Originally published: Cinema Papers, No. 46, July 1984, pp. 138-41.
Until Razorback (1984), Russell Mulcahy’s forté as a director had been the video rock clip. His work for groups and artists such as Supertramp, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, The Motels, Icehouse, Spandau Ballet and Ultravox contains a spectrum of ideas and images with one common denominator: visual excellence.
In four years, Mulcahy has earned, deservedly, a worldwide reputation for technical bravura and imagination in a field that previously was marked by only the occasional flash of creative image-conjuring.
Mulcahy’s work has been widely recognized by the American and British music industries. He has received awards from the British music publication Music Week (including one for “outstanding contribution” to the music video industry in 1982) and two “special comment” awards in 1983 for the video clips for Billy Joel’s “Pressure” and “Allentown”. He recently received two Grammy Awards for his work with Duran Duran.
For his feature début, Mulcahy deliberately chose a non-musical, feeling that Razorback, the story of a gargantuan, man-eating boar roaming the Australian outback, would present him with various new challenges.
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How did you first come across the Razorback project?
In August 1982 the film’s producer, Hal McElroy, rang me up in London and offered me the job. It was a good reason to come back to Australia and do a film.
Hal had seen a number of my clips and felt that there was something in them that he wanted to see in the film. He never exactly defined what, though.
What was it about the screenplay of Razorback that appealed to you?
Its energy and its agoraphobia [sic] (1); the idea of terror in wide, open spaces. I mean, where do you hide?
I also think one should only work on things that one is happy with. My criterion for that is whether I would actually like to see the film myself. So, I shot it as though I were the audience; I created scenes that I would like to see on the screen.
I am a great fan of the adventure-thriller genre. I like most films, but musicals and action thrillers are the ones I particularly like.
Had you been offered any other films?
Before Razorback, I was only offered musicals: “Flashdance 2” [not made] and one called Space Riders [John Massot, 1984], which was a science-fiction musical. But I didn’t want to do them because I’d been doing music clips for the past five years and to do a musical wouldn’t have been very taxing.
The script for Razorback was different and a little more challenging.
What was the budget for Razorback?
It was about $5.5 million, which was quite heavy for an Australian film, and for a début film. I did a lot of pre-production work on the film because it is quite a responsibility having that much money hanging around your neck.
Did you contribute to the screenplay?
There were two drafts before I came in and about three after. Hal McElroy, Everett de Roche and I formed a threesome and we locked ourselves away, hammering it out and moulding it.
I put in qualities and scenes that I could visualize, such as the concept of a guy living underground and a variation of the haunted house on the hill.
We wanted to inject a little more humour into it as a relief from the tension, so Everett and I worked out the farmhouse scene. We also decided that the end of the film should be at the Pet Pak cannery. We felt it should end in a kind of ultimate haunted house on the hill.
Everett is one of the best thriller writers in the country and he was a pleasure to work with. I had seen Patrick [Richard Franklin, 1978], Roadgames [Richard Franklin, 1981] and Race for the Yankee Zephyr [David Hemmings, 1981], which I thought was a bit flawed but the script was so good.
Everett is a very visual writer, which I like. He writes with shots in mind and you can talk to him and describe other things you’d like to see. Even before I came in, the first draft I read of Razorback was a very visual script.
Was there any improvisation in the film?
Oh, there has to be. That is one of the delights of the filmmaking process. You organize a shot and then on the day something magic happens. On Razorback, it happened in the shots, the acting, even in the way some of the scenes were written. Everett also came up to Broken Hill and sometimes would rewrite scenes because of the way something was developing. It is a continual growth process.
What are the major differences between making a feature film and making video clips?
Razorback was something that I needed to do because I had only done short clips. You can become a little disillusioned with it all, because they are four minutes long, you shoot it in a week and then they’re gone. I really needed something that I could work harder on and grow with.
The main difference was the concentration involved in making a one-and-a-half-hour narrative work. Because of the schedule, you are all over the place. You shoot a bit of the end, then a bit of the beginning. I had to concentrate on the story the whole time and know my in and out points of each scene. When I shoot, I am always editing the film in my head, so I had to be totally aware of what was going on in each scene. A lot of that was obviously screwed up when we cut the film down.
The razorback in the film seems to be an enigma. One doesn’t get a good look at it until the end of the film.
That was intentional. If you show all your cards up front then it is going to be a pretty boring game. It was all designed as a teaser, so you say, “Did I see it or didn’t I?”, and, “Is it really that big?” We wanted to create that feel. It is not a new method; they used it in the 1950s.
I wanted to create more a film of suspense rather than horror, so by not showing the razorback one creates more suspense. What you don’t see is usually more frightening than what you do, as long as in the end you get your money’s worth.
I had trouble deciding who was worse, the razorback or Dicko [David Ague] and Benny [Chris Haywood]. Was that an intentional parallel: the evil in man and beast?
Yeah, a lot of people are going to say that. I mean, something inside asks, “Who is the worst: beast, animal or man?” I am not trying to make any heavy statement with the film, but if people want to read that in, fine. It wasn’t an intentional message to mankind.
Did any of the crew on your video clips work on the film?
Yes, Bryce Walmsley who has done the art direction and production design on most of my overseas clips. He came over from London to do the film. He’d never done a film before.
Although a lot of the film is designed, you don’t really notice it when you’re watching the film. Anything, from a bed to a lamppost, is placed carefully in shot. Even the waterhole, for example, was specially constructed, and the cave in which Dicko and Benny live was a set. And the house that is burnt down at the start of the film was actually built because it isn’t easy finding a house like that in a flat, barren landscape.
How did [DOP] Dean Semler get involved in the project?
I saw Mad Max 2 [George Miller, 1981] and thought it was a most incredible film. It was one of the first Australian films that had the guts to say. “We’re an international film with an international look and it just happens to take place in Australia.” They decided to go for a particular look in the film and they held it throughout.
Dean and I decided to do basically the same thing: to have an idea of what we wanted the film to look like and then make sure that we maintained a consistent style.
You seem to imply that there is a particular way some Australian films are shot that might hinder them from being sold overseas.
No, I think it is the story content which does that. I don’t think Australians can make an international film without paying attention to that.
Some of the tracking shots in the film arc particularly impressive. Did you use any particular camera system, such as the Panaglide or Steadicam?
We tried using a Steadicam. I am not convinced Steadicam is definitely a good machine. I always find that to get a lighter camera and hold it in your hand can be just as effective. We did use a Steadicam up to a point but then we gave up. We ended up hanging the camera basically from two bits of cloth. Dean and I found that much more effective.
Steadicam has worked successfully in Wolfen [Michael Wadleigh, 1981] and a few other films, but I don’t think Australian cameramen have the hips to use it. I mean, it is all in the hips, isn’t it?
Many compositions in the film have remarkable definition. What stock did you use on the film?
The latest fast stock from Kodak. We got one of the first batches of it. It is an incredible stock: you can shoot in such low light.
The lighting in Razorback is very striking. What was the style you went for?
I have never been concerned about where the light is coming from. I don’t think you have to tell people what the light source is.
Dean and I were lighting for emotional effect only, so there was light coming from behind people and trees. Some might say, “What the hell is a light doing out there?”, but I don’t think the audience is wondering why. They are actually looking at the image.
It is the same with the smoke, too. There is smoke where there shouldn’t be, but it is there because it works emotionally.
Did you have much to do with the engineering of the Dolby Stereo sound in the film?
We really fought for the Dolby Stereo. It pinched the budget but the sound mixers, the editor, Bill Anderson, and I were convinced that it should be in Dolby Stereo: we just needed that level of sound.
What Dolby Stereo can give you, apart from being able to spook somebody by having sound come from one side or from behind, is an incredible sound level. You have extra decibels, so when the razorback screams you can make it howl on the bass level. On a mono track, with all the music and the sound effects, the boar screams would have become very muddy.
A lot of Australian films are coming out in Dolby Stereo.
A lot of them don’t actually need it.
You have obviously paid considerable attention to the locations in the film.
Hal McElroy, myself and a few other people probably made about five trips up to Broken Hill. First we went to Bourke and various other places, but when we saw Broken Hill we fell in love with it. There is such a variety of locations and landscapes there. Unfortunately, you can’t shoot everything.
Razorback is edited in a powerful fashion: there is a strong style in the way it cuts from scene to scene. Was that your idea or something [editor] Bill Anderson devised?
It was a combination. Many scene changes were shot that way and Bill really enjoyed cutting it. He worked very hard. The first cut came off very quickly: he had cut nearly half the film before I had even finished shooting. The fine work then took some time.
Many of those scene changes were pre-planned. I wanted to have a pace to it. If you dwell too long in a film like this, the audience starts thinking too much. You should just go with the flow.
How much of the budget went into the special effects?
The creation of the boar by Bob McCarron cost a lot of money because it was a complex creature, and six of them were built. It ate up a lot of money, not only people!
Who designed the razorback?
Bob. I worked on a few sketches with him but he basically did the design. I think he had actually designed one for himself years ago. He is fascinated with them.
The design is based on fact and enlarged from that. When you talk to a razorback hunter in the outback they have horrific stories of confrontations with these things. I think our final product is quite malevolent.
One of the newspapers is giving away a free trip to razorback country. Heaven forbid!
Did you make any major casting decisions in the film?
I worked very closely on the whole casting with Tim [Saunders, Associate Producer] and Hal. Warner Bros also had a few suggestions.
The major casting decision was to make Dicko and Benny younger characters than those in the book [by Peter Brennan]. Casting Chris Haywood and David Argue together as brothers was an incredible coup.
When did [composer] Iva Davies start working on the soundtrack of the film?
Iva came in pretty early, actually. He was the only choice I could think of in this country. He was perfect because his style of music is just right for the film: a mixture of the primitive and the modern. He saw some storyboards, read the script and worked out a theme from that. I then showed him a rough cut of the film and he used a Fairlight computer to do the rest of the score.
Do you have any future film projects planned?
I want to do another film now, but during the shoot I thought, “Bugger this for a life!” It is fucking hard work.
I want to do another film next year maybe, but we are going to do more video projects this year. There is a project with David Puttnam called “The Silver City” [not made], which is sort of a fantasy musical, but we haven’t been committed to do anything. We’re waiting to see what the reaction is to Razorback overseas. I think it might be big in Japan.
Razorback will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Wednesday 6 August at 9:30 PM.