Mr. Kotcheff produced Wake in Fright in 1970, a film that recalls Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in its depictions of animalism against intellect. The protagonist is a pretty-boy schoolteacher en route from his provincial classroom to his wedding. On the way, he’s stranded in a “hyper-masculine” Podunk in the Australian outback. There, the women are hidden and the men fight each other to feel human contact. Easy to reduce and hard to wrap your head around, Wake in Fright buzzes with nihilism and inchoate danger—and was lost for many years before two dedicated Deluxe employees found the damaged print and restored it on their own time. This “Cannes Classic,” one of only two films to ever play that festival twice (the other is L’Aventura), Wake in Fright played festivals last year before Drafthouse Films picked it up for a run that begins October 5 in New York. Mr. Kotcheff calls this a “miraculous occurrence.”
This movie is about a lost weekend in a really rough outback town. Did Australians bristle at your depiction of them?
They didn’t like that image of Aussies in ‘71. [Actor] Jack Thompson told me that in one screening a man stood up and yelled “This is not us!” and another man shouted back, “Sit down you fool! This IS us.”
Like Straw Dogs, Wake in Fright is interested in how vulnerable the civilized are in the face of brutes. Do you think masculinity and civilization are at odds?
Civilization has a very thin skin. It can easily be torn and grow backwards. Straw Dogs came out about the same time, dealing in the same area.
Yes, and it was really interested in the conflict between an intellectual outsider and a masculine social system—a wolf pack, as it were—but Wake in Fright doesn’t depict a system: your Australia is a land of manly chaos.
We’re all hungry for self-knowledge and sometimes we put ourselves in situations where we encounter ourselves. The school teacher thinks he’s superior but has no real self-knowledge and then discovers we’re all in the same existential boat whether we like it or not. That was the central thrust of the film. I grew up in a time of Sartre and existentialism and was heavily affected by it. You are what you do, we have no essence, so choose carefully what you do. So that’s what’s interesting to me: the man disintegrates morally and physically in inhospitable circumstances. When I was younger, I was very trepidations about the world and the cultures I didn’t know. The Outback, though, reminded me of the Canadian north. The same long empty spaces that didn’t liberate, those spaces instead felt imprisoning. I described Canada as “Australia on the rocks.” The joke is a drink is cold and you know, in Canada there’s snow. These landscapes are hyper-masculine, in which people have been formed by the inhospitable climes and circumstances in which they live and work. I spent a lot of time researching and talking to people at pubs until I felt I understood that world. It was pretty clear what the values and mores of the world were so my fears [I’d get it wrong] were allayed.
Is that why you feel so personally about the film? I’m hearing that the story spoke to your feelings at the time but also that you saw another culture and felt you “got” it.
I think this is one of my best films in the sense that…well, everyone aims for 100 and most reach 80-85; here I got to the 90s in visualizing what I had in my head with all the tension and detail. There are no cool colors in the film. I instructed the production design and costume people, “Only hot colors, please.” And I used to spray dust into the sets and I got a lot of sterilized flies from the University of Sidney. There were a lot of minute particulars I felt I got correct. Then I could translate the feelings I had: I was experiencing a great despair about humanity and human beings. It was the time of the Vietnam War, the stupidest war ever. 53,000 died for no reason at all. I was going through a period of disillusionment and I’d lost faith in humanity and that emotion resonates when I see the film. I see it and feel the disillusionment and despair. I’m over that period now.
But that anxiety wasn’t specific to 1971.
The one thing that struck me—is that ending too facile? When the hotel owner asks him, “Did you have a good holiday?” and he says “the best,” I just wondered. I think about the character and the result of his lost weekend and if somebody asked me what I think happens to him after, I expect he went back to Sydney for his planned, bourgeois existence. A friend of mine thought differently and said, “I think he ends up like [the brute doctor] Donald Pleasence.”
How are existentialism and hyper-masculinity at odds?
One of the strangest things—that culture [in Australia] was totally anti-women, anti-feminist. The town I shot in was called Broken Hill, but really this seemed true for the [Australian] society at that time. It didn’t strike me strange that [feminist] Germain Greer was Australian. But in Broken Hill, the men outnumbered the women 3 to 1. One thing I always do, if you want to find out about a place you want to shoot in, is you take the editor of the local paper out to dinner. Naturally they know everything about the town and the people there, and this guy was great and he said the men outnumbered the women but there are no brothels. In addition, the suicide rate among women was very high. Women weren’t allowed to go to pubs or go out; all the social institutors forbade them. So the men were getting drunk and fighting and shooting kangaroos and the women couldn’t take it and put their heads in gas ovens. The suicide rate is high in Oz, but in Broken Hill the rate was 5x the national rate. Yet, there was no homosexuality, either. There were homoerotic acts—the fight scenes all suggest that need every human being has to be touched. I looked like a 60s hippie back then—handle bar mustache and hair to the middle of my arse—and they always wanted to fight me. One man tried and I said “man, I got no quarrel with you” and he said, “Fight me!” And he put his jaw in my face. I grew up on the streets of Toronto: you know how you win a street fight? You hit first. And this guy wanted me to hit him, he stuck his jaw in my face, I coulda broken it. He didn’t actually want to fight me, he wanted me to hit him. When Pleasance and the main character tussle, they touch.
You’ve been in TV a lot in the last many years.
I was going to do a B film about Hitler. There are two people that obsess me. One is Hitler, a man who’s like a snake but looks human, and the other is Shakespeare. I worked on a film about Hitler for a year and had a script written with the guy who won an Oscar for Ghandi and a lot of distributors were scared of it. It was February and it looked like I was going to be out of work for that year. Dick Wolfe said “I have a new idea for a show called Law and Order SVU” and I said I wasn’t interested so I was only going to do it for 4 months, but then I ended up staying there for 12 years. As a director I’m in charge of getting into the heads of people. I think I can get into the head of a rapist but never a child molester. I read a lot but I never could understand it. It was a fascinating journey through that bit of episodic television.
Before you said something about understanding the culture of Broken Hill, isn’t that contrary to “getting into” someone’s head?
This is going to sound pretentious but I was reading a book about Chekov—he has a story called The Horse Thief and his publisher said he didn’t take a moral stand or condemned the thief. Chekov said, “if you need me to tell you that stealing is wrong, your moral standing is quite thin. I want to get into his head, that’s what interests me.” Chekov also said, “I’m not the judge of my characters, I’m their best witness.” I read that when I was doing both Wake in Fright and later with Soldi Ad Ogni Costo, with Richard Dreyfuss. Those were my two favorite films. Why are they [my characters] functioning and doing what they’re doing. That’s what fascinates me as a director. It’s hard but that’s what makes films work.