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.

Why I Adore: Muriel’s Wedding

By Annie Stevens

“You’re terrible Muriel.” I’m quite certain that my family is not the only Australian family to appropriate this line from PJ Hogan’s 1994 film, Muriel’s Wedding when one of us did something remotely scandalous. It’s up there with “Tell him he’s dreamin” (The Castle) in the Highly Quotable Lines from Australian Films stakes. Muriel’s Wedding is an overwhelmingly Australian film. Not just because it is set here and people say “G’day” on a regular basis. But that the characters, stereotypes, vocabulary, scenery and mannerisms are distinctly, true bluely, Australian. It could be embarrassing, but it isn’t in Muriel’s Wedding. Without the stereotypes, the dagginess, the Australian Ugliness as scathing architect Robin Boyd said of Australian design, the film wouldn’t be the same, and frankly, I don’t think I would like it nearly as much.

Muriel Heslop (the incomparable Toni Collette) lives in the small (fictional) hometown of Porpoise Spit. This isn’t just a place that I recognise; it’s a way of thinking too. There are plenty of cultural studies references and themes of identity that you can hang off it. But it’s more than that. Muriel’s Wedding is an ugly duckling story that most of us can relate to. I know I do. Like Muriel Heslop I have been shy and awkward. I’ve punched myself in the guts with self-loathing and left a bruise. I’ve wanted, desperately, to be liked. And like Muriel I wanted to escape, she from Porpoise Spit and me from my small town in Tasmania. We both wanted to be a success and to prove everybody, well, something. In the film Muriel wants to get married. Marriage is winning in a small town. I get that. As Muriel says in big hacking snotty sobs in the bridal shop, where Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) catches her trying on wedding dresses, if someone wants to marry her she won’t be Muriel Heslop any more. “Because who’d want to marry me?” she asks, sneering angrily at herself; the recognition of that feeling is like being thumped in the chest.

In many ways Muriel’s Wedding is about winning, losing and the real price, and worth, of both. Muriel did get what she wanted. She got married (to the bodacious swimming champion who needed a visa). She’d made it. But then marriage turned out to not be the ultimate prize after all. Getting what you want isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. Happiness isn’t something that you can buy. Love comes with consequences.

There’s also something in the film about salvation, and starting a new life. Not in a happy-clappy kind of way, but in a way that feels real and recognisable. Muriel lies and she steals, and while I have not stolen anything of consequence (though I am chronically guilty of borrowing colleagues’ pens and never returning them) I’ve certainly fibbed – to make myself sound better, to get out of trouble, harmless “white lies” that just about always end up catching you out. Muriel decides that she has to stop lying in order to be happy. Proof really, that you can better yourself and it’s almost never too late to make a new start.

Muriel's Wedding

Rachel Griffiths, Daniel Lapaine, Toni Collette and Bill Hunter at the altar in Muriel's Wedding

At the beginning of the film Muriel Heslop is incredibly far from being happy “in her own skin.” She listens to Abba music as an alternative to her dull existence and an antidote to her self-loathing. The entrance of the blunt, confident and sexy Rhonda Epinstalk (the similarly incomparable Rachel Griffiths) into her life, Muriel’s name change to “Mariel” and Mariel and Rhonda’s subsequent adventure to Sydney makes her life, as she tells Rhonda, “as good as an Abba song.”

I really love the female friendship that is at the focus of the film. Whether or not you are a loner, or have noisily slurped the last of your orgasm cocktail while you wait for the it girls to tell you if you’ve made it in or not, the friendship between misfits Muriel and Rhonda is a really great example of friendship on screen. Finding a friend who knows everything about you, one that you can go through bad stuff with, and who loves you even when you’ve let them down, is something that can’t be over valued Plus, as the film attests, you can choose your friends but you certainly can’t choose your family. So it’s worth picking good ones.

“I’m not alone. I’m with Muriel,” says Rhonda after telling mean girl Tanya (incidentally, Sophie Lee as Tanya screeching, “I’m a bride!” on the Hibiscus Island trip is another of my favourite moments in the film) all about her husband – Chook – and his lipstick ringed indiscretions. From then on we’re all with Muriel.

Muriel’s Wedding is a sad film, spiked with moments of unfettered joy. Betty (Jeanie Drynan), Muriel’s mother, is treated terribly by her husband, taken advantage of by her children and is slipping away quietly without anybody bothering to take notice until it’s too late. Muriel and her siblings are told constantly by their self-aggrandising father (Bill Hunter) that they’re useless. Small, but deadly, humiliations – many of them inflicted by that ghastly horn- rimmed glasses wearing shop assistant/spy – are common. But then there’s Muriel, her thighs straining against her white sateen pantsuit singing Waterloo with Rhonda in the talent competition on Hibiscus Island. There’s Rhonda and Muriel drinking their prize-winning magnum of champagne, and talking about being famous and seeing the world. There’s Muriel screaming with laughter when the two naked but gentlemanly American sailors appear in her lounge room the night that she brings home a boy that likes her, a raucous moment shattered when Rhonda can no longer feel her legs. For all its sadness and its disappointments and its missed moments and punctured dreams, I don’t find it a depressing film. It never fails to make me cry. But I’m not sure whether I’m crying because I’m happy or because I’m sad or because I’m both. Mostly, I think, because I can relate. In the scene where Rhonda and Muriel are hanging out of their taxi yelling goodbye to the streets, shopping centres and tourists of their hometown I can just about taste their freedom and their feckless exuberance for life.

AFI Awards note: Muriel’s Wedding won four AFI Awards in 1994: Best Achievement in Sound (David Lee, Glenn Newnham, Livia Ruzic, Roger Savage); Best Actress in a Lead Role (Toni Collette); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rachel Griffiths); and Best Film (producers Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse).

Annie Stevens is a journalist. She has written for The Age, The Vine, The Guardian Comment is Free, Kill Your Darlings literary magazine and OK! magazine among others. Until recently she wrote the arts and events listings for The Age. She just moved to Sydney, “City of Brides” from Melbourne. She doesn’t think the coffee in Sydney is nearly as bad as Melbourne people say.

Much of Annie’s freelance work can be found here.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon, Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood watching the television show Round the Twist, and Anthony Morris flirts with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper.