Wake in Fright director Ted Kotcheff talks to us about his past, present and future

Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright arrives on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK next week from the Masters of Cinema. We were lucky enough to recently sit down for an hour or so of Skype time with Mr. Kotcheff to discuss that film and much, much more.

Below is the first portion of our interview. This covers his early days in television and film, how he built upon on first works and what he thinks of new technologies, such as digital cinema and 3D.

Check back soon for the second part of our interview, which will focus solely on Wake in Fright.

How did you first get into filmmaking, a journey that I understand began in television?

Yes, what happened was that I worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a director. I started working in television in 1952, before they even went on the air, and then I was allowed to direct in 1955, at the age of twenty-four. I was the youngest director in Canada. Then after two years I decided, as a result of directing for television, that I wanted to be a film director. So the choice was either to go to Los Angeles or to England. I had vague ideas that I could work in he theatre too, which I did.

There was no film industry [in Canada]. There was nothing. Zilch. They weren’t even thinking about having one. There was precious little theatre. So if you wanted to work in films you had to leave the country.

The great thing about the UK is that film, theatre and television was all located in one place, in London. So I could work in television too. That’s what I did when I first got there. I started to work in television with Armchair Theatre on Sunday nights. That was a groundbreaking one because we did a lot of interesting playwrights, like Alun Owen. He was a Liverpool writer. It was the days of the provincial writer in England. Angry young men, all that stuff. Kitchen sink dramas. We participated in that general cultural movement in England at the time.

My first film was actually a result of working in the theatre. Alun Owen did a play called Progress to the Park. I did it and a guy called Ivan Foxwell had seen the play, it was a funny play, and he thought, ‘oh, this guy can really direct comedy’. My very first film that I made in England was James Mason and John Mills, called Tiara Tahiti. Can you imagine, doing your first film and you’re shooting in Tahiti? [Laughs].

That was my very first film, and to work with two great actors like those two. They were amazing.

What was different about directing that film as opposed to the television you had been directing and what did you learn on that film?

Well, it’s funny, I learned more from the second. I did Life at the Top shortly afterwards and it was a big honour to do a sequel to one of the most successful, artistic films that came out of Britain, Room at the Top. I remember when I was doing Life at the Top there was a cameraman, a guy called Ozzie Morris, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Oliver.

And television, because of the time constraints and budget constraints, tends to be a bit more static. There was a scene [in Life at the Top] between Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons and I did it in a very static way and I turned around an looked at the camera and Ozzie said, ‘Kotcheff, it’s called motion pictures, not standing around talking pictures.’ [Laughs].

So I restaged it so the movement reflected the relationships and what was going on inside each of them. So, I learned through people like him. A lot of talk goes on in television, films are pictorial. You tell a story, if you can, pictorially and not verbally. You can have great dialogue but the story must exist in terms of pictures. That’s what I learned from the first two.

You’ve continued that relationship with television with shows such as Law and Order: SVU too. How has television changed do you think?

Yes, I executive produced Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and I directed some of them too. Mostly I produced them. I think television now is doing sometimes much more interesting work than is evident in films. Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Homeland and Downtown Abbey. They’re doing interesting work, which they never did to that extent before. And a lot of that is because they’re doing these mini-series. They’re not trying to do episodic television, a self encapsulated story once a week. They’re doing stories that last for nine weeks.

There have been technological shifts too. What’s it been liking making that change and shooting digitally?

On my series we switched after the fifth year from film to digital. We saved a lot of money, you can shoot faster and do much more interesting staging. Technique has had a profound effect on the way they’re directed.

Do you have a preference, between film and digital?

No, I still think that for films there are subtleties that are not achievable on tape but I think that’s probably a delusion. I’ve never made a film using it, I did a TV series on it. It had a profound affect upon it. I tested HiDef and I said, ‘this is not an artistic tool’. I had two cameras side by side, HiDef and film. I can look at the image and read the titles of the books in the background – Moonchild, David Simon and so on [we’re talking on a Skype video call and Mr. Kotcheff is referencing the books he can see behind me]. Infinite depth of field, that’s not an artistic tool. I want to look at this man’s face. I do not wish to be able to read the titles of those books behind him.

So I said to them, ‘you’ve got to have a thing where you can control the depth of field’. The other thing was that at that time the high definition camera would have a nervous breakdown shooting outside. If the sun and shade had a big difference the camera didn’t know what should be exposed. Should it be exposing for the sun or the shade. I said, ‘no, film would never do that, you’ve got to do something to rectify this because otherwise I’ve got to erect silk over the actors to prevent too much light getting in’. Or I’ve got to pour 10ks into the shadows so it won’t go too dark. We haven’t got time for that on television. It’s expensive. I said to them, ‘this is a technological thing, you can fix it’. And they did. Those were my two objections and once they had cleared up my two objections I switched over to HiDef.

I understand you’re possibly directing in 3D next? [Limo 3D]

There was going to be but the film stumbled. It’s not going ahead right now. I was going to do 3D but it didn’t happen. I’ve never done it so I’m not sure if I’m a fan or not but I’m definitely interested to explore it and see what I could do with it, pictorially. In terms of staging and the characters. I’ve seen some 3D films and they’re extraordinary.

What’s impressed you?

A film I didn’t care for that much, Gravity. Human relationships and character… but the 3D effects were, of course, what it was all about. And it was extraordinary what they did. That was the recent one. That depended totally on the 3D effects.

Sadly, Oswald Morris passed away on March 17th.