“There is no way you can make a film out of this book.”
That, in a nutshell, is what US-born filmmaker John Curran thought when he read Robyn Davidson's autobiographical book Tracks about five years ago. Yet a film directed by him and starring Mia Wasikowska as the woman who embarked on a mammoth 2,700 kilometre journey from the middle of Australia to the Indian Ocean, is opening the Adelaide Film Festival in October.
So why did Curran defy his initial instincts?
The answer lies in the big soft spot he has for Australia – he regards Sydney as home – having lived here for the 20 years up to about 2004. He came from New York City looking for adventure and professional opportunities and during that time earned a lot of attention for his directorial debut Praise, adapted from Andrew McGahan's novel of the same name and starring Sacha Horler.
The answer also lies in a dream he's held dear more or less since he made Praise: to make a big, authentic film featuring Australia's expansive landscape. So when producer Emile Sherman proposed that he tackle Tracks, despite many having tried and failed, he was reluctant to just say no because he had unfinished business. And, after all, Sherman is one of Australia's most respected and prolific producers – and a key force behind the best film Oscar winner The King's Speech – and he and Curran had talked about making a film together for many years.
Curran just had to find the film.
Tracks hit a nerve, particularly with women, as any reader knows who was in Australia in the years following its publication in 1980. When Curran read it he felt like he'd read it before but he's still not sure: perhaps he only picked it up in backpacker hostels or off friends' bookshelves and flicked through it.
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When a film started to emerge from the book, it didn't come from the words on the page but from between the lines and from his research.
“What intrigued me was why would someone do this [trek across Australia alone] and that question was the common denominator whenever I talked to people about their reaction to the book,” he says. “Why do people put themselves through this sort of stuff? What was the real motivation behind it? Is there a story in there [that could be the basis for a film]?”
The book, in fact, contains a recurring refrain about the author's resentment towards people asking her why she's making the trip. Davidson has fully cooperated with the filmmakers, Curran says, but she hardly recognises the girl at the centre of the events that happened about 35 years ago.
“Whether she's self protective or vague I don't know but she gives us what she can in terms of her memory but on the other hand tells us not to trust it,” he says, laughing. “And I don't really trust memoirs. Tracks is a post-rationalised version of Robyn's history and those events. Even she would be the first to say it's her own take on that character and that she can't be objective … She was very open about the way I've come at this and about me putting my own fiction on top of her fiction.”
That said, Curran emphasises that the film is authentic because of his research. The example he uses is the death of Davidson's mother, which gets screen time but is only mentioned in passing in the book. She's been reticent to talk about this but he learned how she's been struggling to write a book about her mother and about the day she died via a clip he found online, recorded during an Adelaide Writers Festival.
“There's nothing in the film that didn't happen but you have to impose your own narrative structure and your own sense of clarifying motivations. It is an absolute true story but it is not the story of her journey that you would read in the book. It comes at it from a deeper angle.”
Curran's habit is to use characters from literature – four of the five films he's directed, Tracks, Praise, The Painted Veil and We Don't Live Here Anymore are based on short stories or novels. By definition, he says, character-based films have to be interior journeys. Tracks has the strongest exterior journey but the same rules applies.
Curran has spoken to many people who know or have known Davidson: camel wranglers, people who knew her while she was preparing for the trip in Alice Springs or who met her during her journey, and also Rick Smolan, of course, the American photographer who regularly met up with Davidson in order to document her adventure for an article in National Geographic.
The other thing Curran knew he needed before embarking on the film was an actress who could, on every level, embody this intelligent, prickly, fragile but also strong character with the idiosyncratic sense of humour. He was inundated with women interested in the role but found Wasikowska close to the place he calls home.
Curran returns to his current home in upstate New York in a couple of weeks to resume work on a miniseries he's making for HBO.
“They're going to put me on a plane and send me off so I can't keep fiddling with the it. You can never really finish a film, they just tell you to stop.”
There's been nearly 15 years between his two Australian films, Praise and Tracks, and he says both of the books on which they were based captured the spirit of the age and the nature of Australia and Australians.
“They're both about that post college, pre-career phase of youth when people are trying to find themselves, and its scarey and exciting at the same time.”
Praise, made in 1998, was about two hard-living 20-somethings. It earned McGahan and Horler Australian Film Institute Awards, screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, won the main critics prize at Toronto, was on Australian screens for 16 weeks, launched many careers – and was featured in a cartoon in the New Yorker.
Those who would like to be the first to make a judgement on whether Tracks will enter the zeitgeist in the same way can buy tickets from today to at the opening night of the Adelaide Film Festival. It is the first time the festival has been held in an October – instead of January/February – and it is the first overseen by former ABC TV executive Amanda Duthie.