Sunday, May 10, 2009

PURE SHIT The Bert Deling interview 2009

PURE SHIT screens at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Friday 15th May at 7.30pm, followed by a Q&A with the director Bert Deling and lead actor Gary Waddell, chaired by Trash Video’s Andrew Leavold. Tickets are $20/$18, available from the Brisbane Powerhouse (

[Article and Bert Deling interview published in Rave Magazine 12/05/09]

“The best thing you can possibly do is make a legendary film that's no-one has seen,” laughs film director Bert Deling. “As soon as it gets to be available, the legend will collapse!”

Such was the fate of his Melbourne underground drug “comedy” Pure Shit, released under a black cloud of controversy in 1975 and buried very soon afterwards. Rediscovered in recent years by rabid fans Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, who re-introduced the film via his All Tomorrow's Parties sidebar screenings, Beyond Home Entertainment are set to release the film next month in a deluxe three disc special edition, forcing Deling to face his delinquent child after all these years.

Much to our collective relief, the legend of Pure Shit is entirely justified: a deft combination of Swiftian satire, social realism with the odd picaresque touch, and above all a smack-soaked odyssey of Homerian proportions following four hapless not-so-innocents over a manic twenty four hours as they cruise in a classic FX Holden searching for that elusive pure hit. There's a chemist break-in, several overdoses, a Drug Squad bust and a failed attempt at shooting Draino, all to a pounding soundtrack by a proto-version of Skyhooks. It's manic, grim, paranoid, and above all, absurdly funny. And, shot on the hoof by Deling and cameraman Tom Cowan, its guerrilla aesthetic gives it a vitality, or in Deling's words, “the kind of kinetic energy that their lives don't have. William Burroughs said he spent an awful lot of time on a bed in Tangiers staring at his toe. Not very filmic...”

Pure Shit was written partly as a document of a culture he was knee-deep in, compressed from Melbourne's own junky folklore, and partly as a shocked reaction to finding his friends and colleagues around Carlton's explosively talented Pram Factory playhouse flirting with heroin, many of whom comprised Pure Shit's cast and crew. Garry Waddell, as the cocky sunglassed Lou, was a then-current user from a blue collar suburb of Melbourne who was adopted by the PF collective, and his self-assured performance led to a string of film and TV roles; not so for Anne Hetherington, who, according to Deling was “using, deep into it. Went to England, did some jail was the last we heard of her. We made a lot of attempts to find her, but we can't.” So she's MIA, “and probably DOA.” There's also fellow Pram Factor all-rounder Phil Motherwell and Monkey Grip author Helen Garner as a pair of coke-fired middle class eccentrics, Max Gillies playing metha-drone specialist Dr Wolf, and a VERY young Greig Pickhaver (aka H.G. Nelson), who was also the Pram Factory's resident electrician!

Always intended to deglamorize the process in a brutally honest and non-hysterical manner, the film's refusal to lay on the sermon is frequently misread as a pro-drug message. The System is clearly the villain here – the police, the methadone industry of death – while our lovable users are merely wide-eyed pawns, no wiser and no less optimistic about scoring their next hit. “It's what I believe – believed – about the whole process, that it's much broader than drugs, it's the question of not conforming, and drugs are just the metaphor. We wanted to head up over the parapets, man, and you're going to get cut down from every direction.”

“I really didn't understand how powerful the whole Middle Class Taste was. I thought what I was making was a drive in movie with a political message. And to my total, genuine amazement, the film got banned.” The decision was eventually overturned, but not without a half-page hatchet job by the Melbourne Herald's Andrew McKay declaring it “The most evil film that I've ever seen.” “Don't let anybody say that all publicity is good publicity,” laments Deling, “because that was BAD publicity. So that killed it.”

And how dies Bert regard his wayward child, now almost 35 years old? “I reckon all the key people will say it was one of the best experiences of their lives. Because we were still young, we were still enthusiastic about what we were doing... In a funny way, having no budget is a great freedom. We all moved on into the bigger industry and found it was never going to be like that again.”

Bert Deling interview with Andrew Leavold 05/05/09

Andrew: I thought the AFC had deliberately buried Dalmas (Bert’s first feature from 1973) because of its “distasteful” subject matter.

Bert: No. The reason it got a screening in Melbourne was because of a guy called Alan Finney. Alan and I were at Melbourne University, and Alan was one of the few people at the time who chose not to be involved in drugs; Alan had a pretty clear view of who he was. 'Cause we were all part of that obsessed group of people that wanted to make films. I can remember being in a room full of people raving on the American Cinema or whatever the fuck we were talking about (laughs), and Alan would be the only straight guy in the room. And God knows what he was thinking! He was the one who went to bat for Dalmas. I'm sure it made no money at all over the four weeks; he did that. It was just the loose grouping of film co-ops and film clubs and that was it. As far as the government was concerned it didn't even exist.

This takes us to setting up Pure Shit. You managed to secure funding for a second feature film...

Yep. They got a script that they gave $30,000 for the whole film. Which meant of course that virtually no-one got paid. Tom Cowan (cinematographer) and Lloyd (Carrick, soundman) got a small wage, but everyone else were working for nothing. And we shot the script more or less. So we got it to double head – in the old days you had an image and a soundtrack, and they were both on 16mm stock. Before you mixed the film, you were always editing with these two things running in parallel all the time. So eventually when you get to your fine cut of dialogue and action, that was called double head. There was a thing in the contract that they were to be shown the film at double head before we mixed it, before we put the music on it, before we struck the final print. The guy who was running the AFC at the time, he took vile exception – didn't say anything to us! I think it was the first time, certainly the first time up til then, he actually broke his contract and said “no, we won't give the completion money.” Under normal circumstances, that would've meant the film would lie around in pieces without ever being completed; that's what they were trying to achieve.

So the AFC were literally trying to bury this film?

Without a doubt. Bob Weekes (?) went out and beat the bushes, and from “the community” as it were, got enough money to finish the film. Without Bob's entrance at that point, there would have been no film. Then we complete this film... I really didn't understand how powerful the whole Middle Class Taste was. I thought what I was making was a drive in movie with a political message. I had all my good film viewing experiences as a kid at the drive in! Jonathan Demme made a film, Fighting Mad, which was a bit like I was trying to make; Peter Fonda plays this Vietnam veteran, and except for the final conclusion, the first hour or so of that film I thought was terrific. But then Demme's phony solution to the end of the film was to turn into the people you were fighting.

I'm sure that was (executive producer Roger) Corman's solution.

That was sort of what I thought I'd made. And to my total, genuine amazement, the film got banned. No certificate allowed. It was going to be screened at the Perth Film Festival, that was its first big appearance, and we'd just got some media going about it, not a lot but some. They said “just one screening, and then...” The frustrating thing about the censorship issue is, as soon as you shine the light on the fucker - his name was Proust, Martin – what he did was scuttle back into the darkness and let the film go! It wasn't like a passionate commitment to the thought that this film should not be shown; it was that he had a mild dislike of the film so he thought he'd ban it!

And assumed you'd roll over in the process!

Precisely. So we shined the light. We got an R certificate. Every piece of media and advertising had to go over his desk. He had to personally sign off on everything. That's what he wanted. So the first night of screenings in Melbourne, the Vice Squad turns up and rips down our posters. And then we got his with that Andrew McKay review...

“The most evil film ever”?

Yeah, and that paper that everyone in Melbourne read, that was THE paper, and it wasn't a film review, it was half of a broadsheet page.

It was no longer a movie, it was an event!

Of the worst possible kind. Don't let anybody say that all publicity is good publicity, 'cause that was BAD publicity. These days if such a thing happened you'd have thousands of young people pouring into the cinemas, but there wasn't yet a kind of functioning alternative world. So that killed it. Pretty much. And after that they more or less left us alone. It did the co-ops, blah blah blah, and then just faded away. Of course within six or eight months somebody rang me up and said, “Look, we've just hired the AFI print and it's been flogged to death.” Somehow the word had got out there was a print at the AFI. Then I pulled that out of circulation. And all these years, as far as I knew, the only print was at the National Film Library and you could get it for “study purposes”. But apart from that there's been nothing.

I said to someone a few months ago, the best thing you can possibly do is make a legendary film that's no-one has seen (laughs). As soon as it gets to be available, the legend will collapse! So now we find ourselves in our current situation.

It's going out into the big wide world.

And in the best possible way too. I believe that there's two or three songs that were created by Martin Armiger, and there was a terrific music scene at the Pram Factory in Melbourne at the time as well, out of which came Skyhooks, and quite a few of those people were involved in the making of Pure Shit. Skyhooks had a lead singer who was fantastic but they had a difference of opinion about where they should go, and Kainstch? wanted to go more pop, and this guy was more of a blues singer, and so Shirl came in. But he (the original singer) is the one singing on the soundtrack. And there's Martin's music, and Red Symons was hanging around - that's Red playing the sleazy piano music on the restaurant scene. We got a lot of support from all sorts of people, and some of those people were the biggest recording studio in Melbourne. Just at the point where we were making Dalmas, they'd bought this old warehouse building in South Melbourne that they were going to turn into a giant thing, and they gave us access. So we built sets in it, and then coming around for Pure Shit... We got a fair bit of studio time with real mixers, which for Martin and Buzz???, was the first crack they'd had at the real machinery. And they really went to town. I'm just really pleased that we could put out a CD of those tracks as well.

John Scott (the editor), at the time he was cutting a film called Salute To The Great McCarthy, another one of those big budget Australian films that went straight down the shitter. He was cutting that during the day, and I'd turn up at six o'clock at night, and then he'd work through with me til two or three o'clock... And you couldn't think of two more different films. But the thing about working on that film, I reckon all the key people – Tom, John Scott, me - will say it was one of the best experiences of their lives. Because we were still young, we were still enthusiastic about what we were doing... In a funny way, having no budget is a great freedom. We all moved on into the bigger industry and found it was never going to be like that again.

It could also have a positive effect. A lot of people who worked on the film were either trying to get off smack, were flirting with it it, or were deep into it.

We're talking about the cast?

No the crew, as much as the cast. And personally, the front office... People said to me “Are you insane? You're making a film with junkies!” Well, nobody caused any loss of anything on that film, they were all really into it. I then decided to teach a film course, they came in and did the course; another one cecame a cameraman...

Not long after we got Pure Shit pitched, Gough got sacked. At that timer, the ABC used to give political parties, when there was an election on, five minutes of free time every night, to do whatever they wanted. So I got a phone call, “Can you be responsible for these five minutes?” Because I thought I was bulletproof at the time, I said “Fine!” They said, “What we wantyou to do is find a whole lot of people who have always voted liberal but are now going to vote Labour because of the outrage over the Dismissal. Anyway, we did do that – we did it with only one phone in our lounge room in Carlton, but with several of the people from Pure Shit ... We had Fred Schepisi and Mal Bryne (???) who was then director of the .... in Melbourne, who would shoot Liberal Party commercials all day, and get paid very well, and then turn up at the end of the day with the equipment in their cars, going, “What do we have to do tonight?” Then they'd go off and shoot the interviews with these people. Good lord... We ran all that from our lounge room. With a lot of the people from Pure Shit.

The only time you could say that we had a fuckup on our hands – you know that sequence when they break into the chemist shop ell that was a two night shoot. We did the exteriors on the first night, where the other couple turn up, then the second night was what happens inside. Well, we turn up on the second night ...

The thing about that time ... that whole thing about getting addicted to smack was veryearly in its development. Part of the reason why I wanted to make Pure Shit was that I was hanging around the Pram Factory, and it was clearly where the best minds of our generation are all hanging around together in various formations. Some of the best of them started shooting smack, and I couldn't believe it – I couldn't understand. So that was one of the motivations. So because it was so disorganized, the way these guys used to get their downers was to break into chemist shops., 'cause that's where it was after all. It hadn't got organized where the crims and the Drug Squad had got the whole thing neatly organized between them. You had to go out out and GET it. That's why we had the breaking in sequence, because they did a lot of it.

We cut to the second night of that shoot. The bloke who turns up with the other woman, HE didn't turn up. So we went into panic mode, phone arounds and drive arounds, “Where the fuck was he?”, etcetera... Then we finally discovered that what had happened was, on the day previous or perhaps that day, he'd gone up the countryside, he'd put on his Gene Simmonds KISS makeup, full white face and black eyes, and he'd gone storming into a country chemist shop with a butchers knife demanding the drugs, and the old bloke behind the counter actually had a heart attack and dropped dead! So had had to make himself scarce. We thought that's a fair excuse, it's as good as having a note from your mother (laughs). But then we had a whole script that was supposed to happen downstairs. So I had to do a fast recalculate. So what happens now is, he suffers an overdose in front of the safe, and we hear all the panic and we come in the back, and there you see his feet and his jeans and shoes in shot, and his girlfriends saying “Wake up! Wake up!” The feet actually belong to Lloyd Carrick who was recording the scene at the same time... so we just hd to pull off a fast rewrite and get it shot. But that was the only time that working with these people caused any problems at all. It was just great. And it had good, postive effects on some of them afterwards. It's a good news story either way you cut it (laughs).

There was this thing called the Buoyancy Foundation which was the earliest place where these kids could go to and feel safe. It was set up by a wealthy woman whose son had died of an overdose, and it was being run by this urban saint of a woman ....

One of the most interesting characters is the figure of the cleaner...

Well, that was Bert having a bit of a wank. In fact, I blanch every time I see it. It's what I believe – believed – about the whole process, that it's much broader than drugs, it's the question of not conforming, and drugs are just the metaphor. We want to head up over the parapets, man, you're going to get down from every direction. When Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, he decided that he was going to do something about these drug addict bastards, and he came up with a drug that no-one had ever used since the Second World War, because their supply of traditional opiates had been cut off. So they came up with this drug that was a sort of opiate that they'd used for pain relief. This was, of course, methadone. He brought methadone into a “treatment” program ; at that time, the standard dose for addicts was ten times what they give them today. So the addicts, after two to three years, were dying of renal failure. Cool system, man! They were getting rid of 'em without any worries at all!

It was a form of Eugenics...

Exactly! That was one issue that we were very concerned about. There was this woman who ran the psychiatric places who were giving these guys the same kind of dose. We didn't know there was a smaller dose, we just figured the drug was fucked. Her name was Stella Dalton. There was a wonderful moment when Garry (Waddell) and I got Stella Dalton on the Ray Martin Show and kicked her arse. So that was why we were concerned with methadone, just because ... you can actually see in that black and white footage, there's one or two of them who are on methadone who can put words together but only barely. We just figured they were given the right dose, but they weren't. Now they've got it down to a tenth and it's actually helping a lot of people.

But methadone addicts also talk about experiencing no pleasure from the drug...

And total addiction. If we did anything really well to transform the perception about what methadone means, and just turning it into that fun ping pong scene, which I think is one of the better things in the film, 'cause it does really convey what we were concerned about. Going back to that guy with the long hair pushing the broom – that's Bert having a bit of a wank, he is prone to do that, likes to let people know that he is a very deep person – and that's what that scene's about.

Who's the actor?

That guy was the spiritual leader/guru of a group called Tribe who were an acting group who all lived together, who were in Dalmas. His name is Doug Anders, and he did all the wonderful Tribe (?) in those days. So he took that part because I respected him greatly. But his delivery's a bit pontifical, it could've been a lot lighter, but that's just his style of doing it. But that scene's not just about drugs, it's about how society deals with anything – the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or any of those guys who stick their heads up, they have all the guns trained on them.

Let's talk about the scrip writing process – I can only assume you were workshopping.

No. Sat around on the floor, listened to stories, then went away and wrote the script. The stories are all based on events that happened; I couldn't possibly dream them up. Then I wrote the script... Neil's got something like fifty photographs, I don't know where he found them , I thought the whole process of the film was not being recorded in any way. He found fifty photos ... There's one fantastic photograph where Helen Garner is there with the script in her hand looking absolutely anguished with me and a couple of other people standing around, because she'd just been handed the script! That was pretty much how a lot of it was done, no one had lots of time with the script . I actually pulled part of a copy of the script out the other day, and it was done on a typewriter with carbon paper! Hello?

You were hearing these stories first hand, and then synthesizing them into a script?

I had a closer relationship with just a couple of people involved – my partner's brother, for one – so I'd heard stories before. It was just about trying to string the stories together into a narrative. They take all the credit, 'cause they lived through it.

Then you sandwich the story into an incredible 24 hour period...

The funny thing about it, of course, is that it gives it the kind of kinetic energy that their lives don't have. William Burroughs said he spent an awful lot of time on a bed in Tangiers staring at his toe (laughs). Not very filmic...

Garry Waddell's had the busiest career.

Totally! He was the only one who was interested in having a film career.

So he was already established as an actor...?

No! Garry was just another guy around Buoyancy!

He comes across as a consummate pro...

Never done it before. He walked onto Pure Shit and absolutely nailed the fucker. He had some good dialogue... And from that he got FJ Holden, and a couple of other things...

He was using?

At the time of Pure Shit.

The other three leads – did they ever do any other film work?

No. John Laurie, the blond guy, wasn't the least bit interested in acting, more into woodwork and became a teacher. Funnily, became a film teacher at RMIT. Anne Hetherington was using, deep into it, went to England, did some jail was the last we heard of her. We made a lot of attempts to find her, but we can't.

So she's definitely MIA...

...and probably DOA. But she was right into the action. And Carol Porter was one of the best actors at the Pram Factory, and has gone on for years to do lots of theatre. Isn't interested in being filmed, and just doesn't want to do any public stuff for Pure Shit, she doesn't like the interview process. Very quiet and sensitive soul .

And she's absolutely brilliant in the film.

Really when you look at it, none of them have much to do, but she was just fine. I had great respect for her, both as a person and as an actress. She's been doing theatre all these years; when I made the call about three months ago, she was working for a theatrical company in Penrith. They were the four.

Then there's Helen Garner and Phil Motherwell, the crazed coked-out couple.

At the time of Pure Shit, Phil had written a couple of plays at the Pram Factory; he's just a brilliant, brilliant mind. It's just a great pity he hasn't done more. I love him dearly, and he was just great...

Was Helen acting at the time?

Helen was just “around”. Helen's always been an observer. At the time she was married to Bill Garner who was a major player at the Pram Factory. Helen was School Captain at tone of the most prestigious private schools in Victoria, and she was observing. But she came and did that, which was terrific. I phoned her up to do it 'cause she was the straightest looking person I knew – in a way. And of course she got into a relationship with this guy called Shuv'us, who became the subject of Monkey Grip – Shuv'us is one of the two nurses in the methadone sequence. You kinda call them accidents, except that it was just the way the film was made. It was kind of open to what was happening at the time.

But that's the best part of guerrilla filmmaking – if you're making use of the resources around you, some of the greatest “accidents” happen.

Precisely. And they're called accidents but they're not.

No, it's serendipity.

Well, then they're based on past relationships that have evolved into the community that you're documenting. One of the things that Pure Shit was trying to do, and we thought would become a kind of small stream of the ongoing Australian cinema, was that you could actually make drama about issues that the straight media hadn't picked up on yet. There were things that people needed to think and know about, 'cause the whole thing about smack had not become the kind of media darling that it's become. It was just starting to happen, and we were reporting from the Front. And we thought that we could keep doing that with other things, long before it became a major article in the Sydney Morning Herald, and also more accurately. Because what happens in these kind of social evolutionaries is that by the time it gets to people's consciousness through a media that is reacting against what's happened, you never get to see why, that there might be something positive about drugs.

It's pure reaction based on fear.

Yeah. And the Establishment fighting back, and that's the first “news” you get about something important going on. And you judge their hysterical reaction to tell you that it might be something really important. But we were hoping to report from that Front, before the established media, and it didn't happen. And I guess we were gullible, but also we didn't expect the kind of incredibly aggressive negativity put on the film. And not just from one direction. So therefore you say, what's the connection? The connection is Middle Class Taste. And people joke about them, but they're like iron, they're brutal. We stuck our head over the parapet and got incoming from practically every direction!

The important thing is to do them and draw attention to who's trying to stop you. The problem is, these days people think that unless you get government money, you can't make a film. Now, I don't get that, with the technology that we now have. It's so much cheaper these days to produce something that looks like a feature film. Today you just look at the screen to see if it's ok! Back when we were young, we were just starting to see some of the cinemas from Czechoslovakia, those directors who ultimately went to America. They could get something done meaningful under government control. But the government control of filmmaking in this country is as strong as it was in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule.

You put your heart and soul into a film script and it gets knocked back, then you try another and it gets knocked back... and if you don't have something behind you that says “Well, I've had one success so I know what I'm doing,” if you're young, you're just being told you don't know how to do it. You don't have the Magic Touch. But when you look at something like Candy, which only uses heroin as a background environment for a 1950s love story made by people who have no knowledge... That's where we're at. But there are little thickets of hope. Accolytes by John Hewitt. There's your hope.