A terrifying vision of Australia comes back to light
Ted Kotcheff – director of ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ and ‘First Blood’ – is back in the limelight thanks to the rediscovery of his 1971 classic ‘Wake in Fright’, a film once described by Nick Cave as “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”
So Kotcheff had no idea the film was lost?
“No. And it’s one of my favourite of my own films. When he told me, I said ‘Tony, you’re a real humanitarian. Because you spent 13 years doing this and you never told me that the negative was gone’. If he had, whatever little hair I have would have disappeared completely. I might have died prematurely.”
Wake in Fright , a brilliantly butch outback adventure – and clear precursor to Mad Max – follows an uppity schoolteacher as he journeys to the remote mining town of Bundanyabba. Once there, his masculinity is questioned by drunken locals and is further tested by a horrific kangaroo hunt.
“I talked to the editor of the local paper and he explained that the men outnumbered the women there at least three to one. There were no brothels. So I wondered what they did for human contact and he said: ‘they fight’. This fighting had nothing to do with belligerence: it was about human touch. Because I felt immediately they didn’t want to hit me. They wanted me to hit them.”
It can’t have been an easy shoot with all that dust and heat? And fighting men . . .
“It’s one of the most inhospitable places on earth,” he says. “You have to admire the fortitude of the people who live there. At the time I looked like a ’60s hippie: I had hair down my back and a handlebar moustache. And when I first went into a pub, I walked in and 40 pairs of drunken eyes looked at me. And finally a guy says: ‘Hello Stalin’. And I started drinking. I did a lot of research for this picture. And he walks right up, jaw sticking out, and says it again, really loudly: ‘I said, hello Stalin’. So I said ‘I’d love to talk but I’m dead’. And after that, all those guys became my friends and watched out for me wherever I went.”
Last year, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz , based on the novel by Kotcheff’s former flatmate, Mordecai Richler, also featured in the Cannes Classics programme. Next month the director will receive a special award and tribute from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Suddenly, Ted Kotcheff is very much in vogue.
“Well, I’ve never made a film that I hated – even the films I made when I needed to work for money. When you know you have to spend a year of your life on something, it better be something that you love. You’re always aiming for a hundred. And sometimes you get a 50 or an 80.
“But you keep on going. Because films have a life of their own. And sometimes, like with Wake in Fight , you’re still talking about it 40 years later.”
Wake in Fright is at the IFI, Dublin from Friday, March 7th