The Last Wave concerns a lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, who defends five aborigines accused of killing a sixth in Sydney, Australia. Through them Chamberlain comes in contact with what the aborigines call "dream time" and his own involvement with their myths.
Richard Chamberlain is principally known in this country as the star of the TV series Dr. Kildare. What is not so widely known is that after becoming a star he left the U.S. to learn how to act. Why did you choose him for The Last Wave?
I thought he'd always been poorly photographed in white light. When I think back to Kildare I think of those hot lights and I thought he'd never been photographed at night. I don't mean that literally, but there was something in his face, there was some alien quality, and in my story my character had that quality. I had one actor in Australia I'd thought of using, but he was unavailable. Also, we couldn't raise all the money in Australia and Chamberlain's name occurred to somebody and I remembered that face, those eyes in particular.
Gulpilil, the young aboriginal star, is familiar to American audiences as the star of Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. How did you come to use him?
It's very difficult to tell you about Gulipilil. I know very little about the man. He's enigmatic; he's an actor, a dancer, a musician. He's a tribal man, initiated in the tribal ways, found by Roeg at a very early age and put into an international movie. Roeg took him on publicity trips to Europe and the States. He has a foot in both cultures. It's an enormous strain on the man. In movies sometimes you can draw on that. And my film is very much about... In his instance in the story, as one of the men accused of manslaughter, he is torn between two cultures. I didn't get the performance out of him, the situation did. The man is torn, and he has broken his tribal law by moving to the city, by marrying a black girl who is not tribal. He goes home, they still accept him in his tribal area, but he's under enormous tension. It's impossible to know what tension he's under.
He speaks English well and I talked with him. You
can have a conversation about anything, music, and then suddenly, he'll
have a moment, as I experienced. It was one of the things that got me on
to the movie. He'll say something in English that makes no sense. This
is one of the things that drew me to write a part for him. I'd never written
a part for a person. It's dangerous: you might not be able to get the person.
I'd used him in a TV episode in a very straightforward part. He was being
persecuted by a white overseer in a historical series, and we were chatting
in a bar one night after work and he said some things about his family
and then suddenly he said some English sentence. It was something like
"You see my father and I and that's why because the moon isn't." And I
said, "What's that mean - your father and I and the moon isn't?" And he
repeated it. I said, "David, I don't understand." And he said it again.
This was ridiculous - we'd been talking. I said "What are
you talking about?" So he rearranged the sentence. It still made no sense.
Well, I had to leave it, otherwise we couldn't continue the conversation.
And I thought about it that night and the next morning and suddenly I realized
what it was. That he was talking about another perception. He was talking
about an experience for which there are no words. He'd seen something in
another way. That was a breakthrough for me, firstly in my writing of the
screenplay, and secondly in my future conversations with him, because then
I would look out for these moments or I would provoke them.
What does it mean to be a tribal aborigine in Australia today?
The problems are with the youth. We've got the sophisticated
technology and so forth - the transistors, music, the draw of the cities.
So the problem for tribal people is how to bring their young people back
into their culture, how to get them to be interested in initiation ceremonies,
how to stop them drifting to the cities. It's a case of how long they can
continue to be a tribal people in a sophisticated Western country.
How did you find Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, and who is actually the leader of the aboriginal tribe?
He's actually a clan leader. He'd never made a film,
nor will he make one again. Not because of my experience, but because he
saw this as a one-time thing. He would do it for certain reasons. To get
him I had to go to, in Sydney, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation director,
a man called Lance Bennett, who subsequently became a friend. He was highly
suspicious of a feature filmmaker delving into tribal cultural matters.
It's all very well to photograph a tribal man with spears against Ayres
Rock, but another to delve into the system of perception, which I wanted
to. So he screened me, he read my draft screenplay, and finally he passed
me and he said, "OK. I'll help you." He said, "There's only one man who
can play your Charlie, one man who has enough wisdom, enough breadth, enough
understanding, not just to come into the city but to make a feature film.
It's obviously a sophisticated Western process." He said, "I'll tell him
about this on the radio-telephone on his island in the Gulf of Carpentaria
- Groote Island. He may or may not see you." He did see me and we sat all
day at Fanny Bay in Darwin, where he was rehearsing some dancers.
Rehearsing dancers - what does he do?
As a tribal elder he's a magistrate; he sits with
a visiting European magistrate to try petty crime, which is what they cope
with there - theft, drunkenness, etc. He speaks the language with the accused
and he advises the European magistrate on sentencing. He officiates at
tribal ceremonies, which are considerable. For instance, during filming
he had to hurry home at one point to bury a child who couldn't be buried
until he was present. He's a member of the Northern Lands Council, which
is coping with the uranium question. He's a very important, busy man. So
a film is something that could have appeared frivolous.
Our meeting, then. You know, they had no concept of acting. They don't have acting. It's the real thing. I sat with him on the beach and my first instinct was to tell him all about it. And I started to, and stopped because I could sense that it was the wrong thing to do and that he only wanted to do it has way. So we sat all day without saying a word. At the end of the day he said, "Can I bring my wife with me to make this film?" So he'd made this decision throughout that day in his own way, but it certainly wasn't this idiotic language that we use. He sensed that it was right to do and that I was right to do it, I think. We then met that evening with Lance Bennett, who remained the go-between and who could speak his language. We discussed the concepts of the film and he asked me to place certain points within the film.
Did you have to treat the aboriginal actors differently in any way from the non-aboriginal actors? What did it involve?
Absolutely. It varied. With Gulpilil I had to be
very careful of his ability to mimic a direction. He had considerable experience,
far more than the others, and I could say to him... For example, the scene
where he came to dinner with the old man, Charlie, and he walks up to the
door and says, "Hi. This is Charlie." Something simple. We rehearsed it
and it was flat. I said, "David, what's the matter, you're not firing.
What's wrong?" he said, "What do you mean? What do you want me to do? I'm
saying `Hi. This is Charlie.'" We had to act it out in pantomime and destroy
the language. I said, "This is a king you're bringing, a man of great power.
You're bringing Nanjiwarra to the door. And when you say `Hi, this is Charlie',
you don't just mean that." And I walked through it and we acted it out
and we touched each other. A great amount of touching, pushing, prodding,
through other means of communication like that. And he suddenly said, "Oh!
I see, I see!" `Hi. This is Charlie.' Let's do the take." Straightaway.
And he just said the same line, the same movements, full of life. Language
is secondary as communication.
Did they influence the script and did you want them to?
I don't know if I wanted them to. I guess you could
say yes. I didn't say to them "Please I've only got an outline. Help me."
I wanted to approach them as equals, which is difficult to do with the
white man's burden and given the sad history of contact with these people.
But I had to approach them and I used many ways. That was just one of them.
How did you decide on the subject matter?
It just arose. A series of connecting things, moments,
that conversation with Gulpilil that I couldn't understand. Something that
happened before that. I'd had a premonition. I'd never had anything like
that in my life. I don't consider myself psychic. I was on holiday in Tunisia;
I'd come down from London. I'd always loved Roman or Greek ruins - not
the way they used to be, I just liked the way they'd fallen down; but I
kind of liked classical structure. We were driving to Duga, this inland
city in Tunisia, Roman city, looks like Pompeii, and we stopped the car
to exercise a little and everyone was picking up bits of marble by the
roadside in the fields. The driver hit the horn and we were heading back
to the car and I had this feeling which lasted some seconds, that I was
going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a
stone these three parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it
was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between fingers. It resisted a little
bit, then burst up through the ploughed field and there was this head,
the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist. It had been
holding something on its head, or a sword or something. The nose was gone,
the lips and so on, but I can't tell you what that was like. I smuggled
it out and took it home and had it dated and put it on my desk. I wondered
about the head; why did I know I was going to find it? Subsequently I told
people about it, and they'd say, "Oh, that happens to you - it's you."
And I thought, What if a lawyer had found it - that's more interesting.
And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some
evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone
trained to think precisely on one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming,
dream some evidence. I told Gulpilil about this and we discussed things
and gradually the forces began to come together. I did a lot of reading
during that period - Casteneda and the Old Testament, strangely different
influences. Thor Heyerdahl's theories, Velikovsky - and somehow these clues
began to form a pattern. There was a new way to look at tribal people.
Is there really an ancient aboriginal cave under the city? Is that a real location in Sydney?
No, my location was up the coast about 15 miles.
But there are rivers under Sydney; there are things buried under Sydney.
Are the aboriginal legends in the film authentic?
Everything passed through the hands of the tribal
aborigines we used. The Sydney people are dead - white contact destroyed
them. Around the city they've left signs and symbols, some paintings, carvings
in national parks; they're now protected. Nobody knows what they mean unless
there's obvious hunting in the picture. We took the Groote Island people
to look at them. And Nanji just said "Poor fellows." So therefore, we created
a fictional situation. The only thing was, Nanji insisted that there are
still the Sydney people there, but they're spirits and their spirits exist
at sacred sites and protect sacred sites, so if there's a sacred site under
Sydney he said, "This is true, your script is true. The spirits will be
there, therefore I cannot be human." That was one change because in my
story Charlie was human, initially. He pointed out that that was impossible.
But he could be a spirit that took on human form; this is quite possible.
In The Last Wave a white man seeks spiritual assistance from a black. Was it your intention to show that whites can learn from blacks if they take the trouble?
I don't think so. You can't come in contact with
them. I paid a million dollars to spend six weeks with them, when it gets
down to it. Who could do that? They're in the North, a long way away. There
are a few books, but I haven't been lucky enough to find anything interesting.
They're either academic on the one hand or quasi-poetic on the other, and
I didn't set out to preach in the film. But something to think about, something
I think about a lot, is the fact that I, with a basically Scottish-Irish-English
background, have lost my past. I have no past. I'm nobody. I ask my parents
who these people are in the photograph album and they can't remember. Nobody
knows. I have no culture. I'm a European who lives in Australia. I'm an
Australian in a sense, but I've lost something. And that's what I made
a film about.
Part of the film seems to be about the white man's guilt over the destruction of the aboriginal culture.
It's part of the story but by no means the most significant.
The loss of dream time on our side is much more interesting.
What do the aborigines mean by dream time?
It's a system of perception. I first learned about
it as if it were some kind of mythology. Like Grimm's fairy tales: a collection
of aboriginal dream time legends: how the rivers were formed, where the
sun came from. In fact, I didn't like anything I read. They always seemed
cute in English, or coy. "The great great bull was in the sky and he hit
the wombat on the head and that's how the sun came." I just didn't like
it. It was only when I talked to tribal people, not only about that but
about other things, that an idea of dream time, as a way of perceiving,
as another perception, started to come to me. The dream time wasn't something
in the past, but was a continuing thing. It is, in fact, another time,
and people of great power can step into it and step back into our time.
Now, how or what that means, I only touched on.
The film is also about natural phenomena gone awry. A rain of frogs or rain coming through a car radio. Why did you do that?
I suppose I've been shaving some mornings and I've
watched water coming out of the tap and I've thought, It seems to be under
control. What if I couldn't turn it off, and no plumber could? We think
we have nature under control. Disasters always happen in Third World countries;
in my part of the world we're OK because we've organized things. We wouldn't
a cyclone to hit the city. It seems to me we've lost touch with the fear
of nature. More than the respect for it, because there are too many poems
written about the respect for nature. To be absolutely dead scared. Tonight,
when we leave this building and there's a special kind of wind blowing.
If that wind is howling with a voice like the voice of a person, a four-year-old
child might say to us, "The wind's talking to us," and we'll say ,"No it
isn't, don't be silly. It's just howling around those wires." Organize
his imagination, everything's under control. It's just part of something
we've lost touch with, another way of seeing the world. It was part of
a balance of things, a balance within us, and we've eliminated it since
the Industrial Revolution and it's forcing its way back. People makes movies
about it, write books about it. Often they're junk. Children are born with
it, with this balance. We teach it out, but it'll find its way back with
some of us.
What is the significance of the wave itself?
It's a common dream amongst peoples throughout all
time. The water rising up, the last high tide. It's mentioned in the Bible,
which is a type of journalism. It's happened before; people have chosen
to forget it. It's the Velikovsky collective amnesia, which is used to
forget certain catastrophes.
It seems that in your film primeval forces are gaining control over a part of the world that was previously considered civilized.
We, 40,000,000 of us, live hard along the coasts.
We're mostly in the cities on the edge of this vast continent. It's just
there to be seen if you live there. It affects you even if you're not conscious
of it - that great emptiness. You can travel and see nature as it was before
the history of man, and you can be days driving from a hamburger joint
or something. It doesn't take any imagination at all to feel awed.
You've been quoted as saying, "It takes the littlest thing to reveal the chaos underneath." What is there under Richard Chamberlain's suburban life? It seems happy and tranquil.
Things not thought through, things suppressed. The
natural forces that have been cemented over and the bloodstains of the
corpse are seeping through for some people. It's there and we just don't
choose to see it.
Richard Chamberlain learns of a previous civilization that was destroyed by a great wave. He was part of that civilization. Are we meant to believe that he was an aborigine in a previous life, or that he is psychically in tune with the aborigines and that's why he's chosen to be their lawyer?
Here we have two men: one white, one black; one
tribal aboriginal, one highly sophisticated Western civilized man. Both
fine men. One of them has material wealth; one has spiritual wealth. I
wanted my lawyer, with his material wealth, with his humanitarian principles,
to, firstly, glimpse with his mind that there was another lost dream, or
spiritual life, and then to touch it. I thought, How can he touch it? I'll
have him go back down, go back down - that's what I kept saying in my mind.
How can he go back down? I thought, Go back down underneath the city, down
through the sewer, through the filth, down to the dirt, down to his own
lost spiritual life - treated with some logic, some realistic elements.
not a fantasy. I wanted to represent it that way. So he goes back down,
and there, within the ground below - we've mentioned in the film that his
background is South American, he came from South America as a child - and
there he touches his own lost spiritual life, his own dreaming. In a sense
he's given a gift by the aborigines. There are symbols and signs from some
other life, or South American history - who knows what? He can't cope with
it. He can't handle that kind of knowledge. I don't think he could.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, your previous film, is about the mysterious - and historically real - disappearance of three girls and a teacher during a school picnic in 1900. While not overly occult, it is mysterious: two of the girls and the teacher are never found, all the watches stop at noon, and so forth. What is the significance of the red cloud that Edith says she saw?
Something that was always a pattern of geological
disturbances. A lot of things were written about, or collected by Charles
Ford, who wrote a book about phenomena around the world from the last century
and early in this century. Red clouds were consistently represented in
reports from Peru and elsewhere, coinciding with other mysterious happenings,
showers of stones, etc. For me, this unsolved mystery... Nor is the story
necessarily true. This is one of the most intriguing things. The author
of the book [Joan Lindsay] from which the film is taken says it may be
true. Strange thing to say. She wrote the book in her sixties. She's no
publicist; she's a very shy, aristocratic, interesting woman. When I met
her the agent warned me not to ask the truth of the matter - which I did
immediately. She said, "Never ask me again." When the film was released
and there was massive press contact with her, she asked, "Should I tell
them?" I said, "Keep your secret. It's not the point." People disappear
all the time. There are no newspaper records, but that doesn't mean it
isn't true. For me, it was partly to do with natural phenomena.
In The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock you're concerned with the occult and the mysterious. Is your first feature, The Cars That Ate Paris, similarly concerned with the occult and the mysterious?
I don't think those things are occult and mysterious - I think they're natural. When people ask me why I always make films about the occult, I say... I don't mean to be clever about it but - maybe it makes me eccentric - I think these things were natural. Maybe they're not now, but we've only chosen to see the world in a certain way; it's by common agreement these things are so. It's why we laugh at foreign tribes who paint their noses red or something. They laugh at us because we wear sunglasses. It's what we all agree upon. It seems a reasonable thing to say we've agreed on the world, but it also therefore seems reasonable to say that it's not necessarily that way.
As for The Cars That Ate Paris, it was retitled
Cars That Ate People in the States, and for anyone in the Carolinas
who was unfortunate enough to see this recut version of the film, well,
it was a grotesque monster of a film. It was an allegory using the B picture
form - hence the title, which was like The Monster That Ate New York,
or whatever. It was about a bunch of kids who had cars. They were living
in a town [in Australia, not France] that lived off motorcar accidents:
they trapped cars by night. Eventually the young Frankensteins rose up
and decorated their cars one night with mouths and sharks' teeth, and they
attacked the town. But the allegorical element was eliminated the way the
U.S. distributor cut it, and the picture came out as senseless violence.
It was a horrible film.
What would you like your audiences to know about your films?
I remember a quote of Bruce Springsteen's in Rolling
Stone. He said, "I like to give my audiences something money can't
buy." So I'd like them to walk out with much more than the $4.00 or whatever