Australian directors don’t come more committed than Rolf de Heer. For two and half years he’s worked twelve hour days and seven day weeks throwing everything he has at his new film, Charlie’s Country – his third collaboration with longtime friend, David Gulpilil.
During a recent Q&A at Luna Leederville his dedication was starting to catch up with him. “I hit a wall on the way over to Perth. I’m fatigued so last nights Q&A was a bit of a struggle because I was so tired. But it was a wonderful audience and it felt like a really strong response which was terrific.”
When I caught up with him on a cold winter morning in Perth, Rolf was bright eyed and bushy tailed.
He’s an interviewer’s dream – humble, passionate, generous with his answers and unlike any other Australian director I’ve interviewed.
“If you’re going to authentically dig into this subject you can’t do it without the humour.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles:
Does David still surprise you as an actor?
No. And what I mean by that is if at the very beginning, on the first day of thinking about it, I had projected forward as to what was possible I’d have ended up very close to where we are now. One of the things I’ve discovered about David is that he’s an actor you can predictably plan around as being fantastic. I think more so now that he’s given up the booze of course. I know some other shoots had some problems with him but he was still good in them, although I think they had a lot of trouble to get him to be good. I think if the part is at all right for him he’s gonna be fantastic.
From a directors point of view what were some of the differences you notice with David when he’s not on the booze compared to when he is on the booze? His alcoholism seems to be something you’ve brought up quite a bit during the press for this film.
David was in such a state just prior to this film and in a way he’s found some kind of redemption which is just an extraordinary thing. He’s just different – he’s sharper, he’s cooler.
This is your third film with David but the first one you’ve written together. Can you tell us about the collaborative writing process.
Well with The Tracker David was simply an actor. I just cast him and he played the role. With Ten Canoes he was there for the beginning of it for the notion we make a film set prior to the coming of white man, although before David was involved there was still going to be white man come into it. The film developed and changed and David left the community and in the end I developed it with the other people in the community. David was very central to starting the film and of course I dug him up after the shoot in the long grass of Darwin and asked him if he wanted to do the storytelling. But again, that’s something I wrote for him knowing him.
This is really the first time I’ve worked with him writing a project. It’s the first project that’s really been made more for David and to suit him for who he is. To write a roll for an actor is a really great thing because it allows you things you can’t even think of when you’re writing lines.
What was your working relationship like with David during the writing process? Was it different to an director/actor relationship?
Well it was limited to fact that he was in jail. What would happen would be that I’d go and see him and he would talk and talk and talk and present things for me to sift through. I’d ask questions, maybe about something he said to me the previous day then I’d work it into something while consulting with him along the way. At the end of it I read him the whole thing in one piece and we locked off and decided that’s it, that’s the film we’re going to make.
Charlie’s Country has a real sense of humour about it for a film with such a heavy subject matter. Did you always want to include lighter moments in the film.
It’s not even a question of thinking like that. If you’re going to authentically dig into this subject you can’t do it without the humour because David, Djigirr and Minygululu are very funny people and there’s so much humour in the way that indigenous people, very often in times of difficulty, can be very funny and they tread lightly very often. It has to be part of the story otherwise it just doesn’t feel right.
There’s a very convincing scene in the film where Charlie cries for his friend in Darwin hospital. Was David’s performance a demonstration of his extraordinary acting talent or was there more to it.
It’s definitely a demonstration of his acting talent. It was more than one take and this was the take where he found it. The other takes were good and interesting and different but with this one we had the time. With this one it sort of surprised me I guess because he found it much more deeply than he did in the previous takes.
During a recent Q&A you said the shooting process is the least interesting process of making a movie. Which process do you find to be the most interesting?
Writing for me is the first fifty percent of making a film so fifty percent of how the film is going to end up is what you’re creating during that writing process. In general you do that without the stresses involved and without the compromises involved and so it’s much more enjoyable than the shoot. Next for me would be post production – editing, sound editing and sound mixing and laying out the music. That’s a wonderful part of the process because it’s where you begin to see the film the way it’s going to be or the way it is. The sound mix or the final mix for the film is for me the greatest joy of all.
It’s the point of which you can stop projecting and stop guessing. It’s the point of which all the elements come together for the first time properly.
How heavily do you get into the sound process?
Well I’m with it all the way through. It feels like a weird thing not to be. For me sound, which includes music, is sixty percent of the emotional return that you get from a film and so why would I abandon that? It’s wonderful stuff to work with.
Aboriginal culture is obviously very important to you. Can you remember the moment in your life when you realised this?
I must have grown up with it a little bit in some tiny way. I was a migrant coming here when I was eight so I was interested in all sorts of things. But really it was back in about 1991 or 1992 when I was commissioned to write a first contact screenplay set in North Queensland about a cabin boy washed over board. As part of that I had the opportunity to go to a community up there, Hopevale. That was three weeks of great difficulty because there was two funerals happening so nothing was happening and I couldn’t see anybody, then a week of just finding my way which wasn’t easy, then a week of being taken bush and learning and listening. That I think is where it all started for me because then I really began to think about what it was that I really wanted to do with this film – what sort of film was it going to be? I didn’t really like the idea of the film being from the perspective of the cabin boy. I thought it was stupid. It was a bit like Dances with Wolves in the fact that I liked it up until the point that the Costner character ended up with the native American woman and all the native American characters learn english which never would have happened – he would learn the native American language. That made me think about perspective and getting inside so I did a whole lot of other research about historical stuff and my whole consciousness began to change.
Out of that research the idea for The Tracker came to me and ten years later I got to make it. I really date it back to my Hopevale days.
Gary Sweet has a minor cameo in the film. How did this come about?
When you’re shooting a remote film like this and it’s got these tiny little parts you tend to put locals in there who generally aren’t so good. I thought what I’ll do is I’ll make a big list of all the actors I’ve ever worked with and cast them according to whose right for what role. There were a few I couldn’t fit in unfortunately. I’d tell the actors there’s nothing in it for them, they’d get paid equity minimum for half a days work, which is next to nothing, but you get a trip to Darwin or a trip to Ramingining and we’re doing this film for David. They all said yes. Gary had worked with David on The Tracker, Damon Gameau was in it who had worked on The Tracker, John Brumpton from Dance Me to My Song, Luke Ford and Gary Waddell who I had worked with on The King is Dead!, Ritchie Singer who was in Raven’s Gate. I can’t keep going but they’re all great little roles and they’re all really really good and I loved that that great little initiative really paid off.
You mentioned Luke Ford who gives a great performance. What was it like working with him again?
Well he’s in it because I loved working with him on The King is Dead!. He is a wonderful actor to work with who is so committed and passionate. He puts himself out there and he’s a very selfless actor who cares much more about the film then how he looks in it. He just wants to do it right for the film.
Was the arrest scene between Luke and David as physical as it looked on screen. It seemed very rough.
Much more physical than it looked on screen. Again, it was one of the great things about Luke. David’s energy was lagging and Luke would rile him up and stir him. He’d start to punch him playfully and all of a sudden David’s evergy would come back and he’d rise to it. At one stage they both fell over and it was awful. I though we had an injury but no, we had a stunt bloke looking after it and making sure everything went well. There was a lot of intensity in that performance.
You’re still widely well known as the guy who directed Bad Boy Bubby. Are you still surprised by the effects it had on people just over 21 years ago and still has on people today?
[Laughs]. I can’t be surprised anymore after all this time. [Laughs]. the stores that I hear are amazing. I’ve been getting a series of photographs from New Zealand from a bloke I know over there of body parts that have been tattooed in a very complex fashion of scenes from Bad Boy Bubby. Not just one person but many people. Bloody hell, nothing surprises me anymore about that one. [Laughs].
It goes on I guess. There are a few other films that I always get asked about. In a different way Dance Me to My Song has had a deep and meaningful and lasting affect on people. I also get asked a lot about Ten Canoes. Bad Boy Bubby was a small phenomenon and continues to be in a small way. It’s cute really
You’ve been directing Australian feature films for 30 years. Have you ever been tempted by the bright lights of Hollywood?
There was a time shortly after Raven’s Gate when Hollywood actively sought me out. After I made Bad Boy Bubby they stopped. [Laughs]. It was extraordinary, they just stopped. They liked the film very much but they just stopped asking me apart from asking me to do the remake of Bad Boy Bubby.
Madonna wanted to buy the rights to it for Johnny Depp and they wanted me to direct it. I told them they better get an american to direct that. [Laughs].
So Madonna wanted Johnny Depp to star in it as Bubby?
That was the idea. By then I was not tempted to work in Hollywood at all. Look Matt, I work in such a privileged way. There are very few directors in the world who work with the freedom that I work. If I keep my budgets low I generally get what I want financed without having to go through hoops. And then people leave me alone to deliver precisely what I want to deliver. It’s a rare thing. Why would I want to give that up? That’s what going to Hollywood would mean. You work in a machine and, without disrespecting it, I don’t want to be part of that machine. You’re making product rather than something you really care about. There’s a place for that product and I enjoy some Hollywood films immensely but I’m not sure I’d be very good at making them either.
So what’s next for Rolf de Heer?
I reckon I’ve got another six months on this one. It’s sort of taken off a little bit internationally, certainly the festivals. Initial sales are encouraging but the festivals are going gangbusters. From festivals you often do get sales so I have to follow through on that and I have to follow through on things like the French release. I have to go there for two weeks to help promote the film. Then I’m going to stop for some months. I have no idea what I want to do next but something will come up at some stage and if it doesn’t for six months then it doesn’t, I’m fine with that because I’ve just done two and a half years.
Charlie’s Country is in cinemas now.