What’s behind the sky?

Australian director of stage and screen

21 Questions from editor, Eugene Lynch

  • Q: First memories?
    My parents took me to the circus aged around 5. When the aerial trapeze act reached its dangerous climax, there was a drum roll and, with a clunk, the safety net dropped. The audience all leant forward and held their collective breath. I instinctively understood that when mortality hung in the air, everyone was interested. Suddenly, everything else was – “So what?”
  • Q: Any lessons from your childhood on the showgrounds?
    Well, it could be said I learnt everything there. I realised the audience sought out sex, violence, novelty and delight.
  • Q: What was the first show you directed?
    A magic show at the local children’s library, aged 8. I’d been tutored by The Great Levant, a popular magician. After placing my assistant in a cardboard box, I sawed her in half. The audience seemed to enjoy it!
  • Q: An artistic revelation?
    Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. I love art galleries. Secular churches. Seeing a urinal in an art gallery made me realise that everything, seen in a certain way, had a kind of poetry. It was a revelation.
  • Q: What role has beetroot played in your artistic development?
    I first met designer extraordinaire Brian Thomson in a hamburger take-away. Over burgers with extra beetroot, we talked pop art and theatre. The conversation continued for decades as we turned theatre from its decorative past towards a modernist future.
  • Q: New work has been fundamental to your practice – what’s the appeal?
    Even the big musicals were premieres. If Australia wants to shrug off its colonial past it needs to define itself. One way is through creating new art and, frankly, it’s more fun to do new things.
  • Q: What was the attraction to Nobel Laureate, Patrick White?
    Reading Voss and seeing White’s plays as a teenager He was the first Australian writer to reveal the mythical connotations of suburbia. It’s summed up in a quote from poet Paul Eluard – “There is another world, but it is in this one”.
  • Q: You moved to London to direct Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End. During that time you fell in and directed at the Royal Court.
    I loved the Court. It opened the door to a world beyond musicals. Brian and I injected a pop palette and Aussie energy there, but we also observed the subtlety and intelligence in their work. I also loved the idea that a theatre might be centred on creating new work.
  • Q: What kind of theatre was Lighthouse?
    Lighthouse was another stage in the evolution of Australian theatre. Our theatre was very domesticated and mostly played out in middle class living rooms. I wanted to see an ensemble company working with writers to achieve something closer to the epic theatre of the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble.
  • Q: Was it a game-changer?
    For two years the State Theatre of SA became Lighthouse with adventurous writers, directors, designers and a permanent acting ensemble. We introduced previously un-staged Euro classics and premiered challenging new work. Initially, we were a bit doctrinaire – too many German plays in winter! – in the second year we achieved lift-off. Lighthouse’s ideas spread, notably to Belvoir St Theatre under Neil Armfield and today all major theatres develop and premiere new work.
  • Q: How important are dreams to you?
    Dreams can be surreal, inspiring or troubling. The idea of opening Rocky Horror Picture Show (‘RHPS’) with a woman’s lips and a man’s androgynous voice came from a dream.
  • Q: How do you stage dreams?
    By making the extraordinary, ordinary. A favourite production was Strindberg’s Dreamplay, with a student cast, including the young Baz Luhrmann. It was Strindberg attempting to free the theatre from naturalism. Of course, dream-life can simply be real life inverted, that idea is at play in RHPS. It has its origins in my favourite play by Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Q: Have you ever been arrested?
    I‘ve never asked to see my ASIO file. The only time my work has been publicly deemed subversive was Hair, which seems like hippy nostalgia now. At the time it made conservative governments quake in several countries, with censorship and jail sentences waiting in the wings. Any artist that questions long-held certainties, let alone questions the nature of reality itself, is inevitably subversive.
  • Q: Do you have a favourite musical?
    I rarely like song and dance shows. The musicals I staged all challenged the form. From Showboat onwards, Broadway musicals had a social dimension, often involving race, which prompted the inclusion of popular song. The use of rap in Hamilton is a modern example. A classic musical is West Side Story, because the drama is in the music. Latin rhythms battle jazz rhythms and it transcends time through romantic myth – Romeo & Juliet. But my favourite musical isn’t really a musical, it’s more a play with songs, Die Dreigroschenoper, The Threepenny Opera
  • Q: What entertains you? What’s in your movie top ten? Classic comedies? Cult movies?
    Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 holds top spot. For comedy, nothing beats Some Like It Hot. For cult movies, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, though my favourite cult film is George Franju’s Judex.
  • Q: Anything more recent?
    Babylon Berlin on Netflix, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
  • Q: What are you reading?
    For classics – Balzac and Borges. Currently, Marlon James A History of Seven Killings and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. I just re-read White’s novel The Solid Mandala.
  • Q: And listening?
    I’m a sucker for angry divas, from Billie Holiday to Lauren Hill, especially, Nina Simone and Etta James. Etta singing Randy Newman – wow! – check out ‘Burn Down The Cornfields’. Classically, often new works. Janacek’s String Quartets are a favourite. And Mahler. Lots of Mahler.
  • Q: Are you a Mahler tragic?
    Possibly! We share a tragicomic view of life, and he wanted to put “the whole world in a symphony.” An ambition shared by many of my favourite artists, including Patrick White, Stanley Kubrick, Pina Bausch, Shakespeare and Euripides.
  • Q: How do you see the future?
    New technologies, including those yet to come, offer possibilities not seen since the development of movies in the 1920s. That, and the inevitable backlash against technology, will define the future of the arts. It’ll still be a corroboree but maybe a virtual one. My curiosity continues and my views haven’t changed. I’ll always encourage challenge and adventure and contribute to it wherever possible.
  • Q: What is behind the sky?
    Good question.

Nugini

Tokyo

Taipei

Kyoto

Berlin

Tamarama

Borobudur

Centennial Park

Clovelly

Barcelona

Interview with Laurence Rosier Staines, 2015

Your films seem to be a different beast to your theatrical work. Is there a different directorial impulse at play in your films?
That’s tricky to answer. Several of my movies have fed off stage productions. Rocky Horror obviously, and The Night The Prowler grew out of directing the stage plays of Patrick White. I approached them cinematically, but an element of theatricality is apparent. However, I’d equally suggest that many of my stage productions have a strong cinematic influence. Working across mediums you get some cross-fertilisation. I’m also influenced by silent movies and they often had a theatrical side – especially German silent movies, which I admire – so there’s that too.

Tell us about Arcade, your first short.
It was a 5 minute no-budget underground movie that I made in 1970. and barely remember. It was shot over a weekend with the help of artist Gary Shead. From memory, it’s a cautionary tale about drugs, involving a young guy in a shopping complex. An interesting aspect is its alienated protagonist. That idea led to my first indie feature, which is popular with film students: Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens. It was a feature written by Helmut Bakaitis, shot in three weeks, edited in one, made with friends for about $17,000. A true 1970s underground movie. It formally mixes sci-fi, rock n roll, B movie and arthouse stylistics. This would find a more sophisticated outlet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It also features an alienated protagonist, the kind of character further explored in my later film, The Night The Prowler. This rough early indie feature contained the seed of these two later more substantial movies.

You worked briefly on the 1970 production of Ned Kelly (dir: Tony Richardson) before completion. Were there artistic differences there? What did you learn from Tony Richardson?
Tony Richardson had seen and enjoyed my production of Hair and he asked me to assist him on Ned Kelly. I was grateful for the experience and helped with the preparations. There were no film schools then, so the only way to learn about movies was on the job. This was my first and only real experience of moviemaking before directing my own films. Mick Jagger had just come off Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, so I assumed Tony was mixing Mick’s rebel persona with the outlaw tale. Once I realised it was a traditional  telling of a colonial story, I wondered why Tony had chosen Mick rather than a more conventional movie star. It seemed a waste of Jagger’s strengths and allure. I finally left, but not before observing a lot and learning about filmmaking from Tony, who became a good friend. Tony was a generous mentor and through him, later, in London, I met the Royal Court gang, which led to a string of productions. For the fiftieth anniversary of the Royal Court they surveyed the theatre’s all-time favourite productions and my original Rocky Horror and Tony’s Look Back In Anger came out on top, which somehow reflected the connection.

Rocky Horror is the film that really took off. But there does appear to be a thread through all of your films—something to do with wicked satire, the surreal and a reverence for genre film itself. Are there other unexpected commonalities we could find?
My main interest in genre is in re-inventing it, mixing popular and arthouse conventions. And satire, as Variety once said, is what closed last week – a truism I was reminded of with Shock Treatment, which came and went very quickly. In being a savage satire on cults, it bit the hand that fed it. However, 40 years after the event, there is a resurgent interest in this underrated movie. It was prophetic in depicting a world captive to reality television, yet made before reality TV was invented. I felt it was a better movie than Rocky Horror, which has the feel of a home movie, but Rocky has hidden depths and a lot of heart. Shock Treatment has a great score, looks terrific and plenty of bite. All my movies are in some way provocative but that one had a lot of sting in its tail.

How important is the word ‘subversive’?
My own movie education was sitting huddled at late-night screenings and nearly all the movies I saw and liked were in some way subversive. So maybe it’s no surprise I made the ultimate late-night movie. And yes, in some ways it’s subversive – in form and content. They all are. I tend to ignore technique, subvert conventions, and aim to make the ground move a little under the viewer’s feet. If you grow up in a conservative world, and post-war suburban Australia was very conservative, and you want to see that culture change, then your work will inevitably reflect that desire. You can see that same impulse at work in many cult films, be they masterpieces by Murnau, Pabst, Bunuel, or trashy B-pictures by Ed Wood or Russ Meyer – it’s always there. Other film-makers may study cinema grammar but my reading, apart from the inspiring Truffaut / Hitchcock interviews, was Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art.

What is a cult movie?
Cult movies sit outside the mainstream. They have a fanbase and sometimes specialist or late-night screenings. They often have a transgressive element that captures the imaginations of buffs. They can be fun, or serious, anything from the excesses of B pictures to art movies like Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, a short surreal film and early cult classic. For me, a true cult classic has layers of meaning, so the more you see it, the more you get out of it. You can’t really set out to make a cult movie, but some movies slip through the net and they get taken up by fans and anointed as such.

Your early interest in art films didn’t end with Buñuel and Godard. Who are some (perhaps little-known) filmmakers today whose work you follow?
If we’re talking cult, the Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul seems to be doing things no-one else is with cinema. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is a personal favourite. Also, an early Tom Tykwer movie – Run Lola Run – is an inventive masterpiece. Mainstream, it’s hard to see beyond franchises, but I liked Boyhood by Richard Linklater and, of course, The Grand Hotel Budapest by Wes Anderson. And you still can’t do better than revisit anything by past masters like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick.

Technology has made filmmaking more accessible than it was for most of the 20th Century. Do you think your films could be made today?
My recent excursion into digital with Andy X was enjoyable. In some ways it was like revisiting the early ‘underground’ work, as we had neither money nor time and it encouraged a kind of imaginative music video approach to the subject, which I enjoyed. Before that I’d made a feature length ABC–TV documentary on Patrick White (The Burning Piano) that also involved a lot of fluency, which was fulfilling. I’ve never really understood why you need an army to make a film – and now you don’t. I think that’s a plus.

The double-feature has been supplanted by ‘Netflix-and-chill’. As you’ve said elsewhere, people will always want to gather and look at shadows on a wall and hear a story. What do you think is in the future for movies?
Cinema was a twentieth century art form. Between WW1 and WW2, and post-WW2, countless masterpieces were created – cinema with the intense surreal poetry of a waking dream – and we can still enjoy them on whatever platform. But a new century will demand a new art form, one that’s still being born. The current enthusiasms – for online, for long form TV – might just be steps on the way to something more original that is yet to take shape. The beat will go on but maybe to a different drum.

Twelfth Night

As part of NIDA’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Jim returned to his alma mater and directed Shakespeare’s carnival comedy, Twelfth Night, with second year actors and final year designers. The production sold-out and was a highlight of the celebrations.

2017 Centenary JC Williamson Award

Jim received the 2017 Centenary JC Williamson Award for his outstanding contribution to the Australian performing arts.

He was delighted to receive the award along with professional colleagues Robyn Archer AO, Reg Livermore AO and Robyn Nevin AM and Archie Roach AM at a special ceremony at the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House.