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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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
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.