After cutting his teeth on TV in the sixties Ted Kotcheff broke out big time with Wake In Fright (1971) a devastatingly cinematic adaptation of Kenneth Cook's novel. It and L'avventura (1960) by Michelangelo Antonioni are the only films ever to play Cannes twice and Wake in Fright was nominated for the Palme d'Or. It didn't win but Cannes recently gave it a special award Autour de la Sélection, Heritage Film when the film was rediscovered just days away from having it's negative burned on a garbage scow. Recently it was painstakingly restored revealing it to be a film of remarkable beauty and brutality, a true masterpiece of slow burn illumination offering one unforgettable image and scene after another as it tells the story of a bonded school teacher who gets stuck in a small outback town.
But it's also just one movie in a career that produced a lot of other very enjoyable films, many of which have small cult followings to this day. So when the director of Fun With Dick and Jane (1977), Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978), North Dallas Forty (1979), First Blood (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), and Weekend at Bernies (1989) became available for a chat at Fantastic Fest 2012 I jumped on it. The result was one of the most exhilarating conversations I've had in a while. Alama Drafthouse is rereleasing Wake In Fright with Kotcheff appearing in select cities.
TWITCH: The film was literally on the way to be burned when it was saved. Had you given up hope of ever finding again?
Ted Kotcheff: Almost completely. It's not just gratifying, it's amazing! I finished the film in 1971 so this came forty years after I made it.
It contains one of Donald Pleasence' greatest performances. I recently saw CUL-DE-SAC (1966) and thought to myself, 'How many amazing actors toil and toil in great films like this that just disappear off the map within a few years?'
Yes, you would have thought a performance like that would have been nominated, but it wasn't. Donald was a lovely, lovely man. I miss him terribly. We first met when he was doing Harold Pinter's play, The Caretaker. He was superb. We met afterwards and became good friends. It was just natural to cast him.
One of the things I enjoyed about him most was that, besides being wonderful to work with, he had a great sense of humor. Nothing was ever too much for him. He was never temperamental. "Stand on your head and read the bible backwards." "Of course Ted! Anything you want." [laughs]
I've always heard that he liked to try and steal scenes by inventing little bits of business or character traits that would draw attention to himself. Especially if he were working with actors that well...
[laughs] It's funny you should mention that. When we were making Wake In Fright there was this scene where he has this magnificent drunken monologue that's immediately followed by him tearing apart a room, fighting people etc. Well he comes to me before filming and he says,"Ted, it's such a great scene but I don't think I can play it if I'm sober. I just cannot do it." So naturally I said, "Donald you're one of the best actors in the world. What are you talking about? Of course you can." He said, "I've been avoiding whiskey for a while now. I'm not sure I can pull it off." Of course I was worried that if I let him get drunk he'd only be good for a take or two. So he tries it sober. He was real good natured about it. But when I got the daily's back I turned and I said, "I apologize, I think you're gonna need to do this drunk. [laughs] He wasn't holding anything back in those scenes he just knew what he needed to get there.
When I look at this film and factor in FIRST BLOOD it strikes me there's a raw primal quality to the narratives. You seem to have a knack for telling those kinds of stories.
I've always been attracted to stories about cultured civilizations. They tend to rest on very thin skins that are so easily ruptured and there are all these dark forces just below the surface that can assert themselves. It's a story that never gets old. Look at all the unrest in the world, in the Middle East for instance. It's interesting. When I was making Wake In Fright I was in a very despairing frame of mind, I thought the Vietnam War was the stupidest silliest waste. 53,000 people died for what? Not to mention the countless numbers of women, children. The Cold War...we could end civilization. The making of Wake in Fright was permeated by that.
What was it like to lay yourself bare like that? Was it cathartic?
I think it was, actually. Sometimes though, I look at the end of the film and I find it a bit facile. He's asked, "Did you have a good holiday?" and he says, "The best." It's about self-knowledge, which is really important. Self-knowledge is something we all struggle for. We even, unconsciously, put ourselves, I think, in bad situations, where we can encounter ourselves. That certainly happens to the lead character in the film. But it seemed a bit flaccid.
You make it sound so personal. It's funny because I've read reviews of WAKE IN FRIGHT and many other great films that only talk about them in removed abstract terms. It's almost as if we're afraid to encounter the raw humanity in art. I don't believe in art for art's sake. Art is for people. It's made by people for crying out loud.
Absolutely. It's why I wrestled with the ending. As I was shooting it I'm thinking okay, "Is it going to be total darkness? Is this guy destroyed?" Someone else made the observation that he might have digested the whole experience and realized he wasn't more important or better than other human beings, that we're all in the same bloody existential boat. Low, high, medium, smart people, stupid people, who all need to find a way to love each other if we want to survive.
We fight that don't we? We're afraid to have movies really speak to us. It's so ironic. There's so much talk right now about losing the communality of being brought together in a darkened theater. How much more is the communality of all being touched and then building community outside the theater. That's what art does is connect us, if we let it. We need it so badly right now. We are so polarized. Everyone wants to say, "It's the stupid people, it's the gay people, it's the Christians. It's their fault! Meanwhile we have all these films practically crying out, "Dear God people, bail water!!"
"Stop hitting each other with the damn buckets" [laughs] That is it! I wonder every time I see the film if the character gets that. Someone once asked what I think happens to him after we leave him and I said, "Well, maybe he'll get back to Sydney, find his girlfriend and live a better less cynical life." And they replied, "Naw, naw, naw. He's gonna end up back in that horrible town and take over from Donald Pleasance, drinking himself into oblivion." A poet friend of mine once saw the film and looked at me afterwards and said, Kotcheff, you...bastard!! You've stripped us bare. There's nothing left!" I laughed uproariously at the time but he was very serious about it.
It's the idea of the individual crushed by society. What's evil and what's necessary for order? There seems to be a very gauzy separation there that evil bleeds thru as we try to figure out what it means to live together and there's always the idea, like you said, of unseen things, under the surface, rotting away from within.
I was a very idealistic young man, politically and socially. My films have always had this sort of didactic about them that we're describing. You have to be careful of course because a frustrated idealist turns into a misanthrope.
And a frustrated idealist filmmaker turns into John Carpenter?
Cheap shot. I'm sorry. I love John, but Frank Darabont, who also loves him dearly once described him that way to me. We laughed so hard.
[laughs]. That's a good one. Oh man. It's fascinating the way these struggles provoke us. We want so much for there to be meaning, and to make things better, and to connect. We get so angry about our lostness. Coping with existence is our ultimate struggle.
FIRST BLOOD lays it out in really stark terms. Here you have this person that society refuses to take back into the bosom and the result is a loop where the person has to actively fight the rejection. He becomes the other that society feels it needs to reject to define itself.
There's been so much written about it, and many great films made about it, but I don't think we've ever recovered from what happened to the Vietnam vets. People who weren't alive then simply can't imagine what it was like. These men came back and the right wing treated them as embarrassments, losers. The left wing labelled them all baby killers. These people didn't ask to go there. They were drafted, they were sent. These were young, young kids most of them. You're blaming them?! First Blood was a chance to tell a story about what can happen to society when it allows itself to discard people.
Uncommon Valor (1983) was another film that told that story, from a more existentially hopeful point of view in many ways. It was so great to hear from so many veterans that they felt like their story had been told.
You keep using that word existential. It makes me wonder about your personal spirituality.
I grew up intellectually when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were very much on the minds of a lot of young people. This was about 1948-49 when I was just exiting my teenage years. Sartre's essay, "Existentialism is Humanism" molded itself deep into my attitudes. It says that man has no essence, that he is born without any attitudes. There's no such thing as human nature. We define ourselves by what we do. Consequently on the shoulders of every man is what humanity becomes because of that man's choices. So examine your choices carefully.
Have you ever read any Kierkegaard?
Oh yes. I was taken with the whole existential movement. You know this was the time of the existential girls! Long dark blue sweaters down to their knees and copper bracelets, carrying string bags full of Kafka's diaries.
I always thought the existentialists were the antidote, even though they didn't know it, to Ayn Rand. She would never see herself in the narrative of WAKE IN FRIGHT because of the suggestion that, as responsible as we are for our own narrative, we need to grasp our connection to others.
No she wouldn't. Wake in Fright has all these individuals hunkered down in little dens that are almost lost in these vast landscapes. When I went to shoot the film there, I had the same feeling I'd had back in Canada about the North. These vast landscapes, open areas aren't liberating, they're suffocating, imprisoning. They remind us of being these little dots in the vast universe and I think that explains the hyperbolic machismo you find in places like that. I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks. The emptiness strips you away, reduces you, and you overcompensate.
It begs the question, "Do these processes of life that inevitably strip us down set the stage for something good or is chaos and destruction simply inevitable?"
You know, re-watching the film on the tour I came across a moment I hadn't thought about in a long time. The character is walking, hitchhiking back to Sydney or at least to some form of civilization, and he decides to dump his suitcase full of books. One of them is titled, Plato For Today. It reminded me of a line from a wonderful poem I hadn't read since the forties, "You don't need Plato in this man's town. It's useless." [laughs] Philosophy gets in the way when it becomes a barrier between you and other people, or understanding yourself. There's a limit to the life of the mind.
So are we all the man on holiday then, spiritually or existentially speaking?
That's interesting. You have to wonder. We're certainly all the man on the road, we certainly have mostly the same questions and the same needs. As dark as Wake in Fright seems I'm a different person now than when I made it and I find some hope in it as well. If life is reductive, then it is also humbling. Most of us benefit from that. Humility isn't exactly in over abundance these days.