Action Men: Australian directors on film Back   
Posted 10 October 2006
Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi and Phillip Noyce look back at their careers, and what is coming up. Beresford: "I'm one of the hacks. I don’t have any particularly strong viewpoint or any real individual style." Schepisi: "The didn’t have all their sources of money sewn up. It was absolutely crushing." Noyce: "It was a problem for my children growing up, constantly moving."


Before his 1989 film, Driving Miss Daisy, starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, won the Oscar for Best Picture, Sydney-born Bruce Beresford had directed some quintessential Aussie movies, including The Adventures of Barry McKenzie [1972], Don’s Party [1976] and Breaker Morant [1980]. Beresford, 66, is married to scriptwriter Virginia Duigan and has four children, daughters Cordelia, 37, and Trilby, 20, and sons Benjamin, 39, and Adam, 35. He has reunited with Freeman for his latest movie, the hostage drama The Contract, filmed in Bulgaria and expected to be released later this year

What makes a good director?

All the best directors have a point of view – it could be politics, economics, but it’s more likely a view of human relationships. Above all, it’s an individual way of looking at things.

Do you have a view?

No, I’m one of the hacks [laughs].

But you were in the vanguard of the 1970s new wave of directors.

I’ve never thought so. I don’t have any particularly strong viewpoint or any real individual style.

Which films encouraged you to become a director?

A film that’s not so good, called They Were Expendable [1945, directed by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne]. It’s a war film. I was about six. It wasn’t so much the war scenes that impressed me; it was the emotional scenes.

What’s been your proudest moment as a director?

When Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I thought, "Maybe I’m not quite as bad as I thought I was." I never watch the Academy Awards. Somebody rang me and said, “Congratulations”. I’d forgotten the awards were on.

Was it hurtful that you were not nominated for Best Director?

No, not at all. I didn’t think it was that well directed. It was very well written. When the writing's that good, you’ve really just got to set the camera up and photograph it and working with Morgan and Jessica Tandy, I was aware that their acting probably could not be bettered. This was despite everyone telling me the script was dreadful, and the film wasn’t worth making.

Do you have to compromise in Hollywood?

I don’t think so. It depends who you’re getting into bed with. If you’re with a good organisation, and you like the producers, you can make pictures anywhere. You can run across scumbags in Hollywood or here, or in Europe. I don’t think they’re any better or worse in Hollywood.

What sort of preparation do you do for a film?

Some require a huge amount of research, things like Black Robe [1991, set in 17th century Quebec] or Paradise Road [1997, set in Sumatra during World War II and starring Glenn Close and Cate Blanchett], because they’re a different period, and you’ve got to read lots of books on the subject, in order to create an atmosphere that is believable.

On set, do you have any special rituals?

I storyboard everything. I do little sketches. I can analyse the script then. Films work emotionally not just because of what people are saying, but how you visualise what they’re saying.

What’s your process of working with an actor?

Usually with actors like these two, these are very good actors [points to John Cusack and Morgan Freeman in The Contract on the editing machine screen], and usually I like to have a few days’ rehearsal, so you iron out the kinks and go through all the dialogue and say, “how does this feel?”.

Has an actor or a producer ever intimidated you?

Horrifyme, perhaps, with the suggestions producers make. Some of their casting ideas are appalling. Then you get to editing and they want to cut out scenes you consider crucial. It’s very rare you find an actor who’s crazy, though.

You’ve never had problems with an actor?

Robert Duvall [in 1983’s Tender Mercies] was very strange. He didn’t relate well to people. He had a very bizarre attitude to everybody. He was hostile and completely lacking in any common courtesies. Odd. But he always turned up right on the dot, ready to work and was always word-perfect.

Which producers have wanted to cut scenes?

When I did Pancho Villa [2003], HBO wanted to tell the film in flashback form, which I thought was a big mistake. So they just changed it. I wasn’t happy at all. But they have the right to do it by contract. And then they didn’t like the composer I selected, so they picked another composer and had him do the score, which I thought was terrible.

Have you ever made a bad film?

A lot of them were terrible. Sometimes I just make crummy choices. King David [1985, starring Richard Gere] had a horrible script. I kept going because I believed we would be able to improve it but it never did get any better. I knew it was bad before we started. But by then it was a huge juggernaut.

Which actor do you still hope to work with?

Russell Crowe. He’s the best actor in the world. He can play absolutely anything with total conviction. I’ve got this script I wrote last year, called Curlow Creek, from the [1996] novel by David Malouf [The Conversations at Curlow Creek]. Russell would be sensational in it but then, of course, you know you’re up for, like, his $20 million fee and 15 per cent of the gross. You need a big studio behind you to pay that.

Filmmaking is a gypsy-like existence. How does it effect your personal relationships?

Virginia and the kids came to Bulgaria with me [for The Contract]. Filmmaking is all I’ve ever done. When you see each other [after being apart], it’s more exciting because you get bored if you’re there all the time. The family think, “Oh, when’s this bloke going to go away again?”



Melbourne-born Fred Schepisi, 66, made his feature-film directing debut with The Devil’s Playground in 1976, but it was his 1978 movie, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith that won US acclaim. His hits have included directing Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 1988’s Evil Angels, and filming the Booker prize-winning novel Last Orders in 2001. Schepisi has seven adult children from three marriages: Ashley, Nina, Quentin, Jason, Alexandra, Zoe and Nick. His third wife, Mary, is a painter. Schepisi is hoping to soon secure final funding to shoot his first film in Australia for 18 years. Last Man, the story of Vietnam war veterans, with an ensemble cast including David Wenham and Guy Pearce.

What makes a good director?

Fitness and determination. You work extremely long hours under a great deal of pressure. Creatively, you have to have a vision and be open to allowing all of the collaborators to contribute.

What influenced you to become a director?

Our family started in a fruit shop in Toorak, which was opposite the Trak Cinema, where I used to love going on Saturdays. I finished school when I was 14 and went into advertising, which was then a haven for novelists, playwrights, and artists. And I started seeing “continental” films, which I thought were going to be very sexy [laughs].

Which films encouraged you to become a director?

All of them. The great Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman. Italian films, French films. It was a golden era, and here I was going along for a perv. From 17, I was doing television commercials, experimenting in film and film techniques. In the early ‘70s I filmed an ad for Durban toothpaste, which was a direct knock off of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, put in an experimental framework. It was a fountain scene, with everyone in their evening wear leaping around in slow motion, no sound, and then the ad cut to black, ending with the slogan: Durban, the world’s most expensive toothpaste.

What’s been your proudest moment as a director?

We used a lot of my own money and a lot of my friends’ money to do The Devil’s Playground. We had to hire our own cinemas. The day my kids and walked into Exhibition Street in 1976 for opening night and I saw our banner outside the theatre, I thought, “Wow!” You were suddenly legitimised in some strange way.

You worked on the famously unfinished Don Quixote around 1997. What went wrong?

I worked on it for a year. We had to rewrite to modernise it. I warned the producers that when we did the rewrite that we would be blowing it open, going to its edges, if you like. They panicked a bit. And then we were bringing the rushes back, they were ringing me up going, “Wow, this is fantastic.” And then they pulled the plug. The didn’t have all their sources of money sewn up. It was crushing [voice softens]. Absolutely crushing.

Will you revisit that film?

Maybe. At some point. The more you learn, you think, “Good, I can use this [experience] now.” [laughs] But the rules get changed. So you’re never really on solid ground. What suffers now are the middle-area films [between low-budget arthouse and blockbuster]. You’ve got to go and raise all your own financing from company fortunes or real estate fortunes or oil.

What’s good about working in Hollywood?

Not so much what it taught me, but what it confirmed in what I was doing. And then the fact that I, and a few other Australians as well, had a broader experience than most people there. Our own films had taught us how to get bang for the buck.

What’s bad about Hollywood?

You think they want you for originality and freshness, but in fact what they want you to do is to freshen up their genres. I fell across the research curse, when they ask test audiences 100 questions. I've been forced to leave things out. Barbarosa [in 1982, starring Willie Nelson] had a strong secondary story that had to be left out. In Iceman [in 1984, starring Timothy Hutton], a couple of powerful, shocking scenes that were eliminated, mainly because the audience wanted to tear the film off the screen [laughs].

Have you ever made a bad film?

I’ve made some … less than perfect ones, what I would call slightly hybrid: IQ [in 1994, starring Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan] and Mr Baseball [in 1992, starring Tom Selleck.] In the original vision, we had a higher aim. I didn’t realise that [Selleck] would have script approval. So after going through great tugs of war, what could have been a film with cultural clashes became more about sportsmen just banging heads.

What preparations do you make for a film?

Take Roxanne [in 1987]. I said to Steve Martin and his producer, “This is a very funny script, but the first real laugh out loud is not until page 61. That’s half way through the film!” We did 19 redrafts of the screenplay then. I spent a couple of weeks cutting and pasting and shifting the film around. I would rehearse with Steve and he would say, “I don’t want to do that, that’s not funny. This is the way it should go.” And I’d say, “Well, why don’t we just try it?” I had the cinematographer primed to have everybody ready because what Steve does in rehearsal is not what he’s gonna do when that camera goes on. He gets lit up, you know?

Which actor do you still hope to work with?

George Clooney. I met him while doing the awards rounds and I really like him. There’s a novel called The Jukebox Queen of Malta by Nicholas M. Rinaldi. He’s suitable for the smooth, beguiling officer who’s actually a scam artist.

Filmmaking can be a gypsy-like experience. How does it affect your personal relationships?

It’s the hardest thing. I think we’re today’s circus people. It’s very hard on your family. Mary travels with me and when everyone was younger and it was possible, I liked them to travel with me and be with me. Fortunately, Mary’s an artist; she paints, and often finds inspiration from our locations.

Your daughter Alexandra of course appeared briefly inJimmie Blacksmith.

She would have been about 10 months then, I think.

She’s still an actress now, so would you work together again?

Absolutely. She was in a stage play this year in Melbourne, Ray’s Tempest, which I saw. Certainly if something suitable came up I would work with her.



Having made his name in Australia with Newsfront in 1978 and Heatwave in 1982, Phillip Noyce broke the US market with 1989's Dead Calm, starring Nicole Kidman, while his 2002 film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, about three Aboriginal girls, brought critical and commercial glory. Noyce is married to film producer Jan Sharp, and has two children, daughter Lucia, 25, and step-daughter Alice, 31. His new film, Catch A Fire, set in apartheid-era South Africa, opens in cinemas on November 23.

What makes a good director?

Most people would say a good storyteller. I’d consider myself first and foremost a good storyteller.

Where does your storytelling come from?

The vaudeville tent shows that came to my town, Griffith, in south-western NSW – everything from the African pygmies to the Wall of Death motorcyclists who drove around a vertical cylinder, to Jimmy Sharman’s boxing troupe.

An indigenous friend once suggested we could make four shillings and get into the Jimmy Sharman show for free if we fought each other. So we did. And that was a huge lesson in storytelling and engagement of the audience, because Jimmy Sharman would tell you the script as he refereed [laughs]. The white guy always won.

Which films encouraged you to become a director?

When I was 18, I saw an advertisement on a telegraph pole, a psychedelic image for a screening of underground movies. It pushed buttons in me. One film was Report, directed by Bruce Conner [in 1967], which reworked footage of John Kennedy’s assassination, and some Australian films by Albie Thoms, Aggy Read and David Perry. These three guys were in the cinema foyer afterwards. Their mantra was, “Anyone can make a movie, and everyone should.” All of them had beards. I haven’t shaved since.

What’s your proudest moment as a director?

Rabbit-Proof Fence, easily. Showing that film to various Aboriginal communities around the country and seeing their response, because it gave validity to the experiences of the stolen generations.

Of course the story that just sits there waiting to be made is the story of Governor Arthur Phillip and the Aborigine Bennelong; the first encounter. I want to do it. It’s just a case of getting around to it.

One conservative critic said Rabbit-Proof Fence “supports a monstrous falsehood – that we have a genocidal past”. Is the film historically accurate?

Absolutely. The United Nations definition of genocide includes destruction of culture, because that destroys self. So it is possible for a person to be alive but dead, if their inner core has been destroyed. But If I failed, it was in greatly understating the trauma and emotional pain experienced by those young girls forcibly separated from family and culture.

Newsfront won eight Australian Film Industry awards in 1978. What was your dispute with the writer, Bob Ellis?

Ellis wrote a script that was marvellous, but long. The producer David Elfick and I asked him to cut it, and he wasn’t able to bring himself to cut enough. I rewrote parts of the script. Bob saw the film, and said he wanted his name taken off the credits.
Just before the awards, Ellis had taken out a newspaper advertisement to announce he would accept credit for the screenplay, but if David Elfick or myself ventured onto his lawn at Palm Beach, he’d shoot us.

I flew to Perth for the awards and went down to the hotel basement to have a sauna beforehand. I’m sitting there in the sauna, naked, and the door opens, and in comes Bob Ellis. Naked [laughs]. So there we are, in the hothouse. And we agreed that henceforth he would be the writer.

What’s good about working in Hollywood?

For about 10 years from 1990, I could make almost as many films as I wanted, based on the fact that all the movies made money. The good ones and the bad ones were still profitable [laughs]. Hollywood is an association of entrepreneurial dreamers. It’s a collection of individuals who trade with each other, trade in dreams. You can let them fuck you, or you can work within that association.

What were the bad films?

Sliver [in 1993, starring Sharon Stone] wasn’t that good. In the version that was released, there was no internal logic. We were reshooting the ending – the film was opening the next week – and I collapsed and woke up with Sharon’s vitamin doctor sticking a needle into my behind, filled with some vitamin concoction.

What’s the worst thing about Hollywood?

It involves tremendous compromise. Sliverand The Saint [1997, starring Val Kilmer] both involved huge compromises. The endings of both films were rewritten and reshot after test screenings. It made them worse films, but they were profitable.

Have you ever erred in casting?

Val Kilmer as The Saint. Because, after all, [the original Saint] Simon Templar was a Brit and Val Kilmer could never be a Brit. That was a big mistake. He was cast because he was the only guy who said yes.

Has an actor or producer ever intimidated you?

Harrison Ford [in 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger] was intimidating because he was so precise and he had worked with the best directors in the world. When we were shooting the climactic scene of Clear and Present Danger where Harrison's character, Jack Ryan, has to confront an admonished president of the United States in the Oval office, Harrison saw the first day's footage and quietly commented in the corridor outside the screening room that the scene would be more effective if the camera was directly in front of his face, rather than the three quarter profile shot I intended. After lunch we re-shot Harrison's close-up. And that is the shot that appears in the final film.

What sorts of preparations do you make for a film?

For Catch A Fire I have spent nine months in South Africa before we started to shoot, of which six months was just researching. The film retells the real story of a black refinery worker who is falsely accused of aiding the attempted sabotage of a refinery and imprisoned. He leaves the country to become a soldier, to fight back. I interviewed as many people as possible, including the real guy.

What’s your process of working with an actor?

I try to immerse the actor in the world of the character he or she is playing. Denzel Washington was playing a bedridden quadriplegic in The Bone Collector [in 1999]. I did three months’ research and found a series of quadriplegics for him to spend time with.

Are you approachable on set?

I try to be. But I must admit I admire the actors’ and actresses’ temerity for approaching me [laughs]. I am this bear of a man, surrounded by these normal people who appear like midgets [Noyce is 6’5” or 196 centimetres tall, and weighs 113 kilograms.]

Is there anything you used to do as a young director that you’ve abandoned?

I used to try and control everything. But I’ve learnt to trust in the alchemy that I’ve created as a director in selecting all these people and putting them together.

Filmmaking is such a gypsy-like existence. How does it affect your personal relationships?

My children are grown up now so it’s not such a problem. It was a problem for them growing up, constantly moving. But we could never predict where we would be in the next six months. The only thing that was certain was the family unit.

Most of us, our strength is based on the compact nature of the world that we grow up in. We know everybody: the guy who runs the general store, the kid that delivers the newspapers, the milkman, and life is very ordered, regimented and restricted. The theory is that, as a result, we know who we are. And we know our world, and we know its values.

So it had positives and negatives. My daughter Lucia now works for Amnesty International in Los Angeles, a vocation that she’s eminently suited for, having grown up in Australia, America and Britain, and having grown up in an international milieu of artists and performers.

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