Aussie actor/director John Polson was born at Sydney’s Paddington Women’s Hospital in Sydney in 1965 to parents Marie Francis and Ron Polson, a piano player and jazz singer respectively. In his early years, his ambition was to become a saxophone player but was seduced by acting at age 17. He performed in the theatre for the next few years but soon moved into television and film. By his mid-twenties he was directing his own short films and started a festival in Sydney called Tropfest (after its premiere venue, the Tropicana Cafe).
Simultaneous to Tropfest’s explosive success, John directed his first feature film, Siam Sunset (1999) which launched his directing career. He continues to have a hand in the running of Tropfest, which now reaches over 150,000 people live on a single night in February each year – and countless more via television and the internet – but his primary focus is his directing career. He is mostly based in the US but visits Australia several times each year. He directed his first Hollywood film Swimfan, which launched his international career, and now there’s Hide and Seek, starring Robert De Niro, that has just opened. In this exclusive interview, John talked to Garth Franklin.
Question: Now is this a genre now that you have become particularly interested in or is it purely coincidental that you have been doing two, one thriller, two thrillers in a row like that?
Answer: Actually coincidental. I mean I don’t need to tell you if you do something in Hollywood it is like… Swimfan did pretty well so I did get sent a lot, but I didn’t do it for that reason, I did it because I like the scripts so I thought it was… obviously you know I was destined to work with Bob De Niro and Fox who bought Swimfan did well out of it, I guess thought of me when this came up for obvious reasons because it is a thriller. But I don’t know if I will go straight home and do thrillers all my life, I hope not.
Question: What was it about this one that you liked so much?
Answer: Well I just liked the story of them going up to the country and the relationship between the father and the daughter, I like the scares in the back half of the movie…
Question: Was the twist that comes in the final act something that you developed or was all that on the page?
Answer: I would say I developed a little bit but really the movie was written by Ari Schlossberg before I came along and I worked with him a bit as you do to do a draft to shoot, but you know it is something that you develop from the idea.
Question: Was De Niro attached before you came on board?
Answer: He was yeah.
Question: Because when you took one of those… when I interviewed the actresses from this they all basically said that one of the reasons that they were obviously attracted to this was the fact that De Niro was already attached. Was that another reason why you were interested in doing it?
Answer: Yeah, the very first time I read it, if he wasn’t attached, it was written as a young part I guess in his forties or whatever even late thirties originally and I like it a lot and met with the studio there then as you know a lot of the times it doesn’t go anywhere for whatever reason. I got busy or they got busy or something, then about a year later my agent sent it to me again and said ‘Listen, they want you to take another look, it has changed, they have worked on the script, by the way De Niro is attached.’ I was like ‘Oh that is interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before’, so that was obviously a major draw for me, I mean, you know, he is who he is and just the idea of meeting him let alone directing him was pretty exciting. Particularly for me growing up as an actor in Australia I was obsessed with the guy, you know, I knew all of his movies inside out. Him and Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were my three God’s, my role models.
Question: Did you approach directing a guy like that differently to approaching younger sort of lesser known people as you did with Swimfan?
Answer: Well yes and no because at first you do, first one is very tentative I suppose because you know you just don’t know with someone like that, who am I really to direct him? At first, but you also realize very quickly that I am not doing him any favours if I sit back and you know, I am here to do a job, he is actually being part of the decision that I am going to do that job, so it didn’t take me long to get in his face and direct him. And I think he actually responded to that because he is used to working with a lot of people who are in awe of him. And it must get a bit tired after a while. So we became sort of you know, I sort of formed a bond with him I suppose or a trust and then I was able to really get in and do my job as best I could with him and by then it was like working with any actors, you know because the shoe [inaudible] you forget that it is Robert De Niro that you are talking to and you just have got an actor here and you have to help them do the best performance they can.
Question: What do you think separates… I mean there are so many thrillers get released, what do you think makes this one unique in your view?
Answer: I mean for me you know, there is a number of things, and the thing is beautifully shot which is not always the way and I probably shouldn’t start with that but this is in no particular order, I do think Bob is really great in the film and so is Dakota Fanning. So that is, you know, that is always a great thing in movies, is good performance. I mean, you know Paul, it is really not up to me, I think it is pretty creepy, I have watched it with an audience and jumped so it seems to work, come out buzzing a lot of the time, so hopefully… you know what I personally like about it is unlike the spade of movies coming out it is not made for an eleven year old.
Answer: You know it is really not. It is an R rated film which was actually a bit painful to us because we didn’t want to make it R rated. But there is a reason for that I think and it is not made for an eleven year old and these movies are. I go to the movies sometimes when I want to enjoy myself and I feel like it has been done to the point where you can think comprehensible and I don’t know… I can’t speak for other people seeing my film, but I do think it speaks to an older audience. Not maybe forty, fifty, sixty, but at least you know if you are in your twenties or even thirties I don’t think you are going to feel like it is made for your younger brother or something.
Question: Right, right. Now do you, was acting for you a means to an end. You know was acting a means to become a film maker?
Answer: Well it was never meant that way, I love acting, I wish I was out there tomorrow, I wish I was going out to do a movie tomorrow. The problem is twofold, firstly it is so intense and so time consuming directly that I really haven’t had time to pursue it in this country since I moved here and secondly, in this country, I am not obviously known as an actor so I really do have to make that effort if I want to do it, so it hasn’t happened for me for a couple of years for those reasons.
Question: Has Australia offered you any acting jobs?
Answer: Yeah, I do actually, I do get offered things over there but of course I don’t live there anymore and it is the same kind of problem, you are in the middle of Hide and Seek, someone rings you up and offers, you know a telemovie or a movie in Australia, but I am here, where I am busy, you know.
Question: Right, so…
Answer: So when I get old I just want to be a director and I want to be a good actor and if Al sees that way for sure, but you know, I can’t say that was the plan at all.
Question: What are your future plans then at this point?
Answer: Well right now I have only just finished the movie probably a week or two ago really. I am just reading scripts and there is a couple of things that I like so I don’t like to rest for very long. I will probably start meeting people again next week. I am going back to LA on Monday.
Question: Your first major short was a very funny little comedy, do you want to go back and do something similar to that?
Answer: I would love to do comedy yeah, I really would. It just so happens that Swimfan came about really because it was the only thing I was being offered when I got to Hollywood, which I thought pretty well, but one of the reasons was then that came my way and I did my best to make it into some kind of a movie that I could show around and that of course opened up this kind of movie, Hide and Seek, and now I mean I would love to do a comedy.
Question: Would you want to do next?.
Answer: Right now there is a couple of things I have read and one I wrote actually, one I wrote which is actually a dark comedy. And so I have these two or three balls in the air and we will see which one lands.
Question: Are you… would you ever direct a movie in Australia?
Answer: In a heartbeat, yes. A heartbeat. It would have to be the right one and I would have to feel confident that I wasn’t, you know, that you know, I got kind of brave with Siam Sunset in that I had a great experience on one hand and it was incredible for my career because it made me a show reel, but in a weird way it is all it gave me. The film didn’t do very well in Australia. It didn’t do great overseas and I was proud of the film and it won awards at festivals and the people that had seen it write to me or if I meet people, you know, I am really proud of the film, but I don’t want to get in a position where I put all that time and effort in again and you know, the biggest problem in Australia is getting the films out there. There is no strong catapult system. I don’t mean even within Australia, back in the scene internationally, there is hundreds of examples of films that are just as good as the American counterparts that don’t get, don’t see the light of day and that is heartbreaking for filmmakers. So I would have to feel comfortable that it was going to be a) very good, and b) it was going to be seen.
Question: Have you completely severed your ties with TropFest or are you still involved with that?
Answer: Not at all. Not at all. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually I am on the phone with them tonight, they are sending me the films in a few days. It is still my event and I am still talking to them at least a few times a week. I did miss it last year for the first time in ten years because it is so [inaudible] and originally we were supposed to shoot this film late 2003 and then if you remember Bob got sick. And unfortunately it got pushed right over the TropFest date, so as a result I missed the first one ever, because we were shooting. There was no other way I would have missed it and I am not missing it this year. I am actually going to Sydney next Friday for the release of Hide and Seek and then I am going to go back two weeks later for TropFest.
Question: Well I am glad because it is a very important part of the Australian film industry.
Answer: Yeah, no look, I love it and I love what it does and you know, if somebody else says it is a selfish thing and I don’t do it for any grand reasons anymore then I just love the event and I am thinking of getting everybody together on that summer evening.
Question: What immediately is next for you, are you just reading stuff and then are you going to take a break as well?
Answer: Not really, I had my honeymoon, that was two weeks. I am not big on the break. I have worked… I am reading and getting a lot of scripts and we will see how we go this weekend because that is obviously going to…
Question: What kinds of people are you looking for or at?
Answer: Mate, I have no idea. I don’t want to jinx it or anything. I think Swimfan did pretty well and it was number one and I think it made about twelve million bucks, if we can do that or better I would be very happy but you know, we have some tough competition this weekend, Million Dollar Baby is going wide, Sideways is going wide. Another current horror movie called Alone In The Dark.