Over the past two decades, Australian director Rolf de Heer has premiered four films in Cannes: “The Quiet Room” (1986), “Dance Me to My Song” (1998), “Ten Canoes” (2006) and now “Charlie’s Country.” Peter Debruge talked with the filmmaker about his career.
Variety: When “The Quiet Room” was invited to compete in 1996, was that your first time in Cannes?
De Heer: No, I first visited in 1985, and it totally changed my perception as to how to make films. I came completely ignorant of anything. We had made a small children’s feature film, and we put it in a suitcase and took it to Cannes to sell it. There had been no preparations made, so of course, the film never came out of the suitcase. There was such a hive of activity. Three times a day, 15 biplanes would fly past carrying Superman banners. Variety had 300-page editions, most of which were full-page ads for films. It gave me such wonderful perspective about where I was as a filmmaker — which was nowhere. I learned to think about things in terms of, “How do you make a film that will cut through this amount of noise?”
Variety: And how did you apply that lesson to your filmmaking?
De Heer: With “The Quiet Room,” because it easily could have been a kitchen-sink drama, I had a saying for myself when I began to work on it: “In the Greek tragedies, no one ever knew what the gods had for breakfast.” If you’re going to have a shot of a kettle on a stove, it had better be there for profoundly good reason. Or else it doesn’t belong.
Variety: Like “Ten Canoes,” your new film “Charlie’s Country” has an Aboriginal focus. What draws you this subject?
De Heer: I didn’t set out to make something indigenous. “Charlie’s Country” came up only because I have a relationship with (co-writer and star) David Gulpilil. He was in jail and he needed something to create a future in his life. The only thing I could do to help him was to make a film with him. In 2001, we had made “The Tracker” together, and for a long time, David was on to me about making another film with him — even before the first one.
Variety: Beyond your collaboration with Gulpilil, is there any connection between the three films?
De Heer: For me, making any film is too hard to do it more than once, so if I made a thriller that was very effective, the last thing I would want to do is make another thriller. After “Ten Canoes,” I made “Dr. Plonk,” which is a silent, black-and-white film. Each film is an exploration into a new part of cinema, and I work hard at reinventing a different way of thinking for each project.
Variety: That would explain the sheer range of subjects and styles in your career, from period jazz fantasy (“Dingo”) to post-apocalyptic satire (“Bad Boy Bubby”).
De Heer: After “Dingo,” I stopped the idea in my head that I had a career. I simply became someone who made films occasionally. As long as I keep the budgets low, I’m in the astonishingly lucky position of being able to finance precisely what I wish to do, but it’s not about a trajectory or anything like that.