WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971) is the story of one man’s lost weekend in the scorching Australian Outback. A nightmarish existential horror thriller that lives up to its formidable reputation, the film has been on an incredible journey that has included commercial failure, 40 years of obscurity and a close shave with an incinerator.
Following a painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration, it’s now been recognised as a ‘Cannes classic’, thanks to Martin Scorsese. The film’s director, Ted Kotcheff, may be best known for FIRST BLOOD (1982) and WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S (1989), but back in 1971 he’d already cut his teeth directing a host of big stars, including Ingrid Bergman, James Mason and George Segal.
I began by asking Ted how he wound up in the Australian Outback helming the strange beast that is WAKE IN FRIGHT.
Evan Jones [who wrote the script] was a good friend. He said, ‘Ted, I’ve got this incredible Australian novel called Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook, you should read it, it’s right up your alley.’ So I read it and I loved it. I loved the central character, I loved all the people of the Outback. I loved the whole atmosphere. And he convinced Group W films, an English company financing the feature, to hire me to direct it. That’s how it all came about.
How did it then slip through the cracks and become a ‘lost film’, virtually impossible to view for decades?
It happens much more often than you think. A film comes out and if it’s not a financial success no one has any reason to store it. It’s a useless piece of celluloid. And this happened to my film. The only country the film was a success in was France, because the French love the idea of men under existential stress.
In America it did no business whatsoever. United Artists didn’t believe in it, so they didn’t advertise it. It just disappeared. It was quickly yanked and that was that. Group W films, who’d financed it with an Australian partner, went bankrupt. So the film was swallowed up by creditors, and as time passed there were no prints left for anybody to see it.
The editor of the film, Tony Buckley, spent ten years trying to find it and travelled from Australia to London to Dublin to New York. He was sent all over the place. And he tracked it down to a warehouse in Pittsburgh, of all places. And there it was, 200 cans of negative – all in two large containers, marked in big red letters FOR DESTRUCTION. Had he got there one week later it would have been incinerated, gone forever.
But before the film disappeared, it screened in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. You were in good company there, with Milos Forman’s TAKING OFF, Jack Nicholson’s DRIVE, HE SAID and, interestingly enough, Nicolas Roeg’s WALKABOUT. Did you have the feeling that you’d made something special, that stood up against those films?
You’re absolutely right, I thought it was one of my better films, if not one of my best. I was sorry it didn’t succeed. It got some great reviews, from Pauline Kael and Christopher Isherwood. But nobody came to see it! It was depressing. Of course it stings a bit. But for me the great thing is the making of the film. That’s what gives me pleasure and energy. I hope people share my feelings about it, but I can’t control that.
It seems like a bizarre oversight that this film would be shelved in that way, it’s such a unique experience. What were your influences at that time?
Some people ask me if I was influenced by Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I happened to know Sergio Leone, so maybe it was subconscious, but certainly not deliberately!
Sergio Leone’s landscapes aren’t nearly as full of claustrophobia and existential dread as those in WAKE IN FRIGHT.
I must have been in a state of despair! When I last saw the film I thought, ‘Boy, the man who made this is despondent about human beings.’ I think I must have been. The decade of the ’60s was the first time humanity could commit suicide – because of the H-bomb. We came very close to doing it. And then the whole Vietnam thing… human beings have a dark side to their nature, and sometimes that drive in each one of us can assert itself. So the picture was, I think, reflective of those feelings.
Had you visited Australia before the shoot began?
No. When I went out there I was a little trepidatious at first, making a film about a culture I knew very little about. But I’m a Canadian and it had similarities with the north of Canada. The same vast empty spaces that are paradoxically not liberating but imprisoning. That first shot, when the camera does 360 degrees and you see 500 miles of nothing in every direction. That’s not liberating, you feel you’re trapped.
That sense of being trapped runs through the film on many levels. There’s a sweltering, oppressive heat to the colour palette of the film.
One thing I tried to do was pay great attention to detail. I wanted the audience to feel the heat, the dust, the flies. I told my production designer, ‘I don’t want any cool colours in this film. I don’t want to see a single blue or green. I only wanna see red, yellow, brown, orange, burnt sienna.’ I wanted the audience to feel the heat that I felt out there.
I would release flies on set. Tons of flies were delivered to me every day. They were omnipresent. I was talking all the time, as director, and flies would go into my mouth. I became a champion consumer of flies, I used to consume at least 20 a day. So I would release the flies in the interior shots, I wanted to convey that experience. Some people said to me, ‘After I saw your film I just wanted to go home and have a shower!’ Good! I wanted the tactile experience of being out there. Let me tell you, it’s the most inhospitable place in the whole world to live in! That’s why I admire those people.
The actors playing the inhabitants of the Yabba seem completely rooted in that environment. Obviously he’s not Australian, but Donald Pleasence gives a mesmerising performance, surely one of his best.
He’s amazing. When someone is a good friend as well, you’re able to communicate easily and freely. He knows where you’re coming from. It was a pleasure to work with him.
Had you worked with him before?
Yeah, I worked with him on a James Thurber story called The Greatest Man in the World, and we became very good friends as a result. He was such a wonderful actor and a wonderful friend. So it was the natural thing when I came to do this film that I’d hire him to play the doctor.
He plays an amazing drunk. Was he actually drinking?
You know there’s that scene at the end when he goes on a drunken maniacal opus? He said, ‘I don’t think I can do that scene unless I can really drink alcohol.’ I said, ‘Come on, Donald, you’re one of the greatest actors in the world, the performance you’ve been giving is extraordinary.’ And he said, ‘No, no – the maniacal quality you get sometimes when you’re really out of control and drunk, I just can’t get to that point.’ And I said, ‘Come on, just do it’.
So we did the scene and he was quite good in it. Then I saw the dailies and went back to him and I said, ‘Donald, you know yourself so well. Here’s a bottle of whisky. Drink it, and we’ll do the scene again.’ And he grabbed it and said, ‘Aw, Ted, I love you!’ and he got to where he wanted to go!
It’s an intoxicating performance. The whole film actually feels like being drawn into a binge with these guys. Crazy amounts of beer are drunk. Were the actors actually drinking?
Well, interestingly enough, the very first day of shooting I had Chips Rafferty, who played the sheriff of the town, he was a very well-known Australian actor. And there was a scene where he pours a whole pint down, and watches Gary Bond pour a whole pint down, and then he goes to get another round. So we do this shot and Chips Rafferty drinks, spits it out and says, ‘What is this, Ted?’ And I said, ‘It’s non-alcoholic beer.’
‘Non-alcoholic beer? I can’t act with non-alcoholic beer, I want real beer!’ And I said, ‘Chips, for goodness sake be sensible, we’re going to drink two pints of beer in this one set-up, I may do eight takes of this shot! Eight times two is 16 pints, and you’ve got the rest of the day to go!’ And he said, ‘Ted, you provide the beer, and I provide the acting.’
So he used real beer, and in all the weeks and weeks that we shot never once did he show the slightest hint of inebriation, or the slightest slurring of words. It was extraordinary. All the extras in the background – on those big pub scenes – we used real beer. I tell you, it’s the driest place in the world, and sometimes all there was to drink was beer. You had to do it, just to get through the day!
I did wonder if you’d done much drinking with locals to get into that particular mindset.
I spent a lot of time going around pubs, talking to people for three or four weeks. I played two-up – the gambling game – which was illegal but no policeman in the world would dare to interrupt. I had to participate in their way of life in order to transform that experience into pictures. One thing that’s interesting about the town is that the men outnumber the women three to one. I asked the editor of the local newspaper if there were any brothels. None. So I asked him what people do for human contact. And he said, ‘They fight.’ And everybody always wanted to fight me!
There are some great fight scenes in the film. Like the one where two of the boozers are wrestling and it’s full of this homoerotic subtext. Even though they’re taking chunks out of each other it also seems strangely loving, like a big rough and tumble cuddle.
You’re right, that’s the sequence I used to illustrate this desire to fight all the time, all three of them rolling around together in the dirt.
When I made the film I looked like a ’60s hippy. Handlebar moustache and hair down to the middle of my back. What I discovered is that people who said, ‘Come on, let’s fight,’ didn’t want to hit me, they wanted me to hit them. Because it’s a form of touching.
You must be delighted that the film has finally seen the light of day, and is reaching the audience it deserves.
It’s amazing. It started about a year and a half ago. Drafthouse Films championed the film and got it released in 30 major US cities. I hope that it’ll have a similar response in Great Britain: a whole new generation of filmgoers responding to my film that I made 40 years ago!