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Over 40 years since its disastrous U.S. release and once
feared lost, WAKE IN FRIGHT, one of the seminal films in Australian film
history, is now getting a long-overdue rerelease in America courtesy of Drafthouse
Films. This resurrection also shines a new light on its veteran director, Ted
Opening this Friday for a special one-week engagement at New
York City’s Film Forum (209 West Houston;
212-727-8110) and rolling out across two dozen U.S. cities between now and
December (go here for cities and dates), WAKE IN
FRIGHT follows the tragic trajectory of a British schoolteacher (played by the
late Gary Bond) who loses everything in a gambling-and-alcohol-fueled lost
weekend in the brutal Outback. The locals include a drunken doctor played by
scream legend Donald Pleasence, who delivers one of his best performances ever.
The film is a career highpoint for Canadian director Kotcheff, best known for a
wide variety of films since then, including action (FIRST BLOOD, UNCOMMON
VALOR), comedies (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF
EUROPE?), dramas (THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, SPLIT IMAGE) and sports
films (NORTH DALLAS FORTY).
In this exclusive two-part interview, the still-vibrant
81-year-old Kotcheff discuses the loss and rediscovery of his film, its
painstaking restoration and the (literal) shooting of its controversial
FANGORIA: This week, WAKE IN FRIGHT will be returning to New
York City after 40 years; how does this “premiere” compare to its previous New
York engagement all those years ago?
TED KOTCHEFF: [Laughs] Well, this is a much better exhibit
of the film. Back then, the distributors did not believe in WAKE IN FRIGHT, and
we opened it in January during a snowstorm on a Sunday night in some small New
York art cinema. Of course, being in a blizzard, no one came. I said, “I told
you, Kotcheff, nobody would come.” It opened without any advertising or publicity
whatsoever. Nothing. They really didn’t believe in it, and they just went
through the motions. This is entirely different now; everybody knows about the
film, it’s getting tremendous publicity from everybody. I’m really thrilled it
now has a proper showing.
FANG: The original United Artists release was under the
KOTCHEFF: Yes, for some odd reason, they didn’t like WAKE IN
FRIGHT, and I said I didn’t like OUTBACK; it sounded like a National Geographic
film! And they said, “Well, it sounds like a Hitchcock film.” I said, “That’s
bad?!” Many years ago, one of the great writers of CASABLANCA told me, “You
know, you’re going to be a terrific director; I’m sure you’re going to fight
for the integrity of your film. But there are two areas not to bother wasting
your time about with distributors: titles and endings.”
FANG: How did a Canadian director from Toronto wind up in
Australia directing WAKE IN FRIGHT?
KOTCHEFF: It started because I was living in London at the
time. And a terrific writer, Evan Jones, and I had worked together on a film
called TWO GENTLEMEN SHARING, about the racial situation in London in the ’60s.
He handed me a book one day and said, “WAKE IN FRIGHT by Kenneth Cook. Read it.
Right up your alley, kid—a lost weekend in the Outback.” And I had a bit of
trepidation making a film about a world I knew little about. However, when I
arrived in Australia, I discovered the Outback was not that dissimilar to
Northern Canada, where I came from. The same vast, empty spaces that turned out
to be not liberating, but claustrophobic and imprisoning. I used to refer to
Canada as “Australia on the Rocks.” And so I found when I got there that it was
very similar to Canada, and also that they have a male-dominated society. And
Australia, of course, is also similar in other ways; they are both ex-British
colonies and suffer from a kind of inferiority complex. I understood that
country very well. But still, I didn’t know the country, so I spent a lot of
time doing research in the Outback and going to pubs and bars and talking to
men and getting the feeling of what they’re like out there.
FANG: How close was the screenplay to the original novel?
KOTCHEFF: It was very faithful, and Evan and I worked on
that together. The novel is very spare in dialogue, but the characters—there’s
a tremendous veracity to the whole feeling of it. Kenneth Cook had been in
Broken Hill; he worked as a journalist, so he really had first-hand experience
and knowledge of the Outback. You could see this was the way it was.
FANG: Based on its title and not knowing much about the
movie, many have assumed over the years that WAKE IN FRIGHT is a horror film,
but it’s not. This is going back to our original discussion…
KOTCHEFF: You agree with United Artists?
FANG: No, no, I don’t agree with United Artists. But a lot
of people today assume it’s something horrific, but it’s more of a dark,
KOTCHEFF: That’s right—that’s exactly what it is. What
attracted me to it originally was that first of all, he’s an outsider. He’s a
teacher, he hates the Outback and he doesn’t wanna be there. And also, I
sometimes felt out of my element; what’s terrifying about it is our central
character has no idea who he is or what he’s capable of, except when he’s put
under the extreme circumstances he does endure, and he sees a whole dark side
of himself that comes up, so there is a kind of horrific element to it.
FANG: Right. Much of what happens in the film is profoundly
disturbing and frightening as we watch John Grant descend into drunken madness
after everything goes wrong. Is that what you mean in terms of the horrific
KOTCHEFF: Yes, exactly right. Had he gone onto Sydney like
he was supposed to… Instead, he lost all of his money and got stuck in this
horrific, horrific town. He never would have discovered what he was like and
what he was capable of. That’s what the picture’s about: a man put in extreme
circumstances, and suddenly, he discovers dark sides to his character that he
never knew existed, and that horrifies him. He’s the one who’s horrified.
FANG: When you did your research and went to Australia and
lived amongst the locals, was the Outback really as hopeless as depicted in the
KOTCHEFF: Well, I really liked the men of the Outback,
because they’re working and living in the most inhospitable circumstances in
the whole world. The dust and the flies and everything else… No wonder they
drink a lot and shoot kangaroos for fun! And also, it comes with the nature of
the Outback—there’s a tremendous camaraderie amongst the men. They support each
other, they’re very generous. It forces the people to behave in ways perhaps
they wouldn’t ordinarily. What was striking was the lack of women. In the town
of Broken Hill, the men outnumbered the women three to one. And there were no
brothels. So sometimes there was a lot of fighting going on with the men. It
wasn’t fighting just to hit somebody, it was kind of desperation for human
In fact, a couple of times when I got involved, men wanting
to fight me, I felt they didn’t want to hit me, they wanted me to hit them!
They needed the human touch, and they wanted to get touched, and hitting was
the easiest way of getting that. If I said the word homoerotic, people would
get the wrong idea. That’s not homosexual at all; it was just because there
were no women out there. And also, the women were not allowed to go into the
pubs; they were forbidden. So the suicide rate amongst women in Broken Hill was
five times the already-high average in Australia. When they were home by themselves,
their lovers or husbands went out drinking, fighting, shooting and the women
sat there, until one day they turned the gas on and put their heads in the
My then-wife Sylvia Kay played the picture’s female
character. It was quite an extraordinary performance, and all the critics took
note of it. And she said to me, as a woman, “This place is so horrible. I don’t
know how women take it.” It has changed, but then it was really a totally
masculine society. The women didn’t figure at all into the social life.
FANG: The movie pushes the envelope in so many ways. Was
that your intention?
KOTCHEFF: Well, that’s always what a director wants to do.
When you’re making a film, you want to make something that the audience has
never seen before, without violating reality too. You want to offer something
fresh. Otherwise the audience says, “I’ve seen this all before, I know how this
is going to turn out.” And the film suffers. I always set out to make it new if
I can, give the audience something they haven’t seen before, take them into a
world they haven’t been before, create characters they’ve never encountered
before. But then, I also didn’t work deliberately to do that and shock the
audience. The whole Outback and the people in it were so extraordinary that I didn’t
have to struggle hard to give the audience something they hadn’t seen before.
FANG: How did the locals react to the way the film depicted
KOTCHEFF: Jack Thompson told me a wonderful story—he’s one
of the kangaroo hunters in the film, a tremendous actor. At one screening, a
man got up and yelled out, “This is not us!” Jack yelled back, “It is us, sit
down!” [Laughs] In Australia in ’71, the critics gave WAKE IN FRIGHT tremendous
reviews, but the popular reaction in Australia was a bit lukewarm. People were
a bit affronted by the depiction of the Aussie male; they considered the film a
harshly critical take on the national character. It had a tremendous fan
loyalty and following in film circles there. And that’s what ultimately saved
it, because they lost the negative, and it was only the people who said, “Hey!
This was a great film! We can’t allow this film to disappear! Let’s find the
negative.” Ten years were spent tracking it, and that was mostly to do with the
film’s editor, a wonderful Australian called Tony Buckley. He spent years going
everywhere: New York, London, Dublin. He was all over the world trying to find
it! A lot of other people gave up; they said, “Hey, it’s gone, they dumped it
Finally, they found the negative after 10 years of
searching, in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, of all places! And there were five big
boxes full of soundtracks, music tracks, interpositives and internegatives, and
on the boxes it said, “FOR DESTRUCTION”! These five boxes that contained
everything about this film—its picture and its sounds—had they arrived a week
later, they would’ve been incinerated, and WAKE IN FRIGHT would’ve disappeared.
They said, “Does this happen very often?” And I said, “Yes, it does happen very
often!” If a film is not a huge success, no one is interested in its survival.
It just disappears, and they ditch it in dumps or burn it.
Anyway, Tony finally tracked it down, but the negative was
in very, very, very bad condition. It was torn, scratched, faded, and what I
discovered is that the colors of a negative fade at different speeds—red is
faster than blue is faster than yellow is faster than… What’s left is a
horrible pink. However, there was an angel named Anthos Simon from Deluxe in
Sydney who spent two years using the latest digital techniques to save it.
Working frame by frame, he restored the negative to pristine condition, to its
original form. And the print that was made from it is absolutely
astonishing—there are colors, details, patterns I’d never seen before in the original
1971 photochemical print. It captures with amazing fidelity the color of the
Outback. This is the print that Americans are going to see when the film opens
FANG: So the film dropped off your radar while you were off
working on other movies?
KOTCHEFF: I was working on other films. They didn’t tell me
they couldn’t find the negative. I would’ve been scared. I did FIRST BLOOD, and
then I did WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and comedies. I did a lot of other films, so I
didn’t know about this drama that was going on.
FANG: Of course, you couldn’t get away with the kangaroo
KOTCHEFF: Well, it always was a problem for me. Some 50
years ago, I saw a French film about these three veterans from WWI and it stuck
with me. In order to show how war had degraded and dehumanized them, they get
drunk and pour gasoline over a dog and light it. You could see that it was for
real. Those veterans were degraded runts, and the director’s a degraded runt
that he would do such a totally immoral thing to harm or kill an animal, for
the sake of a film. You’ve gotta find some way of doing it; I didn’t know what
to do in our sequence.
I was very lucky on two counts; one of the crewmembers said
to me, “You know, Ted, they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night in the Outback.”
I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “They have these large refrigerated
trucks, and hunters go out in pairs in these big trucks and they shoot the
kangaroos and they bring them back, put them in a refrigerator, go out and kill
some more. Their tails are used for those nice, cuddly toys that you give your
kids at Christmas, and the meat is sent to the pet-food industry in the United
States. Why don’t you put your camera in the back and go with these hunters;
they kill hundreds anyway.”
I was not going to kill one kangaroo for my film, so I went
out with the hunters, and it was quite an experience. It was grueling to watch
them shooting, but I just photographed exactly what they did. They had a
spotlight at the top of their truck and a reversible windshield, and they
lifted their guns on the dashboard and the light hypnotized the kangaroos and
they were able to shoot them without any problem. The most horrific thing in
the film was the way the kangaroos’ eyes were red as they stood there waiting
for death. My film was done under the auspices of the Royal Australian
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the film received its seal of approval.
Now listen to this: So many people did not know what was
going on in the Outback, and because of my film, there was a tremendous protest
and uproar about shooting Australia’s national animal so American dogs and cats
could be fed. As a result, they stopped that practice! So my film had an
unexpected effect on everybody.
FANG: The scene is so controversial. If you had to go back
in time or if you had to make the film today, would you shoot that scene?
KOTCHEFF: No, I’d have to find some other solution. But some
of it I also faked. Remember when one of the roo hunters gets bored of shooting
kangaroos so he goes up and challenges it, wrestles it with a knife? That was
Lord Nelson, the fighting kangaroo, and that was my joke, because he was a wild
eight-footer. He was amazing. He had been shot in the eye, which is why he
hated human beings. Kangaroos are very passive. If you challenge them, they’ll
just lie down. They’re like followers of Gandhi, passive resistance. But this
eight-footer, he hated human beings for what they had done to him. He
maliciously charged after the extras. I was able to do the whole sequence, but
that kangaroo was not hurt at all. It looked like we cut his throat, but we
didn’t. At the end, I looked at him in his pen and told him he could leave, and
everybody applauded him for his great performance. He looked at me, and I said,
“Yes, we mean it! Go ahead, you can leave now.”
And if I shot [that scene] today, I’d have to find some
other way, obviously, to do it. They do have other ways now that they didn’t
have then—they have animatronics and all those techniques, CGI, which didn’t
exist then. If I did it today, I would not photograph real killings.
TO BE CONTINUED
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