Director Di Drew on the Making of The Right Hand Man (1987)

Di Drew (1948-) was born in Tasmania. She is one of Australia’s most respected, award winning film and television drama directors. She is the recipient of the Australian Director’s Guild Award for “excellence in her field”. Her impressive body of work includes feature films, telemovies, television series and serials, children’s films, short films, documentaries and theatre. Her work has gained both local and international recognition at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Her work as a director and producer has amassed an impressive selection of awards including multiple Logies for the tv series All Saints. A graduate of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School her first feature film The Right Hand Man (1987) starred Rupert Everett and was one of a handful of movies directed by a woman in Australia during the early to mid-1980s. Sadly, reviews by leading Australian critics were negative and this more or less ended Di’s dreams of a feature film career. She did, however, do other features including Hildegarde (2001) with Richard E. Grant who was “a dream” to work with as you’d expect as well as Trouble in Paradise (tv movie 1989) starring Raquel Welch who would often not be on set when needed. She now is a mentor and gives master classes in film as a ‘gun for hire’. Here Di talks about her early years and the lead up to her first feature and its trials and tribulations

Film-maker Di Drew
The Right Hand Man (1987) poster

What were your formative years like in terms of the movies?

As a little tacker I lived in Hobart or south of Hobart in the shadow of Mount Wellington and I had a home mum as was the time and generation … Dad went to work and mum took a part time job at the Hoyts picture theatre in Hobart and her job was she was in charge of the sweets bar … and so I used to go and be taken to the movies a lot, especially on Saturdays when dad played cricket. It was my babysitting and I’d be put in the back row and I watched a range of all these beautiful cartoons that used to start and then all the wonderful cowboy movies that used to star John Wayne and stuff like that. But I only got to see them until interval because once interval had come and gone, mum had finished work and I’d get dragged out of there and I’d go home. There was a sweet, white-haired older lady who ran the next door Candy Bar. She was the epitome of America, all dressed in a pink smock with lots of pink ribbons, puffed sleeves and a large sparkly pink bow at her neck – she was a vision, so VERY PRETTY. I was eight years old and I ‘Loved Her!’ and I think it was somewhat reciprocated. Every time I went into her candy store I, of course, got a (free) treat but mostly she asked about the movies I’d seen and what I thought about them – SHE asked me! When my mother resigned from that job, my sweet ‘Candy Bar Lady’ pressed some silver coins, the obligatory sweets and a signed photo of herself into my hand and we said a tearful farewell. In later years I unearthed that photo only to discover my childhood hero was Louise Lovely (1895-1980) the very famous Hollywood silent movie star who retired in 1925, but to me she was just Mrs Cowan – married to Mr (Bert) Cowan who was the cinema manager. As I discovered later she was Australian born and a driving force around getting cinema started in Australia and then Tasmania. She wrote and directed (and produced with her husband) Jewelled Nights (1925) on location in Tasmania. I think she gave me ‘the movie bug’ and fierce passion for the screen which has always stayed with me my entire life. Thank you Mrs Cowan!

Was there one movie which stuck in your mind early on?

I don’t think so … All I know is I loved the cinema experience: I loved the lighting going down and the curtains … I used to say it was always a diet of cowboys and Indians and I was a tomboy, so I loved it. That was a pretty constant diet and it wasn’t until I started going to the cinema as an emerging adolescent and I saw Zorba the Greek (1964) (ed. directed by Michael Cacoyannis 1922-2011) and I think that changed a lot of things for me … Of course, being born and bred in Hobart, I didn’t even have a concept of another country – as a youngster I didn’t have an idea of geography or a concept of the world. I just had a concept of my little island as big as that was and nothing beyond. So, seeing a film with such culture and such a passionate love of another location – that man had of a beautiful island … for me, I thought: ‘I want to live there. I want to be a part of it’ … and I think that’s what movies are about – they’re about transporting you. That’s a good question because that was an early one before being bombarded when I got to film school.

Di Drew’s keepsake of Mrs Cowan or actress Louise Lovely
Di as a tomboy in her youth and behaving very Zorba the Greek
One of the Hoyts cinemas in Hobart
Zorba the Greek (1964) poster

When did you ‘escape’ Tasmania?

Ultimately, for good and all when I went to the film school as a mature student in 1976 … I was working and the film school was a kind of hiatus. I worked in amateur and semi-professional theatre in Hobart and worked at the ABC from sound effects officer to producer’s assistant, kind of an ersatz producer for the educational arm of the ABC and then as a director in the kid’s area since, as a woman, I wasn’t allowed to direct drama. So, I dumped the ABC at that point because I really wanted to do drama and went to university and then got into film school … There was bits and pieces of television work but not really a ‘movie’ movie. I was too busy doing very well in that theatre world before going to film school.

Speaking of theatre… What’s the best play of all time? Are you a Shakespeare girl?

I am. But I think Angels in America was very good.

Is that the one about the AIDS crisis?

Yes, It’s the Tony Kushner (1956-) film and in three parts (ed. Mike Nichols directed). Yes, and all the Shakespeare’s classics and all that wonderful stuff … It really doesn’t age. it just keeps getting reinvented and rightly so.

Angels in America (2003) promotional material
The Australian Film, Television and Radio School today in Sydney

Was it the National Film, Television and Radio School you went to in Sydney?

Yes, it was. It was that time of privilege when there were 24 people selected throughout the country and elsewhere and there were four who were to be directors and I was one of those. It was a very privileged time of my life and everything changed because of that.

Were there any recognisable names you went to school with during that period?

Yes, you probably know Rolf de Heer. He was my producer as we did our graduation works and other things … there are others not quite luminous as Rolf … It was a very, very exciting time.

When did you graduate?

I graduated in 1980 … The head professor at the time was Jerzy Toeplitz (1909-95) who was head of the Polish Film School and in fact taught Polanski … his knowledge of film and filmmaking was an absolute gift especially for a kid from Hobart.

Jerzy Toeplitz
The Jerzy Toeplitz Library in the AFTRS

Did you discover influences in terms of direction, or were you kind of doing your own thing?

I had a lot of skill-set when I went in there. I had a lot of television knowledge and about the camera. I wasn’t afraid of the technology and I had a marvellous teacher in television named Bill Fitzwater (1935-2021) who has recently died … In his obituary it was mentioned that he had changed the whole concept of music and how he used it. He took me under his wing and said to me: ‘I’m doing a new thing about the coverage of the Australian Piano Recitals’ and he said: ‘I want you to come with me’ … and he put cameras in all sorts of places. I found that really thrilling and he pushed and pushed and pushed me to think outside the square all the time. So that was pretty influential and while people talk of film and television as two separate things and, yes, tv was once a three-camera set up and I had to cut my teeth on that at film school but cameras are cameras and as for storytelling with them, and what they are, you just have to adjust yourself just like your actors. You’ve got to ask yourself, am I doing a major motion picture? Am I doing a sitcom? The biggest thing about film school was the people you met … You were suddenly at the heartbeat of Australian cinema in the late 1970s and a year ahead of me was Gillian Armstrong and Phil Noyce and you were surrounded by the great New Wave and they were very passionate. (ed. Di was one of the founding members of the Australian Directors’ Guild with these famed directors) … It was very ground-breaking….

Bill Fitzwater behind the camera
The Right Hand Man (1987) poster
A scene with the famed stagecoach the Leviathan which was build especially for the movie

As for the Right Hand Man (filmed in 1985 and released in 1987)… How did you become involved with the production?

When I graduated, my graduation film which I wrote and directed and Rolf de Heer was the producer of it starred Robyn Nevin. It was an autobiographical film really but it was a drama. It was about the relationship between two women and it won an award at the Sydney Film Festival. It made a lot of noise… and it made the ABC look differently at me, because, as I said, the doors for a female director were not open at that time and the ABC had very graciously given be three years leave without pay to go study at film school and promised to keep my job open when I graduated…. Then I won that film festival and David Puttnam (1981-) was in Australia at that time … I was sharing a house with an actress named Kate Fitzpatrick (1947-) at the time and Kate said: ‘I’ve got someone coming for lunch on Sunday and I think you ought to be here’ … and I was there: ‘Okay’ … and so on the day David Puttnam walked in! He was hot off Chariots of Fire (1981) and I’m there: ‘Oh, David Puttnam!’ and we chatted and he said: ‘What are you doing now?’ I said: ‘I’ve got this film I’ve made as writer and director’ and he’s there: ‘Tell me about it’ and I told him and he said: ‘That’s really interesting’ and he went on to say: ‘My job in Australia right now is too look around and see what’s going on cinematically in this country.’ … So, he said: ‘Would you allow me to see the film?’ and I said: ‘It’s down at Double Head but I’ll see what I can do, David.’ … So, I went hot-footing back to film school and I said: ‘David Puttnam’s in town and he wants to watch my film. Can’t we do that?’ … They said: ‘Yes’ and we did a double header screening.

Actress Kate Fitzpatrick
Sir David Puttnam at home
Producer David Hannay

David Hannay (1939-2014) was another mentor, he was there, and Jane Cameron who was my agent was circling around me … so those three people sat and watched it at the cinema in the film school. It was called Tread Softly and David had tears in his eyes as if he was very moved by the film … The best thing was, there was a newspaper at the time called The National Times and there was a big double-page spread of David Puttnam being in Australia and he said: ‘One of the great things I saw here was a film by a graduate of the film school and it sits there with one of the finest short films I have seen while I was in this country.’

And this, of course, put of lot of heat in my direction and it was very strong. And that gave me leverage with the ABC about getting my job back since they were probably going to send me back to Hobart to become a director’s assistant and I didn’t want that … and the head of drama said: ‘Come and see me’ and I went in and he said: ‘Your film’s very good …  we’re gonna give you a shot to be a director … here in Sydney.’ And I’m there: ‘Okay.’

Novelist Roger McDonald
McDonald’s book and the kudos

And then I got a lot of things and then Geoff Daniels was his name … He had commissioned a miniseries called 1915 based on Roger McDonald’s Australian book about the First World War … and it was in two parts: The first part was before the war and the second part was entirely the war … And Geoff said to me: ‘Chris Thompson will do the first half’ and he said: ‘I’m giving you the war section – all of it.’ He said: ‘I know you can do it.’

The learning curve really caused me to develop my technique, my creativity, everything. The last four episodes of 1915 won a Penguin Award for Best Direction for that year on tv. And the doors kind of opened out of that. I could pick and choose what I wanted out of that. It took a while to find The Right Hand Man.

I’d get offered films and the male director would come along and I’d be bumped aside and I was getting pretty disillusioned about that.

Kathleen Peyton in later years
The Right-Hand Man book. There is a hyphen in some material and I swap between the two.

Kathleen Peyton (1929-) was the original author of The Right-Hand Man. Were you aware of the book?

No. No, I didn’t know the book at all. She hadn’t crossed my path. It was a British book which Steven Grives, one of the producers of The Right-Hand Man, had acquired the rights to in the early 1970s. He was touting it about because he and Tom Oliver, both actors, wanted to make that film and wanted to play the two characters in it. They wanted to play the Hugo Weaving and Rupert Everett characters. So that was their agenda. They couldn’t get money … Everyone said; ‘Nah’ … These actors being producers…

They get a credit in the finished product, don’t they?

They do, and rightly so because they got it up … Kit Denton (1928-97) was the original screenplay writer and I think Donald Crombie was originally going to direct the film for a time. But he and the chaps didn’t see eye to eye and so that fell over.

Tom and Steven both knew me from television work and they approached my agent to see if I’d be interested in the project and so it was through them that I got it. And by the time I got it and I read it, I said to Jane: ‘But Kit Denton’s screenplay isn’t doing it.’

I knew a screenwriter named Helen Hodgman (1945-) and I mentioned this to Jane who was representing Helen … Helen had already had major successes as a novelist and I said Helen’s got the right sensibility to do a screenplay maybe we should put it into a job lot … and they said ‘yes’ and that’s how it came about.

Writer Kit Denton’s screenplay was abandoned
Director Donald Crombie (right) on the set of Caddie (1976)
Writer Helen Hodgman (1945-) helped forge the screenplay of The Right Hand Man with Di Drew. Hodgman was born in Scotland and grew up there and in Hobart. Her novel Jack & Jill won the Somerset Maugham award in 1979. Auberon Waugh described her as: “a born writer with a style and elan which are all her own”. The Times said: “Immensely stimulating, like a small dose of strychnine”; while the Sun-Herald said: “Hodgman has quietly established one of the most distinctive styles in the country over the last decade.” Other novels include Broken Words and Passing Remarks while Blue Skies was adapted into a screenplay.

So, you yourself worked on the new screenplay?

Yes, it was me and Helen going back to the original source material. We didn’t take from Kit Denton’s work at all. We started from the ground up.

How did the pair of you relate to the material?

I think we both liked the idea of the surrogacy theme set in such a time of a moral high ground period. So, you’ve got surrogacy set in the 1860s, it’s a pretty hot topic and you’ve got a female character who is scientific and the daughter of a doctor and not a conventional Wuthering Heights female … It was those elements which attracted us to it as an unusual period piece.

Masculine hero Hugo Weaving
Rupert and McClements have a passionate moment
A young Basil Appleby in ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941)
Steven Grives
Tom Oliver (right) on the set of ABBA: The Movie (1977)

When did Rupert Everett and Hugo Weaving get cast?

We worked on six or seven drafts of the script and then Basil Appleby (1920-2016), was in the process – and, yes, there was 10BA money in it – and Tom and Steven were having trouble with the funding bodies as I described and they went to United Artists-Australia (UAA) which was John Picton-Warlow who was a real mover and shaker at the time … he certainly got things done with money. He said: ‘You find yourself a proper credentialed producer and we’ll fund this.’ … and so, they got Basil Appleby aboard and I knew him as head of production at the film school and that was a happy marriage as Basil always said I was an exceptional student so that worked quite well. So, UAA came aboard and funded with a distribution deal.

What was the budget?

It’s interesting because I always thought $5.5 million but I’ve just been reading through stuff and it was nearly $6 million and it was the highest budgeted film in 1985 which was the year that we made it.

It was the first time you used Panavision…. Were you thrilled?

Yes, it was my first film and Peter James what a gift of a man as cinematographer.

Di shows she really is thrilled by Panavision

But back to casting…

Liz Mullinar (1945-) was the casting agent and Liz and I had worked together quite a bit and we had an enormous amount of trust and to this day. I have a kind of keen interest in the NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) people – my previous partner was in NIDA – and so I knew what was coming in and coming out. I remember seeing Cate Blanchett and I thought: ‘Mmm…’ and put down six stars for that day’s most exceptional student.

Hugo was there and a rising star in some cricket thing (ed. miniseries Bodyline, 1984). He needed a picture and that was perfect for him. Rupert Everett because someone as a first-time director needed big chops in the lead. Even though everyone said it had to be an Australian actor. Well, he was British as all things and he could be that character. It was simply needed for investment purposes to have a marquee name in the lead. And I had seen Another Country (1984) and was blown away: ‘This Rupert Everett is perfect. He was just perfect.’ … We made all efforts and went to Equity and did all the rounds, auditioned every possible actor in Australia and eventually could mount a case … Rupert Everett said: ‘Yes’ and we said: ‘We want him! Can we make this happen?’ and they said: ‘Yes’. So that’s how those two came about and I knew Hugo personally and he had been a fan of my television work.

Cinematographer Peter James worked on The Black Robe (1991)
Rupert Everett and Hugo Weaving in The Right Hand Man (1987)
Award-winning cinematographer Peter James

Did Rupert audition?

Rupert didn’t because it was an offer but Hugo did but that was more because he had to work with the Catherine McClements character. He came on board subject to the casting of the Catherine McClements role. She got cast because I saw her at NiDA and I thought she was sensational. I had a relationship with John Clarke (1948-2017) who was head of NIDA at the time and we said: ‘We want her to film in October, but she doesn’t graduate until after the New Year, would you see yourself clear to allow her to finish her time at NIDA and allow her to do this film for us? …. It’s an enormous opportunity, it’s Rupert Everett…’ and they agreed. She was screen-tested and approved and left NIDA to do the picture.

There’s a range of subtle sexuality in the film itself … Was it in the book?

No, that was a slant particularly pushed by Helen in our discussions in how to contemporise this film because Katherine’s book is much more staid and about and of its time … and we wanted to bust that out … That came as a result of a number of things, the duality of the male characters, there’s kind of a sense of Harry’s kind of feminine side and Ned’s very masculine to show a Cobb and Co. driver. There’s a big difference and we played with that a lot.

Rupert Everett in Another Country (1984)
Di Drew (left) directs with Jennifer Claire and Rupert Everett
Another behind the scenes shot of Di Drew directing Rupert Everett
Di Drew (right) with the massive stagecoach the Leviathan. She said that unsealed roads had to be sealed with sand and gravel to make way for it

Was there any worry about Rupert being gay affecting the box office?

He wasn’t even out then.

Wasn’t he?

Nup. He’d come straight off Another Country and came to us. In fact, he brought a female companion over with him to hang out with him and be with him. He was utterly, utterly in the closet … He was on set and with us and it was more than obvious that Rupert was gay. You can’t go out there in the wilds of Bathurst or wherever we went and not unpack that.

No, it wasn’t a box office issue at all. He was just a magnificent British actor, handsome as all and forever the boy from Another Country.

Did you also have a Byronic poet in mind when you wrote the script?

Yes…. It just fitted in the high end. You’re talking about a man who was living this Victorian life…

Lord Byron
Rupert sulks as Lord Ironminster

…Alienation and isolation?…

Also, he’s forever in a foreign land. The brief I gave Peter James was it had to look like England. I didn’t want a sunburnt land. I didn’t want gum trees, it’s got to be green and lush – a Gainsborough painting all the time. That was the world he lived in, though he lived in his castle with his mother … They were Lord and Lady Ironminster and they were grand and they were anglophiles and yet they live in Australia in the outback but he didn’t know that, he didn’t identify with that at all … And along comes Mr Cobb and Co. coach driver and you bring those elements together …

Who chose the location of Abercrombie House?

We had a great location department. It was absolutely fantastic to shoot, just a gift. Peter James was just amazing. He had these filters made and had these smoke machines built to fill the whole of the landscapes and these rooms so they would look like Gainsborough paintings. He had filters made in America in Los Angeles, especially made for the film, so we could keep alive that English quality and as you say that Byronic kind of character. A man locked up in his castle who can’t come out.

Behind the scenes with the ‘sealed’ roads
The Leviathan with Di Drew in white jacket leading forward
Camera rig for high flyer. Rupert (top left) is and Di Drew jammed in there.

And the giant stagecoach the Leviathan?

Well, it actually existed. And we rebuilt it exactly to scale. We had 12 horses for the picture without riders and the original Leviathan had at least 16 horses which is just massive. When they built it and we went out to the Sydney showground – that’s the first time I saw the thing … We thought, it’s been built and so Peter and I had to talk about what had to be taken out of it so we could put cameras in it, round it, on it.

And I remember walking out to the showground and at that point they had six of the horses harnessed on the thing and I turned to Peter and I said: ‘I don’t think you’re gonna fit that thing in one shot.’ And he said: ‘Darling, there’s six more horses to come yet.’ And I said: ‘ok.’ … It was an amazing thing. It was really an amazing feat to build that thing.

Do you know what became of it?

Somebody, Graham Ware, he took it for a time and then I don’t know ultimately… but it was magnificent (ed. I found Russell Crowe now owns it and it’s in storage). When it was 12 horses at full gallop with two outriders and one at the back … There were six to twelve people in it… But for Hugo, it was a big issue at the time because he had a medical condition and he couldn’t drive and so couldn’t get a license … And I said: ‘Well, I want Hugo to drive those horses!’ and we had all the proper horse people and they said: ‘Imagine if you had all the reins of twelve horses in your hands at full gallop pulling that thing along, that’s not for the faint-hearted’ and Hugo took it on and said: ‘I want to do it.’ … And you’ll see there are no elbow shots from the side when he absolutely goes and drives those horses. And in one of (the shots) it’s great because he calls out to Les, who was one of the outriders and all the other shots, Les used to do all the riding for all the big shots … Anyway, I know we kept it in because Hugo’s got a hold of all the horses and Les is up the front making sure all these horses follow him on the lead horse on the driver’s side as it were. He would ride ahead slightly in front of that one too. And there’s a slight turn in one of the shots and Hugo’s got all the reigns and calls out: ‘Keep it straight, Les! Keep it straight!’ and he was actually panicking but it looks like he’s just being passionate and bossy.

The Right Hand Man (1987) trailer
Hugo Weaving needed a movie
Catherine McClements made the movie straight from acting classes

There was another shot of Rupert and Hugo on a small carriage, it was spindly and they were going so fast…

That was the high flyer and that was very much the real thing for the aristocracy and used to scoot around that countryside like a dragonfly. It was amazing and it was flying and it was scary and it was terribly, terribly dangerous…

Was it a happy shoot? Were you under pressure?

It was enormous pressure. There was harmony between the cast and myself. I was an actor’s director first and front. They knew my abilities for action and they were cast for their abilities as actors… every one of them. That’s why I could get people like Arthur Dignam (1939-2020) and Jennifer Claire (no info) … Peter and I are like brother and sister, we are bound. We provided a very solid and committed on set experience for everyone I know that as a fact.

Asian poster
European poster

I hear that Rupert was slightly troublesome…

Rupert could be difficult, demanding and attention seeking but he was young and inexperienced. I remember the first scene we did, the scene with the high flyer and he gets off and comes up the hill. He’s got this costume on and his wardrobe and it had all been approved. I used to get to all the wardrobe fittings myself to make sure there was no actor who was unhappy with their wardrobe and I get this call saying: ‘Er, Di, Rupert’s coming up the hill to see you.’ And I’m there: ‘Coming up the hill?’ as he was going to ride up this hill and I had this huge crane and I was up the top and Rupert was down the bottom ready to come up and I’m there: ‘Why is he coming up?’ And they say: ‘He’s coming, he’s running up right now.’ And we had to down tools, get off the crane and everything, and he comes racing up the hill and he said: ‘Darling, I just can’t do this. These cuffs are just too perfect.’ And it was this whole thing that he didn’t want these cuffs on his morning coat as they were too perfect and they needed to be grubby and a bit faded. And I said: ‘You had weeks and weeks and weeks over this and you’ve stopped the whole shoot because you want your cuffs changed.’

And we had a scene in the library when he’s about to meet Ned and I plotted it out and said you’ve got to be over here… and I was never autocratic as a director as I’d think this, or is that okay with you, or do you think that? And he said; ‘I think I’ll sit in the chair’ or ‘No, I think I’ll sit with my back to the door’ and then ‘No, I think I’ll go and sit with my feet under the window’ or ‘I think I will sit on my head’ or basically everything just to push it all around until he felt that he could make any change he could because he’s the star. He’s the only actor in my entire career who ever behaved like that.

Dir Drew hands-on does what she did best
Richard E. Grant starred in Hildegarde (2001)
… and Raquel Welch starred in the troubled Trouble in Paradise (1989) as actor Jack Thompson passed the time with a bottle of vodka.
One of the American reviews
Another American review of The Right Hand Man
A great photograph of Di Drew in 1985

Did you have final cut?

Yes.

What do you think of the final cut?

Jason, that’s such a hard question to ask, it was such a traumatic thing for me.

Why so?

Well, the reviews … The Americans: Los Angeles, New York and Montreal were all amazing… Australia absolutely crucified it. And just a final note as I need to bring some finality … I’ve got some fantastic reviews here. America was much more generous than Australia was. I have here a letter from Bob Ellis (1942-2016 writer/film-maker): ‘Dear Di, I loved your film and think it is one of the handsomest and best directed in our film history. Do not be put off by the odd guffaw. The Australian snob is unaccustomed to emotional content and are uneasy with it and emits bruised laugher in self-defence. The film will outlast that kind of feeling and become a classic. You’re a good girl. Bob.’

…Lovely.

To read the article Actor Rupert Everett and the RIght Hand Man (1987) PRESS HERE

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