An Interview with John Hillcoat, director of The Proposition
By Hemanth Kissoon
Acclaimed Australian Western The Proposition is out at cinemas on Friday. This reviewer was very fortunate to see it last year at the London Film Festival. It turned out to be my favourite film of 2005, so when an opportunity arose to interview the director, John Hillcoat, I leapt at it.
Hemanth Kissoon: The Proposition deals with some important issues such as justice, racism and imperialism. Do you think film has a responsibility to be something more than just entertainment?
John Hillcoat: Well, I’ll never say that film has to be that way because I enjoy going to see some films purely for entertainment. I have to say as an art form I think the films that affect me the most and I like the most have something more going on because it is an incredibly powerful medium. I do think in terms of responsibility there is so much resource in the making of a film in terms of money and people’s energies and talents that it seems a little bit excessive to have a one-dimensional entertainment piece. I like films that have different levels that can still be entertaining; hence what Hollywood used to be brilliant at but has kind of lost its footing. Directors like Billy Wilder and Douglas Sirk and all those amazing directors from the Golden Era that were doing immensely entertaining films that had actually all this other stuff going on under the surface. And I think that is what is frustrating with a lot of mainstream Hollywood films today they’ve kind of lost the three dimensions.
Hemanth: And I think the Western in the past was an allegory for America. Many people thought that after Unforgiven the Western had died a death but actually it has existed in one form or another, e.g. Tears of the Black Tiger from Thailand, France’s Blueberry to Wild Wild West and The Quick and the Dead. However, those were Western settings but not Western themes. But lately, there seems a resurgence in real quality in the genre: Kevin Costner’s Open Range, The Proposition, Brokeback Mountain, The Three Burials… from Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Pitt’s new one with Chopper director Andrew Dominik The Assassination of Jesse James… Why do you think over the last few years there is this resurgence in quality in the genre?
John: It’s interesting, just recently it’s come to my attention, though I did know this, Bush Ranger films actually pre-date the Western. The Australian Western, which was the Bush Ranger film, was actually the first feature film ever made. And there was a boom period in Australia during the early 1900s. But the Victorians outlawed that genre, not just a specific film but no Bush Ranger films because they were so popular, the history was so fresh in everyone’s mind. By banning, it stopped dead the Australian Western and – sorry this is a slight diversion – and gave birth to the American Western, which took off. And I think the American Western was initially putting everything in black and white terms but still dealing with primeval conflict which is what the Western is so great at doing. And there was that period of the anti-Westerns, which are my favourite, in Hollywood back in the 70s and 60s with Peckinpah, Altman and I’d even include Terrence Malick in that even though they are not strictly speaking. But that was during the time of the Vietnam war and – getting more specifically to answer your question – it probably coincides with the amount of conflict that is coming to our doorstep now. The western world is no longer successful at totally cushioning and cutting out the majority of life and reality. And it’s starting to infiltrate. In those periods the Western is a great allegory for talking about similar sorts of themes of conflict and violence. So I’m sure it’s no coincidence that what’s happening in the Middle-East and with the new empire basically of the Americans, British, Australians and Spanish, although they actually backtracked the Spanish – the Axis of Evil: Britain, America and Australia. Anyway, I know those things are being dealt with very head on by Guantanamo Bay [Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Road to Guantanamo] and Syriana. The Western is great at looking at the past but actually talking about the present.
Hemanth: It’s interesting you talking about violence and the violent world we’re living in at the moment. A lot has been made, probably quite boringly for you and Nick Cave, about how violent this movie is, which I think is an exaggeration. But there seems to be an appetite lately from audiences for ultra-violence, whether films from directors like Park Chan-Wook, Mel Gibson, Quentin Tarantino, Beat Takeshi, Miike Takashi, etc. Before, ultra-violence was a cinematic sub-culture now it has entered the mainstream of what audiences like. What do you think about that?
John: I, personally, in terms of responsibility in the medium take violence really seriously. My own viewpoint is that I don’t like gratuitous violence and I do think that it is more complex than that. Some of those film-makers that are so-called ultra-violent are people that make the violence uncomfortable for the audience. I’d actually throw in Haneke as another one whose films are pretty confronting like Funny Games. With The Proposition it is about the consequences of violence. We didn’t want to shy away from it because they were extremely brutal times, and the film is thematically all about violence, how do you deal with cycles of violence? But it’s really about the aftermath. The biggest atrocities in the film are off screen actually.
Hemanth: Yeah, the death of the family which is the catalyst.
John: Yes, and the massacre of the Aboriginals. Those big events you don’t see in graphic detail. And when you do see a sudden outburst it’s all in real time, very fast, it’s very disorienting and confusing – realistic. Then what you are really looking at is straight into how people physically, emotionally and psychologically cope with what’s happened. And how every single person is morally compromised by the violence. So I take it extremely seriously and how you represent it is very important. It’s funny because it magnifies in people’s head, you know that classic thing of less is more, and that is in our film. The actual on screen bloodshed is fairly minimal compared.
Hemanth: When I was watching the film and thought about it afterwards I saw similar themes with Gangs of New York as that film is about the violent birth of modern America. I don’t know whether you had it in your mind when you were making The Proposition but that film got bogged down unfortunately in subplots and mythology. Were you ever worried when you were making The Proposition which is a mythological film that you might get a bit side-tracked or bogged down like Gangs of New York did?
John: I think there were a couple of things though that happened with that. So much money was spent on it and they put in subplots, like the romance story which was really thin, and you could tell they were putting it in just for the market. We’re spending this much so we need romance, we need blah blah blah. We were under different pressures. We were under extreme pressure to show a flashback about what happened to the family. But by showing that flashback it would clear up exactly who did what with the brothers. We liked the idea that the audience had to work that out. I knew if we shot a flashback it would end up in the film so we didn’t shoot one. Every film-maker has certain constraints and it usually has to do with the amount of money you’re spending the more constraints you have.
Getting back to your question, the birth of a nation thing. I guess I have the advantage of 20 years research and also that Nick came up with such a simple story. The fact that that story was so simple allowed room for all these other elements to come in, like the conflict with the Aboriginals. The characters had more room to breath. If that plot, that essential story, was more complex then we would have had probably many more problems.
Hemanth: You had a great cast. You have some of the cream of international character actors, who would benefit from such freedom. One of the people I was most interested in the casting was Danny Huston. He usually plays quite gentle souls – ivans xtc., The Constant Gardener, The Aviator. What in him as an actor did you see such an impressive psychopath?
John: Well the first glimpse of it was in ivans xtc. when he was all alone there were just a few moments, and when meeting him and talking to him he had a real keenness of mind. This character really needed that sharpness and I just knew he had a dark side. I love playing against types. And he was itching to get this out as well which was the other key thing, he really wanted to go there. So by all means. We also liked someone making him more unpredictable. In a way the myth part, the kind of Kurtz like thing was showing how myths are made – people talking, all these reactions and when you finally meet the man he’s very much a man. So we went against expectations, where he’s crying over his brother and where he’s talking about family. So we were deliberately trying to find someone who would embody these different qualities. A very human monster basically.
Hemanth: He’s not a typical psychopath. I really liked that performance because it was more three-dimensional and more believable. I liked the fact that he was cultured and educated, such a contrast to the way he acted and the way he thought. It was also a great ensemble performance from the cast. Ray Winstone usually plays cockney hard-men. Along with Sexy Beast, and perhaps Mr. Beaver in Narnia, this is one of Winstone’s great roles. Did he need much direction or was it a case of saying what you wanted and letting him get on with it?
John: Oh no, again like Danny, I knew he had it in him. He has an immense range. Again we thought wouldn’t it be great to have the cockney hard-man initially because that is what you’re meant to believe. Then gradually your sympathies get pulled and you realize this guy is really struggling, quite vulnerable and he really loves his wife. He’s got this real tenderness, and Ray is one of those guys that is hugely intuitive and intelligent in his own way. He was unbelievable to work with. I was never worried about getting that out of him. I’d actually include Nil by Mouth as one of his great performances, and you could see the tortured, vulnerable thing in both that and Sexy Beast. He’s just been pigeonholed.
Hemanth: Apart from music-video aficionados you’re quite an unknown quantity in this country. Could you talk about your background, and how you got into film-making and directing?
John: I always saw those as two distinct mediums. And personally what I really dislike in cinema is music video when they cross-over, like music-video aesthetics.
Hemanth: Like Michael Bay?
John: Yeah and Spider-Man 2 and Charlie’s Angels. That’s invaded mainstream cinema. And it’s because music videos are like eye-candy. It’s all about the imagery to music, and when you put that to drama the same aesthetic it just becomes too seductive, too much eye-candy, too distracting and doesn’t give actors any real justice, and it’s too tricksy. I personally like films that have a slower pace and are character driven. So film came first and music videos were just a medium. I love music. I love doing music videos and I treat them very separately. There was a hey-day in the 90s with Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Jonathan Glazer, etc. where you could make little short films but it was all about imagery to music. That’s where they really worked. But now it’s gone back to where they’re almost like commercials. So my background is to keep them very separate. I came from visual arts and got infected by cinema at a young age. I was very lucky I was in America at a young age seeing all those great films from the 70s which kind of shaped my whole life.
Hemanth: You’re almost like Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick in the gaps between films: Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, 1988, To Have and to Hold, 1996, and now The Proposition. Why the large gaps between your films?
John: Partly because the projects were fairly uncompromising and also logistically a nightmare to film, so Papua New Guinea [for To Have and to Hold], deserts...
Hemanth: …I read that you spent two or three years researching maximum security prisons [for Ghosts… of the Civil Dead].
John: Yeah, I love detail. I love the way those film-makers transport you into a whole other world where you just don’t question it and it takes you over. Those are the kind of films I love, but to make those films are just so hard - to get the money, to get the support and resources. So hopefully I’m actually going to break that.
Hemanth: At the London Film Festival I went to the Q&A with you and Nick Cave and you mentioned that you might be working together on something. Could you talk about future projects with Nick Cave or in general?
John: Nick’s written me another script with Ray Winstone attached. It’s very different though. [Unfortunately at that point time was up for the interview.]
Very tantalising! There should be many looking forward to the next Hillcoat-Cave collaboration.