RABBIT-PROOF FENCE - Q&A with director PHILLIP NOYCE
Movie Interview by Toby White
Following a preview screening of RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, PHASE9 met the film's director, Phillip Noyce at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
I would have imagined the biggest thought when you started was you've got to find the right kids?
You got it. What happens is that you start a movie and there are always problems but you tell yourself you'll solve all of them. And usually you believe it. In this case, I have to admit that I didn't think that I would solve it because how would you ever find 3 children that could be in that movie. Particularly the eldest since she had so much to do.
What was the search process like? I understand there was a national talent search...
Yeah, we tried to turn it into one. We used the Morning Show on Channel 9, the leading Commercial network in Australia, to launch the search for a star. But we still had to do most of the work with people sending in tapes and we had to go and see all these kids, most of the better ones coming from remote areas!
The story being such as it is, you must have been very careful or did you think that it was just a narrative?
No, we did have to be careful about cultural issues and the presentation of certain events. We were as careful as we could be, consulting people along the way and having elders from that area with us during filming.
As you were shooting it, with low camera angles, certain noises, were you trying to send the audience on a particular emotional arc?
Well, you want to try to get the audience to identify with the characters so the use of point of view shots was an attempt to make the audience to feel that they are those kids and to know what it might be like to be in that situation. As for the loud noises, they happen mainly in the first part when they are taken to the camp, by truck and train and that's what it would have been like for them. I remember Molly and Daisy telling me even now that they were frightened and disorientated and feeling ill from fear.
Growing up in Australia as you did, were you aware of what the practice towards Aborigines was?
Yes and no. I grew up in a small country town and we had, like many country towns, a reservation outside the town. About fifteen miles out was a big fence and inside the fence in huts lived the Aboriginal inhabitants of that area who had been herded "for their own protection". Once you think about it, clearly they'd been locked up. Growing up in Australia, this seemed normal. It wasn't until I was a little older that I realised that this was far from normal. You start to think, "How come those people are living out there?" With regard to the stolen generations, no, I didn't know about it. Nobody did really. Most of the country only realised in 1997 when the results of a judicial enquiry were issued in what was called the Bringing Them Home report and that's when the term "stolen generations" came into general usage.
As an Australian, what did you personally learn about yourself working on this film?
I learned that we could blame the English for everything once again. [Laughter] No, I learned that the Neville character is our grandfather and, in a way, the film is an attempt to come to terms with what happened and to make it explicable to myself and to everyone else in Australia. The most interesting thing that I learned was that I didn't understand the dependency on extended family inherent in Aboriginal society. I didn't realise how kinship extends beyond blood lines therefore if you have a policy of removing children from their families we were utterly attacking the heart of their society which is why the judge in that enquiry said that this was equivalent to genocide.
Having met Molly subsequently, what drove her to do this over the other children?
She was 14 and older than the other kids. Importantly, she also knew her mother, whereas the others were too young. I think she was also aware of the geography of the fence, she always knew that at the end of the fence was Mum.
Had you been consciously looking for another Australian subject at this stage of your career?
Sort of consciously, but wasn't trying too hard. I was having too much fun in the playpen of Hollywood.
How easy is it, that transition from big budget to something smaller?
It was easy. Big budgets are 100 million dollars therefore 100 million white hairs, 100 million problems. The little budget was much easier, you have more control, no stars, no tantrums, no egos, no agents... It was great, me and kids in the middle of nowhere, a small budget so we couldn't go mad and a story that was very compelling.
Is it peculiar for you now doing press rounds in the UK for 2 films (THE QUIET AMERICAN and RABBIT-PROOF FENCE) that are very different?
It's peculiar but it's really convenient [laughter].
Do you feel more connected to one or the other?
Well, this is a film that needs me more than the other, the other's got stars, bigger budget, a beautiful Vietnamese woman and Michael Caine whereas this little film is very vulnerable. It needs our attention. It's also a personal thing because I know the history of indigenous subjects in Australian cinema, usually it's box office poison. I just feel connected to this story, it's a celebration of heroism, it can work with audiences and I'm determined that it won't just die because I feel an obligation to those ladies to let their story be heard.
Did you ever feel awkward directing them, for instance in the scene where the girls are taken?
It was hard to keep the actors from injuring themselves. It was not hard to get them to a fever pitch of emotion because the women just erupted. I had to pull them apart because the women just went mad. Those people are acting out their history because they all had family members who had been taken and they were doing it for every indigenous person in the country. And you know what happened? This was weird...Molly's grandson, Doris's son, who was working on the film, had to be restrained at that point. He wanted to run in and rescue the actress playing his grandmother, he was so caught up in it.
It's funny that the girls' father worked on the fence and they use it as a means to get home...did they ever trace their father?
You'd have to ask Doris but, yes, you're right, the fence was like an umbilical cord in that sense.
Did you want Branagh particularly, for the part of Neville?
Yes, and he told me that he was attracted to the contradictions of the character, a man who, literally, killed with kindness.
Speaking of contradictions, how did you motivate the tracker?
It wasn't hard because David Gulpilil was just playing himself. A guy faced with two absolutely contradictory obligations, finding himself walking a track that's not black and not white. In many ways, that's the story of his life. He comes from an area in the north of the Northern Territory, which is almost like a separate country. You can't enter there without a license unless you're Aboriginal. He lives an almost traditional lifestyle and yet, as an actor, comes to the city...so I motivated him simply by casting him. It's his story in a way.
Has the film done anything for your profile in Aboriginal society?
You should ask them what they think. The fact that it was made by a member of the white establishment was, in some ways, more important to some Aboriginals than if it had been made by an indigenous director. After the Bringing Them Home report came out there were attempts by the media to discredit the findings of the report. This made a lot of the indigenous people repress what had happened to them. When the film came out, we made sure it couldn't be avoided - it played in multiplexes and people felt vindicated. It felt gratifying, that depth of emotion around the country.
The look of the film is impressive, how did you come by Christopher Doyle, the Director of Photography?
I met him in '79. I was doing a film in Taiwan - I got fired before we started shooting after an argument with the producer [laughter] - and he was a young Australian who knew how to speak Mandarin and came on as an interpreter. Over the years we stayed in contact, he stayed with me in Los Angeles when he was shooting that Gus Van Sant film [Psycho], I observed his rise and rise and also saw that he could make films on the smell of an oil rag, as was necessary when working in Asian cinema, and how he improvised. I thought that in this film it was important that we didn't have so much machinery around the kids and we also needed to be spontaneous. Chris was the ideal person. And he hand-holds everything...
Yeah, there are some extraordinary visuals, from an almost over-exposed look conveying the heat and-
Well, he didn't like being out there. On the one hand, he identified with the children as a stranger in his own land - this was the first time he went back to Australia - and also I don't think he liked being in the outback. So he photographed it against that pastoral tradition of everything looking nice and chocolate-boxey. But for him it was agony, he wanted to get back to a Chinese fast food joint.