Category Archives: Interviews

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.