The writer-director tells SBS Film why his new film is such a departure from his usual terrain.
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26 Jun 2012 - 5:02 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2012 - 5:02 PM

Rolf de Heer is the first to admit his latest film is far from the kind of serious-minded, socially-conscious works on which he built his career: The King is Dead! is a very dark comedy about a normal suburban couple who encounter the neighbours from hell.

It is not the type of film that people expect from me.

Sparked by de Heer's memories of living next door to a house whose residents included 17 Afghan hounds in outer-suburban Sydney in 1961, when he was 10, the film is replete with drug dealers, baseball-bat wielding Maoris, a very vulgar gangsta rap song (which he composed), a corpse and slapstick antics.

That's not the kind of cerebral fare which gets invited to film festivals in Australia or internationally, which have often embraced de Heer's works, and it won't play widely on the art house circuit, his usual milieu.

Indeed the distributor Pinnacle Films has booked just four cinemas for the July 12 debut: Melbourne's Nova, The Luna in Perth, Hoyts Cinema Paris at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney, and the Palace Nova Eastend in Adelaide.

It was turned down by the Dendy circuit and Palace executives declined to show it at their other cinemas, fearing audiences would object to the copious swearing.

De Heer acknowledges the limited opening is a bit disappointing but observes, “I actually think the film works quite well [for the] mainstream. I have got myself more involved in the publicity because it was clearly falling into a hole. It is not the type of film that people expect from me. I think it plays but we will see.”

He wrote the script after struggling with another screenplay for which he'd obtained funding from one of the agencies, drawing on his experiences in 1961 and later encounters with neighbours including a raucously argumentative Irish couple in inner-city Sydney and amphetamine-fuelled partygoers in suburban Adelaide.

The low budget production wasn't difficult to finance with 40 per cent coming from Screen Australia plus contributions from the South Australian Film Corp. (which also agreed to cash flow the 40 per cent producer offset), Pinnacle, his loyal sales agent Fandango Portobello International, and Chinese investor Bruno Wu's Locus Global Entertainment. Wu subsequently converted his investment into a deal for the Chinese rights.

The director always had Gary Waddell in mind for the role of the titular King, the unemployed dolt who lives in the offending house, but he nearly drove casting director Faith Martin mad by insisting he would only settle on the cast when he felt each was right and they would all jell, to ensure he got the necessary dynamics of threat between the characters.

Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic were cast as the couple, Max and Therese. Among the villains, Luke Ford played the character nicknamed Shrek, Anthony Hayes was Escobar, and Lani Tapu, Jack Wetere and Richard Bennett were the Maoris.

De Heer took the unusual step of offering the part of a neighbour who lived on the other side of Max and Therese to Michaela Cantwell, an Adelaide actress who was recovering from a stroke, and was delighted with her performance.

Rolf was a publicist for ABC-TV Adelaide in the 1970s when this writer first met him. It was while he was promoting other people's films that he decided he'd like a crack at making his own. He applied to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School with little hope of being accepted and was amazed when he got into the directing course. “I hated the thought of the film school because it was all sort of political and feminist and that wasn't me at the time,” he recalls. “As it turns out I lucked out. I was madder [(than some of the other students] and I took a 10-year view. I thought 'OK, don't question your journey for 10 years and if you have to sweep floors for two years do that if it gets you closer [to your goal]'.”

The filmmaker rarely reflects on his body of work, preferring to look ahead. Pressed, he cites Bad Boy Bubby (1993), a black comedy about a guy who was locked up at home by his mother for 30 years, which won the special jury prize and the FIPRESCI critics' award at the Venice festival, as an extraordinary experience and a film that people still write and talk about. Among other critically-admired works are The Tracker (2002), Alexandra's Project (2003) and Ten Canoes (2006).

He was chuffed when a restored print of Dingo (1991), which traced the pilgrimage of average guy from his home in outback Western Australia to the jazz clubs of Paris, screened at the Sydney Film Festival last year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the film about which he still gets the most emails is Dance Me to My Song (1998), the saga of a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy who communicates via her computer and a voice box.

“To have one film that lasts, that resonates years later, is extraordinary,” he says. “To have a number of them is just astounding.”

He regrets nothing, declaring, “There was always a good reason to make a film, even those that disappeared without trace. Sometimes it doesn't find an audience because it isn't a very audience-driven film and sometimes it's completely flukey. “

He describes Dr Plonk (2007), a silent, black and white comedy about a scientist/inventor who predicts in 1907 that the world will end in 101 years unless immediate action is taken, as “an extraordinary, wonderful film to make,” despite its box-office failure.

The director next hopes to make another film with David Gulpilil, with whom he collaborated on The Tracker. Rolf visited the actor while he was in jail in Darwin after being convicted on an assault charge, and is trying to pull the finance together. He's also working on a screenplay adapted from Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai's novel Funny Boy, a coming-of-age saga set in Sri Lanka during the turbulent years leading to the 1983 riots.

De Heer no longer has an agent, noting his long-time literary rep quit after years of giving him scripts which he either rejected or which never came to fruition.