The film version of Tim Winton's book of The Turning launches in cinemas this Thursday. Robert Connolly produced the film with Maggie Miles and directed the third story, 'Aquifer'. He's been busy playing the role of showman and personally introducing preview screenings but he took time out to tell us five things he has learned from making the film.
The only way it was possible to make such a big project was to relinquish control
Doing things innovatively and differently is sexy again
Just the fact that we were doing something different generated a lot of real energy. It was wonderful that I was able to finance The Turning without actors but then, because we were standing out from the crowd, the film was like a magnet and we got some extraordinary people on board. Would we have been able to get Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Rose Byrne into one film made in the usual way? Probably not. It also meant others came on board that you might not expect. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie is an example.
There is a school of thought that says any industry that doesn't innovate withers on the vine. I could have made a two-hour film, instead of a three-hour film, but it would have just been like a normal film.
It's also worth mentioning that technologically, we are at a point of incredible innovation and it is having a profound impact creatively. Cinematographer John Brawley used the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as his primary camera for the first time on writer/director Ian Meadows' film Defender. This is a groundbreaking new camera developed in Melbourne. It is a case of Melbourne taking on the world.
The Turning gave me an incredible snapshot of the many ways it is now possible to make a film: the many ways to do special effects, the many cameras you can now shoot on, how you can record sound, what you can edit on. It gives directors and heads of department immense freedom and that brings creative benefits.
If you let creative filmmakers have creative control they are set free to do surprising and very exciting work
The only way it was possible to make such a big project was to relinquish control. I now know that relinquishing control, providing you've selected people with care, has tremendous creative value. If you want to surprise audiences, the way to do it is to empower filmmakers as we did. There are many examples across the films. Bangarra Dance Theatre choreographer Stephen Page has included the most wonderful abstract imagery, shot with his child actors in a studio, in his film 'Sand'. Anthony Lucas embarked on a triptych; splitting the story he tells in 'Damaged Goods' across three panels on the screen.
Australia's film financing system means a lot of people have a lot of input and I do sometimes worry that for some films it's death by a thousand cuts. The Turning was a big opportunity for people to run with their ideas. If they had gone through a typical filmmaking process the final result would have been a much more homogenised work. It is a worrying trend that it is getting increasingly rare for Australian directors to have creative control.
Actors make great directors
I already knew this from producing Romulus, My Father, directed by actor Richard Roxburgh, but The Turning has confirmed that actors make great directors. Think about it: they have worked with lots of great directors alongside a lot of great actors and it gives them an ability to create great characters. It makes me a bit envious actually. In The Turning, Mia Wasikowska, the youngest of the directors on the film, did a wonderful job of directing emerging young actor Matthew Shanley in 'Long, Clear View', and David Wenham made 'Commission' starring Hugo Weaving. Both are splendid films. Not only did they direct them with great skill in what were their directorial debuts: they also wrote the scripts.
Cate Blanchett was also going to be making her debut on The Turning with 'Reunion' but after Andrew Upton wrote the script, the emphasis shifted, and she decided she wanted to play one of the characters and didn't feel she could do both. In their roles as co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company (Upton is now in that role solo), they had been collaborating with Simon Stone and invited him to use his theatre experience to direct the film.
Tim Winton's writing speaks to the whole of Australia
The initial idea behind this project was to base ourselves in one town in Western Australia and fly everyone involved on each film in and out of that town, giving each team a week of filming. But it quickly became apparent, because of people's schedules, that this would be impossible. Instead, we invited the directors to pick a location that meant something to them.
I know people say Tim's work speaks of Western Australia but I think it speaks of an Australian landscape. Six of the 17 were filmed in Western Australia but 11 were filmed in other parts of the country. They were made in all these disparate places – Jub Clerc's film 'Abbreviation' was made in Broome where the landscape is so distinctive but Tony Ayres filmed 'Cockleshell' just outside Melbourne – but they still fitted into this jigsaw puzzle.
Let the audience add two plus two and they'll love you forever
Billy Wilder once said – as I understand it quoting Ernst Lubitsch – that if you let the audience add up two plus two, rather than add it up for them, they'll love you forever. I went into this project with that thought.
Each of the 17 chapters in Tim's book are set in the same place but together they read more like short stories than a traditional narrative. In the film, each of these chapters was made into a film by a different team of filmmakers – and Marieka Walsh has directed an animated interpretation of the book's foreword. Different actors appear then disappear then reappear in the book and in the film, because the directors had control of their own casting, these are played by different actors.
As I hoped, the audiences are gaining great pleasure through puzzling through this themselves. Some audiences are very literal: they want a 100-minute three-act structure that is cohesive with elegant precision. I like rough edges and subplots. I like things to be a big messy. There will be people that want it all to connect but there is also an audience that enjoys being allowed to make the connections themselves and I'm seeing that already.
I'm terrified that the film is opening this Thursday but excited too.