Wake in Fright
It was probably around 1974 and I was on holidays with my cousins in the small rural town of Moree in north western New South Wales. The backs of my thighs were stuck to the clammy surface of the vinyl leather-look couch in Uncle Neville’s lounge room. A potted plant stood next to a faux-wooden sideboard arranged with his various awards for service from the local council and a decanter of sherry with its matching but incomplete set of glasses. There was a single armchair, a coffee table, a framed picture of a beach scene on the wall and an empty magazine rack.
And there was a black and white television set playing scenes from a nightmare.
A blonde-haired, effete school teacher named John Grant is on a kangaroo cull with a bunch of sweat stained, beer-gutted shooters, blazing through the night on the back of a ute. They’re mowing down every living thing in their path. Kangaroos caught in the headlights are shot, gutted – dismembered. Beer is drunk and then expelled in geysers of vomit. Grant has drunken sex with a woman, but the need to vomit interrupts the act; the woman is disgusted and walks off while Grant crawls like a lizard into the grass to puke. The sun rises over the desert. Grant has tried to leave once before attempts to leave again, this time by hitchhiking on a truck. And once again he ends up back where he started. Grant’s intention was to go on a holiday. Instead, he finds himself in a landscape of such unrelenting and unforgiving horror that, in the end, the only option seems to be suicide. When even that fails, he hitches a ride back to his school.
The film was Wake in Fright [i]. John Grant – played by British actor Gary Bond – was trying to escape an outback Australian town that, in its general features of town hall, main street, pubs and people, looked disturbingly like Moree[ii]. The town in Wake in Fright was full of Aussie grotesques, from Chips Rafferty’s hard drinking, two-up playing policeman to the always more than slightly perverse British actor Donald Pleasance’s alcoholic doctor, gone to seed, living alone in a tin shack. The film evoked a familiar landscape, one just like my cousin’s outback home, but one that had been heightened into a feverish vision. Although Wake in Fright had been directed by the Canadian Ted Kotcheff, the film’s lurid intensity seemed to me, even at the age of 12, to be a spiritually faithful version of the culture I was living in. And it was ironically appropriate that it would be played on a regional TV station whose logo was an Aboriginal guy with a spear hunting down a kangaroo, both silhouetted against a livid, setting sun.
It wasn’t the first Australian film I’d ever seen – I’d watched Smiley Gets A Gun [Anthony Kimmins, 1958] and 40,000 Horseman [Charles Chauvel, 1940] at school, and Skippy The Bush Kangaroo [Eric Fullilove,1966] on a special day trip to Sydney – but this is my earliest memory of consciously seeing an Australian film. More than that, Wake in Fright was the first film set in Australia to have a lasting effect on me.
My family’s rare trips to the cinema or to the drive-in were to see the latest Disney films, quaint English comedies and later, when we were older, big budget American crime and action movies. Television was the place where you saw things that looked like home, a place where the stories were modest, downbeat and sincere. I remember hard-working Melbourne cops doing their jobs, old and friendly newsreaders in suits and black ties, funny men with rubbery faces on variety shows who made my Dad laugh.
By the mid-1970s television had become a great educator in contemporary cinema. You could discover which of the Hollywood studios were making the most interesting movies and recognise their logos. If I saw the mountain peak and stars of Paramount, it might be a political thriller like Three Days of The Condor [Sidney Pollack, 1975] while the shield and clouds of Warner Bros. might herald the beginning of a Dirty Harry [ Don Siegel, 1971] or better yet, a science fiction movie such as THX 1138 [George Lucas, 1971]. Late night TV time slots held the wonders of films by Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols, the trash and treasure of B-Movies from American International Pictures and assorted ancient examples of British social realism.
The renaissance of Australian filmmaking in the 1970s that was dubbed “New Wave” had leapt out of the cinemas. Many of the ‘quality’ examples of the new wave like Ken Hannam’s outback sheep-shearer classic Sunday Too Far Away , Fred Schepisi’s haunting revelation of repressed homosexuality in a boy’s Roman Catholic school in The Devil’s Playground  and Bruce Beresford’s sadly funny tale of middle class Labour voters in Don’s Party , were all screened on commercial television. Happily the sensation that was Alvin Purple [Tim Burstall, 1973] and its equally sex-obsessed sequel, Alvin Rides Again [David Bilcock & Robin Copping, 1974] – both a frustrating mystery to me due to their adult-only cinema ratings – gave birth to a raunchy TV series in 1976 of which I was an avid viewer. Along with sex comedies and the ribald humour of Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie  and its sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds his Own  the self-consciously middle-brow drama of movies like the mystery-horror films, Summerfield [Ken Hannam, 1977] and Long Weekend [Collin Egelston, 1978] made up a heady mix of TV programming.
Thinking back on this period it is remarkable how everything seemed to just go together as a matter of course. I vividly recall going to see Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth  at my local cinema in 1977. As a teenager with obsessive interests in science fiction and music, anything with David Bowie as an alien would have had me lining up for a ticket. This R-rated mid-70s classic was given a brutal pruning for its Australian release to achieve a more audience-friendly M certificate that would allow under-18s into the cinema. And so I went with a couple of friends one Saturday afternoon only to find that it was the second part of a double-bill with an unknown Australian film by first time director, Mike Thornhill, called The F.J. Holden .
My friends – sci-fi purists and teenage prudes – were aghast. The F.J. Holden was a story of a suburban bloke named Kev, his girlfriend Anne, his best mate Bob and the car of the title. Little of the plot remains in my memory, except for a lot of frank on-screen sex, drinking and driving around in the titular car. I felt instinctively that the acting was poor and the direction rudimentary, but the movie did look and feel like the world I lived in. I recall one scene: after a night out with his mates Kev lays in bed the next morning with a hangover. Kev’s dad mows the lawn right outside his bedroom window, the mind numbing rumble of the mower a none-too-subtle reminder that suburban life goes on. The hot red bricks of the house looked like the street I grew up in and the actor playing Kev’s father had the same potato Irish features as my uncles. And I liked the onscreen sex. That was good. It all seemed very real. Then David Bowie appeared at the top of a hill in the opening scenes of the next film on the bill, stumbling down in the dust to a river where he carefully cupped water in his hands, drank, and then counted out a wad of cash. The alien had arrived.
This bizarre collision wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. As my interest in the movies evolved I found myself seeking out screenings of obscure titles like the surrealist French-Czech animated sci-fi parable La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet ) [René Laloux,1973] or David Lynch’s debut Eraserhead . In the pre-video era seeing movies at repertory art house cinemas was the only way you could get to see films that had long since passed from first release or were marketed as too “weird” for mainstream audiences. The double-bill was standard fare[iii]. I wonder who it was who thought that the pairing of Robert Altman’s rambling music-and-politics classic Nashville  with the ancient black-and-white horror movie, Freaks [Tod Browning, 1932] was great programming, yet there they were, a perennial double bill that screened at Dave’s Encore Cinema at the Roma on Sydney’s George Street for what must have been a decade.
This eclectic free-for-all on TV and at the movies created a profound sense of dissociation when it came to the concept of cinematic purism. The high culture end of Australian cinema – typified by tiresome faux European-style movies like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock  or Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career  – the kinds of movies celebrated as ‘quality’ – seemed to me to be distant and removed from real life. Out in the suburbs it was all weird aliens, back seat sex romps and pop music fantasies.
The Super 80s
The 1980s were a kind of sunny headache. Every day you woke up to someone telling you how amazing everything was. It was the decade of the year of the book, it was the future, and it was everywhere.
It was a time before DVDs and VHS, an age when most TV stations went dead at midnight. It was as though the ‘70s didn’t really end until about 1984 when the headline stuff of news montages began to kick in – Ronald Reagan, Thatcher’s Britain™, and Crocodile Dundee [Peter Faiman, 1986] – but it finally comes into focus as I recall the era known as “The Super 80s”[iv].
I started the decade in art school studying film, video and conceptual art. The film scene outside college seemed pretty much dead. The New Wave of Australian cinema had come to an end as its star directors left for Hollywood or struggled to find support and audiences for projects at home. A few notable features got made – George Miller’s Mad Max 2  or Ken Cameron’s Monkey Grip  – but in general the early part of the decade was a very dry season indeed. The alternative experimental cinema community that had formed around the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative in the late ‘60s and ‘70s – and which had produced some incredibly adventurous films – was running out of energy too.
By contrast, Sydney’s student-boho scene in the early part of the decade was thriving. Much of it was centred on the inner urban squats, warehouses and student households of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross, Woolloomooloo and Newtown. If you were into music, you were probably into art house movies too, and fanzine publishing, art galleries, cool bookshops, cafes, cinemas and the whole do-it-yourself philosophy of the Punk era. And a big part of this time was something called “the super 8 scene”.
Super 8 was the epitome of DIY. Developed as a home movie medium in 1965, Super 8 was still supported by a number of film stock and equipment manufacturers and, although the gauge had a number of significant technical limitations, it was widely available and relatively cheap[v]. The expense of 16mm production was prohibitive and the screening of video was restricted to the number of people you could crowd around a monitor. About the only viable option was Super 8.With this aging consumer technology in hand, filmmakers could seek to emulate mainstream cinema with sophisticated and semi-professional productions utilising actors, lighting and complex post-production. Or they could just as easily shoot off a roll of film and screen the raw results.
This odd mixture of circumstances led to the creation in 1983 of The Sydney Super 8 Film Group, a group of about ten or so people who organised film screenings, film festivals, the publication of readers and magazines and who vigorously proselytized the cause of Super 8 independent film making[vi]. I joined the group in 1983 and hung around until 1988, running the group’s office upstairs in a dusty and impossible-to-clean office on busy William Street, helping to choose films for screenings and making my own movies.
In the absence of anything else – and this was long before the advent of the short film festivals like TropFest and all the other festivals that arose in its wake[vii] – the Sydney Super 8 Film Festivals were the place to see the thousands of short films being made by students, serious would-be filmmakers, dilettante scenesters and people who just wanted to have a go. .
The basic film education that I’d picked up from watching TV and going to art house cinemas wasn’t unique by any means, in fact, it was a generational rite of passage to have stayed up late enough, and stayed awake long enough, to have watched Arthur Penn’s Mickey One  on TV, or gone to the movies at Sydney University’s Footbridge Theatre to see Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One , to trekked over to the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe to see Scorsese’s Mean Streets  or caught US avant-gardist Maya Deren’s poetic-experimental classic Meshes In The Afternoon  and Nicholas Ray’s hysterical-camp masterpiece Johnny Guitar  in the art school’s film history course. The eclecticism of the 70s seemed to speed up in the early 1980s.
In 1982 at a screening of student films at the art college I saw an ambitious video called Reaction Football directed by Rowan Woods. It was a mixture of documentary street reportage and a poetic-narrative essay film featuring interviews with fans of the Balmain Tigers rugby league team and underwater sequences of tropical fish. A voice over explained that the filmmaker was searching for the connection “between fish and football”.
Reaction Football was different to anything anyone else had made. Student art films were more interested in poetic lyricism or performance art documentation than they were in constructing a narrative – or having a sense of humour. The ambition of Rowan’s video was impressive too. I had to meet the guy who had made it.
Rowan was a recognisable figure around campus. Tall and slender, with a mad crop of orange hair, he wore unfashionable white jeans and football shirts. He was slightly older than most of the other students in the year, having spent a couple of semesters at Sydney University studying marine biology and acting in Sydney University Dramatic Society productions. Dropping out of university he wound up at my art college, City Art Institute. Rowan embraced everything about the suburban experience I was trying to leave behind – working class culture like football, rock music of the ‘70s – all the stuff you were supposed to forget if you were cool and living in the inner city of Sydney in the early ‘80s.
Most of the films being screened at Super 8 festivals were self-consciously “experimental” and the influence of the “art school aesthetic” was enormous. Very few produced films that attempted a conventional narrative, or indeed, a story at all. My own collaborative efforts with Nick Meyers and Sean O’Brien[viii] were different because our shared interests in movies of the 70s – and narrative filmmaking in general – were at odds with the prevailing style. Rowan was a natural addition to our small crew. Together we made a road movie Edge of Nowhere , a tribute to all the late night movies of our teens; Ropo’s Movie Nite  parodied both pro and amateur Aussie film-making culture [with dialogue purloined from Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock]; while our magnum opus The Big Lunch , starred Rowan as an AWOL Naval officer, and featured more than 25 speaking parts[ix]. Our swansong It’s All True  was six-part portmanteau film that included a fake confessional from Rowan recalling his filmmaking philosophy and his exploits as a marine biologist[x].
Rowan’s own filmmaking went ahead quickly. In 1983 he directed Suspect Film Maker, a pointed comedic critique of Wim Wenders, the German director who was considered a demigod of European independent and art house filmmaking. Wenders’ 1982 film The State of Things – a semi-autobiographical film about a low budget filmmaker and his often inept crew – and his lost-in-exotic-locations documentary Tokyo-Ga  – set new bench marks for the vaulting pretension of anyone wanting to make cinematic art and transcend their inner city milieu.[xi] Collaborating with a friend from Sydney University drama days named Peter Alexiadis[xii], Woods’s Suspect Film Maker was the sensation of the 1983 Sydney Super 8 Film Festival.[xiii] Along with its jokes and parody of Wenders, the film used professional filmmaking techniques – the film had a performance, it featured a tracking camera and a dolly. It had sound. It was a real movie.
The next couple of projects stepped out yet further into semi-professional territory. Woods attempted a short feature on 16mm called Remind Me Tomorrow that was never completed. In 1984 Kenny’s Love was his graduation film from City Art Institute. Following the character of Kenny – played by Woods – the film is a character study of a mentally disabled man who makes his living by selling hot dogs outside rugby league games. For Kenny’s Love Woods had returned to the football obsessions that had inspired Reaction Football. Shot on 16mm and edited by Nick Meyers, Kenny’s Love was as ambitious as Woods’s other student work and was a homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver , transposing the madness of the Travis Bickle character into a forlorn yet naively optimistic character.
The thrust of the short film’s plot involves a visit from Kenny’s sister who expresses concern that Kenny can’t go on living as he does, alone in a one-bedroom flat, and will need care. Like his subsequent feature films, family is a major theme of the story; Kenny’s connection to it, and the estrangement from the ‘normal’ world that is embodied in his intellectual disability. Kenny’s obsession with football gives him a connection to the normalising masculine world of football and its fans, but he is physically removed from it. As he slowly patrols the empty space of the stadium awaiting a customer, the roars of the crowd reverberate from concrete walls. Kenny is both a part of the world but distant to it. The roots of many of Woods’s approaches to the language of film making, from editing and the placement of the camera to mis en scene and soundtrack can be found in Kenny’s Love.
In 1988, while recovering from the serious injuries he sustained in a car accident in 1986, Woods undertook a Master of Arts at City Art Institute. The Masters project began as a script for a feature film based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex transposed into the world of rugby league clubs. Although the film script was completed the film itself was never made. As part of the Masters work, Woods also made a series of large-scale photographic prints that depicted scenes from the script, a mixture of quasi-classical poses shot in the St. George Leagues Club[xiv]. The resulting images were frankly ridiculous, yet compelling: the high drama of Greek Tragedy mixed with the pathos of bars, plush-wallpaper and meat trays.
Making movies with Nick and Sean, Rowan, Catherine and Simon[xv], was a bit like being a part of a gang – a geeky, self-aware group with its own in-jokes, sense of humour, points of reference and ambitions. Our sense of identity was very much drawn as an idea in opposition to the prevailing industry of filmmaking – something called “professionalism” – and a sense of solidarity among five 20-somethings who were yet to get their breaks.
The movies I’ve described here – the amateur efforts and the semi-pro productions – form a sort of prelude. With only the vaguest sense of nostalgia, I recall the Super ‘80s as a time of possibility. We spent endless hours discussing favourite movies, the nuances of their making, their intentions. Or we’d talk about dream projects. In my memory, everything we did was based around the streets of Surry Hills – walking up and down the night-time footpaths, the asphalt still hot from the summer sun – on our way to buy a bad take-away pizza on Crown Street, a few bottles of beer and then back to Nick’s place to push the script for The Big Lunch along a few extra pages. It was great to be young.
Woods acted in a number of low-budget Australian films while he developed his own projects, and then went to film school. In 1992, while a student at the Australian Film and Television School, he directed the short film Tran the Man [xvi]. Starring David Wenham as Raymond “Tran” Moss, Woods played the part of a heavy alongside the outstanding but under-used Australian actors Skye Wansey and Stephen Leeder. Elements of the film’s plot and its mix of crime and social setting would later form the basis of Wood’s second feature Little Fish [xvii].
In these years before he made The Boys, Woods pursued the goal of directing his own feature; Tran the Man was an important step in that progress. So too, perhaps, the episodes of Police Rescue he directed for TV in 1996 and episodes of teen soap Heartbreak High . As the 80s turned into the 90s, the audiences that had come out for the Super 8 Film Festivals began to drop away and the scene that had supported the films and filmmakers of the Super 80s was over, the audience drawn to newer things, no longer interested in the little gauge that could. The few film makers who’d been seriously interested in making mainstream movies were starting to gain small footholds in the proper, grown-up industry…
Except from The Boys, Currency Press, 2010.
[i] Wake In Fright was remastered and re-released in late 2009.
[ii] Wake in Fright was shot in Broken Hill, another dusty township in north western New South Wales.
[iii] The late ‘70s were the golden years of art house cinema with numerous well-attended venues around Sydney. Their distribution role is now largely taken up by specialist DVD labels and the chance to see these kinds of films in a cinema is now restricted to cinematheques in Brisbane and Melbourne.
[iv] This punning term was coined by Super 8 filmmaker and writer/journalist Michael Hutak, to ironically comment on the relentlessly optimistic boosterism of Sydney’s underground film scene in the 1980s. A retrospective of ‘80s Super 8 film culture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999, curated by Sean O’Brien, took it as the exhibition’s title.
[v] In fact, its limitations were theorised into something called “the Super 8 effect”. The emergent Super 8 film culture of the early to mid ‘80s was adopted by film critics and art theorists such as Edward Colless, Rex Butler and Adrian Martin who, among others, helped create a sense of a genuine cultural movement.
[vi] The SS8FG still exists – sort of… In the late 80s the group became the Sydney Intermedia Network after an amalgamation with the Sydney Video Festival. In the 90s, again under new management, the group morphed into d/Lux/MediaArts. See: http://www.dlux.org.au/cms/index.php?/d/Archive.html
[vii] There was of course the Sydney Film Festival, and the Dendy Awards, with its highly contested categories for short and ‘long short’ narrative, animated and experimental films. In the period from the late 70s until the early 90s, the Dendy was dominated by student films from the Australian Film & TV School, creating the feeling that only certain kinds of films would be screened.
[viii] Our films were produced under the collective name “The Marine Biologists”.
[ix] The Big Lunch screened as part of the SFF in 1988.
[x] A few uncredited grabs from It’s All True can be glimpsed in the making-of documentary on The Boys DVD [Madman, 2004].
[xi] Summer in the City  and Alice in the Cities  had already confirmed Wenders’ international star status but his relationship with Sydney in the 1980s made him a cult figure. After a visit to the SFF with Paris, Texas in 1984 Wenders later secured co-funding for Until the End of the World  from the Australian Film Commission. He was spotted in and around Sydney for many years, once memorably with his then-girlfriend, the actress Solveig Dommartin, wandering lost in a city shopping arcade. Aside from Woods’s Wenders-parodying Suspect Film Maker, Sean O’Brien and Catherine Lowing would later make Brutini , a short film featuring a German-accented character named Solveig, a tribute to the hold that Wenders had over our imaginations.
[xii] Alexiadis was a member with Woods of the Sydney University Dramatic Society and later became a lawyer.
[xiii] Super 8 Film Festivals from 1983 until 1987 were staged over several nights and days at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, Sydney, and would often feature as many as 20+ films per session, with sell-out crowds coming to see their friend’s films, to cheer and laugh – or loudly ridicule the efforts of unknowns. The intensity of these screenings prompted Ted Colless to describe the sessions as a “theatre of cruelty”.
[xiv] A location that would be revisited in his second feature film Little Fish .
[xv] Simon von Wolkenstein, a designer and friend also first met at the SFMCO, shot most of our collaborative movies including The Big Lunch . Working as a designer, filmmaker and director, Simon also directed the TV special The Art Life at the Biennale of Sydney [ABC, 2008] and the second series of The Art Life [ABC, 2009].
[xvi] Tran The Man is included as a bonus feature on the Madman DVD of The Boys.
[xvii] Tran The Man is a fascinating companion piece to The Boys – many its key crew worked on the later feature including Nick Meyers [editor], Sam Petty [sound design], Tristan Milani [camera operator] and Janet Merewether [title design] – and uses some of the techniques that would be explored in The Boys, such as sequences shot on video and then refilmed, crowded frame composition and an experimental sound design and music mix.
[xviii] These and other insert sequences in the film were shot on Hi 8, a low grade 80s-era home video format.
[xix] The film’s title sequence was designed by filmmaker, art director and production designer Janet Merewether. After shooting hours of footage on videotape on the empty sets, a video storyboard was complied for the sequence, later re-shot on film by Woods and crew. The conceptual framework for the sequence was to represent in abstract visuals the point of view of the film’s main character, Brett Sprague [David Wenham]. See Name Behind The Title, Monument 30, June/July, 1999.