RT: How was it being back shooting a feature film in South Australia?
SH: I really enjoyed it. It was an unexpected pleasure if you like, because the film was originally located in Queensland and migrated to South Australia for financial reasons. So I found myself shooting a film at home again for the first time in about 12 years.
Speaking of home, you’re the father of two sons and the owner of a vineyard. So how much of yourself did you infuse in this production?
Well of course there things that resonated quite strongly for me, just given fatherhood has been a huge part of my own life. I wouldn’t say it’s directly infused, although there are one or two scenes — now I think about it — that definitely came out of my own experience. But it was a story that really touched me. I really felt that the story of a man struggling to become a better father to his two sons in the wake of his wife’s death; it was very touching, but very unsentimental. And felt so real to me: the dialogue, the relationships. Then of course I discovered it was based on a memoir, so of course it was drawn from life. And that became my intention really, to get it to the screen in that same real feeling as much as possible.
So was there a scene in a vineyard or was that your inclusion?
That was my inclusion. I mean in the original script it was in the sugar cane fields of Queensland! It was nice to be able to set the film somewhere in Australia that I felt hadn’t been explored that much or seen on film, which is that vineyard culture.
It appears you’ve gone from a single mother (or Aunt) in No Reservations to a story about a single father. Did your adaptation of Bella Martha inform The Boys Are Back?
Well it’s funny you mention that, because how that came about was that I actually read The Boys Are Backin 2004. I went to Clive with it and I thought he would be fantastic, and he loved it. So I thought, “Here we go. We’re off!” But with one thing and another, Clive was busy then I was busy, so we couldn’t quite get in sync. Then at the end of 2005 we were all poised ready to shoot the film, and Clive said he needed some time off because he’d done a lot of work back-to-back and he wanted to feel fresh for The Boys Are Back and around that time I was sent the script of what became No Reservations.
So I thought, well I’ve got a year that I’d set out to do The Boys Are Back and here’s another film about relationships and people, so I took it on. And of course it had that resonance in it, to do with loss and so on, but it was such a different story that I didn’t feel that it was any kind of an issue.
I hadn’t realised it was so serendipitous!
Yes it was! Then beyond that it took a while again for Clive and I to get in sync, because when I finished No Reservations he was on another movie. Then when he was finished I was doing my Philip Glass film, and on it went until finally we lined up in 2008. At last! But the great thing was he was as determined as I was not to let it go. Because actors — especially someone like Clive — get so many offers to do things, so you just hope their attention doesn’t get distracted by something else. But he really, really wanted to play the part.
On that note, how much of a coup was it to get Clive Owen to star in an Australian film?
It was fantastic! I think with any of these co-production arrangements — which this film was an Australian/English co-production — it’s important that it’s authentic to the actual story and the settings. In this case, because Simon Carr, who wrote the original memoir is an English journalist, who did come out here [Carr actually emigrated to New Zealand], it’s totally authentic casting to have Clive in the part.
So how was it that a Scottish actress [Laura Fraser] ended up playing an Australian?
Isn’t that funny? There it’s a matter of — I looked at a lot of Australian actresses and it was a busy year, a lot of people were working and not available… and in the end I loved that Laura Fraser had a quality in Australia that would be quite unknown. That she wouldn’t carry any baggage with her. So I liked that feeling.
When she came and auditioned for me, she did a flawless Australian accent, which is quite difficult to do. And I didn’t even realise she was Scottish until she finished the read and she suddenly broke out into this broad Scottish accent! Oh my God!
Much as the film is about fatherhood, the film has the prevailing theme of mothers — with Joe coming to terms with his own thoughts on how motherhood is almost a more ‘natural’ state. How did you draw this juxtaposition?
Well that really goes back to Simon Carr’s observations. Yes I think it would be fair to say there is a tendency for society to accept mothers as the natural child raisers. But the fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of single fathers, struggling to raise their kids or maintain contact with their children following marital break up or loss. And it’s an enormous and untold story. So I found that really quite powerful, and I’ve had a lot of reaction from men in that situation to the emotional journey of the story.
It’s also intriguing that The Boys Are Back is being released a week after Michael Winterbottom’s Genova. What do you think it is about these stories of single fathers that’s resonating with audiences?
I guess it’s in the zeitgeist! Isn’t it funny, I only noticed that recently. But sometimes ideas surface in the general consciousness at a time and I think that’s good. It’s obviously time to explore these things and discuss them and bring them out in the film world.
Speaking of the film world, The Boys Are Back has such a wonderful visual sensibility, with focus pulls creating an emotive, subjective frame. How did you and the DP Greig Fraser construct the visual aesthetic?
Well there were a few guiding principles which I really wanted in shooting the film. Because working with a six-year-old child is a challenge. You’re working with someone who doesn’t have technical skills, and nor should they; who has the energies and the distractions of any six-year-old and it was so important that we capture an authentic performance that didn’t feel coached or schooled in the way that a lot of child performances do I think. Now what that meant was we had to be very flexible, very light on our feet. Pretty much the whole film is handheld, because I wanted to be able to follow Nicholas wherever he went.
So that was a kind of loosening up things, which I really enjoyed, but at the same time I’ve got a strong visual sensibility and I love to play with focus and with light and shade and Greig was just a perfect collaborator on that front. He’s highly, highly skilled obviously and my main other instruction to him was that it had to feel unlit. And then within that, there’s a natural beauty that you can capture.
Greig Fraser’s having a cracking year! He’s shot Last Ride and has Bright Star coming up.
Yes, he’s on the rise no doubt!
Well they do say don’t work with children or animals and you had your work cut out for you. The bird life in the film was amazing!
Wasn’t it?! They obviously have inhabited that valley for millennia, and here we come along to make our film. At first I was thinking, “What do we do? Do we have to get a peregrine falcon in here and scare them away?” But in the end, I got together with the sound recordist [Ben Osmo] and said, “Let’s embrace it. Let’s make it part of the texture of this film. Do you think you can work with this and get the dialogue nice an clean, but get the bird life as well?” And he said, “Yeah, give me a go.” Ben Osmo was fantastic.
So the mandatory final question has to be, “What’s next?” Hopefully another Australian film — Adelaide seems to befit you well.
Well that would be great! At the moment I’ve just got a couple of things that I’m looking at, but I don’t know what may gel first. So to be honest I can’t say right now, it’s not clear enough.