Into the Little Big-time
It was the mid 1960s when I first met writer-director Tim Burstall and producer Patrick Ryan on the location of their series, Sebastian the Fox (1963). Not long afterwards, I joined them during the development of their feature, 2000 Weeks (1969). We filmed the story in 1968 and then, in post-production, researched means of distribution and exhibition for the picture. No distributor had earlier been willing to invest in an Australian film after our long drought, and 2000 Weeks had been funded by Patrick, and Leon and Margaret Fink – the latter subsequently became a producer herself. I was Associate Producer and 1st Assistant Director, and during pre-production David Bilcock Snr of Senior Films joined the venture as Co-producer and committed additional funds. We could then aim for a more polished result than we first envisaged by expanding the schedule and production facilities.
After completion, 2000 Weeks was taken up by the Greater Union Organization, which, like other Australian and Australian-based distributors and exhibitors, had not had experience in creating an image for Australian, first-release narrative drama films. After a dearth of locally written features for more than three decades, cinema-goers – if they bothered to think about it – dismissed the possibility that Australian filmmakers had the experience or talent to make feature films. To a degree they were right. Yet, they did not either recall the very successful films made by Australian writers and directors, from early in the1900s until they began to be deprived of exhibition outlets in the late 1920s, or recognise the potential that now existed.
In this climate, however, 2000 Weeks did not succeed at the box-office, nor did reviewers and audiences alike either fully understand or acknowledge the positive qualities that it did evidence. We were greatly disappointed, but this result inspired us in our resolve to help bring about a revival of feature filmmaking in Australia. As control of distribution and exhibition outlets by overseas majors from the late 1920s had brought about the decline in production of Australian feature films, we became very aware that not only access to cinemas but detailed and adequate budgets for promotion and advertising were key factors.
The Local Film Environment
A major creative influence on all those aspiring to work in film in the 1950s and ’60s was the Melbourne Film Festival, founded by Erwin Rado. Erwin fled Hungary with his parents during World War II as the Germans approached Budapest. He was a man of many fine sensibilities: an accomplished pianist, who continued, in Australia, to make portrait photography, especially of children, his profession. Yet his love for the art of cinema grew, as did the international status of the Melbourne Film Festival (it became the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1985). It was the era during which cinema auteurs became influential in Europe and some parts of Asia, and Erwin was quick to discern their groundbreaking approach to cinema, bringing much of their work to his festival showcase in Melbourne.
Rado was the first influential figure to acknowledge the work of a local auteur, post-war immigrant Giorgio Mangiamele, whose films included Il Contratto (The Contract, 1953) and The Spag (1961). Giorgio created his own Italian neo-realist cinema in Melbourne through the 1950s and ’60s right under our noses. He operated a photographic studio in Carlton to feed his family and support his passion for cinema as a tool for highlighting social injustice, exposing Australian xenophobia, and as a means to express his sense of poetic and visual beauty. Giorgio’s Clay was invited to participate in the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. Yet, despite this recognition, Clay was ignored in Australia and Giorgio, who had almost entirely financed the film on his own, was forced to sell his photographic business and mortgage his home.
Tim Burstall was not quite as vulnerable financially, but the negative response to 2000 Weeks affected him deeply. The film had expressed his concern at Australia’s unwillingness to nurture its artists. It showed that our blindness and insensitivity forced actors, singers, designers, dancers, painters, sculptors, writers, et al, to consider whether they should remain in Australia or go abroad to develop their creative talents. While one or two critics suggested the topic was passé in 1968, the community, generally, had never faced the issue in any real sense. Negative comment won the day.
Patrick, Tim and I held many informal post-mortems, and the matter was a topic of discussion with our colleagues from literature, theatre and film within the Producers & Directors Guild in Victoria (Guild in Victoria). We knew that we had to clarify our thinking as to the best means of achieving success both at home and abroad. Do we need to put aside introspective works seemingly of interest to the very few? What should we do about an Australian accent that could not be fathomed abroad, and was usually dubbed? Would urban or rural aspects be more of interest to overseas audiences? Should we proceed with a continental style of filmmaking or encourage the development of a studio system? Should we promote unique Australia’s factors – kangaroos, koalas, endless beaches and raging bush fires – in order to forge a special place in markets dominated by Britain and America? Should we write from an Australian point-of-view and, if so, what was it? Who, actually, were we?
The process of trying to answer those questions later evolved into a film and theatre workshop conducted by the Guild in Victoria, an exercise that gave birth to the 4-part portmanteau film, Libido (1973). (See “The Genesis of Libido”, by this author, in the next issue of Senses.)
Birth of the Bunyip
I had briefly met Phillip Adams at the New Theatre in Flinders Street, Melbourne, in the late 1950s. He happened to be there when I called in to see what forthcoming productions were scheduled. Later, in either 1967 or 1968, I read that Phillip, who was running his own advertising agency, evidenced an interest in filmmaking: he had joined close friend Brian Robinson – a lecturer at the Swinburne Institute of Technology film school – to write, produce and direct their feature film, Jack & Jill: A Postscript (1970), as an extra curricula activity over a number of years. I made myself known and we met occasionally when in Melbourne: I was shooting the last of three documentaries in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area at the time. He proposed that we make a feature, saying that he might have a source of finance. The question then became, what film? The fate of 2000 Weeks had a considerable influence on my thinking, and I suggested that we needed to find an effective way to reach Australian audiences and overcome the almost complete lack of faith they showed in narrative drama by Australian filmmakers. We concluded that our subsequent feature could only safely be based on a topic that reflected their interests, and commissioned a treatment for a narrative drama featuring Australian Rules football. Doubts remained, however, and by the time the treatment arrived from television and radio presenter and social commentator Ray Taylor, we were not confident that a narrative drama on any theme would succeed.
We were also influenced in our thinking by Northern Safari, a film set in the Australian outback of Western Australia and the Northern Territory that featured wildlife, and Aborigines and their culture. It was an 8mm home movie made in 1954 by Keith F. Adams of Perth, and recorded the leisurely explorations through the bush by Keith, his wife and sister. Keith was not a filmmaker but his creation had become a phenomenal success. He told me that he had put his film footage together simply for the pleasure of his family and friends. Yet, he was astounded by the response, and the next year set out on the road to show his film in community and town halls throughout the whole of Australia to ordinary people like himself. The film had no soundtrack: Keith gave a narration extempore as he ran the film. It was like a moving slide night.
Keith then decided to improve the work and shot more footage, now on 16mm, before re-editing and creating a new version with a magnetic soundtrack that ran for two-and-three-quarter hours. In 1959, he went back on the road with the new version. Families left their comfortable lounge chairs in thousands to sit on hard benches in draughty halls and watch his unpretentious epic – with a toilet break while Keith changed reels on the projector. His success revealed a lure of the bush felt by most Australians and the fascination they had in their own land. He later cut the duration of the film to just under two hours and added an optical soundtrack. At that time, he told me, halls were let out to exhibitors in four-hour blocks. With a two-hour film he could run two sessions. He also exhibited Northern Safari in New Zealand on seven separate tours. He visited America on a number of occasions over a ten-year period, taking his twelve regular team members, including personal vehicles, and meeting all their needs.
In 1971, I ran into one of Keith’s two-man parties in a cinema in Albury, New South Wales. (I was seeking a venue for The Naked Bunyip in the area.) I was told that the film had reached the $10 million mark in box-office returns. Much later I learned that Northern Safari had screened continually somewhere in Australia during the whole of the period 1959 to 1989.
After more thought about our proposed film, I for one still doubted our ability to overcome the lack of faith audiences showed in the potential of contemporary Australian filmmakers to create narrative drama films: this attitude was similar to the view we held prior to the advent of the Holden in the late 1940s, that Australians could not possibly produce a worthwhile motor car in this country. As it happened, Bill and Bob Jane – the latter of racing car fame – who together became successful businessmen dealing in motor cars, particularly the Holden, financed our project. Phillip had enthused them to create a new company, and to secure an old and respected business name: Southern Cross Film Productions. As we wished to protect their investment as best we could, and for reasons earlier explained, we decided, instead of a dramatic work, to expand the basic documentary form to include dramatised fictional elements in which humour would be a vital factor.
A documentary approach was the benefit to me of Keith Adams’ demonstration. Yet, I was not interested in exhibiting in suburban and rural community halls – except as a subsequent, ancillary run. As a filmmaker and as a leading participant in the Guild in Victoria’s drive to overcome the distribution and exhibition barrier thwarting the renewal of the Australian feature film industry (see “The Genesis of Libido”), I refused to accept that that situation could not be overcome. I saw that my purpose was to create a more professional and polished work than Northern Safari, a film that could be exhibited in hard-tops and compete with regular cinema fare.
As all features were shot on 35mm negative and a documentary of the type we proposed could only be filmed on light, portable equipment (16mm), achieving maximum picture and sound quality for exhibition in cinemas was therefore a prime factor. I wanted to achieve a higher quality of picture image, not only for its own sake but to capture better flesh tones than the widely-used 16mm reversal stock in usage in Australia. I also wanted greater quality to allow scope for projection via 16mm, or, as virtually no commercial cinemas were equipped with 16mm projection, to allow for blow-up prints on 35mm if finance was available at a later stage. I tested various stocks and finally imported colour and B&W Eastmancolor negative film from Kodak in America. This stock, in 16mm form, had not been used in Australia. In the end, sadly, I was partly undone as local film laboratories had not had experience in handling it, and much B&W footage was spoiled during processing.
Sugar and Spice
A final decision on content now had to be made. We discussed a number of topics but decided to deal with Australian attitudes to sex and censorship. It was not only appropriate in terms of responding to the awakening need to address these issues by the community, but that, if it was done well and in an entertaining manner, it could be more safe as a start-up investment for Southern Cross Films than any other subject we had considered.
One needs to acknowledge the culture of 1968-9 to understand the validity of this judgement. Morés were changing in the Western world. The mantle of creativity in music, fashion and the arts passed to a younger generation, many of whom felt that love and flower power would conquer all ills. The push towards free love and open marriages, particularly in artistic circles, spilled over into the community, creating discomfort and insecurity. It was a time in which conservative, philistine Australia had been shaken out of its complacency. Yet, open discussion about sexual desire and gratification, nudity, pornography, obscenity, homosexuality, female sexuality, rape, the gang-banging phenomenon, prostitution, unmarried mothers, abortion, transsexuals, et al, was often considered taboo or, to many, distasteful. Over a short period of three to five years, the pressure to be more liberal, more trendy, had escalated. While it could be seen to have been advanced by various elements – for instance, through the distribution here of ‘progressive’ European films, by contemporary Australian theatre, the blatant use of sex in advertising, television, etc. – I saw it as an inner move towards a change in aspects of human thinking. It was, therefore, a time to tackle ignorance and fear head on.
Initially, I was delighted by the thought of drawing people out on a subject that many felt difficult to discuss openly. And I always regarded the opportunity to create with film both pleasurable and invigorating. No two days are ever the same. Yet, there was also a downside. My preference was not to concern myself with sexual matters at all – not as a result of any dogma or ideology, or that I thought such research not worthwhile, but as I knew very well how this largely unresolved area of human thought affected our nature both for good and ill, that it could be both helpful and unhelpful; sublime in its unifying and harmonising aspect, ugly and sometimes cruel when its darker, primal nature was not illumined by our higher qualities. Up until then we had tried to ignore the bogeyman and a dichotomy persisted in our thought. Now, as the brakes were being released, the hypnotism of sexual desire and gratification began to hold us in its thrall, hindering the unfolding of consciousness. I knew that the rather inert, recalcitrant depths had to be tackled at some time. But why concern myself with it at all in what would need to be a relatively superficial way? I had to give some deep thought to my participation.
Should I, or Should I not?
Phillip was aware of my metaphysical bent: he had once asked me about my inner explorations whilst in India, where I had withdrawn on occasions since the 1950s. When I had given an explanation, he said: “If anyone could convince me that there is a ‘God’, it would be you.” Notwithstanding, he chose not to raise the subject again. I did not mention my reservations about our proposed film. I knew that, if I went ahead, the resultant work would meet his expectations and those of Southern Cross Films, that my approach to the topic would not be seen to limit or affect anyone else’s response when I interviewed them on film. In fact, with a determination to cover every possible aspect and do the job thoroughly, despite my preference not to spend the next few years focused on human sexuality, I felt sure that no one would be disappointed.
I saw that my task was to juxtapose the various attitudes to sex and related topics in as wide a scope and depth as I thought audiences would tolerate. In this way, they could honestly face the topic. I believed that the proposed film could help to bring some release from the fear and guilt about sex deeply imbedded in our natures, and I hoped that it might enable a better understanding of the place that sexual desire and satisfaction played in our lives. I decided to go ahead. In retrospect, however, while acknowledging that we have grown and matured a good deal in the thirty-five years since filming took place, I did not foresee the degree to which our obsession about sexual factors would grow during that process.
Phillip, who was to act as producer, had recently joined Monahan Dayman Advertising, and was soon to become a partner in the agency. On the eve of pre-production, he found that his responsibilities had escalated and advised that he could not continue on the film in the way we had envisaged. He was only free to act as executive producer. While I understood his predicament, it came as a disappointment. I had been writing, directing and producing independent documentaries on my own throughout the 1960s, and had been looking forward to support that would absorb non-creative elements and allow me to concentrate fully on the innovative and æsthetic aspects of directing.
There was no money allowed in our tiny $36,000 budget specifically for a producer; even so, I could not think of anyone that could be appointed. At that time, there were few feature or documentary filmmakers as such, and virtually no producers or production managers with the experience of working independently, or on the type of project we had planned. There were one or two persons in large organizations, such as the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia) and ABC-Sydney, but they had not worked independently and without the extensive support that an existing bureaucracy provided. Nor did I think they would leave a permanent position for a short-term appointment. With a feature – and The Naked Bunyip at two-and-a-half hours duration is categorised as such – once pre-production and filming begins, it can be compared to a steam train that ploughs on, burning up coal, that no one can either stop or get off. It takes proven experience and discipline to complete a film on time, on budget, and to achieve its maximum potential within the determined financial strictures. I reluctantly decided to manage on my own. I did recruit an experienced production manager, Rhonda Finlayson, for pre-production in Melbourne, following which Elizabeth Clarke helped me as script assistant during production. Phillip allowed his assistant, Liz’s husband Andrew, to spend time on location as the stills photographer. Liz was also a talented photographer and she took over the task when Andrew was not present.
My Very Own Dolly
Fortunately, there was one innovation I could use to compensate in part for my curtailed creative time. In 1969, film production equipment was sparse and very limited in scope. I therefore designed a camera dolly and commissioned a wheelchair manufacturer to construct it. I wanted to introduce as much movement into the film as possible, especially as I knew a good deal of the film’s content would be interviews: i.e., talking heads. My dolly was very light and easy to lift, and it could break down to fit in the back of a station wagon by dismantling just two parts. It was easy to push and to steer, having twin, close-set 9-inch wheels paired in the centre rear that gave stability and allowed the dolly to circle 360° in its own space. It fitted through doorways and was silent in motion. The camera platform with moveable head could be changed from the front to either side in a moment, allowing the camera to track with interviewees as they walked and talked. Similarly, the seat was both moveable and removable, enabling Bruce McNaughton (DOP) to film at eye level or to sit on the floor of the dolly for low, travelling shots. Dan Burstall (lighting grip) usually guided it, sometimes Gary Wapshott (assistant cameraman), sometimes me. The dolly allowed me to avoid multiple set-ups in some situations and to make maximum use of our time. The only oversight in design on my part was not to realise that if the reasonably weighty Arriflex BL camera was mounted on the front platform, and the dolly was vacated and left unattended, the centre of gravity was too far forward and the whole caboodle would fall over smack onto the expensive Augenieux zoom lens – as it subsequently did on at least two occasions. Luckily, it fell square onto the face of the lens body, which sustained no damage. What a lens! What a dolly!
Content and Casting
Phillip and I had made a brief list of topics and of spokespersons we thought could comment in some way authoritatively on them, and Phillip’s wide range of contacts through his media and advertising activities was helpful. He secured a wonderful monologue (audio only) from Christian commentator, broadcaster and author Malcolm Muggeridge, in London, for instance. Our list was a basis on which I could work, but, as the content was to be topical, the film could not be scripted or planned in advance. I had to have the freedom to follow aspects that came to light during the filming and which were not known at the outset. Second, there were some who were reluctant to take part in a film on sex, despite how suited to the task we may have felt they were, and replacements had to be found on the run.
Prior to and during pre-production I attended theatrical productions to observe male actors I thought should be considered to play our fictitious market researcher, and also sought profiles with head shots of other actors around Australia from casting agents. The possible choice narrowed down to remarkably few who either read or screen-tested for me in the new video studio at LaTrobe University’s media department. One was Peter Cummins, a fine actor and a sensitive man with a quiet sense of humour. But ten minutes into a reading we both knew that his persona did not match that of the researcher I had in mind.
As for Graeme Blundell, I knew him from La Mama, Betty Burstall’s innovative, new wave theatre based on the experimental theatre of the same name in New York. Graeme, I felt, had a Buster Keaton-like quality, a naïveté together with a wariness of the world to which he could still show a brave face. Graeme was also talented at expressing humour physically and that for me determined that he should be offered the role. I decided that he should not speak on camera, however; his persona would make a comment but not distract a viewer from the topic being elaborated. I could see that Graeme’s (the market researcher’s) applied muteness would enable him to stand in for each member of the future audience. They would be free to wonder about what might be said by ‘his’ interviewees, just as the market researcher he was playing might actually ponder. Had he spoken visibly, he would have immediately become another ‘real’ element for an audience to consider. Nor did I intend to use Graeme for voice-overs in post-production. Nevertheless, when I tested this device by recording some lines with him and laying them over the film, I found that it didn’t destroy the ‘silent’ or isolated quality I wanted to preserve, and proceeded with the technique. The researcher’s unspoken thoughts were revealed, and they added to his sense of immaturity and unsuitableness for the job to which his company had appointed him. After all, he did say he wanted to do agriculture, not sex.
Style & Technique
I also employed a technique that I had not seen before in documentary film: I filmed interviewees looking straight into the camera lens in order to create an intimate and direct communication with each viewer, and to suggest that interviewees were providing information to that viewer. I had to half-crouch between the legs of the camera tripod and place my head right next to the lens. Once I had asked a question, an interviewee would then quite naturally respond directly to me; in effect, to the lens/the viewer. This direct personal contact was reassuring for the person expressing his or her opinion. And the technique obviated the need to have a questioner on camera or the ‘market researcher’ to be present on set, as would be assumed if the interviewee looked to left or right of camera. It also made for a close relationship between Bruce McNaughton behind the camera and myself, and we worked out a language in wordless gestures that enabled me to cue him for lens variations or movement, and to warn him of a shot coming to an end. But I cannot recall anyone, including reviewers, picking up on this technique to create empathy between subject and observer, probably because it engaged them but did not alert them to its difference. It may have seemed familiar, too, as television newsreaders looked straight down the tube. However, where I was forced to break the rule for one reason or another, the lapse is quite noticeable to me.
The only scripted parts were the opening scene in the computer chief’s office and the sequence featuring Barry Humphries as Edna Everage. Phillip wrote the questions and basic answers for Mrs Everage, and they were polished with Barry on set prior to filming. As far as I am aware, this became Edna’s first appearance on film. It was Day 1 of shooting and, as I had determined that Graeme would not speak, I asked Edna to read the questions out loud, then answer them. It showed Mrs Everage taking charge, as usual. Our market researcher hardly got a look in. One couldn’t help but feel for her absent husband, Norm, and their son, Kenny. More important, this set Graeme’s visibly mute role in stone for the whole work.
That principle had to be adopted for other reasons, too. I could not write dialogue or structure the film in advance merely to include our market researcher. It was not, therefore, feasible to try and anticipate where his presence could be brought into play. I wanted the film’s content to be as up-to-the-minute as possible, and content was often decided on the run from day to day, sometimes as a result of what I had filmed the day before. I could only pull the market researcher down into shot at short notice like a hydrogen balloon. If a part had been formerly structured for him, the film and its content would have been constrained by that. Even though I did shoot extra transitional scenes with Graeme as a cover, most could not be used as the anticipated content had changed in the interim. In addition to that, there were budget limitations. I did not have the money to engage Graeme for long periods, or to fly him to other states and provide accommodation. Other than in Melbourne, his hometown at that time, I could only afford him for a few days in Sydney.
Subsequently, after the release of The Naked Bunyip, it was clear that Graeme’s role as the market researcher was much liked. Some felt that it should have been featured more. I comforted myself to think that it was better to have audiences wanting more than to have found that ‘more’ would have worked less well in a film that was both serious and light-hearted. There is a good deal of sensitive information that was, to my knowledge, presented for the first time on film for public exhibition – such as the plight of unmarried mothers, abortion, male and female homosexuality, prostitution and the birth of a baby – much of it thought to be impossible to get at the outset. The market researcher would have been a risky intruder in those sequences, not only because of their serious content and as Graeme was otherwise associated with lightness and humour, but as it was not feasible to have an actor on set with interviewees who felt nervous and vulnerable.
Philosophy of Style
I certainly set out to expand the style of filming documentaries: my approach was influenced by the cinéma vérité movement that developed in Canada, France, America and England in the early 1960s, having been largely inspired by Robert J. Flaherty’s work on Nanook of the North in 1922. Richard Leacock, Jean Rouch, Donn Pennebaker, Chris Marker and Albert Maysles were the figures best known in the ’60s for furthering a technique that sought to capture events and behaviour as they occurred and without foreknowledge or undue intervention. Jean-Luc Godard gave the philosophy much credence when he used this approach in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), shooting without a script and devising dialogue and action with his actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Inspiration determined both the storyline and nature of the characters in a natural progression. It gave the drama a sense of immediacy and freshness, and put Godard on the international cinema map. In essence, however, the trio – Godard and his actors – took the place of a writer, using essentially the same creative process to weave a fantasy. For me, it was in capturing real life in real places as it occurred that cinéma vérité proved more revolutionary. Yet, it cannot be a principle that is seen in absolute terms. It is impossible to deal with both ‘real’ and ‘Real’ conclusively in this temporal world.
In the case of The Naked Bunyip, I had to pull back from the luxury of letting events unfold completely and naturally in a same-time sense. First, there was a huge amount of material to document and later juxtapose into a work of manageable duration that would hold an audience’s attention. Second, our backers, Bob and Bill Jane of Southern Cross Films, had invested in what they hoped would bring some degree of financial recoupment. As the general cinema-going public in Australia was not aware of cinéma vérité philosophy, it could not be expected to tolerate a too unconventional work. The investment would have certainly been more at risk with such an experimental film.
Now, in 2005, after documentary filming has been freed up to embrace a variety of approaches, audiences can accept virtually any style. Cinéma vérité has imposed its influence and been swallowed up in developments, particularly the scope of filming technology, its raison d’être in no need of further explanation. Earlier, it was an innovative thought that arose in sharp contrast to tradition.
Cinéma vérité was intended to mean ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ in cinema. This I reflected in a technique whereby I would attempt not to influence how my subjects expressed their views on camera. Each was aware of the topic on which he or she would be ‘interviewed’, but I would not draw them out or rehearse them prior to filming. Rather, in as few words as possible, we would together identify the aspects of a topic on which they could comment. I then chose about three that I would visualise in different compositions. Bruce would set up the camera for the first shot, usually a medium-wide-shot, and I would position myself next to the lens and cue the interviewee to begin, or sometimes remind them of the topic with a word only. He or she would then directly address me extempore in response. When I felt the train of their thought coming to an end, I would cut, choose the next composition, not engage the subject in conversation, then give just a reminder of the next aspect and roll the camera. I signalled Bruce with a touch to push in to a closer shot when I felt a part of the statement demanded more attention – or, if their response was drawn out, to again vary the composition on the zoom lens according to our pre-arranged plan. With these and other devices I could be sure that no statement was made unusable in editing by a lens or camera movement, or by a cut in the wrong place. Second, by strictly controlling the use of zoom in or out, any part of each monologue could be used. The segment would cut to another part of another composition in later editing without hindrance. In effect, as I did not interrupt during filming, interviewees actually made statements, seemingly to the viewer. This method enabled me to eliminate questions entirely from the film. No interviewer needed to appear and no question needed to be heard.
Elusive Characters Stand-out
While a number of scenes capture some sense of cinéma vérité – the life class with nude models; Aggy Read, wide-eyed and disapproving of the censors as his film runs on a screen behind him; the Bikies sequence; the life-style explained by two practising lesbians in their segment; Max du Barrie being completely himself as he dresses and dons make-up; the guys in their local pub; Carlotta in situ – I think the sequences with the greatest sense of ‘truth’ or ‘actuality’ feature the baby’s birth, the ex-Kings Cross prostitute and the river bank orator, Arnold Paine (in his other life a paper-seller). Again, there was no rehearsal. Paine had already drawn a largish group of listeners who waited in readiness to hear him expound his ‘unshakeable logic’ on sex, prior to my filming with two cameras, one mute. The resulting footage was later juxtaposed but material was not edited out. The sequence successfully captured Paine’s personal force and conviction – a contrast to the other little bloke seen a little way off with an audience of one.
The sequence showing an ex-Kings Cross prostitute, whose name I agreed not to reveal, is also riveting. Let us call her Nadia. It was only with great difficulty that I managed to find a young woman of Nadia’s poise and beauty willing to be interviewed on camera. For some months before filming, I had researched the possibility of including a high-class call girl. I traced two warm, motherly and quite elegant women in Canberra who were willing to appear. They were close friends of about forty years of age who worked independently as prostitutes, not through an agency. They told me their names were listed only by a chosen few senior bureaucrats in two or three federal government departments. These men called upon one or the other woman, sometimes both, to entertain visitors to this country. These gently-spoken and attractive ladies invariably stayed the whole night with clients and could have been regarded as modern-day courtesans. They were away from home most nights of most weeks, and well rewarded for their nurturing ministrations. The women and I enjoyed chatting about the film and how these matters would be handled. Later, just prior to setting off with my crew en route to Sydney via Canberra, they together called to say they had thought deeply about their involvement and had decided to withdraw. I was, of course, disappointed. Their interview would certainly have provided a rare insight to the world of prostitution, so rare that, while I didn’t give up, I doubted that I could compensate for their loss. At the same time, I well realised how it could have worked against them in their future lives. They had made the right decision.
On arrival in Sydney, and after each day’s shooting, I looked for a replacement in Kings Cross who would speak about prostitution. It was illegal, and also tightly controlled by pimps and unsavoury elements. I was warned a number of times to forget the idea. As it proved almost impossible to speak with girls on the street, I had to overcome this by having myself picked up by prostitutes who cruised the area in their own cars, going back with them to their dismal rooms with the inevitable washbasin and smell of disinfectant. I paid for their time in order to discuss the possibility of them appearing on film. I got nowhere, then realised that they were not able to act freely: there was always the threatening sense of a pimp close by. I had to look elsewhere, and by speaking to as many likely contacts as I could find, and being referred by one insider to another, I finally learned of Nadia. She had ceased to be a prostitute and it was suggested that she might feel free to speak out. Phone calls were made over a number of days until she was located.
Nadia and I met in a café. She had chosen one with large windows from which she could observe the street, seemingly inoffensive in the sunshine. But she was obviously uncomfortable to be in an area from which she had disengaged, and this re-introduced a sense of after-dark sleaziness. Nadia was more than a cut above the working girls I had seen and had contact with on the pavements outside. She was attractive, with a healthy complexion and glistening hair. Apart from the need to have one or two cigarettes, she was quite calm and radiated a confidence and joy about her future. She confirmed that she had broken with prostitution, and happily advised that she was in love and about to be married. Under these circumstances, I was careful to explain fully what our film was about. I said that whatever she might contribute would not only be greatly appreciated, but also treated fairly and in context. And, heart in mouth, I made sure she understood that I expected the final work to be exhibited publicly throughout Australia. I knew I ran the risk of her declining to participate. I was, therefore, delighted when she did agree to go ahead and arranged for her to contact me by phone to confirm a time and place.
We set up lights and camera in the hotel room I had hired for the purpose on our agreed day. Nadia arrived on time, a little nervous I believe, but mentally quite prepared – so much so that we began filming almost immediately. I had indicated that she was free to explain how she got into prostitution, her subsequent experience and present thoughts. It seemed that she wanted to get all this out in the open and then put it behind her, to finally break any hold the past might have. It became a confession, dignified by no sense of betrayal either of herself or of her earlier friends and acquaintances. She expressed some justification for women taking up prostitution and for their admirable qualities as individuals, defending them against the injustices suffered from police harassment. This to me helped create a balanced account. In Australian society at that time, there was little tolerance of sexual demands outside marriage and almost none of prostitution, not even a willingness to consider these issues in depth and in a humane manner. There were few persons with the frankness and courage of Arnold Paine, for instance. While expressing his ‘unshakeable logic’ on the riverbank, he told us:
A singer sells his throat! He gives the entertainment! He gets paid! A prostitute sells her vagina! She gives the entertainment! She gets the money! And everybody is satisfied! She has a right to sell it! If she sells what does not belong to her, she gets pinched! If she sells what does belong to her, she still gets pinched!
I suspect most people thought he should be quietly put down.
Nadia, too, was open and direct, but more genteel. She marshalled her thoughts and expressed them fluently. I didn’t need two takes. When she wanted to move around, we simply re-positioned the camera and continued from where she had left off. Nadia was experiencing one of those rare moments in a person’s life when demons have been banished and the way ahead is transparent. Her inner self had come forward with the strength and clarity to make this change, and there was no doubt in her mind that she would succeed. It showed in her eyes, which were bright and remarkably clear – so much so that I nudged Bruce to push in to an extreme close-up immediately I felt her exposition had come to an end. I have thought of her many times over the past thirty-five years, and each time earnestly hoped that her on-screen revelations did not in any way adversely affect her subsequent life.
While there are always customary patterns such as rhythm and balance in relation to other sequences to consider in structuring a film in its final form, Nadia’s long ‘interview’ proved to be so unique that Brian Kavanagh (film editor) and I retained the footage in full in The Naked Bunyip.
The Baby’s Birth
After completion of filming in Sydney, we returned to Melbourne where I set about finding a mother-to-be who would be willing to have the birth of her baby recorded on film, contacting women’s groups, mothers-to-be, hospitals and independent practitioners. I finally found a suburban medical doctor who felt comfortable about approaching one of his patients. I said I wanted to remind viewers that love and intimacy can result in the creation of new human life: I felt that a study of sexual attraction should be brought down to earth and grounded in physical reality, rather than left in the realm of mental fabrication and self-centred desire. His patient, who also preferred not to be named, agreed to discuss her possible participation. When we met, she was quite relaxed and at ease, and soon agreed. I immediately contacted Bruce McNaughton, Gary Wapshott and John Phillips, asking if they would go on standby with equipment ready over a number of weeks to hopefully capture the coming event. I am most grateful that they did.
Finally, I received the eagerly awaited telephone call that brought us all together at a private hospital at around midnight. We had to robe up and plan how we could position lights, camera and sound-recording gear without creating a hazard for the doctor and nurses, and, of course, the infant that was soon to arrive. If this mother had any fear, she certainly put it behind her, nodding in assent to directions given by the doctor and immediately carrying them out with her full concentration. She knew exactly what she was doing, made no complaint and with a strong, sustained burst of energy brought forth her son in a very short time, complete with ten fingers and ten toes. So far as I am aware, this was the first birth of a baby captured on film for public exhibition in Australia, a happening which I gently introduced to cinema audiences in The Naked Bunyip with a pas de deux by two Australian Ballet students, Eleanor Martin and Gary Norman, that had been choreographed by their principal, Margaret Scott.
Do Gays & Lesbians Really Exist?
While I found it a challenge to find practising and retired prostitutes for The Naked Bunyip, that could not be compared to the difficulty of enlisting the participation of homosexuals. I believe that no homosexual, male or female, had agreed to publicly appear on film or television before that time. The search began in mid 1969, and I pursued the matter during filming in three states with no success, except for one man who agreed to a short interview on the condition that his head and torso would not be shown, and that his voice would be dubbed by another’s. For nearly nine months following the end of shooting, up until just prior to the last stage of editing and post-production, I continued the hunt.
I was running out of ideas when I thought of an earlier connection with Val’s Coffee Lounge. In the early 1950s, I had lunched on occasional Saturdays at a Dutch restaurant on the east side of Swanston Street in central Melbourne. Was it The Batavia? I can’t remember. It was on the first floor, with a landscape window at which I sat in the midday sun, enjoying cold soup followed by nasi goreng, a culinary influence adopted during Holland’s colonial past in the Dutch East Indies.
From this window in the restaurant in Melbourne I could see Val’s on the other side of Swanston Street. A narrow stairway climbed straight from the pavement, and one day I decided to go up. It was a discreet meeting place for male and female homosexuals and others, like me, not of the same persuasion, who enjoyed conversation on the arts and other genteel topics that the masses out on the pavement did not generally wish to acknowledge. The dark blue suede panels in my tan leather Julius Marlows had no doubt gotten me in. Later, a small group of Val’s male patrons with whom I was chatting suggested that I accompany them to a social function to be organised by lesbians, and to which very few males and certainly no heterosexual blokes were invited. It was held quite often, but due to police harassment the functions were not made known except by word of mouth. The address was kept secret until the last minute, and sometimes changed at very short notice. I said to my acquaintances that I wouldn’t qualify for admission. But I was assured that they knew the organiser well and, if I were to remain calm and not show the usual male interest in any woman it would be okay.
We arrived about 9pm on the night at a large house in a leafy suburb that looked relatively undisturbed by illicit passion, and knocked on the front door. The woman who opened it was wary. When she saw me, she questioned my companions at length, but was not prepared to let me in. Finally she called the organiser who, leaving my acceptance pending, allowed us to enter. There were about fifty women dancing in pairs in a large dimly lit room. Our hostess wore her dark hair short, was solidly built and forthright. She asked me to dance, but I declined. I noticed that my companions were not approached. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, pulling me into a close embrace against her coarse tweed suit. It was a bear hug. I couldn’t move other than at her behest as we ‘danced’. Her main purpose was to oscillate her groin on mine, hard. This went on for some time until, not detecting any response, she signalled to the other dancers awaiting the result of her assessment that I was in the clear. Her action was insensitive, gauche, naïve, but seemed to be given some credence by the atmosphere in the room. This body of women appeared insular, isolated from society, wary of their difference – somewhat frightened schoolgirl-lesbians looking to their leader in the Australia of the 1950s. Unlike for male homosexuality there was no legislation banning lesbianism, but there were laws covering such things as “indecent acts”. These were ample means by which the police could harass them, and they did, reflecting a general ignorance and questioning fear in the community. I don’t know what their religion was, but homosexuals could well have been considered the terrorists of 1950 – except that they were as frightened of us ‘normal’ people as we were of them.
Our attitude towards homosexuals had not changed much by 1969-70. They dared not ‘come out’. I therefore had to draw on these earlier connections and the influence of one, Lemmy Caution – of whom a little more later – to trace willing participants for The Naked Bunyip. At the last minutes I found a male homosexual, Max du Barrie, who was prepared to appear on camera: Max was the type who would dine out on the experience. At the same time, I found two young active lesbians who were also brave enough to participate, but did not agree to be named. These three persons could not be seen as representative of all homosexuals. Their experience was a little more traumatic than that of the majority. Yet it gave them the courage to speak out. I quickly got the crew together, and recorded open and frank accounts of their life as homosexuals in a community that neither accepted them nor evidenced much compassion. I rushed the processed footage to the lab, then the work-print to Brian Kavanagh who edited in the material. It increased the duration of the film to two-and-a-half hours, which, after a few months in exhibition, I reduced slightly.
What did the censor think?
In July 1970, the manner in which the Commonwealth Film Censorship Board, headed by R. J. Prowse, would relate to locally produced films had not been fully thought out. The values held by the Board and its attitude to various topics could not, therefore, be defined by filmmakers. Prowse and his colleagues, a body that included one woman, were not qualified for the task. Where could appropriate persons have been found? There were no censors educated as such. From whose ranks should they be drawn: psychiatrists, teachers, artists, ministers of religion? Or could we get good well-balanced ordinary people from the suburbs, perhaps? At least the staff could be gotten from other departments through that symbol of fair competition and equal opportunity, the Australian Public Service Gazette. And they would, of course, reflect the state of mind of the community, wouldn’t they? Australia was very young as a nation and we Australians were in our adolescence.
During this renaissance period, our films were few and far between, and their advent followed no discernible pattern, nor was it expected or likely that they would be exhibited and, therefore, require the attention of the censor. For Prowse and his helpers, their nuisance value was probably the major factor. We in Australia had a singular view of each foreign nation’s attitude to nudity and sex, and Sweden, for instance – where the people hurled themselves into freezing lakes in the nuddy – was easy to work out. But to determine the range of attitudes in our community from scratch, and then impose an ‘acceptable standard’ on all, was a daunting task for which we were neither well-informed nor equipped.
The overall responsibility for film censorship had been relegated to the Department for Customs and Excise, plainly inappropriate but no doubt because the focus was almost exclusively on the regulation of imported material. The evil that lurked ready to attack our nation came from outside our borders. By this time, the censors had developed a siege mentality in response to the perplexed and sometimes angry reaction of a vocal section of the community to their well-meaning but artless and seemingly inexplicable dictates.
Both Phillip and I had anticipated that the Chief Censor would have some views on the content of our proposed film, but other than an almost certain ban on genitals – not even a whisker or a whiff of pubic hair allowed – we could not anticipate exactly how the Board would react either. The whole matter had suddenly come under question nationally, due to pressure from special interest groups: the Melbourne Film Festival committee, as a result of Erwin Rado’s selection of overseas films dealing frankly with intimate and sexual relations and the inclusion of nudity in Harry M. Miller’s theatrical production of Hair, for instance.
Whereas other filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors submitted their works to a somewhat secretive and unknown authority housed in the basement of the Imperial Arcade in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, and waited with baited breath, I decided to initiate a discussion with Prowse and his helpers at the outset. The major distributors treaded carefully in order to maintain a long-term relationship with the censor, but I was a loose cannon. The Federal Minister at that time was Senator Don Chipp, and I don’t think either the senator or Prowse and his colleagues realised that I did accept a role for some form of regulation; for a democracy in which people’s values differ, there can be no alternative. They were certainly wary of me. At the same time, I found that those in the Chief Censor’s office, while a tad reserved, acted courteously and showed goodwill.
I produced the first answer-print of the original cut of The Naked Bunyip with a low-cost electronic soundtrack to allow for possible censorship changes, rather than outlay funds on a final optical sound negative at this early stage. I had introduced myself to Prowse by telephone and, as soon as I received the answer print from Supreme Film Laboratories in Paddington, Sydney, I sent it to him on 3 July 1970, together with a completed Application Form for the Registration of a Film and an accompanying letter in which I set out the aims of the work. He invited me to meet him in Sydney and, after a preliminary chat, he introduced me to the group of censors he had appointed to scrutinise The Naked Bunyip. They suggested I watch the film with them and that they could afterwards put any questions they had to me. When the film had run its course and, as an ice-breaker, I asked one chap if he had seen Edna Everage on stage, he replied, “Oh, was that Barry Humphries?” He had accepted Edna as real in the Mrs Everage sequence. Others remained silent.
The content of the second part of the film deals with some more serious and less appealing manifestations of our sexual indulgence. Soon after the break for intermission, there is a sequence on bikies and then on gang-bangers. I had included anecdotal accounts given by the girlfriend of a bikie and by three gang-bangers I had interviewed while travelling with them in their car. Their dialogue included the following:
Every sheila that goes out and gets screwed and comes home and her mother says, “What’s happened to you?” She says, “I’ve been raped!” and she’s dropped her gear in front of the bloke and said, “Well, get into me if you want me.” She’s running around in the nude – she loves the idea of this mad gang-bang but once it’s over they leave her. She calls the police because she’s out of the limelight.
We got this bird out there and there was twenty-five of us. They all went through her one at a time. She loved it. They kept coming. They just kept coming and she loved it more and more, and when they’d finished there she was getting dressed and they’re all pullin’ out you know, pissin’ off and she wanted to go home, she wanted to sleep with one of them, this guy who let them, the guy that lined her up for them, and she wanted to sleep with him, but no he wouldn’t be in it. She chased after him, grabbing hold of the car and he dragged her along and she wouldn’t let go.
Finally she let go and she was left in the street. She never got enough of it. I can remember her dragging along the ground, grabbing hold of the side of the car and the guys are saying “Piss off”, you know, and she was left in the dark.
One censor said to me: “Not very pleasant stuff. It could prejudice a court hearing on this type of case if it were printed or reported in any way.” Despite what was described by my subjects – and the fact that I would not have been able to report a crime with impunity – he was unable to contemplate that the accounts were not of rape. I explained to him that the sequences defined a low water-mark in concepts about sex and human relationships, sex without emotional rapport or any real form of communication. I said that these attitudes existed in our society and we should take note of them. We would then be facing fact and not fictionalising. But the censor was not moved. The bikie sequence was banned in part and the gang-bangers’ in its entirety. I left the image to run, however, boring as the latter becomes, and bleeped out the dialogue. When Carlotta appeared dancing topless at Les Girls, the censor said he felt the Board would object. “To what?”, I asked. “To the breasts!”, he replied “They’re a man’s”, I said. “Yes, but they’re moving, aren’t they?” In his defence, I must say that that was the rule then – well, for a woman’s breasts. Even when I later filmed a brassiere commercial, I was instructed not to let the model’s breasts move, even though encased in a bra. About Carlotta at Les Girls, the nightclub only about two miles away from his office, the censor remarked, “Ninety-nine per cent of an audience would not realise he’s a man.”
It was also an aspect of the Censorship Board’s role to prevent any derogatory or offensive material about official bodies and other ‘friendly’ countries being broadcast, and this censor objected to the ex-prostitute Nadia’s criticism of the vice squad. It must have been forgotten, however, as her remarks were not among those detailed to be ‘removed’. Noted film critic Colin Bennett reported these and many more recollections of my meeting with the censors in The Age on 10 October 1970.
It was nearly three months before I received a final word from the Chief Censor. He decreed that 5 minutes in total should be deleted from the film; more than thirty cuts. Many, however, were very short: for example, close-ups of the breasts of Carlotta, star of Les Girls, and of breasts and the suggestive pelvic movements of strippers at The Pink Pussycat, both establishments located in Kings Cross. Of course, sections of the scenes that showed the pubic hair of two nude models in painter Geoff Goldie’s life-class had to go.
While many of the cuts that were demanded were illogical and a naïve attempt to protect the public from itself, I appreciated the time and consideration that Prowse and his colleagues gave to their assessment of The Naked Bunyip. They seemed genuine in their efforts to arrive at what they thought was a fair and proper result. For example, the mother-to-be and I had decided that her baby’s birth should be filmed as a natural occurrence and without any attempt to mask the physical reality. This was accepted in good faith by the Chief Censor, and quite a remarkable licence for the time. Yet, a question remains: why was the pubic hair of two life models ruled out? The two women were both as sincere as the mother and had adopted a modest pose.
What did the Media Think of What the Censor Thought?
This type of inconsistency encouraged me to not to let the matter die, but to stimulate a general discussion on sex and censorship. I arranged a screening of the film in its original form six weeks ahead of its release, and sent a personal written invitation to selected representatives of print, radio and television media, which they had to carry to gain admission. It was made clear to invitees that they could not bring others, as such a presentation could be seen to fall outside the guidelines for the screening of unregistered films.
I had prepared the theatre by setting up lamps on both sides of the screen with wires trailing to a switchbox, where I was to sit. One lamp was covered in red gel, the other with green. The lights were facing directly at the audience. During the screening, I turned on the red lamp to indicate image that the censor demanded be removed, and the green lamp to indicate dialogue that was to be deleted. I switched on both lamps together for the duration of image and dialogue cuts. It was the first opportunity provided in Australia for social commentators, columnists and writers on film and the other arts to learn what the censors regarded as offensive and unacceptable for cinema exhibition. It also told them how values and standards pursued by the censors compared with attitudes in the general community. As it happened, there was no arrest. And, afterwards, I was met by silence from the Censor’s office. I think they were unsure of what action to take – and, of course, the cat was well and truly out of the basement in the Imperial Arcade and now strutting down Castlereagh Street before turning into Park then George, where most of the cinemas were.
It was about this time that I thought of the title. We know that the bunyip was a mythological animal, uniquely Australian. The bunyip was reported by one writer to have asked a passer-by; “Can anyone tell me who I am?” We, as Australians, did not have a strong sense of identity, either. Were we a myth, too? Why not strip this creature bare and find out what it is made of? We would then be dealing with a naked bunyip, I supposed.
The media coverage following the screening was extensive, although it merely reported the phenomenon, weighing one opinion against another. In one sense, that was the purpose of the presentation. Yet, in a wider context, the response was disappointing. To me, it confirmed my judgement that our society was not ready to delve deeper into aspects of sensuality, and that Phillip and I, as filmmakers, were economically wise to present our study “in a funny sort of way”. The preview to the media did not encourage further exploration into the realm of the sense mind where sexual desire and gratification is formed, and how the phenomenon might work for good or ill in the human psyche. It confirmed that we, particularly in the western world, are concerned more with effect than cause.
I continued to ponder the Chief Censor’s decree and felt I should read the legislation pertaining thereto. I had been advised that the film could not be screened until the offending sound and image footage was “removed”. My interpretation of the relevant Act suggested that we could not be forced to physically “remove” any film footage. I reasoned: if it is left to run with the scenes blacked out and the sound untouched where image cuts were demanded, and if the soundtrack were to be bleeped while the images were left to be seen for dialogue only cuts, no objection could be sustained when the film was re-submitted for approval. Second, by this action the censor’s demands would become an integral part of a work that we were to sub-title, “A serious study of sex and censorship”. When I advised Phillip of what I planned to do, he immediately thought of asking Peter Russell-Clarke – a cartoonist, among other talents – to draw some sketches of a bunyip that would indicate the type of material that audiences had been prohibited from seeing. This was a better device than the captions I had planned and I immediately began the laboratory process of creating a ‘C’ roll of film which, while printing the release prints from A&B reels of negative, would at the same time black out the ‘objectionable’ footage and super the Bunyip sketches. I also created bleeps on sprocketed magnetic tape in order to complete the final sound mix and optical sound negative for the production of prints for exhibition. My first task, however, was to produce an answer-print and get it back to the Chief Censor as soon as possible.
It was not until months later that I saw the effect of this challenge to the censorship authority had been greater than I anticipated. One night, as president of the Producers & Directors Guild (in Victoria), I was about to host one of our regular monthly dinners. I seem to recall that our guest of honour on that occasion was theatre critic Katherine Brisbane. As usual, we had assembled in the reception area of the Green Room Club in Queens Road, Melbourne, for pre-dinner drinks. The room was crowded, but I noticed Senator Chipp. He appeared to be the guest of another group being catered for by the club that evening. I approached him to say hello, but it was apparent that he wasn’t at all pleased to see me. Without any preamble, he made me aware in no uncertain terms of his displeasure at my response to his Board’s ruling on The Naked Bunyip and walked away. There was no chance for further dialogue, yet this attitude revealed that Prowse and his colleagues must have, until then, been showing restraint and had kept their own counsel. In considering the incident later, I understood more fully Senator Chipp’s annoyance and why he felt justified in giving me a blast. My action in screening the uncut version of the film to the media, and then finding a way to expose the censors’ cuts, had certainly been provocative. Then I had rubbed salt in the wounds by doing the same thing in every other capital city. It must have been quite difficult for them to deal with. Yet, it was good to know how the senator felt and particularly welcome after a long reign by conservative governments that didn’t usually come out into the open from behind their polished, wood-panelled doors.
Distribution & Exhibition
My first independent film was Yoga and the Individual, a short documentary that I wrote, directed, produced and self-financed in 1964. It screened in international festivals, and I licensed the film to the BBC and the ABC for television broadcast. I also leased cinemas for special screenings. This seemed quite a natural course for me to take as, like some other young boys of the time, I had an affair with cinema at about ten or eleven years of age. The house our family occupied stood on a steep slope, and this provided a large space underneath that had earlier been converted into a room. I fitted it out with old carpet, heavy drapes and a few chairs. Then, with a hand-operated projector and short sections of 35mm film print, I staged screenings for my playmates. I can recall Les Miserables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935), with Sir Frederick Hardwicke, as one ‘picture’: silent of course. The projector housing used to get stinking hot and fume. I tried to hold this considerable fire risk steady with the cloth-covered fingers of one hand and to crank the film through at a realistic pace with the other. When business fell off, and inspired by Peter Cheyney’s offspring in America, Lemmy Caution, and in England, Slim Callaghan, I pulled back the curtains and turned the space into a detective agency by painting an appropriate sign on the window to alert passers-by, such as the odd blue-tongued lizard, an occasional plumber and the bloke delivering ice on his hessian-draped shoulder every week with the frozen block dangerously close to his ear. He couldn’t turn his head and I doubt that he ever noticed my logo. Yet, my previous experiences as an exhibitor stood me in good stead: it didn’t feel at all strange later in life when I projected The Naked Bunyip some hundreds of times around rural Australia after completing the initial capital city runs in major cinemas.
Director Tim Burstall, producer Patrick Ryan and I were at this time executive members of the newly-formed (in 1968) Producers & Directors Guild of Australia (Victorian Chapter). Together with our colleagues, and particularly during the following years during which I served as president, we made the pursuit of a renaissance in narrative drama film a major focus of the Guild’s activity. (See “The Genesis of Libido” in the next issue of Senses.)
For The Naked Bunyip, there was no healthy budget available for distribution and exhibition. In these circumstances, one has to cut one’s coat according to the cloth. While I knew there was an almost complete lack of interest in exhibiting Australian product by distributors, I had, nevertheless, sounded them out during production and post-production. First, they did not hold Australian filmmakers in high regard given their unproven record, and they felt no responsibility to help revive the feature film industry as a matter of national development and pride, nor could they see any future economic benefit were they to act as trail-blazers.
Furthermore, they were able to call on an abundance of product from their parent companies or allied distributors abroad. I knew, also, that it would be difficult for them to consider The Naked Bunyip as, with only one or two exceptions, all public cinemas throughout Australia were equipped with 35mm projection and not 16mm, the format in which The Naked Bunyip was filmed and release-printed. Much as I would have liked to blow the film up to 35mm for exhibition, I could not get the money to do so. I knew it was a matter of going it alone, and started to ferret out and contact independent cinemas and alternative venues that had some history of exhibiting film, ideally with bio-boxes (projection booths), in most parts of Australia.
I also went back to the commercial exhibitors to see which of their cinemas I could lease on a four-wall basis, and in which ones there was space to install 16mm projection equipment. Sometimes the position of the projection ports and the placement of the two 35mm projectors, which were bolted down, did not leave room for an additional projector. While I needed to manage all advertising and promotion, I wanted also to hire one or two members of their staff on the occasions I could not meet all the demands myself. It was almost mandatory in that period to open a film in the Melbourne CBD. No exhibitor would co-operate and, after failing to secure a commercial cinema, I walked the streets, looking at live theatres and peering into buildings including disused premises to see if there was a venue I could adapt. The only auditorium I found even remotely suitable was The Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street, but it held only 203 seats and was not economically viable for a premiere season that required proportionately heavy expenditure on pre-publicity and advertising. I was forced to look outside the city’s perimeter.
The Premiere Season
Earlier in 1970, a friend, Terry Turle, had leased the magnificent Art Deco Palais Theatre for a weekend to screen his documentary, This Year Jerusalem, to predominately Jewish audiences. Many Jews live in the area. The theatre is an icon situated at St Kilda on Port Phillip Bay, very close to Melbourne proper; a live theatre with a very large stage area well known for staging big-budget imported ballets, musicals, ice shows, major drama productions and concerts. It was not known for film screenings, with the exception that Erwin Rado had run his Melbourne Film Festival there for some years. That catered for a special interest group and required a venue with a large capacity. While lured by the Palais, I at first ruled it out of my mind. To release an Australian-made film before 1970 was a rare and questionable venture, and to draw the general public to a huge theatre it did not associate with film screenings seemed to be an impossible challenge. Second, I calculated that the lease charges would be quite outside my anticipated budget. Despite these factors, my lack of success in the CBD encouraged me to look at the prospect more closely. Melbourne Film Festival patrons could at least constitute a core group on which I could build, I reasoned.
Erwin had told me that by arrangement with the Palais he had recently installed a Bauer 16mm projector as a permanent facility to broaden his Festival’s scope and enable screenings of documentaries, short films and some features only available on the smaller gauge. The projectionist he regularly employed, Kevin McDonald, was a very experienced operator familiar with 16mm, unlike most other qualified projectionists who were not called upon to screen in this gauge. As a first-class presentation was vital to me, this was of great interest. Erwin agreed to let me use the projector if I booked the Palais. He was also able to recommend the Festival’s publicist, Natalie Miller, to me, whichever the venue. Natalie was, at that time, the principal, independent film publicist in Melbourne. She later became producer for director David Baker on The Great MacArthy, and a highly-regarded distributor and exhibitor: the Longford and the Nova. Natalie had also, in 1970, publicised This Year Jerusalem for Terry Turle at the Palais. These factors worked together to give me more faith in a season there for The Naked Bunyip, and I called on the general manager, Ken Bromley (now deceased), for a chat. Ken showed me the bio-box and 3,000-seat auditorium, advising that he could install partitions that would close off the upper circle and leave a more-manageable 2,300 seats available for me. He had a seven-week window available later in the year from 7 November, otherwise the theatre was committed with bookings. Ken was well aware of the paucity and lack of success of Australian films at the box-office, and thought I would only need a few days or a week. I said, however, that I would be looking at the seven weeks he had available. I asked what the cost would be. In normal cinema terms, he would have looked for a percentage of the box-office takings or a minimal rental plus a percentage. He probably thought the film would not take anything worthwhile and some rental would be better than none. Yet, he was a kind and helpful man, too, and I think he wanted to help. He quoted the attractive price of $1,750 per week.
In retrospect, if Ken Bromley had not been so co-operative, The Naked Bunyip almost certainly would not have had the impact on the renaissance of the film industry in Australia that it did. It would have been a minor player and not respected by the other cinema distributors and theatre owners I was to deal with throughout Australia later. Of course, I could not foresee this at that time and wondered at the risk involved in the venture.
At the same time, I had confidence in the film and set about researching the costs involved, finally coming up with a complete budget to cover the opening season including promotion, advertising and publicity and ancillary costs. I took this to Phillip with my proposal for a seven-week premiere season at the Palais, with distribution and exhibition of the film throughout Australia to follow, explaining that there was no possibility of a major distributor or exhibitor taking the picture on; that it was a matter of going it alone. Phillip in turn put the proposal to Bill and Bob Jane, and came back to me with a willingness to fund two weeks only, and then possibly review the matter.
I could understand that it seemed prudent for them to take that course. Nevertheless, it was a risky thing to do. Sometimes a film needs to build and one has to support it until it does. More to the point, if I could only confirm two weeks at the Palais, I would most probably lose the remaining window of five weeks to another booking, even if the film had found its legs. If that were to happen, I doubted that The Naked Bunyip would ever be heard of again. We were more vulnerable than any other exhibitor. For us, there was no other remotely suitable venue available in Melbourne. The film could sit in a can for a year or more, and then it would be almost impossible to revive interest in the program, especially as it would be regarded as having failed on its first run. Even with only a short delay before re-release, the effect of pre-release promotion and advertising, which is the major expense and requires a tremendous amount of energy and man-hours, would have dissipated. It is almost impossible to get editorial space in print, radio and television media for what would then be regarded as a second run. There is much demand on the media from diverse sources and, understandably, content needs to remain topical while also being fair to competing interests. We had already been extraordinarily fortunate to get the column inches we did on the censorship issue. The effect of that, too, would die and could not be repeated.
It looked grim. Once again I had to think seriously as to the wisdom of my involvement. Yet, I felt a commitment to The Naked Bunyip and knew of no one else with the type of experience required to manage it well. It was both a cumbersome and delicate sound and image print to handle, for which ideally suited projection equipment was not available outside the Palais. Nor were there appropriate alternative venues. ’Til then, only news and short documentaries were being filmed on 16mm. As a lone operator, I needed all my experience as a filmmaker and with laboratory processes, as well as in financial management, marketing and promotion, and even a knowledge of engineering, to conduct the film’s distribution and exhibition program. And while feeling confident in the success of the film, I was not blind to the fact that one with a close association to a creation usually does have faith in it. I also knew such faith could be dangerously close to the hope many evidence when buying a lottery ticket. But, finally, I wanted to prove a point: that an Australian film, if it offered something new and worthwhile, could succeed with Australian audiences. The Naked Bunyip was cheeky and had left the stodgy documentary format behind. It had seemingly appeared out of nowhere and would, I thought, both inform audiences and create some delight.
I went back to Ken Bromley and confirmed a booking for the first two weeks of his available period, asking him to let me know immediately if he had any enquiry for the remaining five weeks or part thereof; in effect, to give me first refusal on the remaining period. Given the low rental, I agreed that he could operate the refreshment bars. The Palais has two individual ticket booths outside the foyer and fronting onto the footpath. I advised Ken that I had engaged the Melbourne Film Festival’s projectionist, but that I wished to hire two of his cashiers. He said that I would only need one. I repeated that I would need two. “You can rely on my experience”, he said. “You will only need one.”
By this time it was clear that I needed to find more office space and to quickly get settled. I found premises in an Art Deco block of flats, Kia-Ora, on St Kilda Road, Melbourne, and was fortunate to lease some space to Ewart Wade, editor and publisher of the film magazine, Lumiere, to help offset rental costs.
As no signs or advertising of any type were permitted on the building, I did not at first know who had leased the apartment with a door directly opposite us on our small landing. We were puzzled. Could it be a woman? Whoever it was, the tenant seemed very discreet. Over time, we occasionally got an unexpected knock on the door. When I opened it, the man I found standing on the mat was obviously surprised to see me, and temporarily struck dumb, giving me time to indicate that he might want the door opposite. These men represented a range of characters, but were usually in a clean shirt, with or without tie, with faces freshly shaved and gleaming like their brilliantine-slicked hair. I guessed they were either rostered off or had dashed home from work to spruce themselves up before treating themselves to some professional ministrations by – yes, by now I had my suspicions – the girl(s) opposite. Although I very rarely met anyone on the stairs, I often heard a shower running as I approached the top landing. I recalled that these chaps had obviously had a good wash, but I guess they had wanted to make a good impression. I’m glad I didn’t really know it was a brothel. They were illegal at the time.
Promotion & Advertising
The available window at the Palais now determined that we were just over three months away from opening. I was busy with the censorship issue, and finalising image and sound processes, and needed to spend some time in Sydney with Supreme Film Laboratories. Nevertheless, all other plans relating to promotion and advertising had to be finalised immediately. In discussions with Natalie Miller, and with an eye on the budget, I decided we would need: ¼ sheet posters; a flier supplied flat to use as interior wall posters but which would also fold neatly in press kits to despatch in 8” x 10” envelope; a durable printed pouch to hold the press material; and colour and B&W publicity stills for display purposes and for including in print media kits.
I also created a programme brochure to hand out to patrons on the purchase of a ticket. It listed all topics consecutively under section headings, and the names and expertise of all who appeared in the film – with the exception of those who would not agree to be named.
Right at the outset, with Natalie’s urging, I also decided to give strong emphasis to party bookings. I felt we could concentrate on the two weeks we had secured at the Palais, then, if the film was successful and I could continue the run without any further cash outlay from Southern Cross Films, we could immediately sell party bookings for the remaining five weeks. To sell seats in this way I needed more staff, and Natalie was able to introduce Maxine Godley. Maxine would first concentrate on party bookings and then take over on publicity. As it transpired, Maxine and I later went on to run The Naked Bunyip during its entire cinema exhibition period in Australia of nearly two years.
As we got nearer to the opening date, I recruited university students and other casuals to drop fliers in selected suburbs and in common rooms and faculty offices, and, again, to affix posters at night around the city and some suburbs.
I did a run-through with the projectionist at the theatre and found that the German-made Bauer projector’s sound system – no doubt designed for German requirements – did not read well the frequency range of our laboratory’s optical track. Expertise in this area was rare, but Gerry Harrant came on board to rewire the system and capture more of the lower and middle-range frequencies. I’m sure that subsequent Melbourne Film Festival patrons would have gained from this overhaul, too.
The censorship factor was still a great concern. While I assumed that my treatment of the censor’s cuts had to be accepted and a registration certificate issued, I had not received it. As the days crept by, I decided to give the laboratory a go-ahead, but it was just three days before opening that I received the first release print. We immediately ran it through – which one should do with a ‘green’ print as it does not sit well in the projector gate until dry – and, fortunately, there were no faults in printing. The censorship certificate did not come until seven days after the premiere.
On opening night, I went to the theatre one half-hour early to check that all was in order. As I rounded the bend from the Upper Esplanade down to the Palais, I saw a queue of people that stretched down the footpath some hundreds of yards from the one opened ticket box. I got Ken Bromley on the phone, and he left his family dinner table to come and operate the second box, at the same time arranging for a second cashier to rush in by taxi. I needed to delay the start of the program for fifteen minutes, advising those already seated of the problem and apologising for the delay. They didn’t seem to mind. There was a constant buzz in the audience and a sense of anticipation. Finally, we got under way and the 2,350 available seats were filled. Maxine watched in the foyer as Ken Bromley sprinted from one possible hiding place to another, calling out, “Where’s the ‘House Full’ sign?”
The laughter in response to the film’s lighter moments and the applause at the end of the program was a treat. There were just ten or twelve walkouts, so it seems to have hit the right spot.
Over the next week, the level of response kept up and I had no hesitation in advising Ken that we would want to keep running. Over the entire seven weeks the “House Full” sign was out many times. We had sold thousands of seats through party bookings and they provided a solid underpinning. Generally, my observations seemed to suggest that, as for the French New Wave, university campuses first, and then the educated cinema and arts-minded middle-class were quick to support the initiative and style of The Naked Bunyip.
To capitalise on the success and take advantage of the advertising and publicity, and to provide for those visiting the city for Christmas shopping and dinner who might not have the time or energy to get to St Kilda, I now needed The Playbox, too. The theatre entrepreneur, Kenn Brodziak of Aztec Services, together with Harry M. Miller Attractions, held the lease at that time. I called on Kenn and found that The Playbox was available. The theatre had a lighting control box built out from the rear wall right under the ceiling, and I felt this could be converted into a bio-box. There were regulations governing this, particularly with regard to fire, but by agreeing to meet the demands of the Melbourne City Council I was able to proceed. Then, with the installation of a 16mm projector, sound speakers, a screen and hiring the necessary staff, we were under way. The “House Full” sign was out on the footpath on about three nights each week. The film ran concurrently with the season at the Palais and continued after that season ended – eight weeks in all.
Okay, where to now?
During the Melbourne season, I also made flying visits to other capital cities. I could afford no delay, as I wished to capitalise on the coverage The Naked Bunyip had received in national magazines. I had compiled records of likely venues all over Australia, except in the Northern Territory, and began the process of organising premiere seasons in capital cities. I also wanted to take advantage of the summer weather to cover coastal towns and set up two mobile exhibition units for the purpose. Southern Cross Films provided the funds for two projectors, screens and sound speakers, and Bill Jane took the two Valiant station wagons that I leased from him during filming and had them re-ducoed and decorated with the film’s title and artwork in the style of the poster.
Developing Presentation Techniques
The footage of The Naked Bunyip film print totalled just on 5,500 feet, and no available, portable projector could accommodate this in two sections. While I had planned an interval and structured the film accordingly, it was not satisfactory, I felt, to have another break in the program. It would not only have interrupted the flow of the film for audiences, but distracted them further while a projectionist either turned up the lights or used his own lamp to change spools and lace up the film in order to continue. After researching the projectors available for purchase, I chose Bell & Howell and, in order to overcome the problem of the film’s length during projection, I sought to extend the spool arms to hold 5,000ft reels.
Earlier in my life I had worked with my father-in-law, the highly esteemed precision engineer Joseph Green, in his tool and gauge manufacturing business, Green Brothers & Miller. One of our occasional customers was Arthur Pyers, another precision engineer who ran his workshop from home, a not uncommon practice in the 1950s. I put this problem to Arthur, and he designed and built an adjunct to the two projectors out of Duralumin, the lightest, strong material available. On a solid three-eights-of-an-inch plate of Duralumin, he positioned two long arms out of the same material to taper out front and back and hold 5,000ft spools clear of the projector. The plates were quite wide, and on the rear arm he affixed a torque motor with clutch and belt-drive that would adjust its pulling power according to the progressive length of film being taken up on the spool. The tension applied to the film while running from the projector gate to take-up spool is critical. The base plate and arms were separate and packed into a special box.
Arthur also made up projector stands. The top was a rectangle out of angle iron into which the Duralumin base plate fitted snugly. Each of the four legs with floating feet was made up in two sections, one sliding into the other to lock at various levels. They had to be adjustable for height as each cinema bio-box and auditorium was different. I had to project through the observation ports in bio-boxes as the existing 35mm projectors could not be moved. Not only were these ports at different heights, the angle from the projector lens down to the screen varied in each cinema. Some of the older bio-boxes had irregular floors and I had to adjust each leg individually to get a stable, level platform for the projector. That machine, the stand and spool arms, film print and a portable rewind bench had to be carried up to the bio-box, sometimes up a ladder, in order to set up. Once the base plate was positioned in the angle-iron frame, the spool arms were mounted on the plate and fastened with Allen screws that were countersunk, leaving no sharp edges on which film could be caught or scratched.
I engaged John Lamond, then a film editor, to lead the first mobile unit with an assistant. In the design of the posters, which were printed on a white base, I had left a clear strip on the bottom to carry other information, such as the name of the venue and dates of the film’s screening. I now had a large hand-printing set made up of individual letters plus carrier, so that each season could be specifically advertised in appropriate towns as required. Lamond set off, reporting back every few days. Later, when Arthur Pyers had finished the second set of projector arms, I formed a second mobile unit.
During 1971, the two units covered coastal resorts of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, plus some of the larger inland country towns. John Lamond was so enthused by the experience, particularly such an intimate contact with audiences with whom he saw he could communicate, that he became a film director and producer with a first film entitled, Australia After Dark (1975). He followed that with a string of successful pictures in various parts of the world. Maxine and I continued on with the mobile program after we completed the major capital city seasons in 1971.
Soon after the season at The Playbox Theatre closed in January, Maxine and I packed up the film and all advertising components in readiness to tackle the rest of Australia. This was the beginning of a period of approximately eighteen months during which we would get back to Melbourne for short periods only. While Sydney was of the highest priority, it proved to be a very hard nut to crack. It took me some time to succeed in finding venues there. The first areas to open up after Melbourne were Perth, then Brisbane. The only possible cinema in Perth was the Savoy Cinema in Hay Street, but it was locked in to exhibit Columbia Pictures’ product. The cinema owner-exhibitor, however, wanted to help. He made representations to Columbia Pictures and reached an agreement for the distributor to withhold its product for five weeks from 5 March.
In Brisbane, I secured a lease on the Crystal Cinema in Windsor, to open on 11 March. These dates, the only ones available, allowed us just enough lead-up time for promotion, preview screenings and pre-release advertising. The venues were separated by thousands of miles and I certainly would not have chosen to open in both a week apart. It made for exhausting work. Although we had had an extraordinarily successful season in Melbourne, I knew very well that that did not necessarily set the pattern for the future in all other parts of Australia, and that profits could quickly be eaten away. Any show business entrepreneur could attest to this fact out of first-hand experience.
The top venues were more dispersed in Brisbane than other capitals, but The Crystal in Windsor, an independent exhibitor, was equated with a first-run city cinema. It was not my preferred choice. I had been worried about Queensland as I had filmed an interview in Brisbane with painter, Jon Molvig, who had won the David Jones Queensland art prize in 1965 with his study of a female nude titled, “Underarm Still Life No. 2”, and, if I recall correctly, the Gold Coast Art Prize in 1969 just prior to my visit to Brisbane in that year. David Jones had loaned the painting, together with the winners in five other years, to be exhibited by the Queensland Rugby League Club. As confirmed in The Australian of 26 July, the manager considered it obscene and unsuitable for the club and locked it away out of sight. I had filmed the painter standing in front of his work at David Jones and was later advised by a Government official that my film would not be screened in Queensland if I included the sequence; the Queensland Vagrancy, Gaming and Other Offences Act enabled police to seize any material they consider to be obscene. I was reminded of this rather narrow, restrictive atmosphere as soon as I returned to Brisbane (despite the anomaly of Surfer’s Paradise, where I was twice invited to participate in group sex by female touts during filming). It was no surprise that I had difficulty securing one particular venue on what appeared to be moralistic grounds alone. The cinema I regarded as a first choice refused to consider The Naked Bunyip.
Wherever Maxine and I were on tour, our primary task was to locate either a reasonably priced apartment or family motel room with cooking facilities. Apart from an occasional cashier or projectionist, it was only when absolutely essential that I would engage other part-time or temporary personnel. In Brisbane, as we could not be there for the whole season, I engaged Palings to handle party-bookings. There was also the constant need to scout for second-run cinemas so that, once the initial season had closed, I could capitalise on the promotion and advertising to cater for audiences in other areas. While the nature of this demand and the scarcity of venues means that one is rarely successful, much time is eaten up on the hunt. It was also imperative for me to continue with arrangements to open as soon as possible in other capital cities and towns, and during the lead-up time in Brisbane I had to revisit Sydney, Adelaide and Perth to meet cinema lessors, run previews and secure leases.
It was not at all easy to make our type of independent distribution and exhibition economically viable in relation to cinema lease and staff costs, radio and print media advertising, travel, freight and accommodation, even with a film as successful as The Naked Bunyip. Although I managed to negotiate reasonable cinema leases compared to customary charges, that cost was, nevertheless, the biggest factor. First, given that other film product with a track record was always available to major exhibitors, they would not let their own cinemas go cheaply, if at all. It was a little different for the few remaining independent exhibitors in Australia, from whom high grossing first-release product was sometimes placed financially out of reach by major distributors, or even denied them altogether. For this reason, independents often understood our difficulty and were more helpful, very glad to see me when they were in trouble. Second, cinema lease charges covered the exhibitors’ risk and were often a financially safer bet for them than the screening of their own product. But, without at least that sort of return, it was more attractive to them to run their own show. For us, while our gross revenue was almost always considerably higher than exhibitors would have achieved with the product available to them, our costs – although tightly controlled and with no salary for either Maxine or I – ate into the returns at a disproportionate rate. Only a major hit – such as we had in Melbourne, where the cinema capacity is able to cater for large audiences within a short period – brings in good profits. And The Naked Bunyip, an R-rated film, could not equal the returns of the family show, Northern Safari, for instance, which could also add to its takings with many more matinee screenings.
Nevertheless, Brisbane audiences responded in relatively large numbers. The Crystal Cinema had a moderate capacity and we had the “House Full” sign out on a number of occasions. By comparison with Melbourne and subsequent audiences in most other parts of Australia, however, Brisbanites were more reserved and less relaxed. Even promotion was tough going. I could feel a wariness and resistance by media journalists to embrace openly a film about sex. Yet, I extended the initial run at The Crystal and did well in terms of gross revenue, surprising the cinema owners. And, of course, when we drew good crowds to any cinema the lessors made comparatively good money out of refreshments.
Generally, it was very difficult for me as an itinerant exhibitor to open short-term accounts with the number of suppliers needed for ice cream, sweets and soft drinks, and to operate the sweets bar itself. Second, I could not persuade cinema lessors ahead of time that I would bring in sufficiently large numbers of patrons to warrant them interrupting their customary control of refreshments. They just didn’t believe an Australian film would do that sort of business. If they had, they probably would have increased the rent and hung onto the profit from refreshments as well.
In Foreign Territory
There was no alternative but to move to Perth on a more permanent basis prior to opening in Brisbane, although I had to go back there briefly to arrange the first-night reception and get media coverage. I found it impossible to obtain another cinema in Brisbane and continue the run, yet the publicity generated by The Crystal season paved the way for the mobile exhibition unit later in Queensland.
The Savoy in Hay Street, Perth, was a relatively small basement cinema with a high profile. The Naked Bunyip packed audiences in for the five weeks and I very much wanted to continue the season. Columbia Pictures, however, while admitting to the media that The Bunyip deserved to stay, felt it could not hold back its product any longer. We spent a few months in Perth and I did succeed in securing two suburban cinemas where the film performed well, although I could never recover the proceeds from one of them. Perth was lovely but money and status were the gods. Unlike Brisbane, it had few mundane inhibitions. Yet, a successful high-profile company, a house either with a river view or set in a leafy suburb, a good car and a motor launch or yacht earned respect and kudos. Despite the sunshine, the freedom and the beauty of the place, I found the atmosphere concerning, the people bearing a chip on their shoulders and the movement to secede from the rest of Australia quite strong. West Australians felt that their state contributed much to the national economy but did not receive adequate investment, even consideration, in return. They also felt their isolation from mainstream Australia keenly, that opportunities in business, science and the arts were not commensurate with those available in the eastern states. All this was probably justified, yet it was a new experience to be regarded a bit like a foreigner.
The majority of the population were concerned about their jobs and moving up the corporate ladder. Those concerned specifically with developing and expressing themselves in the arts comprised a relatively small group, but made a contribution out of proportion to their numbers. While strolling down St George’s Terrace, I suddenly realised that, whenever I needed to contact or to think about an arts-related activity, I was referred to a wealthy, self-made corporate person. I wondered if it was a sense of something lacking, or guilt, that energised them in this way. There were few arts practitioners in a controlling position.
Two years later, I became the inaugural executive director of the Film, Radio & Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts (now the Australia Council). Our national agenda determined that I spend time in Perth developing ways in which creativity in film and television could be encouraged, particularly by our Board’s support not only for individual applicants but also towards the realisation and development of the Perth Institute of Film & Television, an innovation by Jo O’Sullivan. Jo was really a film or arts activist and not a filmmaker. His board included the poet and academic Judith Wright (now deceased), the only recognised artist with whom I had purposeful discussions. Wright was vital to Jo as a symbol of the inherent cultural and creative worth of his vision, but a solicitor, Harry Lodge (Chairman), was also needed to give it credence with both the business community and government, state and federal.
Across the Desert
Despite surveys to towns such as Kalgoorlie, Bunbury and Albany, no possibilities for exhibition in centres outside Perth came to light. We soon needed to return to Melbourne to exhibit in major Victorian towns. As we had much in the way of files and accessories, I called on Avis to see if it had a van the company wished to re-position in Melbourne. I had hired a car from Avis while in Perth and, as luck would have it, they wanted a 3-ton van ferried back. We loaded up with our possessions, filled some canvas water bags, purchased food and set off on the unsealed road across the Nullarbor Plain, the approximately 3,000-mile (4,800km) journey via Kalgoorlie, Port Augusta and Adelaide to Melbourne.
We slept out in the desert at night, having gathered a little wood along the way for our cooking fire. The stars that soared in the heavens from the flat 360° horizon were indescribably magnificent.
Within three days, we reached Adelaide, where I continued my search for a venue. The only place available was Her Majesty’s Theatre. This I found difficult to consider until I was convinced by local identities, including Ron Tremaine – promoter, entrepreneur, publican and more – whom I engaged to assist with publicity, that the theatre was also used for cinematic purposes and fully accepted in its dual role by the local populace. It was a smaller, conservative Palais Theatre. I booked it from 13 September, and immediately finalised a schedule for advertising and promotion.
The Harbour City
It was not long after our return to Melbourne that a Sydney season started to fall into place. As the city and environs are divided by the harbour, I wanted to open on both sides of the water at the same time, again to make maximum use of the planned new onslaught of promotion and advertising. I had had some national magazine coverage at the time of opening in Melbourne, but I couldn’t rely too much on the effectiveness of that as time had gone by. I needed to start again and create an interest in The Naked Bunyip for Sydney’s cinema-going public.
I had been unable to get a cinema from the major exhibitors in Sydney’s CBD and there hadn’t been a suitable independent cinema available either. Nevertheless, the film had by now earned some respect in the minds of distribution chains, particularly with Village-Roadshow exhibitors and distributors through Alan Finney in their Melbourne head office. I knew Alan, who had earlier been involved in experimental theatre and then become probably the youngest, most progressive executive in cinema exhibition and distribution in Australia at that time. I had talked to him much earlier about distribution for The Naked Bunyip and, although it was not possible then, changes were afoot as Village-Roadshow established a presence in Sydney, first with the co-operation of The Greater Union Organization. I had my eye on the Vogue Cinema, Double Bay, owned by Greater Union, and Village-Roadshow had just entered into an agreement to operate it. Village later converted the cinema into a twin, but at that time programming was in a state of flux and Alan suggested that I meet their manager for New South Wales. I was able do arrange a four-wall deal to open on 11 August. While a central city venue would have been preferable, the high-profile Vogue Cinema was certainly the best possible alternative. It was well known for its presentation of eclectic and art film product, and Double Bay itself was considered to be one of the most desirable places to live, a favourite of social commentators employed by the glossies.
On the North Shore, I found The King’s, Mosman (although the name might already have been changed to The Classic), an independent cinema. With the kind co-operation of the general manager, I was able to open on the same day as the Vogue. The King’s was also known for a wide range of films and had served the eastern prong of the North Shore well, over decades. I could not hope to equal the Vogue’s figures, yet running both cinemas at the same time did help to tap the interest generated by the one promotional campaign.
I asked painter David Boyd, and the transvestite star of Les Girls, Carlotta, to help Maxine and I launch the film. Carlotta, beautifully dressed, advised that she had spent the whole day on her hair – a thick blond wig which she had permed into hundreds of small curls. We got the program under way first at Mosman, then sped across the harbour in a black limousine to open the Double Bay season with an escort of uniformly dressed, black-clad bikies on gleaming machines. Pioneer filmmaker Ken G. Hall came along and also attended the reception for guests after the screening. Transvestite theatre performers arrived draped in furs and jewels, but with the backs of their frocks cut so low their buttocks were exposed to the night air. Most guests seemed to mistake them for women.
Sydney is not an easy town to conquer by comparison to Melbourne. Its weather and situation has created a life-style more focused on the outdoors than the home, and its people are more individualistic and not so intimately connected with one another. The harbour has destroyed any sense of a strong centre. It’s a town that is hard to get a good grip on. I was never sure just how well I was reaching people with information. It seemed to dissipate and feedback was almost non-existent. I marvelled at how much less I could do in a day than in other cities, with businesses in diverse places and the Harbour Bridge and volume of traffic sapping time and energy. I wondered why the cost of doing business did not send companies to the wall.
To the City of Churches
Adelaide was booked to open on 13 September and, while we retained our base in Sydney, we needed to be in South Australia temporarily for me to fulfil the publicity commitments that Ron Tremaine had organised and to oversee the launch. Adelaide was markedly different in atmosphere to other capital cities, made up of old families and unknown families, old money and fresh money. It was class-conscious and cliquey, calm, slow-paced and orderly on the surface, but with sombre, unresolved areas underneath – simmering mysteries. I sometimes think of The Turn of The Screw when I think of Adelaide. The atmosphere was more than English, with the same sort of gloss on top.
I queried the opening night official guest list that Ron Tremaine presented to me. He defended it vigorously, explaining that it was the right way to kick things off in Adelaide. It included; the Premier, Mr Dunstan, and Mrs Dunstan; the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Mr and Mrs W. Hayes; the Chief Justice, Dr J. J. Bray; the Education Minister, Mr Hudson; the Labour and Industry Minister, Mr David McKee, and Mrs McKee; Sir Roland and Lady Jacobs; Sir Kingsley and Lady Paine; Sir James and Lady Irwin; the Rev. Fr. Bob Hailstone; Mr Len Amadio, who became Minister for the Arts in South Australia; and many more influential people. I was grateful for their support but felt guilty, wondering if they could really spare the time for this show. Had Tremaine beguiled them? Or, perhaps, they comprised a really ‘with-it’ group that set the tone for Adelaide? Or, maybe, having led a protected life, they wanted to learn more about sex? If so, why would they want to publicise the fact? In this city of churches, sex seemed to be an illicit, secret activity. Such queries were never answered for me. Adelaide, however, did not do exceptionally well. Did this esteemed group, coupled with the venue, Her Majesty’s, frighten off the hoi polloi, making the film seem a little too high-browed? Who knows?
We returned to our temporary base in Sydney while I sought other outlets. I failed in Wollongong. In fact, I failed in other locked-down union towns, too – in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and Broken Hill. However, we received a warm welcome in Newcastle from Margaret and Theo Goumas, independent exhibitors who operated three cinemas in the city. It was a relief to work in a small town where everything was close by and to benefit from the close relations that the Goumases had established with the media over a long period. The Naked Bunyip opened strongly and ran on for a number of weeks.
We were back in Melbourne towards the end of 1971, where I leased the Victory Theatre – very near the Palais Theatre in St Kilda – for a return season beginning on 14 November. The Victory, a large capacity live theatre, was operated at that time in a similar fashion to The Palais, and therefore available to various lessees on seasonal hire. It was not staffed, and in this case Maxine and I also ran the refreshments bar. I would lace up the projector with the first reel of the program and go back down to the foyer to help Maxine lay out sweets, to set the urn going for coffee and tea, then prepare cold drinks. She would then man the ticket box while I served patrons before collecting tickets and going back-stage for my introductory address. As the film had gained some notoriety, audiences were interested to learn about reactions to the film and of the circumstances surrounding its making. I also gave this short address wherever I was present for the screening to make the evenings more of an intimate affair for audiences, particular in the country; it was similar again to the type of presentation made by Keith Adams for Northern Safari. I then made a dash up flights of stairs into the bio box and started the film. At interval I needed to go down and help Maxine on the refreshment bar, then rush back up to project the second half.
Often, when one hires an auditorium or theatre on a four-wall basis, one has the responsibility to keep it presentable. The Victory, while not as magnificent as The Palais, was yet a grand palace with flights of broad marble stairs that needed to be kept clean, in addition to two large foyers and a carpeted auditorium from which we had to peel up chewing gum and scrape or wash off ice cream each night. At that time, there were stalls and a lounge and dress circle, but it has subsequently been altered.
Mobile Exhibition: The run-around
We were also, from this time until the middle of 1972, operating a mobile exhibition unit, covering Victorian and some New South Wales towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Mildura, Swan Hill, Shepparton, Corowa, Albury and Wodonga. I had to book the venues prior to our departure. We would then take accommodation in the first town in order to advertise and promote the film, while at the same time making trips to the next town to choose a ticket agency for forward bookings, to take out advertising in the local weekly newspaper and on radio, and also to print dates and times on our posters and paste them up, deliver fliers, and for me to do print media and radio interviews.
Corowa, just on the other side of the Murray River in New South Wales, was the biggest disappointment. We opened up the old cinema, which obviously had not been used for a long time. We had to sweep out the place and dust the seats, and Maxine had to clear a network of spider webs away from the little ticket box before she could get in. I had trouble setting up the projection stand and equipment on an old, uneven wooden floor. And it was a squeeze to get into the observation port between the two ancient 35mm projectors. The weather was very hot and, as there was no refrigeration equipment, we prevailed on a nearby milk bar to stay open at night to provide cool drinks.
The projection box under the galvanised iron roof was very hot, so I opened a window onto the deserted street. On the first night, I descended to give my opening address to find an audience of about ten or twelve people. We learned, too late, that the introduction of poker machines to clubs in New South Wales had virtually destroyed the traditional entertainment industry. They were not permitted in Victoria, and Corowa clubs drew large numbers of visitors from across the river. Our few nights in Corowa dragged, me hanging on to the projector to keep it steady on the rotten floor, and, unlike Peter Sellers, the projectionist in The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957), I had no bottle of whisky on top of the trembling machine (shaken, not stirred) to help improve my concentration.
I could not get a cinema in Albury, so looked for a venue in Wodonga, Victoria, on the other bank of the Murray River. I hired the Civic Centre and packed it out for two weeks. We were so successful that I took another nine days just two weeks later, in December. The hall was close to the large Bonegilla overseas migrant-intake centre, and this may have helped.
The End of The Run
The recognition that clubs in New South Wales had ensnared the entertainment dollar drew an end to my exhibition activities. By the time I returned to Melbourne, The Naked Bunyip had been sold to the national, free-to-air-television-channel HSV7 for broadcast later in 1972. HSV7 censored the film for television without reference to me, so much so that I wrote to the media dissociating myself from the “mutilated version”, saying also,
the incompetent way in which the so-called ‘offensive’ sequences, scenes and words have been deleted has resulted in a disjointed film which bears little relation in mood and effect to the work as originally produced.
Altogether, it was clear that there would be no worthwhile demand for the picture in cinemas in the future.
While I have since enjoyed the right to distribute the film over more than thirty years, an almost complete lack of interest has been evident until the end of May 2005, when Umbrella Entertainment released the work on DVD as one of its Australian films of historical interest. It all came together at a time when I had just completed a considerable amount of work restoring the film to its original form, quite a challenge as film emulsions and optical soundtracks had changed in the interim. A complete restoration has been beyond my resources. It has, therefore, been a partial restoration possible only on video and DVD, not on film. I was helped greatly with this project by moral support and a financial contribution from the National Film & Sound Archive, and by goodwill, patience and expertise from both Cinevex Film Laboratories and Digital Pictures.
With The Naked Bunyip, at the end of nearly two years exhibiting the film, we were financially almost back where we started. I had worked on commission only – which was to include Maxine – not calculating whatever was due until the end of the film’s release. I think I received approximately $1,300 in settlement. It means that exhibition was in the black, but not by much. Maxine and I were supported, however, with rental and other accommodation out of Melbourne and with meals outside the home whenever there was no alternative. Most of our telephone and transport costs were taken care of, too. So, apart from earning no income, we were not otherwise greatly out of pocket. Fortunately, money had not been the main motivation for either of us.
The Final Effect
The opportunity to test audiences and to succeed with The Naked Bunyip in exhibition was my primary purpose. The willingness of Phillip Adams, Bill and Bob Jane to continue support for the endeavour was, I think, rare and I feel that the revival of the Australian feature film industry gained considerably by their action. I suspect that most others would have called a halt at an earlier stage. And, The Naked Bunyip was a success. Many thousands of Australians saw it and enjoyed the experience, and the effect on other filmmakers was positive.
Tim Burstall, for one, arose from the disappointment of 2000 Weeks to make Stork (1971), written by David Williamson. We had had many conversations after 2000 Weeks, before and after Guild meetings, when we met for a snack lunch, or when I called on him. Tim’s energy and sense of purpose was one of the major driving forces in the revival of the Australian feature film. But at this time he was uncharacteristically subdued, and had turned his attention to making alterations and renovating his inner-city home. This physical activity seemed to act as a calming therapy and divert him to the contemplation of things other than film. He was fond of literature and, in an Australian context, admired the social and political insights of D. H. Lawrence showed in his book, Kangaroo. Tim later filmed the work (1987). But he felt that “the great Australian novel” had not then been penned. He toyed with the idea of turning to writing himself.
With regard to film in Australia, Tim had a number of questions that lasted all his life: they were really a catalyst for conversation for one felt that he rarely drank in one’s reply on each occasion. He used to rue what he thought we hadn’t done and query, “What do you think we should do? What is going to work?” To this in 1969-70, I used to reply; “Comedy, Tim! Right now the only safe way to go with Australian audiences is with comedy.” This used to earn a look of disdain – or was it puzzlement? Tim was more inclined to serious drama and felt it had a more worthwhile impact, earned more respect. But he did do a comedy, Stork, he and cinematographer Robin Copping shooting on 16mm negative stock, as I had done. This, although determined by budget factors rather than the needs of portable, documentary filming, also showed a greater flexibility. 16mm had not been Tim’s medium.
Near to the completion of Stork, Tim and I reviewed the process I had used on exhibition including promotion and projected costs thereof, the rental and capacity of available cinemas and their potential to realise a profit in relation to duration of hire, etc., and I gave him details of cities, towns and their cinemas. He opened in the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, very successfully, and it wasn’t more than two or three weeks later that Alan Finney stepped in to secure the picture for Village-Roadshow. Wisely, they blew up the negative to present it on 35mm, overcoming the major block I faced with distribution and exhibition.
The Naked Bunyip not only had a considerable influence in boosting the confidence of filmmakers. By succeeding throughout Australia where other films had not had such an impact, it provided proof of the accuracy of our underlying concern: the need for proper access to distribution and exhibition outlets within our own country as a first priority. We, as filmmakers of the Producers & Directors Guild in Victoria particularly, understood that the interest of overseas and local distributors to finance and take up Australian films was largely generated by the success of Australian film product in its own territory. And we had not yet established a reputation as directors and producers on the world’s stage.
The effect on audiences has been harder to glean. People laughed at the same sequences all around Australia, but the laughter was less sure in rural areas, and more robust in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth than other capitals. Similarly, the response to the information presented on homosexuality was accepted in a more relaxed and less tense manner in those three cities.
The most pertinent sense I hoped would emanate from a viewing of The Naked Bunyip was unknowingly expressed by Mishka Buhler – the younger of the two nude life-class models on camera – when she said, “As far is sexiness is concerned, it’s only a matter of an attitude of mind.”
The unabridged version of “The Genesis of The Naked Bunyip”, giving further information on the renaissance of film in Australia, can be referenced through the National Film and Sound Archive.
THE NAKED BUNYIP
Credits (as appearing on film)
John B Murray
produced & directed by
John B Murray
director of photography
Let’s Make Love
Janet Laurie & Gerald Lester
Southern Cross Films