Cannes: Rolf de Heer talks to us about Charlie’s Country, loose filmmaking process and David Gulpilil

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At the centre of Rolf de Heer‘s latest film, Charlie’s Country, is the titular Charlie, an aboriginal man in a struggle with the modern Australian society that rejects his way of life. Charlie is played by the much-loved actor David Gulpilil, and the film is obviously as personal for him as it is for director-writer de Heer.

I sat down with de Heer shortly after Charlie’s Country‘s European premiere as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard. We talked about the personal side of the story, de Heer’s filmmaking process, and the political significance of the film.

First up, Mr. de Heer explained his filmmaking process in general terms.

Rolf de Heer: I tend to work quite instinctively. I write, produce and direct and for me all three are really only one. I always joke that in this case the director has perfect communication with the writer and there’s never a fight. And there’s always perfect communication with the producer and there’s never a fight. It allows me to work in this way. I deliberately avoid intellectualising. I deliberately avoid articulating sub-themes, I just don’t want to think about them because if I do then I start to create something that is contrived rather than authentic to feeling, which is I, I guess, my cinema.

Which is why I don’t work in Hollywood, because they are huge structures that are contrived. And they feel that way. And there’s a good room for that. It’s just not my cinema, that’s all.

[Before I begin shooting] I haven’t articulated for myself what the feel of a film should be but I have sense that there should be a pace to it, to most of it, that reflects the culture that we’re working with. With some of the shots of David, that are quite long, you’re not sure quite yet how it’s going to sit in the edit and so you give yourself room. And sometimes you find you’ve not shot enough, it’s not long enough, because it’s just so wonderful and expressive that you could have had more. I just feel it.

Obviously I need to articulate sometimes, when I’m talking to an actor or a crew person, but I do it rarely. I feel it, it feels right, I’m good.

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I usually set up the externals of the film, which is a sort of contrivance where I set up the parameters, and then I lose myself in the film. Once those parameters are set I keep them. So the parameters in the case of Charlie’s Country were, because of the history of how it came about, that it’s a film with David, it must have David very central, it’s got to be contemporary, David has to be allowed to speak either language and there’s not going to be a lot of formal dialogue written. And as much as possible, don’t make it about David’s life but use things that David knows in the structure of the story.

Because when I met David at the beginning of this project he was in jail. He was not well, particularly, he was depressed and I didn’t know to what extent he could still be a great actor. There was some doubt in me that he could still be great, because of the damage that he has done to himself over the years. I think that’s the best way to phrase it.

To create elements that would allow him to still be great. To give us the maximum chance of doing something extraordinary with him. Once they [the parameters] are set, I lose myself. And they stay very strong. I do think about those external parameters but then I don’t articulate much beyond that, I don’t intellectualise much beyond that.

With this one I deliberately tried to keep it looser. It varies film to film. The Quiet Room was a film that was completely storyboarded. Every single shot in that film is almost precisely what the storyboard was. That’s one extreme. And another extreme might be Charlie’s Country. That’s probably not the most extreme but it’s sitting there. I think Dr. Plonk is probably more extreme, where I had a scene that said, ‘the police chase Plonk’ and there was a day scheduled. And we got there to shoot and I said, everybody go home except you and you. And we spent a day working it out and two weeks shooting it. That’s probably more extreme.

Dr Plonk

But Charlie’s Country was loose deliberately, because I had learnt from Ten Canoes how to work with the community and that’s better loose than tight. If you rehearse that, it goes down the drain. You find ways to shoot that doesn’t need rehearsals. David is okay, because he’s a wonderful actor. He can rehearse and he’s fine. Sometimes he likes to and sometimes he doesn’t. But there’s a precision. I have a sense of what it’s going to be like. But a lot of it needs to be worked out at the time, on a film like Charlie’s Country, to give David the maximum opportunity to be great, I don’t want to put him in a straightjacket. Whereas in another situation there is a rigour required because otherwise you don’t get the material that you need. But with Charlie’s Country it can be looser.

[David] was sixteen when he was plucked out of obscurity as a dancer and brought to set. He couldn’t speak English at all. One of the first things that happened was that one of the senior actors on that taught him how to drink. Taught him how to get drunk. And then taught him how to act sober whilst being drunk. this was his initial role models. And he did a film with Dennis Hopper early on, and you imagine where that would have taken him as a young, impressionable Aboriginal man. So, he thought all that stuff was fantastic. Which is why he finds these destructive habits of alcohol and so on that get him into trouble. So he a love/hate relationship with it.

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He has a love/hate relationship with substances of any sort. Like alcohol and ganja and so on… and with the process of filmmaking too. Up until this point, he was very enamoured with it all, but he’s not any more. And he’s not here [in Cannes] because he’s found other things in his life that are more important. And in this case, there’s a land use agreement being negotiated and it includes his traditional lands. And there are always mining interests and tourist interests that want to get in. There’s a land use agreement that is being negotiated and that to him now is more important than coming here and walking the red carpet. He loves the red carpet. But when he made this decision I thought, good on you.

I think he still loves to act for a number of reasons. One of them is that it gives him money and his life and in his lifestyle money is the thing that disappears the quickest. Because there’s always people that want it and he’ll always give it. I was with him in Darwin briefly to get a map of his traditional lands and within twenty minutes, maybe, he was approached by Aboriginal people no fewer than twelve times and asked for money. So, money is so important and that’s also why he likes to act. But he likes the process, he likes the people and he likes the business. But he’s changed. He hasn’t had a drink since before jail. It’s remarkable. He’s given it up. It’s a big change.

Much of the story is stuff that he knows but it’s not stuff that has happened to him. Charlie lives in a community under what is called the intervention. The intervention was the government coming in and taking over a lot of communities. Now, David has never lived in a community during the intervention. He’s never decided to ‘go bush’. He’s never got sick in the bush and been taken to hospital. And so on. It’s not his life. But there are things that he knows. His relationship with the queen. He has a relationship with the queen in his head, because he was taken to Buckingham Palace as part of Walkabout and they had a royal command performance of the film. And he has an order of Australia. He loves the queen. That’s from his life in a way. But it’s not his life. It’s just something that he’s connected to that he can draw on.

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He has access to a lot of those things. He can imagine what it would have been like… He knows his frustrations with white society, in a way. He can easily play that stuff and draw on his experience.

I don’t think about working within a tradition. I don’t think about the continuity of those sorts of things. I don’t think about the continuity of a career. I get to a point where I need to make a film. Whatever the need is. Sometimes it’s financial. In this case it was David. I get to the point where I need to make a film and then I make a film.

There’s talk about this trilogy of Ten Canoes, The Tracker and Charlie’s Country but I was not at all conscious of that. It was pointed out to me. Well, then it’s an accidental trilogy and i can see how you think it’s a trilogy but there are films in-between so don’t think this is me. This one is for this reason and this one is for this reason. Not connected to each other. Charlie’s Country was because David was in jail. What was going to happen to him when he came out, exactly the same situation. Unless we can do something that will break that cycle. And in some way the film has succeeded on that level.

The Tracker was used politically was and I was spat at by white people for having made that film. But equally there were white people that thought it was fantastic and it became part of the debate about our history. It was in the time beginning to be opened up. It was almost being ignored. Ten Canoes had an effect, a cultural effect. It’s become part of the culture in some way. I’m sure this in some way will open up an aspect of political debate. No film can change something. It can help a little bit. It’s part of something.

There were a number of different things intersecting that made [Charlie’s Country] quite a difficult film to shoot. The shoot was immensely difficult to get it right. We had weather. I scheduled it to shoot at the end of the wet season in such a way that the wet should just be disappearing. Well, there was no wet. It almost hadn’t happened that year. It was disastrous for everything around. And I thought, we’re not going to get our rain.

I rescheduled immediately and we had all this other stuff to shoot first. And then it did begin to rain. But then it didn’t stop. We couldn’t keep shooting because everything was a foot under water. And in the first part of the film before the rain, there shouldn’t be rain. You shouldn’t get a clue about rain, you shouldn’t think about rain. If there’s big puddles around, you think about rain and then when it starts to rain you’re not surprised. So, that’s a difficulty.

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There are cultural sensitivities. There are language differences. There are the problems of David and his culture. Those are significant because people in his culture don’t understand – some don’t, some do – the outside world.

This classic story that I used to get quite a bit… Mel Gibson, who was then still thought to be an Australian actor, is world famous. David Gulipal is world famous. In their minds David was world famous because they’d seen in magazines articles about David and articles about Mel Gibson. What’s the difference, they’re both Australian actors? Now we get to the tricky business. Mel Gibson earns, because they’ve read it somewhere, 20 million dollars a film, so David either earns 20 million dollars a film and he’s hiding the money, which is culturally the worst thing he can do, because it’s a completely sharing culture, or he’s getting what he says he gets which means he’s an idiot because he’s being ripped off by white people. He can’t win. It’s very difficult for him in his own community.

Then there are superstitions, there are cultural things at work. Deeply important cultural issues of death and sacred land. They all interfere. Where can you put the Humpy. Well, it can’t be there where it should be because someone is buried over there. And because I have no access to the languages I can’t get an accurate idea of what is going on. And because I can’t behave like a Westerner and just say, okay lets work this out. You can’t do it that way. You have to find out, you have to be loose. They are difficulties but I’ve learnt to work with them.

I didn’t feel the need to highlight the issues, because that’s not how I work. That would be contriving something. I had my parameters and we set out to make the best possible film within those… I never thought about all the complexities. I never condensed any of them. They grew in the film and they grew. Anything that grows out of it, that’s because of how the story went. That’s the way we made the film. It’s not that I’m trying to evade the questions about this sort of stuff, because I’m not, I just don’t think about that stuff.

I think the issues are very complex. I just haven’t articulated…I know these things bubble away in my mind. You could decide amongst yourselves the way the white people are depicted and they’re not all bad people, at all. I didn’t make a decision to make all the people not bad people. I simply created characters that I wanted to have balance. If I think about it afterwards, in the back of mind somewhere, but not in any way on the surface or articulated, it would be wrong to make any of these people bad or bastards because the other thing is that it would be too easy to just think that these are bad people. It’s not that. It’s because we are who we are and they are who they are.

Thanks to Rolf for taking the time to answer my questions.

Charlie’s Country already has distribution in place in Australia, where it will be out this July, and I suspect we’ll hear about releases in more territories soon.