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

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