© Jane Freebury
Text of a talk introducing Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby when it screened in the Banned + Beautiful season at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, in 2017
The first time I saw Bad Boy Bubby was in Indonesia in 1993. It was on laser disk, pirated copy of course. I’m afraid that was the only way there to keep up with new Australian film while overseas.
To say that it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Also, away from Australia I had missed out on a lot of the fun. Missed out on David Stratton’s astonishing 5 stars—something, as he said, to offend just about everyone—and the controversy it generated.
I had really liked de Heer’s Incident at Raven’s Gate, a science fiction genre film set in the outback that was released in 1988, though was subsequently a bit disappointed by a languid Dingo, featuring jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, a few years later.
Bad Boy Bubby was de Heer’s fourth film, and he threw everything at it.
His first film had been in 1984, a sweet children’s film, Tail of a Tiger, about a boy dazzled by an old Tiger Moth airplane.
Each of these films had achieved respectable critical notices, if they had not done so well at the box office, nor marked the filmmaker out with the critics.
Bad Boy Bubby was a huge calculated risk. Either de Heer was going to make his name with this one, or give the game away.
At same time, risk became integral to his praxis. For a film to work had to be ‘out there’. From Bad Boy Bubby on, he built risk into each film he made.
He has since said that as a filmmaker you are doomed to fail unless you go absolutely ‘all out’. It was his will to be ‘extreme’.
To quote the filmmaker: ‘If I was just going to do with ordinary thing then that’s the most risky thing you can do, because just by simple statistical analysis you can work out that only one film in seven even breaks even. And so the chances are that unless you take profound risk, you are going to fail.’
Rolf is very talented, but this is also the view of an artist who is a pragmatist.
When Rolf made Bad Boy Bubby, he had reached his early 40s, and was already ten years in the industry. There is, I think a hint of ‘do or die’ about this film.
The Bubby idea had been brewing for a long time – a ‘no budget’ film, with a two-year shoot.
Bad Boy Bubby took around 10 years to gestate, and de Heer returned to it from time to time to add some new outrageous idea—like that of the wheelchair bandit of Adelaide. De Heer, who grew up in Sydney and studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, moved to South Australia in 1989.
Rolf had in mind to persuade his friend Ritchie Singer to take the lead role, but Singer politely declined when he read the script, so the filmmaker turned to Nicholas Hope, an English-born theatre actor, resident of Adelaide, who had appeared in one other film. Confessor Caressor, a faux documentary about a psychopath who conducts tours of the lair where he disembowels his victims.
Half of the $800,000 plus budget was put up by Fandango, a production house based in Rome that would become of pivotal importance providing finance for de Heer’s films for years to come. The other half was put up by the Film Finance Corporation. It meant the budget was covered, and the shoot completed within a couple of months.
De Heer has noted that he declined a $3 million budget to make the film. He refused it on the grounds that it would not make the film three of four times better and that a low-budget aesthetic worked best with the subject.
It was also his determination to allow himself the freedom that low budget can afford, that he had not enjoyed during his work on French-Australian coproduction Dingo, despite its $5.6 million budget and big international crew.
After Dingo, de Heer was determined to go small, small as could be.
It is a point of honour for Rolf to work within budget.
The majority of his films have been made for under $2.5 million (well under the low budget ceiling), and most came in well under $2 million.
The Quiet Room, released in 1997, was made for under $600,000. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), shot in the jungles of South America, was a striking exception with its budget of $14 million.
In its original conception, Bad Boy Bubby would be made on weekends over a couple of years, shot by anyone free to do it. Hence, the credits for more than 30 cinematographers.
Bad Boy Bubby was to be made on a shoestring, with whoever was available to crew at the time. Cinematographers eventually did include famous names today—Geoff Simpson and Steve Arnold who both contributed scenes.
The logic for Bad Boy Bubby was that the protagonist character was a blank page. For de Heer, it meant a stylistic freedom because everything was new. Everything Bubby encountered was something he witnessed for the first time.
Ian Jones, de Heer’s usual cinematographer since Bad Boy Bubby, shot the opening and closing scenes, so you could argue there was a bit of continuity. Though de Heer recalls that all camera operators were encouraged to do whatever they saw fit.
And, the film does hang together. This has a lot to do with Hope’s performance. He is in almost every single frame. Bad Boy Bubby became a big hit in Norway, second only to Forrest Gump, and Hope an actor in demand there.
From the first scenes of mise-en-abyme of neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation, Hope’s performance and that of Claire Benito, as his mother, still stand as very brave, 24 years later.
And the cockroach scene … It’s real. According to Hope, de Heer showed him how to swallow a cockroach by coating it in chocolate sauce. The filmmaker never refuted this.
It was in Italy that Rolf first had impact internationally. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at the Venice Film Festival.
It is intriguing that more of de Heer’s films have screened in Italy than in any other country, including the Netherlands.
Britain liked it too.
The Economist described BBB as the real triumph of the Venice festival. The esteemed critic at The Guardian, Derek Malcolm, described it as ‘the biggest surprise…astonishingly audacious and original’, while France – Le Soir reported that many considered it a ’revelation’.
Around this point, as a result of the critical acclaim, de Heer allowed himself and his team to believe that they actually ‘had something’.
Although he took out best director and best original screenplay—and the late Suresh Ayyar won best editor and Nicholas Hope won best actor—Bad Boy Bubby missed out on best film to Muriel’s Wedding at the Australian Film Institute awards back home.
Nonetheless, the film was the game changer for de Heer. It began the career-long pattern of refusing to accept the limits imposed by a low budget. Going ‘all out’ every time.
Consider the bold and innovative concepts he has pursued to develop his films:
- An in-country shoot for Ten Canoes. Actors not learning their lines, the main actor going walkabout, crocodiles in the swamp.
- Using child actors too shy to act in The Quiet Room.
- Using new motion control technology in Epsilon.
- Interpellating paintings of atrocities against indigenous people—moments of still contemplation—into the live action of in The Tracker. Using buried history of the frontier wars.
- Bringing Dr Plonk, a black and white silent comedy, into being.
- Assigning the lead role in Dance Me to My Song to a non-actor, a woman with cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair
- Collaborating inside prison while Charlie’s Country was in development.
The challenges that de Heer has taken on as a filmmaker since Bad Boy Bubby would sink the less determined, less skilful, less creative director.
It was with this film that de Heer began the praxis that makes his work distinctive.
It is as though he has forced himself each time to weave a new and different challenge into every new film. De Heer, the filmmaker, has never been one to make life easy for himself: the pattern that began with Bad Boy Bubby is what has defined him throughout his career.
His editor, the late Suresh Ayyar, called it an additional challenge, something ‘extra-textual’, in addition to the creative challenge of the film in development.
The innovative, creative solutions that de Heer has eventually found in his work, the way they work seamlessly within the film text, have become defining features, integral to the films themselves.
And he is living proof for the view that constraint works in the interests of creativity. Tell that to Hollywood.
Despite the controversy it generated, it is my understanding that Bad Boy Bubby was never censored in Australia.
One of the surprises of my research, however, was that the film was cut in Britain. Not for scenes of incest or matricide and patricide, but for the scenes that appeared to show animal cruelty.
Most at issue was the scene of the tabby cat tied to a chair with string, and clearly distressed. Excision of the scene even removed crucial dialogue confirming that there was an ‘outside’ where life could exist.
Animal welfare activists in Italy were also outraged and even campaigned for a ban on Australian products at the time of the film’s release.
When the DVD version of Bad Boy Bubby was released in Britain around ten years ago it was advertised as ‘completely uncut’. In other words, the bit with the cat was back in. Nothing more: a clever bit of marketing.
Over the course of time, Bad Boy Bubby and Rolf de Heer’s other early films revealed traits that have become familiar throughout all his work:
- Lean, unambiguous, direct visual language
- Highly subjective soundtrack (established in Bad Boy Bubby with binaural microphones hidden in Bubby’s wig)
- Narrative resolution that establishes a new order
- Outsider or marginalised individuals in an intense personal or interpersonal struggle
- Often a child or child-like protagonist, with a life lesson to learn
- Quest for mastery over language (including female protagonists in Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project) that leads to giving voice to the voiceless.
- Deep concern for the planet, the environment.
These have marked his work from the beginning.
Curiously, there has been nothing about the migrant experience. Not as yet, anyway.
So Bad Boy Bubby is strong stuff, even today. It is de Heer’s riposte to the sweet Australian coming-of-age film.
I mean, there had been a lot of Australian films in the 1970s-1980s about coming of age that Rolf would have been very familiar with: think My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke, Puberty Blues…and we’re still making them.
And yet Bad Boy Bubby is not solely aimed at the Australian coming-of-age drama.
Those scenes in which Bubby learns how to become a successful Aussie male, are some of the funniest in the film.
As one of the most effective satires of Australian society ever made, Bad Boy Bubby makes a very rude finger at us all.