Ray Lawrence for “Lantana”

16 years after his landmark film Bliss, Aussie director Ray Lawrence is back in feature film territory, with his acclaimed study of betrayal and relationships, Lantana. Already a hit in all the major Australian film festivals, the film was selected to close the prestigious Toronto Film Festival.

Just a day after terrorists struck in New York, a sombre Lawrence spoke to Paul Fischer in Toronto.

Ray Lawrence can hardly wait to return home to Australia. Sombre and reflective, we were in a suite in Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel, trying to appear quietly normal. A day after the shocking events that terrorised and galvanised the United States, Lawrence, who had turned up the day before the hijackings, was feeling more homesick than he thought possible. “It makes you think about stuff, that’s for sure.”

Asked if he planned to return to the US for the film’s end-of-year American opening, he was emphatic. “No way, never again.” Of course, things might change. He added that perhaps those events that had such a shattering effect might help force a once jaded Hollywood to become more responsible in the kinds of movies it makes. “I think if we could make less violent films, if somehow this would help us grow up a little bit, that would be good. As a society, if we could focus a little bit more on humanity that would be good. I think that people have and should have a different focus on films with this shadow hanging over us.”

Homesick or not, Lawrence insists on “at least trying to move forward” and promote his first film in 16 years. The man whose first film, Bliss, received both acclaim and derision, had to wait this long to step behind the camera again. “I’d been busy in the last 15 years or so, trying to get things up”, Lawrence explains, when asked why the gap. “Most of the things I want to do are just complicated in some way.” He even points out that Bliss, which was such a seminal Australian film “would never get up now.” Lawrence also had Tracks for four years, Robin Davis’ story. “In the end I was told: Who wants to watch a young woman find herself in the desert? Then I did two things with Rob Drew which were equally dense.”

He also spent four years, along with his Lantana producer Jan Chapman, to bring Tim Winton’s book The Riders to the screen. “So 16 years passes very quickly when you’re trying to get things made. I’ve been SENT scripts, but nothing ever really interested me as much as things I was trying to do.” Retaining a philosophical, rather than a frustrating approach, Lawrence says that by the time Lantana got the go ahead, “I had been on automatic pilot trying to get things made”, and admits to having been “surprised when this came about. I went into Lantana figuring it was going to be my last film, so I’ll do whatever it is I need to do.” The director concedes that this stage in his life and career, “I don’t have the energy to wait even another FIVE years; if so, I’ll just pack it in.”

Based on the response to Lantana thus far, perhaps Lawrence’s professional demise is somewhat premature.

In this absorbing tale of loneliness, infidelity and betrayal, Lawrence has brought together a remarkable ensemble cast, beginning with the formidable likes of US-based Aussie Anthony LaPaglia, plus Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Armstrong, an astonishing Peter Phelps and America’s Barbara Hershey. Lawrence says that both cast and crew brought something uniquely personal to the project. “We did a reading for the benefit of the crew, so they didn’t go around with scripts in their hands wondering what was going on. I didn’t want them to look at it in a technical sense; this is a banal subject in comparison to films that deal with extraordinary things that have ordinary people in them – Lantana deals with ordinary events with ordinary people in it,” insists the unassuming filmmaker.

At the centre of the film’s complex narrative is police officer Leon Zat (LaPaglia), a man desperately afraid of his own mortality, married with two sons, who seeks something new in an affair with the desperately lonely Jane (Rachael Blake). Leon’s wife Sonja (Armstrong) feels the dissatisfaction in Leon, and seeks assurance through a therapist, Valerie (Hershey), who is struggling with her own problems, such as the murder of her child and her marriage to the dour law professor John (Rush). From here we delve deeper into the web of characters that includes Jane’s neighbours Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci), her estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins), another of Valerie’s patients Patrick (Phelps) and Leon’s police partner Claudia (Leah Purcell).

This slew of characters, each with their own stories to tell come into sharper (and more successful) focus once one of them disappears, and Leon and Claudia become involved in the subsequent investigation.

It is no surprise, Lawrence argues, that Lantana was a tough film for which to raise money. “Potential investors we spoke to really loved the script but they didn’t TRUST themselves, with something like this, because it’s a film for middle-aged people, and that’s not a ‘sexy’ term to start.” But at the same time, he argues, “it’s still a huge audience and I really do believe that if we can get to them, they will respond well to it.”

Lawrence is gratified that US Indie distributor Lion’s Gate will be releasing the film in North America, touting as a potential Oscar contender. “I think the Americans will respond to it as warmly as Australian audiences. After all, the predicaments these characters are in are very universal.” With already a glowing response here in Toronto, coupled by enthusiasm in Australia, Lawrence may be back behind the cameras sooner than he thinks.ght.