Melbourne-based director/editor/producer/writer Brian Kavanagh (1935-) is one of the key filmmakers in the resurgence of the Australian film industry in the 1970s. His movie A City’s Child (1971) helped kick start the industry and he produced and edited that film along with supplying the storyline. But it is his work as a film editor which he is best known. Kavanagh worked as editor on the Fred Schepisi directed classics The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). He would win an award for his work on Frog Dreaming (1985). He also directed the movies Double Deal (1981) and Departure (1986). After his film career, Kavanagh reinvented himself as a writer of mystery novels which he continues to write.
What can you tell me about A City’s Child (1971)?
The script was written in 1966 after I returned from London. I determined that life in London was not for me, at least not in the filmmaking world. I wanted to make Australian films and at that time there was a movement to revive our industry, which had sunk under the weight of Hollywood productions and studio ownership of local distribution. In the intervening years between ’66 and 1970, attempts were made to make the film but it wasn’t until PM John Gorton created the Experimental Film Fund, that I was able to secure an investment of $6000, along with my own investment, secured from years of making paid documentaries and commercials, and a small mortgage, that shooting began in November 1970. A City’s Child was the first Feature Film that secured Government investment; others were short films. Tim Burstall’s Stork followed. I say investment as, with the Experimental Film Fund, money allotted to a producer was an investment; it was subsequently changed to a Grant.
A City’s Child went on to be, as far as I can ascertain, the first all Australian feature film to screen at the London Film Festival, invited into the Creme d’la Creme section. (I know John Heyer’s Back of Beyond had screened there in the ‘50’s as a feature documentary. If I am incorrect regarding A City’s Child, I would welcome any amendment.)
From the London Film Festival:
And Brian Kavanagh’s intense view of a lonely spinster in Sydney, finding kinky consolation in the collection of dolls, ” A City’s Child,” creates an errie atmosphere which remained with me long after most of the festival’s other films had been and gone. Eric Shorter, London Daily Telegraph, December 1st, 1971.
The film went on to screen at various festivals and win awards.
For today’s filmmakers it might seems strange that film distribution was ever difficult; streaming, downloading, DVD’s provide endless outlets for viewers to see one’s work. But nothing really equates to viewing a film in a cinema with all the ambiance created by a million screenings of a million films.
In 1971 the film was completed; a year or so later John Fraser, who at that time was with Greater Union, a film distributor in Australia, supported and believed in Australian films, fought valiantly to have GU screen the film and eventually won, but it was a hollow victory.
GU, not wanting the film, decided to claim it as invalid under the quality clause of the New South Wales Film Quota Act.
“The Film Quota Act, full title the New South Wales Cinematograph Films (Australian Quota) Act was an act of legislation passed in September 1935 that came into force on 1 January 1936. Under the Act it was compulsory that in the first year of operation 5 per cent, of the films distributed in New South Wales must be Australian productions, the percentage to increase yearly for five years when it becomes 15 per cent.”
This despite being produced in Melbourne with an all Australian cast and crew, with Federal Government Investment. Media reports on this forced GU to relinquish their claim and reluctantly they agreed to distribute the film. After a very limited release in suburban cinemas, the film was withdrawn. My eternal thanks to John Fraser for his efforts (he also helped Brian Trenchard Smith with the release of The Man from Hong Kong).
To achieve the cinema release, the Australian Film Development Fund allotted $5000 towards costs for the blow-up from 16mm to 35mm; ColourFilm Laboratories deferred payment of $5000 for lab work. The total $10,000 I personally paid back. I also personally funded the 16mm prints and freight to the various international film festivals, which then required a physical print. There was no Government funding for this.
I suppose if A CITY’S CHILD were to be made today it may obtain distribution through the Art House cinemas, and I can understand the business heads at GU at the time not wishing to take the film, but their claim ‘it was not Australian’ as a devious way to not screen local product, revealed who their masters were at the time. “Hooray For Hollywood”.
When was Double Deal (1981) shot? How long was the shoot? And what was the budget?
Filming began early January 1981 in Melbourne and surrounds with studio interiors in Port Melbourne. The shoot was scheduled for six weeks, with a budget of One Million.
I guess the money was raised under 10BA…. No government bodies appear to be involved. Did the cash come from rich businessmen like Louis Jourdan’s character?
The bulk of the money was raised before 10BA as a straight investment through Pact Productions and for distribution via FilmCo. I believe that some end money was raised via 10BA, but that was in postproduction. The investors would have been normal investors who presumably had invested in other Australian films.
How long did it take to write the script? What gave you the idea for the movie?
The script was started many years before, shortly after I made A City’s Child in 1971. It was originally planned as a companion piece, ACC dealing with the restrictions placed on women at that time, Double Deal (originally titled SHAZAM) to show problems facing contemporary women and how confronting social demands affected them. Later that took a more commercial structure although the elements remained the same. So, the script was written over a period of time. What happened in 1980; Lynn Barker (Co Producer on DD) and myself were in Cannes with a film I produced, Maybe This Time and we pitched a proposal of a package of three films to FilmCo. They were: Double Deal, Mystery of a Hansom Cab, and a third script by an Australian writer, whose name escapes me. They didn’t want the package but liked Double Deal and so raised the money for its production.
And did you have final cut on the film? Does the original negative still exist?
Yes, I had final cut as Producer. The original negs are with the NFSA in Canberra. The original DVD release was made from a pan and scan neg, not from the full frame Anamorphic neg.
It’s a great cast, even the supporting cast. Was the money fully raised before casting? And how did you get a legend like Louis Jourdan on board? Was he expensive?
Yes, the money was in place. In looking to cast the male lead I had a problem. The two top male leads at that time were essentially, Jack Thompson and Bill Hunter, and as wonderful as they both were, they didn’t fit the role of a suave, world weary, sophisticate. Also, we felt an international name would give the film some street cred in the international market. After discussions with an LA agent we were offered William Shatner, who again we didn’t feel was right, but when Louis Jourdan’s name came up as being available, then the deal was done. He perfectly fitted my concept of the character, and proved to be so. A real professional and a charming man. We had a caravan for him on set, but he always preferred to sit and watch proceedings. After the wrap he took me and Lynn Barker to dinner at Florentino’s restaurant and provided a cake inscribed with “Divorce With Love”; his feelings were that making a film was like a marriage and at the end, comes divorce. His fee was in the vicinity of $60,000. Plus of course First Class air travel and a suite at the Windsor Hotel. He went from Double Deal to Octopussy, where I’m sure he was recompensed appropriately. There was a nerve-wracking time just prior to shooting. We had a Pay or Play contact with Louis, as we had no concerns about proceeding with the film, until Actor’s Equity, at that time, threw a spanner in the works. We were scheduled to shoot in the first week of January ’81 and in late November ’80, equity objected to Louis’s casting. They continued right up until Christmas Eve objecting, which was a tense time to say the least. It wasn’t until then that the matter was placed before Bobby Limb who was Chair of Equity. Thankfully, Bobby saved the day, by ordering they could not stop an actor of Louis’ calibre performing, and so the heat was off, but just in time. My sincere thanks to Bobby are on record.
Angela Punch McGregor was a bit of a coup as well… although her international career didn’t take off with the Michael Caine movie The Island (1980). Did you seek her personally to be cast? I think she’s beautiful but others thought she was miscast as a supermodel…
I knew Angela from Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which I edited, and thought would be right for the role.
Warwick Comber seems to have been conjured from thin air. He has an unusual look, kind of like American actor Tom Berenger. You were taking a chance there it seems …
The casting of the young man presented problems. Firstly, the character was the antithesis of Louis’ character, and had also to be physically different. Which Warwick was. He had to be someone who Angela’s character would instinctively be attracted to, as shallow as he was, in her confused state and not being aware of the manipulation that is going on around her. Someone outside of her experience. The young man is as amoral as Louis’s character.
What were the actors like to work with? You have a reputation as a sensitive director but you are essentially an editor – and an award winning one who has directed a few films… did directing come naturally?
All of the cast were totally professional and a pleasure to work with. Having a solid grounding in editing drama, paves the way for a director. I had no problems as I always had a very clear image of what I want on screen and shoot very tightly, with as little dead wood as possible. That comes from the cutting room experience and craft.
I see it was around mid-May of 1981 that Jourdan’s son died of a drug overdose. Were you fully wrapped by then?
The interview Louis gave to Peter Coster regarding his son, was published on 12/02/81 which would have been about the time we wrapped. I gather the interview was given earlier. Louis never discussed this with me.
Double Deal is reflected in the title in the opening credit sequence. And Jourdan and Punch McGregor’s credits at the end are reversed compared to the beginning. There’s talk on the internet there was some mistake, or was it an in-joke?
That came about after the Equity drama, when they insisted that for Australian cinema release, Angela should have top billing. A pretty silly request.
The film is copyrighted 1981 and yet its release seems to have been delayed until 1983. I can’t remember when it was first released in Australia. The delay must have been heartbreaking… Was there no international distributer? Was it shopped at Cannes? What happened?
I don’t think there was such a delay in the film screening; I think that date is wrong. It was at Cannes ’81 and secured an international sale with Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The Australian box-office receipts were a reported $3,731, if that’s accurate. I’m guessing the film opened in Melbourne… or did it make it nationally throughout Australia? And did it get any cinema release overseas?
I have no record of box office receipts. Roadshow were the distributors but were never really behind the film, and it got the obliquity two weeks at the then, Bryson Cinema. I know it had screenings in Europe and elsewhere, presumably via Goldwyn, also VHS and DVD releases.
As for the movie itself… Peter Sterling seems to have lost his most passionate interest in the butterfly on his wife’s leg and collects the real thing. It’s though she’s been relegated… and no-one is really present in the bedroom when they’re making love… True?
Peter liked to collect beautiful things and then kill (discard) them when they had lost their appeal. Hence the butterfly collection and the branding of a butterfly on his wife’s leg. He had lost interest in her after her initial attraction wore off and her inability to match his social standing became tiresome.
There’s also a sexual decadence to the party they go to at the beginning of the movie. Both still seem disinterested in joining in the background frolics… Had you been to such parties in the 1970s? The AIDS era was about to begin…
Not as flamboyant as that depicted in the film, where both the central characters are at odds with their companions and surrounding. I must admit to paying mise-en-scene homage to Vincente Minnelli in that sequence.
Punch McGregor puts on airs with Comber despite her working-class background… she seems totally lost even at home with only shopping to keep her busy… even her dreams disturb her and she can only find solace in astrology… I’m sure women like this exist today… and that’s what makes the film so good. What do you think?
At that time there were a number of young females who acted as TV hostesses on panel shows and quiz programmes, who seemed to me to be out of their depth, uncomfortable in their surroundings. Pretty, beautiful, but seemingly lost in a seemingly glamourous world. Their careers would be short lived. Eventually they would marry and be forgotten. That’s what I felt about Angela’s character and I knew she could portray that fragility and confusion admirably. I’m sure there are many today who suffer that confusion when the media portrays women as strong and can take on anything that life throws at them. Many can; many can’t. It is the same with men. The male is expected to be powerful and virile; not always the case. Angela’s character had an opportunity to break out of her working class background only to find herself in a never-neverland she had no connection with, and a husband who had come to realise his mistake.
There isn’t even a book at home among the “town and country” antiques and knick-knacks on the shelves… they are soon to be destroyed as she becomes unbalanced and under the influence… She’s no intellectual and she does exactly what her astrologer told her not to…
That pretty much sums her up.
It’s a good sequence when she goes back home to visit her mum… Punch McGregor’s Christine is between two worlds to talk in a class sense. Her mother may have a point about the classless society not existing, particularly for the uneducated…
I believe so, not in any real financial sense, but an educational one. But it’s human nature to look down on others if one foolishly believes oneself to be superior. As the song says, “There’s them that has, and them that don’t.”
The Black Opal of Glengarry is flawed, just like Jourdan’s other possession – his wife – and in the end, just like the opal, the best laid plans of mice and men fall to pieces… And the couple are left as strangers on a train and yet in a way perhaps they’ve never been closer… Is that possible?
The destruction of the opal had certain liberties taken with it. Fundamentally, opals are between three and 20 per cent water and may crack if subjected to very dry conditions or rapid changes in temperature, such as boiling water. The hot water and turbulence in the tub created the environment for it to break, but the real reason was the symbolism of shattering of desires and illusions.
The sequence on the train shows the realisation for both characters their true personalities. She is shocked at his artfulness; he, the heartless cynic. Closer? in the sense that they have both been deceivers?
Despite the Libran scales gifted to Christine, there are no scales of justice in this movie as the police are useless… it’s just that the scales become unbalanced and then are balanced once again. Was that the symbolism you were after? … the astrology almost seems a red herring along with the dreams. And yet the scales are the only object in terms of astrological signs… and this film seems to be about objects, particularly of beauty… Am I getting anywhere?
I’m not sure! The astrology and dreams are just part of the woman’s confusion and seeking ways of dealing with it.
As for the making of the film, actor Comber seems to have had too many Chiko rolls during the production as he has a bit of a gut at the beginning and then towards the end, he almost has a washboard stomach. Was that a problem during production?
I wasn’t aware of this problem. I didn’t think Warwick changed physically in the six weeks of filming, but maybe I was too distracted with production concerns to notice. I might have to watch the film again, which is something I rarely do on any work I’ve done.
And do you remember where the countryside scenes were shot? The outside of the Melbourne mansion too?
Country location were Digger’s Rest and Clarkefield surrounds. The country store where the robbery took place was outside Digger’s Rest rail station, and is still there but no longer a shop. The mansion belongs to Lindsay Fox, in Toorak.
And, finally, a last word for you… Film critic David Stratton more or less hinted you ripped off the plot from the Aussie film Private Property (1971). I have recently seen that dreary movie and while there is some double dealing going on… there’s nothing in common! Some critics!!
Well, David would say that wouldn’t he? I don’t ever recall seeing that film and in 1971, that year was taken up with making and distributing A City’s Child, so I doubt I would have had much time to see many films. At David’s request I organised a private screening of Double Deal for him in a cinema. At the end his only comment was, “Why did you film it in Anamorphic?”
What can you tell me about Departure?
Departure came to me firstly with the offer to edit the film, and after the original director departed, I was asked to direct. The producers were hopeful of producing a series of Australian plays on film, similar to the American Film Theatre Programme. A good idea actually. Pity it never took off. Now of course a play can be filmed or videoed directly to cinemas.
The original play was A Pair of Claws by Michael Gurr and produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It was in the small upstairs theatre at the Athenaeum and was set in the garden of the house. We were a few days away from shooting at a location in Eltham when we discovered the producers had no money. The project was shut down and I took legal action against them. Not so much as to gain my contracted salary, but I was seriously annoyed at people who had no film experience, who came into our industry and created havoc.
However, about a year later, the producer secured finance and production recommenced with the setting now in Hobart, Tasmania, due to an investment by the owner of the local film studio there. During the down time, I restructured the script with Michael Gurr to open it out as much as I could from the one location, setting the elderly couple who were about to be involved in a political scandal, to a ‘no man’s land’ in a hotel, prior to leaving the country. It added to the isolation the two characters found themselves in. I was delighted to be reunited with June Jago, who had worked with me in Double Deal. There was interest at Cannes from several US distributors but the film was badly handled by the sales agent and never really got the distribution it deserved. I’m proud of it and it was wonderful to work with such a talented cast: Patricia Kennedy, Michael Duffield, June Jago, and Serge Lazareff. And to have known Michael Gurr, a great talent, who died far too young.
For an article about Brian Kavanagh PRESS HERE