Director Ted Kotcheff discusses his rediscovered Australian film classic Wake in Fright.
“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” These friendly words offered upon arrival in the outback backwater of Bundanyabba serve as an introduction to hell in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film that despite receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reception when it premiered at the 1971 Cannes film festival has been all but impossible to see for the last forty years. Now, a new restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia offers an opportunity to see this long-lost gem of Australian cinema.
In true Conradian fashion, the supposedly sophisticated John Grant arrives in town full of contempt for its yokel inhabitants—whose life seems to consist exclusively of binge drinking, gambling and fighting—only to be seduced by their savagery and readily turn into as depraved a beast as the worst of them. With stunning cinematography and truly remarkable performances, the film offers an unsparing portrayal of the Yabba, as the residents affectionately call the town, as well as the darkest recesses of the human soul. Though superficially comparable to the ‘hicksploitation’ wave of the 1970s—from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes —it offers a far more nuanced and terrifying study of its protagonists than these films with which it is regularly grouped. In fact, if there is one blessing from its disappearance, it’s that—by being re-released now—it transcends and subverts this established genre that the film actually preceded.
Ted Kotcheff went on to direct other, more immediately successful films, such as the first installment of the Rambo series, First Blood. I met with him on the evening that the restored version of Wake in Fright celebrated its American premiere at New York’s Film Forum. In a genial mood and not without manifest pride, he recounted the film’s incredible four-decade journey from distributors’ pariah to reinstated classic before discussing the themes and style that make his film as trenchant and haunting today as it was at the time of its original release.
Giovanni Marchini Camia I wanted to ask about the history of the film. There are various accounts of why it disappeared for so long. What is your take?
Ted Kotcheff Well, you know, when a film fails at the box office—which it did—the people who distribute who are only interested in profit lose interest. The film didn’t do well in Australia, which is where it was made. I think the Australians perhaps took affront to the way Aussie males were depicted in the film. It did well, because of the Cannes festival, in France, but that’s the only country in the world where it did any business. And then they opened it here, but the distributor, United Artists, didn’t believe in the film at all. They said to me, “Americans aren’t going to come see this film. They’re gonna be repulsed by the kangaroo hunt.” And they opened it in New York, at a small cinema in the East Side, without any publicity whatsoever, on a Sunday night, in a heavy blizzard. Nobody came. They were right. They told me, “See, we told you nobody would come.” (laughter) So everybody just lost interest.
It would never occur to me that something as valuable as a negative of a film—people have worked so hard on it, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars—why would you ditch it? Why would you throw it in the garbage can? It never crossed my mind. And then, years go by, and suddenly somebody from a film society or a film school said to the Australian producer, “We’d love to see that film.” It was one of the first Australian films. He didn’t have any of the copies, so he started making enquiries and no one knew where the negative was. It wasn’t in Sydney, it wasn’t in London—where it had been processed—and he just shrugged his shoulders: “My God, this is a disaster. But we can’t find the negative.” And then, it was only with the—this is a long-winded answer to your question, do you want to hear all this?
GMC Of course.
TK It was only with the editor, Tony Buckley, who loved the film, thought it was a great film and made it his life’s work to go and find the negative. With his own money, at his own expense, he first flew from Australia straight to London, because that’s where the film had been processed, and couldn’t find it. He heard that there was a print in Dublin, so he flew to Dublin, and it proved to be a chimera. Then he went to New York, because the film was originally financed—half financed—by a film company called Group W Films. It wasn’t there. He couldn’t find it.
For two years he was persistent, he wasn’t gonna stop, he was going to find this damn negative! (laughter) Part of the problem was that Group W went bankrupt. When film companies go bankrupt, it passes on: you get the film, you give it to somebody else for ten dollars, they give it to somebody else—you lose track. And that’s what happened, because of the bankruptcy of the original company, the film fell into the hands of creditors. It was worthless. Not worth 25 cents as far as they were concerned. What are you gonna do with it?
Finally, he tracked it down to a warehouse in Pittsburgh. They found two big boxes full of internegatives, soundtracks, music tracks, interpositives. And on the boxes, in big red letters, it said “FOR DESTRUCTION.” This is how close it came. Had he arrived one week later, they were going to incinerate this worthless Australian film and make room for some other film in the warehouse. But he got there and he saved it.
GMC It must feel like a long-overdue vindication.
TK It’s miraculous, I gotta tell you. They made a new print, they digitally restored the print, and it was re-released in Australia and this time, they went crazy for the film. Everybody came! And then the Cannes film festival heard of the new print that had been made and they wanted to have a look at it. They looked at it and they declared it a Cannes Classic and they screened it at Cannes again! Only two films have ever been screened twice at Cannes: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and my film—only two films! And then suddenly everybody heard about it and everybody was intrigued by the whole idea of a film disappearing and forty years go by and it rises from the grave. (laughter)
GMC What do you think changed in those forty years?
TK Well, you’ve seen the film, can you imagine the homosexual rape in 1971?
GMC Deliverance was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That was 1972, no?
TK About the same time, yes. But this was about Australia too. That, and the whole kangaroo hunt. I think it certainly alienated certain people. But I think the taste of things has changed and forty years later, the film has an easier time with the audience than it did back then.
GMC Nick Cave, amongst others, has praised Wake in Fright for perfectly capturing a very defining aspect of Australian culture. Was this your original intent or do you consider the themes to be more universal?
TK Well, I certainly think that one of the things about the picture is that, basically, we’re all in the same existentialist boat, all of us. You know, we all think we’re better than each other, we think we’re superior, but when it comes to terms of sheer existence, we’re all in the same boat: you, me, the guy in the film, everybody. (laughter) And that’s what he learns as a lesson. I think that his experience, his self-discovery, which is basically the central thrust of the film, I think that’s pretty universal.
GMC You’re Canadian and you went to make a film that was an unflattering portrait of another culture. At the time, how did you consider the potential backlash from the Australians?
TK You can’t guess how the audience is going to react to a film. Otherwise, if they knew what the audience would like to see, everybody in the film industry would be billionaires. (laughter) But I don’t think that way. When I make a film, it’s something that interests me, something that moves me, something that makes me laugh, something that engrosses me . . . The director in a film is the audience of one and I hope that what I find moving, you find moving; what I find amusing, you find amusing; what I find is a revelation, you find is a revelation. I think that’s what a director does. Otherwise you’re second-guessing the whole time, trying to imagine what the audience likes.
You know, it’s very interesting, Jack Thompson—he plays one of the Kangaroo hunters—told me a story: he said that he was at a screening in an ordinary theater one time, and in the middle of it, a guy got up, pointed his finger at the screen and said, “This is not us!” And another voice from another part of the theatre said, “Sit down you fool, it is us.” (laughter_) And I think the central character is us. I think all of us are interested in self-discovery and sometimes I think we even put ourselves in situations where we can encounter ourselves, see the shadow side of our character. Every human being has an ordinary, civilized side and there is a darker side, which is hidden from him. If you noticed the motif in the film, there’s always a light shining on him. And I guess that comes from me a lot. I am puzzled sometimes, I behave in a certain way and I think, “That’s not me. Who’s doing this, who’s making me say that?” (_laughter) I think that’s basically what the picture is about: self-discovery.
GMC Wake in Fright is often compared to films like Deliverance, Straw Dogs, or The Hills Have Eyes. I don’t completely agree. I feel that while the others establish a very strict dichotomy, yours allows for more ambiguity. How do you feel about your film being grouped with those?
TK They all came out at roughly the same time—I think it’s more a question of timing. I think my film goes off in a different direction, I agree with you. I like Deliverance, I like Straw Dogs, but my film is entirely different.
GMC I found several parallels between Wake in Fright and your later film, First Blood. Would you consider them companion pieces?
TK I think it’s also close to the next film I did, which was called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfuss. He’s another person who doesn’t know what’s driving him and I’m trying to reveal to the audience what makes this guy do all these sometimes horrendous things. But in terms of style, I think, it’s closer to First Blood. Yes, I agree with you, when I made First Blood, I could sense the influence and the effect of Wake in Fright.
GMC How so?
TK It’s one man against the community, that’s really the similarity. I was born as a Bulgarian in an Anglo-Saxon community in Canada and I always felt an outsider; I never felt I belonged there. In fact, I never felt I belonged anywhere, all my life, as a result of my childhood. People called me, “You wop! You dirty foreigner,” so I guessed I didn’t belong here. (laughter). In Wake in Fright, he doesn’t belong there, he feels outside, a foreigner to this community. Then he finds that he’s not, but that’s something else. I think the Sylvester Stallone character, he’s come back, he’s served the country and he comes back to the country he’s served and they reject him. They blame him for the war – all the veterans of that stupid war in Vietnam: the right wing blamed them for being losers and the left wing accused them of being baby killers. They didn’t ask to be sent there. So when he goes across that bridge and the guy says, “Get out of here, don’t come in this town.” He’s, again, another outside figure, outside the community, and he says, “This time I won’t take it,” and he goes back inside to do something about it. I think that’s the parallel. It seems to me, perhaps because of my own make up, that I’m always attracted to people that don’t feel they belong to the world that they find themselves in.
GMC Wake in Fright is a very philosophically charged film and I appreciated the scene at the end where the main character symbolically chucks his philosophy books away. Did you add that or was that in the original novel?
TK No, I put that in. There was a poet friend of mine and he said, “You son a bitch, Kotcheff! When he threw that book of Plato’s Dialogues away . . . ” I said, “Yeah, there’s no room for Plato in this man’s town.” (laughter_) But, you know, it’s very difficult—as I said earlier, you, me, we’re all in the same boat together. Humanity’s in the same boat together. You can have delusions of superiority but we all exist and we all die together. (_laughter)
When I made this film in 1970 I was in a very, very strange frame of mind. Very despairing, full of despair about human beings and that stupid war in Vietnam where they killed 53,000 boys, and the Soviet Union and America were ready to commit suicide and drop H-bombs on each other . . . I don’t know, I was in a very bad mood in relation to humanity and I think the picture is full of despair. When I see it, I see myself. I don’t feel like that now, but I felt like that then.
GMC How would you make it different today?
TK (laughter) Well, I don’t know. That’s a very interesting question, I’d have to think about it. I don’t think I can give you a snap answer. All I know is that at the time I was full of despondency about human beings and how they were behaving.
GMC What about the fact that there are almost no women in the film, did that also reflect your mindset about the times?
TK No, that town of Broken Hill—that’s the real town, in the film it’s called Bundanyabba—it’s a mining town in the middle of nowhere. It’s a hundred miles in every direction of nothing. You’re trapped in that town. The men outnumber the women three to one. Three to one, think about it! The women, they’re not allowed to go anywhere. They’re not allowed in the pubs, they’re not allowed to go in the clubs, they have to stay at home. And the suicide rate among women in Broken Hill is five times the national average. They sit at home and their boyfriends or their husbands or their lovers are out there, fighting, drinking, gambling, shooting Kangaroos. And they put their heads in the oven and gas themselves.
Another thing is—I mean, it’s a very masculine society, but they’re not homosexual or anything—how can you live without women? When I was working out there, I said to one guy one day—’cause I was missing some femininity—I said to one guy, “If I don’t talk to something soft soon, I’m going to lose my mind!” (laughter) And you could feel the hunger. There’s no brothels out there—the first thing I said when I was told the women outnumber the women three to one was, “I guess there must be a lot of brothels.” They said, “No.” I wondered, What do they do? What I discovered was that the fighting replaces sexual contact. These guys, they wanted to fight me all the time. I looked like a ’60s hippie when I made that film: I had a handlebar mustache and hair down to here. They didn’t particularly care for outsiders and they certainly didn’t care for outsiders who looked like me. So when I went into a pub, guys always wanted to fight me. I rapidly discerned that they didn’t want to hit me; they wanted me to hit them. This was the only touch of human flesh and it came from being hit. That replaced sexuality. The men there generally are hungering. It drives them crazy; it drives them mad not to have femininity around.
GMC Apart from the scene with the philosophy books, how else does the film depart from the book?
TK I’ve forgotten. It’s been forty years since I worked on the script. But we were pretty faithful to the book. The book is kind of autobiographical—Kenneth Cook [the author] went to Broken Hill, where we shot it, and he was exactly like the schoolteacher. He was a writer and he worked as a journalist in this town and I think he went through similar experiences. As I recollect, we were faithful to the spirit of the book. I mean, a film is a film. You want to tell the story pictorially, rather than verbally. Like the opening shot, where you go 360 degrees and you see this vast empty space—it doesn’t liberate you, that space, does it? You feel imprisoned. I always felt imprisoned by the emptiness, there’s no escape from it.
GMC Do you consider the end of the film to be a happy ending?
TK Ambivalent, I’m gonna say. He’s trying to put a good cover on it. At the end, the guy says to him, “Did you have a good holiday?” And he says, “The best.” I think that maybe, he might think, Yes, I’m a stronger person now because I see things about myself that I never realized I possessed; I can resist them more easily. But I think he’s slightly fooling himself.
GMC Could the doctor character be seen as what the schoolteacher would have become had he not escaped?
TK Well, it’s very funny you should say that. A friend of mine, he said to me, “What do you think happened to the teacher after the film’s over?” And I said, “Well, he probably had such a horrendous experience—he says it’s the best, but it isn’t the best—and he probably rushed back to Sydney and civilization and rushed back to an assured, bourgeois life. Maybe got married to that girl.” And he said, “No, I don’t think so.” “Oh? What do you think?” He said, “I think he became like the doctor. He went back and became a drunk and a bum!” (laughter) And that’s possible too. Maybe this experience destroyed him.
GMC I really appreciated the editing and cinematography of the film, particularly the frenetic cutting in the climactic sequences and the way you rendered the oppressive heat and desolation of the place. Could you comment on how you went about devising those?
TK As a filmmaker, I have about a good 80% to 90% of the film in my head when I first envision it. Of course, one makes adjustments and finesses certain things. The whole idea of going to black, and then when he gets raped, it went to white, then again when he was in the hospital, it went back to black, is of life being sort of fractured. That fast cutting, I wanted to get a more feverish feeling; he’s completely out of control now and these frightening images are running through his head. Some were real and some were imaginary. He couldn’t distinguish: real, imaginary, real, imaginary. He sees his girlfriend coming out of the water, then he sees the doc tying her up and screwing her. You know what I mean? It’s a paranoid vision, so that was deliberate, the mixture of the real and the imaginary, which I think was going through his feverish brain at the time, which then led to his attempt to kill himself.
One thing I liked that I did in the film—I hope this doesn’t sound too self-serving—but getting back to the subject of women and the total discomfort of their life there and the way they worked—I admired their fortitude. The heat, the dust and the flies. When I worked with the costume designer and the set designer, I said, “I don’t want any cool colors. Ever! I never want to see blue, I never want to see green, all I want to see is red, and brown, and yellow, and burnt sienna, but never a cool color.” So you feel it, subconsciously. I used to get one of those squirters and I got red dust, exactly like in the outback, and before the shoot I sprayed it all over the set. Not only did it settle, but it hung there—you don’t necessarily see it directly, but it’s subconscious.
Another thing I did: I got a lot of sterilized houseflies from the University of Sydney. And in a scene, once the camera was set up, I’d just release a hundred flies. A couple of times it got right in the actors’ eyes! It’s horrible, flies. Talking, I’d go, “Giovanni—“ and a fly would go in my mouth and down and into my stomach. I always tried to suggest heat, dust, discomfort, lack of women . . . This drives them mad! You’re drunk and you gamble and you shoot kangaroos. It’s not an explanation, you know? It was a criticism, too, of “mateship,” of the whole nasty side of mateship. They do things to show you that they’re a man, but it doesn’t make you a man, it makes you a beast. You’re not a man if you shoot kangaroos, you’re a beast.
The last chance to watch Wake in Fright in New York is at the Film Forum on Oct 19. It will also screen for a week at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles starting Oct 19, with Ted Kotcheff present for a post-screening Q&A on Oct 19 and 20.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic currently living in New York. For more of his writing visit his blog.