“People are interesting, everybody is interesting.”
Rolf de Heer was in Perth recently for a Perth International Arts Festival Film Masterclass where de Heer and collaborator Molly Reynolds discussed their work with Fenella Kernebone. Audiences enjoyed hearing their experiences filming in remote Australia and collaborating with Indigenous communities – and hearing what it means to be a true independent voice in Australian cinema.
Andrew Pierce caught up with the iconic Australian filmmaker while he was in town.
I appreciate you taking the time to have a chat to Cinema Australia. I’m a huge fan of your work and it’s really great to see that Perth International Arts Festival is putting on a retrospective of your work, especially the films that are being shown. One of the first questions is that all of the films that are being shown are very focused on indigenous Australia.
Rolf de Heer: Yes, the Tracking Country theme. I think it allowed a really good collation of all the work that Molly and I have both done. Not all of it, but most of it. It’s really interesting, because there’s two sets of three in there. There’s a set of three of, Ten Canoes, The Tracker and Charlie’s Country, that’s one set of three. But then equally there’s another set of three that is Charlie’s Country, Another Country and Still Our Country, both really quite interesting.
I’m curious about how, for you especially, because your work does cover a lot of indigenous stuff, how important is it for us to tell these stories?
RdH: Look, I’d say there is a lot more other stuff that gets covered in my work than just indigenous stuff. Clearly there is a hunger for knowledge. There is a hunger for information, ways of looking at things. But more importantly for people we work with, there is a need to get their stories out. One of the difficulties is that there are so many communities, with so many stories that they’re so desperate to tell, it’s impossible of course that you can’t do more, otherwise you’d wear yourself out in five minutes if you keep it going with the same stuff all the time. It’s never easy. Look, it’s important… in what way? I don’t know. I know I’ve had feedback at various times on the three films I’ve done and of course Molly’s stuff, and in each case, with the three films, there have been people who found them very significant for them and their development in seeing what this is all about, and all you can do is try and make a tiny bit of a difference to be part of the debate. It’s all you can do. You can’t change the world. But I think we have to keep putting these sorts of stories in front of us, to reflect what we’re doing. And, in another way, it also helps preserve culture in some way. It’s very helpful for these mobs, because it helps preserve their culture.
The films that are being shown are yours, and of course Molly Reynolds as well. Can you talk about the working relationship between the two of you?
RdH: When I met Molly just prior to Ten Canoes, she was a screen practitioner, but mostly in the area of digital or online website, that sort of stuff, and in doing Ten Canoes, it seemed logical – because there was a lot that wanted to be said, the mob wanted to say so much we couldn’t put into the film – and so it seemed logical to partner with, in this case, Molly, because she had expertise that I didn’t and she had a different approach to things and all that sort of stuff. It’s become a very, very good intermittent working relationship. And when I say intermittent, what I mean is we’re often on projects that often don’t have anything to do with Aboriginal things or, that don’t need a side project. Equally, Molly does work that has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with any of the stuff that I do. She makes documentaries, she still does websites and online stuff, and works and teaches, she does all those things as well. But, when it’s appropriate we team up very well, because we both have an understanding. We both have spent significant amount of time up there, and so it’s a good complimentary thing.
On top of that as well, my personal favourite film of yours is Charlie’s Country. I think it’s a profound film. It’s really a fantastic piece of work. I’m curious about your working relationship with David (Gulpilil) in that film?
RdH: Yeah, that was really, really interesting because it started off with him when he was in jail and in great need, many sorts of need. Just my turning up to see him, I think created… I mean I had a relationship with him, and a good one, but me turning up at that point when he was in jail to visit him, I think it turned something in David in terms of trust. Because you know, it’s hard for David to trust white people very much, there’s a whole history going through David’s life that made it hard for him to trust white people. Look, it was a gentle process of rehabilitation towards the idea of making that film, and the things that we did together in that journey towards forming that, created sort of, greater knowledge of each so that working together on the film was different than it had been in the past, and was different than it had been for me with any actors apart from my kids. Ok, it’s not an odd thing to say. And what I mean by that was, that what happened on the film was that David, well, English is his sixth language and so, he’s incredibly smart, and he’s got great instinct as well, he’s got both. And so he would listen to what I had to say about something, and he would derive its subtext better than anyone else could, in a way, more from my tone of voice, than from the words that occupy the sentence. He had an instinct to be able to derive fantastically well, in a weird short hand way. I found when I did The Quiet Room, and a couple of other times when I worked with my younger daughter, I did films with them, they know me so well that they start to do what I’m asking before I’ve even finished my sentence, because they know. Or, they know my tones of voices and things, and subconsciously derive meaning from it that is subtle in the extreme, and therefore is fantastic to work with. It was fantastic to work with this aspect of things, and with David on Charlie’s Country it was pretty special. You don’t get that very often.
It’s a great film.
RdH: It’s a great performance. Centrally, it’s so fantastic.
Charlie’s Country is a complex film in itself, but having a look through the different films that you’ve done, they do show different complex aspects of humanity. There’s the mental instability in Bad Boy Bubby, toxic relationship in Alexandra’s Project, and the treatment of indigenous Australian’s. Is there something that draws you to the complexity of people?
RdH: People are interesting, everybody is interesting. I had this lesson once, I had formed this theory that everyone was interesting. Everyone. And then I met a woman, at a film school, and she was staff there, and she said I’m boring. She was an admin assistant. I thought, maybe she’s right. Maybe she’s right. And then I left film school and came back a couple of years later, three years later, four years later, whatever it was, and she was doing her thing, not at film school, she didn’t work there anymore. She was there, but doing a social science, a social welfare degree, and suddenly, she was not boring at all. This was a great relief because it confirmed my theory that everybody is interesting. Now, making the sort of films that I do, with the budgets that I do, I can largely do what I want in certain parameters. And it’s always more interesting to get into the depths and subtleties and complexities of different people, and all that sort of stuff.
It’s fascinating for me the way you do depict it in different films.
RdH: With David it’s that aspect of things is very easy. Point the camera at him, and it’s done. That’s all you need to do. Get it in focus and you’re fine. Because he’s such a strong performer, not to say some of the other actors I’ve worked with aren’t fantastic, they are. But, David has that extraordinary something. And you get to work with good people, and we’re able to please you.
One of the films that’s being shown is Dingo. It’s one of the few performances that Miles Davis did.
RdH: It’s the only cinematic performance. How did we get him?
RdH: Asked him! Asked him and he said yes, it was as simple as that.
And what was the relationship like?
RdH: My relationship with Miles was very, very good. And I don’t know how it happened, although I do know some long, long stories, but it was lucky. His manager did say, I’ve been with him for years and I’ve never seen him like this. I’ve never seen him this cooperative. I’ve never seen him this easy. This is incredible. His manager was completely gobsmacked. And we got on so well that by the end of it, we were talking about doing another film. Nothing to do with music. Nothing to do with jazz. But, he died so it didn’t happen. It was very good.
Look, it’s a film made a while ago now. 25, 30 years. Early nineties. I saw it not so long ago, a few years ago, just after it had been restored by the NFSA and it stood up fairly well. It’s not one of those films that dated so easily. It was pretty pleasing in that sense.
I do find that your films are quite timeless. Sometimes they will depict a moment, or a piece of time, but they haven’t aged at all. And I find that you can show someone Bad Boy Bubby or, as I showed a friend in the US Alexandra’s Project last year and they felt they really needed to ‘see this guys works’.
RdH: It’s sort of by accident, or subconscious in a way. What I try to do in the cinema is to create a journey, to take an audience somewhere. Often that means getting rid of things that connect the audience with their own lives. So, The Quiet Room for example, it’s a good example, when I started I knew what it was going to be about, but I didn’t know how it was going to play, or what is was going to be. I simply had to have two rooms, and I could have chosen any two rooms in the house. And you normally would choose the kitchen/dining area, as being the focus of where the family is, or the living room. If you go into the kitchen/dining, then you’re reminded of normal life a lot, and one of the key things that I learned at the time which was helpful was, I read a quote, that said, in the Greek tragedies, no one ever knew what the God’s had for breakfast. That for me was profoundly important. And it remains to this day, in terms of what you write and what you don’t write. If you have a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes on the table, everybody, everybody, niggles to their own lives. And so I don’t ever have a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes, I don’t want television sets. Except for Alexandra’s Project, there’s something else on the television going on. It’s taking it somewhere, that even though it may be a domestic subject, still taking it out of its design, and takes it out of the ordinary.
That’s really interesting, and fascinating that you put that into the making of your films.
RdH: Yeah, the Greek God’s is a fascinating thing for filmmakers to think about.
One of the other aspects that I find really fascinating is that with films like Dr Plonk, which is very Chaplin-esque, this black and white comedy which feels like an anomaly in Australian cinema. It feels like you’re trying to challenge yourself in different ways.
RdH: It’s not so much that I’m trying to challenge myself, it’s that I come across something, and it’s interesting because I’ve never been there before. It’s not that I don’t want to challenge myself, but hey, this is interesting. And that’s because of the other thing, to make the same film, to make the same type of film… well, to make any film is really, really hard, and having done it, to do it again, it’s like, I don’t want to do that. Why would I want to do that? It’s too much like hard work. I’d rather get a job, which is a lot easier than making films, because it will become a job. I want it to be a delight in the process. So, I do one thing, to something completely different, to something completely different. And by leaving behind what I’ve just done, or recently done… there’s how many years between Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country? It’s a fair few. I don’t want to go there again straight away. They are very different films anyway. But it’s also, where they’re shot. It’s a fair distance. It’s about a decade. To do Ten Canoes again after I’ve just done Ten Canoes, no way!
Is that in the same way that, with films like Bad Boy Bubby and Alexandra’s Project, they’re darker films. For me, as a viewer, it feels like you’ve moved into more lighter fare in way. Is that a reprieve?
RdH: Look, there are different reasons why things are dark and light at various times. Bad Boy Bubby was not at a particularly dark time in my life. Alexandra’s Project was made in 2002/2003. So it was ten years after Bad Boy Bubby. There were three, or four films in between. Dance Me to My Song, The Quiet Room, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories and The Tracker. I’ve been everywhere. You could say The Tracker is a dark film too. There’s no particular reason for it. Each film comes about in its own way. Sometimes I wonder where it comes from.
Ten Canoes was used by the filmmakers behind Tanna as a way of showing the cast of that film, this is what we’re aiming for. Have you seen Tanna? And how does that make you feel as a filmmaker?
RdH: Oh yeah, look, the guys from Tanna spoke to me early on and said this is what we want to do. Almost asked for my approval. I said ok, of course I’d say ok! What they ended up doing was quite different in a sense. Stylistically, the film is very different. Occasionally they would ask me some things, and occasionally I would tell them what I thought. But, they made the film, it’s theirs. Look, all power to them. I hope the miraculous happens. I would be most delighted for them. It’s great. I think it’s good for the people who they made it with. I hope it’s what they wanted. In regards to Ten Canoes, it is what they want, and they were very happy with it. Look, I’ve got tremendous things out of other peoples films.
As an Australian filmmaker, you’ve predominantly made films in Australia. Has there ever been a desire to go overseas and make a film?
RdH: I’ve been overseas with some work, The Man Who Read Love Stories. Do you mean like Hollywood?
RdH: Look, Hollywood beckoned for a bit. I quickly found out that it was not to my taste. At all. It doesn’t mean that I would never make a Hollywood film, but it would have be pretty specifically correct for me. I don’t really like their way of working. I don’t like the size of it. I don’t make films in Australia because I want to make films in Australia. Or to tell Australian stories. I’m better at it with Australian stories because I know Australia well. With The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, just happened to have a wonderful short novel that could be adapted and we could use that. When I was offered that, I thought that was interesting. It happened to be overseas. There’s no me trying to do one thing or another. This is where my home is. This is where I live. This is what I do best. This is where stories come to life to me most easily. I have no desire for a career overseas.
It’s heartwarming in a way to hear that, to hear one of Australia’s great directors say I’m happy doing work here.
RdH: Would I be happy in Hollywood? No. I’d be much more unhappy I think. Would I be happier with all that extra money? No, almost nobody gets happier with that extra money. I get to make with what is almost more raw freedom than just about any director in the world. I’ve had five or six or seven films that were financed before there was a script. And I could write the script the way I wanted to, knowing the money was there. Saying, I want to do something like this. I mean, effectively. And they’re all a bit different, all for slightly different reasons. Who else gets to do that, and say, this is how much money I want? It’s not very much. I don’t want a lot, because then it becomes a pain in the arse. They get all tense.
Last question, where do you see the future of Australian cinema?
RdH: Take the word Australia out of the question for a moment, and what is the future of cinema? It’s in revolution at the moment. Nobody really knows. Then, Australian cinema, it’s part of that. It’s at the forefront, whatever that is. We necessarily have a subsidised cinema, as does almost every other country in the world, and we do that for cultural reasons, which I think are good reasons. And whilst there is a desire for people to see cinema at all, I’m sure that will continue and we will make some good films that will work, and we’ll make some good films that will not work at all for the audience, and we’ll have some bad films that work, and we’ll have some bad films that don’t work. Much as it’s always been.
Rolf de Heer, thank you very much for your time.
RdH: For me, the best work that’s being shown as part of this program is Still Our Country which is very rarely seen on the big screen. For me, it’s an astonishing piece of work. It’s the best, apart from beauty in its own right – and I mean that on a number of levels -, it’s a beautifully made film with its imagery, it works with still and moving image, and explores the relationship between the two. It’s a window into a culture that’s one of the best things that I’ve seen of its sort. It doesn’t tell you what to think. It’s immersive. Some people find it boring, but I use almost every opportunity I can to see it on the big screen. I’ve seen it four or five times and almost every time if I’m given half a chance to see it on the big screen, I will.
You can check out the AB Film Review website here.