Fred Schepisi has been writing, directing and producing films in Australia, America and Britain since the 1970s. Along with Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, and Bruce Beresford, Schepisi was a key figure in the renaissance of the Australian film industry, making the acclaimed features The Devil’s Playground (1976), a semi-autobiographical account of adolescent life in a religious boarding school, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on Thomas Keneally’s novel. After the impact of these two features (the latter screening at Cannes), Schepisi moved on to directing films overseas, including Plenty (1985), Roxanne (1987), The Russia House (1990), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Fierce Creatures (1997), Last Orders (2001) and the HBO telemovie Empire Falls (2005), which won a Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture made for Television. He has worked with an illustrious list of actors, including Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen.

Schepisi’s latest feature, The Eye of the Storm (2011), is his first shot in Australia since the award-winning Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark, 1988). Adapted by Judy Morris from a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White, the film stars Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis, and features an impressive ensemble of supporting actors including Helen Morse, Robyn Nevin, John Gaden, and Colin Friels. The film depicts the dying days of the wealthy Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling), a domineering and charming matriarch, who has summoned her expatriate children, Sir Basil Hunter (Rush) and Dorothy de Lascabanes (Davis), to her bedside in a lavish mansion in Sydney. Basil is a fading star of the British stage, while Dorothy is a penniless princess, divorced from her French husband. Tended around the clock by nurses, the bedridden Mrs Hunter slips in and out lucidity as she revisits moments in her past, including her experience of a destructive tropical storm. The Eye of the Storm had its world premiere at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), where it was the subject of a special forum in which Schepisi, Rush and other panellists discussed the challenges of adapting White’s novel to the screen. The film won the inaugural Critics’ Award from The Age newspaper for Best Australian Feature Film at the festival.

In this interview, Schepisi discusses his approach towards adapting novels and plays for the screen, and his working relationship with actors. He also discusses his career-long collaboration with cinematographer Ian Baker, and the frustrations and disappointments of projects in America and Australia that were never realised.

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What attracted you to this material [the novel The Eye of the Storm]? Patrick White has a formidable reputation and people have tried to adapt his novels before, but without success.

I had read some Patrick White: The Tree of Man (1955), The Vivisector (1970), Voss (1957). Not easy reads, sometimes quite rewarding. But when they came to me to talk about this film – Anthony Waddington, the producer, told me about it – I said “Patrick White – why? It’s not exactly easily accessible material.” Anyway, he explained why, [and] I said “alright, that sounds fair”. I like to be challenged, it gets the creative juices going. I like to learn something: if you don’t know enough about something, you learn something in the process. It takes you into uncomfortable areas, sometimes.

So I read the novel and really dug in. When you dig right inside Patrick White, you get a real appreciation for his skill. He does sometimes – and this is heresy to some people – he does repeat himself a lot, he gets on a theme and bangs the drum a fair bit. Then he goes off into reveries and kind of surrealist inner-life raves. They’re kind of marvellous, but when you’re looking at it from a film point-of-view, you’re thinking “is that a road I’d go down or do I take information from that?”

When they asked if I’d write it, I was fairly busy at the time and I thought it may take me a while, I didn’t have that kind of time. Also I’m not inside the material, I’m not from Sydney, most of that world is strange to me. I felt it needed to be written by somebody who knew that world and since he goes on a lot about [how] everybody’s an actor, everybody’s putting on a performance: this kind for their family, this kind for their friends, this kind for the people they work with. So I thought of Judy Morris because she’s an actress, she’s been involved in some quite commercial projects, she’s from Sydney, she’s from that world, she knows the upper class and the lower class – she knows them both – and there would just be some instincts she’d be good with.

Particularly if she’s had that commercial aspect in her previous work (1), because one of the things that struck me is that White isn’t necessarily a commercial film proposition, particularly the reputation he has for being rather misanthropic and cruel towards his characters. How does that work with film where the basic rule of thumb in commercial filmmaking is that one should empathise with the characters?

Yeah, I hear that all the time and I think, “why? Who made that rule up?” OK, it might have value, but sometimes you get engaged because somebody’s the complete opposite of what you want them to be. I describe it as like going into a bar in Texas and there’s a snake in the jar going “bang!” against the side of the jar and that’s fascinating [to watch] too.

You’ve worked with some of the leading American, British and Australian actors. Given the calibre of the actors in your films, I suspect you must be an actor’s director. Can you talk about your technique as a director or how you work with actors when you’ve got such luminaries as, in this film, Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis?

I’ve found the very best actors all want to be directed, but what they really want isn’t always to be told what to do. What they really want is a sounding board they can trust. In a way they want someone to hold a mirror up so that – obviously they don’t want to watch themselves – they know what they’re doing and what direction they should be going.

They can pick up within the first set-up of shooting whether you are a sure hand and you know what you’re doing and they can trust you: that this person’s going to look after me, this person’s not going to let me do anything over-the-top or silly. So they can be quite relaxed and push the envelope, they can take chances, they can go further than maybe they should in the scene, knowing that once they’ve gone past a certain point, I will talk to them about bringing it back so that they can find the proper height they can get something to. You find it by going past and coming back.

In regards to having a technique as a director [working with actors], that’s difficult because it’s absolutely different for every person. Some people need different things. Paul Newman, for instance, hates psychobabble, you know “you’re a tree, let’s do an improv here, let’s go into a whole psychology session…”. Paul’s desire is “faster, shorter, quicker, look over here, don’t do that, that’s fantastic” and then you might say, “your character at this point, have you thought that he might do such-and-such?”, and he’ll either go, “ah yeah, great!” or he’ll say, “no, no, no, but…”. It’s very, very direct communication.

So you must be very good at reading people then, to work out what style’s going to fit what personality?

Well, it kind of comes to you. Say with Meryl Streep, you can’t keep going “that’s wonderful”. She might have done something terrific but another actor hasn’t come up to scratch in that take, so you go over while stuff’s happening and you talk to that actor, then you just go over [to Meryl] and, as I say, stand next to her and you just shimmer! We’re in this together…

You’ve made two films with Meryl Streep, Plenty and Evil Angels. In both she plays rather prickly characters, brittle and potentially unlikeable, so they struck me as quite brave choices for her. You talk about providing that safety net for the actors…

Some actors you joke with all the time, some actors you don’t… you’re not always going to get on perfectly well with everybody. They can very easily [reject] your suggestions and very easily put you in a bad position, so the thing is to try and create a situation where they can give it their absolute best but your other role is to focus all those efforts in the one direction, the world that you’ve created and where it’s going to go, so that everybody is going in that [same] direction, not over here, not over there. No matter how brilliant it is, it’s gotta be in that direction.

Another significant aspect of your career is your ongoing collaboration with [cinematographer] Ian Baker. Is there any film you haven’t worked on together?

Only one – Last Orders (2). We were having a rough trot at the time, not between ourselves, but we’d had six films in a row fall over, like Don Quixote [where] we were well into pre-production (3). Then there was The Shipping News (4). They were a bit soul-destroying for all of us, because there’s a point where you emotionally commit [to a project]. You try to hold back as long as you can but there’s a certain point where you go over that line and then when you get killed on it, it’s pretty hurtful.

This film, Last Orders, came up and the finance just kept changing and changing and changing, it changed three times in pre-production. And Ian was offered a film at very good money, a Hollywood film, and I said, “honestly, take the money. You’ve been loyal to me this whole time and lost jobs. I can’t guarantee you that this film is going to happen and I’d hate to do it to you again.”

So it’s wonderful that you’ve come back together on this film, The Eye of the Storm. How would you describe your working relationship with Ian? You’ve worked together since the 1970s. What’s stayed the same, what’s evolved?

You should not work with the same person all the time unless they’re trying to improve themselves, unless they’re pushing themselves and you, and then vice versa – you’ve got to push them. We have, I guess, an unusual relationship. We have lots of chats beforehand, and come up with images and stuff. We used to go and look at paintings. We don’t have to do that so much now as we’ve done it so often. We talk about style, and so Ian likes to help get a texture across the whole film. I tend to basically pick the shots, the way things work, how I see it being edited and put together, helping things emotionally. We talk about that but you don’t know all that in advance. Then when we get there on the day, we’ve both got monitors, although I don’t look at the actors through the monitor, I’m dealing with set-ups and he’s dealing with lighting and textures across the film.

In this film [The Eye of the Storm], you’re in the bedroom a lot, but not too many people notice it, otherwise it might get boring. We came up with camera moves and things that are about bringing together and then separating or irritating or reflecting [the drama]. We’re doing camera moves that you shouldn’t do, but I’m doing them to unsettle you as the audience because that’s what’s happening in that room. It’s giving life to what would otherwise be incredibly static.

It’s under discussion all the time and Ian gets on with the lighting while I work with the dolly grip and all of that. He’ll come up and [discuss shots with me] meantime he’s trying to change the times of day, the way the lighting is in the room – with reason, not for anything stupid. So we’re working like that all the time. Then he’ll come up and say “you’re behind schedule – isn’t it time for one of your famous one-shotters? This scene would be a good one to do it with.” (5) And I’ll say “yeah, thanks!”

So he has that pragmatic side as well as his artistic side.

Exactly.

With a film like The Eye of the Storm, it’s a quintessentially Australian story about the legacy of our colonial relationship with England, the squattocracy etc. but there are aspects of the film, particularly inside that chamber drama of the bedroom, that I think will translate well to an international audience. How do you see the film speaking to an international audience?

I’ve actually run it for a few people in Los Angeles and New York. [They had] exactly the same reaction as here: “I didn’t think it would be funny. Why am I sitting here watching these assholes? Then without realising it, I’ve been drawn into them and who they are, then all my emotions are being chucked up and in turmoil and I’m being taken to places I never expected to go, and I was riveted all the way.” And then they talk about things in the film and very quickly they’re talking about their own families. It’s the same reaction in both places. If I can get that across to people, to get them to go to the film, that would be great but I’m not sure how you do it other than word of mouth.

Yes, the film taps into quite primal emotions about family, the machinations of family, and you don’t have to come from an upper class family to relate to that. I think audiences will be attracted to the film because of the cast, but then there’s a universality to the story once you get in there. What are the plans for an overseas release, following the film’s September release in Australia?

It’s in the Toronto Film Festival, we’ve got a distributor in Canada but nowhere else yet. These days, you’ve got so many films being made that bloody distributors in America want to wait, see how many festivals you get in, what your reviews are likely to be, so they don’t have to take a risk. And they say, “look, it’s so hard to individualise a film for an audience unless there’s a real gimmick or a hook in it, so you need the reviews and the festival cred to help you sell it”. But couldn’t they go on their gut instinct?

Toronto has been a great launchpad for Australian films. For example, after Shine [Scott Hicks, 1996] premiered at Sundance [in January], they held it over until Toronto [in September] and got great word of mouth from there.

Some festivals haven’t really jumped on it [The Eye of the Storm]. A French friend of mine describes it as: the attitude out there at the moment is to [select] what they [the festivals] think are modern films, and what they actually are is modernist films. [As opposed to] films that are, let’s call them, classical, although I think this is not at all classical, but it appears classical because I try to keep everything pretty smooth. Even though I’m thumping you into the past (6), because it’s about the characters and you’re concentrating in on the characters, it seems like a classical approach no matter what I’m doing.

That reminds me of a comment Geoffrey Rush made at the MIFF Forum that your directorial style is not to leave your fingerprints on a film. As you say, you’re drawn into the characters, you’re not thinking “that’s a nice flourish Fred’s put in there”, you’re actually immersed in the story. Whereas a lot of festival films are about showing off the flair of the director…

Exactly, with shots and movements which, if you ask me, are not as good as what we’re doing.

And a lot of the time their technique is really sloppy.

All that avant-garde bullshit, they don’t know what they’re doing. And it’s sound too…. People are not quite aware of what we’re doing with the sound. There’s a fine line where [you think] “do you run music through the storm, or do you just go with the storm effects?” Both were equally good. It’s an extraordinary piece of music where she [Mrs Hunter, Rampling’s character] starts to break down. When we got the level right, with the effects and the music all working together, every one of us who’d seen the film probably 50 times, the hair went up on the backs of our necks. We got it right, it was the right decision.

That shows you how important the soundscaping is to that sequence that’s completely free of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is your first feature film in Australia since Evil Angels, although I know you’ve been trying to develop other projects here for some time. Do you now see yourself as being based in Australia, or would you go back overseas for the right project?

My next film is in America – at least, for this week! It’s Words and Pictures, an original screenplay, with Clive Owen. We had Julianne Moore, but because we had her, we’ve now delayed the film twice, and I’ve said, “I’m not delaying it any more, it’s not right, we’ll have to get someone else”. Shooting starts in January.

I’m also working on an adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel [The] Secret River, writing with Jan Sardi on that (7). We’ve had some disagreements about approach, but the bulk of the script is there, it was just a couple of methodology things early on.

There are a number of adaptations in your filmography… [The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Plenty, Evil Angels, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders, Empire Falls].

It takes three years to write a novel, so a lot of thought has gone into it. A lot more than what goes into most screenplays.

Is there a richness to the screenplay that comes from being adapted?

Yes, a complexity. A lot of people just want narrative drive. When I was showing the film [The Eye of the Storm] early on to some of my colleagues, they suggested taking things out because what they wanted was narrative drive. But what Patrick White is, is an engagement with a whole world. I do that by not cutting to the street outside, then to the stairs, then to the room, then to the characters. I want to know what that character’s thinking, what’s the next moment in the story, and so I go from them to them, and then you discover where [the character is], or you go to someone who’s affecting them or [being affected by] them.

That maintains an emotional through-line that takes you through different time zones.

Exactly. How often do you see a bloody film where they cut to [for example] the circus, and there’s fires, and there’s jugglers, and Ferris wheels and music, and shit like that, then you finally get to the actor. I say, cut to the actor!

Peter Craven described that really well, at the MIFF Forum, where he likened your style of filmmaking to [Luchino] Visconti’s: one that maintains a connection with the character’s thoughts from one moment to the next and isn’t concerned with establishing shots.

If everything is apt, absolutely apt and correct for the period and the character, you don’t see anything that doesn’t help that out, then you’re not even conscious of it…. That is definitely the way I work.

Given such a diverse body of work across the Australian, American and British film industries, do you see any continuity in your films or recurring themes that you are attracted to? For instance, I’ve described you as an actor’s director.

Well, I do a lot of character stories. I don’t shoot dialogue the way most people shoot dialogue; you know, the medium shot, wide shot, close-up, close-up, reverse shot. Filmmakers lose their bravura when they get to dialogue scenes. I like to do things that people don’t notice you’re doing, bringing things into the background. I shoot dialogue as action, or probably a better description, I shoot it as emotion. In the same way that in theatre, you draw attention to some things and not to other things, I’m doing that all the time. It’s about connections and disconnections. This whole business of “keeping the other person alive”, they call it – [you should] only go to them when it actually matters. Stay on that person if that person’s the force of the scene. If you want this person, you move to a position where you can bring them in or take them out. That’s called grammar. That’s why people don’t make dialogue films: because they’re boring because they’re so static. And the trick is to make them not static.

I used to be obsessed, like in PlentyPlenty has only four shots that are repeated in the whole film. I used to be that obsessed, but it’s too hard. No one really gets that. But you still work on the same kind of principle to keep it alive. And character films are deeply engaging.

But you have to subjugate all the things you do to whatever the particular story or event is. Don Quixote, which I was going to direct, would have been a whole different experience with vistas, action and madness. So would have [The] Shipping News, not the bland thing it ended up being. With Last Man, I want to take you to a place you’ve never been in war film (8). I want to put you inside that experience in a whole other filmic way, which is why we’re not getting the money because I need more money to do that. I don’t want to just make a bloody war film. In a way, it will be just as much a character film.

Is that project still on the table?

[sighs] I’m going to give it one more run. Jonathan Shteinman, I hope – who was executive producer on this film [The Eye of the Storm] – might help us with that, but it’s a tough one.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of the Australian film industry now that you’ve come back to it after a period of time?

It’s become quite bureaucratic – and I’m not talking about the funding bodies – in what you’re allowed to do, and not allowed to do. Rules, regulations, safety officers. There’s a lot of nanny-state stuff happening.

Is that different to America?

Yeah, it’s a little more rigid [here], although some of the American scene is going that way, too.

Outside of that, the crews work a couple of hours less per day than I’m used to in America, but they get as much done. Their enthusiasm and the skills they bring are really conducive to making films. I was quite thrilled with that experience, and things like make-up and hair, those people, they work horrible hours, way longer than anyone else. But they do it with such… they work in collusion, also with wardrobe, because everything they do, when the actors go in, that’s when the character happens. I like to go to wardrobe when things are being tried on: when a dress goes on or a jacket goes on, half the character goes on. So you better be around for it. And the people in Australia are just so helpful in pushing things forward in the right direction. That went right through the crew. I had the sound person coming up to me and saying “that was a great take” and getting excited, or letting me know when the dialogue wasn’t clear…

So everyone’s looking out for the whole film, not just their own department.

Yeah, which is great. The whole experience was fantastic.

Endnotes

  1. Judy Morris co-wrote Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, 1998) and Happy Feet (Miller, 2006).
  2. Last Orders was shot by Brian Tufano and edited by Kate Williams, with music by Paul Grabowsky. Williams and Grabowsky also worked on The Eye of the Storm.
  3. In 1997, Schepisi was working with US producer Elisabeth Robinson on an adaptation of Don Quixote, with an old screenplay by Waldo Salt, starring John Cleese and Robin Williams. While this project was never realised, Robinson introduced Schepisi to Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders, which Schepisi went on to adapt and direct in 2001. Last Orders won the National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble, while Helen Mirren won the London Film Critics Circle Award for Best British Supporting Actress.
  4. In 1998, Schepisi was originally slated to direct the adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News for Columbia Pictures, starring John Travolta, but he and the studio disagreed over key aspects of the adaptation. See Anita M. Busch, “‘News’ Break: Travolta is ‘Earth’-bound”, Premiere January 1999: http://www.reocities.com/xenu2000/archive/Premiere9901.htm. The Shipping News was eventually directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Kevin Spacey, and released in 2001.
  5. By “one-shotters”, Schepisi is referring to his preference for filming scenes – particularly dialogue scenes – in one unbroken shot, with the camera often moving slowly in, towards and around the characters. He discusses this technique in greater detail later in the interview; as an example, see the extended conversation sequence in Plenty between Susan Traherne (Streep) and her future husband, Raymond Brock (Charles Dance), in the British embassy after the death of Susan’s “husband”, Tony (a fellow member of the Resistance during World War II).
  6. Schepisi is referring here to the flashbacks to the island beach house and the tropical storm in The Eye of the Storm. For more on Schepisi’s fusing of the present with past events in his films, see Brian McFarlane’s piece included in this issue of Senses of Cinema.
  7. Jan Sardi wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996) and adapted Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2009) from Cunxin Li’s autobiography.
  8. Schepisi has long been working on the Vietnam War film, Last Man, based on Graeme Brammer’s book Uncertain Fate. Originally scheduled for filming in Queensland in late 2008, the film – which was to have starred Guy Pearce and David Wenham – fell over the day before production was due to begin. See Karl Quinn, “Schepisi Hoping for the Perfect Storm”, The Age 22 April 2010: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/movies/schepisi-hoping-for-the-perfect-storm-20100421-sy7r.html. For the background to this project, see Daniel Ziffer, “Fred Schepisi’s New Local Venture”, The Age 4 April 2008: http://www.theage.com.au/news/film/fred-schepisis-new-local-venture/2008/04/03/1206851111212.html].