“In my humble estimation,” Ted Kotcheff says down the phone line from Los Angeles, “I think Wake in Fright is my best film.”
With almost any other director that would go without saying. A gripping, nightmarish story filmed at Broken Hill about a Sydney Schoolteacher (Gary Bond) who spends a weekend trapped in an outback town, Kotcheff’s 1971 classic was screened at Cannes twice (the second time in 2009 in a restored version) and helped kickstart the Australian “New Wave” cinema of the '70s.
For the 85-year-old Canadian-born Kotcheff though, it’s merely one high point amongst many. Over a fifty-year career, he’s directed live plays on Canadian television – including 1958’s Underground, where an actor died off-camera in-between scenes – over twenty feature films, and executive produced over two hundred episodes of Law & Order: SVU. He directed both First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's: there’s not a lot of directors out there with that kind of range.
“That’s always been a slight obstacle in my professional career,” Kotcheff says. “People want you to be predictable. They're not going to offer you a comedy if all you’ve been doing is action pictures. And they’re not going to give you action pictures if you’re doing comedies! But somehow I’ve managed to do it.”
He credits his interest in variety with his very first directing job. “I think a lot of it started when I was 24, and I started directing plays on Canadian television. Live television drama, the most demanding thing imaginable – can you imagine doing a one-hour film live? I worked on this series for two years, and every three weeks I would do a one-hour drama. I would do a comedy, three weeks later I’d do a history play, three weeks later I’d do a mystery play, then three weeks later I’d do a drama, three weeks after that I’d do comedy again. So I think I got used to that whole idea of not being confined to one genre. Otherwise, I have no other explanation.”
“People want you to be predictable. They not going to offer you a comedy if all you’ve been doing is action pictures. And they’re not going to give you action pictures if you’re doing comedies! But somehow I’ve managed to do it.”
Kotchoff is coming out to Australia to speak at Melbourne’s Monster Fest, where he’ll be introducing four of his films – Wake in Fright, First Blood, Weekend at Bernie's and his 1982 drama about a cult (loosely based on the Moonies) Split Image. He’ll also be giving a three-hour masterclass, and the focus may surprise those only familiar with his work from Wake in Fright.
“Comedy,” he says, “is the hardest thing to do. Something like First Blood is easy, you’ve got a natural structure: the pursued and the pursuing. You’ve got a natural structure to cut from one to the other, waiting for them finally to meet for the climax – structurally it’s so easy. People always say to me ‘what are you going on about comedy for when you talk at film school, it looks like so much fun it must be easy.’ And I say ‘no, comedy is the hardest thing there is. I tell you what – you say or do something that’ll make me laugh – c’mon, c’mon, make me laugh!’ As you see, there’s a problem there.”
That’s not to say action always runs smoothly. The original script for First Blood ended with Rambo killing himself, but as they were filming a problem came up.
“Originally he was surrounded and the Colonel comes in, and for the first time there’s this volcanic eruption of words from Sylvester Stallone. He says ‘I know you’ve got a gun under there Colonel, and you’ve come here to put me out of my misery. Well, you fathered me, you created me, now it’s appropriate that you kill me.’ So the Colonel pulls out his gun, but of course he can’t pull the trigger. But as he does Rambo reaches up, presses the trigger of the gun and blows himself away.
“Sylvester was absolutely brilliant, but afterwards he comes up to me and he says ‘we put this character through so much, he jumps off cliffs into trees, he’s been wounded, he sews up his own wounds by himself, he runs through icy waters, dogs are sicc’d on him, we put him through horrors – and now we’re going to kill him?’ And I said ‘I think you’ve got a point’.”
While a fan of the classics – he’s full of praise for Casablanca, a film he recently revisited for the first time since the 1940s – as a member of the Academy, Kotcheff is still across all the latest releases, seeing a film almost every night (tonight he’s off to see the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea). In the past, he’s expressed concern for the future of film, worried like many that business constraints are squeezing out smaller films in favour of big action blockbusters. But this year things seem to be looking up.
“I got to tell you, this is a fantastic year for films. The last two or three years I struggled to find five films to nominate – this year, God, I’ve found ten films I’d like to nominate. I tell you, there’s some great films coming.”
Talking to Kotcheff, it’s clear his career has given him a near-endless supply of stories to tell. But the way he talks about Wake in Fright, and the pride he takes in the way its brutal scenes of kangaroo slaughter (filmed documentary-style during a typical evening’s roo shooting) helped end the killing of kangaroos for the American pet food market, makes it clear it’s a film that’s close to his heart to this day.
“I was kind of hesitant at first to take it on,” he says. “Not hesitant that we were doing it, but boy, I know nothing about this world. As a director you want to know all the little details about the world, that’s what makes it interesting. So I started my research, and if you’re coming into a strange place like Broken Hill, the first thing you should do is take the editor of the local newspaper out to dinner - they know where all the bodies are buried.
“So I took the editor out to dinner and he told me: ‘Ted, do you know the men outnumber the women in this town three to one.’
‘What?” I said, ‘where are the brothels?’
‘There are no brothels.’
‘Well, are they homosexuals?’
‘Ted, we are Australians, we’re not homosexuals!’
‘But then,’ I said, ‘what do they do for human contact?’
And he says to me ‘They fight.’”
Monster Fest takes place in Melbourne on Nov. 24-27. More info: www.monsterfest.com.au