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Ted Kotcheff Talks About ‘Fearless,’ Kangaroos and Chekhov

The Canadian director juggles new projects, considers constants in a 62-year career

Ted Kotcheff, director of cult classic “Wake in Fright,” Berlin Golden Bear winner “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” and the seminal “First Blood,” with Sylvester Stallone, is back in the film saddle. At Lyon’s Lumière Festival, which begins Monday, he will present the European continental premiere of “Fearless,” an extended short starring Fionnula Flanagan (“Yes,” “Four Brothers”) and Wes McGee (“Don’t Pass Me By”), written and produced by daughter Alexandra Kotcheff, with music by Thomas Kotcheff, and helmed by Ted Kotcheff himself, Kotcheff will also introduce “Wake in Fright” and “Duddy Kravitz” and deliver a master class on Wednesday.

Just before the Lumiere Festival, Variety talked to Kotcheff about his signature imprint on “Fearless,” shooting “Wake in Fright,” constants in his direction and career, the role of chance, and two mentors, Canadian film and TV producer Sydney Newman and Michelangelo Antonioni. While looking back, Kotcheff also looked forward to locating for a new film in Poland.

You exec produced “Law and Order,” directing some episodes. But the narrative short “Fearless” will mark your film comeback, and you have other movie projects as well. How did you set out to direct “Fearless.”

When you are a film director you are always juggling with two or three projects. I had a subject that I wanted to make for thirty years, about the King of Bulgaria during World War II, how he saved Bulgarian Jews, although he was on the German side. I also had another project, based on a very good play, about a highly dysfunctional family. So I was working on that when my daughter, Alexandra Kotcheff, approached me and said: “Dad, I have an idea for a short film that I want to mak. I want you to direct it. And I have Fionnula Flanagan for a role. It’s a two-actor short film.” So she had a very good actress, and she was the producer. One week later she arrives with the script, which she had written. The dialogue was fresh, the characters good, so I said “Yes. I’ll do it, of course!” My daughter organized all the producer side: the locations, everything else. A young actor, Wes McGee, plays the other role.

The short suggests some Ted Kotcheff hallmarks. One’s its rhythm. You said in an interview that you like your films to start allegro, go largo and then you go back to allegro, then on to the climax.

I was raised a musician. My father wanted me to be a classical violinist and I was pretty good at it. So music has dominated my life. I love music As you said, you start allegro and then you go to an andante, and then you have a scherzo where the energy is picked up and then you end up with an allegro con fuoco, the climax. Sometimes I use to write on top of each scene, allegro or andante, or how I wanted those scenes to be played so I wouldn’t forget because you can’t play everything allegro, you get energy and pace through contrast.

Another Kotcheff touch: The contrasts. There a scene at the beginning where you have a very sunny morning, the woman, played by Flanagan, is going out into her lovely garden, picks an orange, seems quite happy. However, the music is quite sad. So you always have several things going on that are not adding to one other but contrasting. 

That’s very perspicacious. But yes, I love music in film and in this case it was done by my son as you know. He’s getting his doctorate in music, is very talented. The music expresses what’s going on underneath the dialogue. So in those scenes, even if it’s a sunny morning, underneath the dialogue there is this burning sense that something else is occurring. I’ve always love that.

At least in some of your most famous films, “Wake in Fright,” for example, isn’t there a very similar effect? You have characters that are driven to do things that they didn’t know they were capable of. And that seems to be something that you are very interested in and which you do very well. If “Wake in Fright” is a horror film,the main horror is the protagonist’s horror of himself, of what he’s capable of

I won’t say deliberately but I’ve always been attracted to characters who don’t know themselves. Certainly, in “Wake in Fright” the character doesn’t know himself at all quite frankly or what he is capable under the pressure of events and circumstances. I like to put my characters in situations where they have to encounter themselves. In “Wake in Fright” he encounters himself.

Once in an interview, you quoted a Chekhov dictum: “I am not the judge of my characters, I am their best witness.” Only once in “Wake in Fright” does a character say something which really guides the audience as to what the film is about, when the Donald Pleasence character launches into a drunken rant about the supposed perfectibility of mankind. But he’s drunk, bitter, hardle a reliable authority…

Chekhov is my favorite writer. I have his complete correspondence- He had one short story called “The Horse Thief.” He had a literary friend whom he would send his stuff to for first reactions. So he sent the story and his friend replied: “Well, it’s a good story but there is one thing you don’t have : a moral stand about people stealing horses.” Chekhov wrote back and said “If you need me to tell you that stealing a horse is wrong, oh boy, you are morally in trouble. You see I’m not the judge of my characters I am their best witness.” So I am not the judge of my characters, and that became part of my artistic credo. That’s how I approach all of my characters.

Talking more about your career to date, one thing which strikes me is the role of chance, how “First Blood” may never have got made if you hadn’t had a friend high up at Warner Bros. to help you clear the rights…

Sometimes on the production of a film you need luck and chance to be on your side, because you won’t be in control of everything and chance plays an important role. On “Wake in Fright” I didn’t know how to shoot the kangaroo massacre, for instance. I said to the producer: “Give me three days to do it.” When most kangaroos see that they don’t stand a chance, they just lie down, and stay still. So at one point I told the kangaroo specialist to go get some other kangaroo ready. He came back with an 8-foot kangaroo, who was the Moby Dick of kangaroos, because some person had shot him and blinded him in one eye. He hated human beings. He wanted to rip any human being he met to the shreds. He just attacked people and went on like this non-stop for hours. We had four cameras and we kept turning and turning. When we finished, I called him Lord Nelson, because he only had one eye. And afterwards he was exhausted. I said to him “Lord Nelson, you’ve done a great job”. The whole crew applauded him. And he looked around, at these people there applauding him. And I said after that, open the gates and let him out, let him go. He took a few exploratory hops, and he looked back at me and I said “I mean it, you’ve done a great job, thank you, you can go back to your family and friends now in the outback,” and he hopped off into the darkness. Well, the chance of me getting the one kangaroo in Australia who was Moby Dick was a million to one, and that sequence was amazing, I think.

I should stress to our readers that you were encouraged by animal rights associations to include in the film those scenes of the slaughter of kangaroos in order to show the horror of what was going on legally in Australia. You didn’t go out into the outback and shoot kangaroos for the film.

I could never kill an animal, period. To kill an animal for a film is unthinkable. So that sequence worried me, but I managed to find a way round it. I got a phone call about 15 years ago, and was told that the government had passed a law banning the killing of kangaroos for the pet-food industry. Because that’s what they were doing: they were killing hundreds every night and shipping them off to America, for their cats and dogs. So in a way the film was responsible, indirectly, for the changing of the law. Nobody knew what was going on in the outback. It was a near abattoir.

“Wake in Fright” was made in 1971. It’s now seen as a precursor of a wonderful period in Australian filmmaking, films made by Australians, – Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi – who I believe were inspired to a certain extent by your film, because before that they thought you couldn’t make really interesting films in Australia.

Fred Schepisi told me that. By the way, Peter Weir was an observer on my film, and I didn’t even know it till many years later. Someone told me: “You know that young guy you allowed to watch you work? That was Peter Weir.” Anyway, Fred told me that “all of us Australian directors thought we had to go to Hollywood to make interesting films, and when you made your film we all thought,: ‘Oh, My God, we can make wonderful films here in Australia. It inspired us.” So maybe it was the beginning of the Australian film renaissance.

If you had to choose three or four films or TV work to make up a tribute to you, which would you choose?

Well, whoever chose the films for this homage – “Wake in Fright,” “Duddy Kravitz, “First Blood” – I think are three of my best films, if not my three best films. But there’s one other film, which I made for British TV, called “Edna the Inebriate Woman,” which, to me, was one of my best films. It won lots of BAFTA Awards but it’s hardly known outside of Britain. I hope my films are interesting, like “North Dallas Forty,” with Nick Nolte, about American football, which many sports writers and sports magazines say is the best film ever made about American football. “Uncommon Valor” also is a very interesting film with Gene Hackman. And I liked another British film I made, “Life at the Top,” with Lawrence Harvey and Gene Simmons.

And projects?

One of the best producers in Hollywood is Fred Roos, who’s produced Francis Ford and Sophia Coppola’s films, and he happens to live across the street from me. He came to me recently with a film project, “Music, War and Love,” to be shot in Poland, set just before and during World War II, in the world of music. So I’m going to Poland after this festival to look for locations. It’s really interesting.

 If you had to give one piece of advice to young filmmakers what would it be?

I would say: “Find a mentor.” At the CBC, in the early ‘50s, I was working as a script editor and Sydney Newman came into my office one day and he said to me…I was the script editor for two episodic anthology series, one was called General Motors Theatre and the other one was called The The Chase and Sandborn Hour…those were the two anthology series that the CBC did at the time. And Sydney came to my office and he said to me “You know, Ted, you’re a pretty good writer, not a great writer, but you’re a pretty good writer, but you know what you’d be good at?”, “I said no”, he said “You’ve got all the makings of a great director. “Would you like to take the chance at directing?” And I said “Yeah, I’d love it.” And he said, “I’m going to let you do one drama, and if I like it, you’ll get a contract, and if I don’t you’re fired. So I did a half hour play, and he liked it and that got me a year’s contract.

I also had a great encounter with Michelangelo Antonioni, when I was only 30 years old. He had seen “Life at the Top,” and he and Carlo Ponti, and the producer of “Blow Up,” felt that their film was 20 minutes too long, and for some reason, he wanted the director of ‘Life at the Top’ to see the film with him and suggest 20 minutes of cuts. He used 15 minutes of my suggestions. And then he took me out to dinner and I heard all the way how he made films, and that had a huge effect on me, talking to him about how he made films.

Coming back to dialogue, I think Antonioni would map out his films and then bring in people for dialogue…

Yes, that’s it. I said to him, explain to me, Michelangelo, why don’t you…explain to me why you have eight writers’ credits on your films. And he said: “Ted, unlike you Hollywood directors, we in Italy consider dialogue to be sound effects. When I’m in a film, with my writer, we write the film as if it is a silent film, so we tell the story in pictures”. And I said: “Well, how detailed is it?” He said 90-100 pages. I said that’s the length of a full script. He said “Yes, written as a silent film, and then the screenwriter leaves, and we sit around with the producer and I say “Who shall we get to write the dialogue between the husband and the wife? The thing is he’d get different writers. From then on I tried to tell the story as well and as often as I could with pictures. That’s what it’s about: the pictures, not listening to dialogue.

 

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