And a word or two on Maslin Beach (1997), set on the eponymous nude beach in Adelaide. It’s your masterpiece in terms of script and direction. The nudity is not coy. Did you originally set out to make what is essentially a “European” movie?
Maslin Beach was my ‘coming of age’, and the transition from being a producer to a director was long and arduous. I had to learn new crafts such as screenplay writing and directing. I knew from the state of Australian films in the 1990’s that I wouldn’t learn much about screenplays locally. I decided to study in Los Angeles at UCLA for a couple of summers. That experience was transformative, I learnt the mechanics of screenplay structure and, in addition, the craft of writing humour. We had great lecturers, my comedy lecturer was Dee Caruso, who had written for “Get Smart”, his craft knowledge was extraordinary. We had directors and screenplay analysts coming in to talk about their latest films and screenplay mechanics and I took the opportunity to study acting with Jeff Corey in Malibu, just as Roger Corman had done in the 1950’s. Roger said it helped him to direct actors. By the time I met Jeff, he was a tall older imposing man of 80, he held lessons in his studio at the back of his house in Malibu. He seemed to take a liking to me, I certainly admired him, perhaps because I was in my 50’s then and the rest of the class were in their 20’s. I remember on his 80th birthday, the class bought him a cake with candles, and just before he blew out the candles, he looked at me and said “mortality, what are we going to do about it?” I smiled, it was my pet fear, I didn’t ever want to die, nor did he. He passed away in 2004, I learnt a lot from him.
By the time I was ready to leave LA, I had written my first complete comedy screenplay, “Inconceivable”, about a man who has a baby. It was confronting, funny and moving, I hawked it around to the major studios, Fox, Universal, Paramount while I was in LA, but never heard back from them. I figured it was too whacky, even though the concept of males successfully hosting a fetus had been proven in experiments in the 60’s with mice. But when I returned to Australia, Universal Pictures announced they were making a film, “Junior” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, about this very subject. I wondered in hindsight whether they took my idea and rewrote it?
On the back of this, I decided I would write a new comedy script, an outrageous story based in my own backyard, Maslin Beach, which I knew the major studios could never copy or plagiarise. I sat down in May 1995 and started writing, 4 hours every day, no structure, just whatever came into my head. Before I started, I went down to Maslin beach and scooped up a glass of sand, which I kept next to my computer, along with a sign “write with love”.
About two thirds of the way through the script, I suddenly developed writer’s block, I felt the script was stupid, terrible and a tragic mistake. After few days of not writing, I was in despair, ready to give up. Clutching for a straw, I called Noel Purdon, a former lecturer in Film at Flinders University. I didn’t know him all that well but asked if we could meet at a café in Rundle Street. He agreed and when we met, I told him I was writing this whacky story set on Maslin Beach, which featured Henry Miller and Anais Nin and everyone was nude. He took it all in and thought for a moment. I asked, do you think I am crazy? He said, to my everlasting gratitude, that it sounded interesting, that I should keep at it. That was all I needed, I was inspired again and when I finished the script I gave it to him to read, as well as Greg Lynch. They both liked it, said it felt European, which was perceptive as my favourite filmmaker at the time was Eric Rohmer. Greg put me in contact with Barry Peak, from Valhalla, who gave me a conditional theatrical release deal.
At the end of 1995, I set out for Melbourne and Sydney to try to raise the money to make the film, I was literally broke and was relying on my credit card for expenses. The Melbourne accountant rejected the film outright, the nudity didn’t sit well with him. Then I went to Sydney to meet with Oscar Scherl whom I had met in Cannes a few years before. Oscar and his partner Andrew Steuart, asked my what the budget was, I said $250,000. They asked could I do it for $150,000? I wasn’t about to quibble, I said yes of course. I went away to revise the budget, it was easy enough to do as it was the classic low budget concept, set over one day, no costumes or sets. When I returned the next day, to my amazement they said they would give me the money, but on one condition. They wanted me to revise the script. My script was just a collection of offbeat comedy skits strung together, set on Maslin Beach, about life, love and philosophy. Oscar and Andrew were worried the film wouldn’t qualify for tax deductions because it wasn’t a traditional ‘story’ with a beginning, middle and end. I went back home to Adelaide, forced to weave in a conventional love story, which I had resisted during writing the first draft because of my writing insecurities and because I wanted to be different. I had to write a love story very quickly as we had to cast and start shooting before the end of the warm summer months of 1996. I was worried that the new script was not as good as before, it seemed so conventional now, but Noel and Greg assured me it was better.
All of sudden, I was on Maslin Beach with my crew and actors, directing my first film, naked. It was a surreal moment.
You told me you were directing naked along with most of the cast… It’s probably a world first for a mainstream movie….
Funnily it never bothered me being naked in front of a clothed crew. I was utterly unselfconscious, a result of spending many summers on Maslin Beach with friends and lovers. Also, I wanted to show solidarity with the brave cast appearing naked in front of the crew and on camera. And it felt very European, their cinema culture always had a much more sophisticated attitude toward nudity. The formative films from my teenage years, such as Bridget Bardot’s “And God Created Woman” which I saw at the Curzon cinema in Goodwood, all contained nudity. And I was brought up as an atheist, so religion played no part in any guilt or shame feelings.
The film went very well mostly, although like Ingmar Bergman, I experienced diarrhoea every morning, a nervous reaction to stress I guess. The crew were great, Nicola Mill was a wonderful production manager and a great personal support. Cinematographer Rodney Bolton and I had a rocky start, we argued over ‘crossing the line, but he turned out to be wrong, which strengthened my position with the crew. We ended up becoming good friends.
Was it another nude casting call like Centrespread? Or did you research Maslin Beach? The actors are all so natural…
Angela Heesom was a great help in casting, many of the cast came from her casting call out. I also put an ad in the Adelaide Review, seeking dancers, exhibitionists and comedians, who were not afraid of nudity.
Within a few weeks, we had cast all the main parts, including Michael Allen, Eliza Lovell, Gary Waddell and Edmund Pegge, except for the lead female character “Gail”. With only a week or so before we began shooting, I was getting worried. I was pleased when Michael Allen accepted the lead male part, he was very casual about everything, had a good sense of humour and was intelligent. Eliza Lovell, I knew personally, she cleaned my house a few times when she was studying drama at Flinders as a teenager, she was happy to take the role as Marcie as she didn’t want to appear nude.
Bonnie-Jaye Lawrence is very beautiful… Where did you find her and where is she now?
Bonnie was an unexpected miracle. I was interviewing cast at my home from people who responded to the Adelaide Review ad. I was exhausted by about 4 pm and ready to finish for the day, when a man called, said he had a “friend” who would like to be in my film, he said she was very beautiful, could she come around now? I said yes, wondering what to expect. When I met her at the door I was stunned, she was “Gail”, exactly as I had imagined. I then worried, could she act? We sat down and talked, she was incredibly sweet, intelligent and kind. I think she was making and/or designing jewellery at the time. I asked her about the nudity – she said it was not a problem for her. I virtually decided there and then that she would play the lead, but there was this potential problem, she had never acted before. Over the next few days we did some readings together from the script and she was a little wooden and insecure. It was exasperating, she was perfect for the role but could she carry the lead role in the film? My executive producers in Sydney were pushing for someone else who I had videoed for them but I preferred Bonnie. At my wits end, I rang John Doherty, who taught drama and had agreed to play a small part in Maslin Beach, I asked him if he could coach Bonnie. He agreed, they worked together for a few days and I couldn’t’ believe the change in her confidence. Her confidence grew, she seemed more relaxed, she had become “Gail”.
It’s the last feature film you directed, the experience must have left you satiated… No room for a companion-piece?
That’s not quite correct, I did direct another film “Summer of Love”, which in some ways was a companion piece, part of a potential Maslin Beach trilogy. “Summer of Love” started off as a feature film script, but I gained investment of $100,000 from the Nine Network, on the back of the success of Maslin Beach, (it kept winning the ratings each time they screened it), so the film became a tele-feature instead. There is a minor psychological issue involved in your question though. In 1983, when I set down my future goals, my major goal was to produce, write and direct a feature film. The important word here is “a”. Once I had made Maslin Beach, I wondered if I had reached my goal in life, maybe my destiny was never to make another film? I went back to my goal book and sneakily took out “a” and added an “s” after feature film. When I got funding for “Summer of Love”, I had an irrational existential angst that I should not make this film.
Which, in some respects came true. Maslin Beach had been easy to make, Summer of Love was hard work. I had a crew member who hated atheism, another appalled at the sexual implications of a female/2 male threesome, and nudity was an issue with the cast, so it was not always a happy shoot. But we managed to get through it and it was screened on the Nine Network.
Regarding Maslin Beach, I was always thinking about a sequel, I wrote another script in 2003, but unlike the romantic optimism of Maslin Beach, it was dark and sinister, bleak and sad, which may have been a reaction to society’s changing sexual culture or something within myself. I was never brave enough to seek funding for it. Now I realise I can never make another film like Maslin Beach, it was of its time, and I had an innocent view of life, a naivety, that I don’t have now.
You’ve concentrated on documentaries these days… Have you found the perfect collaborator in Carolyn Bilsborow?
Yes certainly, Carolyn is my perfect collaborator, she is incredibly technically savvy, she is adept at final cut pro, a brilliant and insightful editor, she is an expert at Photoshop, great graphic designer, she was a classical guitarist at school so she understands music perfectly and she does all the sound mixing. She is also a brilliant researcher, having gained her Phd in 2013 at UniSA.
It used to cost me a fortune to hire a cinematographer, sound recordist, editor, sound mixer and graphics crew – she has taken on all these roles. And more recently, on “Missing Pieces: The Curious case of the Somerton Man”, she assumed the roles of director & writer as well. Peter Goers on ABC called her work “flawless”.
We share a love of history and documentary, so it has been fun working together, meeting interesting people, travelling all over Australia and the world. The most exciting part is that we are our own bosses, people who have helped finance our previous 3 documentaries didn’t sign any contracts with us, they just gave us the money and were pleased with the results. This is so different to receiving funding from a film bureaucracy, with their reams of contracts, and who may have ideological agendas attached to their finance.
I am happy making documentaries now, while growing up I used to read biographies rather than fiction, I have a respect for truth and history.
The release of Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man gained plenty of interest upon its limited release in Adelaide last year… What’s next?
Our next documentary will be a global story, that starts in rural South Australia and ends in New York, London and LA. I can’t say more at this stage, but I am very excited.
Also, I have been asked to produce a $6 m feature in early 2020, not sure how I feel about this.
And being an independent producer, distributing these things in mainstream Australia must be difficult…
Yes, distribution is undergoing fundamental changes. In the 20th century, our films were usually funded in part by a distributor and then we handed the completed film over to them to market. The rise of the internet means it is possible to self-market films, but if you are a dedicated filmmaker it can be tedious having to market film when you are trying to make your next film. We have had some success through Amazon Prime, Vimeo and Foxtel, but income is erratic and less than in the past. However, if you make films for smaller budgets, using modern digital light weight production and post production equipment, your returns don’t have to be as great, and the money goes straight into your pocket. It will be interesting to see how it all evolves.