Reviews Wrap: I Am Eleven, Not Suitable for Children and The King is Dead!

For Australian audiences looking for home grown entertainment on the big screen, there are certainly some great choices right now. The heartwarming documentary I Am Eleven, the romantic comedy Not Suitable for Children and the darkly funny suburban western The King is Dead! are just some of the options.

Here’s our latest Reviews Wrap, where we offer a quick dip into the reviews for recent Australian releases, offering  a broad sense of the critical response they’ve received.

Please note that the reviews referenced here do not reflect the views of the AFI | AACTA. We’re aiming to represent views and opinions from a variety of sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

I am Eleven

The feature length documentary I am Eleven premiered to sold out sessions at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, and is now making its way around the country, enjoying wonderful word-of-mouth publicity through its ‘ambassador’ campaign and other savvy hands-on promotional efforts by director/producer Genevieve Bailey.

The film profiles a collection of delightful 11-year-olds from around the world who share the qualities of their particular age – being  ‘no longer children, not quite adults’. They discuss the ‘private obsessions and public concerns that animate their lives’ – from their love of animals, their concerns for world peace and their hopes and dreams for the future.

I Am Eleven won Best Documentary at last year’s IF Awards and won an Audience award at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Upon its release at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, I Am Eleven enjoyed the biggest opening weekend for an Australian documentary in three years, and has since been adding cinemas from around the country to its schedule, including in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Geelong, Castlemaine, Tasmania’s MONA (from 11 August) and many more.

With overwhelming grassroots support and general goodwill from audiences and high profile supporters (including Chrissie Swan, Jane Hall and Claudia Karvan), reviews seem a little redundant to the film’s success, but critics have also been overwhelmingly charmed.

Writing for the The Australian, Evan Williams said, “What gives the film its cohesion and integrity is its triumphant affirmation of a shared humanity. In the deepest sense, these children speak with one voice.”

Philippa Hawker, for the The Age praises I Am Eleven “as a film of great warmth, generosity and optimism… a work that wears its strengths and virtues lightly, without insistence or heavy-handedness.” Hawker also commends the film for its graceful interweaving of its 23 interview subjects and their stories, noting that “Each child comes across as an individual, sometimes strikingly so. Yet there is something they all seem to share: a kind of openness and thoughtfulness, expressed in myriad ways, that transcends other differences.”

Don Groves, reviewing for the SBS Film website, finds the film “illuminating and uplifting” and praises first time feature filmmaker Bailey for her “impressive dexterity as the director, cinematographer, editor, interviewer and narrator.” Groves finds some passages repetitive, but he too enjoys the film’s overall optimism and energy.

Here’s the trailer for I Am Eleven.

Not Suitable For Children

A ‘biological clock comedy’ with a difference, Not Suitable for Children sees its male lead (Ryan Kwanten) racing against the clock to find a woman to bear his child before he becomes infertile due to cancer treatment. Written by Offspring scribe Michael Lucas and directed by Peter Templeman, this energetic modern comic drama has a great deal of heart. Filmed in Sydney’s Newtown, and backed by a zesty soundtrack, the film features wonderful performances from its young cast, including Sarah Snook as Kwanten’s street smart confidante, Bojana Novakovic as his on-off ex-girlfriend, and Ryan Corr as the indefatigable party animal flatmate.

Over on the ABC’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton both gave Not Suitable For Children a four star review, with David noting that “What lifts this Australian romantic-comedy above the level of most of its Hollywood counterparts is the reality of the characters and the situations and the honesty of the film’s approach.” Both reviewers thoroughly enjoyed the film.

Filmink’s Erin Free also enjoyed “this smart, soulful and surprisingly darkly-hued comedy” and praises both Lucas and Templeman for their sensitive handling of the material. Free writes that Not Suitable for Children is “a wry, engaging, deeply humanist film with pointed, interesting things to say about personal responsibility.”

In contrast, Variety’s Russell Edwards finds the story “flaccid” and Kwanten’s performance lacklustre, though he praises the film’s technical qualities, describing it as “visually inventive without being obtrusive,” praising the ” HD lensing by Lachlan Milne emphasiz[ing] warm colors that catch the vibrancy of Sydney’s trendy Newtown district.” Edwards also enjoy’s Snook’s performance and her “killer smile” along with the film’s “pumped-up pop soundtrack” which he argues “only throws the yarn’s inherent lethargy into high relief.”

QuickFlix critic Simon Miraudo is just one of many reviewers to single out actress Sarah Snook as the breakout star of the film. He finds Not Suitable for Children to be “a genial and occasionally very funny romantic comedy with the added benefit of being a showcase for one of the best break-out Australian performances in some time.” Miraudo argues that though some of the characters’ quick changes of heart may be hard to swallow, these are plausibly justified by the drastic circumstances of cancer. Andrew Urban of Urban Cinefile echoes similar concerns but is eventually won over, writing that the “impressive screenplay and the fine performances combine with Peter Templeman’s confident direction for a satisfying result.”

You can check out the trailer for Not Suitable for Children below:

The King Is Dead

Rolf de Heer’s latest film is described in the press notes as a ‘suburban western’ but it’s rather more comic and wry than that description implies. Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic play an attractive and unpretentious middle class couple. They buy a house in a nice Adelaide suburb and happily begin to paint and renovate, but quickly discover that on one side of the fence, their neighbour, the scuzzy ‘King’ (Gary Waddell) is playing host to every hoon, drug dealer, and petty criminal in the neighbourhood. As the sleepless nights and burglaries mount up, and the police seem powerless to act, the couple are driven to extreme measures.

Luke Buckmaster of Crikey strongly recommends catching the film during its limited theatrical run, describing it as a “a deliciously dark genre mash-up, coy and explorative but tight and insular, sprayed with wry laughs and a genuinely foreboding undertone.” Buckmaster describes the whole cast as excellent but singles out Gary Waddell who plays King, for special commendation.

Writing for The Age Craig Mathieson situates The King is Dead! within de Heer’s oeuvre and finds it to be his funniest film to date. Giving the film three and a half stars, Mathieson deems it “a very good movie” and “a wry commentary on our national obsession with real estate.”

Variety’s Richard Kuiper’s describes The King is Dead! as a “combo of dark suburban drama, absurdist social comedy and violent crime thriller”, placing it “somewhere between niche and commercial arenas” and describing its offshore prospects as “iffy”. Kuipers enjoys the performances (with Waddell again praised for his multidimensional performance as the not-entirely-despicable King), though he’s offput by the changes in tone as the story progresses. The cinematography by Ian Jones and “slinky jazz-flavored score” by Graham Tardiff, both regulars among de Heer’s coterie of collaborators, are singled out for praise in this review.

Others are not so positive. Peter Galvin over at SBS Film finds the film to be “a kind of comedy of manners, mostly of the very bad, irritating kind.” Galvin’s main criticism is that the comedy is just not funny. He cannot, however, resist the appeal of Gary Waddell “who can make even de Heer’s tired talk sound like it has a funny sting.” Galvin writes that Waddell’s King “has a sturdy comic grip from his first beat and never lets up. It’s a piece of acting so good you spend the movie waiting for him to turn up a lot more often than he does.”

Coming full circle, Louise Keller, of Urban Cinefile, finds The King is Dead! to be outrageously funny, saying, “I haven’t had such a good laugh for ages”. Keller thoroughly enjoys the display as “Intelligence is pitted against rat cunning, logic battles the irrational and the evolved bumps into the barbaric”, concluding that this “is a riot of a film that will make you laugh till it hurts.”

Here is the trailer for The King is Dead! 

Did you see these films? What did you think? Feel free to comment below. Note that comments are subject to moderation. We’ll publish them as long as they’re fit for polite company.

The King is Dead! Long Live the King. An interview with Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer. Photo by Matt Nettheim.

There’s no doubt that Rolf de Heer is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Australia today, and one of our few true auteurs. As the writer, director and producer of 13-odd feature films, he’s also one of the most prolific, working predominantly with low budgets, loyal crew and genre-defying storytelling. You may not like everything he makes, but you have to admire his audacity. From the unforgettable opening scenes of incest, cockroach eating and cat-killing in the surprisingly uplifting cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) through to a love triangle involving an actress with a severe disability in Dance Me To My Song (1998), to the brutal and beautiful South Australian musical The Tracker (2002), starring the iconic David Gulpilil, right through to the ground-breaking Arnhem Land collaboration of Ten Canoes (1996), de Heer never repeats himself.

This originality has been rewarded often, both at home and abroad. Bad Boy Bubby was  selected for competition at the Venice Film Festival and won both the Special Jury Prize and the Critics’ Award – before going on to win four AFI Awards in 1994. The Quiet Room (1996) – a film about the interior landscape of a child whose parents are divorcing, and Dance Me To My Song were selected for competition at Cannes. Alexandra’s Project (a 2003 thriller starring Gary Sweet as a bad husband receiving his comeuppance) was selected for competition at Berlin. Most recently, Ten Canoes was selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2006 and won the Special Jury Prize, before going on to win three AFI Awards. That same year (2006), de Heer was honoured with the Byron Kennedy Award.

Now de Heer is reluctantly but dutifully back in the spotlight, to help promote The King is Dead!, a suburban comic drama that taps into a very common frustration: living next door to the neighbours from hell. Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic play an attractive middle class couple who buy their dream home in a nice Adelaide suburb, only to discover that on one side of the fence, the scuzzy ‘King’ (Gary Waddell) is playing host to every hoon, drug dealer, addict and petty criminal in the neighbourhood. The noise is bad, the theft is worse, and slowly the aimiable couple (he’s a science teacher; she’s a tax accountant) are driven to extreme measures. Here’s the trailer:

De Heer’s low-budget working methods are notoriously pragmatic. Necessity often proves to be the mother of brilliant invention. (You can read elsewhere about the now-famous innovations and compromises that made Bad Boy Bubby so unique, or the way that his 2007 silent film Dr Plonk emerged from finding 20,000 feet of unexposed film sitting in the fridge.) In the case of The King is Dead! de Heer was planning to sell his Adelaide house in order to move to a rural property in Tasmania.  He realised that the empty house could be used for a number of weeks, making it a convenient set for the story he’d long ago scripted. Luckily his own neighbours were amenable, with the house on one side turned into the ‘King’s’ trashed lair, complete with overgrown lawn, upturned shopping trolley’s and a crumbling false front. Meanwhile, the neighbour on the other side, a chef, set up his garage as a catering space for the production.

This interview was conducted with de Heer last week when he visited the AFI | AACTA offices – de Heer is one of the Honorary Councillors of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. We talked about his shift to rural Tasmania (no, he’s not retiring); his views on the intractable problems of bad neighbours, and his first foray into the world of digital cinematography.

AFI | AACTA: Congratulations on the film, which is a lovely mix of humour, drama and a few dark and scary moments. It’s billed as a ‘suburban western’ but it’s hard to put it into a particular genre. Is this the kind of genre-crossing film you were intending to make?

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, it crosses the genres a bit. But intending…? Well, when I wrote the script my intention was simply to write the script and let it go where it wanted to go. Now, that’s a simple way of explaining something complex – “stuff that was going on in my head.” But I did want to do something light – not that this film is entirely light – but I wanted to do something a bit lighter than what I’d been working on, which was a really heavy script on commission.

AFI | AACTA: Was the making of this film significantly different to anything you’d done before?

Rolf de Heer:  Every time I do a film, it feels significantly different to what’s come before, and I don’t think this is an exception. I mean, Dr Plonk felt significantly different from anything I’d done before, and so did Ten Canoes, and… you know, back down the line. Filmmaking’s far too difficult to turn it into a 9-to-5 repetitive job. You know, it’s seven days a week, 12 or 14 hours a day. So to turn that into a job would be most unpleasant!

AFI | AACTA: Like many of your films, this one emerged out of the practical opportunity of having a house empty to shoot in. Can you tell us about that?

Rolf de Heer:  The script was written and, as is often enough the case when I write a script, I put it down and it sits there for a while. It did sit there for a couple of years. And then I knew I was going to move in a year or so – that was one of the preconditions, in the sense, that existed. In one respect, we were sorry to be leaving, because we had these great neighbours and we enjoyed them very much. I needed to do something – it had been a while since I had done a film and I felt I needed to do something. And it all went click-click-click – this is what we do. Let’s do this film and let’s do it here, which will allow us to do it for a much lower budget, and without the difficulty of finding somewhere else, and without the compromise of trying to find three houses together, and the cost that would involve. I mean,  where do you find three houses together like that?

AFI | AACTA: And the neighbours did the catering as well? [laughs]

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, yeah, that sort of stuff. I mean, everybody was involved. It was a great thing to do together before we left. And you know, there were other savings to the budget in the sense in that we had to get the house ready eventually for sale anyway, and so we got it ready before, because then it’s ready for the film. You just do a bit of a clean up afterwards and it’s fine. And so we were able to make a film that was meaningful to us, because it’s often the case, when you make a film, that it takes on a secondary meaning that has something to do with the making it. In a way, the making of this one was a celebration of neighbours, whereas the film itself is really about the neighbour from hell.

AFI | AACTA: One of the things the film really does well is showing how powerless you really are if your neighbours are bad. The police are hamstrung, the legal system’s useless, there’s very little you can do. It can also be read as a kind of metaphor for international relations, that kind of thinking that there’s no ‘big brother’ who can solve the problem for you.

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, amongst people, the bullies have it over the decent people. And it’s a real problem. How do you deal with it? Because society’s getting so complex, and one size [of law] doesn’t fit all, but that’s the only way that society works. You have a law that covers everything. And because it does, it has all these unintended consequences and so, because it has unintended consequences, authorities become much more careful with what sort of laws they pass. And it becomes this sort of gridlock that humanity is not able to climb out of.  I don’t think you can legislate for every eventuality. Sometimes I think about this extraordinary thing I read about local councils, where something like 65% of all complaints to councils are about dogs. I mean councils are responsible for all kinds of things, infrastructure, but dogs are the thing that actually takes up most of their time. And you think: “Oh, God…”

AFI | AACTA: It is very easy for a reasonable person to get to the point where they want to kill someone’s dog!

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, that’s true. But what I’m saying is: how do you deal with that? How do you legislate for that? You can’t. You can’t legislate people not to have dogs. Well, you can, but then you’re not going to be in office for very long. And so you’re going to get problems, and the police are powerless to deal with a situation like that. They turn up, they can shut them up temporarily. And yes, there is a process you can go through, but as the character says in the film, it’s long and it’s expensive, and at the end of it, you’re probably no better off.  It’s a real problem.

Some neighbours drive you to extreme measures…THE KING IS DEAD. L-R: Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell.

AFI | AACTA: The married couple in this story, Therese and Max, they’re very normal and sensible people, calm and quite open-minded. You know, they don’t easily resort to extreme positions…

Rolf de Heer: No, it’s just the weight of the situation. I quite like the moral dilemmas that they have to deal with. They’re sort of… interesting.

AFI | AACTA: The interactions and banter between this couple, played by Dany Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic, are very convincing and humourous as they weigh up their options. 

Rolf de Heer: Yes, one of the things that pleases me most about the film is the cast and how the cast works together.

On one side of the fence the neighbours are lovely…. (L-R: Bojana Novakovic, Michaela Cantwell, Lily Adey, Roman Vaculik & Dan Wyllie).

AFI | AACTA: The cinematography was by Ian Jones, who you’ve worked with a lot before. And according to the press notes this is the first digital fim you’ve done together?

Rolf de Heer: It was the first digital film I’ve done. Everything else I’ve ever done has been on film. So that’s a departure for me. And we did it because both Ian and I came to the same conclusion, quite independently, that this project should be shot on a Canon stills camera. In this case, a Canon EOS 7D was what we arrived at being the best for this particular film. It’s a whole thing that has happened in capturing the moving image, particularly at the mid- to lower-end. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 7D. I mean, they had a bit of a movie capture function and it actually turned out to be quite extraordinarily good, and people adapted these cameras and added things to them and so on… and many, many, many productions now are shot with the same cameras as you would take overseas to take happy snaps.

Cinematographer Ian Jones on the shoot for THE KING IS DEAD

AFI | AACTA: Michael Rymer’s  Face To Face, released last year, used this kind of camera. Has Ian worked with this sort of camera before? Are you happy with how it worked for you?

Rolf de Heer: Ian hadn’t used it before so it was an exploration for both of us and that’s one of the things that’s interesting, you explore something new. Yeah, I’m happy. It looks great, and it did make a huge impact on the budget. It was actually cheaper, because not all digital processes are much cheaper. But in this case, with the workflow in post-production, it all worked and it did manage to save us money. I think now, it’s going to be very difficult to shoot film. I think there’s one lab left…

AFI | AACTA: Let’s talk about the sound. James Currie was your sound designer, and has been on pretty much all your films. Were there particular challenges on this project, or was it very straightforward from a sound perspective?

Rolf de Heer: Jim and I never allow anything to do with sound to be very straightforward! But in as far as between us things can be straightforward, this one was. There’s so many things you try… and so no, it wasn’t straightforward, but it’s not meant to be ‘out there’ in not being straightforward. It works and it’s subtle and you know, we tried a whole thing with sync atmos… you know, sticking microphones out in the backyard of suburbia, pointing away from what’s happening inside. We were trying to organically create the suburban soundscape. So yeah, a bit complex, but compared to some things we’ve done, it’s relatively straightforward.

AFI | AACTA: Can you talk about this move to Tasmania? Is that about slowing down or wanting a different way of working?

Rolf de Heer: I like to do things, and when it’s hot, it’s hard to do things. That’s one thing. Another thing is, I spend the majority of my working life at home. Well, it may as well be that home is somewhere fantastic. And so, on a number of levels, Tasmania fits the bill, and where we are fits the bill even more.

AFI | AACTA: And your partner [Molly Reynolds ]is a filmmaker too, so you can both work from home?

Rolf de Heer: Well, she’s more of a broad screen practitioner. She’s into web design and also documentaries. But yeah, we both work from home a lot.

AFI | AACTA: And the kids are kind of grown up now and you are free to move where you want?

Rolf de Heer: They’re gone. Goodbye, yeah.

AFI | AACTA: So you definitely want to keep making films at a similar pace?

Rolf de Heer: Ah, I’m trying… Look, I’ve just made one. No, there’s no pace, there’s not pattern. I mean, it was five years between Dr Plonk and The King Is Dead. I don’t know when the next one will be. I’m trying to finance something at the moment. We’ll see. If it comes easily, then hopefully next year I’ll be shooting something. If it doesn’t, then I don’t know when the next one is. No, I haven’t retired.

AFI | AACTA: Well, some people might think that. Lots of people do go to Tasmania to retire.

Rolf de Heer: There was a rumor around for quite a while that I had retired, but no.

AFI | AACTA: You do realise it’s a bit of a coup for the Tasmanians to have you living there and they’ll probably come after you to be involved in their screen culture –  which actually looks quite exciting at the moment.

Rolf de Heer:  Yes, I would have to be there for them to be able to do that and I’m a long way south of Hobart, and it’s not so easy. But inevitably I will have some involvement in some way at some time with some aspect of the Tasmania screen industry, I suppose, because I’m there.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve been doing publicity for films for a long time now. Is that one of your least favorite parts of the process?

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, it is, it is. It’s not unpleasant on this one, for example. Well, on most of them, it’s not unpleasant. I don’t like it conceptually. I wish I could be at home, working or something like that. I’m not good at selling and I have to work hard at that. But on the whole, it’s not been that hard for me, because people generally like the films. And in this particular case, I’m quite surprised about the extent to which the journalists that I’ve spoken to have liked the film [The King is Dead!]. And that of course makes it much, much easier. There’s no prickly investigation into what’s wrong with this and what’s wrong with that. If you’ve made a real clunker and you’re out there trying to promote it, or you thought you made some really good work and then it turns out that other people don’t like it all, which is a different thing to it being a clunker, that’s difficult.

‘It’s a convenience if the reviews are good…’ Rolf de Heer

AFI | AACTA: Has the reception to any of your films kind of broken your heart?

Rolf de Heer: No, no. Enough people have heard this from me, but I’ll say it again. I became sort of critic-proof as a consequence of the second film that I made, which was Encounter at Raven’s Gate. It was released in England and they did a whole heap of reviews, and so I got this fat bundle of reviews from the English distributor. I sit down to read them, and I remember the first paragraph of the first one said: “Australians make some very bad films. This is the worst of them.” I was like “Oh my God.” And then it proceeded to justify that position all the way through the rest of the review, and it was damning, it was just destroying. And I went to the next one, it was hardly any better. It was just a shocking, shocking, shocking review. I thought: “God, no, no!” However, there was a whole bunch of them. And it gradually, gradually, gradually got better, and so whoever sent them to me put the worst on top and I remember the last paragraph of the last review, and it said: “This film is a work of genius. Tarkovsky with pace!” Now, you take those two paragraphs, that first one and that last one… and I realised, not a frame of the film was any different. It’s exactly the same film, but they saw two profoundly different films, those two films. There’s nothing I can do about that, okay? And so, it’s more about the viewer than it is about the film itself. So, on that level, that personal level I can’t be offended, you know. If somebody doesn’t like The King Is Dead, that’s fine. It’s a convenience if the reviews are good, it can be an inconvenience if the reviews are bad, but it’s nothing personal. But that’s all it is, it’s a convenience or an inconvenience.

AFI | AACTA: Have you ever learned anything from someone’s writing about your work? Has it ever instructed you in terms of how you make your next film?

Rolf de Heer: No, because the next film is not related to the previous film for me. And that’s not being dismissive, but when you get different responses to the extent of those reviews, and you get everything in between, you think: “Well, what do I listen to?”

AFI | AACTA: Yes, but there must be people whose opinions you really value and care about, who aren’t necessarily critics or reviewers. The people you collaborate with?

Rolf de Heer with actor Gary Waddell. Photo by Matt Nettheim

Rolf de Heer: I’m interested in opinion to a certain extent at certain stages, and I will listen to it. If it resonates in some way, it’s probably worth exploring. And I do think I’m collaborative. I’m told that I am very collaborative, for instance with the actors…An actor knows much more about that character than I ever will, because they’re concentrating just on that character, and I’m looking at all the characters plus sound, camera, continuity, costume, everything. And so I can’t be as specialist as they are. But, I don’t, you know… I’m not interested in making films according to a formula and a lot of what masquerades as opinion about something is to do with formula. The classic writing formula is the three acts structure, all that stuff. I don’t subscribe to it. I do in the sense that it’s fine for other people to do that, but I don’t do that. And so you can tell me that there’s something structurally wrong with [my films] but I don’t care. That’s the way it’s meant to be, that’s the way it feels right to me. And if I start to listen too much to outside opinion about that sort of thing, then I become a second-rate filmmaker. There are other people who do that better than I ever can. And so, if I’m going to start listening and go in that direction, I shouldn’t be making films, because I won’t make very good films, compared to those that are following those sort of formulas, in a way. I mean, Hollywood does it extraordinarily well. I can’t do that. And so, all I can do is make my sorts of films and hopefully enough people like them for me to be able to make another one. And that’s generally what is the case.

AFI | AACTA: From what you’ve been saying, I imagine that winning awards isn’t that important to you, personally?

Rolf de Heer: No. But they can help the film. Look, as long as you are careful with it, they can be a blessing. Again, I was very lucky. Before I’d really won any awards, in fact, days before I won lots of awards, I was approached in a hotel lobby, me and the lead actor of Bad Boy Bubby, Nicholas Hope, by a camera crew: “Excuse me, are you famous?” And we laughed, we said no, we’re not, and they walked away. And then they stopped and came back. And they said: “Well, what are you doing here?” – which was the Venice Film Festival, “What are you doing here if you’re not famous?” And we laughed again. And in the end, they interviewed us, just in case. Then three or four days later, we were the most famous people in the Venice Film Festival – just for a little bit until Robert de Niro turned up – but we were. And to have had that experience was a wonderful thing to guard against getting seduced by things that aren’t so. But when Ten Canoes won all those AFI Awards, it was a wondrous time for a profound reason, okay? And I’m deeply grateful that we did that, because it was so, so important to the mob, to the Indigenous mob that we made it with, because it validated their culture. It was just profoundly important.

AFI | AACTA: And winning at Cannes must have been very meaningful to them too?

Rolf de Heer: To them, Australia’s the most important thing, you know. Cannes was overseas people. But that doesn’t solve the problem here. But here, when the film won AFI Awards, then it meant something. “Ah, people here in Australia value their culture, not just overseas people.”

AFI | AACTA: Speaking of AFI Awards, and now the AACTA Awards, you’re an Honorary Councillor in the new Academy. What would you hope that the Academy might become or be able do for the industry?

Rolf de Heer:  [the idea of the Academy] has been on the edge of things for a very long time, because I remember going to meetings in Sydney at the Grape Escape Wine Bar. There was a real attempt to launch an Academy and that would have had to been … how long ago? Twenty-five years? It was serious. People wanted something that they could trust, in a way, and I think that’s the area that becomes important. Integrity to the awards process. Okay, there was a time when the AFI Awards were very rigid and there was no doubting their integrity. You couldn’t doubt it, because it was so rigid and that came with its own problems, because you couldn’t vote, unless you had been marked off and physically seen to have seen at least half an hour of every film that was involved. Now, that had its problems – sometimes only a few people voted in certain categories, but at the same time, it was completely transparent and a wonderful thing. But it was unsustainable. I think there will be an evolution in the way that the AACTA Awards are structured, but there is at least the possibility of total integrity….with pre-selection, and with having an Academy and having members who are associated with their relevant guilds.

AFI| AACTA: It will be interesting to see how it evolves.

Rolf de Heer: It will, it will. It has a chance. It’s a good footing that it’s on.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time, and best wishes with The King is Dead!

The King is Dead! Fast Facts

Key Cast: Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes, Lani John Tupu
Location: Adelaide
Budget: $1.2 million
Writer/director/producer: Rolf de Heer
Producer: Nils Erik Nielson
Cinematographer: Ian Jones ACS
Production Designer: Beverley Freeman
Sound Designer: James Currie
Sound Designer: Tom Heuzenroeder
Film Editor: Tania Nehme
Composer: Graham Tardif
Musical Director: Timothy Sexton
Distributor: Pinnacle Films
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Rolf de Heer’s Production Notes for The King is Dead make for entertaining and enlightening reading. You can find them at the Vertigo Films website: here.

Burning Man: Jonathan Teplitzky

Writer-director Jonathan Teplitzky and 'Burning Man' lead actress Bojana Novakovic.

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!

Matthew Goode in 'Burning Man'.

Matthew Goode gives a searing performance in 'Burning Man'.

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.

Bojana Novakovic and Matthew Goode in 'Burning Man'.

Bojana Novakovic and Matthew Goode in 'Burning Man'.

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!

Cooking up a storm - Dan Wyllie and Matthew Goode in 'Burning Man'.

Cooking up a storm - Dan Wyllie and Matthew Goode in 'Burning Man'.

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.

Asking questions of the audience - the first film poster for 'Burning Man', designed by Jeremy Saunders.

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.

The later poster for 'Burning Man', also designed by Saunders.

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.