Ray Lawrence is one of Australia’s most respected filmmakers. Stunning audiences with his darkly satiric Bliss, it took Lawrence nearly two decades to return to feature film territory with his complex, ensemble drama Lantana, which became a local and international hit. His latest film, Jindabyne, makes its way to US cinemas next week, and in this exclusive interview with Paul Fischer, Lawrence talks about the plight of the independent director and confirms his upcoming reunion with his Lantana star, Anthony LaPaglia.
Question: It took you eighteen years to make Lantana. Were you quite keen to get back into the saddle after that movie?
Lawrence: Yeah. This one took us five years which was too long. I think it’s just difficult making films like this and they are just harder to finance than something that is less complicated.
Question: You’ve never shied away from making films about the complexities of human behaviour. Does it get easier or harder as you get on to get those films made?
Lawrence: Yeah I don’t find it easier.
Question: Despite your track record?
Lawrence: Yeah I mean I can make – it’s not difficult to get a job making film. But it is difficult to continue to make films like Lantana or Jindabyne because I think people have a certain – don’t trust themselves enough and if they don’t trust themselves enough they’re not going to trust anybody else and, you know, I’m sure there are areas, pockets of interest in films like this but most of the films that are made in the world like Jindabyne are independent films and I think a lot of independent filmmakers do struggle because as you say, they are complex, there’s a lot of subtext and a lot of abstracts and they’re difficult things to pitch in a meeting.
Question: What was it about this script that really, that you felt this was the film that you wanted to make next?
Lawrence: Well originally when I read it I thought it was a very original moral dilemma and then over the years, I didn’t think about it every moment, but when I did, it became more and more intriguing and then Rob Altman made Shortcuts and I thought now well, I might as well forget about it. And then Paul Kelly did his song just after that, Everything’s Turning to White, and I just sort of put it out of my mind and then after Lantana it was possible to make virtually anything I wanted to and I thought well, a lot of people said I couldn’t make a full length feature out of such a small thing but I remember, because I am a big fan of Carver’s. I remember reading that he was on a plane once and he looked down the isle and he saw the hands of a man, just the hands, seated in front of him and he saw the man take his wedding ring off as the plane was landing. And Carver said ‘That’s all I need’ and I felt a similar sort of emotion with the story. And I mean it was about responsibility. It was about the difference between male and female. Then once Bea and I started to look at it and decided that the young girl who gets murdered should be an Aboriginal girl, it just got bigger and bigger. It gets back to that trust, you know, you find something, you play with it.
Question: Given the fact that Australian audiences in particular still gravitate towards mainstream Hollywood fare, how did Australian audiences take to Jindabyne?
Lawrence: Very well.
Question: Was that surprising?
Lawrence: Not surprising, no. I think that basically because they took, you know they responded well to Lantana. But you’ve got to remember, when I made Lantana the people that first saw it, before the public saw it, had no idea what it was. They actually didn’t trust their own personal responses. So it was very difficult for me to work, you know none of the films I’ve made really fit into a particular genre. They’re all sort of, their genre shifts. It’s very hard to pin down. Therefore marketing people have trouble with it. And if they can sort of trust it for being a good story and sell that, then it becomes a lot easier but people responded very well to Lantana at home and then so they – I don’t think I’d let them down. I’d got a particular audience at that point and I wanted to take them on another interesting journey and so the response was good. Because I was sort of respectful of, you know, I was respectful of the audience that I’d gained from Lantana.
Question: Obviously this is partly a film about landscape and geography. What were the challenges shooting on location and obviously it was imperative that you did that. Were there any challenges?
Lawrence: Well actually when we started out, I think petrol was $0.80 a litre. By the time we finished it was sort of like $1.20. And you know, we were doing a lot of travelling, like 45 minutes to the location and then another half an hour in to the actual shooting area. So you add that up and it’s spending three hours a day going – and the distances are huge as you know. But that was part of the – we knew that. We didn’t know that petrol was going to go up but, and then the landscape – you have to be careful with it. It can be dangerous, especially with a big crew struggling around with equipment, you know, around near cliffs. We saw more snakes than fish.
Question: Why do you think that American audiences would gravitate towards the film? Are you surprised that Sony Classics was interested in taking it on?
Lawrence: No I wasn’t surprised. I was pleased. I don’t really have any expectations. It’s enough just to have made the film and as all filmmakers, they hope that people respond but nobody knows and it was great that Michael Barker, I met him and he loved it and that was basically it. So I’m very pleased. And I think that they’ll know what it is.
Question: When I was talking to Anthony Lapaglia, whom I know quite well, a few months ago he mentioned that you’d signed on to direct his long gestated film adaptation of the Arthur Miller play, “A View from the Bridge.” Is that still a go?
Lawrence: Well we’re just trying to raise the money. It’s a fantastic project and it’s a great script and it was written by the guy that wrote Lantana, Andrew Bovell. So the three of us would be working together again and the idea of doing a film in New York the way I like to work, is really interesting. So it’s just clearly a matter of money. We’ve got everything else in place. We’ve got a really good cast.
Question: Apart from Anthony who else are you going to use, the entire Broadway cast or do you have other people in mind?
Lawrence: Oh he’s got other people. He’s one of the producers.
Question: Well I hope it works. I know that Anthony has been trying to get this made for quite some time. And I’m sure you can relate to his struggle.
Lawrence: Oh yeah. for sure.
Question: If it doesn’t get off straight away, would you be developing other things?
Lawrence: Yeah there’s a Cormack McCarthy novel that I’d like to do, it’s called Child of God. And I’m working on a film in Bosnia here at the moment.
Question: Which is?
Lawrence: I haven’t got a title. It’s just – it’s secret at the moment.
Question: I take it it’s a drama.
Lawrence: Oh yeah.
Question: Is it similar in style to Lantana and Jindabyne or a very different kettle of fish?
Lawrence: Oh it’s actually – it’s got a large cast but basically there are only two people in it.
Question: Can you reveal the cast or not yet?
Lawrence: No I haven’t got it yet. I haven’t cast it yet.
Question: Oh you haven’t cast it yet. So that’s immediately next?
Lawrence: Possibly. I mean, being an independent filmmaker you are always developing something and waiting for the money to turn up. Not like, if you work for a studio they do all the leg work and they green light something and then look for a director afterwards.
Question: And I take it that working for a studio is not one of your high priorities.
Lawrence: Well it depends on, you know, I’m interested in good stories and working with good actors. And, you know, the studios do make good films sometimes.
Question: Sometimes, right.
Lawrence: But then, you know, there are a lot of independent filmmakers that make crap. So nobody’s got the market on quality yet. I mean some people are a little bit more consistent than others. But, you know. I’d work for a studio depending on what – I’m just interested in stories.