemporary southern American writers like the late Larry Brown and Harry Crews, as well as short story writer Raymond Carver, whose work was most recently adapted for the Australian film Jindabyne. He believes that short stories in particular lend themselves to film.

As for the movies that have influenced him, he says he had been greatly influenced by films like Tender Mercies directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Hud in which Paul Newman played a roguish errant son. ‘Actually, any film with Paul Newman.’  Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade was also an influence.

Nichols is now living in Texas, after his formative years in Arkansas which he describes as a ‘viciously beautiful place, where the people are harsh, blue collar workers’ with a tough take on life.

His female characters didn’t have much to say or do, did they? ‘No, but they inform what characters do,’ he says. During a Q&A after Shotgun Stories screened at the SFF a member of the audience thanked Nichols for making a rare film about the emotional life of men, and for ‘leaving so much unsaid’.

Nichols thinks that perhaps in the future he may get up the nerve to write for women, but time will tell. We may have to wait for the movie after his next, based on Goat, a memoir by Brad Land, an indictment of the fraternity system operating in American universities.

Interview With Actor Frankie J. Holden

Credits include Clubland and Return Home

In a very engaging new Australian film due for release later this month, Frankie J. Holden plays a singer formerly married to an stand-up comedienne with two grown-up sons. The well-known award-winning English actress Brenda Blethyn plays his former wife.

It is by turns coming-of-age drama for one of the boys and personal journey for Blethyn’s Jean, a performer who feels she’s missed out on her big chance and desperately wants to try again. And is directed with a light comedic touch by Cherie Nowlan who did such a good job on Thank God He Met Lizzie.

In interview over the phone with Frank at his home in Pambula on the far coast of NSW, I ask him about the role. Playing a singer would have been a comfortable zone for a television presenter and enduring entertainer, who was a member of the retro-fifties rock’n’roll band Ol’ 55.

Frank played with the band between 1975 and 1977, until he finished up with them after a gig here in Canberra. ‘My last gig with Ol’ 55 was in 1977 was at the Captain Cook Hotel Motel somewhere.’

That Canberra establishment has passed into history but Frankie still plays gigs. ‘Mostly corporate work, a little club work and I work with Wilbur Wilde, who was in Ol’ 55, and some of the other luminaries of that era, you know, Ross Wilson and Joe Camilleri. I might do twenty or thirty gigs a year, but not in the public eye.’

In Clubland, both Jean and John have day jobs, she in a cafeteria and he as a security officer. This actually isn’t the first time that Frank has been a representative of law and order on screen.

Over the years during Frank’s long career in music, film and television, there have been a smattering of police roles in films like Cathy’s Child, Raw Silk, Police Crop: The Winchester Conspiracy, and the Police Rescue and Blue Heelers series in which he has been in uniform. Now he’s in one again. Has he ever felt typecast?

It’s only a gentle dig. After all, there have been many other roles, like the service station owner operator he played in Return Home (1990) that haven’t involved a uniform at all. And he is very fondly remembered by families everywhere as Mr Gribble in Round the Twist.

But he did admit that a mate of his said to him recently that he was getting all the cop roles, now that Leonard Teale has passed away.

We move on to the other films Frank has appeared in, about 30 in all, including a small role in Michael Thornhill’s The F J Holden in 1977. He was a natural for that, however it was his role in Return Home, the film he was nominated for as best actor, which had the most impact. He had the part of a service station owner-operator whose attention to customer service costs him dearly. ‘My character in that, well, you could call him a loser, or a battler, but you give him some respect.’

At a time when audiences have got into the habit of having a laugh up their sleeve at certain characters, there is no ‘taking the mickey’ in Clubland. The film’s cinematographer Mark Wareham has also said he was careful not to parody the characters through the visuals. In that sense, it is no Strictly Ballroom.

Frankie has the same view. ‘I’ve got a lot of respect for the character (of John)… because I know a lot of these guys. Very competent musicians but for one reason or another they end up trapped in the club circuit and can’t get out. But they still make their CDs, and keep improving.’

What does he make of the rock and roller comeback these days? He mentions people from his era who do make a good living doing corporate and club work – Joe Camilleri, Brian Cadd, Renee Geyer and others who keep recycling Australian music of the 1970s and early 1980s.

‘The songs are so strong, and that’s why .. and the performers just get better. There’s this nostalgic boom going on, but if the product wasn’t any good, no one would bother.’

In the Oxford Companion to Australian Film it says that Holden has a ‘reputation for suggesting the pain and complexity of ordinary life.’ What does he think about that? ‘God! Say that again!’ Laughter. ‘I’m happy if that’s my reputation. I have a reputation for a lot of other things.’

I suggest there is a particular kind of Aussie male in movies, typified by Frank himself, Tony Barry, Bill Hunter, Colin Friels perhaps, who is solid, dependable and grounded. Ben Mendelssohn could become this kind of figure as well. Frank agrees, ‘Yes, absolutely.’

Finally, an interview with Frankie J. Holden would be incomplete without a mention of cars. I presume that I’m talking to a Holden man and not a Ford man? ‘Absolutely, I have an HR Premier Station Wagon which I’m tremendously proud of.’ It’s a 1966 model, two-tone in lime green and white.

Interview With Writer/Director Deepa Mehta

Credits include Water; Earth; Fire; and Midnight’s Children

Over the phone her voice came across as authoritative, warm and good-humoured during our interview earlier this month. It was not hard to imagine her holding together a difficult shoot, just like the experience she had during production of her latest film, Water, the last of her controversial trilogy.

Indian film director Deepa Mehta has built an international reputation for bold and beautiful filmmaking with her intimate stories about people in crisis at times of great social upheaval. She is renowned for the way she has brought particular attention to the plight of women in Indian society, and her latest film, now in release, is no exception.

It is set in a holy city in colonial India in 1938, just as Ghandi was rising to prominence, and tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow forced to join an ashram or retreat for women who have lost their husbands. A pauper’s life is one of the three choices that widowed women were faced with at the time. It was either their husband’s funeral pyre, marriage to his younger brother or a life of penitence and renunciation.

I ask Deepa about widowhood, a subject on which there are a number of books in India. ‘Child marriage is not possible now and if it occurs it is against the law, but then it was possible for a female child to be married at 3 and kept in her family until puberty.’ The idea for Water came to her when she was in the holy city of Varanasi ten years ago and saw an elderly woman, a Hindu widow with shaven head, scrambling around on all fours looking for something, and hardly anybody paid any attention to her.

Each of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of films – Fire, Earth, Water – look at the character of Indian society. Fire (1998) is about a lesbian relationship that develops between women in loveless arranged marriages within a family in modern India. It famously caused fundamentalist Hindu groups to riot when screened yet it reputedly enjoys high sales there as a pirated DVD. Earth (1996) is the story of a mixed-faith friendship group and the effect on their lives of the sectarian wars on the subcontinent during Partition. Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy.

I am intrigued by her casting choices for her new film. John Abraham has the part of the young Brahmin who falls in love with a beautiful young widow, Chuyia’s friend in the ashram. He is a handsome Bollywood star whom I last saw as the leader of a bikie gang in the movie Dhoom.

Another woman at the ashram is played by Seema Biswas, who had the role of the ‘bandit queen’, in Shekhar Kapur’s unforgettable 1994 movie about an Indian woman folk hero.

And then there’s editor Colin Monie (The Magdalene Sisters) who was chosen to edit because Deepa felt his work had the right balance of sensitivity and passion. ‘I didn’t’ want the woman to be seen as victims, and didn’t want the shots to be held too long’.

Water was filmed in Sri Lanka, after rioting Hindi fundamentalists made production impossible in India. In fact ‘it was wonderful filming in Sri Lanka. (There) they are just as enamoured with film as we Indians are, but they don’t hang around and make life miserable for anybody, especially when you strike to synch sound, it becomes slightly difficult in India. It’s the reason most Bollywood films are dubbed.’

It is sometimes said that Indian cinema can be divided between the arthouse stream and the Bollywood musical extravaganzas. Deepa, who directed Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), could perhaps be said to have a foot in both camps. What are her thoughts on Bollywood? ‘I definitely consider it good entertainment and there’s a place for that in our lives.’

Just bread and circuses for the masses? ‘No, it’s harmless. To be judgemental about entertainment is not to take it for what it is. But put it this way,’ she pauses ‘there’s so many you can see before you just say “Oh my God!”‘

Now Kapur’s serious and potent drama Bandit Queen was a film that ran into trouble with the censors in India, but your film Water didn’t, it just … Deepa finishes the sentence ‘ran into trouble before it got made’. A Canadian production, it received its approvals from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but when production began, more rioting Hindu fundamentalists trashed the sets.

Water is very beautifully shot and edited, what was the aesthetic you had in mind when you were making it? ‘I was wanting to capture the flow, the lyricism of water. That was what we were going for. I don’t feel nostalgic about India at all. You have to be away from it to feel nostalgic about it.’

Where is she based? Mehta lives between Canada and India, where she lives three to four months a year.
Fire was officially banned as a public safety risk, and Water couldn’t be made there, but Deepa Mehta will be working in India again. Sometime soon.

Interview With Writer/Director Cate Shortland

Credits include Somersault and Lore

By the time this piece goes to print, there won’t be anybody left who doesn’t know that film director Cate Shortland, in her mid 30s, is originally a Canberra girl. Her film Somersault has screened at the Cannes and Edinburgh festivals this year, and been very well received. For some reason, I suggest, it seems like a long way from Duffy in the ACT, further away than it is for someone from Randwick or Brunswick in our big cities to the international film festival circuit. But what does Cate think?

‘I think we’re really lucky in Canberra because even though when I grew up there was a lot of drugs, there was also an amazing creative, angry youth culture that pushed people to excel in what they were doing. You wanted to know things. You were never complacent.’

‘It wasn’t daggy to have read (Flaubert’s) Madame Bovary or (Dostoyevsky’s) The Idiot and it was, like, if you hadn’t by the time you were 16, there was something wrong.’ And thinking it over a bit more she said, ‘because there was nothing to do (in Canberra), you always had to … find something to do.’

Because her family lived in Weston Creek, she was always on the buses. ‘That’s what I remember of Canberra.’ There’s frequent laughter during our interview, and this point is followed by another peel of laughter. ‘Hanging out at the interchange in minus eight degrees waiting for the last bus home.’

From when she was small, her parents took her to the drive-in and she saw The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure which both left a big impression. She can recall seeing her first art-house movie at Electric Shadows. It might have been an introduction to Luis Bunuel’s surrealism but she thinks it was most likely an Andy Warhol season. ‘All that white trash desolation – it really stayed in my mind’.

We then move on to the main female character in her new film. Sixteen-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) leaves home for Jindabyne when she’s caught making a pass at her mum’s boyfriend. In the mountains she gets a job at the servo and falls in love with Joe (Sam Worthington). Why did Cate choose the name Heidi? Was it anything to do with the Joanna Spyri childhood classic about a flaxen haired girl who lived in the Swiss Alps? ‘It’s funny because when it started it wasn’t set in the mountains, she just happened to be called Heidi after someone I knew.’ It was later, when the location was moved to Jindabyne, that Somersault took on this resonance.

Yes, Cate loved books like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did Next, Little Women and ‘all of that really, really girlie, girlie stuff’. She always wanted the emotion, and a book wasn’t any good unless you had a good cry.

This takes our discussion to melodrama. It might had been synonymous with the ‘woman’s weepie’ but melodrama has such a strong presence when you think about it. What about all those Indian movies from Bollywood to Mira Nair, French films, English (think Mike Leigh), and Spanish (think Almodovar) Then there’s the The Piano.

Cate mentions some of the directors who have influenced her, directors famous for their melodrama such as Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes and Fassbinder, and recalled: ‘I love Fassbinder films like Ali (aka Fear Eats the Soul) The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and also Sirk’s Written on the Wind.’

Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, a classic Australian melodrama, was an early influence, and in fact the rambling rural homestead where Joe’s family live in Somersault is the same house that featured in My Brilliant Career. A film called Jesus’ Son by New Zealand filmmaker Alison Maclean was also a great influence on Cate. Having not seen it myself, I make a mental note to catch up with it.

Somersault is just lovely to look at, with its cold palette and bleached out high country landscapes. Of the photographers Cate mentions as influences on her, like Nan Goldin and Bill Henson, what was it about their work that captured her imagination? ‘It’s probably the sense of drama in their images, a sense of narrative in the landscape – and a sense of foreboding.’

Does Cate think there’s a women’s language in film? Most definitely. ‘I was talking to Jan Chapman (the producer) about it the other day. Like for most of the women that we’re friends with, there’s a longing. Jan said it’s one of the things that’s in all women filmmakers’ work and it’s really true.’

Cate wanted to be a painter, then a photographer before she took up film directing. She’s been quoted saying she is happy to leave the technical issues to her crew, but she says her next project will be very technically demanding. ‘You’re forced into changing and learning the technical side, even if it’s not your forte.’

Closing, there’s more laughter. ‘I can’t even drive a car, so Canberra’s like – ‘bloody hell’. More laughter.

Interview (abridged) With Jeremy Irons

Credits include Lolita; Damage; Reversal of Fortune; The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The voice is thoroughly English, authoritative accents delivered in a languid manner. A deep voice, all port and cigars, in tones that suggest the oak-panelled interior of a gentlemen’s club. Its owner, actor Jeremy Irons, was in Australia recently for the opening of two of his new films. Chinese Box (directed by Wayne Wang) has opened in Sydney […] and Lolita (directed by Adrian Lyne) has been passed for showing in Australia with an R rating by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but the Howard Government is considering banning it.

Irons’ voice and persona signify an iconic Englishness that has informed films from The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Irons’ first starring role in 1981) to Louis Malle’s Damage, from television’s Brideshead Revisited to the recent The Man in the Iron Mask and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. On occasion, it has been his cultured English voice that has distinguished the evil-doer from the rest (a device not uncommon these days) in the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (with Irons the mad bomber) and The Lion King (with Irons voicing the part of the soured and treacherous Scar).

How English is the man behind the voice? The response is swift: ‘I live in Ireland.’ Then, reconsidering: ‘I don’t think I’m typically English, really. I’m not sure who the typical Englishman is now, though I think he lives in Essex, aspires to driving a Porsche and earning lots of money…We still live with the Thatcher legacy in England (sigh)…’
‘I don’t know, I hope I’m broad-minded, a gentleman, that I believe in fairness and justice – all those things that I hope remain English characteristics. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner, never liked being a club-member.’ (Scotch that image of the gentlemen’s club!) ‘I think English people like being club members. They like to know which niche they fit into and I’ve always avoided all of that. My pleasures are somewhat solitary, you know. I’m not a golfer and I like horse-riding, sailing and skiing.’

Travelling is a pleasure too. He has been here a number of times, and likes to visit Sydney. He was here early in the 1980s to film an Australian version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Liv Ullman, directed by Henri Safran.

Of solid middle-class background, Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948, the son of a chartered accountant. ‘I had no desire to keep playing charming Englishmen. I’d die of boredom if I did that,’ he says. ‘I felt there was more interesting ground to cover.’ Instead, he has found ways of escape from the apparent sobriety of his background, and made a virtue of film roles of some thoroughly unpleasant people, such as the arrogant, self-serving (and sensitive) twin brother in Dead Ringers (directed by David Cronenberg, 1988). With Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) Irons won an Academy Award for his performance as the morally corrupt millionaire who may or may not have tried to kill his wife, and in Damage he played a Tory politician who indulges in a rabid affair with his son’s fiancée. His paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita has just joined the list.

Lolita, completed three years ago, is a second adaptation of the book by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958 while the author was professor of Russian literature at Cornell.

Irons is keen to emphasise that Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged European man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old American girl, with its overlay of satire on American cultural values, is the proper starting point. Not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly satirical film of 1962, based on a screenplay by Nabokov, which the author later disowned. ‘The original is of course the book, don’t forget that! Kubrick’s attempt was the first attempt, ours the second.’

Irons was active with director Adrian Lyne in defence of the project from the start, and threatened to leave England (he later said it was only a throwaway line) when it looked as if Lolita might not gain distribution there. In an interesting set of parallels, Stanley Kubrick before him felt compelled to leave his country of birth when censorship problems dogged his Lolita in the early 1960s. He transferred his centre of operations to Boreham Wood studios in England, where he remained till his death last Sunday, days after completing his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. After publication of his novel, Nabokov moved to Switzerland in 1959 and lived out the rest of his life there.

In the US, Lolita lost out on theatrical distribution and went to Showtime cable. It can be sensed that, throughout the saga, Irons has been asked one too many questions.
How does he feel about the role now? There’s a pause. ‘I’m rather proud of it. I think it’s a very complex role and it turned out to be a very interesting and fascinating movie. A very well-made movie.’ Technically, we’re on safe ground. ‘I’m pleased with it. I’m a little bored with people’s reactions.’ The voice has gone languid again. ‘All those people who haven’t seen it – their reactions. I quite like the reactions of people who have seen it.’

A moral tale? ‘It shows what happens if we do something wrong, as Oedipus does, as Titus Andronicus does, as Macbeth does, as all great stories do, or many great stories. If you step outside the bounds, you will be punished.’

What did he think about the representation of sex scenes in Lolita? ‘I think it’s pretty tactful, and not titillating and fairly strangely unnerving. There’s actually very little of it.’
Did he consider that he had taken a certain risk with this film, subject matter aside at this point, but in relation to its representations, given that Adrian Lyne had made films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, films that had brought the director to prominence because of the very nature of their sexual representations?
‘We talked a lot about that, how he wanted to cover that area of the film. I thought he was basically an honest man and that he’d probably do his best by me, which is what he did. I was a great admirer of Fatal Attraction which I thought was a film that dealt with an area of phobia rather well, and I was also an admirer of Jacob’s Ladder (about a Vietnam veteran and made in 1990).

‘It’s always a risk when you make a film because you’re out of control of it when it starts to cut, but I thought he’d take care of me, which he did.’

[…]

Has Irons any personal project that he would like to bring to life? ‘At the moment I don’t have a story I want to get up and run with. Doesn’t preclude it happening in the future.’
‘At the moment I’m involved in a vast rebuilding project in Ireland which I’ve been doing since last June and that’s what is using my energies at the moment. It’s an old Irish tower house in Cork, a castle, built in about 1410 and ruined in 1600. We’re rebuilding it, to make it a place of refuge again, which is what it was originally.’ It is planned as a youth refuge.

Any particular character Irons still covets now? ‘There are many, many areas I’d like to work in [still]. The problem is I’m known for certain sorts of roles.’ Male obsessives? ‘Male obsessives, and slightly quirky, dark guys, enigmatic guys.’ Pause. ‘I’d like to do something different, you know, kick in with a comedy.’

[…]

Has he ever been directed by a woman? Lengthy pause. ‘I’ve been directed on stage by a woman but not in film. Why?’
Women screenwriters and directors, this could be your chance.

Interview with Samantha Lang

Credits include The Well; The Monkey’s Mask

Photography was film director Samantha Lang’s first career choice. Was it a natural progression to film? From an early age she’d been interested in film but felt she needed life experience first. It wasn’t until after her first degree, a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication (UTS) that she began to think seriously about moving from the individualist craft of photography to collaborative filmmaking.

After a prize-winning short fiction film, Audacious (1995), and her comic short drama Out, Lang’s first feature film was invited to screen in Official Competition this year at Cannes, the only Australian film to do so. The Well, with its strenuous visual language has all the conviction of silent film, the sophisticated visual language of the films of the silent era in the late 1920s. A photographer’s control? Perhaps, but critics have applauded the lead performances of Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto, clearly not dominated by the mise-en-scene. ‘The right balance is something you pray for’.

The lean, clean images in The Well are really arresting too. Author Elizabeth Jolley on whose book The Well is based, has a liking for the use of objects with metaphorical applications. To take things one step further, there is the visually evocative screenplay from Laura Jones and then Lang’s own aesthetic strategy which is ‘always to communicate with an image rather than words. Show, don’t tell’.

Lang’s work looks really well thought out in advance, before the shoot. ‘I’m very controlling in a way. Because I come from a background in photography, I know that an image has the opportunity to communicate so much and you shouldn’t waste that opportunity.’

‘I’ve always been very open in telling the actors how I was going to shoot the scenes. On the day, I’d think how can I get that [improvisation]. In preparing a film I’m very controlled and organised, so when I’m actually shooting I can use what happens in the moment, then the process feels more organic.’

‘Laura Jones writes dialogue very economically, precise and to the point. Pamela and Miranda found a way to be those characters, to speak in the way those characters speak….In editing I cut some of the words out – I don’t know if I should say that – but if I’ve got it in a look, then I’ll cut the words out.’

What other choices was Lang entertaining at the time she decided on the location in the Monaro region of ‘rocky outcrops and treeless plains’ near Cooma, southern NSW? There weren’t any others. Monaro was somewhere she’d visited as a child. She did a location reconnoitre on the basis of the feelings it had evoked. It was just right. The region’s shapes lent themselves to a semiotics of colour, or rather absence of it, to connote aridity and isolation.

Has there been any contact with Elizabeth Jolley? Not until after The Well was finished. When Lang got back from Cannes, Jolley had written with her response to the film. Last week in Perth they met and had dinner together after Samantha gave the Elizabeth Jolley lecture at Curtin University. ‘Jolley was wonderful.’
So, a woman novelist, a female producer (Sandra Levy), screenwriter, female leads, a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker), some of the key creative personnel – what is the sum of these female parts? ‘Yes, it is about a female world, but this (the composition) wasn’t intentional.’

So many recent Australian films focus on women. Why is women’s cultural production so fertile at the moment? ‘I’m not sure how to explain. There seems to be a confidence among women in terms of telling their own stories. And it’s of interest to men.’

The complicity of two women alone, a man is despatched – some comparison could be made with Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade. ‘It’s not a comparison that is drawn that often, but yes they are both about the disturbing side of the female psyche.’ It’s no accident that a marauding male is thrown dead down the well, a location for both horror and desire.

The Well is rather like a fable. Is it a cautionary tale? ‘I was interested in the way that here were two people who connect desperately for love but when they get it, it corrupts them. I liked that idea – We want something, and then we get it and then we’re corrupted by it – and I wanted to play with that and what basically motivates Hester to commit murder and what it is to have this relationship with this girl to the exclusion of all others.’ And later, ‘I love that passion, her intensity.’

Lang went to university in France for a year after high school. On another later occasion she was in Europe, on an arts scholarship. It was during this period that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She moved on from Germany to film school in Prague and was there during the turbulent collapse of the Czech government. She graduated from the Bachelor of Arts course in Directing at the Australian Film, and Television and Radio School in 1995.

Is she taken with German cinema? She likes Fassbinder (though there’s no mention of Fritz Lang) a lot but admits she tends to being Francophile, though she does understand ‘why Hester liked German music and culture.’

Favourite directors? ‘I very much like Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his absurd and perverse depiction of the middle class and his non-romantic portrayal of poverty. He’s probably the major one I always come back to. I also like French filmmaker Robert Bresson who had interesting ideas about cinema.’ An influence on the other side of the world is the work of Japanese director Mizoguchi, compelling and ‘exasperating’.

But why have only classic directors been nominated without mention of ‘the cinema du look’ of Luc Besson and others of the current generation of French filmmakers? ‘I guess it’s that when you’re learning it’s good to get a classical foundation. Then you can go anywhere. If your influences are based on your contemporaries, you don’t get a sense of perspective of where they’re coming from.’

Where would she like to go now? ‘I hope to continue making films, what I truly love doing, hoping to entertain people every two years or so’. Lang is currently making The Monkey’s Mask, based on a book of crime fiction told in verse by Australian writer Dorothy Porter. ‘A kind of contemporary film noir, similar to The Well as it also has strong female characters – and there’s love, lust and betrayal.’ Audience return looks guaranteed.