Riding the Storm: An Interview with Fred Schepisi

By Rochelle Siemienowicz

Flicking through the incredible photo archives from past AFI events, you’re bound to come across some wonderful photos of Fred Schepisi attending, and winning awards, at long-ago AFI Awards ceremonies. A particularly memorable image (see below) from 1976 shows Schepisi holding the  AFI Award for Best Film for The Devil’s Playground. And while you may mock the design of the statuette that year (just look at the thing!) there’s no doubt that Schepisi is one of our most serious filmmakers, a true pioneer and veteran of the Australian new wave. Still going strong at the age of 71, his work includes important Australian films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and Evil Angels (1988), and US films like Roxanne (1987), Russia House (1990) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993), as well as the Golden Globe and Emmy nominated TV mini series Empire Falls (2005) .

Key Art Eye of the StormIt’s been 23 years since Schepisi last directed an Australian film, though this hasn’t been for want of trying. Many a project has almost come to fruition, but has then fallen through in the final stages of financing limbo. Happily, Schepisi’s return to the Australian landscape looks like a triumphal one, with his latest feature film The Eye of the Storm, pleasing both critics and festival audiences ahead of its Australian release today (15 September, 2011). Screen Daily has called The Eye of the Storm ‘a classy production with a distinctly European feel’, while The Hollywood Reporter praises it as ‘intelligent and visually sumptuous’. The programmer’s notes for the Toronto International Film Festival (where the film screens this month in special presentation), aptly describes it as ‘cinematic chamber music…filled with the wisdom about what happens when a parent dies’.

An adaptation of Patrick White’s novel of the same name, about a dying Sydney matriarch and her two squabbling middle-aged children, The Eye of the Storm is certainly a ‘classy production’. Beautifully lensed by Director of Photography Ian Baker, with a score by Paul Grabowsky, the film features impeccable production design by Melinda Doring, recreating the upper crust world of wealthy 1970s Sydney. But the most visible ‘class act’ in the film comes from the trio of seasoned powerhouse actors in the lead roles. Charlotte Rampling plays the formidable and sexually voracious mother (both in her older and sprightlier years) and Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis play her vain, insecure and desperate-for-love offspring. For all its tragic elements, the sharp wit of the screenplay and the sly performances make the film more of a comedy. It’s a sparkling drama for grownups – the kind we crave in these days of teen-bait blockbusters.

A powerhouse acting trio: Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling and Geoffrey Rush.

Fred Schepisi recently gave an illuminating and extensive interview to the AFI, and you can read it below. He gives clues as to why he’s well known as an actor’s director. (Remember, this is a man who has directed two actresses in Oscar® nominated performances – Meryl Streep in Evil Angels, and Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation). He’s also candidly critical about what he sees as the ‘international disease’ of trying to make intelligent films on extremely low budgets. Looking back over his extensive career, he also reflects on the the fact that although increasing years bring greater confidence and equanimity, it’s still a case of starting from scratch with each new project. Fortunately, he finds this exciting rather than daunting.

AFI: You have a marvelous cast in this film, particularly with the three leads – Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling and Judy Davis. Were these always the actors you had in mind?

Fred Schepisi:  When you’re putting a film together, you have your dream list of actors, and we pretty much got them. What am I saying? We didn’t ‘pretty much’ get them. We did! And not just the leads, but the rest of the cast too – Robyn Nevin, Helen Morse, John Gaden and all of them.

AFI: Your daughter, Alexandra Schepisi, has a central role in the film as a pretty young nurse who becomes the lover of the much older character played by Geoffrey Rush. Did this pose challenges for you as a director?

Fred Schepisi:  Yes, it was challenging, but more in the casting stages . The last time I directed Alex she was 18 months old, and she was the baby who was shot in Jimmie Blacksmith – we didn’t let her see that obviously, until she was much older! In this case, it was a difficult decision. I didn’t want to put her in a hard position and I didn’t want to put myself in a hard position. The main creative people on the film tested her, along with a number of other actors, and they said I’d be mad not to cast her. We had all these rules about how we would behave on set – that she wouldn’t call me ‘Dad’ etc., but that shit went out the window after about three days. It didn’t really matter. It became like any other working relationship. Although, I did notice that Geoffrey was very careful in the love scenes!”

Geoffrey Rush and Fred Schepisi on set of The Eye Of The Storm

Geoffrey Rush and Fred Schepisi on set of 'The Eye Of The Storm'.

AFI: Many actors who’ve worked with you have commented that you’re very calm to work with – a very calming person on set – and that this is unusual for directors.

Fred Schepisi: It shouldn’t be unsual! I don’t know if I’m calm, but the actors have a very difficult job to do. Ian Baker, the Director of Photography on this film, is aware of this too, and he’s incredibly good. I let him do this bit; he trains the crew to know when to start quietening down and when to let the focus shift from the stuff they’re doing to the actors, to create a situation where the actors can give it their best. You’re trying to create a situation where the actors know they won’t be pressured or embarrassed. They should never be made to feel that there are time constraints – though they do feel that, naturally. The actors have a real job to do. They’ve got to pull something out of the air, out of nowhere, and they’ve got to be that person. And my job is to help them get to that place – either by talking or not talking, by standing next to them and vibrating sometimes, or giving them a smile or not. Everybody requires something different. I don’t think you should work any other way. The whole business of standing off behind a monitor and shouting instructions, that’s not me at all!

AFI: This is the first screen adaptation of a Patrick White novel. Is there a good reason for that?

Fred Schepisi: I think there was a play that was done – The Night, The Prowler – but this is the first feature of a novel. Patrick White’s work is rich and complex, and some people find it difficult. But he’s got a lot of ideas, a lot of richness and unusual styles. His stories are very large, but they’re very good. He’s our only Nobel Prize winning author and there’s a reason for that. I certainly got a greater appreciation for his talent by going deeper into this particular book.

AFI: Can you talk about the adaptation process, and what’s been left out or emphasised from the novel?

Fred Schepisi: Well, the novel is 600 pages, so if you think about it in film time, you can only really use about a 100-page length. Patrick White goes off into reveries and follows characters all over the place. What the screenwriter Judy Morris did – and she did a brilliant job too – is distill it down to the essence and get it focused on the family, which is the main drive, and then support that in a way with the other characters so that you get some of the complexity of the novel.

AFI: In the press notes for this film, you are quoted as saying that people working in Australia get used to working on lower and lower and lower budgets, and that they start to unconsciously make excuses for the quality of the work. In contrast, you talk about how your investors understood that The Eye of the Storm needed to have a certain budget to tell the story properly. Would you care to expand on that?

'To tell some stories properly, and really energise them, takes money...and this is a period film which always costs more to create.' Fred Schepisi

Fred Schepisi: Trying to make intelligent films on extremely low budgets is a worldwide disease. To tell some stories properly, and really energise them, takes money. In this case it’s a story set in a rich person’s world, so you need a certain budget to do that. Some low budget films are great, but every film can’t be like that. I wanted to make a film of a certain quality, with a certain film grammar – a film with a lot of locations, some CGI and it’s also a period film [set in the 1970s], which always costs more to create. Sometimes you just have to pay for it.

AFI: What kinds of excuses do you think are made in terms of low budget films?

Fred Schepisi: I’ll tell you two things. I remember years ago somebody making a film – I won’t name it because that would be nasty – but the acting was dreadful, the editing was dreadful. Well, the editing was dreadful because the coverage probably wasn’t there in the first place. The producer kept saying, ‘It’s really good for $1 million.’ And my answer was, ‘No, it’s not. If you don’t have real performances, you don’t have a real film. You don’t have anything. You’ve just wasted $1 million.’ It’s not just an Australian disease, it’s a worldwide disease where there are lower and lower budgets for intelligent work. Now, if you’re George Clooney and you’re making Good Night, and Good Luck, well that’s different. And you’re not having to pay for George Clooney! I’m not knocking it – that’s a great film, but it kind of distorts things and the money people look at that example and think that’s what’s possible. It gets worse and worse, and it’s universal. However, there is a particular form of the disease here in Australia. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked, ‘When are you coming back to Australia and sinking your teeth into a nice, low-budget movie?’ Now when did low-budget become synonymous with art? It’s not! Low-budget is suffering, and doing it on the cheap and not paying properly for people’s time, and only making films about certain subjects. Sometimes it takes a certain budget to reach a certain quality.

AFI: Are you allowed to say what the budget was? The IMDB figure says $15 million. Is that anywhere near the mark?

Fred Schepisi: Okay. Yep, that’ll do. Really, in a way, physically it was a lot less than that, but that’s ok.

AFI: Your struggles to get certain projects up have been widely reported – and you even said that if you wrote your autobiography you’d call it…

Fred Schepisi: …The Films I Didn’t Get To Make! Yes. That would be a boring book. I once gave a talk at the Hawthorn Football Club, some big lunch. I made the mistake of telling them what it was really like, making films. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. I thought they were business people so they might be interested, but they weren’t.

AFI: How do you cope with the setbacks, the news that something isn’t going to happen after all?

Fred Schepisi:  You try to steel yourself and protect yourself against disappointment and you try not to hope too much, but there are times when you’ve passed the point and made an emotional commitment and financial commitments, and when it goes wrong, that really, really cuts deep and it takes you a little while to recover from that. But you do get over it.

AFI: Does the whole process of making films get easier with experience?

Fred Schepisi: You learn how to avoid panicking when various things happen, and when something seems like an impossible task, you know you will prevail, because you have prevailed in the past. Unfortunately, you can rarely apply the specific experience learnt in one project to the next one. Each film has its own world and that dictates the style and logic of it, so you have to start from scratch. But I like to be nervous and uncertain, and actually learn something new. I actually like that challenge.

AFI: What is the most pleasurable phase of making a film for you?

Fred Schepisi: They’re all different. I tend to think of each section as an end in itself. Getting the script right. Then there’s the pre-production – casting, getting everything right, rehearsing. Rehearsing for me is also going into the wardrobe and being with the actors when they’re trying things on, because the clothes are so important to the character. And there’s the location surveys. In those early stages, everything seems possible, and then you gradually narrow things down. And then there’s the shooting which is incredibly pressured, but a lot of fun. I like the interraction, the intensity of it. I like the time spent with the actors, and the time spent with the crew – who seldom get the credit they deserve. They’re there with you, working towards the same end, and they enlighten you, help you see the jewel from another facet, if you like.  The electricians, the grips, the hair and makeup, the DOP, you’re all working together. I love that.

AFI: Can you talk about working with your editor, Kate Williams? This is her fourth film editing for you, so you must have a good rapport?

Fred Schepisi: Sure, yes! I make a lot of editing decisions when I’m shooting and preparing, but it’s very organic. You make the most of each scene, and every scene belongs to every other scene. I’m constantly talking to the editor and going through the rushes. It’s a very ongoing process, so you require a lot of patience and input from your editor. Sometimes they don’t agree with you, and sometimes you get into the odd wrangle, but it’s a good wrangle!

AFI: Sometimes you need people to argue with you?

Fred Schepisi: In a way I want everyone to do that, but I want them to do it knowing what the intention is. And in the end, there has to be one guiding voice. And guess who’s voice that is? It’s the director’s!

AFI: Thanks for being so generous with your time.

The Eye Of The Storm is in national release through Paramount/Transmission from 15 September, 2011. You can also visit Fred Schepisi’s website for wonderful pictures, links and interviews. The Eye of the Storm is one of the 22 feature films in competition for the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards.

Fred Schepisi at the AFI Awards


Fred Schepisi in 1976, with AFI Award for Best Film for 'The Devil's Playground'.

Won – AFI Award for Best Direction – The Devil’s Playground
Won – AFI Award for Best Film – The Devil’s Playground
Won – AFI Award for Best Screenplay – Original or Adapted -The Devil’s Playground

Nominated – AFI Award for Best Director – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Nominated – AFI Award for Best Film – The Chant of Jimmie Blackmith
Nominated – AFI Award for Best Screenplay, Adapted – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Won – AFI Award for Best Director – Evil Angels
Won – AFI Award for Best Screenplay, Adapted – Evil Angels (shared with Robert Caswell)

Won – Raymond Longford Award

For more information and pictures of past winners of AFI Awards, visit this section of the new AACTA website.