Rabbit Proof Fence, a film about the journey of aboriginal women in Australia, seems like the natural follow up coming from the director of films like “Patriot Games,” The Bone Collector and The Saint. (Laugh) I’m kidding, of course. I mean those are really different movies, so how do you go from something like that to something like Rabbit-Proof Fence?
Well, y’know, the movies I’ve made in Hollywood used money to corral people – almost force them, convince them that they’re almost missing out on life if they didn’t get down to their local multiplex and see the movie. Here, we want people to think they’re not really living unless they see Rabbit-Proof Fence. But it’s gonna depend on someone they know and trust to spread that word across America.
What was it like to go back to your home of Australia and make a movie?
It was great, y’know. First of all, I couldn’t blame anyone. I couldn’t say the studio wanted be to do that or the actor wanted me to do that or the producer wanted me to do that. I had no one to blame but myself. And that’s a marvelous sort of freedom as a filmmaker. It’s almost… you’re finding your strength again.
But there’s a risk in that?
There’s risk in that, but I also escaped the star system. I’m used to making these movies, you’re actors are paid 10 million to 20 million, but you have a guaranteed first weekend. In this movie I had three people who had never seen a movie before, let alone acted, never thought they were gonna act, didn’t want to act. They thought I was crazy when I came into their lives to these three aboriginal kids and said, “Hey kid, you’re going to be a movie star.” They didn’t even know what a movie was. They’d seen television before but never been in a cinema.
How do you direct children? I understand that when Steven Spielberg directs kids he uses mimicry and trickery. Mimicry meaning he does the performance and they copy him. And trickery, meaning just tricking them to get what he wants. How do you direct kids?
In this case I typecast. I found three little children that were just like the kids they were playing. This is a story of three young kids in the 1930′s that escaped a government institution and undertook an incredible journey walking 1,500 miles across the most fearsome landscape in the world to get back to their families. And two of the women who went on that journey are still alive. I met them and absorbed their personality and then I went out and found the two lead kids that were just like that. So those kids didn’t have to act – they had to not act. I had to tell them, “Don’t act. Just be yourself.” I had to make them think they weren’t acting, just playing. Ihad to tell them. “Don’t read the script. Forget the script, y’know, as soon as they read the script, they start to act. I wanted them to be themselves. So it was the opposite of everything I learned on every experience I’d ever had. Whatever I thought was the right way to do it, I knew the opposite would be the way to achieve success with these three little kids.
How do you compare the experience of making films with tons of explosions to making essentially a very human story?
Well, on those big movies essentially you’re directing traffic – y’know, come, stop, go – you’ve got a model unit, an airplane unit, an underwater unit, it’s all about your ability to deal with 40 different things at once. And that does take some type of scattered discombobulated thought retention – that is a skill. But on this movie, it’s all about the story and the emotions and that’s a relief. In fact, the more money you have, the more problems you have actually. Directors are given the power of God. They can make people come to life. Kill them off… we know we’re just human, like the rest of the population, but on the other hand what is demanded of you is a Godlike sort of prescience. So I guess firing someone makes directors feel that they’re as powerful as they’re meant to be.
But that’s not something you do, ‘cause you’re a nice guy. I can tell by just talking to you.
My problem’s the opposite. I’m six foot five, 250 lbs. I need to bring myself down. I need to kiss someone, not fire them. I need to hire eight more people and pay for their salaries myself. I need a different signal to be sent out.
But as big and imposing as you are you, could kick someone’s ass – if you had to?
If I had to, but on a movie it’s about inspiring all those people that work with you to do better. Because the sum total of all the creative energy, if you add it all up, it comes to some figure, but if you bounce off each other, it comes to a figure way beyond that. And the director’s job is to act as a catalyst for that or a ringmaster or allow that energy to bounce and you don’t get that by kicking people’s asses. It’s the opposite. It’s actually what you need to be a good director – a hard back and a soft front. You gotta let it all in and let people know you’ve got a hard back and you’ll keep on pushing with everyone.
This is kind of a risk for your career having done big Hollywood films, doing something small like this… what’s your hope with this film?
Well, this is an incredible story about three of the most unlikely heroines in the world. My hope for the film is that it reminds people all over the world of the ways in which we’re all the same the way. In which the love between parents and children between all of us is the most precious thing that we have to offer each other as human beings. This is a feel good movie in the end.
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