“I want to push the boundaries and be different.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Robert Connolly is the kind of film maker Australia needs.
He’s a fearless director who’s taken a huge risk by presenting his latest film, The Turning, as a series of 17 shorts, each with its own director. With sold out exhibitions Australia wide, The Turning could turn out to be a stroke of genius by the seasoned director.
Cinema Australia sat down with Robert Connolly just hours before the Perth premier of his new Australian epic.
This ‘event’ style cinema is a unique way to present a movie to an Australian audience.
When did the idea of presenting it this way come about?
Well I loved the book, which I had lying around the office, and I couldn’t quite work out how to adapt it. Then it came to me that we would just get different people to do different pieces. We went and we approached Tim and he was happy to give us a chance to see if we could do it and he accepted that it was a pretty crazy idea that may or may not work. We’re very happy that it has come together as well as it has.
I just think that The Turning is a book that lends itself to many different points of view. I’d describe it a bit like [Triple J’s] Paul Kelly concert where there was a lot of different bands performing their favourite Paul Kelly song in their own style and I feel like even though it’s an adaptation of The Turning, it’s also a lot of great creative minds making their Tim Winton story which has given it a real consistent feel, even though they’re very different in style.
Did you anticipate any commercial advantages in presenting a film in this format?
Yeah. Yes. I think audiences want something different in the cinema.
Particularly Australian audiences?
Yeah. Yeah. You know we’ve got an era of piracy and we’ve got amazing stuff on TV. You want to get people out for the night and make it an event. We’ve printed a program for people to make them feel like it’s a night out, you know, one session a night. I think exhibitors have been very supporting of that because they know what their audiences want. We’re really excited by this.
Did anyone doubt that you could pull something like this off?
Not really. Well, not to my face anyway. When people started seeing it they started saying hang on, this could be quite interesting. And when tickets started selling people started to realise it could work.
It’s always scary when you’re pioneering something new. But people go and see live music, people go and see theatre, people go and see a musical and they’ll book ahead so my thing was how do I make people feel like that. I want to make people stop and go, “what’s this one about?” and make it a real night out.
So when it opens to the general public is it going to have an intermission as well?
Yeah. Definitely. Everyone will get a program starting next Thursday the 26th [September, 2013].
We do really want to make it an event.
Tim Winton seems to be the Australian equivalent of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen in that once word gets out about a possible film adaptation of one of his books the A-list start queuing up. Was there a lot of excitement in the industry once word got out The Turning was being developed into a feature film?
It’s a good question. I mean we had Rose Byrne flying herself back to do it. Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, all of these actors. I financed the film without any cast. I didn’t need them to be in it because it was already happening. So they all came into it with great levels of excitement. It was pretty incredible really. Especially when you consider that calibre of people wanting to be in this real left of field movie.
By the looks of the trailer they all put their hearts and souls in to it?
Especially Rose Burn. All of their performances were good. People love Tim Winton because he speaks of an Australia that is familiar to people.
So why do you think it’s taken other film makers so long to catch on to adapting other Tim Winton books in to feature films?
Because they’re tricky. I think they’re tricky to adapt. Because they’re great literary works I think they’re hard to get right in films. It’s hard to work out how to adapt them for the screen. I think we’re going to see some interesting things based on his work coming up. There seems to be a few things coming up towards production.
“Tim Winton gave us incredible freedom to go on this journey with his work.”
What was the process in allocating each director to a short? Did anyone have a preference or where they given no choice?
I invited people to read the book and see if there was a story they loved, so that invitation was quite personal. I didn’t want [the invitees] to think about which one would make the best short film, I wanted people to say “I loved that story because it speaks to me because of an experience I’v had”. Interestingly they fell into quite a neat pile. There weren’t people fighting for the same story.
Did you think people would be fighting over a particular story?
Yeah, I thought there might be one or two stories people would want to do. But it all happened effortlessly. I think that’s a credit to Tim that his stories speak of so many different aspects of life that people do find their own way into it.
When you extended these invites did you put an invite out for someone else to direct Aquifer or was that yours from the beginning?
No, that definitely wasn’t available from the beginning. (Laughs). I wanted that so I made sure that was mine.
Did anyone tell you they wouldn’t mind having a go at Aquifer?
Yeah Justin Kurzel loved that one. He also loved Boner and that’s the one he ended up with so I was lucky.
Did you have any concerns about putting something together that involved 17 different directors and a cast of this size? Where you worried there might be a clash of egos or was everyone easy to deal with?
Well it was pretty crazy. I had to channel some zen like approach. Having a producer like Maggie Miles on board really put things into shape.
It wasn’t as logistically scary as it would seem to be because we really set it free. Once the fear of failure is allowed to be there it sets in. We’re a very risk adverse industry and we put lots of things in place to protect against risk. The adventure of this was great.
Was Callan Mulvey your first choice for the lead in Aquifer considering you had worked with him in the past?
Yes. I loved him from Rush. I directed him in an episode of Rush, the cop show, and I just thought he was dynamite.
Had you known him previously to Rush?
No. Nope. So when I was looking at Aquifer I thought we’d get Cal to do it. I think he’s a great actor.
Matthew Saville’s work on Cloud Street, another Tim Winton adaptation, was a masterclass in visual direction. Was he considered to be involved at any time?
I really like Matt. He’s a friend of mine and he’s a great film maker but I was looking at not necessarily having too many film makers in there. I wanted people who hadn’t necessarily made films before. That’s why we went with some actors, visual artists and choreographers who hadn’t done much.
Well I just thought the point of this would be to have many different voices in there that hadn’t been heard before. And Matt had done his big Tim Winton story and he’s a great film maker.
What differences do you come across filming in Western Australia compared to the Eastern States?
Well I’m bringing my new kids film back here, Paper Planes, so obviously I like filming here. Western Australia has some amazing locations and an incredibly talented and strong film industry.
The state government has some incredible incentives to film here. It’s a really great time for the film industry in Western Australia.
So you’d encourage more film makers to come over here to make their movies?
Definitely. I keep joking I should set up an office here. We’re a very small company with a lot of work over here.
I was speaking to some industry insiders recently and one constant they have with making Australian Films is the difficulty in promoting and marketing films here. Because it comes with a built in audience, is a Tim Winton adaptation easier to promote than something like Balibo or Romulus, My Father?
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Because The Turning sold 250,000 copies and it’s a much loved book it really helped. Having an existing audience really helps. You still have to get out on the road and also sell this as a cinema event so people know that it’s something different.
I’ve never had a problem with getting media interested and I’ve always thought people have been very generous about it. I think the way to sell a film now is through word of mouth. Word of mouth is important because people are marketed to so aggressively these days.
Does it every frustrate you how saturated the Australian market is with promoting Holywood films?
I don’t really subscribe to the David versus Goliath type of thing. I think with Australians that if something speaks to their story they tend to go and see it. Think of The Sapphires or Red Dog. We’ve had some real commercial hits here lately. Those big American things spend so much money on advertising that they’re kind of like the Coles supermarket chain of the movie business and the Australian film industry is like the organic food section within the supermarket. We don’t have the muscle. We really have to be more innovative when it comes to marketing our films.
What was it like collaborating with Tim? Did he have much involvement in the film?
Tim was fantastic. He really sets you free. He’s just amazing. He’s quite a private man, I mean he’s a writer he just writes, he doesn’t talk about it he just does it. He gave us incredible freedom to go on this journey with his work and I really thank him for that.
This was your first Tim Winton adaptation. Are there any other books of his you would like to adapt in the future?
I think so. I love The Riders, I love Dirt Music. I’m halfway through his new book which is great. I can see a lot of his stuff being made into films.
Has much changed in the industry since you wrote your white paper and do you think a project like Tim Winton’s The Turning would have been possible 5 or 6 years ago?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think it would have been possible. We’re in a time of great innovation and people are now interested in these kinds of things.
I think 5 or 6 years ago it was more of a status quo and I think it has changed and it’s very exciting.
Hollywood is seeing huge studio films and small independent films and the stuff in the middle is being made for TV. With the stuff I’m interested in the sky is the limit now. I want to push the boundaries and be different.
So do you think the industry has changed because of your white paper?
I hope so. I hope it had some impact. But I think the world has changed and I think that people are really interested in different ways to reach audiences. Piracy has changed it and I don’t say that in a negative way it’s just that the technology now allows people to get content for free with a third of Australians pirating stuff and if that genie is out of the bottle then how do we fight it by making content interesting enough to see in the cinema. And I love the potential for things like The Turning.
The Turning is in cinemas from September 26, 2013.