PART III: “A LONG WAY FROM ANYWHERE"
ON the screen the blood was everywhere. It streaked across the frame in geysers and hung in the air. It splattered onto the ground and lay quivering on the dry earth in fat viscous pools. The carnage kept coming. There seemed an endless stream of takes where bullets from a hunter's rifle tore into fur and flesh. The target – an animal - jerked spastically and leaped into the sky kicking before cart-wheeling into the dirt.
The reel finished and the projectionist, pale and a little shocked fronted up to Wake in Fright's editor, Tony Buckley. “You're not going to show that, are you?” he asked. Shot in Eastman Colour, this raw material, 'documentary' footage of a genuine kangaroo hunt, shot by the film's crew on 35mm – had been delivered to the Ajax studio in Bondi Junction, Sydney for this editors screening in a black and white print – black and white because it was cheaper. Wake in Fright's producer, George Willoughby was always looking to save dollars. “We had to edit the entire film in black and white,” remembers Buckley, “and that is never a good idea.” Still, when it came to watching shot after shot of kangaroos being blown away, Buckley was relieved. “I kept thinking, 'thank God' it wasn't in colour!'”
THE KANGAROO HUNT in Ken Cook's book is a callous slaughter, an orgy of destruction, played out in a party-mood. In this lengthy episode, Grant and the Doc head off into the scrub in a big old 'American car' for a bit of 'bush-bashing' with two locals, Dick and Joe, and a hunting hound, armed with rifles and fortified with drink. They run down a kangaroo and then take a spell in a little pub, and drink some more. Wobbly with a day of tossing down liquor and beer, the hunter's head back out again at sundown and into the bush and the darkness. With a specially designed light mounted on the roof of their battered vehicle, Dick and Joe, school Grant in “spotlighting” - where the hunter blinds the kangaroo in a high beam. This way the 'Roo is a soft target hypnotised by the light and, frozen in place, it becomes much easier to hit.
“Three of the kangaroos were dead. One had its leg broken and looked at them with undisturbed eyes,” Cook writes, in the novel. “Joe smashed its head in with a branch he broke off a dead tree. Grant was surprised that he did not feel particularly upset at the mass carnage. They were, after all, only kangaroos.” Later, Dick 'boxes' with a gigantic 'Roo, finally putting it down, with a knife to the throat. Impressed, Grant decides to “have a go” at going one on one with a 'Roo – a dangerous stunt since a kangaroo's claws are powerful enough to disembowel a man. The hunter's corner a young, wounded 'Roo, pathetically small. Grant's test of skill and bravery becomes a bit of bloody comic relief for the outback men. In the end Grant, like his mates, become numb to the meaning of it and finds a kind of release in the sensations the hunt un-leases within him: “Being drunk is warm and soft and there is no pain and it really does not matter about little kangaroos that you cut to pieces before they die.”
IN an early version of the script of Wake in Fright, screenwriter Evan Jones had changed the novel's kangaroo massacre into a pig hunt. “It was only after Ted Kotcheff had been on his first survey for locations in and around Broken Hill (in December, 1969) that the kangaroo hunt had been re-instated,” explains Tony Buckley in his book, Behind a Velvet Light Trap.
But that decision caused Kotcheff and the crew a lot of agony. At the time there were approximately 30 million kangaroos in Australia, a portion of which were regularly slaughtered for sport, and food products every day, by hunters who were not operating under any regulatory authority, and the rest by farmers protecting their interests and still others, just blokes really, letting loose on the animals in a 'larrikin' spirit. The attitude between city dwellers and country folk was very different when it came to the destruction of animals, especially those in the wild. In the bush, 'Roos were considered a menace. They wrecked fences and ate into the food supply intended for cattle and sheep.
But for a lot of Australians, the kangaroo was a national symbol; a harmless and defenceless species to be protected and preserved. There was a powerful and very real sentimental attachment to the kangaroo. In the late 1960s, a kangaroo called Skippy had achieved what had eluded many Australian actors – genuine fame. Produced between 1966-68, Skippy, was a world wide TV hit. A half-hour 'family show' it featured a kangaroo that was not only a best friend, but a detective. Not only that it could 'talk' in a language of 'clicks' it could make with its mouth (it didn't matter that this portrait of the 'Roo was fanciful, to say the least). The show characterised 'Roos as tame, smart and affectionate. In short time Kotcheff understood the complexities inherent in depicting Cook's set piece in graphic detail and went into the planning of the kangaroo hunt conscious of the fact that it might turn off the audience. “The thing about a 'Roo is that they are anthropomorphic,” he says, “they are like humans with funny masks on.” Kotcheff learnt from zoologists that 'Roos could not be trained in any way. He maintained he did not want any animals destroyed especially for the film. The solution was to shoot a real hunt.
Tony Tegg, Wake's gaffer modified an aircraft landing light, the kind used on airport landing strips, to pose as the movie hunters 'spotlight' so that the camera would have enough exposure to capture the image: “You could pick out a 'Roo at the 3km's full frame!” he says. “When the pro 'Roo shooter saw it he wanted to buy it on the spot.” The hunter, hired for the film explained to Kotcheff the subtleties of his craft, before the camera starting rolling so the director could get the best result: “I can shoot them in the heart, the brain or the kidney,” he told Kotcheff. “If it's in the kidneys, they drop dead, shoot them in the heart and they leap around for four or five jumps and in the brain, they spin around for a couple of seconds and they die.” On hearing this pitch, Kotcheff says he was horrified.
“What I saw in the rushes was far worse than anything we put in the picture,” remembers Buckley. In one take a kangaroo was splattered in a particularly spectacular fashion. Watching this, Willoughby, on set to supervise as usual, feinted dead. According to camera operator Peter Hannan the killing went on for hours.
The stench, the blood and the obvious delight the 'Roo shooters had in their work started to wear down the filmmakers. Still, Kotcheff felt the pro hunters weren't exactly oblivious to the emotions being stirred up around them: “They would say to me: 'Ted we never look into the eyes of a kangaroo because if you look deep into the eyes of a 'Roo you'll never shoot one ever again.'”
It gets cold in the desert at night. The hunters started to hit the whisky to warm themselves. “By 2AM the hunters were getting really drunk and they started to miss,” says cinematographer Brian West. Wounded kangaroos were hopping about helplessly, trailing their intestines. “It was becoming this orgy of killing and we (the crew) were getting sick of it.” West had a private word with Tony Tegg, who arranged a 'power failure'. “I told Ted that we didn't have enough light to continue.” The crew headed back to Broken Hill, some of them fighting back tears.
KOTCHEFF told Willoughby he wanted three days to do the scene with the actors shooting 'Roos. “He complained but we got the time.” The action included the scenes where Gary Bond and Peter Whittle who played Joe 'fight' kangaroos. A compound was built outside of Broken Hill and kangaroos were herded into it. 'Roo shooters and kangaroo experts supervised the scenes; some of the Roo's were sedated. None of them wanted to fight. Finally, a large white coloured kangaroo, blinded in one-eye, seemed ferocious enough to take a swipe at Peter Whittle. “When I moved to his blind side he reared at me and then cowered,” remembers Whittle. Out of shot, two well built hunters members of the company held onto the kangaroo's tail. “Some of that raw footage looked very fake and unconvincing,” says Buckley, “but in the film it worked.”
AFTER weeks in Broken Hill, Willoughby and NLT's Bill Harmon were frustrated with Kotcheff. The director could see he was getting something special and that was taking time and time was money and the money was running out.
It took two nights and many, many takes to get the fight sequence between Dick and Joe. In this exterior scene, set on a hotel veranda, the Doc has a one-way argument with a silently sloshed Grant, on things philosophical, which provides an ironic commentary to the antics of Dick and Joe. “What you call civilisation is a man in a smoking jacket,” the Doc muses while Dick and Joe scrap playfully, in the background - that is until Dick strikes out and Joe cops a nasty blow and the wrestling turns nasty. In the ensuring chaos the pair demolish a section of the Hotel and the Doc joins in on the mayhem. Grant misses most of all this because he passes out. Kotcheff elected to do the whole scene in one long take with the camera mounted on a small crane. “In those days, equipment was heavier, lighting and lenses were slower…every shot like that took time,” explains Rubie. Donald Pleasence kept dropping lines and that churned up takes too. “Now Donald was an old friend of mine,” recalls Kotcheff, “and he was one of the great actors, a consummate professional and he never messed up lines and he kept doing it over and over and after awhile I got angry and this upset me because I did not want to get angry at my friend.” Pleasence confessed he was a little drunk. “He was worried he could not 'play' drunk,” explains Rubie.
Thompson and Whittle were tough men; both had experience as stunt performers; both were young, strong and fit. But after the many takes, the blows, the falls - the knocking about had worn them down. “I went through the fibro wall of the hotel five times,” says Thompson, “and I kept hoping they would call cut before I went through it…and they never did!”
Harmon and Willoughby threatened to “pull the plug” on the scene. “What saved us was the fact that sun comes up out back, around 4 a.m,” says Rubie “so we got the scene the next night.” Over the weeks Rubie, who was, like the rest of the crew, passionately loyal to his energetic, wild-eyed director, devised strategies to protect Kotcheff.
“The only thing that would get rid of Harmon was to tell him that there was a phone call,” says Rubie, which out back was quite a big deal. Calls had to be booked, and then patched through a complex network of lines. Harmon, an American, was NLT's conduit to their financial partners at Group W, who were based in the US. A call then, was a summons and deadly serious. The Wake in Fright company had arranged to use the railway phone link – a special line. “Bill would leave the set to take the call, and he would start talking to the country operator about how he was expecting 'New York' and of course they wouldn't know anything!”
KOTCHEFF had been deeply moved by what he found in Broken Hill. For the director there was a sadness and despair underneath the boozy violence. For him it seemed to suggest a desire to connect with something. On arriving in the town he says, he was frequently challenged to fight. Men would stick their chins out, ready to meet his fist. Kotcheff says he begged off all provocations, but the brawling technique he encountered mystified him since it ran contrary to his experience: “I was a street kid,” he says, “and the thing to do in a fight was to hit first.”
Broken Hill was a place where men out number women three to one. There were no brothels. “Women seemed excluded from everything,” Kotcheff says, “and the suicide rate was – according to the editor of the local newspaper - five times the national average (and it was mostly women).” Kotcheff says he had no answers for what went on “sexually in that town”. “But I think (the fighting) was about wanting to be touched…these men were just so desperate for human contact.”
SHOOTING finally wrapped in Broken Hill with the films opening scenes, set in Tiboonda, with its one room school house, pub and rail way siding. On the platform was a clock that has no time hands. A location was found at Horse Lake, about 100 miles out of Broken Hill. “The railway siding was built by production designer Denis Gentle,” says Rubie. It was authentic enough to fool the state railway workers. “We'd heard that some of the locals like to put bullets through the buildings there,” remembers Rubie.
Just before shooting the sequence Rubie decided to go out and keep “an eye on things”. A car came up, stopped, and remained parked for a bit, before driving off. “A little after that a freight train came by with about forty-five carriages….and then it went into reverse until the motor came level with the Tiboonda 'station' – actually our set.” The driver got out and looked around and said: “Where the fuck are we?” The other engineer didn't have any clues either: “I dunno mate, but it wasn't here last week.”
“WE did not have the budget for me to work on the editing of the film in Broken Hill,” Buckley remembers. “Which was probably good, since I wasn't influenced by the shoot, and the conditions out there.”
Still only in his early thirties in 1969 Buckley, like most of the Australians on the Wake in Fright crew, was already a veteran, having been in the trade since he was fifteen, when he got his first job in a film lab. By then he was in demand as an editor (especially after his work on Age of Consent, working under the idiosyncratic Michael Powell). An employee at Ajax studios, who had been contracted by NLT to supply crew and facilities to Wake in Fright, Buckley was used to routine work; commercials, newsreels, sport. He had worked on B pictures like the telemovie The Lady from Peking (Eddie Davis, 1970) and an Australian 'western' called Adam's Woman (Philip Leacock, 1970). “After I saw the first days rushes of Wake in Fright, I knew it was an 'A' picture...we knew we had something, but we didn't know what it was or how people would re-act.”
ONE DAY during the picture edit, Kotcheff turned up with a hi-fi system. Buckley was sceptical, but Kotcheff re-assured him: “I think we might need this.”
Buckley, a somewhat shy and gentle man, who in private could exhibit an impish wit, could affect a stern and diffident aspect on the job. The editor learnt to tolerate Kotcheff's eccentricities. The pair formed a strong partnership. Kotcheff wasn't dictatorial. His direction, Buckley remembers, was about mood and atmosphere. “I have got a lot of praise of the editing of the film,” Buckley says today, “especially the Kangaroo hunt, but really it was all in the script.” The 2 UP scene, he say, was much harder.
One of the key notes of Wake in Fright's visual style is the way in which Kotcheff and Buckley evolved a method that implies that what we end up seeing and hearing on the screen seems to have come filtered through the pummelled psyche of John Grant. Beginning the film in an almost documentary style, there is a scene, set on the train as Grant leaves Tiboonda, where the audience is lead discreetly, but firmly into the heart and mind of its anti-hero.
Grant takes out his wallet and looks at a picture of his bikini-clad girlfriend, Robyn. He closes his eyes. In a short burst of 'flash cuts', the audience is now on a beach. The sun seems sweeter than the outback blast we have seen up to this point. The surf glistens. Robyn rises out of the waves, “like Ursula Andress from 'Dr.No'”. Shot with a wide angle, Robyn is larger than life, smiling invitingly to camera and an un-seen Grant. The image is dream-like, too perfect. Another cut; Her cleavage fills the screen, and a beer bottle enters frame, and heads for the valley between her breasts, goose bumps rising as the glass meets bare flesh.
Cut-back to Grant on the train – his head reclining helplessly on the carriage seat in an awkward angle familiar to traveller's the world over, the tossing of Grant's sleepy head, dictated by the to-and-fro of the carriage. Back to Robyn, and the angle abruptly goes crazy, sweeping up and away into a blue sky…cut back to the train. Grant's head tossing, awake now. Disturbed.
“That whole sequence came about because I could not quite figure out a way to get from Grant's day-dream and back into the train,” explains Buckley. In running the footage taken on the beach through the editing machine, he had noticed that at the end of a take, camera operator John McLean had kept rolling. The camera had “swished” violently and abruptly away from Robyn, skyward, creating a blur effect. That movement cut perfectly into shots of Grant in the train carriage, tossing and turning his head, fighting consciousness – implying how much he would like to stay trapped in his dream.
Sound editor Tim Wellburn remembers the relationship between Kotcheff and Buckley as creative and upbeat, but occasionally there were 'tests'.
“I would have to go into the editing room to ask Tony a question and Ted would be lying horizontal on a bench, 'conducting' opera coming out of his hi fi system and of course that would mean Tony was struggling to hear the dialogue for the edit.” Wellburn learnt to open the edit room door slowly, checking whether it was 'safe' to enter. “When Tony glared at me, I knew it was going slowly, so I wouldn't venture in.” Over time, Buckley got tired of the opera. “I said to Ted, very gently one day: 'Do we have to have this atmospheric intrusion in the editing room?' “It's giving me inspiration,” replied Kotcheff. “It's giving me the shits!” Buckley told him.
IT was during the edit that it became clear that Wake in Fright was over budget. The producers disappeared, Kotcheff was “on his own” and Buckley was furious.
“Here was this brilliant director getting no support from his producers,” says Buckley, “and I'll never forgive them for it.” An insurance firm in Sydney was charged with covering the deficit. The film was locked off. Kotcheff took his family and the film back to England. Buckley went back to the routine of work at Ajax.
“GEORGE Willoughby wanted to replace Buckley with an English editor, Thom Noble,” remembers Kotcheff. They had a screening and Noble was impressed: “I wouldn't touch a frame of it,” he told the producer. “How could that be?” Willoughby said, perplexed, “it's Australian!”
The mix, grading and music would all be done in London. “A strange thing happened,” Buckley says. “I got a call one night, it was Ted Kotcheff, and he was unhappy with the sound.” The director had found that the English engineers were using 'library' sounds. To Kotcheff's ears their work was all wrong, inauthentic and powerless. Tim Wellburn was recruited to go out and record a long list of sounds – rifle shots, the roar and scramble of a big V8 (like the one used for the hunting scenes shot in Broken Hill).
“I was given $200 to buy a vehicle,” says Wellburn. “It was this beaten up thing, with a broken door.” With Peter Whittle driving, Wellburn and a soundman raced up and down bush tracks at 80 miles an hour to achieve the desired effect. “Whittle was throwing the thing around and at one point, after a particularly sharp turn the Nagra (a reel to reel analogue tape recorder) flee out the window!”
Expecting the worse, Wellburn was gratefully surprised to find the device intact and still turning away in the dust by the roadside.
BY mid-year 1971 NLT/Group W had sold Wake in Fright's worldwide distribution to United Artists. The producers started doing screenings and the re-action, especially among film and showbiz professionals, was a mix of relief and elation. Ken Cook told a reporter that he thought the movie both impressive and true to the book, adding, in a hyperbolic style he always adopted when talking to the press, “anything that was changed has only improved it, which makes me mad.”
A stink of failure clung to Australian films, or at least films that had been made in the country and released over the last few years. Colour Me Dead (Eddie Davis, 1970), Nickel Queen (John McCallum, 1971) and Country Town (Peter Maxwell, 1971) were slated in the press as small, routine and insignificant, their production values and mind-set firmly rooted in TV or the already dying provincial second run movie circuit. They were little seen and easily dismissed. Those pictures that had expressed some ambition like Tim Burstall's 2000 Weeks (1969), and those that had aspirations to connect with the pop culture like Demonstrator (1971, Warwick Freeman), an attempt to explore the “generation gap”, were laughed off as out-dated and outmoded in style and approach.
Expensive, highly publicised films like Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970), starring Mick Jagger and Adam's Woman (1970) with Beau Bridges, were derided as insensitive portraits of the Australian colonial experience. Directed by foreigners, these pictures, critics and pundits argued, were not Australian movies and never would be. Poorly reviewed, whatever their relative merits as cinema, their true significance was in fact political. For nearly a decade, filmmakers, a few politicians, a handful of intellectuals and some journalists had been agitating for a government led revival of the feature film industry, dormant in Australia since WWII. Ned Kelly et al were used, as evidence that as long as outsiders were telling “Australian stories” they would be 'getting the story wrong'. Barry Jones a Labor politician, and writer was a friend of John Gorton, the Liberal Prime Minister and a tireless advocate for an increase in the output of Australian film and TV content. “Gorton's feeling was that it was reasonable that if people in the rest of the world were to have some sense of what Australia was about they would have to rely to a large extent on the presentation of (the nation) by way of film,” Jones once told a historian, “and of course TV production as well.”
Advocates like Jones argued that is was 'Australian cultural identity' itself that was at stake. When Wake in Fright was being completed in Sydney and London, there were only two hour-long TV drama series being produced in Australia, both in Melbourne, from the same company, Crawford's. The Australian commercial networks relied heavily on US produced series for their programming, because they were cheap to screen and lucrative. “France projects French culture through its TV,” Jones said, explaining the argument, “Denmark projects Danish culture, through its TV, Sweden projects Swedish culture, through its TV…Australia projects American culture through its TV!” Gorton, says Jones, felt that something should be “done about that.”
Wake in Fright then, was in many ways a 'typical' kind of production in those days; a co-production, with foreigners in most of the key creative roles, and foreign stars in the leads. Wake in Fright was about to be released into a movie market that was struggling. It wasn't the best of times for big pictures with major stars. It was worse for Australian pictures because it was a battle just to get a movie into a theatre, the local brand was hardly first choice for the bookers an buyers who controlled exhibition and distribution and therefore controlled the business. Looking back at the era David Williams, one time the former managing director of the Greater Union Organisation, summed up the mood: “There's never been trust between exhibition, distribution and the movie maker, (in Australia) and I'm not sure there ever will be.”
BUCKLEY remembers watching Wake in Fright with the buyers and bookers from UA and Hoyts, the exhibitor, who handled all United Artists product.
“The lights came up and it was clear that they – UA and Hoyts – were all appalled.”
James Mitchell, then the personal assistant to Dale Turnball, Hoyts managing director, remembers: “In those days movie going was still a habit, where the patrons were loyal to a particular theatre, because it showed a certain kind of picture.” Hoyts, owned by 20th Century Fox in those days ran about 120 cinemas, had decided to book Wake in Fright into the Embassy. “It specialised in British films,” says Mitchell, especially of the middlebrow, mild-mannered kind.
One time, the bookers had decided to run Robert Altman's scabrous, black and bloody satire M*A*S*H (1970) there. “It was a disaster,” says Mitchell. “The Embassy wasn't the best choice for Wake in Fright,” says Buckley, who felt then as today, that UA/Hoyts never really got behind the movie “I don't think they were openly hostile,” says Mitchell,” but they were 'bottom-line' men.” Wake in Fright was to open in October. “That period 1971-1973 was a watershed in exhibition in Australia,” Mitchell says. “The figures were terrible…I remember that for one year in that period, Hoyts were making one cent per patron…and that was from the candy bar.” Meanwhile NLT wanted Wake in Fright in Cannes in May.
THE NATIONAL Film Board of Australia was an advisory committee whose role it was to represent moviemaker's interest and talk to the government through the ministry of the Interior. They refused to endorse Wake in Fright as the official Australian entry in Cannes – but Cannes itself had other ideas. Their selection panel invited the film as the official Australian entry. Kotcheff and NLT were ecstatic. But, then, as now, Cannes means more for world-sales, critical recognition, and a filmmaker's career, than it does in terms of domestic box office.
IT was part of the theatre manager's job in those days to make a kind of exit poll after each new release and report back to head office. It wasn't an exact science.
“Basically, the manager would just loiter in the lobby,” says Mitchell, “and eavesdrop on the patrons…it was a good way to pick up where the word-of-mouth would take the movie.” Mitchell says the anecdotal reports on Wake in Fright weren't good. “The Embassy had a very strong female audience and they did not like the kangaroo hunt.” Mitchell reckons that the film was clearly more in the nature of what today's market would recognise as an art-house cross over film, the sort of piece that would require a certain amount of special handling.
THERE WAS NO MYSTERY to what Wake in Fright was for a lot of Australian film reviewers. It was a 'statement' movie. For many writers its makers seemed to have ventured to an imagined battlefront where the Australian cultural psyche was at war with civilisation and what they reported back in the form of Wake in Fright was a grim tale. For most reviewers the film seemed a calculated rejoinder to two cherished myths – mateship and the majesty of the Australian bush.
Matt White, in the Sydney tabloid, The Daily Mirror wrote: “…[It] will shock and, disgust and trigger off tidal waves of indignation from those who still believe our outback is the back bone of the nation.”
Film reviewers then (and to a large extent as now) were more comfortable with discussing theme rather than form, content over style. Most were not film specialists, but journalists, who had grown into the position after showing some acumen for the brief. It's unsurprising then, that what dominated the discussion of Wake in Fright, was not the feverish quality of Kotcheff's film, but the pre-occupations that so absorbed Australian intellectual's over the past decade. What seemed important to the contemporary reviewers of Wake in Fright was the way the films depiction of the outback had tapped into a national debate about Australia and its cultural identity. In the ten years it took to get to the screen, Cook's existentialist workout was suddenly riveting not as myth but as documentary.
Colin Bennett, unfashionably serious about all things cinema, never the less, saw an opportunity to mobilise Wake in Fright and Nic Roeg's Walkabout as figures in a cultural debate: “One way or another [we] stand condemned,” Bennett wrote, in a long piece in the Melbourne Age, describing Kotcheff's style as “violent realism”. “It is an Australian trait, a blind spot in our character, to refuse more than most peoples to see ourselves as others see us, let alone film what we see…[insecure] we will knock everything about Australia but ourselves and we will shun those who paint our faults larger than life…”
In part Bennett was responding to Wake in Fright's poor box office. By the time his piece was published the film had died in most places around the country. “The Hoyts and UA management wrote it off as a ten week disaster (in Sydney),” says Buckley today. “But a look at the figures suggest it was building. The movie it was replaced with lasted two weeks!” Mitchell says it was lucky to get its ten week run at the Embassy, since in his words, “no week made a profit.”
Part of the reason, he argues, was political. On the 27th of October 1971, only a fortnight after Wake in Fright's release, the Tariff Board announced an inquiry into the need to protect Australia's infant film industry. “I think there was a feeling at Hoyts/UA that they needed to demonstrate support for local titles,” says Mitchell. “UA treated Wake in Fright like nothing,” NLT's Bill Harmon told The Australian, only four days before the TB announced there plans. “It almost seems nobody wants anything to succeed here.”
WAKE IN FRIGHT was released as Outback, in England, the same week Harmon was mourning its fate at the Australian BO in public. Intriguingly critic Derek Malcolm saw the movie in a similar way to many Australian reviewers writing that it was, a “cruelly accurate observation of a certain type of Australian life.” Screenwriter Evan Jones was completely bewildered by the reviews. For him, the sociology and the cultural soul-searching were a complete dead-loss.
“I think the reviewers were impertinent to write that we were making a film that criticised the Australian character. It was rubbish.” Jones maintains that, “if it were set in another place, another remote location the essential point of the fiction would be the same.” For Jones Wake in Fright was an archetypal story of an innocent on a journey of self-discovery.
Grant, Jones says is simply a man who finds himself: “He discovers he is a weak man and that he is potentially gay. I think he came out to teach school with nothing behind him except aspiration and love. He is able to experience some of the brutalities of the world and in doing that, he's learned something about his own world.”
Only one of the major local critics tried to approximate the way the hallucinatory cadence of Cook's novel had been put on the screen. Sylvia Lawson told her readers in the Australian that Wake in Fright was not realism at all. Instead it was, “in the nature of a dream, told with a dream's intensity and dream's illogic.”
Pauline Kael's piece in the New Yorker, identified Kotcheff's conflicted view of the raw material. “The rough white men out there in the wilderness,” she wrote of the film, “are a new race to us. They're beasts but not villains; they're “decent” and unaware of wrong doing and that suggests that they are unreachable…Jones and Kotcheff have seen the life in a more objective way, almost as if they were cultural anthropologists examining a newly developed form of primitive life…he didn't expand this vision but he got onto something bigger than the plot…you come away with a sense of epic horror. You came out with the perception that this master race is retarded.”
PARIS was the only place Wake in Fright worked at the box office. It opened in July '71 and ran for months in an English print with French sub titles. This didn't surprise Kotcheff. He had followed the film to Cannes for its competition screening where the film was touted as a possible Palm d'Or prize winner. Wake in Fright was in competition with, amongst others Milos Forman's Taking Off, Luchino Visconti's Morte a Venezia, Louis Malle's Le souffleau Coeur and Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said. In the end, The Go-Between, directed by Joseph Losey won the top prize.
Still, the Cannes experience contained an omen for Kotcheff and the fate of his film, the significance of which took nearly 40 years to figure out.
During a screening of Wake in Fright in Cannes there was a young man seated behind Kotcheff, and for 90-odd minutes, he kept up an impulsive commentary on the action. “He was enjoying the film, but he was very shocked,” remembers Kotcheff. “He was going, 'oh, oh, oh no', but I understood them as appreciative sounds, and that's music to a director's ears,” so Kotcheff didn't mind the intrusion on his concentration. It was during the climatic scene, where the Doc and Grant, both drunk end up in a clinch that leads to a sexual release. “The young man started going…'they're not, they're not…they're, they're going to go all the way!'…”
After the screening Kotcheff joined his colleagues in the lobby: “I pointed the young man out.” Somebody recognised the man, “That's a young American director, he's only made one picture, you won't have heard of him…his name is Martin Scorsese.”IN MAY 2009, the re-stored print of Wake in Fright screened as part of a retrospective program at Cannes called Cannes Classics. “Martin Scorsese was the curator for Cannes Classics,” says Kotcheff. Scorsese's program received a great deal of attention and praise: amongst the other films screened in the side bar were Antonioni's L'Avventura and a restored print of the Archers 1948 masterpiece, The Red Shoes. Kotcheff was deeply moved to be in there company: “After forty years, Scorsese had remembered my film.”
TED KOTCHEFF Returned to Canada in 1973 and directed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, with Richard Dreyfus. Kotcheff spent the 70s in a burst of activity, helming a number of hits including Fun with Dick and Jane, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe and First Blood. Today Kotcheff is an executive producer on Law and Order SVU.
It was during the three weeks it took to edit the kangaroo hunt in Wake in Fright that TONY BUCKLEY first came across a copy of a book called Caddie. A friend suggested he ought to try producing. Wake in Fright had been a powerful negative role model. Kotcheff told Buckley that the editor seemed to understand where “writers and directors were coming from,” when clearly, WIF's producers had not. Buckley bought the rights to Caddie and hired Joan Long, a first time feature scriptwriter to adapt the book and a young filmmaker, experienced in documentary, Don Crombie to direct. Caddie with Helen Morse in the title role opened in Sydney in April 1976. Made for less $400,000, the film was a critical and commercial success grossing over $2 million at the Australian box office. In ten years Buckley produced six pictures, including Bliss, directed by Ray Lawrence, which won best film at the AFI awards in 1985. In 2009 he published Behind a Velvet Light Trap, a personal record of the life time he had spent in film and TV. The 10 features NLT proposed to make with Group W never materialised. Worn down by cash flow problems, Jack Neary, the senior partner dissolved the company soon after Wake in Fright was released.WAKE IN FRIGHT opened in the US as Outback in February 1972. Its fate was typical of BO failures. Over time prints of the film were worn out and destroyed. There was little demand to screen the film. By 1996 it was determined that its original negative was lost. Bobby Limb of NLT asked Tony Buckley whether he would help in recovering the film and restoring it. In 2002, Buckley finally found what he had spent years looking for - the cans – 263 of them - containing the sound and image material for Wake in Fright in a Pittsburgh warehouse. The items were marked “for destruction.”The National Film and Sound Archive in collaboration with Atlab/Deluxe completed the digital restoration of Wake in Fright in January 2009. Madman Entertainment re-released Wake in Fright in June. In November 2009 Wake in Fright is released for the first time in home video format on DVD and Blu-Ray.The version that audiences can see now is the definitive one. It re-instated some shots removed for censorship reasons and alternate versions of scenes; for the US version for instance, Grant is wearing underpants when he awakes in Yabba, the morning after losing all his money. In the Australia and European prints he obviously naked. The restored prints feature the “pants-off” version.YEARS after Wake in Fright was thought lost forever Kotcheff had befriended many of the filmmakers who, like Tony Buckley, were a part of what historians would call 'The Australian feature film Revival of the 70s'. Amongst this group were Fred Schepisi, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. All three were to make their first features before 1976 and all claimed Wake in Fright as inspiration. “They told me that after seeing it, it made them realise that they could something exciting here,” Kotcheff says.PETER GALVIN IS A WRITER AND FILMMAKER
HE IS THE HEAD OF SCREEN STUDIES AT THE SYDNEY FILM SCHOOL, WATERLOO, AUSTRALIA