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Interview with Ted Kotcheff, Director of Wake in Fright

Posted January 16, 2013 11:57 PM by Michael Reuben

Drafthouse FilmsDirector Ted Kotcheff's Australian outback classic, Wake in Fright, was almost lost to posterity after its box office failure in 1971, but the negative was found after years of searching by the film's editor. In the interim, Mr. Kotcheff has enjoyed a prolific career in film and television, including twelve years as executive producer of the long-running TV series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Now Wake in Fright is receiving long overdue recognition for its uncompromising depiction of overbearing masculinity run amuck. Drafthouse Films and Image Entertainment have released the film on Blu-ray in the United States. staff reviewer Michael Reuben spoke with Mr. Kotcheff about the film and its restoration. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

It must be gratifying to have people paying so much attention to a film you made over forty years ago.

I just find it hard to believe. I feel blessed. I said to somebody, "I must have done something good in a previous life!" And also this whole history, as you know. Not only did it not do well when it first came out anywhere, not even in its home country of Australia, but then for the negative to be lost for many years—you know the whole story, don't you?

I do.

Tony Buckley, the retired editor of the film, took up the challenge, and he spent the next thirteen years at his own expense trying to track down the negative. And between jobs he traveled from Australia to London and Dublin and New York, he was quite persistent. Then [eight] years ago, he finally found it in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. There were two large containers with tri- separations, interpositives, internegatives, dialogue tracks, music tracks—and on the outside of the containers was written "For Destruction". Had he arrived only one week later, the negative would have been incinerated and the film gone forever.

It almost sounds like a script.

It's like the cavalry arriving at the last second! But the negative was almost useless. It was scratched, it was torn and badly faded. But another fan of the film, Anthos Simon of Deluxe Laboratories in Sydney, spent two years of his own time using all the latest digital techniques to rescue it. He worked frame by frame. He restored the negative to a pristine condition. The print that he made from it was absolutely astonishing. I was knocked out when I saw it. The Blu- ray is made from that print, and the colors are so accurate.

You've been quoted as saying that the restoration is the best that the film has ever looked. Is that accurate?

That's very accurate. I was absolutely taken aback when I saw the restoration they had done, [as was] everybody who saw it. For example, the Cannes Film Festival screened it. They had screened it in 1971, and when they heard that we had remounted it, they asked to see it again. They were knocked out by the print and declared it to be a "Cannes Classic". Only two films have ever been screened twice at the Cannes Film Festival. Mine is one of them, and the other is Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura. They thought the fidelity of the colors was extraordinary.

In addition to the colors, what else about the restoration makes it the "best" the film has ever looked?

As a director, and especially with this film, I spent a lot of time getting details [right]. William Blake said art does not consist of abstract generalizations but of minute particulars, and that's absolutely right. So, for example, for every take I'd release flies. One of the things that drives you crazy in the outback is flies. Everybody wears hats with small corks on pieces of string around the brim of the hat to keep the flies out of your eyes and out of your mouth—as a director, I'm talking all the time, and every time I open my mouth, a fly would go in, and I'd swallow it! I swallowed about twelve flies a day! So anyway, I got these sterilized flies from the University of Sydney, and I released them into the set before a take, if it was an interior. Same thing with dust. I got barrels of red dust, because out there the dust is always hanging in the air from the outback. We had these "fly squirters", and just before the take I'd squirt dust into the atmosphere, and of course there was a layer of dust all over everything. It's not something that you notice directly, but subconsciously it affects you.

Getting back to color, though, part of the thing with men behaving as they do is this oppressive, endless heat. It just gets to you; so you drink a lot. Since the water is supposedly undrinkable, you drink a lot of beer. When I spoke to my makeup people, the cinematographer, the wardrobe people, the set designer, I said, "I want to see all hot colors in this film: red, yellow, orange, burnt sienna, brown. Avoid the cool ones, the blues and the greens." When [Anthos Simon] restored the film, I thought the colors were very accurate and created the atmosphere that I pursued so assiduously when I made it.

There are some sequences that are green now, for example, when Grant meets up with Jock Crawford in a bar after he drags himself back into town, there's a pervasive green, because I think the walls are green—

You mean the pub?

Yes, the pub.

Yeah, that's OK. I remember that. I wanted a kind of oasis. That was deliberate.

Of course the sky is blue, but that's in nature.

Nothing I could do about that. God wouldn't listen to me. (Laughing.)

Have you seen either of the Blu-ray versions in addition to the restored print?

I saw the original one [released in Australia], and I saw the print many times, because when it opened in New York at Film Forum and various other places like Austin, I was all over with it, introducing it and Q&A'ing with it afterwards. The print was extraordinary, a great print. I hope that the Blu-ray from Drafthouse has the fidelity of the print that we screened in theaters.

But did the Australian Blu-ray in 2009 do a good job at reproducing the print?

I thought so, yeah.

Drafthouse has told me that their disc comes from the same master.

OK, good!

Do you recall what you and Mr. Buckley were watching when you recorded your commentary in 2009?

I think they put on a Blu-ray copy of the film.

When Mr. Simon was restoring the film, did he consult with you?

No, he dealt with Tony Buckley. I trusted Tony's taste. He's a terrific editor and loved the film. He certainly stayed on top of it, and I was very pleased with the result. Obviously I talked to Anthos [Simon], but it was [over] a period of two years.

Do you know what he used as a reference for the color grading?

Well, I think he used the existing negative. The problem wasn't that the colors had been botched up, but that they had faded. If there was any ambiguity, Tony Buckley was there to guide him. When we spoke, I asked him the same questions: "Are the colors so badly faded that they're no longer of use to you as a guide?" He said: "No, no, they're faded, but colors fade at different speeds"—which I didn't know at the time—so he had enough guidelines [from what remained on the negative]. I also told him: "Look, I want this picture to be hot. If you're going to make a choice and you have no accurate guide, err on the side of heat"—not "err", but go towards that. I want every member of the audience, after they see this film, to say, "Just give me a cold drink and a shower!" I want the audience to feel uncomfortable and understand why they drink too much and why they do the crazy things they do.

One criticism of the restoration is that it looks more like video than film, that the natural grain structure has been smoothed over so that it looks like something shot on hi-def video. Do you have any reaction to that?

I had some experience in this area, because about five or six years ago [Law and Order: SVU producer] Dick Wolf came to me and said, Ted, I'd like us to switch over from film to hi-def. He said it would save us $50,000 to $75,000 an episode. I said, Geez, I love film, because I've been in film all my life. It's in my blood. He asked me to investigate and report; so I tested it. [After some initial technical problems which took about a year to solve,] I thought the colors were awfully true and I had no more arguments with [hi-def]. If it converted me, it would convert the worst opponent. As much as I love film, I had to admit that there was no difference.

Now, yes, grain was missing, that slightly grainy thing. When I saw the print three years ago in Australia, first of all I was taken aback by the faithfulness of the colors, and I got so absorbed in all that, and absorbed in the story and watching it all and the detailing that I didn't really address myself to whether I missed the grain or not.

Let me ask a related question. One of the other complaints directed to the restoration is about what's usually called "DNR" or "digital noise reduction", which is the general label applied to the group of digital tools used to remove noise or grain. The complaint is that faces are too smooth, beard stubble is blurred, and everything is too "clean" compared to the film's original look. Generally, people raising this objection didn't see the film in 1971, but you did. What is your reaction?

I have never advocated DNR, nor did I hear from anyone that it had been practiced on the print or when they made the Blu-ray. Now that you've brought it up, I'm going to address myself to it and make some inquiries. I have a copy of [the Drafthouse Blu-ray] and I'm going to screen it from that point of view. But it was not a policy that anybody advanced. I certainly didn't. To me, the worse that people's faces look, the better. Anybody connected with this film knew that the rougher it looked, the better. So I don't think that anybody practiced it. I'm very surprised if it would have this quality. The picture strove for the opposite quality. We wanted people to look grizzled, burned out, worn out. No smooth handsomeness was required, because of the life that was lived out there.

In one of your interviews, you said that the male-dominated culture of the outback reminded you of certain parts of northern Canada. Have you encountered anything similar in any region of the United States?

Certain parts of Texas shared a quality, but certainly not as extreme as in Broken Hill in Australia. When I was thinking of making this film, I was a bit trepidatious at first, because I thought, "I don't know much about the outback". When I made The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, no one can tell me anything about that film. That film is one hundred percent accurate. I experienced, I touched it, I smelled it; it's mine, and I recreated it with tremendous fidelity. You want to have that kind of security when you're directing. However, being a Canadian, when I arrived in Australia, I discovered that the outback was not that dissimilar to northern Canada: the same vast, empty spaces that paradoxically are not liberating, but claustrophobic and imprisoning. In both worlds, there was this identical hyper-masculine society. In fact, I used to describe Canada as "Australia on the rocks". Remember, the picture opens with a 360-degree shot, these two buildings crouched in this vast, empty space. So I knew that world of heavy drinking, fighting, hunting and shooting. I was confident that I knew these people, what they would do, how they would behave, the aggressive hospitality—"'C'mon, have a drink!"—and if you turned down the drink, that was the worst offense socially you could commit in Broken Hill.

That's so beautifully depicted in the film.

Thank you!

One of the striking things about the story is that we learn so little about Grant's background. You don't have anything with which to explain him away. You have to wonder why he is so easily seduced by this environment. Is that the mystery of the piece, or did you have something in mind that explains his attraction to this life?

No, I think you've hit it. I did not wish to explain it, because I feel that in all of us there's a kind of yahoo. Education and civilization are a very thin defense against the yahoo in each of us. We're all capable of doing things that are morally wrong, like he gets caught up in the excitement of the chase and the hunt. Here you have a sensitive, educated man who succumbs to the shadow side of his own nature, and he does things that he never dreamed of. Part of it is proving your virility, and some of it was based on my own experience. I'm a graduate of English language and literature, and I consider myself an educated, cultured man—and here I am with all these yahoos right out there, and they'd found some wild horses and were breaking them in. I was watching them, and the guy said, "Hey, Ted, you want to get on?" This is up in Canada. I said, "Sure, I'll get on." One of the guys said to me, "Don't be crazy, Ted!" I said to myself, "What am I doing? Why am I trying to prove my virility by getting on that horse?" What is that impulse in men about trying to prove physical courage and virility and become one of "them"? It is a mystery.

There's no follow-up reference in the film to the girl in Sydney. I know a few viewers who have speculated that she's not even real, that Grant has just picked up a random photograph and created a fantasy.

That's a very interesting take on it. What I felt about it was that she is a real girl, but his relationship with her is a fantasy. He was going to go to Sydney and maybe realize this fantasy, but there was no established relationship, if you see what I mean. I left it deliberately vague in that way so you could speculate, though I didn't take it that far that she was a total fantasy.

Certainly when he didn't turn up, obviously nobody missed him.

That's right!

Mr. Kotcheff, thank you for speaking with us.

Source: | Permalink | United States [Country settings]

News comments (6 comments)

  Jan 17, 2013
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Thanks for the interview - makes me want to see the film now.

  Jan 17, 2013
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Great interview, a very informative read. Let's not forget Ted directed one of Stallone's biggest and most popular films too, the great First Blood back in 1982. Would love to see it get a new director-approved transfer someday.

  Jan 17, 2013
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Is the Blu-ray release of "Wake in Fright" the theatrical release or is it a do-over?

  Jan 17, 2013
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Thanks for the interview. I'm always very happy to see films like this saved from the incenerator and restored. Why studios do this is beyond me, it's like tossing oil paintings in the trash can, if not worse.

  Jan 18, 2013
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This is a compelling film; an iconic film well deserving of blu-ray and of this story.
I still find The Kangaroo scenes were a bit full on; but I guess there are types that would behave that way in certain regions of Australia. Most Australians are the 'antithesis' of this thank God! Great interview thank you.

  Jan 20, 2013
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another classic of his.... WEEKEND AT BERNIES

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