RICHARD FRANKLIN interview & ESKIMO NELL article["Richard Franklin & Eskimo Nell" article originally published in Eros Magazine Vol 3 No 1 (2003), Canberra]
Richard Franklin is one of Australia’s greatest filmic exports, working his way from low-budget thrillers and horror pictures to overseas hits such as the Hitchcock-approved Psycho 2 (1983) and the arthouse smash Hotel Sorrento (1995). Like all successful filmmakers, however, he’s bound to keep a skeleton or two in the closet (anyone remember James Cameron’s Piranha 2: Flying Killers?). Ask him when he’s in a cagey mood about his first film and he will wax lyrical about the ESP chiller Patrick (1977). Dig a little further and he may admit to a scandalous duet of R-rated oddities, the first of which is our only full-frontal “Aussie Western”, the 1976 period comedy The True Story Of Eskimo Nell.
In the rosy glow of hindsight we often forget, when looking back on the so-called liberated Seventies, that the spirit of puritanical oppression or “wowserism” more often than not reared its ugly head to spoil everyone’s swinging good time. Franklin even used the pseudonym “Richard Bruce”, the filmmaker’s way of hiding under a brown paper bag, on his second film, the hugely successful soft-porn portmanteau Fantasm (1976). “I still don't talk about it very often,” Franklin admitted to me about his sex film career, on his way to the first day’s shoot of his new film, a multi-million dollar supernatural thriller filmed in Melbourne called Visitors. “There are people who find the idea a bit offensive, even though it was softcore pornography. I'd had such a drubbing from the Festival of Light about The True Story Of Eskimo Nell, the fact that I then did a sex film (Fantasm), I didn't particularly want it to tarnish my career.” In retrospect, his film career could have been over before it started.
In The True Story Of Eskimo Nell, Max Gillies plays Deadeye Dick, peeping tom, foul-smelling bullshit artist, failed bushranger and all-round hopeless sack of shit. He teams up with champion dick-wrangler Mexico Pete (Serge Lazareff) after a disastrous liaison involving an irate husband, and together they go searching for Dick’s sexual El-Dorado, the mythical first-rate whore and “Queen Whomper” named Eskimo Nell. They eventually come across “Nell” in a cheesy mountain hotel, and is hardly what Pete imagined, but Dick, lost in his one-eyed dreamworld, discovers the one glimmer of happiness his sad existence had denied him.
The 1973 British sex comedy Eskimo Nell had already covered the making of a fictitious softcore version (as well as a gay western, kung fu and sickly family version!) of the famous bawdy 19th Century poem by a unscrupulous smut film producer. Franklin’s version, co-written with Alan (Alvin Purple) Hopgood, sticks closer to the source material and transposes the action to a more culturally iconic stomping ground: the Ballarat Goldfields, the Eureka Stockade, the snow-capped Blue Mountains. The ambitious Franklin’s second unit even filmed the Klondike scenes - where Dick supposedly loses his eye - outside Montreal, and some incredible location shots such as the iceflows from the Canadian far north helped win the film an AFI award for Best Photography. Come to think of it, it’s hard to remember when an R-rated film looked so good! I told Franklin that The True Story Of Eskimo Nell resembled more of a period comedy with the raunchiness grafted onto the top. “Well, you know the original poem 'Eskimo Nell' is pretty raunchy. We were just trying to hypothesize about what kind of a true story might have been the basis of such a poem. I originally wanted to make the film in the States, at the time of the revisionist Western, but learned quite quickly that the poem is unknown in the States. It's known only in the 'English World', meaning Canada, Australia and England.”
Franklin’s cast is first rate - Auntie Jack’s Graham Bond briefly appears as Pete’s potty-mouthed long lost mate “Boggo”, and Lazareff as Mexico Pete is a soothingly familiar presence for those of us who fondly remember 70s Aussie TV. And Max Gillies, I hardly need to remind you, had his face plastered on TV every week in the 80s doing ear-tugging impersonations of Bob Hawke. During the 70s however he spent most of his career in bizarre comic film roles, and was no stranger to showing his pale underbelly - he had already played a lecherous married schlump doing a stoned striptease during the David Williamson segment of Libido (1973), so we didn’t bat an eyelid over his most memorable scene in Eskimo Nell, starkers except for his ludicrously large hat, eye patch and strategically placed holster.
Gillies spits out the smutty one-liners with relish, like “Have you ever stuck your dick in a milk pail and churned it till it’s butter?” At the heart of the film, however, is the oddly touching parasitic relationship between voyeur Dick and coxman Pete, and their shared wet dream of finding the fictional lay Eskimo Nell. “It was an attempt to do something kind of poignant,” agrees Franklin. “In retrospect it probably should have been funnier than it was. But it wasn't my intention to make a sex comedy. You just have to remember the era, and the fact that the R certificate had just come in, and we'd just seen the first full-frontal nude in a commercial film in Catch-22, and films like McCabe And Mrs Miller which had nudity and so on in it. It was kind of a change of era. And so I just took this famous bawdy poem as the basis for some kind of exploration of the human psyche.” Which seems odd for a sex comedy. “You call it a sex comedy,” Franklin shoots back, “I didn't. As I saw it, it was in the same vein as something like the Jon Voight-Dustin Hoffman film - Midnight Cowboy.” True, for a film marketed as a sex comedy, there is a palpable absence of flesh. “Correct. But you've got to remember, this was the beginning of the 'R' certificate era; ‘very little flesh’ was a lot. We had a full-frontal of Abigail, and a couple of other girls topless, but quite a lot of bad language, you see. THAT was new.”
Indeed, 70s sex queen Abigail was a major selling point, gorgeous as ever and totally starkers (for the first and only time on film!) as Esmeralda the Leopard-clad wife of a traveling magician who catches Pete nailing her to the floor of his “Magic Box”. After leaving the warm bosom of the Number 96 TV series she had anticipated a career as an all-round entertainer. Despite a minor hit album and single “Je T’Aime” and traffic-stopping cameos in Alvin Purple (1973) and Alvin Rides Again (1974), her greatest talent appeared to be in self-promotion. “There was some publicity which she kind of drummed up about having been exploited…Well, she didn’t think she’d been exploited, she just liked the front page of the Sunday papers and the like!” Any press in good press? Apparently not in the case of The True Story Of Eskimo Nell, and the film started to look doomed. Then there was the other Eskimo Nell: “We made a sale to Canada, but I’m fairly certain that the Canadian distributor, who also had the rights to the British Eskimo Nell (also released the same year), was buying ours to put it on ice, so it couldn't go out in competition for the other one.”
Not that the script’s uniquely “Strayln” colloquial soup would make much sense elsewhere. “One of the great disappointments for me, and I learned a lot from it, was showing it to my American friends - probably at the time we were there making Fantasm - and discovering they just didn't get the humour. That it was a kind of humour that didn't really travel well. They admired the filmmaking, they admired the craft, but they didn't laugh at any of the jokes. So the pathos and so on, which was really derived spiritually for me from Midnight Cowboy, worked, but not the comedy. And so my next film, using a lot of the same financiers, was an attempt to make a universal genre film. And that was Patrick, which if I'm asked, is the film I refer to as my first film. Even though there were one and a half films before it.
It was the hostile press that buried the film, thanks to the efforts of Fred Nile’s Festival of Light. “It was the fact that the film had government funding, and was based on a 'pornographic poem'. And they cited Eskimo Nell and Blue Poles, the Jackson Pollock painting, as instances of the government squandering public funds. And the theatres were picketed, and it was actually fairly successful in terms of damaging the picture. I thought it would be great publicity, but the one thing people don't want to hear is that tax dollars have been wasted. The minute they hear that, they're less inclined to throw good money after bad, if you see what I mean. So the film was not successful, so that's why I made my next film… I needed to make a film that would make money.”
RICHARD FRANKLIN INTERVIEW (unedited)
Andrew:What was the reason for putting a pseudonym on Fantasm?
Richard:I still don't talk about it very often… there are people who find the idea a bit offensive, even though it was softcore pornography. I'd had such a drubbing from the Festival of Light about True Story Of Eskimo Nell, the fact that I then did a sex film, I didn't particularly want it to tarnish my career.
That's kind of interesting, because for a sex comedy there's very little flesh in ...Eskimo Nell.
Correct. But you've got to remember, this was the beginning of the 'R' certificate era; "very little flesh" was a lot. We had a fullfrontal of Abigail, and a couple of other girls topless, but quite a lot of bad language, you see.
Ah, of course.
THAT was new.
Was that the selling point, the way to get the film financed? Because it looks like it's a period comedy, but then the nudity's grafted on the top.
Well you know the original poem 'Eskimo Nell' is pretty raunchy. We were just trying to hypothesise about what kind of a true story might have been the basis of such a poem. I originally wanted to make the film in the States, at the time of the revisionist Western, but learned quite quickly that the poem is unknown in the States. It's known only in the “English World”, meaning Canada, Australia and England.
Had you seen the early seventies British film about the making of a film about Eskimo Nell?
Ah, no. You ought to get those dates right, you know, I mean those films were both made at the same time.
Oh, of course. Did you ever see the British film?
Not that I recall…
It's quite ambitious… did you actually film some of Eskimo Nell in Canada?
Yes, I did a couple of days of filming in Montreal, and a second unit went up through the North and filmed some scenes with iceflows.
That's beautiful looking stuff.
Thank you. It won the AFI award for Best Photography.
Especially the last shot, with the Northern Lights.
That was done by a Hollywood special effects man named Jim Danforth.
It seems amazing that a sex comedy would have so much effort and so much location work put into it…
You call it a sex comedy, I didn't. As I saw it, it was in the same vein as something like, oh God I'm trying to think of it now, the Jon Voight-Dustin Hoffman film - Midnight Cowboy.
There are some really touching moments between Dick and Pete, especially at the end, when you discover that Deadeye Dick is a totally accurate name for him!
Yeah, well as I say, it was an attempt to do something kind of poignant… in retrospect it probably should have been funnier than it was. But it wasn't my intention to make a sex comedy. You just have to remember the era, and the fact that the R certificate had just come in, and we'd just seen the first fullfrontal nude in a commercial film in Catch-22, and films like McCabe And Mrs Miller which had nudity and so on in it. It was kind of a change of era. And so I just took this famous bawdy poem as the basis for some kind of exploration of the human psyche or something… I can't remember, at the time, as I say, but stylistically it probably owed most to Midnight Cowboy.
And Abigail was at the peak of her fame just then.
I would say just past it, in that she was no longer on Number 96 but yes she was very well-known.
Was she a focus of some of the attention on the film?
Not really. Although there was some publicity which she kind of drummed up about having been exploited…
Well, she didn't think she'd been exploited, she just liked the front page of the Sunday papers and the like! (laughs) But it wasn't that that sparked off the Festival of Light, it was the fact that the film had government funding, and was based on a 'pornographic poem'. And they cited Eskimo Nell and Blue Poles, the Jackson Pollock painting, as instances of the government squandering public funds. And the theatres were picketed, and it was actually fairly successful in terms of damaging the picture. I thought it would be great publicity, but the one thing people don't want to hear is that tax dollars have been wasted. The minute they hear that, they're less inclined to throw good money after bad, if you see what I mean. So the film was not successful, so that's why I made my next film… I needed to make a film that would make money. So the next film was a deliberate attempt to make a sort of send up of the Scandanavian sex documentaries that were able to be shown here.
The 'white coaters', they used to be known as!
With this thin veneer of medical 'therapy', or whatever, these films were being shown in these little underground cinemas and so on around the place. They were all essentially softcore, and we decided to make a kind of send-up of one, really. Not because we wanted to do a send-up, but because we didn't think we wanted to do a genuine one. We just wanted to make a fun film about sex!
Well, it worked beautifully, because that film was a big moneyspinner.
It was, and it was that that allowed me and Tony Ginnane to make Patrick, which was my next film. Even though I had done it under a pseudonym, it was perceived that I could make films that would make money.
So those in the know knew that it was a Richard Franklin film?
Yeah. I usually don't list it in my filmography, not because I'm ashamed to have done it - I don't know whether Coppola lists HIS in his filmography! - but because it was such a low budget thing, and done in as I recall ten or eleven days, so it was really just like a series of student films strung together, if that makes sense. So I don't really, even though it runs feature length, I don't sort of think of it as a feature film.
Did you actually film the segments? This is the part that I'm a little unclear about, you actually went to America?
The ten segments were shot in Los Angeles, and the linking material with John Bluthall was shot here in Melbourne.
How did you get John Bluthall for the role? His dialogue is almost surreal!
And semi-ad libbed.
It's seems that way too, but it's brilliant stuff.
He was living in London, and was home here on a short trip, and Natalie Miller, who was a friend of Tony Ginanne, seemed to be functioning as a sort of manager for him, and I can't remember if Tony suggested it or Natalie suggested it. I think he just thought it was a bit of a joke, and I don't even think he got paid very much. But he got SOMETHING, you know. I just think he thought it was a bit of a novelty. To do something dramatic while he was home.
Did you actually know at the time that most of the actors who are in the film are almost like a Who's Who of early seventies softcore and hardcore porno?
Well, yes I do. I did. I would have been pretty foolish if I hadn't known (laughs). If I hadn't known who John Holmes was, you know?
I was just metally listing them. Rene Bond…
Well, yes, you're right. They were Candy Samples, and Uschi Digard, I almost never saw her in anything again. She used to be in stills and things.
I've seen her in about thirty films. She ended up one of the Russ Meyer regulars.
This came about because the fellow who was my roommate at university in the States, Doug Knapp, who shot Assault On Precinct 13 for John Carpenter, he was doing softcore porn predominantly, and I called him and said, what's it cost, what do you pay the actors, and he put me in touch with a casting agent who put me in touch… Tony and I both went to the States with Vince Montonn the cameraman, and met with a casting agent who also does porn, Bill Margold…
Who's also in the film!
And he had a casting agency, and he knew all of them. And they didn't cost very much, two hundred dollars a day as I recall.
I suppose they were all one day shoots too.
They were all one day shoots. I think we paid maybe three, four hundred for John Holmes and yeah, that was about it. And then we cut those ten short films together, and we knew we'd have to link them together somehow, and then worked out how much of a intro we needed from Bluthall. And shot as I recall something like seventeen minutes in a day, which is still the most I've ever shot in one day!
We had kind of cue cards for him, it was at Natalie Miller's house, and he kind of ad-libbed from the cue cards.
You can actually tell that there's a lot of crazy stuff just coming out of his mouth! You wonder where it's coming from.
Well, much of it we had written down on these cards, but much of it he also put his own spin on it.
I was wondering about Sue Deloria…
Which one was she? Was she the one in the schoolgirl outfit?
Yep. She was in the classroom. I couldn't find any credits for her but she looks really, really familiar.
I don't think I've ever seen her in another film. I remember her in stills from about that time. As I recall, she had another name, I think she worked under multiple names, as a lot of them did and do, so I can't - she may be better known under another name. But that was the name she wanted to do that under.
It just looked like she was a really well known striptease artist or burlesque dancer.
Now that you say that, I think that she was a stripper.
Because a lot of strippers were getting work via the go-go clubs and the stripclubs around L.A. and Hollywood at the time. I'll try and find out who she is, or what she was known as. Because I'm sure I've seen her in films since.
Yes, I remember her in stills. She was familiar to me too, and I remember I was surprised that was the name she chose to do ours under. Which makes me think she had another name she was better known as. But god, I can't recall it.
That "Wearing the Pants" segment…
That looks like there's quite a few cuts on the video, during the strap-on scene.
The Australian version is censored, yes.
Both that and the John Holmes sequence - more in that, as I recall, than in the John Holmes sequence, where there's just a couple of shots underwater cut - while we had the R certificate, we also still had censorship. So there is a version of the film that's probably not much more than 45 seconds longer, and there's nothing hardcore, I don't know what it was that the censor found particularly offensive about that. But I remember that particular pair had worked together quite a lot. I can't remember their names, but it was largely THEIR idea, as I recall.
Yeah. It seemed there were definite cuts to "Wearing the Pants" and I wondered if it was a video era cut, or whether it was actually cut back in the seventies.
So there was no hardcore material at all.
There was no hardcore. Indeed, that was an era where hardcore was NOT being produced in L.A. In fact, as I recall, we had the police call in on more than one occasion while we were shooting, just to make sure we weren't doing hardcore. But I was told, and I guess it would be evident if you studied the films of the era, but virtually all of the actors did hardcore work, but they did that in San Francisco or in Europe. But it was just a short period when hardcore porn was not… There was no problem shooting what they call T and A, tits and arse, but you weren't allowed to have people fucking on the set.
But there was still a big market for softcore sex features at the time.
Yes, but we're talking pre-video, you know?
And so I suppose it wasn't until the late seventies that hardcore took over the sex film industry.
That would be my guess. When did Deep Throat get made?
That was about '72. But I think there were still prosecutions in just about every state in America in the early seventies, over films like Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door. So they still weren't exactly kosher. Swinging couples would still go along to the softcore stuff, because it wasn't, 'in your face'. Fantasm probably did better business than some of the other, more British resembling, sex films from the early seventies. Because it actually resembled a sex film rather than one of those tame T and A British sex comedies.
Yes. And it was funnier, and arguably better done, I would hope. It was done on a shoestring, but we did it as well as we could. And as I say, other than its sexual theme, for me it was like making ten student films in a row, one day after another.
It must have been a monumental effort just to keep track of everything and then edit it down.
Oh, not really. I mean, I had made a number of short films, and I had directed, well obviously I had directed professionally, but I mean I had, Vince Modern and I had made things like 'Homicide', and done a number of shorts. So we knew how to shoot five or six or seven or eight minutes of film a day, you know? And so basically we would just tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end, using a pair of actors, in a day. Whatever we could do. I don't ever remember running out of time and thinking, well I don't know how to end this scene, or some such thing. We probably did quite a bit of overtime. I don't remember particularly. And it was almost a student crew. But you've got to realise, this was an era when it was very hard for young people to get professional work in Hollywood and the people who are now the modern Hollywood film industry were making these kinds of film.
When the deal was being set up to direct footage in America, was it always the intention to make a killing in the American market? Was it almost designed for overseas sales?
Not particularly. Or rather, not particularly by me. Tony might have known that… but no, there was no sense that because we were using these, well, big American stars - and I've told you what they were being paid, so they weren't that big, if you know what I mean - it was not, oh wow, this is going to be huge. We just had a sense that if we made a funny, sexy film, that people would come to it. And so did Robert Ward, who ran Filmways and the Dendy complex, and it was at the Dendy cinema that it had its longest run.
So it was really designed for Australian audiences, then?
Yes, by me it was. I mean, I was pleasantly surprised when I learned years later from Bill Margold that the film was considered a kind of classic in the States. But a classic of an era. I don't know how easily you'd find a copy of it now, you know, in the States.
How did True Story Of Eskimo Nell travel? Was it released overseas?
It really didn't. We made a sale to Canada, but I'm fairly certain that the Canadian distributor, who also had the rights to the British Eskimo Nell which you mentioned, was buying ours to put it on ice, so it couldn't go out in competition for the other one.
Oh, you're kidding…
One of the great disappointments for me, and I learned a lot from it, was showing it to my American friends - probably at the time we were there making Fantasm - and discovering they just didn't get the humour. That it was a kind of humour that didn't really travel well.
I figured that a lot of the Australianisms would have been lost. Especially the saucy slang.
They admired the filmmaking, they admired the craft, but they didn't laugh at any of the jokes. So the element you mentioned, the sort of pathos and so on, which was really derived spiritually for me from Midnight Cowboy, worked, but not the comedy. And so my next film, coming off the (in the end) quite successful Fantasm, using a lot of the same financiers, you see, my next film was an attempt to make a universal genre film. And that was Patrick, which is generally the film, if I'm asked what I've made, is the film I refer to as my first film. Even though there were one and a half films before it.
Now that's when you started working in feature films with Everett DeRoche?
Had you worked with Everett before? Did he work on Homicide at all?
He did, but we never worked together. His tenure at Crawford began as mine ended. But I admired his writing. I had seen scripts of his, or episodes of his, after I left Crawford's, and thought he had a great sense of story.
Where did he do most of his training? Was it in the States?
Yes, he had studied journalism in San Diego. I don't know that he came here intending to be a writer, but he saw an ad for writers wanted at Crawford. He was travelling from Queensland to Melbourne with his wife and daughter, and saw this ad, and got a job as a writer at Crawford.
Had he done much film work before Patrick?
So it was his first feature film?
The thing that I really like about Patrick and Road Games is that the characters are so well drawn.
Part of it's the acting, part of it's the direction, but a lot of it's the actual dialogue, and a lot of it's in the script. And even the discussions in Patrick about euthanasia and the ideas about life and death, they're not contrived, they're really well written. That's part of what sets that film apart from a lot of the really B-grade horror films of the mid to late seventies. And also there's some first class acting in there as well.
When we screened Patrick at the AFI awards, I remember being rather devastated at the amount of audience laughter, and then being amazed - nominated for Best Picture! What I had done inadvertently was what is now post-modernism, or a self-referential film. The film had fun with the genre, and that was mostly me having fun on the set. I didn't really realise that it would transfer to screen quite so well. I thought there was a camp element to the matron and all of that…
And also Robert Helpman, too.
Well true, yes. It was a little larger than life.
He plays that kind of crazy overly theatrical, almost mad scientist - well, he's not really a mad scientist but…
But yes he is. And he was great fun to work with, and full of great stories about old Hollywood, and I really enjoyed the whole film to be honest.
But Helpman is really inspired casting. Because you just wouldn't imagine him in a role like that. But he seems to be just having so much fun as well.
He broke his back when we were filming. Trying to lift Robert Thompson in the final scene. And it was over Christmas as I recall, and basically it didn't hold up filming, but it was a bit of drama.
There's some amazing camerawork in Patrick as well. The scene that absolutely knocked me off my chair was one of the opening shots, where the parents are seen reflected in the bedhead, having sex, and then the camera just spins around, so that you see Patrick's reaction on the other side of the wall. I mean, that's fantastic stuff!
Well, thank you! I storyboarded the whole film myself, my own drawings. They were fairly rudimentary, but it was a very studied piece of directing. I was doing a thriller, I knew how Hitchcock worked, and I had a shoebox with dollhouse furniture. I had some concerns about filming an entire film in a small room, and I peered at this for months, and came up with lots of different camera angles. So thank you.
You can also really see the thoughtful camera placements in Road Games as well.
That was storyboarded also, by John Douding, my production designer.
Those two films in particular, they really stand out from the pack, because they're so well crafted. I remember a lot of critics now say they're inspired by the Hitchcock influence, especially Road Games.
Well, that's true.
Leonard Maltin calls you an avowed Hitchcock disciple…
And then someone else says that you actually studied under Hitchcock.
I think that's as true as it could be, given that he wasn't technically a teacher. I organised the second retrospective of his work that had ever been held, but the first that he actually attended, at the University of Southern California in 1967, and met him that night, actually kind of interviewed him on stage. And he then invited me out to observe him working on Topaz. I should have dropped out of university and done it permanently, in retrospect, but at the time I was in film school, so I just went out and visited when I didn't have classes.
You were at USC at the time.
That was before these films. And that's how I knew Doug Knapp, and how I had this connection to finding the people who would do porn in L.A.
How was Hitchcock? Was he accommodating?
He was, well first off I was nineteen, so it's a little difficult for me to say I have a real insight into what a man who was then in his late sixties was thinking. But publicly he was very much as you would imagine. He would tell jokes and so on. I was surprised to discover that he was extremely nervous; this was reported in one of the biographies, in fact his official biography. See, he was used to doing his introductions to his television show with a film crew, which was a setting he was very comfortable with. But to get up in front of two or three hundred students was something he'd never done. Well, he couldn't have been more nervous than me! On set, however, he was very different. It was quite a tense set; he was a real perfectionist, with extraordinary attention to detail, and it was probably the quietest film set I've ever been on.
Because there was so much going on up in his head?
Yeah. And he would alternate between doing the sort of raconteur thing, entertaining everyone, and then when they were ready to roll the camera, there'd be this really intense focus on what was happening. I think it probably made the actors a little nervous. He was like a puppeteer, he ran the set with an iron hand.
Did he talk much to you about the filmmaking process?
Nothing that he didn't say to anyone who would interview him about the subject. I probably learned more about his personal trials and tribulations and so on from Peggy Robertson, who was his personal assistant, at the time I was making Psycho II I was able then to sort of - you know, as I say, we're talking about a nineteen year old, meeting a man in his late sixties, what I was able to ask Peggy fifteen years later, when I had directed a few films of my own, kind of filled in some of the gaps. But frankly there was nothing Hitchcock had to say that can't be learned by looking at his films.
I suppose it's all up there on the screen.
And you know, I was certainly a student of those films, and still am, although I know them so well it's very difficult to become inspired by them. I'm doing a thriller at the moment, and I've been looking at some of Fritz Lang's work. Just to give me a bit of fresh insight, because Hitchcock - I won't say is dead for me, by any means! - but how many times can you look at Vertigo or North By Northwest or Psycho, you know.
So could you tell me a little bit about the new film.
The new film is entitled Visitors. It's written by Everett DeRoche. It takes place on a yacht, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and it is kind of The Sixth Sense meets Dead Calm.
So there's a supernatural element to it.
Yes. It's probably the closest thing I've done to Patrick since (then). It all takes place in one room, essentially with one character, and a number of supernatural or otherworldly events. Not necessarily like Patrick, but it was actually what I said to Everett: "Can you give me something that all takes place in one room again?" And he said, well, could it be on a boat? And I said, okay.
Where's it being filmed?
Did you actually start filming yesterday?
Who's in it?
Radha Mitchell, who you probably know from Pitch Black, and Susannah York.
My God! Fantastic. Theatrical release?
Palace in Australia, and Canal Plus in France; we've sold it in a few other places, but not the States yet.
It sounds like it's probably going to be a fairly easy sale to America.
If I do a good enough job, yeah. I haven't done a thriller in a long time, but I haven't forgotten how to do them. I watched a number of them, including The Sixth Sense, and thought, well, what would Hitchcock have done with that, or what would Hitchcock do NOW, if he had to do what he did with Psycho, which was trying to reinvent the genre. And I'm not saying that's exactly what I'm doing, I think this particular film probably owes as much to Polanski as it does to Hitchcock, somewhere between Repulsion and Knife In The Water.
I suppose it has got the watery element to it, yeah. But I suppose Hitchcock worked really well in a limited setting too, like Rope and Lifeboat.
Well, Lifeboat being the classic, except that Lifeboat is in an open boat, whereas we're filming mostly in a yacht interior.
Your work, up to the late eighties I guess, was pretty much firmly rooted in a sort of B movie tradition. Working in horror, thrillers, sex movies, things like that. How were the critics treating your work?
Patrick had reasonably good reviews. I told you it was nominated for Best Picture in the AFIs. Didn't win - I think Julia Blake might have won for playing the matron, but I don't recall. The reviews - well, they're always mixed, but they were slightly better than average. The reviews for Road Games were generally good, although there was some hostile press about using American cast in Australian movies, particularly from Bob Ellis. And then of course I stopped working in Australia to go abroad. But Psycho II generally had good reviews, although there were a few doozies, needless to say! But generally, that film, that one might have expected to be pilloried, was taken quite seriously, because I think it was quite clear that it was a respectful, if not reverential, film to Hitchcock. And the fact that any journalist who came in trying to sort of suggest I was out of my depth taking on Hitchcock would pretty quickly discover I knew just a little bit about Hitchcock and his work!
And the film always had the blessing of the Hitchcock estate too.
Well, in a way it did, in that Donald Spoto's book came out at that time and did NOT have the blessing of the Hitchcock family. Whereas Pat Hitchcock, his daughter, came along to our opening in New York, and I introduced her, not as Hitchcock's daughter, but as one of the cast of the original Psycho. Well, she could not have been more chuffed, and went on the record to say that this film was going to undo the damage that Spoto's book had done to her father's image. So in its way the film did have the blessing of the family. Indeed, one of the things I've been looking at by way of preparation for Visitors is Hitchcock's script for 'Mary Rose', which is a pet project he never got to make, which is about ghosts, and which was sent to me by one of the granddaughters! So yes, in a way there IS a connection there.
Patrick must have done huge business overseas.
Yes, especially in America, where it got into the Top Ten in Variety, but not a lot of the money filtered back to the investors, which can be very much the case when you're dealing with international sales agents and the like. Profit, as William Goldman said, recedes as you approach it. Patrick made a lot of money overseas, and especially in Italy, where they actually made a sequel, called Patrick Viva Encora (Patrick Lives) and we could do nothing because of Italian copyright law.
Oh my god! So that's how they managed to rip off just about everything else that ever came out of Hollywood!
But that must have been quite an honour to have Italians rip off your film.
Well, I was flattered. I didn't see the sequel until quite recently. I was stunned at the extent to which they used the whole look of Patrick and the room and so on. That was a pretty silly film otherwise. You made a comment about B movies; it used to be argued that Rebecca was an A film and Foreign Correspondent was a B film. I never thought of myself as making B films; I did see myself as making genre films.
That's what I should have said; the B movie tradition, you know…
But not in the way that Scorcese talks about being into that, or even George Miller said he was doing Roger Corman. Tony Ginnane, you know, was obviously a Roger Corman fan. I met Roger Corman, but I always considered myself a 'classier' filmmaker, in quotes, in the sort of Hitchcock mould.
I should have said, making A class movies in what is traditionally seen as the B movie tradition.
Yeah, but you could say that of John Ford and Howard Hawks and Westerns, you know what I mean? It's genre filmmaking, really. But Hotel Sorrento was a very deliberate attempt to break that mould, because I had been so typecast as a maker of that kind of film, that all I was being offered were Nightmare On Elm Street's. I was even being offered sequels, because Psycho II was considered the classiest sequel ever made! (laughter) People just assumed that what I was good at directing was sequels.
Oh my God…
Which is of course what I did with F/X 2, but that was at a time where I needed the work. But Hotel Sorrento and Brilliant Lies were very conscious attempts to prove that I could do what Australian filmmakers like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford had done, which was make very classy arthouse types of films. Peter Weir was being offered material like Witness, that I would have loved to have directed, because he was perceived as an arthouse filmmaker. Whereas even in Hollywood I was perceived as a genre filmmaker, and not able to get these special elements that would win Oscars and the like. So I made Sorrento with Joan Ballard to prove I could do that too. And now of course I'm having to prove again… it's so bizarre, this business, they just assume I've completely forgotten the rules of genre!
So that's what Visitors is all about.
So you've been typecast as a quality drama director! Whatever happened to Robert Thompson? I can't seem to find him listed after Road Games.
Ahh, I don't know. He went into puppet theatre, and he went overseas. I suspect he's not in Australia, and I suspect he may still be in something like puppet theatre.
What was his background, how do you cast him in Patrick?
He was a student at the Victorian College of Arts, a drama student, and Barbie Taylor, my co-producer, found him. Thought he had an interesting look, which he certainly did. But very few people recognised him in Road Games.
Because he's talking, and moving around!
A lot of the cast seemed to have been English actors. You find that in a lot of Australian films and TV shows in the sixties and seventies. There seems to be English actors in just about everything.
Well, Susan, and…err, there's only Susan. I know! Julie of course, Julie was born in England, if that's what you mean. What I deliberately did, and I don't know that it was an error, because they ended up revoicing the film in America. I thought, as long as people speak 'good English', because I'd done Eskimo Nell in the Australian idiom, and as I say, my friends didn't understand it. So I thought, well, I'll go to the other extreme and have everybody speaking Queen's English. And so I had everybody doing, not so much English accents as just speaking Queen's English.
What it's called, mid-Atlantic or trans-Atlantic….
No, that's when you do an American accent. That's when you have English spoken with a bit of an American accent, so it works both places. That's kind of what is commonly been done here now for American television that is shot here. But no, this was a miscalculation, because they promptly revoiced the whole film in America.
…in Mad Max style?
But that film could be set anywhere.
Yes. That was deliberate.
Just moving onto Road Games… Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis look like they were having a ball on the set as well. Was it a good shoot?
It wasn't as good a shoot as Patrick, but it wasn't a bad shoot. We were a long time away, out on the Nullabor, and the weather wasn't terrific. It rained a bit, believe it or not. And then when we came back to Melbourne, we had a lot of night shooting. And night shooting can be quite tiring. Now I do it as little as possible, and I always flip the shoot. So I shoot in the afternoon, and then up to say midnight. But in those days we would start at sunset and shoot till dawn. And we did it for about two weeks and it was very tiring. But Stacey and I got on very well, and Jamie had fun when she was there. In retrospect I'm disappointed she wasn't in the film more, but that was how the script was written, you know. And she wasn't the star then that she is now, so it didn't occur to me, you know, you've got Jamie Lee Curtis, you should enlarge the part. It was more than a cameo, but I'm sorry she didn't do more.
That was pretty much her first non-horror role too. I wouldn't really call Road Games a horror movie.
Oh, nor would I. But you know, an interesting thing happens here. Since Psycho, the word 'thriller' mean 'horror' in America. They are synonymous. Whereas what I do, they would refer to as psychological suspense, or psychological drama, and of course Psycho II is on the cusp. As was the original. Hitchcock just redefined the genre with that film, and Psycho was very definitely a B picture, you know.
I think that was the first time that Jamie Lee Curtis wasn't being chased around the house with a knife, or getting ravaged by zombies. She looks like she's having a great time just acting, acting her heart out.
Yeah, she had a good time, we got on well. I remember when I made Psycho II, a lot of people asked why we didn't use her in the lead. The answer was, it was too obvious. And I screened, one of the first screenings I had of the film was for Jamie and Janet, who came and saw it. But I haven't seen her a lot since.
Was Stacey Keach much of a handful? Because he's always labelled a 'problem' actor.
Oh no, he was very easy to direct.
Because he's a great actor, I've always loved his stuff.
A great actor; one of the few American actors to have studied at RADA and performed on the London stage in Shakespeare and the like. A really really fine actor. And no, I would say that the two actors I have found easiest to direct were Stacey and Tony Perkins.
Total professionals who were willing to collaborate but who could take care of their own part themselves.
And in both cases the two actors pretty much have to carry the films by themselves.
Yep. I did say 'actor', and I know the term covers females as well, but I was really referring to the males that I've directed who I've found the easiest to direct.
Going back to Patrick for a second, Helen Hemmingway, she was absolutely criminally underused back in the seventies. I mean, she just seemed to have parts where she was getting her gear off. But she was quite a good performer.
I liked Helen a lot. I lost track of her completely. I know she moved to England. I don't know where she is now, I have a feeling she lives in Sydney. But yes, it's an absolute mystery to me why she wasn't used more.
Was she in The Box, or Number 96?
She was in The Box. I don't know if she was in the movie of The Box, but she was in the television show.
How was Road Games marketed overseas? Was it classed as an Aussie outback suspense thriller? Was it ever marketed as a horror film?
Yes. And it annoyed me a bit. Avco did sell it as a slasher movie, probably because of Jamie Lee Curtis, and as a consequence it didn't do very well in the States. You can't offer someone an apple and then give them an orange. They feel cheated. And I thought they made a real error there. On the other hand Bob Raimi, who was the head of Avco, went on to become the head of Universal, and was instrumental in me getting Psycho II, so I couldn't complain.
I remember seeing that film when I was living in the Middle East, early eighties, I was only 12 or 13 at the time. I saw Patrick and Road Games, both on videotape. And if it made it to the Middle East - !
I don't have any real sense how widely it did get distributed, because Avco, I think they went out of business soon after, and Road Games changed hands about three times. I think Dino de Laurentis ended up owning it. But I haven't been able to really keep track of where it was sold or what it had earned. I know always rates very, very highly on both Australian and American television. In fact at one point it was the highest rating cable movie ever in the States, which is a mystery to me. And I've seen footage from it turn up in a show about a stuntman, I don't remember the name, the Six Million Dollar Man was the lead. And the chase with the boat, where the truck goes through the speedboat, ended up in the television show as the scene that they were filming. I was kind of annoyed at that. So whoever ended up owning the film was selling off bits of it as stock footage! Which is a bit rugged.
So if you want a desert scene, there's a bit of the Nullabor from Road Games!
I mean, they flipped the shot so the truck appears to be on the other side of the road.
Bloody hell. I mean it would have been a real shame to market it as a horror film, because the stuff that's great about Road Games is where Stacey Keach is just flipping out and becoming ultra, ultraparanoid, and seeing things that aren't there.
Well, I'm glad you said that, because that's what Visitors is about.