Writer/Director Ian Pringle on The Prisoner of St. Petersburg and his Cult Career…

Ian Pringle is an Australian writer/director who began his career with a couple of shorts and the short feature Wronsky (1979). His first feature was The Plains of Heaven (1982) which is set in the highlands of Victoria. His follow-up to that was Wrong World (1985) which is a kind of road movie in the Wim Wenders tradition. It was original enough to earn Pringle a Golden Bear nomination at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. This was followed by the Berlin-lensed The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989) which delved into Russian literature and madness. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. He also directed the biopic Isabelle Eberhardt (1991) which featured Peter O’Toole. Pringle has also worked as a producer on his own films and others such films as the Russell Crowe movie Romper Stomper (1992). After a sojourn away from film he directed The Legend Maker (2014).

Are you originally from Victoria?

Born in Melbourne.

What can you tell me about your influences growing up? What helped form you?

I first became interested in films when I attended Melbourne High School. I was about 15. At that time it was difficult to see at the theatre anything other than commercial US releases. Then I discovered various film societies, in particular, the Melbourne University Society, which held screenings at Union Hall on Friday night. They showed the work of quite a number of contemporary European directors, including those from the French New Wave, and an assortment of Japanese and Soviet directors I’d never heard of. The Melbourne Film Festival, which at that time was held at the Palais in St. Kilda, was an important part of my developing interest in making films.

Melbourne High School in Victoria, Australia

Interestingly, channel 10, (called channel 0 at the time), ran a season of European films in 1967 that included most of Truffaut, Melville and Godard’s work – I think they’d bought a package of films by mistake and didn’t know what to do with the titles and aired them on Thursday evening at 11:00pm under the absurd banner: “Movies For Married Men”, probably because there was a bit of nudity. Also, reading was an important part of learning the craft of story-telling which, of course, is the backbone of script writing. I read most of the Russian and many of the English language classics, and quite a bit of US crime fiction. Eric Ambler, a contemporary English writer, was one of my favourites. His work was a unique and highly original forerunner of what would become an entire genre of espionage thrillers.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) trailer

What can you tell me about your first feature Wronsky? How much was the budget?

“Wronsky” Budget Approx. $3,800. Shooting Schedule, 20 Days. It was reasonably difficult to raise the budget to make “Wronsky”, my first (short) feature. But I was lucky enough to receive a modest investment from Film Victoria, and basically, I made up the balance of the budget myself.

There’s the character Vronsky in Anna Karenina

There were two important things for me that came from making the film. The first was that I met a much wider and talented group of people who worked on the crew (for little or no salary); and secondly, it allowed me to begin to explore telling cinematic stories visually. There was a script, which I’d spent a lot of time preparing with Doug Ling, but it was a movable feast. I didn’t do a storyboard or plan the coverage until we were actually on location. It’s my favoured way of working and I would have liked to done more of it. But I soon learnt the crippling reality of making films with larger budgets where the time & money equation rules.

And the production of Plains of Heaven? What was the budget on that? It’s a great small film. Were you inspired by the painter John Martin’s painting The Plains of Heaven? The film gives me a sense of displacement... And the analogy of the eagle’s nest, did I imagine that?

“Plains of Heaven” Budget Approx. $120,000. Shooting 22 Days. The script was written quite quickly, and only went through a couple of minor rewrites before production began. After “Wronsky”, I was acutely aware the script needed to be tight given the difficulty of the locations and logistics required to make the film. The dialogue had to be precise and the coverage in the confined quarters reasonably simple. That allowed me to give Ray Argall, the cinematographer and editor, more time and flexibility to capture the mood and feel we were after for the exterior sequences. I have to say, it was Ray’s talent that pulled much of the film together.

Swindlers Creek Valley in winter. Mount Hotham, Alpine National Park, northeastern Victoria, Australia

I know John Martin’s work. But the title didn’t come from his epic tryptic. Rather from an area near Swindler’s Creek close to Mount Hotham with the same name. I’d been to Falls Creek and was impressed by the grandeur of the scenery. And at that time, I had a story in the back of my mind about two men isolated in the wilderness. My interest in the colonization of our subconscious by American culture helped come up with the idea for a satellite relay station – at that time, live programing from the States has only just become possible. It was as simple as that.

A young Ray Argall

TPOH was shot on Fuji, in Super 16 format, using Ray’s Ayrton 16mm camera. “Wrong World” was shot the same way.

Conflict provides the best fuel for drama. That’s why I made Barker and Cunningham diametrically opposed personalities. But, importantly, Barker’s humanity, and absolute despair at the end of the film, taps into something universal – that if we don’t care about each other we’ll probably live a futile life.

I wanted Cunningham’s devotion to the preservation of the natural order to be as obsessive as Barker’s game-show watching. When he goes searching for the nest it was foolhardy. Our passions and obsessions are what make us, but they can also be our undoing. The Eagle’s nest was something that served the purposes of Cunningham’s obsession and demise.

I hadn’t thought of “displacement” in the way you described it. But I suspect you’re right.

What was the budget for Wrong World and how did you shoot the film overseas? Is the main character based on yourself and do you think there is there a wrong world a person can end up in based on their decisions? It’s definitely a road movie in the Wim Wenders sense… And you worked with Richard Moir again – one of Australia’s great actors.

Ian Pringle “on set”. The director was advised to shoot guerrilla style.

“Wrong World” Budget approx., $600,000. Schedule, 30 Days. We all live in a wrong world at some stage of our lives. It’s what makes us grow, learn, and suffer as we become better or worse at coping with this human condition.

Trueman is a fictitious character. It might be a character that I’m better placed to deal with today rather than when I did in 1984. His addiction wasn’t his only problem. He was definitely too sensitive for the world around him. Too vulnerable. Incapable of dealing with the injustice he found surrounding him in a third world country. And, of course, the character of Mary was the complete opposite. That was the benzene that drove the second half of the film.

Poster for the 1983 Hof Film Festival

Road Movies. I first met Wim (Wenders) in 1983 at the Hof Film Festival in Germany. I’d seen “Alice in The Cities” and “Kings of the Road” and admired his work. At that time he’d been working on a script that would ultimately become “Until the End of the World”. He asked me many questions about Australia: the culture, the landscape, in particular, what the Kimberley mountain range was like. I’d not been there, so couldn’t be of much help. It was instructive to discuss with him the approach he took to the road movie genre, given the plots he used were so loose and lyrical.

Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) trailer

As I can best recall, he explained it this way: He preferred to tell the stories using images. That if the image carried the emotional weight the characters were experiencing, he could convey the rest through minimal dialogue and the use of music. This was just before he headed off to make “Paris Texas” where he put that approach to exemplary effect. I’d just finished writing the outline of what would become “Wrong World”, and asked him about filming in the States. I explained the nature of the sequences I wanted to capture and that I’d have a very modest budget. He suggested not to use an American crew (which I had no intention of doing) and to shoot guerrilla fashion, and that’s what we ended up doing. I should add, that he was more than helpful and generous to me when I first started to work in Berlin – I used his editing room for a very modest fee to cut “The Prisoner of St. Petersburg”.

Director Wim Wenders with then partner actress Solveig Dommartin

WW was a tough film to make, in that the concept and execution depended on so many unknowns. I made the decision to shoot the overseas sequences first because depending upon what we were able to capture would by and large determine the tone and feel of the sequences scripted to be shot in Melbourne. We had a crew of four, plus Richard Moir, and a couple of hired production assistants that joined us in New York and La Paz. I’d not been to the locations in Denver, New York or La Paz before, so once we arrived I had to decide very quickly how to stage and execute each of the sequences.

One of Ian’s snaps of La Paz at the time of shooting Wrong World

It was exciting, adventurous, and artistically challenging. Fortunately, I had a great crew otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible. Richard bought tremendous energy and a host of ideas to the process of bringing his character to life. Once we returned to Melbourne and had watched the rushes, I then knew how the Melbourne sequences needed to be shot and the story developed dramatically. I made a few important changes to the script, and also the tone and feel of what would become the voice over.

Ray Argall lugs a camera up a hill showing the hardship of low-budget filmmaking

Working with Richard was an enormously rewarding experience, and he remains a valued friend up until today. The films we worked on were a collaboration in every sense of the word. He’s a gifted actor and also highly knowledgeable about the entire film making process – he started working in the film business as an editor at the ABC.

A snapshot of actor Richard Moir behind the scenes

He was always helpful with script suggestions and he has a sixth sense about the choreography and coverage of a scene. I recall on one film, I was having a lot of trouble with an overly precious actress. It came to a head during rehearsal for a difficult scene. I was finding it impossible to get her to do the lines as I needed them to be done. Richard saw what a calamity it was leading to and during a break took her aside and spoke to her. When we resumed she was totally co-operative, like a different person. I wanted to ask him what he said to her, but for some reason knew I shouldn’t, and didn’t. Peter O’Toole was the only other actor I’ve worked with who was as savvy as Richard.

Inflation was crazy in Bolivia at the time of the Wrong World shoot. The crew pays the hotel bill! Actor Richard Moir on the right seems in awe.

Tell me about The Prisoner of St. Petersburg. Why did you shoot in black and white… just like Wenders? And you cast Wenders’s partner Solvieg Dommartin. Was Noah Taylor your first choice for the lead? And was there a language barrier shooting in Germany?

“The Prisoner of St. Petersburg”  Budget Approx. $200,000. Shooting Schedule, 10 Nights. The Senate of Berlin gave me a grant of $50,000+ and the balance came from The Australian Film Commission, AFC as it was called then.

Peter O’Toole in Ian Pringle’s Isabelle Eberhardt (1991)

I’ve always had a passion for Russian literature and history. My first encounter was with Dostoyevsky and Gogol. I read all their works while at high school, and still read them from time to time.

The decision to shoot in black & white was critical to obtaining the look and feel of the film, especially to help integrate the recreated sequences from the novels. It was the first time I was able to use 35mm, but again, it couldn’t have been done without Ray’s expertise. 

Noah Taylor wanders Berlin in The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989)

I met Solveig in Melbourne in 1988 and decided then to use her in the film. Noah wasn’t a first choice but after I spent some time with him it became clear he would be perfect for the role.

The language barrier wasn’t a problem. My German is arcane but we always managed to find a way to communicate.

My departure point for the state of mind of Jack’s character was that if our obsessions overtake the reality around us, we can end up in a world of trouble. But I tried to make it light hearted, if that’s at all possible, as I equally believe our passions are what makes us human.

An excerpt from The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989)

Are you happy with the results of your movies? And what are you doing now?

I haven’t seen any of the films for over 20 years, which hasn’t been by design. Ray is currently remastering and converting them to digital format, so I’ll enjoy watching them again when that’s done. With regard to your question: “Are you happy with the result?” Yes. I am. I know there are shortcomings, etc., but at the time I know I did my best. I gave everything I had creatively, physically and emotionally, so regardless of their failure or success I was always at peace with myself.

Director Ian Pringle with a local in Bolivia during the Wrong World shoot

I’m still involved in the business. At the moment I’m preparing the scripts for a miniseries entitled, “The Refusnik”, which will hopefully go into production once the pandemic is under control. It’s about the Jews who tried to emigrate from the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. It’s an epic story covering three generations.

To go to the article about Ian Pringle’s movies PRESS HERE.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Permalink

    Ian Pringle sounds such an interesting person. I loved the way he said he was yes happy with his films and at peace with himself. Great read thank you .

    Reply

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