John Duigan has a unique place among the Australian New Wave directors who came to prominence during the 1970s. His films weren’t based on national historical events or adapted from Great Australian Novels, nor did they seem at all concerned with issues of national identity. Instead, he preferred to write his own stories and interrogate his own experiences of society, with a strong focus on uncovering great performances by young actors – a gift which was directly recognised when Duigan received the 1991 Byron Kennedy Award.*
Graduating from Melbourne University in 1973 with a degree in philosophy, Duigan wrote novels, worked as an actor, director and writer in Melbourne’s vibrant theatrical eruptions of the 1970s and early 80s – this was, after all, the era of La Mama and the Pram Factory – and then after some experimental films, made his first mainstream work, the AFI Award-winning Mouth to Mouth (1978), a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of the drifting lives of unemployed young people.
Duigan’s films are a diverse collection, but almost without exception they’ve been original in the particular ways they’ve probed and questioned the complexities of interpersonal relationships, gender politics and the hypocrisies of society. There was Winter of our Dreams (1981), starring a young Judy Davis as a Kings Cross prostitute; and the iconic, beautifully observed coming-of-age films The Year My Voice Broke (1987) with its unforgettable teen trio of Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn and Loene Carmen; as well as Flirting (1991) with Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Thandie Newton lighting up the screen as school girls, and Sirens (1994) with its depiction of artist Norman Lindsay and his nymph-like models (famously played by Elle McPherson, Portia de Rossi and Kate Fischer).
Subsequent films made in the UK and the USA include the tender probing of an adult/child friendship in Lawn Dogs (1997), starring Sam Rockwell and Micha Barton; The Leading Man (1996) with an unexpectedly stunning turn by Jon Bon Jovi; and Head in the Clouds (2004) with Charlize Theron and Penélope Cruz as lovers. For all their diversity, in these films Duigan seemed to be on the side of those who pushed against the status quo. Now he’s back with Careless Love, an extremely low budget Australian film that queries societal assumptions about sex, prostitution and even race.
Written and directed by Duigan, Careless Love is set in contemporary Sydney and tells the story of Linh (Nammi Le) a beautiful young Vietnamese-Australian university student who works at night as a prostitute. She sends the money home to her parents, who live in a depressed rural town and are at risk of defaulting on their mortgage. When Linh moves in with her Australian boyfriend (Andrew Hazzard) it becomes increasingly difficult for her to keep her two lives separate. For one thing, there’s her tough but lovable pimp (David Field), and for another, her mysterious American client (Peter O’Brien), who seems to want more than a quick encounter.
In this interview we talk to Duigan about the ideas behind his story, the challenges of returning to work in Australia, and the importance of careful planning and rehearsals. He also discusses his ongoing labour of love – a textbook on secular ethics that takes him full circle – to studying philosophy again.
AFI: What were the seeds of this script and how long ago did you start working on it?
John Duigan: Well, it’s quite a long story. When I was at university in Melbourne many years ago, there was a girl I knew from a country part of Victoria who worked for two years as an escort to pay her way through university, and from time-to-time she would tell me bits and pieces about the work. It struck me always as being an interesting basis for a film subject. And then in recent years, in England and France in particular, there was a lot of coverage in the press about the increasing cost of university education, and a lot of interviews and articles about students who were paying their way through university by working for periods of time in the sex industry. I had the same impression from talking to people when I was back here in Australia – that there was a similar phenomenon, in part triggered by student costs and also the current recession, so I decided to take on that subject.
I was also interested in the general shifts in morality of the culture – the fact that there are these mainstream values that are espoused by all the political parties, [who] put the primacy of family values as being central. The sexual activities of prostitutes can be regarded as being quite contradictory to those mainstream values, and yet it’s interesting that the sex industry in most of its forms is legal here. I was interested in exploring that aspect as well as the sort of attitudes towards people who work in the sex industry, resulting from that contradiction.
AFI: Contrary to expectations, and perhaps contrary to clichés, the central character in your film isn’t a victim. A casual reader of the synopsis – about a Vietnamese student who is working as a prostitute to send money back to her family – might automatically assume she’s a victim of circumstances. That’s not the way you choose to present it, is it?
John Duigan: No, she’s a strong-willed character who, while she doesn’t anticipate all the things that happen to her, goes into it in a clear-headed way, with a strong sense of herself and a conviction that the choice she’s making is valid in terms of her own personal values. It was very important to me that she’s not a victim. Most of the stories about prostitutes in films fall into three different categories: the stories relating to sexual slavery and the way people are trafficked; another one is to do with people who are supporting drug habits; and the third is the more glamorised, up-market stories like the one told in that British TV series recently, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. And I don’t think that’s the experience of the majority of people. People go into the industry for all sorts of reasons, but most of them are, in fact, economic.
AFI: There seems to have been a recent spate of low-budget Australian films centring on the issue of sex workers – The Jammed, Black & White & Sex and John Hewitt’s X. I wonder if you’ve seen any of those films and what you make of this trend?
John Duigan: I saw X and I also saw Sleeping Beauty – that was another one. I think all of them are dealing with different aspects, but the fact that there are a number of films that have sex workers as their protagonists is probably indicative of the fact that it’s significant that Australia has substantially illegalised the sex industry. And you only need to look at papers like the [Daily] Telegraph and you’ll see three to four pages of ads for it. It’s interesting that there’s this contrast between this existence of the sex industry and the mainstream values. So it’s something that all these filmmakers are looking at in one way or another.
AFI: Careless Love is your first film made back in Australia for some time. How did this experience differ from your past films?
John Duigan: Well, it was about twenty years ago when I did Sirens, so it is quite a long time. I think the major difference is the attitude towards independent Australian films. When I was working here continuously – with Winter of our Dreams, Far East, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting and Sirens - all of those films had fairly successful theatrical releases. And now, for whatever reason, a lot of cinemas are much more reluctant to put on smaller Australian films. I think it’s really important for our culture that Australia is represented by a range of films and not just the large-budget films. I think quite a lot of small Australian films probably don’t get any kind of release and sort of disappear between the cracks. That’s tragic, really. And with fewer independent cinemas around, there’s the dominance of the multiplexes, which rather than actually putting on a wide range of films, often simply put on the big Titanics or what have you, on about four or five screens. This means that younger people are coming up who have had very little experience of seeing a range of independent films… It’s going to be much harder to get them in to see Australian films in the first place.
AFI: Was it difficult for you to secure a release for this film?
John Duigan: I would say it was harder than it was twenty years ago. Yes. I mean we have cinemas in all the major cities. So it’s certainly possible, but I think it has been more difficult.
AFI: How did you raise the finance to make the film, and what were the primary sources and approximate budget?
John Duigan: It’s all private money. We choose not to release the actual budget figure, simply because it can affect the way people see the film. I was showing it to a few people overseas… I had one independent of great experience who saw it and thought that the budget was $7 million, and the budget is very, very much lower than that. As far as sources are concerned, it all comes from four individuals. Each one put small amounts in and one person put in rather more. We didn’t have any input from Screen Australia.
AFI: Did you want any input from Screen Australia, or was it always your intention to go down the completely independent route?
John Duigan: At the time I made the film, I was keen to go into production rather than wait for another year, because while I’d been working on my labour of love on the ethics front [the ethics textbook Duigan has been writing] I’d been attached to a Canadian and a French-produced film for about three or four years. And each year it would seem, one or either of the two was going to come together. And then at the last minute it would fall through, usually because we weren’t able to get the key actor that we needed to trigger both projects or because an area of finance that had been promised fell through. In one case a company kind of went bankrupt. So after having that rather frustrating experience, which many other filmmakers have and continue to have, as you would know, I wanted to get into production with this small project fairly quickly. But it would have been good if we’d been able to get some money for the post [-production] from Screen Australia, which we weren’t able to get.
AFI: The look of the film is very beautiful in parts. I wonder if you could talk about the production design and the look you were going for with this project?
John Duigan: Yes, the cinematographer Kathryn Milliss is somebody who had worked on a number of my films years ago as an assistant to Geoff Burton, who is one of the producers on this film, and so it was great to work with her again. Generally speaking, it is a naturalistic look and we tried to use warmer and cooler colours to complement the different strands of the story. At times when Linh is working at night, they’re often cooler colours, but sometimes actually slightly garish, with that yellow hue in some of the night exteriors. In contrast it it’s a warmer, sort of more temperate feel in the world that she has with her boyfriend and family. But it all sort goes off the rails towards the end. The production designer is Colin Gibson, who actually did a marvellous job. Again, he’s somebody who I worked with on films like The Year My Voice Broke and others from a long time ago. He mainly works on extremely big films – he’s the production designer on the new Mad Max film that George Miller is making in Southern Africa. But I think he enjoyed actually working back on something that was shorter and demanded the use of real imagination to compensate for a lack of budget. He’s an incredibly industrious, hard-working character and managed, I think, to give the film a look and a detail which is way above what the budget was.
AFI: How long was the shoot and what were the key locations?
John Duigan: It was a 30-day shoot. We did six five-day weeks. The key locations are all in and around Sydney. A lot of the locations are owned by friends or relatives or by myself. The major location is my flat in Coogee!
AFI: You’ve been making films for nearly 40 years now. Are there any essential ways you’ve changed your working method, or key lessons you’ve learned?
John Duigan: Not really. In many ways, with Careless Love, it felt like I was working in the style that I worked in and with the sort of budgetary restraints of quite a lot of earlier films that I did, like Mouth to Mouth and Winter of Our Dreams. Always, the key thing for me has been to do as much preparation as possible. I like to try to minimise the decisions that one needs to make on the set, based from a logistical point of view and from the point of view of how one is working with the cast. So through rehearsal, you aim to articulate everything that the performance needs to achieve in every scene, and where the scenes occur in terms of the character’s arc and all that sort of thing. It’s good if everybody knows exactly what they are attempting to achieve on each day and in each scene and on each set. This means a lot of detailed conversation and planning in the pre-production stage, and as much rehearsal as you can get with all of the principal actors.
I have generally used that model, whether I’m working on a larger budget or on a small budget, but it’s probably particularly important on a small budget. Obviously there are huge changes that are required from time-to-time, if one is hit by unexpected light changes or weather problems, or if an actor gets sick or something like that, but if you’ve got everything planned out in detail, it’s much easier to react to circumstances and keep the film following the arc that you want it to follow.
AFI: Are you involved in planning the promotional and release strategy with the film’s distributor, Antidote Films?
John Duigan: Yes, I’m working on that with Jenny Day and Geoff Burton, the producers, and with Gil Scrine, the distributor. We are opening at a central cinema in each of the major cities, and hopefully in a couple of the cities we’ll have a couple of other screens as well. Perhaps, if the film manages to deliver, it can expand and pick up some other screens in the suburbs. We think in general that it’s good to have a key cinema in each of the cities that you can focus on, rather than sharing out the audience to a number of locations. If you can actually get the film to perform in one main cinema, then that is going to help the film’s longevity, and also give it the opportunity of spreading out later.
AFI: You live between Sydney and England?
John Duigan: Yes, at the moment I’m spending a little bit more time over here than over there – seven, eight months of the year here, and four or five months over there. I enjoy going backwards and forwards.
AFI: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been interspersing your filmmaking activities with writing a book on ethics and philosophy over the last few years. Can you tell us more about that?
John Duigan: My main area of study at university was philosophy and I contemplated the idea of actually going to Cambridge and doing a doctorate there, but ended up choosing to work in the film industry instead. I think that interest in ethics has always been an abiding one for me and, to an extent, has some sort of resonance in many of the films that I make, though not all of them.
I’d always intended, at some point in my life, to try and write a book on secular ethics. I think that ethics is a subject that should be taught in schools. I’ve thought that for a great many years. And now, increasingly – in New South Wales in particular – people are talking about that, and in fact, there’s a strong impulse, which is nurtured by places like the St James Ethics Centre, for ethics to be taught in schools, and it seems to me that it should be a secular ethics. I mean, our whole legal and governmental system is essentially a secular one and with the complexities of different moral positions that come from our increasingly multicultural society, to me a secular ethics could help potentially ameliorate some of the conflict between differing moralities coming from very different religious traditions.
AFI: Is your book on secular ethics being published soon?
John Duigan: I’m still working on it. I’m getting feedback from a number of sources now and we’ll do some more work on it and I would hope to get it published next year or in the next couple of years. Of course there’s no guarantee. It’s a complex subject, and the kind of thing that one could work on indefinitely!
AFI: Do you find it helpful to have such strong interests outside of filmmaking?
John Duigan: I think it’s really important and I always tell actors that it’s great to have other areas of interest. In part this is because you draw from those interests to enrich your work in acting or filmmaking or any of the arts. I think that people who come from purely filmic backgrounds, who draw most of their inspiration from other films, could certainly benefit from drawing from more expanded areas of interest.
AFI: Thanks for speaking with us, and best wishes with Careless Love.
John Duigan: It’s been a pleasure, thanks.
Official trailer below:
CARELESS LOVE – FAST FACTS
Writer/Director: John Duigan
Producers: Jenny Day and Geoff Burton
Presented by: Spirited Films & Luminous Pictures
Key Cast & Crew: Nammi Le, Peter O’Brien, Andrew Hazzard, Penny McNamee, Ivy Mak, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, David Field
Director of Photography: Kathryn Milliss
Editor: Mark Warner
Production Designer: Colin Gibson
Costume Designer: Loretta Egan
*JOHN DUIGAN AT THE AFI AWARDS
- 1978 – Won the AFI Jury Prize for Mouth to Mouth. He was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Direction for that film.
- 1981 - Nominated Best Director and Best Original or Adapted Screenplay for Winter of Our Dreams.
- 1987 – Won the AFI Award for Best Director for The Year My Voice Broke and also won the AFI Award for Best Original Screenplay on that film.
- 1991 – Duigan was presented with the Byron Kennedy Award for “an impressive and original body of work both as writer and director, and through that work, his discovery and encouragement of new talent”.