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.
12 Jun 2009 - 9:41 AM  UPDATED 29 Dec 2014 - 3:29 PM




Shooting the Film Sydney

The red desert stretched out to meet an endless horizon. The flat iron plain was scarred and peppered with gnarly trees and saltbush. Out here rain is a rumour. The slightest breeze sends a mist of dust into the air that cakes the throat and stings the eyes. Occasionally a little tornado, called a “Willy Willy”, would careen and twist over the landscape like some kind of ghostly spinning top. This was outback Australia, in the summer of Christmas 1969, and for director Ted Kotcheff it felt like another planet. Production on Wake in Fright was scheduled to begin in Sydney in the New Year but he knew the key to the film would be its location shoot at the foot of the Barrier Ranges, and based in Broken Hill, scheduled to begin in February.

Practically, the short trip to the desert had been planned as a “location recce”, a process of evaluating places, buildings and landscapes that would fulfil the action described in the screenplay. Kotcheff wanted Wake in Fright to be a gut experience, with a real stink and sweat.

On this ride out was the movie's location manager John Shaw, a robust young Australian who was doing the driving while Kotcheff played “spotter”.

“We had been on the road for what seemed like forever,” Kotcheff remembers, ”until we found this pub out in the middle of nowhere.” What had caught Kotcheff's attention was the enormous inflatable beer bottle strapped to its roof.

Arriving at the pub they saw that the parking lot was choked with 30-something cars. Dozens of children played in the dirt while their mothers sat in the vehicles, sipping shandies. “All of the women had beehives [very passé for post-hippy 1969] and it was 50 degrees in the shade.” Kotcheff wondered out loud why the women weren't cooling off in the pub.

Shaw explained to him that women weren't permitted to drink in the public bar and even if they had been, they probably wouldn't have been interested.

Kotcheff got excited, as he would whenever he felt he'd made the kind of discovery that could translate to film: “Let's take a look,” he said. Shaw sized up his director. Kotcheff was tall, and robust, looking younger than his 40 years, with shoulder length hair thinning at the front and a luxurious moustache that drooped at the edges that made his face slightly reminiscent of a former Soviet dictator. After a long look, Shaw, says Kotcheff, told him reconnoitring the bar was not a hot idea: “Listen, the pub is full of opal miners and sheepmen and they're not keen on strangers, especially strangers that look like you. I'm not going in, you can, but it's your funeral,” he said. Kotcheff shrugged off Shaw's caution and stepped into the bar alone and straight into a scene out of a Western: “The whole place went quiet, and 50 pairs of drunken eyes looked at me.” He ordered a schooner and a drunk leaned in close, raked his eyes up and down the director and delivered his assessment: “Shit”.

Kotcheff stayed cool: “This bloke then said 'Hullo Stalin'. And I ignored him and then he repeated it, much louder. I waited and waited and finally I said: 'I'd love to talk to you but I'm dead'.” The place went silent, Kotcheff says, his gag taking a while to sink in. Then the pub exploded in a rattle of laughter. “I love a bloke with a sense of humour,” Kotcheff's new best mate declared, slapping him on the shoulder. It was a relationship, Kotcheff remembers that served an important purpose: “When we went back to shoot in Broken Hill months later, that bloke and his mates protected us from any trouble.”

THE rituals of mateship and mating that he had witnessed in Broken Hill were not at all peculiar to outback life, Kotcheff says. Back in Sydney at a Christmas party, he noticed how the men and women would herd into separate groups, rarely mixing. When he was casting the part of Joe (Peter Whittle), the Roo shooter, every actor who auditioned delivered a bone-crushing handshake: “One guy shook my hand so hard I screamed!” Kotcheff says. “He apologised and explained, 'everybody in this country thinks actors are poofters, so we have to compensate'.”

The 'blokey' aggression Kotcheff met in Australia wasn't inexplicable to the director. It was deeply embedded in Cook's novel and explored frankly in the screenplay by a writer who knew sexual panic when he saw it. “The 60s was not as liberated and free as one expects,” says Evan Jones, who lived in London through that decade. The city might have been swinging, he reckons, but to catch its explosive possibilities, one had to be prepared to reach for them. “Everything was on the fringes and underground (including an openness and acceptance of homosexuality).”

Jones says he “pleads guilty” to a certain bohemian streak when it came to sex and sexuality, feelings and attitudes he ended up incorporating in Wake in Fright's screenplay: “I was interested in sexual liberation to the point where I was advocating polymorphous perversity.” He accepted that, “one had to restructure one's sexual life to stay liberated.”

In the book the beleaguered schoolteacher, John Grant, meets a Yabba local, Janette, who with startling speed attempts a seduction, an encounter that ends in mutual embarrassment. Later Grant finds himself listening to a lecture about society's sexual hypocrisy, delivered by Doc Tydon, an alcoholic physician, who lives in the Yabba like a tramp and claims Janette as one of his lovers: “What's wrong with a woman taking a man if she wants to?” the Doc insists. When he senses Grant's discomfort, the Doc dismisses him as “a little puritan.” Jones kept much of the book's dialogue intact but rewrote the scene so it took place, out of doors, with Grant struggling to take a piss, while the Doc looks over his shoulder. Thus making explicit the Doc's “sizing up” of Grant's sexual psyche, and the latter's own predatory instincts (and bisexual inclinations). As the Doc's gaze continues to drift below Grant's belt he bangs on about sex as a matter of instinct (rather than romance) in a speech that sounds suspiciously like the quasi-sexual-spiritualist liberationists of the 60s: “People are afraid [of sex]…Janette and I are alike, we break the rules, but we know more about ourselves than most people.”

For Kotcheff the scene was less a “statement” about sex (and an ironic jab at the corrosive possibilities of the “new” sexuality) but another of the film's vignettes designed to shake the film's anti-hero out of his smug complacency: “It wasn't a soap box moment, but that stuff about seeking or enjoying an alternative way of life…well, it was in the air.”

KOTCHEFF had tried long and hard to cast the schoolteacher. He asked every eligible British actor and each one turned him down. Perhaps it was the passive-aggressive nature of the role, or the sexual humiliation (including an implied rape). He wanted Michael York, who was intense, intelligent and blonde. In the end he cast Englishman Gary Bond who was 29, with a CV that boasted strong stage work and TV supporting roles. He was also blonde and delicate looking. “NLT and Group W pushed him as the 'new Peter O'Toole',” says Tony Buckley, Wake in Fright's editor. Bond was affable, likeable and somewhat shy, but crew members found him diffident. “Out of hours he was very nice but during shooting he kept himself apart, he wasn't comfortable around people,” remembers Monica Dawkins, the film's make-up artist.

One of the big hits of the last two years had been the Bond film You Only Live Twice and Donald Pleasence had played the villain to rave reviews. Cast as the Doc, Pleasence arrived in Sydney with a long beard (faintly suggestive of the kind favoured by Aussie bushrangers of the 1880s) and a note-perfect accent. Famous for his attention to detail he took one look at the costume that had been prepared for him and rejected it. “He then asked for directions to the nearest opportunity shop and we sent him to St. Vinnies,” remembers Dawkins. “He bought this awful suit and that's what he wears in the film.”

It was always part of the plan to fill the role of Janette in Australia, but casting had stalled. With shooting scheduled to start by the second week of January, time was running out. The producers saw the part as “sexy”, and so the director found himself auditioning NLT's stable of starlets who appeared in their mini dresses sporting explosive cleavages, big-hair and fashionable “dolly make-up”. After Kotcheff's trip outback they made no sense. He was after someone who could present a hard shell, strong enough to withstand the withering masculine atmosphere of a mining town. First assistant director Howard Rubie, who attended the auditions, remembers: “None of them had the edge of cruelty that Ted was looking for.” Kotcheff liked Jeanie Drynan and Margaret Throsby, but he held off a decision and producer George Willoughby was getting impatient.
Executive producer Howard Barnes suggested Kotcheff audition his wife, Sylvia Kay. An experienced stage actor who had once understudied Vivien Leigh, Kay was 33, and, like a lot of English actors had a gift for accents.

“She was perfect,” says editor Buckley, who saw every reel of each woman auditioned, and admired the restless, insolent quality of Kay. Kotcheff worried about accusations of nepotism but cast his wife anyway. “George Willoughby was against the decision,” says Buckley. Adds Rubie: “It was the first in a long line of clashes between director and producer on the film.”

Making a film is as much about ego management as it is science and technology. The mood on a film during its making, upbeat or dark, committed or complacent, rarely remains stable even if the work produced displays a surface perfection that might suggest the movie was tooled by a precision instrument, unaffected by politics, ambition or money. Soon after pre-production started, Rubie could see that the conflict in temperament and style between his brash but likeable director, and a producer who was thought of as a ditherer, was going to be a problem. As first assistant director, part of his job was to read the budget prepared by Willoughby to see whether it matched with his own assessment of the time it would take to make such a complicated film (which had stunts, action, and weeks of location shooting in the outback). Rubie, a cheerful and kindly man, was also a hardboiled operator, at 35 a veteran of newsreels, a director, producer and writer.

“Willoughby got very upset with me, but I told him that the film was not adequately budgeted,” Rubie said. Kotcheff swore a lot, and says Rubie, “gave the impression that he was very short-tempered, which he wasn't really; he was just very emotional.” This un-nerved the producer. Buckley says bluntly: “Willoughby was absolutely terrified of Ted.”

According to Rubie, Ted demanded Willoughby give him some petty cash, “and when he asked him what for, Ted told him he wanted it for 'research'…'What research?' 'Gambling!,' says Ted.” Ten pages of Wake in Fright's script was dedicated to scenes set in the Yabba's Two-Up 'school' – a crucial piece of action in the story where Grant starts to lose his inhibitions, as he gambles on his future. Rubie had been assigned the task of educating Kotcheff in the finer points of the game by introducing him to Sydney's best illegal gambling dens. In Two-Up, a 'spinner' tosses two pennies in the air, and punters place bets on whether the pair will land hands or tails. The contestants sit, stand or crouch around the spinner. Money from the wagers lie piled on the floor. After a toss, winners grab what's theirs. To a casual onlooker it seems like organised chaos. On these gambling sojourns, Kotcheff bet and often won. But they paid off in another way too; Kotcheff now knew how he was going to direct the film. “In the story, Grant believes he comes from a better world, he's an outsider, and as the director I realised I was that character too,” Kotcheff says, though he did not share the character's sense of contempt. “I had to look at who they are and what they do objectively and slowly I was [beginning to understand] their state of mind.”

“THERE was only one way to make Wake in Fright, given the $800,000 budget,” says Rubie, “and that was to do 90 percent of the interior work on the film in studios or locations in Sydney and shoot just about all the exteriors in Broken Hill.”

Kotcheff's biggest issue then was to recreate in a 'studio' environment what he had found in the desert. The director had compiled a fat volume of notes from his location expeditions: from the swaggering intensity of the locals, to the colours of the landscape, to the fact that every single surface and object seemed to have been covered in a layer of fine red dust. And then there were the flies. The director had been attacked by flies where ever he went. They would climb down his throat or squirm into the corner of an eye. He contacted the science department at Sydney University and commissioned the production of thousands of sterilised houseflies, which were then shipped to the AJAX studios in Bondi Junction, where production designer Dennis Gentle had constructed a set of the interior of the Doc's hovel like “miner's shack”.

A swarm of flies were released before each take of the scene where Grant wakes up to an obscene squalor with a murderous hangover and the Doc's breakfast of kangaroo meat.

The atmosphere on the sets had to be “hot and shadowy and true,” says cinematographer Brian West, an Englishman who had trained at Shepperton studios. Working under cameramen like Oswald Morris, West had learnt about 'directional' light, a technique that created the illusion that a studio scene was being lit entirely from say, sunlight through a window, or a single desk lamp. On the hut set Kotcheff wanted to create the impression of the outback sun penetrating every crack in the dilapidated ceiling and walls, overwhelming the threadbare window curtains and so creating a powerful ambient light. West solved the problem by 'pushing' the light into the space with the actors, setting up huge arc lights, outside the set. Willoughby – who was in the habit of 'hovering' on the fringes of the crew – complained: “We are using an awful lot of electricity aren't we?” Remembers West: “I don't think he had a great grasp of filmmaking realities.”

Willoughby did nothing to hide his anxiety, even from journalists. When a reporter made a location visit on the second day of principal photography he later depicted the producer as “scurrying around the set with adding machine eyes.”

One of the film's big interior set pieces, a scene depicting an enormous Hotel in the Yabba, was shot at the 'long bar' under the old Sheraton grandstand at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Kotcheff, disappointed with the smooth-skinned, long- haired extras recruited through conventional casting channels, had directed the production team to populate the scene with “thirsty miners” who actually looked the part. “Most of them were pulled in from the Labor Exchange,” says Rubie, who remembers that they had started out with 220 extras but somehow ended up with nearly 300 by the time the scene wrapped. “As the day went on we tried to keep non-alcoholic beer for our leads,” he says.

Wake in Fright is essentially a “fish out of water” yarn and as the narrative develops Grant is introduced to a series of “guides” who provide the schoolteacher (and the audience) with sound advice as to how best survive the Yabba and it was in this scene in the hotel where one of the first of these characters appear, the Yabba's chief cop, Jock Crawford, played by Chips Rafferty. At 61 after a lifetime in show business, the actor and one-time feature film pioneer, Rafferty was something of a legend, a persona he cultivated with a mix of nonchalance and deadly earnestness. On set he would fill out crosswords and keep to himself. If there was a journalist on hand he'd give them an earful about the importance of Australian cultural identity and play the straight-talking “bloke”.

“[Rafferty] wouldn't drink the non-alcoholic beer,” says Rubie. “He'd say, 'I'm going to drink real piss.” The extras however, were busily tossing back the real stuff, which was getting warmer as the day went on because the noisy cooling system was turned off for each take. As the scene dragged on Willoughby became more and more upset about the amount of beer the extras were consuming, and the extras were getting drunker: “They've drunk another hundred gallons of beer,” he told Rubie, “you have to cut it down.” This was duly reported to the director who asked Rubie: “Are the extras having a good time?” In Rubie's view the shouting, laughing and jostling seemed genuine enough. “Fuck it, let 'em keep drinking,” said Kotcheff.

Gentle had constructed the Yabba's Two-Up school in an abandoned warehouse in Paddington, complete with 'restaurant' and working grill. Rubie had persuaded some regulars from Thommo's Two-Up school in Surry Hills to play the gamblers. “We also got some of them from a Men's Hostel in the inner-city,” he says. The design team had found an apprentice printer who was able to make thousands and thousands of dollars worth of convincing-looking 'cash' for the scene. “It was so good, so real that we snuck off with a couple of dollars,” remembers hair stylist Robert Hynard, “and in the pub after a day's shooting we would – for a bit of fun – use the 'funny money' to light up our cigarettes.” Hynard says that the pub regulars would look suitably aghast at this display.

Kotcheff did not storyboard the complex Two-Up sequence (“he seemed to have it all in his head,” says West, with admiration) and it was scheduled for three days. After the first day an enormous amount of money had disappeared and that made continuing difficult. It wasn't hard to figure out what happened to it; the authentic 'faces' that had so impressed Kotcheff belonged to authentically street-wise men, many of whom, Rubie says, were not even on nodding terms with the law. “I came in and gave a speech about how we didn't want any them to get into trouble,” says Kotcheff. “They were using it at the track, to buy booze to buy prostitutes,” says Rubie. “Eventually a couple of them got arrested for passing counterfeit money.” The apprentice, Rubie recalls was eventually booked for his involvement. The film company was never prosecuted. Filming continued with a little real cash, paper cut to cash dimensions and monopoly money.


Shooting the FilmBroken Hill

Once the crew of 40 arrived for the location shoot, Broken Hill Mayor George Dial put on a little reception for a select few of the Wake in Fright company. “It was held in the Town Hall,” remembers Rubie. “It was all very staid. He started to say a film shoot was a new thing for the town and a good thing and then he added, indicating himself and the other officials: 'But we didn't have to be here'.”

The single most significant and outstanding social, cultural and political feature of Broken Hill does not figure in the film or book of Wake in Fright at all: “The fact is the place was run by the Barrier Industrial Council,” says Rubie. Compulsory unionism was the law in this city of 30,000. “We all had to join the union just to be allowed to shoot the film there.” It did not take Rubie or the crew long to work out what Dial had meant; there would be no concessions, no special waivers. In this place showbusiness was irrelevant.

This outback city sits on the richest lode of zinc, silver and lead in the world. By 1970, Broken Hill's mines had been operating for over a century and produced ore worth $1.5 billion. There were 5,000 miners then and all were intensely proud of the fact that their union guaranteed them the best conditions and pay in the nation, and they could enjoy it on their own terms. $30 million was paid out to the workers of the city a year and $2 million of it was spent on booze in Broken Hill's 37 pubs and 12 licensed clubs.

It was the kind of place where the cops turned a blind eye to restrictions on gambling and drinking: the illegal Two-Up school was an open secret and tourist attraction, and the hotels made their own hours. One journalist from Sydney who visited the unit found Broken Hill roguish but with signs of sophistication. In the local newsagent the writer had discovered copies of two paperbacks that were considered very 'racy': Myra Breckinridge and The Marijuana Papers. There was also a copy of Bob Bottom's indictment of Broken Hills BIC, Behind the Barrier. Still, in the summer of 1970, it was impossible to buy a copy of Wake in Fright in Broken Hill anywhere.

“I don't think anyone seriously thought we were there in Broken Hill to rubbish them,” remembers camera operator John 'Johnny' McLean. “I think what you see in the film was a pretty fair representation of the place,” says Brian West, who felt there was an underlying sense of violence, which on occasion would break through to the surface. “There were a couple of incidences involving local young ladies and crew members and their boyfriends ended up feeling somewhat unhappy about things,” says McLean.

After one early morning call, Kotcheff noticed that a large number of the electricians and camera crew had black eyes and bruises. “What gives?” he asked West. “I pretended not to know.” In fact, West had witnessed a brawl staged in one of the city's toughest hotels, the night before. “One of the electrics boys had gone up to the bar and ordered milk, and the barman had said: 'We don't serve poofters', and then the fists started flying.” After that, most of the crew can't recall similar trouble between the cast and crew of Wake in Fright and the locals at all.


Read PART III - “A Long Way From Anywhere”


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 a copy of the original shooting script and production schedule; Monica Dawkins for photos of the shoot; Robert Hynard, Peter Hannon, John McLean, Brian West and Tony Tegg for insights into life on the crew and technical information; and for their memories of life in BH in the 60s Fred Peter, Broken Hill local and Brian Tonkin, Broken Hill City Archivist; All at the AFTRS library in Sydney; the staff of the Mitchell and State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. Thanks also to SBS Film site managing editor Fiona Williams.