October 12, 2012

INTERVIEW: Ted Kotcheff

by Steve Dollar

WAKE IN FRIGHT's Ted Kotcheff

Redeemed from a Pittsburgh warehouse days before it was to be incinerated, the negatives of Ted Kotcheff's 1971 beer-soaked Outback misadventure Wake in Fright were painstakingly restored in 2009, marking the return of a long-lost classic. A bare-knuckled saga of madness and mayhem in a land without women but lots of kangaroos, the film details the humiliating transformation of uptight, city-slicker schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) when his holiday trip home from the boondocks gets sidetracked during a stopover in "The Yabba"–a frontier town where, after losing all his money in a frenzied gambling game called "Two Up," he falls in with a crew of local rowdies, including an amazing Donald Pleasance as an alcoholic doctor given to existential pronouncements and bouts of sodomy. Admirers of the movie, whose number include the rocker Nick Cave and director Martin Scorsese, consider it the great lost Australian film, even though it was made by a Canadian. Along with Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, which was being produced around the same time, the film has been acknowledged as a starting point for the Australian New Wave, which redefined antipodal cinema and the nation's historical identity in the 1970s and '80s.

The director, now 81, went on to make such impressively disparate films as North Dallas Forty, First Blood, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Weekend at Bernie's, but remains proudest of his fourth film. He visited Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, recently, where Wake in Fright played to packed houses, all of them entertained by the filmmaker's often wild anecdotes about the making the film—which brought him into close contact with the men of Broken Hill, a mining town where characters like Kotcheff were greeted with suspicion. Especially guys like Kotcheff, who with his handlebar moustache and "hair down to my ass" registered as the worst sort of outsider: a damn hippie.

"There was this old adage when I was a kid," he said, chatting during a day of promotional interviews for the film, which has just been released by Drafthouse Films. "You know how you win a fight? Start it. The guy who throws the first punch, 80% of the time he wins the fight. But these guys were going like this: 'Come on, ya shit bag! I'll fight ya!' This guy could knock me into the middle of next week."

I spoke to Kotcheff about some of his experiences making the film, which could easily serve a really insane "making-of" chronicle.

Wake in Fright

Aside from the film's dramatic elements, it really is a kind of anthropological exploration of manhood in its most untempered form—and you're coming into this strange place as a civilized fellow, then living in London at its swinging 1960s peak. That must have been something to wrap your head around.

I had some extraordinary experiences there. I was in Broken Hill for three or four months. I was apprehensive about dealing with a world I knew nothing about, but when I got there, I didn't think it was that problematic. The values and attitudes are right there, served up on a silver plate. The men stated who they were, what they wanted. I came to admire those men. I know the picture is critical of some of things that they do. But the world out there it is so inhospitable. It is so difficult to live let alone to work. I came to admire their courage and their fortitude in surviving out there.

After watching the film projected on a big screen, I felt much more sympathetic. Maybe it was because you can see their expressions more vividly. The psychology comes across.

You know the two 'roo hunters—Peter Whittle and Jack Thompson, who became a major Australian film star, and that was his first role—I had a scene I wrote. I went down into the zinc mines and it was like Dante's Inferno. I'm sorry I cut that scene. I really felt for them. Also, the shortage of women.

Some of the most intense parts of the film are when women do appear. First, the bizarre cashier at the hotel where John Grant stays for the night, cooling herself salaciously with ice water, in a peculiar, creepy manner, and then the actress (Sylvia Kay), who plays the sex-starved daughter of Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), who "rescues" Grant after his gambling debacle.

That was my ex-wife. The crew was scandalized. 'Ted, you had your wife take all her clothing off and lay naked and he was pouring beer from his mouth into her mouth.' I said, "It's acting!"

Wake in Fright

There was something about her mouth, half-open, with this indecipherable mix of emotions, not necessarily good ones.

No! Films are made to be seen on a 40-foot screen. The detailing. I think William Blake said that "art does not consist of abstract generalizations but of minute particulars." First, I forbade any cool colors. No greens. No blues. It had to be hot colors. Yellows, reds, burnt sienna, browns. Secondly, I got one of those things that you squirt. And I got red dust from the Outback and before every take I'd spray it in their air and it hung there. And the other thing I did, you won't believe, is I got sterilized flies from the University of Sydney for the interiors. I'd release them. On the outside, you didn't have to do anything. But on the inside I'd release them. Sometimes you'd see them. Sometimes you didn't. They were there subliminally, and they gave you the feeling of total uncomfortableness.

I really loved the freakout sequences, paced by rapid edits and grotesque, violent imagery.

It's enough to drive a man crazy out there. The conditions, with no women. I told one of the guys, I've been out here for four weeks and if I don't talk to something soft soon I'm going to lose my mind.

For the women who were there, did they ever have sex with their men?

They seemed to be non-existent. They do allow women in the RSO Club (Returning Servicemen Organization) at Christmas. But otherwise it's totally masculine. You don't see any women.

The film has a harsh, glaring realism and then slides into a more surreal tone, with looming faces and a constant state of dread. How did you get those elements?

I wanted to have that feeling of something dreadful impending on the character. When you face yourself honestly, sometimes it's hard to bear. He feels somehow things are not going to turn out well in this situation.

The friendly offer of a beer becomes a threat.

Aggressive hospitality. That was always true there.

Wake in Fright

And the funny cut in a few scenes of Grant resisting, to drunkenly hopping down the rabbit hole.

You know, we men are strange creatures. I remember being up in northern Canada and they had brought in some wild horses and they were all getting on and riding them. They said, "Hey Ted, you want to get on?" This competitive manhood thing. I said, "Yeah, sure, I'll get on." "Don't be fucking crazy, you'll break your neck. You're not used to this." It's that impulse within men to compete in terms of macho. Part of it is about where that character is, and he gets sucked into it.

He's the city slicker who falls in with the rednecks and gets his ass kicked. But that period of time in film produced movies like Straw Dogs. I wonder about the way in which your movie belongs to those years, coming out of the '60s—out of "peace and love" and maybe a more sensitive idea about masculinity—and into the disillusionment of the post-Vietnam era.

When I made that film I was in a very, very despairing frame of mind. I guess you can't miss it. That silly war. I was despairing of human beings and society. Remember when he tosses out that book Plato Today? Plato's nothing in this man's world, nothing's any use. That emotion permeated the movie.

Yet you have Donald Pleasance philosophizing amid a bar fight. Although you've said that all but one of the actors drank fake beer, for this one bit Pleasance was actually hammered.

In the scene where he's calling Grant Socrates, he said, "Ted, I don't think I can do this without getting really drunk." I said, "Come on, Donald, you're a great actor. You don't need alcohol to do this performance." He said, "But it's awfully difficult. Okay, I'll do it without alcohol." And he did it. I looked at the dailies the next day and realized, "Donald's right. He needs alcohol." So we went back and redid that scene with him getting drunk. It has that mad, manic quality that he couldn't manufacture it. How can I manufacture demonic possession when I'm relaxed? Yes, he did that scene drunk. That was part of the spirit of the time.

[Wake in Fright opens in Boston and Austin today with more cities to follow. For more info, visit the website.]

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Posted by ahillis at October 12, 2012 12:37 PM