When Jonathan Teplitzky burst onto the scene with his first feature, Better Than Sex (2000), he was that rare phenomenon: an Australian writer-director unafraid of exploring the messy, funny and serious side of urban sexual relationships. For that film he was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay. Now, eleven years later, he’s pushing boundaries again with Burning Man, the story of Tom, a bad-boy Bondi chef played by Matthew Goode, who is reckless, angry, promiscuous and slightly dangerous. As the father of an eight-year-old boy (a great performance by Jack Heanly), Tom is less than responsible, and the many women in his life aren’t at all pleased. The mystery behind the misbehaviour is slowly revealed through a skilfully fragmented narrative that is, again, sexy, funny, sad and honest.
Teplitzky proved he could do comedy and action with the hilarious Gettin’ Square (2003) – a film for which he was also nominated for an AFI Award for Best Direction, though that film was scripted by Chris Nyst. With Burning Man, however, Teplitzky is back to his own script, and mining his own life experiences for a story of grief, desire, memory and love.
Here Teplitzky talks about his creative decisions, including his choice to use a non-linear narrative structure and his striving to capture a ‘winter look’ Bondi. He also talks about his desire to create Australian films for intelligent grown-ups. On a lighter note, he also discusses the absence of dead kangaroos in his film!
AFI: You’ve been doing a whole lot of Q&A screenings for Burning Man. What are the most common questions you get asked? Are there some surprises?
Jonathan Teplitzky: There have been some good questions. I mean, it’s not surprising, but because there’s a certain biographical element to the story, people are always intrigued and want to know how much is from my own life. Another good one someone asked me was: “If I saw someone behaving like Tom in real life, would I intervene?” My answer was: “I wouldn’t intervene unless they were about to hurt themselves.” But I would – hopefully – look at what they were going through with a lot of empathy and a lot of camaraderie.
AFI: The film throws the audience right into chaos at the very start of the film. Was that always the intention, to start like that and gradually let the audience work out why the central character is behaving that way?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Yes, I decided on that structure pretty early on. I wanted a structure that reflected Tom’s emotional and psychological state, you know, that kaleidoscope, that fractured life, that life turned upside down. That’s why it’s like it is. I think with films like this, it’s really important to throw the audience in at the deep end. You’ve got to lay out the world that they’re going to live in.
And look, I wanted to make an adult film, you know, for adults. And I think audiences have a great desire not to be led by the hand all the time and not to be spoonfed, but to actually come along and have a cinematic experience that they have to work at a little bit. Hopefully part of the pleasure of watching a film like this is to be part of the process of working it out.
The only rule I wrote to was that in cutting from scene to scene, there had to be an emotional reason in some way, or as often as possible, to go from one scene to another. Either there was an emotional payoff in the next scene, or one emotion led into another, so that they were linked. The story’s quite straightforward, apart from the fact that it’s all jumbled up, but I really wanted it to be an emotional journey for the audience. And as a result, I felt that that would give the film not only a momentum, but would thrust the audience into the story rather than letting them observe Tom from an emotional distance.
AFI: When the character played by Bojana Novakovic appears, it’s actually quite disorienting. We don’t know who she is. Then there’s this revelations, which is a shock. Is this what you were aiming for?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Very much so. There’s a degree of autobiography in it, you know. My partner passed away 10 years ago. Six years had passed before I started writing the script. I started thinking that it would be great to respond to what I experienced in a creative way. So when I started writing it, I had to serve the fact that it’s a film, so I had to build into it a way of telling the story that would make it dramatic, would keep the audience guessing, would keep the audience engaged in a way. I had this idea that we’d be following this guy and to a certain extent, the audience are judging him, you know. “He’s an arsehole! Why is he behaving like this?” You know, he seems to have a real incendiary personality. And then suddenly, the whole ship seems to turn around and a character is revealed that starts to explain perhaps why he is the way he is. I think this does a number of things, apart from contextualising his behaviour, but it also suggests that he’s not that unusual. It’s a kind of universal story.
AFI: The film has a lot of sex in it. It is adult, like you say, and it’s about a complex relationship between a man and a woman and an ongoing marriage really. That seems to be something we don’t do so much here in Australian cinema.
Jonathan Teplitzky: Yes. Sex and emotion. Margaret Pomeranz has spoken about this quite vocally recently, that we shirk away from sex and emotion, both collectively and individually in Australian cinema. And you know, those are both things that interest me. I mean, most of us in Australia are middle-class, we live in cities. But often, what we see on screen is the exact opposite of that. Rural stories set with sort of isolated characters. I’m very keen to explore the way that we actually live.
AFI: I was just looking through the top box office earners of Australian film today, because Red Dog has moved up the list. I was reading them out to my co-worker in the office and she says: “They’ve almost all got either dancing, singing or animals in them.” And this is true!
Jonathan Teplitzky: It’s so true. And you know, the other thing, someone told me once: not only are an amazing percentage of scripts that get submitted for funding set in rural or outback situations – completely the opposite of the way we live – but that 75% of them have someone running over a kangaroo! That’s what I heard. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s quite funny really. So I feel a bit left out not having a dead kangaroo in it!
AFI: It would have been a bit hard in Bondi!
Jonathan Teplitzky: Yeah, exactly. It’s probably more likely to be on a menu somewhere in Bondi. But hopefully our industry is producing more complex films now. In the last two years or so there has been a good range of films. And that’s what’s great about something like Red Dog that can do $20 million, but that there’s still an interest in other films that do different things. Hopefully that’s a sign of a maturing culture. It remains to be seen, but hopefully that’s a good sign for our industry.
AFI: Can you talk about the ‘look’ of this film? It has a very particular colour palette. It’s not the traditional look of Bondi with the bright sun and blue sparkly beach.
Jonathan Teplitzky: No, I was really glad to shoot it in winter. I live in Bondi and it’s actually a really fascinating place, visually, in the winter. I wanted a sense of slightly heightened reality because that is what Tom is experiencing. Plus, he works in a kitchen, which is full of all that colourful food. I wanted to shift it away from being purely a naturalistic drama, and I didn’t want it to be overly sentimental. It needed to have colour palette that just was a bit more vibrant.
AFI: In terms of locking down the funding, how important was it to have an actor of international stature like Matthew Goode attached?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Look, it wasn’t the reason we cast him. You know, we cast him because I met him in London and as I got to know him, I realised he would do a great job, but also be committed to the film in a way that he had to be – I mean, he’s in 190 scenes or something, and there’s only three he’s not in. So we needed someone who was up for the physical and emotional challenge. I think we just caught him in a time in his life when he was really ready for that and wanting to do that. And you know, I liked the idea of someone who was an outsider; it just added to his sense of isolation, without having to articulate that specifically in the script.
Obviously, because he’s becoming a well-known actor, that always helps sell the idea of the film to financiers – the fact that you can cite a bunch of big films that he’s been in. But in saying all that, both Screen Australian and Screen NSW supported the film at script stage very strongly before he was attached. But later, when we were putting the gap financing together, having a name actor certainly helps. And having people like Kerry Fox and Rachel Griffiths, then there’s something for investors to hang their hat on too. It’s about making people feel comfortable about what you’re getting into, financially.
AFI: From a realism perspective, there are a lot of English chefs in Sydney!
Jonathan Teplitzky: Yes! Chefing couldn’t be a more international profession, really. There’s every nationality in the kitchen, particularly here, where the food culture is so big and restaurant culture is so big. And you know, it’s just reflective of all the many cultures cooking food in this country.
AFI: What was the approximate budget of the film?
Jonathan Teplitzky: It was around $7 million.
AFI: Can you tell us about the film’s poster/key art? It changed from one design to the other. They’re both really beautiful. Why the change?
Jonathan Teplitzky: It didn’t change. We always had two posters. The first poster, the reflective one, in a sense asks questions of the viewer. And then with the second one, we wanted something that would feed that and be a bit more representative of the film. Also, we wanted it to really ping out of a lightbox in cinemas. And when you put a light behind this later one, it looks really great. They were both done by the same person, Jeremy Saunders, with that idea of being a stepping stone from one to the other.
AFI: Is it true you got your start as a photographer?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, I went overseas in the early ’80s and I did a lot of photography while I was traveling. I really got into it. And that sort of led on to being interested in film. By the time I got back to London, in the mid ’80s, I actually went to film school there.
AFI: How long has it been since you last directed a feature? Was the last one Better Than Sex?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, Better Than Sex was 2004, so it’s quite a while, six years, six, seven years. In the meantime I’ve done commercials, done a little bit of TV [including television series Spirited] and I had other scripts for features in development, but they never really got to a place that I was happy with.
AFI: How do you think you’ve grown as a filmmaker from that last feature project to this one?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, I think you can chart a development from Better Than Sex to Gettin’ Square to this one, in terms of confidence and grasp of storytelling in the visual medium. From project to project you just learn so much about working with actors and working with crew. You gain a great deal of understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you need to do to get a great performance out of someone – and that has to be tailored to individual actors. Also, I’ve learnt to find ways of enjoying the process as much as possible. That’s a really important part of it. We all spend a huge part of our lives doing this, so it’s great to be actually able to enjoy it!
AFI: Thanks for your time and best wishes with the film. It looks great.
Jonathan Teplitzky: Thank you. I’m really proud of it, I have to say.
Burning Man is currently in national release.