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Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Australian Directors Overseas
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: January 27, 1998

Peter Weir, George Miller, Bruce Beresford, Richard Franklin, Gillian Armstrong - these are the filmmakers that shaped Australia's cinema revival of the 1970s. Such creative geniuses, drawing upon a country's untold history, refused to submit to pressures resulting from restrictive budgetary constraints, creating works that exhibited both plot and stylistic innovation. Filmmakers from the Post New Wave era of Australian film, similarly, have redefined the public face of Australian cinema (O'Regan, 1997), breaking free from commercial restrictions by creating works that sacrifice a glossy exterior for a more unique, deeply 'artistic' product. Australian film critic Tom O'Regan has cited the fact that, "Australian filmmakers need to provide inventive solutions to being on the margins of the more dominant film cultures of the USA, UK and continental Europe." (O'Regan, 1996, p.110)

Such inventiveness, according to O'Regan, should not lead filmmakers too far from the Hollywood mould, though, if they wish to be rewarded with positive financial results in the international territories. Doing so, he suggests, could alienate an audience that has been "trained into accepting Hollywood protocols as they are" (O'Regan, 1996, p.96). As a result, films from directors such as Baz Luhrmann, Paul J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse exhibit a wide canvas of story and stylistic elements, while conforming to many of the conventions of mainstream (Hollywood) cinema. Recent films, such as Muriel's Wedding (1994), Sweetie (1989), Bad Boy Bubby (1994), Strictly Ballroom (1993), Proof (1992) and The Adventures of Pricilla Queen of the Desert (1994) have showcased elements referred to as 'quirky', 'individual' or 'eccentric'. These films can be seen as indicative of the Post New Wave struggle to create works that depart from the banal, social realist settings of earlier Australian film (O'Regan, 1997), as well as an attempt to tap into the lucrative US market by constructing works around universal themes. While this has, on occasion, been dismissed as an "international contamination" of Australian cinema (Gibson, 1992), it has been recognised that, primarily as a financial consideration, the Australian/American connection in films is ultimately necessary in order to support the local industry (O'Regan, 1997). As Scott Murray wrote in 1984, "For almost all Australian films, it is no longer possible to break even in the local market. Overseas audiences must be found" (Murray, 1984).

The lack of adequate public funding, resulting from the partial dismissal of the 10BA tax concessions, coupled with the low budgets that a reliance on government financial support necessitates does, regardless of Australian filmmakers' predilection for innovation, restrict artists from reaching the "larger international stage that Hollywood can provide" (Duran, 1996). George Miller has voiced his concerns regarding the current funding system that operates within the Australian industry by stating,

"…what's happening now is that people can't even concentrate on making the films. They've become much more financiers and producers…" (Miller in Hamilton et al, 1986)

Some would argue that Australian films have, quite directly, benefited from such limitations, enabling filmmakers to create works of artistic, social and political merit without falling prey to the lure of 'the show'. Still, America remains the most potent and powerful filmmaking nation in the world. As such, most successful Australian directors have, at some stage, been compelled to work in Hollywood, thus increasing the probability that their films will reach the larger international stage. A comparison of films produced by Australians in the US, and their past Australian works enables us to discover whether or not such directors are able to carry Australian innovation and originality into their bigger-budget mainstream work.

It is important to note, however, that a number of horror stories have emerged from those who have gained experience working within Hollywood's rigidly established studio systems. While the government-based funding of Australian films, the low budgets and the need to differentiate the local product from that created in the United States provides Australian filmmakers with almost total creative freedom at home, the hierarchy that exists within the Hollywood 'factories' means that creative personnel, the director included, may need to compromise their artistic vision for proven money-making formulae. (Groves, 1996, p.7) Clearly, this leads to a serious hampering of the creative process. It has oft been mentioned that the American studio system, within which unions, studios and power figures constantly battle for control, has forced Hollywood films closer towards the business side of filmmaking, ignoring the medium's reliance of originality, risk-taking and the creative freedom of the director. Gillian Armstrong, the Australian director who produced the critically-acclaimed My Brilliant Career (1979) before moving to the States to film Mrs Soffel (1984) and Little Women (1995), has criticised the factory-line production of American studio-produced films by commenting that,

"The worst thing about the [high] turnover of the creative people at the studio is that many of them don't care in their hearts about the films." (Armstrong in Hamilton, 1986)

Similarly, Richard Franklin, regarded as Australia's foremost action/thriller director of the Renaissance period, who directed Psycho II (1983) and Cloak and Dagger (1984) in the States, has praised the technical professionalism of Hollywood crews, while conversely pointing out that the search for "…the mighty dollar…leads to bad things too." (Franklin, 1994). He described the weaknesses of the committee/union-reliant system in stating,

"…when one committee tries to please another in the distribution department, individual passion and vision are lost as films try to be all things to all men. The end result pleases no one…" (Franklin, 1994)

George Miller, while working on Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Bill Bennett, during his Hollywood stint as the director of Two if by Sea (1995), both concluded that the only way to manage the strange power games and the hierarchy of Hollywood is to shout. These power struggles are a far cry from the "slap on the back egalitarianism of Aussies" that Franklin remembers so fondly. (Franklin, 1994) In extreme cases, such as Hollywood's collective dismissal of Stephen Elliott's Frauds (1994), the power games can, proverbially, send directors over the edge (Elliott wound up spending six months in a stress clinic at the age of 26 and vowed never to make another film) (Duran, 1996). Stephen Elliott's experience is highlighted by his statement that the big money offers provided by the studios are; "the free cheese of Hollywood, but the only free cheese is in a mousetrap." (Duran, 1996) While such experiences prove that Hollywood is a system that can "crush and crucify people" (Schepisi in Hamilton et al, 1986), it conversely provides an avenue through which "you've got a chance to use the tools of the Hollywood studios very effectively for your film." (Miller in Hamilton et al, 1986)

Of the directors that have found success in Hollywood, most, such as Weir, Miller, Armstrong, Schepisi and, to a lesser degree, Luhrmann, do have their own horror stories, but have learnt to adapt to 'the system'. It can be seen in the body of work of each of these directors that once they had 'proven themselves' by creating popular, critically-approved works in America, they were granted a greater level of creative freedom than what was previously provided to them. As such, many Australian-born directors drew upon elements of the Australian cultural identity, the innovative style of previous Australian efforts, and from the themes and visual style of their own body of work, while complementing this with elements common to American films.

Auteurs of Australian revivalist cinema, such as Peter Weir and George Miller, were amongst the first directors to successfully bridge the gap between the Australian and American systems. Certainly, for these two directors, the transition was buffered by the fact that Miller's hyper-kinetic style and the seemingly simple, progressive narratives of the Mad Max trilogy borrow a great deal from previous American action films, and through Weir's signature 'cultural clash' themes that apply universally. Both men diverged from the traditional Hollywood line of thought by framing such conventional narratives amidst innovative stylistic signatures. Miller, for example, continued to delve into his understanding of film as "visual music" in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Interestingly, though, Lorenzo's Oil (1992), regarded by Scott Murray as "the finest film made by an Australian" (Murray, 1994) breaks away from this mould, resembling sensitive, classical music that would be more appropriately used to describe Weir's work than Miller's rock and roll constructions.

What is perhaps more intriguing is America's celebration of Weir's slow, ambiguous style and romantic vision that is more often connected with the cinematic traditions of Europe. Many elements present in Green Card (1990), for example, diverge from the conventions of the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. The dialogue is delivered slowly and passionately, and the film's conclusion fails to mark a point at which the key problem is resolved, though the original conflict has been substituted with a new dilemma (that being the knowledge that the two characters have finally fallen in love, but are forced to reside in different countries). This type of narrative is more typical of the Australian/European "reality principle" in which films are rarely resolved entirely. (O'Regan, 1997) Regardless, Weir's American work is fresh, visually compelling and remains true to his auteurial themes - those relating to the juxtaposition of cultures (or ideologies) and the presence of a strong, influential protagonist who inspires those around him (or her in the case of Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)) to refuse conventional beliefs and instead live a non-conformist, individual lifestyle. (Shiach, 1993)

Many Post New Wave directors such as Baz Luhrmann and Paul J Hogan have also been greeted with success and critical approval in Hollywood. Both Luhrmann's nineties' version of Romeo + Juliet (1996) and P. J. Hogan's My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) fared well in the States. Both films contained elements of the 'quirkiness' and 'eccentricity' that highlighted the artists' former Australian work. Luhrmann's effort, like Strictly Ballroom (1992), was an innovative study into motion and cinematic energy, while P. J. Hogan's star-studded musical comedy brought his dystopic views regarding marriage into one of Hollywood's few romantic comedies, along with Weir's Green Card (1990), in which the female protagonist does not 'get the man' within the closing moments of the peice. His film, instead, highlights the relationship that develops between the two leading female characters, a feature that he explored in Muriel's Wedding in 1994.

This displacement of heterosexual romance in allowance for the development of relations between women is a key theme that resonates not only through Hogan's work, but through many key Australian films of the 1990s. Sexual titillation and comic satire of this type is another avenue through which Australian filmmakers are able to 'level' the social classes, and thus capitalise on the national egalitarian myth. (Martin, 1995) Emma-Kate Croghan's Love and Other Catastrophes (1996), Richard Franklin's Hotel Sorrento (1995), Gillian Armstrong's Last Days of Chez Nous (1993) and John Duigan's Sirens (1994) are examples of this recent innovation. (O'Regan, 1997) It is no surprise, therefore, that Gillian Armstrong, in her American production of Little Women (1995) was able to deal with this theme with such sensitivity and subtlety.

Homosexual and non-sexual homoerotic relationships also play a big part in defining Australian film in the 1990s. Ray Argall's Return Home (1990), Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof (1991) and Kevin Dowling's The Sum of Us (1994) are examples of this. Simon Wincer took this quality to the US in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1992), but the conversion failed to capture audiences as it did in Australia. This example reveals the fact that not all Australian themes, especially those relating to ambiguous sexual relationships and the banal 'ugliness' of suburban existence, can stimulate foreign movie-goers.

The multi-generic characteristics of Australian road movies, such as Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Miller's Mad Max (1979), Franklin's Roadgames (1981) and Bennett's Kiss or Kill (1997) carried their themes and visual style successfully into Hollywood in Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World (1992). Wenders' film, much like the American oeuvres of Schepisi, Weir and Miller, represents an "…acceptable internationalism which can be seen to preserve [Australian] 'cultural integrity' without too evident a 'commercialism'". (O'Regan, 1997) That is, the film "abounds with nationally specific icons, idioms and leitmotifs [while] there are also a welter of transnational elements [present].". (Gibson, 1992) It is unclear, then, as to why Bennett took the risk to stray away from the road-movie genre that he explored so creatively in Spider and Rose (1994) and Backlash (1986) and instead tackle a rather conventional Hollywood romantic comedy in Two if by Sea (1995), which failed miserably both at the box-office and critically.

Certainly, the transition from working within the strict budgetary limitations of the Australian system, and the ability to create (potentially) more popular films, on bigger-budgets, in the United States can be a rewarding experience. In fact, in a recent interview, Fred Schepisi, who found success in the States through his, largely conventional, direction of Barbarosa (1982), Roxanne (1987) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993), has justified his movement by stating,

"It's the way we grew up: we didn't necessarily grow up with a great culture of our own only; as much, if not more, we grew up with English culture and American culture…So it's not like we're going over and working in some strange area entirely." (Schepisi in Koval, 1991)

The Hollywood experience can, in contrast, restrict artist's creative freedom to the point at which, like Elliott, Bennett and Franklin, they are compelled to return to Australia in order to express themselves freely. It can even be suggested that the work of Australian directors and other creative personnel overseas is merely an attenuated continuation of their work in Australia. Gillian Armstrong, Peter Weir, George Miller and Baz Luhrmann, amongst others, avoid the formal sacrifice of their work by maintaining a large degree of control in both the production and post-production of their films. (O'Regan, 1997) The aforementioned directors often return to Australia to edit, or oversee the editing of, their works.

It is inevitable, however, that Australian directors will need to conform, at least partially, to Hollywood standards in order to succeed in the States. Sue Matthews, when contemplating this issue, has warned that, "…the Australian cinema needs to keep a close watch on whose dreams it is that we are dreaming". (Matthews, 1982, p.50) This concern indicates an apprehension that is shared by many critics in regards to the possible increase of American control over Australia's cultural exports. In most cases, the elements that make Australian films distinctive are their sheer, confronting 'Australianness' - the egalitarianism, their quirkiness and the established predilection with celebrating the banal, the ordinary and the ugly sides of the Australian suburban existence. (O'Regan, 1996, p.213) Australian films that are made locally often, if not always, carry a certain poetic or social realism that sets them apart from the upbeat, formulaic films of Hollywood. (Martin, 1995)

It can be seen, therefore, that both systems have their own advantages and disadvantages. While directors do receive close to total creative freedom in Australia, America provides such directors with a global forum through which his or her messages can be told. When Australian creative personnel are employed in the United States, they have the potential to create works that, like their previous Australian films, are innovative, inexpensive and original. The paramount challenge facing the Australian director, then is in the task of locating the balance at which he or she can continue creating such unique artistic products, while having access to the funds and distribution channels necessary to transmit his or her message to a global audience. Those directors who have found the greatest success overseas, most notably Dr George Miller, Peter Weir, Baz Luhrmann, Fred Schepisi and Gillian Armstrong, appear to have located this necessary equilibrium.

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