Guy Pearce and John Hillcoat Discuss "The Proposition"

by | May 5, 2006 | Comments

Director John Hillcoat had a big ambition when he undertook "The Proposition": a Western with a truly Aussie sensibility.

"It’s the Australian West," he said. "We’ve tried to reclaim it for ourselves."

"The Proposition," opened in limited release in the U.S. on May 5 after an enthusiastic response at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.

In the film, set in the Outback in the late 1800s, Charley Burns (Guy Pearce) is captured by the authorities, and given an ultimatum by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone): if he slays his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) within a week, his younger brother Mikey will be set free. If not, Mikey dies.

"The Proposition" is filled with sharp supporting performances by the likes of Emily Watson and John Hurt, as well as some startling cinematography, a haunting score by Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay), and fascinating characters, whose capacities for good and evil deeds shift convincingly.

Guy Peace in "The Proposition"

Australia’s colonial history leant itself to a lot of potential for drama, from the harshness of the climate to the settlers’ condescending, often violent attitudes toward the Aboriginal population. Hillcoat said he wanted to make a film that was true to history but also worked dramatically.

"It’s been a dream to do a film out in the elements like that and trying to tackle that part of our history because it hasn’t really been seen on the screen like that," he said.

Hillcoat said he was inspired by revisionist Westerns of the 1970s, and films that displayed a realistic, sometimes harsh frontier, like Robert Altman‘s "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Sam Peckinpah‘s "The Wild Bunch," and Terrence Malick‘s "Days of Heaven."

"What I loved about Peckinpah and Altman and Malick is there’s a link to reality, and what the times were, a kind of truthfulness about what it would have been like back then," he said.

For years, Hillcoat had wanted Cave to do the score for such a Western in an Australian setting. They agreed that Cave would have a go at the script, but Hillcoat thought it would be a loose outline that would later be fashioned into a screenplay. Over a matter of a few weeks, Cave came up with the scenario.

"Once he started, out it came, the story of the brothers and the central conflict that we could hang all this stuff on," he said. "Nick surprised me and himself."

Nick Cave and John Hillcoat

When Pearce got the script, he thought it was something special.

"It was so beautifully written," he said. "It was so poetic and so evocative, which is very rare. It was very easy for my imagination to be fueled and to get a sense of what it was they were trying to tell."

Pearce was also attracted to the moral complexity of the story.

"Obviously the scenario is quite extreme and rather harrowing," he said. "It almost seems like an impossible task to contemplate how one might choose one brother over another or one family member over another, particularly when it comes to having to kill [someone]."

The moral ambiguity and violence in the script, as well as the plan to shoot the film in the Outback, made the film a tough sell, Hillcoat said.

"It was incredibly hard to finance because of the tone and the script," he said. "The financers knew it was a logistical risk to go out there and build sets in that kind of territory. By the time the money got together and we finally had everyone ready to go, we had slid into the beginning of the summer."

Trouble struck early when Hillcoat and several members of the crew were involved in a serious car accident, in which their vehicle hit some rough terrain and rolled over three times.

"They’d thought I had broken my neck," he said. "Twenty-four hours later, I greeted the key cast that had arrived on a charter flight. I had a neck brace and black eyes. That was just the beginning."

Guy Pearce and Danny Huston

The environment posed many serious challenges; temperatures reached well into the 100s, and many scenes were shot at night because the cameras were too hot to touch. The week after production, fierce winds leveled the majority of the sets. So as rough as the conditions were, things could have been worse, Hillcoat said.

"Luck has a major part when it has to do with the developments," he said. "Those strong winds could have come at any moment when we were shooting, so we were lucky."

And the difficulty of the shoot created both a sense of camaraderie among the cast members and a greater feeling for the material.

"All that stuff adds to what you’re doing," Pearce said "The environment really informs what you’re doing. The environment and the world that these people live in and the level of survival is far more extreme than what we know it to be today, [although] certainly [it is] for some cultures, not for others. It was a real fascinating sort of journey to enter into that."

"It was one of those situations where everyone knew it was going to be quite extraordinary," Hillcoat said. "Everyone kind of bonded rather than tore each other apart."

Much of the good feeling on the set came from Hillcoat’s method of directing, Pearce said.

"He really knows what he wants, and what he wants is very true and honest performances," he said. "He’s very open to having you find that very true and honest place. He certainly doesn’t limit you in your honest interpretation of the work. He’s my kind of director."

Guy Pearce and John Hurt

And in getting to the truth of the material, the film often depicts some very graphic floggings, shootings, and spearings. But Pearce said it’s the tone of the film, the sudden but inevitable flare-ups, that make the violence seem more shocking.

"Some say, ‘Oh, the film is violent.’ I think on some level, people are inadvertently complimenting the film by saying that, because we’re talking about the fact that it actually is effective," he said. "There are plenty of films out there that are violent, where people run around with machine guns and shoot the hell out of everybody, and there’s no aftermath. To me, that’s disrespectful in film. It’s just like a video game.

"To me, this feels complete in the addressing of violence: You have the lull before the storm, you have the really horrific storm, and you have the cleanup afterwards," he continued. "There’s probably less violence in this film than in the majority of other films. It’s just that when it happens, it feels real."

The violence feels more real because of the setting, Pearce said.

"It’s kind of a looming violence," he said. "We know that this world is a harsh and dangerous one, and it’s one that’s fraught with all sorts of difficulties in regards to surviving. You feel quite troubled at the idea that potentially anything violent could happen. It’s that looming violence that adds up for people when they watch it."

Regardless, Pearce said he feels American audiences will find a lot in the story that will resonate.

"I feel it should particularly appeal to Americans because on some level, there’s a similar frontier environment, [with] people really being out of place and trying to make a home in such a harsh environment that’s not their own," he said. "And really, the story’s about human emotion rather than necessarily a historical document."

Emily Watson

Those complex emotions are in some ways incongruous with the idea of the Western in film, with exception of the 1970s anti-Westerns, Hillcoat said.

"Your sympathies keep swinging between some of the characters, and that’s very unusual because normally the American West is put into very black and white terms," he said.

And Hillcoat said he feels that dealing in black and white is a problem in today’s political climate, one that "The Proposition" refutes.

"Life isn’t like that," he said. "I know Bush is trying to tell everyone life is like that. Part of the mood of all that in a political context [is] empire building and the consequences of violence. I’m hoping it will ring a chord here [in the U.S.]."

And it has certainly made a big impression on Pearce; he said the film, from the cinematography to the music to his co-stars’ performances make "The Proposition" a particularly special film for him.

"It’s by far my favorite film that I’ve ever been in," he said. "Look, that’s not to take anything away from ‘Memento‘ or ‘L.A. Confidential,’ because I think they’re both extraordinary pieces of work. But there’s something about this that moves me in a way I haven’t felt before.

"I have to be fair, because I haven’t watched the other [films] for a couple years," he continued. "[But] there’s something so raw. Maybe it means more to me because it’s an Australian story."

Still, Pearce said, "It’s a story about human emotions, so it doesn’t really matter where it’s set."

Tag Cloud

game show universal monsters Opinion nfl vampires Fantasy facebook critics Food Network BBC One TV Land dramedy dark live event slashers versus mission: impossible zombie parents video Comedy Central godzilla animated criterion marvel cinematic universe PlayStation Avengers boxing romance docuseries Tags: Comedy Vudu GIFs 73rd Emmy Awards indiana jones halloween tv elevated horror all-time Comics on TV The CW black comedy DC Universe medical drama Mystery Prime Video razzies franchise women HBO A24 crime thriller Women's History Month 20th Century Fox Christmas Tumblr young adult Box Office Sundance rotten The Arrangement worst New York Comic Con National Geographic psychological thriller popular war Rock comedies TNT WarnerMedia MGM crossover Elton John Pop Sundance TV Paramount docudrama CBS theme song Extras Lifetime true crime dexter hispanic Podcast discovery APB Super Bowl zombies hist scary movies broadcast interviews LGBT 2016 X-Men trailers Black Mirror 2021 toy story high school comic Winter TV slasher unscripted rom-coms Winners zero dark thirty rotten movies we love Baby Yoda Disney+ Disney Plus Endgame comic books stoner blockbuster japan Native Watching Series Pixar composers TCA Winter 2020 HBO Max TV movies Apple TV Plus Apple Britbox Binge Guide Emmys mockumentary AMC Plus Quiz Countdown 2017 TIFF halloween summer preview Discovery Channel VICE Photos CMT summer TV preview screen actors guild television superhero Mary Tyler Moore aliens Rocketman Song of Ice and Fire IFC Films rt archives mob crime natural history comic book movies NBC kids reboot comiccon cults basketball HFPA anthology DGA Nat Geo Black History Month sequel trophy witnail Walt Disney Pictures genre worst movies Schedule Syfy Sony Pictures spider-verse blaxploitation free movies Alien spanish language rt labs Brie Larson Universal Pictures heist movie revenge History Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt laika Spring TV Cosplay live action Tokyo Olympics disaster tv talk Marathons cats wonder woman thriller Valentine's Day Marvel Studios 007 Biopics boxoffice Holidays kaiju book adaptation Focus Features Legendary Pop TV Freeform Superheroes Classic Film 4/20 Star Wars Celebration debate best kong remakes NBA 2020 SXSW 2022 teaser Instagram Live aapi 79th Golden Globes Awards The Walt Disney Company movies classics IMDb TV nature space E3 strong female leads TV renewals mutant President telelvision travel ESPN robots Indigenous RT21 Sci-Fi golden globe awards renewed TV shows die hard Best Picture based on movie serial killer quibi indie streamig Broadway canceled Comedy ID Paramount Network Best Actress scene in color MSNBC harry potter Columbia Pictures Warner Bros. finale science fiction South by Southwest Film Festival WGN Captain marvel Netflix Christmas movies sopranos scorecard Amazon ViacomCBS dragons joker Disney king kong 71st Emmy Awards Pet Sematary GLAAD Horror cartoon Logo Arrowverse Spike sports Emmy Nominations Heroines directors Awards Comic-Con@Home 2021 Character Guide Tomatazos dreamworks Anna Paquin Esquire Musicals Chernobyl Academy Awards Television Critics Association IFC Sundance Now Tarantino ABC Family VOD Reality A&E japanese 93rd Oscars Martial Arts Western Election Disney streaming service YouTube Red YouTube BAFTA Hallmark Christmas movies talk show Crunchyroll Disney Plus festival children's TV Action GoT Marvel Television Starz Showtime sag awards YouTube Premium TCM vs. Trophy Talk Red Carpet Acorn TV 99% AMC Pirates Rocky Nickelodeon Hear Us Out football art house emmy awards The Walking Dead Country DC Comics TBS Fall TV 2018 LGBTQ Neflix Awards Tour documentary Best Actor CNN SundanceTV sequels 21st Century Fox Tubi spider-man 45 FOX NYCC social media what to watch richard e. Grant superman monster movies adventure rt labs critics edition Adult Swim streaming legend spy thriller dc Comic Book Trailer Oscars blockbusters Pacific Islander Marvel concert international TruTV Spectrum Originals suspense Family south america Disney Channel Mary poppins Polls and Games a nightmare on elm street Video Games gangster Television Academy HBO Go TV One mcc ITV know your critic cancelled TV shows Shondaland biography hidden camera cinemax 2015 action-comedy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina scary target Cannes justice league ratings Premiere Dates Music DirecTV Dark Horse Comics MTV documentaries TV Turner Classic Movies binge doctor who asian-american Reality Competition Amazon Prime Video The Witch hispanic heritage month child's play green book Crackle Lionsgate nbcuniversal Paramount Pictures summer TV El Rey cooking DC streaming service CW Seed Animation transformers foreign Ovation twilight YA RT History Peacock dogs Creative Arts Emmys 94th Oscars 2019 period drama CBS All Access Film Festival ghosts Best and Worst ABC singing competition pirates of the caribbean australia jamie lee curtis 1990s Lifetime Christmas movies stand-up comedy posters American Society of Cinematographers saw Apple TV+ Ghostbusters 24 frames BET Awards BBC news adenture Fox News cops Trivia new zealand Shudder Film Amazon Prime Netflix jurassic park historical drama latino Fargo Sony new star wars movies spain politics 90s technology leaderboard political drama romantic comedy police drama new york Pride Month diversity reviews Nominations Summer Paramount Plus royal family USA Network Mudbound Hallmark Star Trek SDCC movie Turner Holiday comic book movie 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Wes Anderson Star Wars book E! black award winner critic resources TLC Best Director Kids & Family Funimation Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fox Searchlight psycho Year in Review series hollywood The Purge marvel comics First Reviews Stephen King BET Image Comics video on demand festivals Grammys PBS Thanksgiving scene in color film series Infographic TCA Awards target scene in color werewolf archives olympics satire christmas movies spanish SXSW obituary batman obi wan USA Rom-Com Certified Fresh Bravo cars Mindy Kaling films dceu San Diego Comic-Con chucky scene in color series feel good game of thrones BBC America name the review Lucasfilm MCU spinoff supernatural Hulu Sneak Peek FX deadpool fresh crime drama See It Skip It canceled TV shows italian Exclusive Video stop motion FX on Hulu venice cancelled TV series miniseries VH1 king arthur Travel Channel james bond golden globes Calendar screenings adaptation Interview Drama Geeked Week ABC Signature OWN The Academy biopic Mary Poppins Returns lord of the rings sitcom Writers Guild of America Amazon Studios casting Oscar Epix FXX fast and furious Universal toronto 72 Emmy Awards streaming movies prank Teen french anime breaking bad Musical Masterpiece PaleyFest cancelled television Cartoon Network cancelled TCA 2017 First Look TCA OneApp Set visit independent Superheroe Toys Ellie Kemper comics