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The Australian Western: Brotherhood in Caves

No ‘Roos - No Mercy
My conversation with THE PROPOSITION director John Hillcoat

I attended the Australian audience premiere of THE PROPOSITION introduced by the film’s costars Danny Huston and Guy Pierce in Los Angeles, a western of sorts involving 3 brothers. So of course I experienced a triple enlightenment.

1. Guy Pierce – with his shirt unbuttoned to his waist- boasts ‘man cleavage’ that looks more like ass cheeks than pecs. Damn! I’m crawling back to 24 Hour Fitness with my boy boobs between my knees.

2. Danny tells great John Huston stories and Nick Cave is beyond a Bad Seed and, in fact, a gifted screenwriter

3. Australians (in attendance) still embrace Olivia Newton John/Let’s Get Physical head-band-banger fashions. I want to hang myself with lavender leg warmers…NOW!

Shortly afterward, THE PROPOSITION director John Hillcoat and I got a chance to kick-back and talk outback.

Director John Hillcoat grew up in America, Canada, Europe and Australia. He abandoned a career in Fine Arts to instead enroll at Melbourne’s Swinburne Film School where he produced two celebrated short dramas, THE BLONDE’S DATE WITH DEATH followed by FRANKIE AND JOHNNY. He proceeded to cultivate a successful career directing/editing music videos for such artists as INXS, Crowded House, Depeche Mode, Manic Street Preachers, Robert Plant, Suede, Placebo, Muse and THE PROPOSITION screenwriter Nick Cave.

How did you and screenwriter/songwriter Nick Cave begin your creative association?
It’s been more than 20 years. We’ve been discussing this film for 17 years. He acted in my very first film, GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD and did the music. He also scored the music for my 2nd film, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD.

Can you comment on Nick’s choice of music and its effectiveness in storytelling?
It was certainly a great advantage having your screenwriter work as your primary songwriter. From his and my perspective, first comes the script, and last- comes the music. He wrote music cues but we didn’t want the want the soundtrack to be song heavy or smother the scene(s).
Within the music there is a stark juxtaposition of a civilized utopian dream confronting the reality of that dream. Especially the end song, there is a rawness, a freshness that is just one take (no click tracks)

What do you see as the primary differences between an “American Western” and an “Australian Western” and are there similar themes?
The indigenous culture is very different. The major difference however is the moral ambiguity of the main character. In an American “Western” per say, it’s the good guys vs. the bad guys. In Australia, with regard to our “Westerns’ we celebrate incompetence. To explore and embrace the great failings the same way American directors celebrate victory.

The sparse storyline of THE PROPOSITION moves the characters to a very fateful Christmas Day. How does the culmination of these events play into religion?
It’s less religious and more politically symbolic as a ritualized event of civilization. The British wanted to impose refined culture and European tradition in a harsh environment.

The Bug Factor: In almost every instance onscreen the actors appeared to be covered in flies, sweat and dirt. How harsh were the shooting conditions?
Everyone swallowed his/her fair share of insects. Also, we shot at the hottest time of year (December). About 110 F., and there were instances that the camera was so hot, you couldn’t touch it, and we needed to wait until nightfall. The other big dilemma was the risk of dehydration. We would pass around enormous trays of water, every hour, it bonded us, actually.

The cast, particularly the Burns Boys: Danny Huston, Guy Pierce and Richard Wilson were spot on. For this “fable of three brothers” was it difficult to align 3 actors who could convey the needed chemistry?
Going back a few steps, in this particular case we’re taking a historical moment in time – the foundation of Australia as a nation. Nation building frontiers are always founded on violence. In our story this violence is portrayed by three faces: Arthur (Danny Huston) represents the unacceptable face of violence. Charlie, (Guy Pierce) the middle brother, and the more acceptable face of violence; struggles to do the right thing. Then there’s Mikey (newcomer Richard Wilson) – the youngest, he is innocently swept up in violence and has no control in taming its force.

When did you first explore the Australian outback and scout potential locations?
Awhile back I took a camping trip across Australia with my production designer Chris Kennedy. It was the most incredible trip. That’s when the mighty power of this land really hit me and drew me into the aboriginal presence in Australia. That’s when I realized I had to try and make a film utilizing the entire landscape tracing the birth of the true Australia. The challenge was to balance the mythical with the harsh landscape. My Director of Photography, Benoit Delhomme, fused the landscape and light which was quite amazing.

Are you surprised by audience reactions so far?
It seems women have expressed they love the film, more so than men actually. Perhaps it has something to do with seeing men as flawed human beings who fumble with immense awkwardness, also women seem touched by the tenderness of the relationship between Captain Stanley and his wife (the porcelain Emily Watson)

THE PROPOSITION directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Nick Cave opened in select NY/LA venues on May 5th. It will expand into more theaters just in time for Memorial Weekend.

by Craig Parish


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