Peter Galvin spent a year researching the story behind the making of the forgotten classic, Wake in Fright. Based on interviews with the filmmakers this three-part series offers an exclusive behind the scenes account of a film that arguably helped relaunch the Australian film industry.
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1 Jun 2009 - 9:18 AM  UPDATED 22 Nov 2016 - 3:37 PM

Based on the acclaimed best selling novel by the late author and filmmaker Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright is the story of a young schoolteacher, John Grant, who becomes stranded in a big mining town in outback Australia on his way home for a Christmas holiday he plans to spend on the beaches of Sydney.

Over one long booze-soaked weekend Grant is drawn into a world he has never tasted. In the heat and dust of “The Yabba” the locals teach him a thing or two about the special cultural habits of frontier life…drinking, fighting, gambling, and hunting and in the process Grant loses his money, his dignity and almost his mind.

Made in Sydney and on location in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Wake in Fright was a critical smash and a major success in competition at Cannes but was rarely seen on cinema screens after its initial release in 1971.

After a few screenings on TV and cable over the last few decades the film fell into obscurity; fans and historians settled for bootlegs on video. The only prints available were faded and battered and the original film materials were thought to be lost. In 2002 the original sound and image of Wake in Fright was found in film cans marked for destruction in a Pittsburgh warehouse, and the National Film and Sound Archive has collaborated with Atlab/Deluxe for over the last two years to digitally restore the film.

A restored print of Wake in Fright recently screened again at Cannes and it will appear at the Sydney Film Festival with a national release in Australia by Madman Cinema to follow.

 

PART I: "AN UNMITIGATED BOIL OF HORROR"

The novel

Not long before he died in 1987, Ken Cook was telling journalists that, even after writing more than 20 books, many of them critical hits and best sellers, he was still best known for Wake in Fright

“It's the novel of a young man,” he would complain, which is to say full of energy, vigour, excitement and perhaps a little immature.

It was an instant success in its first edition in the early 60s but as good as the novel is Cook attributed its bestseller status to the fact that it was made into a film.

He admitted to friends and colleagues that his creation had been overshadowed by a movie that everyone agreed was brilliant – even an improvement on his work.

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright was first released in Australia in 1971. Within the decade that followed the book was set as a key English text, enabling a whole generation of Australian high school students to read the book and see the movie (albeit on scratched and battered 16mm prints and censored bootlegged video).

By the end of the 70s Cook estimated Wake in Fright had sold upwards of 20,000 copies in its Penguin, Australia, edition with a still from the film, of its star, Gary Bond, squinting into the harsh outback sunlight, on its cover.

The movie was released in an age before there was such a thing as an Australian Feature Film Industry to a public that was largely indifferent to home grown product (much less one wary of disappointment) and a sceptical media. Its May 1971 screening at Cannes, with rave reviews, encouraged film aficionados, but this was no guarantee that it would translate to box office.

Still, Wake in Fright was launched with a certain amount of confidence and low-key pizzazz. Its co-producer, NLT Productions, was a part of the powerful NLT Artists, an agency that happened to be amongst the country's heaviest showbiz hitters who had already scored with the local media in signing a deal with the prestigious United Artists, one of the oldest of the Hollywood movie companies, to release Wake in Fright worldwide. A further boost in confidence in the movie's prospects in what was a depressed marketplace was the fact that NLT was aligned with the country's leading television network, TCN Channel 9, as a 'program packager' (this was in an era before cross-promotion was a standard part of a movie's launch platform). Hoyts, which released UA product in Australia, booked the movie in a 900-seat cinema, for its Sydney opening, called the Embassy, which had an excellent mid-town location and was best known for running English films.

Its premiere took place there on October 8, for the Children's Telethon and had enough NLT players in attendance to generate picture opportunities in the social pages in the days that followed. The reviews were great; the tone somewhat awestruck at the idea that such a strong, powerful and serious movie could be made from an Australian subject – let alone Australian producers! More than one critic called it a “masterpiece”. But…

Within ten weeks Wake in Fright was off in Sydney, and even then it had already died a similar death in theatres across the country. By 1972 it was rarely screened, and in the years that followed it would turn up on TV cut, faded and battered. By 1996 its original negatives were thought to be lost. And, until recently, this had been the fate of a work deemed by industry insiders and those few critics and historians who really knew it as one of the best films ever made here.

This then is the story of the making of a film dubbed a 'classic' yet unlike most films of the modern era that hold that claim, few people have ever actually seen it. To its fans it is an authentically Australian film, yet its director was Canadian, who knew very little about the country before coming here to shoot a screenplay written by an Anglo-Jamaican who in preparing the script never once set foot on the continent. Its producer, who had a solid B-movie background, was an American whose key skill seemed to be watching the bottom line. The crew were mostly Australians, many of them veterans in motion pictures and TV production. Like most films the bare facts of its existence make little sense against the play of light and action that actually ends up on screen. What follows, much of it based on the eyewitness recollections of those who were there, tries to make some sense of the apparent contradictions, incongruities and happenstance that went into the making of Wake in Fright. As the saying goes, it is full of 'colourful' characters, and its events are informed by good fortune, bad luck and personality. It is a story of the outback, too and an Australia that is long gone. Most of all it's a tale of strangers in a strange land and it begins in a place “a long way from anywhere.”

 

The setting

There is an ancient Australian colloquialism: 'The Back of Beyond'. It's often used as a caution, as in “you don't wanna go out there, mate, it's the back of beyond.” It can be used to describe a place far from civilisation (as in the White kind) and therefore full of danger, a place “where nature is still learning how to write.” What the 19th century explorers of Australia's vast continent had to endure they wrote about in diaries. But that never stopped Australian writers, filmmakers, and poets celebrating the outback landscape; to poets like Banjo Patterson the pioneers who etch a life out of the harsh land had a moral simplicity, a hardiness that was virtuous. They were decent and strong and uncomplicated. What Ken Cook found out the back of beyond was a completely different story.

Written when he was 32, Wake in Fright was actually Cook's second attempt. His first novel was pulped out of fear of libel (a fear that plagued him in the composition of Wake, which had a distinct and profound effect on the novel's realisation, but more on that later). Short, blunt, and stark Wake in Fright has all the urgency and horror of a battle report where the main casualty seems to be reason itself. He started it with a just a gut feeling, a dramatic situation, a young man, inexperienced, alone, and stuck in a big outback town. Feeling under the gun, with a contract to fill, Cook told friends and colleagues that he knocked it out in six weeks, with no real idea of where the story would end up. Once done Cook packed it off to Michael Joseph in London, who published it there in 1961.

The good reviews stunned Cook. The New York Times called it “a taut novel of suspense” and declared its author “a vivid new talent.”

“You get the feeling reading it that Cook knew 'dark' things,” says author Peter Temple, who regards Wake in Fright as an important work, that is now, somewhat over looked (mostly because Cook died young). In the novel's plot a schoolteacher must make a one-night stopover in Bundanyabba, before his flight to Sydney the next morning, where he plans to spend his Christmas holidays...after which he must return to the desert and his little one-room classroom and live out his contract with the state education department. For Grant the prospect of another year of the outback is too much. “The Yabba” is a mining town, surrounded by desert, caked in red dust, and encircled by slag heaps, where the locals are manic gamblers, the drinking is heavy, the suicide rate is high and the favourite sport is shooting kangaroos,. For the teacher, John Grant “The Yabba” is a kind of Hell and everyone he meets there is deathly proud of it. But, in a savagely ironic twist, The Yabba presents Grant a chance to leave the outback for good... but in Cook's bleak vision that could mean either moral degradation or blowing your head off.

“Ken had a real love/hate thing for the bush,” says author Jacqueline Kent, Cook's second wife. “I think he had a romantic idea of the bush and the outback himself but the experience of it left him disappointed. He was aching to get out into it but the people he found there he felt were mean and nasty and the writing of Wake in Fright came out of that tension.”

 

The characters

All the characters were based on people Cook had met in the outback and 18 years after he wrote it, he admitted in an interview that each was nothing less than a libellous attack on a real person.

It's not hard to believe: there is an alcoholic doctor who lives like a derelict; a pair of miners who appear to the novel's antihero as borderline morons and the only woman Grant meets is an insolent nymphomaniac while the town cop, underneath his affable exterior seems full of menace. As for the town, it is simply ugly.

Possessed with a voice that curled and thundered (a bit like an Antipodean Richard Burton) Cook was a radio journalist with the ABC and he had been sent to big rural towns on assignment for months on end. This was in the late 50s, before technology and sophisticated transport networks shrunk the continent and made isolation easier to live with. Cook found the basic riffs of the novel's action, like the heavy drinking, the kangaroo shooting and illicit gambling were all true to big outback town life, no matter where he was sent. “He made the details specific but a lot of things were left deliberately vague, because for Ken the point was not to dump on a particular place,” says Kent. “He was trying to say something about the archetypal outback and it was an apocalyptic view…a nightmare!”

Still, there were some who immediately saw through Cook's fictional disguise. The reviewer in the Irish Times speculated, correctly, that the true inspiration for Cook's 'Hellish' town was an industrial rural centre of 30,000 people, mostly miners and surrounded by semi-desolate landscape “the size of France and Italy put together.” 1100kms from Sydney and 480kms from Adelaide, it is Broken Hill, a place the celebrated Australia author and journalist Bob Bottom once described as a “law unto itself.” It made an impression on Cook. While stationed there for the ABC he had blown part of a finger off in a shooting accident hunting kangaroo.

In announcing the film version of his bestseller in 1963, Cook abandoned all diplomacy and moderation and described Broken Hill as an “unmitigated boil of horror…perhaps the most horrible aspect about it is its brash and aggressive friendliness. It's what happens in so many Australian towns when you have people living in conditions which were not meant for a white man.”

 

The adaptation

Some books resist adaptation. Plots are too twisted, the action too internalised, but Wake in Fright seemed written to be filmed. It had little dialogue, a strong atmosphere, a picturesque location, unique characters, an intensely dramatic situation with a lot of action and a mood of menace; it was in so many ways a “horror movie” where the only “monsters” are kind folk who almost kill the hero with their kindness. Cook, who was also a filmmaker loved the idea of an adaptation and had quickly sold the rights through his agent to Dirk Bogarde the British actor. Joseph Losey, an American, who had fled to Europe in the 50s due to the McCarthy witch hunts and had settled in London had formed a strong bond with Bogarde on their Harold Pinter scripted film, The Servant (1963) was set to direct. The pair hired 36 year-old Jamaican born Evan Jones, who had scripted The Damned for Losey, a few years earlier, to write: “Wake in Fright seemed a natural screenplay,” Jones says today. “Years later when I met Ken Cook he felt film was a better way to tell the story.” Cook and Jones corresponded and quickly came to an agreement about what the film should be about and the kind of experience they wanted to try and create. Cook described the screenplay: “In [its intent it has] a subjective feeling of terror, a highly personal vision of a nightmare world.”

Jones never worried or fretted about the fact that he didn't really know Australia. For the slang, idioms and mannerisms of speech Jones relied on Cook and the novel's dialogue but literal accuracy to everyday outback experience was not his project: “If it were set in another place, another remote location, the essential point of the fiction would be the same.”

Shooting was meant to take place at Christmas 1963. Jones says that Cook's announcement was at best optimistic, certainly pre-mature since the Bogarde/Losey project never got close to being financed. Morris West, a famous author whose 1963 novel Shoes of the Fisherman had been a massive hit, was a friend of Cook's, bought the rights to develop it through a film company he set up in 1966.

Jack Neary, Bobby Limb and Les Tinker were partners in NLT Productions. In this trio lay a powerful Australian showbiz operation. In the 1960s Limb was one of the most recognisable faces on TV, a singer, comic and radio star and Neary was his manager who was also an agent who flogged his clients acts through the Club and nightclub circuit. Les Tinker, a leagues club manager, financed Neary and Limb in a deal to set up a company and they formed NLT Productions.

In the early 60s they started producing middle-of-the-road TV shows for Channel 9 that epitomised the light weight, “family” audience coveted by the commercial networks; corny sit-coms, shows with animals, a day time soap and a weekly variety program. In December 1968 they signed a co-production feature film deal with the US company Group W, a division of the Westinghouse conglomerate. The deal specified that together they would make ten films in five years.

The first NLT/Group W film was a situation comedy called Squeeze a Flower. Released in February 1970 the reviews weren't good and it flopped.

By then though the second NLT/Group W production was already shooting and its feverish quality was a long way from NLT's comfort zone of “good taste family entertainment.”

“NLT didn't have a clue how to make a film,” says Tony Buckley, who, in the 1960s was the country's most sort after picture editor. “They knew how to make Variety shows, they could make TV programs, but as far as motion pictures were concerned they had no idea.” Like everyone else connected with the production Buckley, who became the films editor, was mystified by NLT's prestige acquisition of Wake in Fright. NLT bought the rights off West for a reported $49,000 in 1967. “Even talking to Bobby Limb and Jack Neary before they died I never got a handle as to why they wanted to make Wake in Fright,” he says today.

Group W's London office started casting for a director and turned to Jones who suggested Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian who had been based in London since 1957.

They had worked together on a low budget British feature in 1967, which Jones adapted and Kotcheff directed called Two Gentlemen Sharing and became fast friends.

“I loved Jones' script and I read the book and I understood it all immediately, what it was about,” says Kotcheff, who was hired. “At the time people were telling me, 'Kotcheff how did you have the temerity to go and make a film about a culture that you know nothing about?', but I felt I knew these people. Canada is not that different from Australia, its an empty country where 99 percent of the population lives within 100 miles of the US border and for the next 800 miles north there is nobody…its people trapped in empty spaces. Australia is Canada, but on the rocks!”

 

The director

Kotcheff had established a reputation as an innovative TV director while based in London, shooting plays for the ABC's Armchair Theatre live to air. He liked to use a highly mobile camera and lighting techniques to make the pieces less like theatre and more like cinema. He learned how to live with pressure.

Once, in 1958 during a live broadcast one of his leading actors died of a heart attack. During a two and a half minute commercial break Kotcheff re-organised the script and the play went on.

Kotcheff worked on the script of Wake in Fright with Jones, adding images, and atmospherics. The shooting script included a cover sheet that explained the story and reads in part: “the film is about an introvert imprisoned in a world of extroverts…and they are all imprisoned in an immense space.”

In December 1969, Kotcheff and his wife, actor, Sylvia Kay, left London, with their children and arrived in Sydney. Kotcheff was eager to soak up the atmosphere and research the peculiar rituals so carefully portrayed in the film script: working men's pubs and illegal gambling dens. One of he first things he did when he arrived for pre-prodution was to ask First Assistant director Howard Rubie to direct him to city's roughest pubs. They had a lot of drinking to do.

END OF PART I

FURTHER READING
The Making of Wake in Fright (Part Three)
Peter Galvin spent a year researching the story behind the making of the forgotten classic, Wake in Fright.Based on interviews with the filmmakers this three-part series offersan exclusive behind the scenes account of a film that arguably helpedrelaunch the Australian film industry.
Notes to Part Two: The Making of Wake in Fright
The Making of Wake in Fright (Part Two)
Peter Galvin spent a year researching the story behind the making of the forgotten classic, Wake in Fright.Based on interviews with the filmmakers this three-part series offersan exclusive behind the scenes account of a film that arguably helpedrelaunch the Australian film industry.
Notes to Part One: The Making of Wake in Fright

 

PETER GALVIN IS A WRITER AND FILMMAKER. HE IS HEAD OF SCREEN STUDIES AT THE SYDNEY FILM SCHOOL

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to the interviewees from the film productions (for a full list see here) but especially Ted Kotcheff , and Evan Jones for their frank recollections; Tony Buckley for advice, guidance, and access to his private collection of news clippings; Howard Rubie for his helpful advice and a copy of the original shooting script and production schedule; Monica Dawkins for photos of the shoot; for providing insight into the life and work of Ken Cook thanks to his widow and book editor, Jacqui Kent; publisher Margaret Gee; Brian Davies, his life long friend; and Cook's colleague at Patrician films, Peter Thompson. For their memories of Sydney in the 70s, Pete Doyle and Ray Devitt. Thanks also Brian Tonkin at the Broken Hill City Library, all at the AFTRS library in Sydney; the staff of the Mitchell and State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. Author Peter Temple and Thanks also to SBS Film site managing editor Fiona Williams.