Tell us a little about your film at SBS On Demand.
The Boys Are Back
I shot The Boys Are Back in 2008 and was delighted to be able to film in some of my favourite places in South Australia – locations that mean a great deal to me. The wine country of McLaren Vale features beautifully – it was originally written for sugar cane country in Queensland! – as does the sweep of Encounter Bay on the South Coast of SA. One day we actually filmed Clive Owen and young Nicholas McAnulty on the rocks at Port Elliot from the balcony of my beach house. I barely had to get out of bed to direct that scene!
Clive was an absolute delight to work with – meticulously prepared, but also eager to enjoy the process and to share that with the other cast and crew. He helped to keep a very relaxed feel on set. Young George MacKay, aged 15, was also wonderful and has gone on to enormous success in 1917 and other recent films. Nicolas playing Artie was aged only five when we started filming and was gifted with that extraordinary ability to step in front of the camera and simply tell the truth. It’s a remarkable performance too, incredibly demanding for such a young actor.
Other standouts in the cast include actors of the calibre of Laura Fraser, Julia Blake, Emma Booth and Chris Haywood, making a great ensemble.
The scene where Artie leaps into the spa bath was shot on a specially constructed set – a bath with rubber sides and no bottom so he could safely jump in. For added safety, a scuba diver was positioned below the surface. When Miramax executives in New York viewed dailies of this scene, they were shocked to see a man in full scuba gear apparently lurking at the bottom of the motel spa and urgently wanted to know if I’d gone off my rocker.
Watch The Boys Are Back now at SBS On Demand.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a number of screenplays which are close to camera-ready. Casting is always the main issue, as the list of actors deemed desirable by distributors is very short and of course they have endless choices. For me it’s essential that the actor is perfect for the role as I’ve always taken great care with my casting choices. John Ford said it was 70% of the director’s job: make the right choice and you’re over halfway there. The corollary being, get it wrong, and you’ll never recover…
I’ve got a new joint venture with a major Singapore company to produce films from this region, so I’ve been focusing on stories which have a strong local connection in South Australia. At this stage of my life I want to make films that matter to me, which involves saying ‘No thanks’ a lot.
How are you coping with self-isolation?
My wife Kerry and I have been living at our vineyard in the Adelaide Hills – the perfect isolation environment. There’s always something to be done up there, in very beautiful countryside, so we’ve actually enjoyed it a lot – while missing our regular family get-togethers and being able to see friends only rarely. There’s been plenty of time for writing too.
What are your 5 favourite films at SBS On Demand?
1. The Red Balloon
Director: Albert Lamorisse
Cast: Pascal Lamorisse, Georges Sellier, Sabine Lamorisse
*Warning: contains spoilers!*
Still as charming as when it was released in 1956, this was the first movie that I can remember seeing as a child in Kenya, at the Nairobi drive-in theatre. There was no TV in Kenya then, and films were few and far between. I must have been around the same age as the little boy in the story, maybe four or five. I remember completely identifying with little Pascal. The sorrow I felt when (spoiler alert!) his balloon is stoned to death and the terrified elation as he is carried away by the balloons of Paris was my initiation into the power of cinema to evoke emotion. It was an instinctive embrace of Werner Herzog’s axiom: ‘Cinema is not about intellect. It is agitation of the mind.’
In 1999, I was accompanying the peerless actor Max von Sydow on a walk around his estate in Provence. Max’s work had been a powerful element of my induction into the world of cinema as a teenager, and through the unforeseen swirls and eddies of life I had come to cast him in my first Hollywood film Snow Falling On Cedars. We paused on a bluff overlooking the neighbour’s farm. ‘That’s Lamorisse’s place’ said Max. ‘Who?’ I replied. ‘Pascal Lamorisse – he was the little boy from The Red Balloon,’ replied Max. Past and present fused across four decades for me in an instant.
Watch The Red Balloon now at SBS On Demand.
2. Like Crazy
Director: Drake Doremus
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence
This is a must-see for the performance of the late, wonderful Anton Yelchin. Anton was a dear friend of mine, killed in a tragic accident at only 27 years of age. I cast him opposite Anthony Hopkins in Hearts In Atlantis which I directed in 2000, when he was only 11. Anton was unique – a highly intelligent, culturally sophisticated only child of champion Russian figure skaters. He loved playing Chekhov in Star Trek, partly because this was the name of one of his favourite Russian writers. A hugely gifted actor, as a kid he went toe to toe with Hopkins to the point where Tony once broke off in the middle of a scene, saying ‘Damn, you’re good. I mean you’re really good!’ Shy, humble, respectful, Anton never took Hopkins up on his invitation to ‘Call me Tony’. It was always ‘Sir Anthony’. But once I said ‘Action’ it was all bets off and let the devil take the hindmost! Tony had to push back to make his own impact on a scene – it was a wonderful duel to direct.
Anton defaulted to the dark side in many of his role choices, and in Like Crazy he plays a star-crossed young lover Jacob, separated from Anna (a luminous Felicity Jones) by bureaucracy and visa issues.
Watch Like Crazy now at SBS On Demand.
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Jack Nicholson
*Warning: contains spoilers!*
A virtually flawless mystery/noir, once voted fourth most popular film of all time by Entertainment Weekly, this film needs no recommendation from me. I regard it as the apotheosis of Polanski’s career – the signal that here was an immensely talented director who could infuse a piece of popular entertainment with a sense of depth, resonance, dread and sophisticated humour that few could have achieved. To think of what he might have done in the next 46 years had he not been the architect of his own downfall is akin to wondering what Leni Riefenstahl could have achieved had she never met Hitler.
Apart from anything else, the idea of Polanski slapping a huge bandage onto the nose of his leading man (Jack Nicholson) for the bulk of the movie (having slit his nostril with a knife onscreen himself!) is a directing achievement hard to imagine in the modern world. Can’t see Tom Cruise accepting that!
In the tradition of Bogart, Nicholson perfectly captures the hard-boiled persona of Gittes. The performance of the legendary director John Huston in the sinister role of corrupt and dangerous Noah Cross also raises an echo of Bogart whom he directed in several memorable films.
The script of course is a classic, winning Robert Towne the Oscar, though the dark ending (the only scene actually set in Chinatown) was apparently Polanski’s idea which Towne fought against in vain. An unusual ending for a studio picture, highly unlikely to be acceptable today.
Watch Chinatown now at SBS On Demand.
4. My Left Foot
Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Fiona Shaw, Brenda Fricker
Jim Sheridan’s masterpiece won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Academy Award. In the years I was developing Shine, when asked who I thought was the core audience, I used to cite this film. Before casting Geoffrey Rush, I even sent the script to Day-Lewis’ London agent. It arrived back some three months later marked ‘not known at this address’ – the agent had moved to a different room in the same building! So much for the enterprise of the Royal Mail… By the time I made contact with his US agent, the actor had decided to become a cobbler and was not reading any scripts.
Jim Sheridan told me that working with Day-Lewis was quite a challenge – that he would disappear into such a dark tunnel mentally where you felt you could make no contact with him. But there’s no arguing with the results: it’s a towering performance by a man whose speciality is acting of another order to the rest of humanity.
Watch My Left Foot now at SBS On Demand.
5. Withnail And I
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
For many years this was on my top 10 list of films, so I thought a revisit well worth it. Well, it has aged perhaps not as gracefully as I might have wished, but what still illuminates the whole film is the peerless performance of Richard E. Grant in his breakout role as Withnail, on which his entire career has been built. And he has never been better. Playing an out-of-work actor in sleazy digs with another (‘I’ played by Paul McGann) his mouthy, theatrical, bold, craven, over-stimulated character still resonates with all the freshness it exhibited in 1987. He still succeeds, despite playing the most self-interested of characters, in tapping into our empathy to the point where his closing Shakespearean monologue (which he delivers to an audience of caged zoo animals) is still capable of provoking tears.
I was so captivated by Grant’s performance at the time that, for a while, he was on my wish-list as an actor to play David Helfgott in Shine. At the time, it was a struggle for me to connect with international talent, and that thought never progressed, because in due course I met Geoffrey Rush.
Bruce Robinson, writer and director, remains something of an enigma. I tried to connect with him in the early 2000s to write a story that interested me, but was told by my agent that he only wished to write for himself and that collaboration was not his strong suit.
He was an Oscar-nominated writer for his Killing Fields screenplay, and in fact I never knew until I checked recently that he played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. Apparently that experience ‘destroyed’ him as an actor, being ‘treated like shit’ by the ‘maestro’. The sparsity of his credits since Withnail does reflect a certain misanthropic quality which one can sense clearly in the characterisations of Withnail And I.
I still recommend it highly as a one-off cinematic phenomenon.
Watch Withnail And I now at SBS On Demand.