Ted Kotcheff

On its release in 1971, Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff) was unkindly received by Australian critics and public alike, the bone of contention being its representation of an outback male society whose interests are limited to drinking hard, gambling hard and fighting hard, with a shameless enthusiasm for blood sports thrown in for good measure. It is a criticism that still holds sway even though the film has now reached cult status in this country. Such a criticism, however, largely draws attention away from the psychological make-up of its central character, John Grant (Gary Bond), from whose point-of-view we experience this seemingly barbaric society.

Grant is a schoolteacher who sits high on a pedestal and can barely contain his disdain at having to serve out his contract with the Education Department in the outpost town of Tiboonda. It is a town located in the middle of a vast, empty landscape and consisting of no more than a schoolhouse and a pub directly opposite (as in a dialectical opposition, given that alcohol is the catalyst for his subsequent breakdown in identity). With the school year over, he boards a train headed for the mining town of Bundunyabba (often referred to in the film as “the Yabba”), where he is to spend a single night before continuing onto Sydney for the start of a six-week holiday.

Up to this point, Grant is secure in the knowledge of who is he is, and is clearly amused by the quaint and plebian manner in which the locals of Bundunyabba like to pass their time: drinking and playing two-up. Yet, cracks in his sense of self begin to emerge when he finds himself inexplicably compelled further into their circle. The first volley comes when he meets the local policeman, Jock Campbell (Chips Rafferty), an outwardly witless type but savvy enough to pick up on the teacher’s haughtiness. When Grant describes himself as a “bonded slave” of the Education Department, Jock replies, rather menacingly, “Well, they must know what they’re doing … you clever blokes never like to stop in one place for long.”

A second, more direct volley comes with Grant’s meeting of Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), an alcoholic and the only other recognizably educated person in the film. Grant openly expresses his contempt for the locals – “I’m bored with the aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are” – but his comment ricochets and he is taken aback not to find an ally in Doc – “It’s death to farm out here, it’s worse than death in the mines […] you want them to sing opera as well?” Bull’s eye!

It would be remiss to call Wake in Fright anti-intellectual or anti-middle class, but from this perspective, while it is something of a stylistic precursor to the so-called Australian gothic cinema – The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) – thematically it may have more in common with the Ocker comedies of the early 1970s. Who can forget Clive James’ parody of the Australian cultural élite in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (Bruce Beresford, 1974), for example? James plays a belching, beer swilling film critic from Sydney enjoying a sojourn in Paris – “just to go to the flicks” – courtesy of a very beefy cultural grant from the government!

Grant doesn’t make it to Sydney. He tries his luck at two-up as a means of getting out of teaching, losing his holiday pay as well as his earlier winnings. With only a dollar to his name, Grant must rely on the hospitality of the locals and finds himself trapped in a nightmarish world of strange ritualistic exploits – the constant drinking and a notorious kangaroo hunt – which culminate in a sexual encounter with Doc Tydon and, later, an attempt at suicide. But the film is careful not to show Grant as a victim of outside forces; rather, he is a victim of his own sense of superiority, for he revels in these exploits as much as he despises them

It is always darkest before the dawn: Wake in Fright is an Œdipal drama in which Grant is confronted with parts of himself he knew not of, and returns him back to where he started, back at Tiboonda, a wiser man and greatly accepting of a culture he once looked down upon. At another level, Grant’s descent is so hard that we can cite Wake in Fright as a kind of Œdipal drama for a whole nation. An extended scene with Janette Hynes (Sylvia Kay) – the only woman in the film with any depth of character – bears this out, I think, when he tells her of his desire to move to England and become a journalist – “This is bad enough, but even Sydney … I really would like to go to England.”

Maybe this is the reason for the film’s lasting spell. By thinking along these lines, Wake in Fright dramatises the cutting of our umbilical cord with the mother country, but in doing so it also shows the painful realisation of having to confess a side to our national character we did not want to.

The following interview with director Ted Kotcheff was conducted via telephone on 27 May 2009 in anticipation of the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival on 13 June. Kotcheff talks candidly about the film’s reception in Australia and France, and his many experiences during the making of the film.

* * *

We are two years shy of the 40th anniversary of Wake in Fright’s release in 1971, and it’s a film that was not at all well received when first released in Australia. Yet, over all those years, there has been an enduring affection for the film and it is considered a seminal film in the history of Australian cinema. Have you any thoughts on why that might be?

I can’t explain why that might be. Why it has been held in such high regard in Australia is something you should be explaining to me! [Laughter]

I’ve always been flattered by directors like Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and others who have come to me and said that Wake in Fright is the film that inspired them and made them think, “Yes, we can make great films here”, and they have always attributed the beginning of what is called the renaissance of the Australian film industry to that film. I don’t know how true that is, but I was always gratified that they saw in it something of tremendous power.

Wake in Fright

The film is the story of a man who is outside a community, he’s an outsider, and I think that idea always has very strong appeal. One common element that haunts a lot of my work is people who don’t know themselves. Duddy Kravitz [Richard Dreyfus] in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [1974] does not know what drives him, and in the case of the schoolteacher in Wake in Fright he has no idea of who he is and what he is capable of when he is put under extreme circumstances. Suddenly, a whole different persona emerges which astonishes him but also humanises him. I think that’s the whole theme of the picture: a man who discovers he is basically in the same existential boat as everyone else, and that discovery liberates and humanises him.

But this is all intellectualizing. I don’t know for sure, because in the end Wake in Fright is a pretty tough film to watch. Back then, everybody felt that it was very strong, especially the hunting of the kangaroos. According to Jack Thompson, and this is what he told me, when Australians saw the picture a lot of them thought, “That is not us!” But it’s not anybody; it’s just men behaving badly.

Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1971, where it was well-received, yet when it was released in America by United Artists it had a fairly controversial reception, especially because, as you’ve suggested, of the kangaroo hunt. A new print was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Did you attend the Festival this year?

No. Since I was committed to coming to Australia for the screening at the Sydney Film Festival this June, I decided not to go to Cannes.

Did you hear of how the film was received at Cannes this time round?

No news at all, but the first time the film got great reviews in France. One French critic thought it was a masterpiece and interviewed me two or three times, on television and on radio. The French really loved that film. They loved the idea of people under great existential stress, and were attracted to the dust and heat and the powerful rawness of it.

I can tell you a very funny story about when the film was screened in competition. I went along to the official screening and sat in the director’s chair, then the jury was marched in and they sat down and the film started. During the screening, there was an American seated in one of the rows immediately behind me and he kept saying, “Wow! This is great! Wow!” At the point where Donald Pleasence [playing Doc Tydon] sexually assaults Gary Bond [playing John Grant], I heard him say, “Oh no, he’s not going to go all the way? Oh my god, he’s going all the way! Wow!” Of course, I didn’t mind because they were all approving noises. Afterwards, I said to someone from United Artists that there was someone behind me who was making very approving noises – “music to a director’s ear” is what I said – and asked whether he knew who it was. He said, “No”, but asked if I could point him out. I looked around and said, “Oh, there he is over there”, and the United Artists guy said, “Oh yeah, he’s a young director from America, a New Yorker, he has only directed one film.” I said, “Well, what’s his name?”, and he replied, “Martin Scorsese.” I said, “Never heard of him!” [Laughter]

Now, my dear friend, guess who is in charge of Cannes Classics?

You’re kidding? He remembered the film?

No, I’m not kidding and, yes, Martin Scorsese remembered my film from 38 years ago and put it into the classics category. Isn’t that amazing? He obviously loved the film.

Of course, Scorsese is a great historian of world cinema. He really is interested in all kinds of films, particularly those that are memorable to him. I was really chuffed when I heard that, because it reminded me of that incident back in 1971.

I want to get clear on your career leading up to the making of Wake in Fright. Did you start making films in Canada, your country of birth?

You’re right, Canada is my country of birth, but I didn’t start making films there. In Canada, I actually only directed in television and did not make any feature films until I went to England.

The reason I went to England is because there was no film industry whatsoever in Canada at that time. This was in 1955, and even then I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to work in theatre or make films. The only possibility for making films was to leave, which was characteristic of the times and the first impulse of Canadian directors like Norman Jewison and Arthur Hiller. They went to Hollywood, but I decided to go to London because I felt that maybe I would work in theatre. In London, there’s theatre, film and television all in the same city, whereas in America the theatre is in Broadway in New York and film is at the end of the country in Los Angeles. So, I went to England and that was where my film career really started.

“Wake in Fright” by Kenneth Cook

My first film was with John Mills and James Mason, a kind of social comedy that wasn’t very good, called Tiara Tahiti [1962]. But then I made quite a good film called Life at the Top [1965], with Lawrence Harvey and Jean Simmons, which I followed with another good film about the racial situation in London in the 1960s called Two Gentleman Sharing [1969]. My next film was Wake in Fright and it’s because I was in England that I came to do it: Westinghouse Films, which was half financing the film, had an office in London.

What happened was that Evan Jones, who had written Two Gentlemen Sharing, said to me, “Ted, there is this great book you would be perfect for. It’s by Kenneth Cook and it’s called Wake in Fright. You should read it. I’m going to start an adaptation and, if you like it, you can go to Westinghouse to see if they’ll hire you and we’ll work on it together.” So, I read the book and I loved it, and I went to a man called Peter Katz, who ran Westinghouse’s Group W Films, and said, “Look, Evan and I would like to work together on this project. He’ll write it and I’ll direct it.” Peter Katz gave me the job.

Apart from Two Gentlemen Sharing, Evan Jones had also scripted quite a few of Joseph Losey’s films by this time and it has been said that Losey had intended to direct Wake in Fright. (1)

Yes, Evan had written a lot of Joe Losey’s films and he would have mentioned it to Losey. But Losey must have thought about it and decided to pass on it – to my benefit, of course.

When I’ve talked to people who have seen the film, one question that consistently comes up is how did two non-Australians, a Canadian-born director and a Jamaican-born British writer, who had not been to Australia before, let alone experienced the outback, plug into the Australian character so well, right down to peculiar habits like the shortening or changing of someone’s name? For example, when John Grant introduces himself to Jock Campbell [Chips Rafferty], Jock says, “Well, Jack, another beer?” What makes that more extraordinary is that Evan Jones didn’t even come out here for the production.

That’s right, we didn’t have the money to bring Evan out, so, when I went out to Australia and saw what was really there, I rewrote the script to obviously incorporate everything that I had experienced.

When I started working on Wake in Fright, I was often asked how I could make a film about a people, a country, a culture I knew nothing about and was experiencing for the first time. Rightly or wrongly, I would say, “Well, that’s easy, I’m Canadian and Canada has the same British colonial background as Australia.” There is the same lack of self-confidence, which, in Canada’s case, it’s to the extent of a rampant inferiority complex. Australia has a different kind of energy but, more important, is that the countries are geographically the same. They have the same vast empty spaces, which don’t liberate, they imprison.

And I also understood the men of the outback – their camaraderie, their support of each other and their generosity – because I had met the same type of men in the north of Canada. I’ve actually described Canada to some people as Australia on the rocks! [Laughter]

My being Canadian was a good basis and then it was a matter of observation. When I went out to Broken Hill, I used to go out to the pubs every night, I met with people, drank with the guys, watched them, listened to them and tried to understand them, and obviously tried to make the film with verisimilitude and authenticity. It would have been awful if I had made some egregious errors, but the job of a director is to use his eyes and observe. The example you gave of Jock changing John’s name is something I noticed people doing to me. I’d introduce myself, “Hello, I’m Ted Kotcheff”, and people would go, “Hey Teddy, how are you?”

The macho, masculine culture of Broken Hill was in many ways pretty transparent, but I’m not saying that to simplify it. For example, there were men who always wanted to fight me, probably because I had a moustache and long hair and looked like a ’60s radical. They’d say, “Come on, I’ll fight ya.” I’d say, “Listen friend, I got no quarrel with you and I’m not looking to start a fight”, and then they’d go, “Oh, come on, let’s have a fight!” [Laughter]

At one time, there was this guy who was sticking his jaw way out. I was just standing there and he could have easily hit me and put me away. But I realised he didn’t want to hit me, he wanted me to hit him! The reason was because the men outnumbered the women three-to-one in Broken Hill. So, rather than it being belligerence, the fighting revealed a kind of desperation for human touch. I can’t explain it precisely, and if I said the word “homo-erotic” people would get the wrong idea. It wasn’t homosexual at all; it was just because there were no women out there. You wanted to be touched and hitting was the easiest way of getting touched, but you were also fooling yourself into thinking that you were macho when you weren’t. I noticed that right off the bat.

Can I tell you the story about Stalin?

Please do.

Well, it was a Sunday and I was out driving with the location manager, John Shaw, and one location we were looking for was a pub out in the middle of nowhere. We were about 30 miles outside of Broken Hill when I saw a building that was about five miles away with a 40-foot beer-bottle on top of it. I said to John, “Look at that! Come on, let’s go”, and so we headed directly for it and, of course, we were off the road immediately and went bouncing over the outback. When we arrived, there were about 40 cars parked around it, each with a woman sitting inside and all were in their Sunday best and had lovely blonde beehive hairdos. Obviously, the women couldn’t go into the pub and I could hear a lot of raucous laughter coming from inside the hotel. I said, “Wow, this is perfect. Come on, John, let’s see if the interior can be used as well?” John said, “Look Ted, they don’t care much for strangers around here, especially one who looks like you”, referring to my handlebar moustache and hair down to my shoulders. I said, “What? They’re gonna hit charming ol’ Ted Kotcheff? No way, don’t be ridiculous John, let’s go inside.” “No, no”, he insisted, “let’s come back tomorrow when they’re down in the opal mines and back on their sheep ranches.” “But we’re here!”, I said in disbelief. “You want to drive 30 miles back to town only to have to come back tomorrow?” He said, “Look, if you want go in, it’s your funeral. I’m not going in with you!” “Okay,” I said, “I’m going in.” I get three steps outside of the car and think, “Hmm, John Shaw knows this terrain and is built like a brick shithouse. He’s not going in and you’re going in Kotcheff?” But bravado would not allow me to lose face by going back to the car. I walked straight into the pub and, as I did, the room suddenly went quiet and 40 pairs of drunken eyes looked at me. I continued up to the bar and said, “I’ll have a schooner of ale, please.” By now I had picked up the lingo, you see?

Anyway, all the men went back to doing what they were doing, except one guy who was really drunk and was standing about six feet away from me. He kept looking at my hair and moustache, and saying [affecting a long drawl], “Sshhiiiit!” I just smiled at him and toasted him with my glass. He looked again at me and said, “Sshhiiiit!” Finally, he said, “Hello Stalin.” I didn’t say anything; I just smiled and continued to drink my beer. Then he said very loudly, “I said, ‘HELLO STALIN’!” He was inviting the response, “Who the fuck are you calling Stalin?”, and then I would have had to punch him in face, right? Anyway, the whole room fell quiet again and I could sense they were all watching me. I said to the guy, “Look, I’d love to talk to you, but I’m dead.” Nobody got it for a split-second, and then they all got it and burst out laughing. The drunken guy beside me said, “I love a bloke with a sense of humour! Let me buy you another schooner.” And, as you probably know, it’s a line I put into the picture.

On that day, all of those guys became my friends, especially about a half-dozen of them who looked out for me when I’d go out at night to the RSL club or a bar somewhere to do my social research. I went into a bar one night and immediately a guy wanted to fight me, but a voice from the back said, “Bert, leave Ted alone, he’s my mate!” The voice belonged to one of those six guys from that pub and so Bert said, “Oh, sorry Johnny”, then turned to me, “Can I buy you a schooner?” [Laughter]

They were always following me making sure I didn’t get hurt. It was the most amazing camaraderie; I really fell for those guys.

While you were experiencing all of this and incorporating it into the script, were you still consulting with Evan Jones long distance?

Wake in Fright

No, it was totally impossible. I would have loved for him to be there, but the script had such a strong foundation and structure that really it was just getting all the detailing right. By that stage, I didn’t really need Evan; it was more directorial stuff.

People have said that they believe Wake in Fright is one of my finest achievements. I consider it to be too and why I’m proud of it is because of the tremendous attention to detail in the film. To the costume and design departments, everybody, I said, “I don’t want any cool colours. No blues! No greens! I want hot colours – orange, red, yellow, burnt sienna – and I want lots of dust.” What I did was to bring barrels of earth that was the same colour as the outback, put it into fly pumps, and before every take I would have it sprayed into the air so that it would hang there for awhile and then create a film of dust over everything.

Did you know we brought in sterilised houseflies from the University of Sydney? I would release them before a take. If you look closely at the scene between Doc Tydon and John Grant, the first time they are at Doc’s house especially, you’ll see flies creeping over things. They were all flies that I released. I think the 100 percent attention to detail really made that film: you feel the heat and dust and flies and sweat and the whole uncomfortableness of it all, which can drive a man crazy.

I remember an evening after I had been out with the kangaroo hunters looking for locations the whole day. We had finished the water and there was no beer, nothing, and I was getting really thirsty. There was another group of guys who were to bring lots of beer and were supposed to meet us at 6:00pm at this kind of watering hole, which was basically a pump with a windmill. Anyway, they weren’t there and I was fucking hot and thirsty, and I could feel myself getting angry. By 6:30pm, I had to control my temper because it was really getting out of hand. Then, by about 7:45pm, I could see the dust from the van about 20 miles away and I thought I’d go crazy. As soon as they arrived, I didn’t say anything, I just ripped open the back of the van, ripped open the box with beer, grabbed a beer and drank it straight down. And then I drank a second beer and a third beer non-stop. After the third beer, I became human again. On that day, I really understood what goes through the minds of those guys out there in the outback and what they do to survive it. I admire their fortitude and courage to live and work in such inhospitable circumstances.

But I must also tell you that I love the outback – its unearthly colours, extraordinary shapes and totally exotic vegetation. For years I looked for a subject so I could return to the outback, but I never did find one.

The main criticism levelled at the film when it was released in Australia was its uncompromisingly scurrilous view of Australians, exposing a dark side to the mateship myth that, as Jack Thompson had said to you, people felt was unrealistic. Yet, a question I have always asked myself is why John Grant, near the end of the film when he boards the train that’s taking him back to Tiboonda, and after all that he has been through, graciously accepts a beer that’s offered to him? It tells me that what we have seen prior to this moment – the brutality, the menace, the aggressive hospitality of the Australian character – was not meant to be taken realistically, but that it’s John’s heightened, surreal, distorted point-of-view of that world.

I agree and that’s because he is outside of the community. One of my favourite moments is when John Grant is at the two-up venue and he meets Doc Tydon for the first time. The young teacher makes some snobby remark and Doc says, “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?” To me, that line is the whole point of the film: this guy is an outsider and does not really understand what is going on in that world and has a kind of distorted vision of it.

Hey, the Americans killed every buffalo in the country and almost wiped out every Indian tribe; in Canada, they’re still arguing about the treatment of seals up in the north, which they kill for their pelts. It’s men not behaving the way you want them to behave. And when people talked to me about the kangaroo hunt, I would say, “Listen, every night professional hunters go out there and kill kangaroos, yet the meat goes to the American pet food industry and the pelt goes to make soft cuddly toys to give to children at Christmas.” It’s a very complicated issue and I’m probably not giving you a very lucid answer.

Anyway, when I arrived in Sydney in the summer of 1969 to start work, I remember a man saying to me, “You’ve come here to rubbish us, haven’t you?” I said, “No”, and he said, “Yes you have. You want to rubbish us.” I said, “First of all, I don’t know you, so how can I rubbish something I don’t know anything about? Second, I don’t criticise; I observe and empathise.” Then I told him a story about my favourite writer, Anton Chekhov. When he had written the short story The Horse Stealers, a literary critic, who was a friend of Chekhov’s, reproached him for not taking a strong moral stance and condemning the thief in the story. Chekhov’s reply was, “If you need me to tell you that stealing horses is wrong, then your morality is very shaky. Furthermore, I’m not interested in condemnation. What interests me is to enter the mind of the horse thief to understand how he thinks and how he sees the world.” Then he said this great line, which has become the credo of my work: “I am not the judge of my characters; I am their best witness.” When I first heard that line, it sent a shiver up my backbone and, as I said, has become part of my own personal artistic credo.

For the characters of Dick [Jack Thompson] and Joe [Peter Whittle], I had written into the script a scene of them working down in the mines, a scene that would have made you understand why they behaved the way they did. Unfortunately, it became a victim of the budget, because it was very complex to shoot down in the mines and it was going to take another whole day. Afterwards I kicked my ass and have always been sorry I didn’t shoot it, because you would have seen them working in this god damned hellish hole and you would have understood why they went crazy and drank and gambled and shot.

I had gone down into the mines when I was in Broken Hill and it’s a nightmare down there; you have no idea what it was like. I felt for those people who worked in them; I wasn’t out to condemn or rubbish them. If people complain about it, well I’m sorry, but that was the way I saw it. I wasn’t out there to put them in bad repute or show Australians what rubbish they are. That’s crap! That’s not what a real director does. I wanted to get inside their heads and see what drives them. It was the heat and dust and lack of women that was contributing to their behaviour. And, finally, I don’t think the film shows Australians in a bad light. I think it shows them in an amazingly good light.

Absolutely, if the film puts any character in a bad light it is the character of John Grant for his arrogance and delusions of superiority.

Yes and when he is exposed to them – because he was not exposed to them previously – and finds himself under the circumstances that they are in, he behaves like they do!

And it is also his sense of superiority that makes him try to take a short-cut via the two-up game to avoid his obligation to the Education Department.

That’s right.

Wake in Fright

I must tell you that I loved two-up. I used to play with the American associate producer, a man called Maurice Singer, and we would go on a Saturday night and there would be all of these opal miners and zinc miners and sheep ranchers. On one night in Broken Hill, my pal Maurice – you won’t believe this – threw 28 straight pair of heads! I had said to him, “Maurice, you throw and I’ll do the betting”, and there I was yelling out [affecting a broad Australian accent], “I’ll take tails, any tails!” He threw 28 pairs of heads in a row! Can you believe this shit? We cleaned the whole place out! Then the owner of the two-up place came over and said, “Okay, I’m locking the door. You’ve got ten minutes head start before I unlock the doors.” He let us out and we ran like hell back to our motel and hid the money.

But after the euphoria of winning all that money had evaporated, I felt really bad and I said to Maurice, “Jesus, Maurice, these sheep ranchers and miners, we’ve stripped them of their whole weekly wages”, and he said, “Well, what do you want to do? Return the money?” I said, “No, that would be insulting.” But I had an idea and he agreed to it. We threw the biggest bash in the history of Broken Hill. We booked this huge dance hall and invited all of our two-up players to an all-they-could-eat-and-drink. There was also dancing – men dancing with men mostly because there were no women. [Laughter]

I did everything in that town, but didn’t do it from the point-of-view of just observing. I also did it because I really enjoyed it! [Laughter]

Anyway, when I got back to Sydney for the remainder of the shoot, I couldn’t give up my two-up habit and would go to a game in Paddington pretty regularly. In fact, Paddington is where I shot the game that’s in the film and I used all of its regular players as extras.

I must tell you something about Australians. They are natural actors because they are so exuberant and extroverted.

There is another funny story relating to the two-up scene. We printed up a lot of fake money to be used in that scene and the prop people went a bit overboard in the look of the money. It was almost tantamount to counterfeiting! That scene took five days to shoot and, at the end of each night, some of the money would disappear and I had to address the players. I said, “Listen guys, you are my friends and I don’t want anything to happen to you. Keep the money as souvenirs, but please don’t try to pass the money. You know that’s a serious offence and you’ll go to gaol for a long time. I beg you, don’t try it!” Of course, two of them did. They tried to pass the money at a racetrack and got caught – much to my distress. I almost went to gaol myself for aiding and abetting. [Laughter]

There are few references to hell in the film, when we’re introduced to Doc Tydon and he says, “All the little devils are proud of hell.” With Jock’s introduction, we see the huge flame from his cigarette lighter dart into view and, apart from the sense of the outback’s overwhelming heat, there’s the idea of the miners, Dick and Joe, working underground. I’m made to think of Dante’s Inferno with Doc in the role of the poet Virgil as John’s guide.

I would go along with that. I know Dante’s Inferno very well and I actually wanted to make a film about it once. I usually have a copy with me, which I read for my enjoyment. Of course, the heat and dust and everything else leads you to the metaphor of the outback being like hell. That’s why I admired these guys; they are in a hell but have an amazing ability to survive.

Although the character of Janette Hynes doesn’t have a lot of screen time, I find her to be a very complex character. In the book, Tim Hynes has a wife as well as his daughter Janette, and obviously the role of the wife was cut out, making Janette a composite of various character types: a dutiful daughter rolling up her father’s shirt sleeve, a nagging housewife when she calls him to dinner, a bored housewife longing for a different life. She’s sexually rapacious and there’s also a hint of her maternal nature when John fails to make love to her because he has to vomit, and she walks over to him and wipes around his mouth.

Wake in Fright

As I said earlier, the men outnumber the women three-to-one. I didn’t want to have lots of female characters; I just wanted to have one female character, because if we had included the mother somehow that would have softened it all. The fact that Janette is the only female character in the picture reflected the situation as I saw it.

The other thing is the separation of the sexes, which characterised Australian society at the time, and not just in Broken Hill, but in Sydney as well. When I was in Sydney, I went to some posh parties in Potts Point, where the women were all at one end of the room and the men were all at the other. At one party, I remember my wife, who plays Janette Hynes, got tired of talking about hats and recipes and so decided to wander over towards the men’s circle. Later, she said to me, “I was greeted like I was a harlot, so I immediately scurried back to the women and the women were furious and thought I was trying to steal their men!” [Laughter]

It was the same thing in Broken Hill. The women were not allowed into the pubs or the RSL clubs except on special occasions. I spoke to the editor of the paper up there and asked, “Are there any brothels in this town?” He said, “No!” I said, “But the men? There are no women!” He said, “Ted, the women aren’t allowed to go into the bars and have to stay at home; they put their heads in the oven and gas themselves.” The suicide rate amongst women was very high in Broken Hill, something like five times the national average. I wanted to suggest that the women were in this horrible position. That’s why I just wanted this one woman in the film, who was emblematic rather than try to create a broader picture of what was going on there.

They certainly needed Germaine Greer, didn’t they? To me, there is no surprise that Germaine Greer is Australian. [Laughter]

When John boards the train that takes him to Bundunyabba, he falls asleep and dreams of himself on the beach with his girlfriend. She emerges from the water and towers over him in a very sexual manner, and he places a beer between her breasts – sex and alcohol being the two central elements of the crisis in his identity. Yet, his dream is abruptly interrupted by the chant of the Aboriginal person seated on the other side of the train. Is there any significance to that interruption?

There’s no overt significance in having his dream interrupted as such; John just nodded off and he heard this chant which woke him up. But the point of having the Aboriginal person is that he, too, is felt to be outside the community, and so there is identification between the two. That both are outsiders was the point I was trying to make.

But the beer between the breasts? That was deliberate! [Laughter]

The motif of light in the film is quite ironic, because light is often a metaphor for clarity, and yet here it works to blind and dazzle. John often has a light shone in his face, in much the same way as the spotlights are used to hypnotise the kangaroos during the hunt.

Well, the symbolism of the light was to suggest the idea of it shining into the dark side of human nature. The light continually being flashed on him is a sort of symbol of the fact that he didn’t really know himself and hadn’t really confronted the underbelly of his identity. I did it deliberately, but I hope it wasn’t too overt a symbol.

In the book, John does not attempt to kill Doc Tydon, but only attempts suicide. There’s a sense that he blames Doc for his troubles, but from what exactly does his impulse to kill Doc spring? I ask that because the images flashing through his mind when he gears up to shoot Doc are a mix of “real” and “invented” images – in particular, his girlfriend having sex with Doc.

Well, he certainly blames Doc for his predicament and what he has found out about himself. He has these fantasies that Doc is a raving sex maniac and those erotic images with his girlfriend inflame him further. But mostly he is angry with Doc for what he had done to him and what that revealed about himself.

Wake in Fright

Chips Rafferty was – and I guess still is – an iconic figure in the history of Australian cinema. Were you aware of his status in this country?

I had seen him before as the star of one or two of those Ealing films about the Australian outback [Harry Watt’s The Overlanders, 1946, and Eureka Stockade, 1949; Ralph Smart’s Bitter Springs, 1950], and even back then had thought he was a wonderful type. It was when we were casting that I was told about his iconic status in the Australian film industry. But I had always like him before then and thought he would be perfect for the role of the policeman.

That moment when Jock moves through the crowd of drinkers and they clear a path for him, it’s as though that had as much to do with Rafferty’s persona as him playing a cop.

I know what you mean, although what I was trying to suggest is his power within the town, that people defer to him and didn’t want to be in his way. [Laughter]

And remember, also, when he goes over to buy another two beers and he uses John’s money, and then he comes back and says, “I gave [the bartender] a tip. It’ll stand you in good stead next time you’re in here.” He is a wonderful old flâneur, isn’t he? I like that character a lot.

When I knew I was going to be doing this film, I became interested in all things Australian and had screened one of Chips Rafferty’s later films and had another look at him. I’ve forgotten the title.

Did you get a chance to watch the film Michael Powell made here called They’re a Weird Mob (1966)? It has Chips Rafferty in it.

They’re a Weird Mob? I think that’s the film I saw!

There are others in Wake in Fright who are also in Weird Mob: Slim deGrey (Jarvis) and John Meillon (Charlie).

Did you know I worked with John Meillon in London before Wake in Fright?

No, I didn’t. Tell us about it.

Wake in Fright

I did a television play called “The Ghostwriters” (2), which is set during the time of the communist witch-hunt lead by Joe McCarthy, when people were on a blacklist and they couldn’t get any work and so had to work under a pseudonym. “The Ghostwriters” was written by a man who had been blacklisted and John Mellion played one of the leading parts. We knew each well and I liked John a lot, and thought he was a wonderful actor.

I think his acting had the virtue of understatement: that moment at the end of Wake in Fright in which Charlie simply smiles.

When I remember that smile, I always think, “Oh, what an ending for the film!” I can’t remember whether it was his idea or mine, but it just puts the final ironic touch to the whole experience.

John was a wonderful man. I’m sorry that he passed on.

I have to ask you about some of the minor characters: the hotel receptionist dipping her fingers in water and running them down her face in front of the fan, and the guy who drives John over “50 miles of heat and dust” and then tells him, “Ya mad, ya bastard!” They are brilliant. Where did you find those two?

The guy who says “Ya mad, ya bastard!” was a local somewhere up there whom I actually cast. But the woman, I don’t remember if she was a professional actress or a local character.

One other minor but important role I’d like you to comment on is that of “Nelson, the fighting kangaroo”. Is that a trained animal in the famous fight sequence with Joe?

No, no, no, no, no! I’ll tell you this very interesting story. That fight scene with Joe was a scene that I dreaded. I had the production manager put aside three days in the schedule and also get three or four cameras to shoot it because I thought it could be a nightmare. What we did was build a huge pen out of hurricane fencing, about 12-feet high, and we covered the metal wire with a hemp-like material that was the same colour as the earth. It was so big you could hardly see it by day and at night you couldn’t see it at all. I also brought in two professors of zoology from Sydney to help with the kangaroos. Then we rounded up some kangaroos, but they didn’t want to fight. They just lay down and indulged in some sort of passive resistance.

Of course, kangaroos are unnerving. They are the most anthropomorphic creatures I ever encountered. In fact, all of the professional hunters said to me, “Don’t ever look into the eyes of a kangaroo, Ted.” I said, “Why? You never do?” They said, “No, if you do, you can never shoot one again.” That was their superstition and I could see some truth to it. I had kangaroos lying all around me and if I patted one on the head it felt like I was in [William Shakespeare’s] A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that it was Bottom with a donkey’s head on him. Sometimes, I was half-expecting them to lift off their heads and say, “Don’t worry Ted, we look like kangaroos but it’s only us humans with kangaroo heads on.” [Laughter]

Anyway, we tried everything to get them to fight, but nothing was happening and I thought to myself, “This is the nightmare I thought it was going to be. How am I going to do this sequence?” After about a couple of hours of trying our best, I called for Howard [Rubie], the assistant director, and said, “Send the zoologists back to Sydney, get rid of these kangaroos and send over that sheep rancher over there”. The sheep rancher was the one responsible for getting the kangaroos and I said to him, “Go into the outback and get me some fresh kangaroos. Bring back about eight.” So he did and herded them in, and the lead one was a huge kangaroo, about eight feet tall, and some hunter in the past had shot out one of his eyes, which is why I nicknamed him after Lord Nelson. (3)

Now, Nelson is a great example of the kind of luck you need in a film. This kangaroo was the Moby Dick of kangaroos! He hated human beings and he wanted to smash, kick, kill any human being he saw. When we put him up to fight, he just went for Peter Whittle [playing Joe], and what guts Peter Whittle had to face this demon. Nelson wanted to destroy him, grab him in a hug, raise his hind legs and smash every bone in Peter’s body. We had three cameras going while they were fighting and wrestling. Peter was avoiding him and trying to lift his tail to put him off balance, but Nelson would not let him and would swing around and go in for another attack. We finished the whole sequence within three hours, and somewhere I have a great photograph of Peter and Nelson, exhausted and embracing each other – at some point during those three hours, Nelson had understood that Peter wasn’t actually trying to hurt him, and at the end of it they were leaning against each other’s shoulders for support.

I checked with the cameraman, “Did you get this? Did you get that?” He had got everything that I wanted and so I turned to Nelson and said, “You were great!” The whole crew applauded him. He looked around puzzled, “What’s going on here? Why are they applauding me?” Then I said, “Open the gates! Alright Lord Nelson, you can go.” But he looked at me still puzzled and again I said, “You can go. Leave!” He hopped away about five steps, turned around and looked back at me. “I mean it”, I said. “You did a great job and now you can go”, and then he hopped off into the darkness.

Nelson was a wild kangaroo, but because of the credits people have asked me if he was a trained animal. But no, I just put “Nelson, the fighting kangaroo” into the credits because I thought it was amusing.

As I said to you mid-stream, every film needs a bit of luck sometimes and to have the one kangaroo in the whole of Australia who was like Moby Dick was my amazing bit of luck. What was going to take us three days to shoot we did in three hours and I didn’t have to fake it.

I am curious about the casting of Jack Thompson and Peter Whittle in the roles of Dick and Joe. When we first meet these characters, they each have particular quirks: Dick pulls at his chest hair and Joe, even though it’s not commented on, he obviously crushes John’s hand in the handshake. Did you come up with these little details?

Wake in Fright

Yes, that’s my job as a director. I like to give my characters little bits of interesting business to reflect their character. That’s the most important thing for me from a directorial point of view.

I’ll tell you where the handshake business came from. Early on when I was auditioning for the parts of Dick and Joe, one actor after another would squeeze my hand really hard upon shaking it. One actor squeezed my hand so hard that I yelped in pain. I said, “Hey, what’s going on here? Why did you do that?” His explanation – which I don’t know whether was true or not – was that people thought all actors were “poofters”, hence the macho handshake. Anyway, I thought that to have Joe get pleasure out of crushing John’s hand would be a good piece of business.

As for Jack, it’s just the macho thing of pulling at his chest hair. Subconsciously, he is proud of the hair on his chest and what it symbolises, but he doesn’t know that he is doing it.

Both Jack and Peter were wonderful; I thought they did a great job. I’m sure I cast Peter on auditioning because I liked the size of him. For four years he had been an amateur heavyweight-boxing champion. Jack, on the other hand, I had seen in a television series that was running at the time. I think it was a police series.

It was possibly Spyforce (1971-3).

I can’t remember the name of it, but I liked him in it and thought he had a good strong face. Of course, I brought him in and had him read, but I cast him based on having seen his work.

The film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, started the search for the negative of Wake in Fright in 1999. Were you involved in the search?

I didn’t know about it. It was a good thing, too, or I would have had heart palpitations. You do what you consider to be one of your best films and they lose the negative! You want to blow your brains out! I love this film and feel deeply about it. It’s one of my finest achievements and to think that it came so close to being destroyed. “For Destruction” is what was written on the box. I would have gone crazy!

Now I must tell you about Tony Buckley. First of all, I think he did an absolutely superb job in editing. George Willoughby, like all old Brits, thought that Australia, yeah, but they do it better in Britain, right? He said to me, “Ted, do you mind if I bring in a British editor called Tom Noble?” Tom by the way won an Oscar for Witness [Peter Weir, 1985], and he has edited a lot of my films, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and First Blood [1982]. But this was the first time we met. Anyway, I said to George, “It’s cut brilliantly, what do you want him to do with it?” George said, “I only want him to look at it with a professional editor’s eye. Humour me, Ted, humour me.” So I screened the film for Tom and when the lights went up I looked over and said, “Well, Mr Noble?” He said, “Ted, I wouldn’t touch a frame of it. This editor is brilliant and he’s done a superb job for you.”

Anyway, to Tony I am eternally grateful. He always talked about Wake in Fright as a masterpiece, and it is because of his commitment and years of dogged pursuit that this film has survived. He was not going to allow this masterpiece to disappear and be lost forever in a garbage dump. I’m really going to embrace him hard when I see him to show how grateful I am for saving the film.

And another person I want to mention is Tim Wellburn. He did an absolutely fantastic job on the sound editing. He told me that he didn’t like the tracks we had, and so what he did was to take the vehicle we had used, and I think he also took Peter Whittle with him, and went back into the outback and re-recorded the car turning and speeding and screeching and spinning 90° in the sand, accelerating, decelerating, crunching and banging into things. They spent days out there, and the care to do that again was amazing.

I was present at the mix after they got back and I thought it was the most superb sound track I ever heard. (4)

It’s almost 40 years on, if you were to imagine a sequel to Wake in Fright, where would John Grant be right now? And who would he be?

[Laughter]

I think he would have finished his term, gone back to Sydney and probably would have married that girl, Robyn [Nancy Knudsen]. He would be a much more human and decent person, not so arrogant, not so snobby.

But I don’t think there is any dramatic sequel; you’d probably have to focus on those other two guys, Dick and Joe.

Wake in Fright

Would you like to hear what I think?

Yes, tell me.

I think he would be another Doc Tydon, living in the outback and playing operas in his desert shack.

That’s possible!

I have to tell you that the whole thing with Doc Tydon playing opera records was my idea. When I was at university, there was a guy in my dorm who was always waxing lyrical about [Amelita] Galli-Curci. (5) He would say things like, “Oh, Galli-Curci, she’s the greatest soprano! She just opens her mouth and heaven comes out.” The rest of us in the dorm would say, “Oh, shut the fuck up!” He was always playing Galli-Curci records and so I put that into the film as a memorial to my chum at university.

But what you say is an interesting idea, because John Grant could go either way. Either he puts the experience behind him and becomes totally bourgeois or it leaves an indelible mark and he can’t stay away. Thank you for that idea; I never thought about it.

Endnotes

  1. Evan Jones (1927-) wrote Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1961), Eva (Eve, 1962), King and Country (1964) and Modesty Blaise (1966). Losey’s intention to direct Wake in Fright is noted in Michel Ciment’s Conversations with Losey (London: Methuen and Co., 1985).
  2. I have been unable to locate “The Ghostwriters” in either Kotcheff’s or Mellion’s filmographies. It may be an error in memory or it may have been broadcast under an alternate title, like “The Money Makers” (1961), which does match up in both filmographies. “The Money Makers” was written for The Armchair Theatre (1956-64) by Ted Allan (1916-1995), a fellow Canadian, who was indeed blacklisted and had changed his name from Alan Herman. Ted Allan also wrote Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984).
  3. Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), a British naval commander who was wounded and eventually lost the use of his right eye as a result of shrapnel from French bombardment at the Battle of Corisca in 1794.
  4. Anthony Buckley also edited Norman Lindsay’s Age of Consent (Michael Powell, 1970) before becoming a noted film producer. Till Wellburn also did the sound on the film. See article in this issue.
  5. Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963), an Italian soprano and a contemporary of the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.

About The Author

Raffaele Caputo is a Research Associate in the School of Applied Communication, RMIT University. He was assistant editor of Cinema Papers (1989-93), associate editor of Metro Magazine (1994-98), and with Geoff Burton has co-edited the books Second Take: Australian Filmmakers Talk (1999) and Third Take: Australian Filmmakers Talk (2001).