Friday, October 5, 2012

Ted Kotcheff on Wake in Fright

Playing in Theaters

Ted Kotcheff on Wake in Fright

( 10/5/12)

wakeinfrightkotcheff.jpg Ted Kotcheff, photo by DP
For cinephiles who live for those days when a supposedly lost film is unearthed; enthused risk-taking filmgoers who love making exciting cinematic discoveries; and the most complacent movie fans in the city who need a jolt, do I ever have the perfect film for you--a recently restored, one-of-a-kind film that is returning to the U.S. for the first time in forty years and without the long-ago studio-imposed American title, Outback. Opening at the Film Forum today, and around the country in the coming weeks (see the list of cities at the end), is the ground-breaking 1972 Australian film, Wake in Fright, which was the second feature by famed Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, North Dallas Forty, First Blood, Whos Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, Weekend at Bernie's). Adapted from the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, its top-billed by the great British actor Donald Pleasance (with beard in photo) and a very young Jack Thompson (with rifle) is in the cast, but the lead is little-known Gary Bond. The handsome blond actor plays a snooty, miserable young bonded schoolteacher who goes on holiday from his remote town of Tiboonda to Sydney, where his surfer girlfriend waits. Only he never gets to Sydney because he loses all his money gambling after getting drunk while on a one-night stopover in Bundanyabba, a mining town in the outback. Thus begins his quick descent into decadence, a full-blown orgy of drinking beer, lousy sex, drinking beer, gambling, drinking beer, rough-housing with other drunk men like Thompson's character (appropriately named Dick), drinking beer, hangovers and drunken hallucinations, drinking beer, massacring kangaroos in the outback, and drinking beer, drinking beer and drinking beer.
Nick Cave calls this glimpse at the Aussie male, "The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence"; Roger Ebert declares it, "Powerful, genuinely shocking and rather amazing"; and its biggest champion, Martin Scorsese, who made it the rare film to play twice at Cannes, says, "Wake in Fright is a deeply--and I mean deeply--unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it's beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I'm excited that Wake in Fright has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves." It is unsettling and disturbing and it's not a "date movie" or a film that anyone will want to recommend wholeheartedly to everyone they know because it's strong, often unpleasant stuff. But I'll still say that you should definitely see it even if you want to watch it from an aisle seat. You might think it a gem or at least an important film about the Australian culture and the male psyche. And maybe to appreciate it more, you should first read the amiable director's comments about the film during a conversation we had this Wednesday.
Danny Peary: The obvious first question is: Are you surprised by the attention Wake in Fright is getting 40 years after its initial release?
Ted Kotcheff: It's not a surprise, it's a miracle. It was declared dead and buried. They looked for it for about ten years and couldn;t find it. The Australian producer made inquiries but had no luck. Then my editor Tony Buckley, who loved the film, set out as a personal challenge to find it. He went to London where it had originally been processed. There was supposed to be a print in Dublin so he went there. He also went to New York. This was during a two-year period about five years ago. He finally found the negative in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. It was in two big boxes full of negatives, big prints, and soundtracks. And on the outside of the boxes it said, FOR DESTRUCTION. If he'd arrived a week later it would have been incinerated. The film had failed and now it rises from the dead. And this time it has succeeded--in Australia and at Cannes, where Martin Scorsese introduced it and it was declared a "Cannes Classic." Now its being released here in America, not only in New York but in every major city. To me it's a miracle.
DP: Had you always had regrets about its failure and then disappearance or did you just move on and do other things?
TK: I just moved on. First of all, I didnt know it was lost. They generously didn't tell me it had been lost until they found it.
DP: Its surprising no one thought to look for it just to put it out on video.
TK: They didn't do it. Once a film fails, people lose interest in it. I thought that here was a film that cost about $1M that many men had worked to create, so why would you dump it in the garbage? Why would that cross your mind? Then I started investigating and discovered that wasn't unusual, that it happened to many films. Many, many negatives have been discarded into the garbage or burned. If a film doesn't have success, no one is interested in defending or protecting it. That made me paranoid about all my films.
DP: Talk about its background.
TK: Think about it. It went to Cannes in 1971 so it had some artistic success. That was a thrill because every young director dreams of having a film at Cannes. It got good reviews when it came to New York. Rex Reed put it on his Ten Best list for 1972. Pauline Kael and Christopher Isherwood gave it good reviews. But it didn't do well at the box office here. United Artists didn't believe in it and said Americans arent going to see it. They opened it in a cinema on the east side in New York on Sunday night in a blizzard, with no publicity whatsoever.
DP: In a book of mine about the Australian cinema, Jack Thompson is quoted as saying that at the same time it was doing no business in Australia, it was doing fabulous business in France.
TK: Yes, France was the only place where the film succeeded. It ran for nine months in Paris. It didn't do any business in Australia. I think that the Australians were a bit put off by the depiction of the Aussie male. The coarseness and crudeness of him, supposedly. Jack Thompson told me that he was in the cinema one night and a guy got up in the middle of the film and pointed at the screen and said, "This is not us!" And another voice came from the audience saying, "Sit down, you idiot, it is us!"
Jack Thompson (standing), Peter Whittle (driving, Donald Pleasance (with beard), and Gary Bond (in back)
DP: Of course, Dick and Joe, the bruising characters played by Jack Thompson and Peter Whittle, arent the types who go to movies. The people you depict in the movie aren't cinephiles.
TK: Thats right!
DP: Did you think of it as an art film, the type that could go to Cannes? Now I can see it playing at Cannes, but it's surprising to me that it was selected then.
TK: The French love those kinds of films--men under existential stress, the dust etc. They respond to it. All the French critics raved about it.
DP: And in America no one knew about it.
TK: They changed the title on me to Outback. I said it sounded like a National Geographic documentary. I asked what was wrong with Wake in Fright. They said, "That makes it sound like a Hitchcock film." I said, "That's bad?" After I made the film Life at the Top with Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons, I had dinner with Julius Epstein, who wrote many great films including Casablanca. He said, "This is a very good film and you have a big career ahead of you. I'm sure you're going to fight like a demon for the integrity of your film to make sure no one disturbs it. But there's some advice I'd like to give you. There are two battles that you shouldn't bother to fight because you'll never win with distributors." I said, "What are they, sir?" He said, "Titles and endings." So when they changed the title to Outback, I remembered his words from six years previous. They insisted on that title. I lost the battle. Not that I blame the lack of success here on the title.
DP: Did you like the original title?
TK: I liked it. It comes from the foreword to Kenneth Cook's novel: "May you dream of the devil and wake in fright." It had validity. The film is about a guy who wakes up and is frightened by what he sees about himself.
DP: It's a horror movie title. I don't find that so alien to your movie because it has horror-movie elements. You have never made a horror movie.
TK: I don't like horror movies.
DP: The horror film that I think of in regard to your film is The Wicker Man, about a straight-and-narrow English policeman who goes to an island to investigate a crime and discovers everyone there is strange and subtly threatening. That film too has a sense of menace and is unsettling--by intention.
TK (laughing): Some critics described my film as not a nightmare but a daymare. That seems accurate.
DP: Is this among the favorite of your films?
TK: It's among my two or three favorites.
DP: Im a big fan of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and North Dallas Forty.
TK: Those are my other two favorites! What happened to Wake in Fright made me look at the negative of Duddy Kravitz. There are tons of DVDs but the negative had gotten all pink. The colors had all faded and there was no decent negative. This was a month ago. We got money from the government to restore it and I got a call yesterday saying it is now so beautiful. My next one is North Dallas Forty.
DP: That's my favorite football film. You'd think that film has nothing in common with Wake in Fright, but I'm wondering if you ever thought about how there is a tribal notion to both films. In North Dallas Forty, the way the football players carry on at parties is rowdy and a bit scary and I think is similar to the how the Aussies act when they're drinking and carrying on. At the end, when he's in street clothes, Nick Nolte's receiver, who is obsessed with catching the ball, lets the casual pass from his quarterback friend drop, meaning he's leaving the football life, John Grant does catch the beer bottle tossed to him on the train so he'll probably wallow in that lifestyle again.
TK: That,s very interesting. I see what you mean. I had never thought of that. I wrote that script for North Dallas Forty but never could figure out an ending. All through the shooting I was thinking, How am I going to end it? And the night before, I was thinking I've got to finish it. Then around midnight, I said, Of course, the guy throws him the ball and he lets it bounce off his chest. He doesn't try to catch it at all. There's a famous lecturer on writing, Robert McKee, and in his book about scriptwriting he offered that ending as the type you want to achieve.
DP: In the production notes for Wake in Fright I read there was criticism in Australia of foreigners coming there to direct, write, and act in the adaptation of the Australian book. Now it's 40 years later and you've been to Australia, so would it be different if you made the film now?
TK: A man said to me back then, "You've come here to rubbish us." I said, "Look, I don't know you. How could I rubbish you? I'm a director and I dont go around condemning. I'm not the judge of my characters, I'm their best witness. I observe and empathize." When I was at Sydney Film Festival 38 years after the film's release, a man came up to me and said," It's a great film. I saw it when it came out and it still packs a tremendous wallop. I've got to tell you, No Australian could have made this film." That's interesting, eh? At the time no one could look at the film in a detached way. When I started to direct, I went to England and did a television play written by a terrific playwright, Alun Owen, who wrote the screenplay for A Hard Days Night. It was his first play. My producer said he wanted to read it me because it was set in Liverpool and he wanted me to hear the music of the language. I said fine. He read it to me and it was beautiful how he wrote the dialogue. It was the Liverpool accent and vocabulary and he extracted the poetry out of the speech. I said the play is beautiful but I wasnt doing it. He asked why. I said, "What the hell do I know about working-class life in Liverpool?" And he pointed out, "By virtue of hearing my play, you know more about Liverpool working-class life than 99% of this bloody country." Sometimes its true that as an outsider you bring a detached and objective look at something. So what to you is new, idiosyncratic, different, and out of the ordinary is to those who live there just every-day life without anything special about it.
wakeinfrightbonddrinks.jpg Pleasance and Bond
DP: Did any of the critics there assume you were from Australia after seeing the film?
TK: No, they already knew that I was an outsider. But it's interesting that the Australian directors Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, and Bruce Beresford all came to me and said that I had inspired them. They thought, Oh, my God, you can make good films in this country. They had assumed they had to go to Hollywood to make good films and didn't see the possibilities in Australia, they didn't see what is different and interesting about their culture. They started making their films and felt Wake In Fright began the whole movie renaissance there.
DP: Did Wake Into Fright turn out the way you thought it would?
TK: Yes. One always aims for 100 out of 100 when you're making a film and you're lucky if you get 90% and that's a masterpiece. You always love the films that come closest to what you envision before you start. Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty came the closest to fulfilling what I envisioned and those are my favorite films.
DP: The look of the film is different. You use black a lot in creative ways. There's darkness and light. There's of course night and day, and there is night when there is only the light from headlights or overhanging lights; and there's the quick sequence when you show a closeup of a face, the screen goes black, you again show a closeup of a face, again the screen goes black. Nobody does that.
TK: Not anymore. I'd never seen it before. Ezra Pound said about art: Make it new. You'll notice that all through the film there are people shining light on John Grant's face, and the light of the sun hits his face. It's the light that's falling on the dark shadowed side of his character, which he doesn't want to face. That metaphor is there throughout the film; and also the whole technique, as when he passes drunk.
DP: He always wakes up in the light with a hangover.
TK (laughing): That's right.
DP: Did you have notes from the beginning about using light and darkness or did you work it out with your cinematographer as you went along?
TK: It was from the very beginning. I had an idea about what role light played in the movie.
DP: You had something else that was unusual. There is a rapid montage of ugly images that Grant sees in his mind and they are a mix of the real and the unreal.
TK: It was his feverish mind hitting rock bottom. He'd see a real image of his girlfriend and then see her being made love to by Donald Pleasance's drunken doctor. I wanted to suggest that his mind is fragmented.
DP: Pleasance's character, Tydon, was a doctor before he became a full-time alcoholic. Grant is a teacher. Is it important that Tydon was an educated man who had his descent into decadence there in "The Yabba" so that we see Grant's future?
TK: It's funny that you should say that. Recently a critic came to me and asked, "What do you think happened to John Grant?" I said, "Well, he probably reverted strenuously to bourgeois life and went back to Sydney and married his girlfriend." He said, "I dont think so." I said, "Oh? What do you think?" He said, "I think he ended up like Donald Pleasance's character." So you are absolutely right-he could have gone either way. He's a civilized man and the veneer that is between his life and the dark side is so thin.
DP: When the barkeep in Tiboonda asks him at the end how his holiday went, he says, "The best." The question is: Does he mean it?
TK: I think so. It's very interesting. When I worked on the script and came to the last scene I asked myself, "Are you just trying to suggest a happy ending, that he somehow learned from this whole experience, that he's finally come to realize that he's not superior to anyone else and that we're all in the same existentialist boat as far as our existence is concerned?" I think at very least he's come out of this with greater self-knowledge than he's had before. All of us are searching for self-knowledge and sometimes we put ourselves into a situation where we encounter ourselves, if you know what I mean. He encounters the dark side of his nature and finally sees who he really is, and that gives him a certain strength.
DP: There's that oft-said phrase that applies to experiencing something: It doesnt build character, it reveals character. He sees who he really is and it's not nice. Does he benefit from knowing he's an awful, primitive man?
TK: It can either destroy him or make him stronger. At the moment he feels he's come out with a renewed strength.
DP: Well, he survived. He even tried to shoot himself in the head. I mentioned horror movie elements: one is that when he tries to get far away from the town by truck, the driver bring him back to it, and it's like he can never escape. I was surprised he got out.
DP (continuing) I was thinking he'd end up there and be the new town drunk, which is something for that town.
TK: Tydon says that great line about being an alcoholic but how it's hardly noticeable in this part of the world.
DP: Grant's line is that someone can sleep with a man's wife or do almost anything to him but the only thing the man will find offensive is if that person turn him down when he offers to buy him a beer. Did you experience that beer mentality when you were there? I'd like to see your bill for all the beer that is drunk in your film.
TK: I'll tell you something funny about the beer. The actor who played the policeman, Jock, was Chips Rafferty, the veteran Australian actor. I like the sinister pleasure Jock takes in John Grant's mental and moral decline and disintegration.
DP: He's another horror movie element. Jock has probably seen men like John come to town before and he makes sure not to let him leave by keeping him drinking beer.
TK: That's right. Well, in our movie the men drink beer all the time so I gave them alcohol-free beer. So on the first take, Chips says to me, "What is this I'm drinking, Ted, its non-alcoholic beer? I won't play this thing unless its real beer." I said, "But we might do six takes of every set-up and you'll be drinking twenty pints every day." He said, "Just leave it to me." He was the only actor there who drank alcoholic beer and I swear to you that he drank twenty pints a day. He never got drunk, he never slurred a word, he was the same person at 6 p.m. as he was when he arrived in the morning.
Chips Rafferty and Gary Bond

DP: The most controversial aspect of your film is the kangaroo hunt in the outback, when the drunk Grant and his drunk new loutish friends gun down numerous kangaroos that are caught in their headlights. I know you actually went out with a couple of licensed, professional hunters and filmed that.
TK: I don't believe in hunting, I don't understand the pleasure of shooting an animal. And I especially despise anyone who would kill an animal for a film. That would be unspeakable. I was bemused as to how I'd pull this off because it had to be the climax of the film. This weighed on me. Then an Australian on the crew said, "You know, Ted, they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night on the outback." I said, "They do? Why?" He said that big refrigerator trucks go out there and they send out six pairs of hunters in different directions with state trucks and they shoot a dozen kangaroos and bring them back. They skin off the pelts, which are valuable for those toy koala bears we give to our kids, and they hang the carcasses in the refrigerated trucks. I asked what they do with the carcasses. He told me that they send them to America for the pet food industry. I said, "You mean that America's cats and dogs eat kangaroo?" He said, "Yeah. It's a big business and they make a lot of money." I was appalled. To give myself a way out, I went to a couple of the hunters and asked if I could sit in the back of their truck and photograph them shooting. That's what I did. That's how I got all that bloody footage that is stomach-churning.
DP: Was Grant always supposed to enjoy the killing or did you decide that later?
TK: It was always there so Grant could discover he had the ability to shoot them without feeling badly about it. Why is it that when men get together they have to display virility to each other? I'm macho! I've always thought that's one of the worst characteristics of men!
DP: That's very much what your film is about.
TK: Exactly. I've never understood that about men.
wakeinfrightbondkay.jpg Gary Bond and Sylvia Kay
DP: There are few women in your film, just as there are few in the town itself.
TK: The men outnumber the women in that town three to one and there are no brothels.
DP: The only real female character is Janette, the daughter of the short heavy-drinking man, Tim [Al Thomas] who takes Gran in when he's broke. Because she's the lone sexual temptation in the movie and seems to be a nympho, you could have had a gorgeous actress play that part. But you cast just a fairly attractive actress who portrays her as someone who is worn out after spending night after night for years surrounded by drunken, virile louts.
TK: I didn't think she should be gorgeous. Sylvia Kay got great reviews for her performance.
DP: Talk to me about the gambling in the film, which masses of men do every night in this town with few women and no brothel. John Grant gets caught up in playing a simplistic coin-toss game that is basically heads or tails. Is this game real or fake, a surrealistic element?
TK: It's real. Oh, yes. It was one of the things I observed there. It's called "two-up schools." Two coins are tossed into the air and if it's either two heads or two tails you can win and if it's one of each, you throw again. It's very primitive. I've got to tell you that I got obsessed with it and went over every Saturday night during shooting. There was nothing else to do in that town. Drink, fight, shoot kangaroos, or go to two-up schools. All those people playing the game in the movie were really from the town and really played the game. We shot during the day and they played only at night, so I had them come during the day so I could shoot them for the movie. Because I gambled I knew them all.
DP: In Duddy Kravitz, Duddy loses all his money playing roulette.
TK (laughing): Yes, but he is given his money back. Grant doesn't get his back. He risked it all for the chance for freedom from his bonded job. And then he's at the mercy of all the people there.
DP: Big mistake!
This is the opening-day schedule for Wake in Fright in theaters across America:
10/5- NYC; 10/12-Boston, Austin; 10/17-Washington; 10/19- Los Angeles, Portland; 10/26- San Francisco, Phoenix, Berkeley, Seattle, Santa Fe, New Orleans; 11/2- Hartford, Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids; 11/8- Boulder; 11/9- Nashville; 11/16-Philadelphia, Columbus, Denver; 12/1- Baltimore; 12/7- Atlanta; 12/14- Minneapolis. With more cities to follow!


  1. Thank you for this very interesting interview. I had never heard of the film before. I ordered the Australian BR right after reading it and watched the movie last night. The sense of dread and decay is extraordinary (those flies). I'm not so sure about the visions sequence at the end though that I thought has dated quite a bit as filmic grammar. Has Pleasence ever been better? I hope it will be back on the screens here in France for a new generation to discover this gem.

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