Photo credit: Eddie Izzard, courtesy of Getty Images/ Kevork Djansezian/
"Documentary," Sarah Townsend says, "is a very difficult form,
especially if it's not your natural bent. It's like trying to learn to
do math if you're a writer." And she should know. Townsend directed Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, a fine doco - one that didn't so much begin life as a different documentary but almost ended up as one.
If you've seen Believe, you'll know Townsend from her
‘cameo'; part of the reason she ended up making the film - and has
produced a number of Izzard's live performance DVDs - is because she's
known Eddie since he began his career, when they were in a relationship.
"Eddie's stuff was not political or cutting edge," she recalls. "Other
people were much more obvious frontrunners. As time went on that very
factor meant his comedy continued to be of interest." As demonstrated,
in fine detail, in Believe.
It begins with the comedy process. The point of departure is a
ridiculous UK tabloid beat-up of Eddie ‘conning' the public because his
tour, promoted as an ‘all new show' by one venue, consisted of material
the comic had already toured with in the US.
"It was bullshit, nothing to worry about," Townsend says, "but it got
to Eddie because he's the guy who'd roll over his material faster than
anybody. So the whole tour was about him trying to re-establish himself
in his own head as the person he thought he was."
Presented parallel to Izzard's triumphant presentation, from scratch,
of a totally new show, is his life story from infancy to worldwide
success. But combining the strands of story was difficult. Sarah knew,
dramatically, how it should be told but was stymied by editors insisting
it was impossible.
"I'd think, ‘I bow to your greater technical knowledge' and end up
with something that just wasn't going to work. So I'd be back to the
drawing board yet again!" Eventually, the perfect collaborator, an
"absolutely amazing editor" Angie Vargos appeared at the right time.
"They always say ‘it takes years to find your team' with film. I went
through something like eight editors before I found the right one for
They had their work cut out: despite amassing many hours of excellent
material, some of it was in tiny fragments. "So much technical work
went into making ten seconds here and there seem like a two-minute piece
of footage. It was like making a jigsaw with only two pieces." Through
it all, one essential piece of puzzle proved elusive.
According to Townsend, all documentary consists of manipulating
material in order to create a "greater truth" from bits that, "strictly
speaking, might not be true." But, sooner or later, you need to have the
subject of the documentary acknowledge that truth, either admit or
realise or "have the reality hit them in that moment." Without that
element, there's "no proper journey."
Surprisingly - because they're old mates, and also because he seems
so forthcoming in interviews - Eddie doesn't give much away. "On film,
you can really tell when someone's not getting to the root of anything,"
Sarah says. "We did interviews for four years before we got anything
that was genuinely truthful. There was no genuine revelation of the self
in it, and ultimately, that's what we really want."
It was at the point where they were ready to relegate Believe
to the ‘one-hour television special' that Eddie came through. "Suddenly
we got the interviews that were the most revealing and formed the
backbone at the end of the story."
The revelation? The truth Eddie reveals - as much to himself as to
filmmakers and the audience - is that his entire career is predicated on
his yearning for the approval and presence of his mother, who died when
he was very young.
"That was an amazing moment," Sarah says. "A complete shock. We never
thought we'd get there. We'd absolutely given up. And it was so real,
so extraordinary. I remember us sitting in the room staring at each
other afterwards not speaking, going ‘Oh my god!' That's the bit that
made us able to turn it into a feature." Thus, Believe was equally a journey for Sarah.
"It was very interesting for me to discover, structurally, what we as
humans require from a film in order to connect with it and believe in
it and not feel that it's just something superficial."
Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is available on DVD now (and showing on television in the UK some time).
A little while ago I stumbled upon the Hollywood Thanksgiving Trope. I'm sure I was always aware of it, but I only became aware that I was aware of it while discussing the most important US holiday with my American boss. It was for a Thanksgiving-related CunningList article.
Normally, I don't spend time ruminating on art I don't particularly like. But when asked to review a current release film, you owe it to your readers to let them know when they're possibly going to be wasting time and money. It's a different story for a take-home DVD where it can be stopped and replaced with another one as cheaply bought or rented while there's still time to see something else.
It's a long 90 minutes when Katie Holmes is a pleasure to see - although the real pleasure is seeing her get beat up by a jealous tranny  towards the end… Read the review.
Photo credit: Eddie Izzard, courtesy of Getty Images/ Kevork Djansezian/
"Documentary is a very difficult form, especially if it's not your natural bent," says Sarah Townsend, director of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. "It's like trying to learn to do math if you're a writer."
My interview with Bill Bailey, in preparation for the Australian leg of his Tinselworm tour. We covered a lot of ground, but I failed to ask about the current show’s title or content, and how they relate. I read elsewhere Bailey’s response regarding the title, that a ‘tinselworm’ was a cheap type of silkworm – which hasn’t revealed much more about the show than my interview does. But then, Bill Bailey isn’t the sort of comedian you go to see after finding out what his topics are this time round. You go to see him because he is Bill Bailey and he will be funny, with a lot of brilliant musical material, to boot!
This is the second time I’ve had a long chat with Bill Bailey. The first time was on the eve of the first ever Sydney Comedy Festival, in 1998. This was a time when both the Comedy Store and the Harold Park Hotel – later briefly known as the Comedy Hotel, before being sold to finance the Comedy Cellar and the inaugural Sydney Comedy Festival - were two massive and important venues for the development of local comedy. Ten years later, neither venue currently exists. Oh, but in a good year, Sydney has two comedy festivals: the Big Laugh and Cracker. Pity they have to compete with each other… None of this has anything to do with Bill Bailey’s tour, however….
That first time we’d chatted, all the interviews prior to mine ran over time, and I was being forced to keep it short – so I snuck Bill into a pub in order to talk for as long as possible without getting interrupted. This time, I told Bill up front that I wanted to cover a lot of ground – the main thrust would be forGQ– for the ‘Words for the Wise’ back page section – but I was also going to get half a page inFilmInkand I wanted ask a bunch of ‘comics on comedy’ questions, as usual. Bill told me that he was home from work and had nothing else to do. I insisted that he tell me when it was time for last question. An hour later, I wound myself up. All in all, a good job, I thought, until the following day, when the publicist informed me that I’d prevented the Daily Telegraph from securing their interview. Oops. Sorry. I’ll try to be less selfish when I speak to Bill again in 2018.
What was brilliant this time around was that, when I reminded Bill of the last interview, in the pub, interrupted mid-explanation on the differences between beers in England, he was able, ten years later, to pick up the interview where he left off. I remember being impressed when Wil Anderson was able to do callbacks to earlier gigs at the Falls Festival one year. Callbacks across separate gigs over four nights is pretty cool. But Bill Bailey has called back a decade. That’s a pretty high bar for any other comedian to come and jump.
Dom Romeo: Hi Bill, it’s Dom Romeo here. How are you?
BILL BAILEY: I’m very well, thanks.
Dom Romeo: You may not remember this, but nearly a decade ago I spoke to you in Sydney. I smuggled you into a pub so that we wouldn’t get interrupted before time. Do you remember that interview?
Dom Romeo: And a sense of rural despair, of course. So I think we should just pick it up from there, more-or-less.
BILL BAILEY: Well, nothing much has changed in the ploughman’s lunch. It’s still there, but it’s probably on a bill of fare with a bit of couscous, and some Thai sea bass. Maybe our palette has moved on a little bit and the standard bill of fare in a pub is a little bit more varied, but the ploughman’s lunch is still going strong and rural despair has only increased. And a general sense of agricultural malaise is probably worse than it’s ever been. So, yeah, things are okay!
Dom Romeo: So a decade on, we have more sophisticated palates. What has changed comedically?
BILL BAILEY: Comedically? I think that televised comedy has certainly changed in that time inasmuch as that naturalistic performances are the norm now and the kind of subject matter is very much about embarrassment and a sense of cringe-making and “I can’t bear to look at this… Oh god, what are they doing now…? Oh, Jesus!…” It’s actually just a mirror to what we feel about our own society. That’s what it is. Very much a self-reflexive, very personal comedy that’s the norm now.
Dom Romeo: How does that work with what you do? A decade ago, you had a lot of musical parody in your show. How has the change in televised comedy affected you as a live comedian?
BILL BAILEY: I think that the two have actually diverged quite a lot. There’s an appetite for performance of live comedy that has increased hugely in the last ten years, because the TV stuff is very different. The TV stuff is quite small and it’s quite studied. There’s no audience laughter. It’s quite theatrical. It’s moved away from what stand-up is. I’ve noticed the numbers of live comedy audiences have gone up. More people want to go see it and it’s taken on the role that used to be filled by musical audiences and festival-going crowds – people who want a different kind of performance. They like to see comedy in a different environment.
It’s quite claustrophobic, the comedy that you see on TV. It’s become very self-reflexive and very dark, and certainly there are elements of that in stand-up, but it’s become almost a sort of celebration, live comedy. And people like to see performance – they like the fact that my kind of stuff and other people’s stuff is almost a hybrid of a lot of different strands of comedy – a lot of music and parody and personal recollection and anecdote and observation – all that stuff you pick up on the way when you’re learning a trade, and it’s all fed into this performance which is live and spontaneous and happening right there, and it’s – hopefully – always a joyful occasion. You hope people are going to laugh.
That element of it is the key – people want a sense of community when they go out. TV is very much people sitting watching it at home, or watching it on YouTube, or watching it on the Internet, or sharing files at home… People not going out, people staying in and having their own personal connection with TV and the programs that they like and sharing them around. The live stuff is a different kind of need – people wanting to be part of something: a larger crowd, be it a sporting event, a rock gig, or in this case, a comedy gig.
Dom Romeo: So hit comedies are the acute studies of humanity at its most discomforting – versus a room full of people sharing the experience.
BILL BAILEY: It’s almost as though the two can co-exist quite happily, but they’re very different – they feed on different parts of people’s comedy appetite.
Dom Romeo: You’ve mentioned in the past – and you’ve done comedy about – coming from the West Country. But you don’t seem to have a West Country accent. Why is that?
BILL BAILEY: Well the thing is that – I suppose – my parents didn’t really have the West Country accent. My father was from the north of Britain, so he had a slight northern twang to his accent, and my mother was Welsh, so she spoke with a slight welsh accent. So I suppose, really, it was so hard to do; I’d be really hard-pressed to do a combination of Welsh/northern/West Country.
I was trying to adopt a very simple, very straightforward non-inflected accent that would do where ever I went – particularly when I went to London. When I left school, I went and lived in London and I was at college there for a bit and people make assumptions as soon as you open your mouth in Britain. We’re still riddled with class. And riddled with preconception. You open your mouth and you talk with a certain accent, people immediately – almost within the first sentence – they’ve already pegged you for background, social standing, tried to figure out how much money you’ve got, what kind of place you live in…
All these things come out in the accent, and it used to really bug me. And so I suppose I tried not to have an accent when I first went up to London. Inevitably, I did. There’s no way around it. You think you don’t; you think you’re talking without any accent. But people recognise various lilts and phrases. So I thought I was talking like this: “Hello, I’m from the West Country and it’s an awful pleasure to be here in London,” whereas what I sounded like was “’Ello mate, alroight?” like some blithering yokel. I resented that. I resented that preconception. I resented people thinking, “you’re some idiot yokel from the west country”. So I kind of tried on the idea of not having an accent and people have no preconception then. People have to take you as you are. It’s a simple thing, but if you don’t have an accent, people can’t quite figure you out.
Dom Romeo: It’s true. Traditionally, English comedians came from Liverpool because they were naturally funny, but to get work in London, had to lose the Liverpudlian accent. Your choice to ‘lose’ the accent is significant.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah. Now, of course, regionalism is encouraged and celebrated. People are encouraged to keep their accents and celebrate where they come from. For me, it was about the whole package – what I looked like; my appearance as well. If you look like a hippie, people assume you’re going to be like this, or they assume you’re gonna be like that. Most of the time, it’s not that. And I suppose there’s a bit of devilment, where I quite like that. I quite like people thinking it’s going to be one thing when it’s going to be something else. Already you’ve got a bit of an angle.
Dom Romeo: Isn’t a lot of comedy and show business like that, though? The professional misdirection. You think it’s going to be happening here, but it’s actually happening there, and part of the joke turns on the fact that it takes you by surprise.
BILL BAILEY: Well, for me, yeah, I think so. I quite like that. I quite like to be surprised by someone. You’ve worked out who this person is and what they’re gonna talk about – okay, this kind of thing… this is why, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see where we’re going with this – and then it’ll be somewhere different. It’ll be taken in another direction. or it’ll be confounding, or it’ll be surprising or enchanting… That I like. It’s a healthy exchange that you’ve had. Generally, in life, it’s a good thing: not to get drawn into pegging people, or things, or ways of thinking; not getting into a rut about things.
A great compliment was paid to me in a very downbeat, off-hand, almost-not-a -compliment-at-all way, in Los Angeles. I was doing a show there, and this head of a studio came to a show. He came backstage afterwards with his entourage and he couldn’t think of any sort of compliment like a normal person would say, like “well done” or “I enjoyed it” – that wasn’t in his vocabulary. He said, “I stayed to the end”. That was the greatest compliment he could think up. He’d obviously been trying to think: “What am I gonna say to this guy? ‘I liked it?’ No. ‘I loved it?’ No. ‘I thought it was funny…?’ No, I know: ‘I stayed to the end!’” And that was it. “I stayed to the end,” he said, “because every time I thought it was going one way, you went another way.”
And so an hour and twenty minutes went by. Maybe this guy watched the first five minutes going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Okay, your girlfriend, something happened, you came out, she told you, you spun it round, blah blah blah blah blah… Right, let’s go…” It took him an hour and twenty-five minutes and he just couldn’t figure me out. “I can’t believe it, I’m still here!” That’s what I’m aiming at.
Dom Romeo: That is a compliment in the end, though, from that sort of guy.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, I suppose. I take it wherever I can get it.
Dom Romeo: You take the mickey out of a lot of music and you do it very well. It's said that at the heart of every parody is a kernel of tribute. So considering ChrisdeBurgh and Kraftwerk just for a moment – is there a part of you that likes these people that you claim to dislike?
BILL BAILEY: Well, certainly, it’s the truth of Kraftwerk. I saw a live show. It was terrific. It was a brilliant kind of weird art installation-like gig. It was unlike any other gig you’ve ever seen. Four guys who looked like bank managers, operating machinery, were hardly moving for two hours, and people would go nuts. Of course, you never see that – it’s so different and it’s so studied and it seems so incredibly modern and futuristic, the fact that they’re not moving or seeming to enjoy it in any way or imparting any emotion into it at all. In two hours, they just operated machinery. Who knows what they were doing? Was it a tape? Were they checking their emails? No-one knows. At the end they were just, ‘thank you!’ and that was it. Fantastic.
I was kind of getting slightly hysterical watching them. A kind of hilarity washed over everyone because you couldn’t figure out whether they knew how funny it was, or whether they didn’t know how funny it was, or thought they were really taking themselves seriously, or they were sending themselves up… There were all sorts of layers going on and you couldn’t figure out… whichever one you picked was great. They know they’re in on it… they’re playing it… they don’t know they’re in on it… Ah! I’ve got a big glob of affection for them. I’ve been a fan of their stuff over the years.
I don’t know about Chris De Burgh. It’s very hard for me to say. That is a serious accusation saying that I secretly like him. I don’t know if I can go that far. That’d be too far. That’s insane. I’d be rambling or raging, like some lunatic.
Dom Romeo: Of course. I apologise for that one. Take a step back then – consider other musical entities you’ve made fun of like Peter Gabriel and Genesis.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, okay.
Dom Romeo: A bit of admiration or none whatsoever?
BILL BAILEY: A bit. I do have a prog rock sensibility that I caught the tail end of in my early teens. That was my first experience of big rock gigs: people in cloaks and make-up and people playing trilogies with masses of keyboards with gongs and smoke and dry ice. They’re very powerful images, steeled into my teenage brain. Better get ’em out. I was also blown away by punk, when I was older.
But you have to get to the nub of what it is that you’re making fun of, and in order for it to work, you have to really understand it and know what it is. Same with de Burgh: you’d have to know the kind of chords he would play and the turns of phrases and the mentality behind it. I think they become more affectionate tributes, in a way, like the Billy Bragg one and the Bryan Adams one. In the new show I’ve got a modern folk song and a tribute to emo – you know, the kind of overwrought sort of black fringed, goth, hand-ringing: “Why me? Everything’s gone wrong.”
Dom Romeo: So the danger is there: for you to make fun of it as well as you do, you have to know it very well, and it’s only a small step then – you might slip over and start to like aspects of it.
BILL BAILEY: Very true. It’s a risk, there’s no doubt about it. You have to be very, very disciplined. If you find yourself downloading the whole album of Evanescence ‘for reference’ – “Oh yeah, that’s ‘for reference’, is it, Bill…?” – then you have to get a grip on yourself. And if you wear black too often… You need someone keeping an eye on you, some sort of ‘parody buddy’ watching you, checking your moves.
Dom Romeo: Earlier on you used to wear black, way before emo. But it had a different meaning then – when you had the Bastard Bunny t-shirt… you did come from a purely musical background. How did you make the transition?
BILL BAILEY: I was in this band in the West Country. We were gigging around the area in little clubs and pubs. These guys I was in the band with, they were wanting to take it more seriously. I was just a young kid, really. I was in my teens and I didn’t want to take it too seriously; I was only really in it for a laugh. And then I realised that these guys really, really wanted this thing to work. It was like a big deal for them. One of them was a hairdresser and another one worked in a garage and the band was a big thing.
I just wanted to have a laugh – turn up for a gig in a pub somewhere and then fall asleep on the pool table – which is what I did. The seriousness of the muso element was really starting to bug me – people arguing about who wrote what riff in what song. I thought, “oh god, this isn’t what I wanted to join a band for – arguing over chords”. So I started doodling around with a mate. One night we did a comedy sketch and it was so liberating. I realised that you get locked into a kind of a routine in a band, if you’re not careful. It was like, “you are the keyboard player, this is what you do”. It was too limiting as a form of expression. I remember thinking, “Is this what I'm gonna do? Dance around behind a keyboard to try and make it look interesting, and not say anything?” I wasn't the singer… I realised quite luckily, very early on, I’d get bored and frustrated just doing that, and chucked it in very early. I made a conscious decision and I very clearly remember it. I was really young, 19 or 20, and I remember thinking, “Do I really want to struggle on with a band for years and years and years, or should I try my own thing?” It was very much a gut instinct that I had, and it turned out to be right. Although I would have loved to be the keyboard player in TalkingHeads, I must admit.
Dom Romeo: Is there a form of music so base and so beneath you, so abhorrent to you, that you wouldn’t even download a version in order to send it up?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, certain kids’ TV themes. Most music I can listen to, I can absorb and go, “yep, I can see what you're doing there but it’s not for me”. But if I hear ‘Barney the Dinosaur’, or any one of them, it’s like nails down a blackboard. I suppose it’s because I've got a four-year-old and heard them that many times now that I start to get a Herbert Lom-style twitch when I hear them. Just the eye – like when he says, “Clouseau? Clouseau? He’s here?!”
Dom Romeo: What about in comedy? Is there anything that makes you feel the same way?
BILL BAILEY: It’s probably an occupational hazard of all comics. It’s hard to enjoy it as a punter because it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday: “I like the structure of that; nice joke; ooh, that’s a nice joke, wish I’d thought of that…” If you start to analyse it, rather than just enjoy it, it stops being fun. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed American comics – they’re coming from a different cultural background, you can switch off that analysing button a little bit and enjoy it as part of the audience because of the ‘otherness’… the ‘differentness’. Can you say that? The ‘difference’… The ‘otherness’ of it.
But I suppose any comedy that’s just old retreads that I’ve heard for years that isn’t really moving it on at all, or the lack of ambition of it all – the leaden “here comes the punchline, clip clopping over the hill like a big, shy horse. Here it comes, clip, clopping, BONG!” That’s what’s depressing. You think, “but I heard this joke when I was 12…”. That’s what bugs me, I suppose.
When I hear jokes I grew up with, I think, “has someone gone over everyone with a neuraliser?” Maybe they’ve forgotten whole swathes of their childhood. Perhaps it’s endearing to be reminded of jokes. They like familiarity and something they can relate to. You can’t deny that and it’s no less valid if people are laughing – that’s the ultimate stamp of approval.
And the trouble is, naturally, I want to move it on and reflect more about where I am. You get older and think about things in a different way than you thought about them twenty years ago, and there are other things that you want to talk about and you want to keep things fresh so that you’re not getting bored with it, and you want to stay interested and stay challenged by it and at the same time you’re thinking about the audience…
“Avoidance of cliches” is the mantra I try to adhere to. You think of a joke, you think,“Has this been done before? Who might have done it? Is it new? have I heard it before?” You think “Maybe not,” so you move it along and try to mould subject matter into something that’s succinct or in a funny way or subject matter that isn’t really spoken about. Stuff like that is what keeps me going.
Dom Romeo: Do you consciously think of that when you’re coming up with material, or do you just find that if it makes you laugh, then it’s pretty much safe that it’s going to make your audience laugh? I mean, do you ever look at your material and think, “gee, all I’m really doing here is ‘the difference between cats and dogs’”?
BILL BAILEY: Am I now just doing the similarities? That’s the way! Let me just find the commonalities between all things…
It’s really just what’s going through your head at the time – what’s bothering you or what’s going through your head, and I’m hoping and trusting that my audience will be going with me on that. They’ll be the ones I’ve grown up with over the years, and they’ll know that this is the kind of subject matter that they’ll be talking about. You have to trust a little bit and take a risk, that’s the real trick of it.
If you’re not enjoying it, the audience will cop onto that pretty quickly. It’s in the eyes – if theres nothing in the eyes [they know you’re over it].
Dom Romeo: So what is the secret to longevity in comedy?
BILL BAILEY: I think you have to really want to do it. You’ve got to have the will, the appetite for it. Certainly with stand-up, you do. Because it only gets harder. It gets harder and harder as the years go on. Expectation gets higher, sitting down to write and focus on what is essentially a reckless, foolhardy occupation… your time gets squeezed.
There are other things to think about. There’s a family and responsibilities and reflection and all kinds of other things that crowd in the time you used to spend – the months you’d luxuriate in the time that there was to fashion an act and hone it to this beautiful, polished gem that could keep you going for a few years, and then you’d fashion another one, to be a show. The time’s just not there anymore. You kind of have to be very focused on it and know what you want to get out of it, but be sure that that’s what you want to do. That’s the key.
And don’t get distracted. If you really want to keep doing comedy, you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go for a second. You don’t want to get distracted doing too much for TV or other things.
All of that’s fine, it’s all part and parcel of it. If you’re a comic and if you’re reasonably successful, TV offers come battering through the door and you can’t stop them. Eventually you give in and you say, “alright, I’ll do some of this” and “that’s good” or “that might be good”. Undoubtedly, it can be a blessed relief after being on tour for years and years, working a solitary profession. Suddenly you’re on a team of people and it’s like turning up for work. You can kid on that you’ve actually got a job, you know: “I check in and get a special pass and then I go to my dressing room and people bring me pudding. Yeah, I get pudding, and there’s free fruit I can take – it’s free, have that – and there are biscuits and little sandwiches and a microphone and lots of lights…” It’s like having a holiday from your life.
It never felt real to me. I felt that stand-up was the real job; it’s the real graft. That’s you! Your thoughts. Your life processed into your – your reputation, whatever you want to call it. It's mentally stable as well. Don’t get carried away with it. That's the other thing.
Dom Romeo: Right. Given that, what do you do to relax? How do you maintain your mental stability? How you know when it’s time to take a step back from something?
BILL BAILEY: It’s good having a family. I think that’s great. I have a wife and a child and great friends and we have a great life. We travel a lot and go to great places. I think you have to go and get out of your little world you’re in. It can get a bit too claustrophobic sometimes. You have to get out of it and do something else – something that’s totally different from writing comedy. Something simple, physical… rafting or climbing… you find a lot of comics are into real ‘adrenaline’ kind of things. You need to get a hit from somewhere.
Dom Romeo: So what do you do?
BILL BAILEY: What we do is we go trekking in the jungle and white-water rafting and volcano climbing. That tends to knock the shit out of your head.
Dom Romeo: Are you serious? Is that really what you do to relax?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah.
Dom Romeo: If that’s the case, that you need a burst of adrenaline from those kinds of activities before you can relax, what sort of things actually scare you? What do you fear most?
BILL BAILEY: Losing my wits. Literally and figuratively. Not being able to be funny and actually starting to lose my mental facility terrifies me.
Dom Romeo: What or who inspires you most?
BILL BAILEY: I’m a bit of magpie – I pick up different bits of inspiration from different sources, sometimes from places I wouldn't imagine I would. From political leaders or writers and/or other comics, or even sometimes sporting figures who go through great strife and find some sort of mental strength to get them through it. And even people I know who have actually had to do that. Your friends and family who have gone through some strife and shown some sort of tenacity and not given up, who make you think, “god, that’s what I want to be like”. I don't know how that applies…
Anything like that I draw strength from because sometimes you do think about giving up – you’ve had a bad gig or your can’t think of anything new – and you think of someone who’s been in that situation in their own walk of life, and that gives you a bit of a sense of tremendous achievement that people have gone through.
Dom Romeo: When you have those moments of doubt, who do you think of? Is it a close friend who has been through those things, or is it a hero from history?
BILL BAILEY: You just think about some footballer who had an injury and was out for half a season and then he gets his chance in a game and it’s a big cup game, and suddenly he’s taking a penalty that could mean the difference between them being relegated or promoted. There’s a great honesty about sport where you can see the emotion. It’s right there on the face. Sometimes I vicariously enjoy that, that twirl of acting out and thinking through the mental process of that.
Dom Romeo: Are you a follower of sport? Do you barrack for a football team?
BILL BAILEY: Not really, no. I enjoy it in a more general sense of what it does, how it can elevate people. I love the fact that there’s a sense of community about people going to see sport and how it draws people together. There’s a tremendous sense of belonging that people crave. As humans, we need that. We need some sort of spiritual catharsis that sport can give us.
Dom Romeo: But if you don’t actually engage in that activity, what do you do for that spiritual catharsis, that sense of community, when you feel the need? [Duh! He does stand-up comedy! - Autocritic]
BILL BAILEY: I suppose huge events – huge, mass gatherings of people. You can draw on that. It could be a sporting event or a big gig… I suppose the big anti-war march in London is a good example. There was an incredible sense of shared feeling. That, I find, is inspiring. You get out there and see what people can achieve and you feel part of it. You think, this is great! There is hope! You can effect change! You feel helpless as an individual – what can you do? But thousands of people, millions, together – you feel empowered by it. You feel part of something. I always feel that that’s a very primal, human need. We’re very community-based animals, we like to be in a group. Modern life prevents that.
Dom Romeo: Can we talk about your television and film career? When you were first here ten years ago, you had just made a television breakthrough with the previous year’s Is It Bill Bailey? which involved sketch and stand-up. We’ve never seen it out here. Is there any chance it’ll be released on DVD?
BILL BAILEY: We were just thinking about that fairly recently. The director of that was Edgar Wright, who’s gone on to direct a few films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And SimonPegg was in it, who’s gone on to do these films. I was talking to Edgar when we were doing Hot Fuzz and he said he’d like to get everyone together to do cast interviews and gather together deleted scenes and really spend a bit of time on it… making it into a proper thing, rather than just banging it out as just another BBC bit of merchandise. So that’s hopefully what we’ll do.
Dom Romeo: I’m really glad to hear that, and now you’ve also put everything into perspective, including the Simon Pegg relationship which I thought had begun with Spaced.
BILL BAILEY: Simon and Edgar and Jessica [Hynes, nee Stevenson] who wrote that thing, thought up this character and wrote it with me in mind – this kind of comic book purveyor. It’s great when something’s written for you. You just have to turn up and speak.
Dom Romeo: How much is that character like you in real life? Are you into comic books? I know you’re into Bastard Bunny to some extent.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, it’s one of those things that you think, “oh no, that would be too much of a cliché if that’s what I was like”, and then you think, “no, I’ll resist that…” and then you realise, “no, actually, I have bought some comics and I am quite into it”. And then people send me this stuff. I get sent all these kinds of graphic novels and stuff, and I guess I love it, really. But I’m trying not to become these characters.
Dom Romeo: I think I knew that. But you must have liked the role, seeing as you were there for three seasons and each season was better than the previous one.
BILL BAILEY: Well I think it was just one of those rare moments where there was a great chemistry between the actors and there was a very good relationship with the production team. Everyone had a very sympathetic and very supportive climate going into it. It was very much a case of the broadcasters letting the production team get on with it. There was no meddling, there was no interference from broadcasting. “You do it your way.” You were encouraged to be as individual about it. And from what I’ve experienced from television over the years, that’s quite rare. It was a very happy time.
The rehearsal period was great fun. A lot of things happened in the rehearsals that then ended up in the show. It had quite a rough and loose feel about it. It was never quite set in stone; it wasn’t rehearsed into the ground. We would rehearse it up to the shoot, then shoot it in front of a live audience and then something would go wrong so then we’d just improvise a scene then something else would go wrong with that scene – someone would put a coffee cup down in the wrong place – so we’d improvise another scene. There’d be four different versions. It was a very fertile environment to work in and it was great fun working with Dylan [Moran] and Tamsin [Greig].
Dom Romeo: You also appeared in Wild West, a strange little comedy vehicle for Dawn French which also featured Catherine Tate before we knew her here. It was set in the West Country, so it’s right up your alley. How was it to be a part of that?
BILL BAILEY: That was a project that Dawn French had been thinking about for a long time. It was very edgy and again very personal to her and quite different – a departure from what she’d done before. Quite dark and slightly surreal – it was actually a lesbian couple living in this sort of rural idyll. That’s a classic case of where there was a bit of meddling – the BBC getting involved and the focus groups having a go at it – “no, no, no, don’t do it like that, do it like this…” One of them had boyfriend and it was all a bit wacky – it didn’t have the same clarity of what the thing was gonna be.
It was great fun to do it because obviously, we were filming in Cornwall, which is beautiful. And I had to try and speak with a Cornish accent, which is always a challenge.
Dom Romeo: You were in Hot Fuzz, on one level a send-up of The Wicker Man. What was it like working with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright again, on that? Fun, I’m sure…
BILL BAILEY: Oh yes. What larks! It was terrific fun and it was a double-wigger for me, which is always a joy. Two wigs. “‘Wigs’ Bailey”, I was known as. And they’re great guys. Edgar is such a film buff. He knows so much about films and scenes and lines from films. You know that every scene he does, he’s thought about a hundred different ways – how he can reference some other film into it. And that, I think, particularly for myself and Simon who have absorbed so much popular culture into stand-up, it’s such a rich source of material, you’re almost speaking the same language as him.
Dom Romeo: Bill, I want to give you back to your family and your life – but I have one last topic to cover. Do you know what a ‘skullet’ is?
BILL BAILEY: I do, yes. I have knowledge of that and I’ve seen it mentioned with my name attached to it. I am delighted that somehow tonsorial laziness has actually now got a name. It’s actually been enshrined as a kind of a hairstyle. I didn’t even know it was a ‘style’, but now apparently it is. So I’m delighted.
Dom Romeo: Well, there are a whole lot of us, when our hair starts to go, we now have something to aspire to.
BILL BAILEY: Absolutely. It’s no longer just a bloke going a bit bald with his hair long at the back… No, it’s a ‘skullet’! It’s perfect. And also it’s an instruction to people to drink.
Dom Romeo: I’ll drink to that!
Bill Bailey, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you live again.
BILL BAILEY: You’re welcome. See you then.
For more details of the Australian leg of the Tinselworm tour, almost totally sold out before it begins, check out the website of Adrian Bohm Presents.
Continuing the project to dig up and re-publish the older interviews, here’s another one with Mr Ross Noble.
That strange Sunday catch-up with Ross Noble all those years ago began with a discussion of comedians we liked, before we actually tucked into the interview proper. At the time, I’d yet to secure a copy of Richard Pryor’s Pryor Convictions (and still have yet to do so). Ross owned a copy, he told me, in addition to many other books and videos fans of comedy would love.
“The comedy shelf’s this deep,” he said, demonstrating with palms facing each other, a considerable distance apart, “about this tall,” jumping into the air to give me an indication, “and from about here” – indicating a starting point in front of him, before taking a number of big strides – “to here”. We agreed that, should I ever get it together to head to, say, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I would get in touch with Ross first, and pop in on my way.
Of course, by the time I finally got to the Edinburgh Fringe – only a few years later – there was no way someone like me was gonna casually pop in on someone like Ross. Not that I didn’t try, mind. Just that colleagues – of his, not of mine; fellow stand-up comics – who’d have his contact details weren’t about to hand it over. So I knew Ross Noble had well and truly hit the big time… but I wasn’t sure to what degree. That is, until I actually stepped off the train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh and tried to hail my first minicab in that city. It bore an advertisement for Ross’s show that year – Unrealtime. (I apologise for the poor photo, below – and not taking the time to secure a better one.)
I certainly had an unreal time seeing the show and interviewing Ross afterwards in one of those chain coffee shops that had colonised the US and UK before they’d made inroads into this country (I’ll locate that minidisk and transcribe it – at the time, the sound recording was meant for ABC NewsRadio but my association with that station had ended before Ross returned to Australia and I could exploit the ‘exclusive’).
I was given the opportunity to talk to Ross again, forFilmInkmagazine, for the Australian release ofUnrealtimeon DVD – which must have been some time towards the end of 2005. I used a fair whack of the interview – not represented below – for an episode ofRadio Ha Halater on, and I’ll deal with the transcript of that some other time. For now, enjoy this. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called when it was published in FilmInk.
According to fellow comic Wil Anderson, just as filmmakers nowadays learn to make films by listening to directors’ commentary on DVDs, comedians will learn to do comedy by listening to Ross Noble’s commentary on his new Unrealtime DVD. Or at least, they would if they could get their hands on it; until recently, you could only get it from the UK or through Ross Noble’s website. Although the comic was launching it in person in selected HMV stores in the UK last October, it’s taken some seven months to make it to Australia.
“It was supposed to come out at the same time in Australia,” Ross Noble insists from his Melbourne home (having ‘settled down’ with a local lass, he has spent the last little while touring and living out here) “but unfortunately – what’s the best way of putting it? – the people responsible for actually physically getting it into the shops didn’t realise that Australia was such a long way away and it might take a bit longer to get it. It was the same in Ireland as well: there’s so much stuff on the actual thing itself that to get it certificated and produced and whatever else just took a bit longer than was anticipated, i.e. seven months.”
Now, the thing about Ross Noble’s comedy is that it’s never set in stone. Having first been a street performer who juggled and rode a unicycle, when he first took to the stage as a stand-up comic, the jokes were still the fillers between the tricks. But because this took place in the northern town of Newcastle, England, where comics were a lot thinner on the ground and the London variety proved too expensive to ship up, Noble got a lot of flying time as a stand-up comic. He’d MC a lot. When he finally started to ‘make it’ in London, it was as a warm-up guy for live studio audiences in-between and during the technical hitches of sitcoms.
“It meant that I got to the point where I was comfortable enough on stage going on and actually genuinely talking and genuinely being funny without relying on jokes,” Ross explains. As a result, he learnt to have faith that no matter what came up and where he took it, he could always end with a flourish, impressively tying all the loose ends together. These are the skills the comic still utilises on the stand-up stage, bantering with the punters and looking as though he makes it all up out of thin air as he goes along. Even when he starts to do the ‘same bits’ – which in Noble’s case, means merely attempting to revisit the same topics and usually ending up somewhere else entirely – he never does them the same way twice.
Why is all of this important? Only because you’ve got to wonder at what point you decide to record it for posterity. If you’re gonna make a DVD of a show that changes nightly, how do you decide that ‘this night is gonna be the one that nails it, that best sums up what it’s about’?
“To be honest with you,” Ross admits, “that was the hardest thing about the whole process, just going, ‘well, hang on, when is the best time to catch it?’ So, basically, I didn’t. The release is actually a two-disc set. There are two shows, filmed three months apart.”
The first show, Noble explains, took place at The Regent’s Park, an open air theatre “where they do Shakespeare and it’s all a bit ‘la-di-da’.” Having recorded that show, it was bunged on the shelf and duly ignored it. Two months later, Ross embarked on a month-long run at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End, which culminated in a final night’s taped performance. “Obviously,” Ross says, “they’re two different shows. But they were basically recorded at the same time.” Rather than a document of ‘a show’, they form a snapshot, like a band’s live performance, of what took place on those respective nights.
So, okay. How do the performances differ?
“Oh, blimey!” the comic begins. “Well, one’s indoors and one’s outdoors, that’s the main one.” Because of the nature of performing outdoors – “it’s got no roof on it and all the rest of it” Ross elucidates – the performance is more driven by the venue. “Just ’cause of the nature of being outside, there’s a ton of stuff about picnics and cheese and there’s a bit about a fight that kicked off on a moped just up the road from where the gig was. It was the sort of thing where everyone was going, ‘well, this is a bit weird; we’re watching a stand-up show, but we’re essentially in a park’.”
The show at the Garrick Theatre is in fact the Unrealtime show proper, and, Ross insists, “is a bit darker; it’s a bit more about what’s going on in my head than what’s going on in the room.” He pauses before offering the definitive explanation of the differences between the two performances: “I say different words and people laugh in different places. That’s the main difference.”
In addition to two and a half hours of stand-up comedy – the Garrick performance goes for ninety minutes, while the open-air performance is an hour – Ross promises that the two-disc set is “chock-a-block!” There are the educational commentaries, the subtitles and pop-up trivia, even a standard ‘Ross On Tour’ featurette. And then it gets interesting: there is a Trivia Quiz To Unlock Hidden Extra Footage, so there are easter eggs as well. “Nine hours it will take you to get through everything,” Ross reckons. “There’s no room left on either of the discs!”
I have had the pleasure of speaking to Andrew Denton a number of times and he remains one of my favourite interviewers for several reasons – including his humour, intelligence and ability to be both interesting and interested. However, when I first spoke to him regardingEnough Rope, I felt the need to take issue with some of what I perceived to be shortcomings of his work – like letting Rene Rivkin and Rachel Griffiths off the hook a little too easily when he interviewed them (I blogged about this at the time – not knowing I would subsequently interview Denton about the show, forFilmInk, in honour of the first Enough Rope DVD release). Surely calling a show Enough Rope was a reference to the phrase ‘give ’em enough rope to hang themselves’. Why did conversation always turn to child rearing? What happened to the angry young Denton? Did he have to mellow so annoyingly?
I’d first had the pleasure of interviewing Denton when he had nothing at all to promote. His time on breakfast radio was drawing to close – although I didn’t know it – when I happened to accost him in public. He was happy to be interviewed but the finished product unfortunately never saw the light of day. I was writing for the street press then and since there was no potential for advertising revenue, they had no particular desire to publish a profile of one of my heroes. As I wasn’t yet blogging and I hadn’t made the acquaintance of the right editor at some party, there didn’t seem to be another outlet for it.
One of the things that came up during that chat was Denton’s belief that documentary as a form of entertainment was going to take off. He likened it to non-fiction literature, that had overtaken fiction in the best-sellers lists. So when I got to speak to him about his new television show, I put it to him that Enough Rope was the televisual equivalent of ‘non-fiction’ entertainment. Although he didn’t quite agree, Denton has since made good on his instincts regarding documentary withGod On My Side. (And since it was broadcast within the [More Than] Enough Rope slot, Enough Rope may not be television doco, but television doco can certainly be Enough Rope.)
In the course of the Enough Rope interview, Denton also pointed out that his show wasn’t about taking interview subjects to task – that his use of the title was about giving people the opportunity to do rope tricks, rather than hang themselves. He explained his take on all of the things I took issue with and allowed me to see another side (not necessarily ‘the other side’, note), pointing out that an interview is like taking a picture, and if I don’t like the interview, really, I’m only taking issue with his choice of camera angle. I liked the metaphor, but more importantly, I liked the point he was making. It gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate the work and what I thought I didn’t like about it. It’s not every day that someone invites you to voice a criticism of his work, to his face, and have him address your criticism, all in a rational manner.
One of the things that I wanted to know about Enough Rope – particularly when it came to the DVD release – was with regards to where edits had clearly been made in the interviews. What was it that didn’t make the final cut? And why couldn’t ‘extended versions’ of the original broadcasts – with some of the edited material re-instated – have been included on the DVD? After all, that’s pretty much what DVDs are for. “You know what?” Denton said, “there just isn’t the time, unfortunately.”
Thankfully, time has made itself available. I’m really enjoying More Than Enough Rope, the series of Enough Rope currently being broadcast that re-visits some of the best interviews, re-instating some of the bits that were originally cut. More than that, the interviews often pause in order to allow Denton to offer some commentary about the proceedings. Again, this is what DVD is supposed to provide. How cool is it that we’re getting it for free on the telly? No doubt one day all entertainment will have the ‘extended with commentary’ option – but we’ll have to pay a little bit extra each month to be able to download and enjoy it.
At this point, the logical thing for me to do is revisit that FilmInk interview, and present it in it’s original question-and-answer form. It serves as a follow up to my earlier blog about the show, since it addresses – as Denton did – my original criticisms. I promised at the time to follow up and present the other side of the story. It’s only taken me about three years!
I’d also like to add a bit of trivia I discovered a little while ago. The title Enough Rope originally graced a radio show hosted by Meshel Laurie and Josh Kinal on Melbourne’s Triple R. That program no longer existed by the time Andrew Denton wanted to use the title for his television show. There is no provision to copyright a title, and so anyone can use a pre-existing title if they want to, even if the other thing with that title still exists. However, Denton still made contact, to ensure that it was okay to name his show Enough Rope, despite having no obligation to do so. I love it when a powerful person makes an effort to behave honourably, even if he doesn’t have to.
After that rather long introduction, here is the long interview.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, is it okay if I start by hitting you with a quote from an interview we did some years ago?
ANDREW DENTON: Go ahead.
Dom Romeo: You said,
“Documentary is the great unexplored form of entertainment; ten years ago, non-fiction was the ugly cousin of publishing. Now non-fiction is the thing; that’s where the best-sellers are. I firmly believe the same of documentary. I believe that documentary could become the non-fiction of feature film, done right.”
Is Enough Rope the televisual equivalent?
ANDREW DENTON: No, not really. I don’t see it as documentary. It’s conversation. It’s a different thing. And it’s not something that would readily translate to cinema, I don’t think, although probably The Fog of War belies that.
Dom Romeo: Where did the concept of Enough Rope come from? It’s kind of like a chat show, but a chat show done the way ‘chat’ hasn’t been done for quite some time.
ANDREW DENTON: I quibble with the term ‘chat’; ‘chat’ is something that you do over the back fence when you’ve got five minutes. I sit down and talk to people for an hour or longer. I don’t mean to sound wanky, but it’s a conversation. I think ‘chat’ speaks of a whole different genre, which I’ve also done, which is usually a few anecdotes, a few laughs, a joke here and a product endorsement. I don’t think I’m doing that.
Where the idea came from was sitting out of television for a long time, and particularly watching the rise of reality television, feeling very strongly that there was too much chat and not enough conversation, and usually the chat happened to be about the same few subjects – a lot of them revolving around reality television. I felt, watching shows like Australian Story and listening to things on the radio like The Search for Meaning, that in fact, at a particularly stressful time in world history that we’re undeniably living through, that many people wanted to talk about matters much closer to their hearts, and that were bothering them, than simply what the latest evictee from Big Brother was like.
Dom Romeo: Is that just symptomatic of the state of the world at the moment? Entertainment seems to be the ‘opiate of the masses’.
ANDREW DENTON: No, I think sport is the opiate of the masses. And I’m a willing partaker of it on occasion. I think entertainment is a distraction, not an opiate.
Dom Romeo: You referred to the things that we hold dear to us: how does that manifest itself on Enough Rope?
ANDREW DENTON: The simplest way to put that is you will see a lot of times when I talk to people, we talk about their own parents or their own children, the fundamental things of society. It’s not to do with what you’ve earned or who you’ve met; it’s not what you’ve earned, it’s what you’ve learned. I think that’s one of the strong senses I’ve had, and discerned in the people I’ve had around me – we feel like our society is fracturing; we feel like it’s fracturing under the weight of trivia and under the weight of so many distractions – going back to the point about entertainment; and we feel like it’s under threat from a very dark force, which is fundamentalism. And the very spiritual strength of fundamentalism underlines in some ways our spiritual weakness and our weakness as a society, as a group of people who care for each other. So when I talk about parenting or children, that’s talking about the fundamentals of society: how we deal with other human beings.
Dom Romeo: There were times when I felt that, because you have a young child, you always seem to bring up the ‘young child’ topic in the interview if your interview subject also has a young child. Although it seemed more pertinent for your ‘Australian of Year’ interview with Professor Fiona Stanley in which you discussed the growing incidence of drug addicted parents and depressed children. How important is it that we address procreation and children as issues central to where we’re going as a society?
ANDREW DENTON: Well, it’s about as important as the future. They’re the next generation. Whatever we do now will shape the next twenty years. And whatever our kids do will shape the twenty years after that. As we all know, the way we’re parented has a profound influence on how we deal with the world. So it couldn’t be more important.
Dom Romeo: Did you have any idea when you were younger, before you started a family, how important the family was? Were you always aware of that?
ANDREW DENTON: Look, I come from a very strong family, as does Jennifer [Byrne, Denton’s partner], and one of the reasons we get on so well is that we’re great believers in ‘family’. Family takes care of family. But that’s on a personal level. On a societal level, no, I think you begin to understand it more when you become a parent and when you talk to other parents and start seeing the school community. You begin to see how many problems are shared and how many problems are different.
All this is important to the show, but the mission statement for the show is ‘where entertainment and ideas meet’. It’s okay to be entertaining, it’s okay to have ideas; they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Dom Romeo: What about the title of the show, ‘Enough Rope’? I’m familiar with the phrase ‘enough rope to hang himself with’. You don’t often seem to let ’em hang. You don’t let ’em dangle…
ANDREW DENTON: No, and for a very good reason. I think a good title is good for a show, and I based the title of the show on this very simple guide: if I just arrived from overseas and knew nothing about what was on TV and only had the guide to go by, I’d pick the show with a neat title. So, for instance, I would have watched The Money or the Gun, even if I didn’t know anything about it. So I think Enough Rope is a really good title. But having said that, yes, the saying is ‘enough rope and they’ll hang themselves’, but my view is always, ‘enough rope, and if you’re good, you’ll do rope tricks’.
The whole purpose of the show is not set up to trap people or to trick them. The whole purpose of the show is to let people shine and that’s one of the things we’ve found. As we talk to people and give them a chance to talk about things away from the normal publicity rounds, most of the people I speak to, they’re where they’re at because they’re intelligent, they work really hard, they’ve got a world view.
Dom Romeo: Well that puts the Rene Rivkin interview into perspective. The first time I watched it I thought you went a little easy on him. You didn’t take him to task on his alleged wrong-doing. Watching it again, I realise that none of that has anything to do with you letting him tell his story.
ANDREW DENTON: No, and with very good reason. The chronology of this – and we should get it very clear – first of all, we asked him to come on the show well before the legal stuff happened… in public, anyway. I asked him to come on the show because I’d seen him on Clive Robertson a decade earlier and never forgotten him; he was so interesting. And the night in fact he came on the show was before he’d been found guilty of anything. We knew he was before the court, but there was no point in discussing something that a) was before the court; and b) something that hadn’t been decided. And indeed, what we saw and found there was the marvelously flamboyant and eccentric individual that Rene Rivkin is. The second interview, which was in fact after he was found guilty, was a different interview all together. One that Rene left extremely unhappy from, because he was asked a great deal about his business dealings, and about the fact that he’s been found guilty. He was extremely unhappy.
So it’s very easy for people – and I think people have – to take that first interview and say, ‘you were just giving a criminal a free ride’. He wasn’t a criminal at the time, and he was and still is a fascinating man that I hate to think we’ll kick to death regardless of what he’s done wrong.
Dom Romeo: What are the criteria for the selection of guests for the show?
ANDREW DENTON: People who we feel have led enough of a life to be interesting – or who have enough of a view of life to be interesting. And they can be different categories. There have been actors and famous people that we’ve said no to, not because they’re not famous enough, but because they perhaps haven’t been around for long enough to have really formed a view on life. And then there are other people we choose who aren’t famous at all, but whose attitude towards life, or what they’ve done with their life, is really instructive and extraordinary. It’s pretty simple but they’re interesting enough to sustain a longer conversation, as opposed to a ‘chat’.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about the ‘non-celebrity’ guests. It’s an interesting and vital angle that no other conversation show or chat show has dealt with.
ANDREW DENTON: It was actually the starting point for the show. Some years ago I remember watching Parkinson, and wondering what the same show would be like – with the band and all of that – but if you just spoke to people that no one had ever heard of. When I first was putting together the outline of Enough Rope in fact I envisaged a show with no celebrities at all. Now that was a fairly ‘Stalinist’ view, which was wrong for two reasons: one, because it assumed that people who are celebrities hadn’t led interesting lives, which is manifestly untrue, as Mel Brooks showed early this year; and two, because part of the secret to the show’s success is that any given week, when you tune in, you don’t know what you’re going to get. If we had completely excluded entertainers and performers, it would have limited our palette greatly.
So it comes from all the TV shows I’ve done; whenever I’ve had a break in taping I’ve gone and spoken to members of the audience, and I have been, almost without exception, astonished by what people have to say. You just never know who is going to amaze you with something they have to say, be it an opinion or something from their lives. I’ve often walked up the street and thought, ‘I could walk into any house here and with the right questions, I could unlock one thing in this person’s life, be it a relative or something they’ve done, which is astonishing’.
So it comes from that and the thought that we have spent so much time in the last ten years elevating celebrity to a religion that again, getting back to that idea of ‘society’ and ‘values’, I think we’ve actually forgotten that the far more interesting, or the equally interesting people are next to us on the bus or the train. I’m not a great believer in religions of any sort and I think the religion of celebrity is a particularly stupid one, and I just wanted to remind all of us, I suppose – myself included – that the so-called ‘ordinary’ is more extraordinary than those things that are promoted as extraordinary.
Dom Romeo: So what you’re doing, when you do interview celebrities, is trying to provide enough comfort and freedom for them to reveal something about themselves.
ANDREW DENTON: That’s something that we’re all aiming for. We research a lot, and really, there are two schools of thought on this – some people think that the approach is too soft, but my view is, there’s a lot of adversarial television around, that’s not really what I’m interested in doing. I think if you sit there with a searing list of questions, trying to tear someone apart, often those questions are about the interviewer, not about the guest.
Let me just say, I think there are places where that’s really appropriate, particularly in day-to-day current affairs. But in the stuff that we’re doing – if I attack a guest, what am I likely to get out of them? All heat, no light. I’d much rather try to open somebody up by being empathetic, by actually being interested in what they have to say, and why they might have reached a certain point in their lives, and within the course of that, throw in challenging questions so it’s not assuming that this person isn’t to be challenged.
I think most of my guests walk away feeling challenged by the experience, but it’s not that old fashioned adversarial way of, ‘right, I’m taking a position on you and I’m now going to go in hard’.
Dom Romeo: After that, and as good as that is, to suddenly meet someone in the audience who is a – I’m trying not to use the word ‘nobody’…
ANDREW DENTON: We call them “so-called ‘ordinary’ Australians” because that’s how they’re viewed.
Dom Romeo: Excellent. Then you talk to “so-called ‘ordinary’ Australians” and again, I’m astounded by their stories.
ANDREW DENTON: Yeah. And that’s always the case. And all we’ve done is put on camera what I’ve been finding for years. One of the interesting points is the lie, the commonly held belief that Australians can’t talk. I’m constantly astonished by the eloquence, let alone the honesty, with which people explain things that are very, very difficult in their lives.
When the show started and we started doing that part of the show, the response to it was very negative: ‘why are you talking to those people? We’ve never heard of them before’. And by the end of last year, for many people, that was their favourite part of the show.
Dom Romeo: Early on you featured three nurses – it was an amazing interview because of the stuff that it revealed, that we – non-nurses – just wouldn’t be aware of.
ANDREW DENTON: That’s the hardest thing to get together, because there is no starting point for those interviews. Literally, researchers have to go to the phone book, and if we’re doing truckies, we have to go to ‘t’ for trucks. There’s no registry of ‘truckies ready to talk on television’. They take a lot of lead time to find three people of sufficiently different experiences who are sufficiently confident to talk about their experiences on television but every time we do it, it’s very rewarding.
Dom Romeo: One of the nurses spoke of ‘FLKs’ – ‘funny-lookin’ kids’. That was a challenge to the way you’d think. Of course nurses are going to have to discuss their work in that way with each other, to let off steam, to cope with the job…
ANDREW DENTON: That’s right. We got some complaints about that, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t respect those kids. In the way that we all do, we all apply humour to our workplace, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t do our jobs sincerely. Something you just said there – ‘it made me think differently’ – that’s my definition of the sort of television that I’m interested in, both as a viewer and as a practitioner of it, which is, I would like to think – though it’s not always possible – that, with Enough Rope, in any given episode, if you sit down and watch it, you’re going to walk away with one thing that made you think differently about something.
Dom Romeo: Congratulations on the Kennettinterview, then! In my book, he was always a bastard! I’d never seen a caring, human side to him, and you almost got him to reveal it, reluctant though he was.
ANDREW DENTON: Our website has lots of different opinions on the Kennett interview, ranging from he was a bastard to I was a bastard, and I think they might both be legitimate. He was tricky, and I just felt… the peculiar moment for me was where he couldn’t find it within himself to say something good about his wife. I was surprised because before the interview he was funny and charming and interesting, and then he came on determined to be none of those things. And I know he was there because he wanted to push the ‘Beyond Blue’ cause, which is admirable, and he did it very well. But I think if you want to speak to human beings about a really deep problem, you have to be human yourself. And to deny one in order to promote the other, I’m not sure that that works in the long run.
Dom Romeo: But he did get his message across, and you did reveal a side to him that we don’t often see.
ANDREW DENTON: Again, I think that has a lot to do with time. We do take the time to have a conversation, because it takes a while for people to relax into stuff. I’ve done the other sort: I’ve done ‘chat’. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. When I was at Channel Seven, doing a show that I loved and that I’m very proud of, I used to come away from interviewing extraordinary people for maybe ten minutes if we had a long time, and thinking ‘we only just got started’!
Dom Romeo: You said that it takes you a while to let them settle in and they’re longer interviews. Obviously they have to be edited in some way for television, but there are times when edits are apparent, that suggest sizeable chunks are missing… you make Sir David Attenbourgh laugh, for example, and we cut to you, we cut back to him no longer laughing and clearly a huge edit has taken place…
ANDREW DENTON: As with everything, there are always things that we could go back and do better.
Dom Romeo: Sure, but all I was going to say is, did you feel tempted to go back and reinstate bits that had to be edited out, to give us ‘extended versions’ for DVD?
ANDREW DENTON: You know what? There just isn’t the time, unfortunately. One of the astonishing things about this show is how ‘all-consuming’ it is. We just did Bill Clinton last week and I was just thinking about it the other day: in our terms, he’s already in the waste paper basket now. One of the interviews that, for years, I’ve wanted to do, and it’s just gone. You’ve got to turn around to the next thing. There wasn’t time to be tempted, though it would have been nice.
Dom Romeo: How did you decide what would be released on the DVD?
ANDREW DENTON: That was the ABC. They nominated what they thought would be good, and I said ‘no’ to a couple and said ‘yes’ to those ones.
Dom Romeo: Can you let me know what didn’t make the cut?
ANDREW DENTON: Oh god, I couldn’t even remember. I just thought this was the better range. I really wanted to have Fiona Stanley in, for instance, and I think that wasn’t one that they originally nominated. I wanted, like the show, to have a range of guests.
ANDREW DENTON: That was an interview almost entirely for entertainment. You weren’t going to get a great deal of enlightenment, but it was great fun. And the fact that they wrote the whole series as school mums – that’s pretty damn impressive. There’s an enormous discipline required in writing this stuff, and the fact that they were able to do that around their parenting lives is really quite something. There it is again: parenting.
Dom Romeo: When I’ve watched an interview that didn’t sit so well because I took issue with something that you didn’t take issue with…
ANDREW DENTON: I think there are many criticisms you can make of any given interview and I view it this way: there’s no such thing as a right interview. It’s just me taking a snapshot with my camera, and you don’t have to like the camera angle, and you might have wanted a completely different picture or you might of wanted it from further away or closer up – but it’s just a conversation. If a criticism is made out of ignorance or out of prejudice, well I’m happy to counter that. But if it’s an opinion – ‘you should have asked that’ – or the criticism ‘you didn’t even think to ask about this’ – well, the fact of the matter is often we do think about stuff that people wished we asked about, but we decided that’s not where we wanted to go with that interview.
Clinton is a case in point. People said to me, ‘why did you call him “Mr President”? You were just fawning all over him’. Well, the fact is that’s what he’s known as, that’s what ex-Presidents are addressed as – ‘Mr president’ – and I could have chosen to call him ‘Bill’ or ‘Prez’, but I was only there for half an hour. Why would I put an unnecessary obstacle between me and trying to talk to him about more important stuff? Of course I addressed him by the term with which he is generally addressed. Which is a long-winded way of saying, there are many criticisms, and whatever take we decide to make on an interview may not be yours, in which case, you probably have a right to be frustrated, but as I say, it’s just a snapshot.
Dom Romeo: How do you feel about the series?
ANDREW DENTON: Really happy. In a good place, in that we’re all still working our butts off – we’re really working hard – and that’s the best place to be: it’s going well, but you’re not thinking, ‘gee, this is easy’. Every interview and every guest, we’re working to keep ourselves challenged. I know that may sound very Presbyterian or very wanky, but we’re up to show 21, we’ve got 34 to do this year, and I look around the office and everyone’s ‘head down, bum up’ and I think they’re the great times in your career, when you look back and it’s a bit of a blur, and then with some perspective you can look back and say, ‘gee, we did that, and that was pretty good’. The show is where it should be, but it’s still a battle to keep it fresh for the audience and for ourselves.
Dom Romeo: You do manage to get people to feel comfortable and be themselves. I’m thinking of both Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin. I don’t know what I was expecting from either of them, but I found myself smiling – grinning with joy – throughout both those interviews.
ANDREW DENTON: I got to say, with Hoges, that was the rarest of things: he agreed to come on and he had absolutely nothing he was trying to flog. He came on because he just enjoyed the show and he wanted to come on. He was such a pleasure to talk to. I’d never met him. I’d spoken to him once on the phone. I’m nervous before every interview, so it’s not just the guest that needs to get relaxed, it’s me too. And when a guest settles into it and it becomes a good conversation – that word again – it really is fun. Sorry I keep referring to Clinton, but that’s the most recent. I found myself ten minutes into that, in the back of my mind thinking, ‘this is really cool; this is a guy I really wanted to talk to’.
Dom Romeo: Was there any moment in that when you thought to yourself, ‘I know the other side to this story’?
ANDREW DENTON: Oh look, I reckon I’m one of the few people in the world who has that bookend: signed books by both of them. And yes, the mischievous part of me was thinking, ‘I could really drop a few things here’. I did raise Monica in the interview, but in a really limited fashion, because I just think there are far more interesting things to talk to the former President about. But yes, I was struck by the weird shape careers can take sometimes.
I must say, the day I packed to go to LA to interview Monica Lewinsky, I remember thinking ‘this could be the single weirdest moment of a career that has had some pretty weird moments’, because I was heading off to interview Monica Lewinsky for New Idea, and I was packing into my bag a Gold Logie because that was also the first year I was hosting the Logies. If anyone had said to me, at any point in my life that those three things would come together – ‘Lewinsky, Logie, New Idea’ – and me, I would have said, ‘what drugs are you on?’ It was one of those moments that was so absurd, it was delightful.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, thank you, I’ve taken up half an hour of your time. You’re a busy man…
ANDREW DENTON: That’s okay. Now, before you go, are there any other things you want to take issue with that I can respond to or are you happy to leave it as it is?
Dom Romeo: I’ll leave it as it is; although, I am a blogger and I did feel the need to blog about the episode with Rachel Griffiths – particularly on her comments about the Free Trade agreement leading to everyone on Australian television having an American accent. She appears on Australian television in the show Six Feet Under, for which she uses an American accent.
ANDREW DENTON: You weren’t the only person who made that remark. That may have been you on our website, and it was a fair call. The only thing I can say is that, in looking at Rachel’s career, I didn’t really want to talk about Six Feet Under because most Australians hadn’t seen it and that’s why it was under my radar when she was talking about Free Trade. It was just not something at very front of mind. But it was a good call.
Dom Romeo: Well, thanks for letting me take it up with you; it’s not often I get to blog about something and have a reply to add to it, so I can actually be balanced, which I like to be, too.
ANDREW DENTON: Thank you. Most people don’t get that. You’re one of the half dozen people anywhere in the world that have ever got that joke.
Dom Romeo: Do you want to talk about it or is it better not to explain the joke?
ANDREW DENTON: I’m happy to talk about it. It actually comes from an idea that I’ve never actually made. I’d like to. It was an idea for a documentary called Zapruder’s Other Films. To explain the Zapruder film – it was by Abraham Zapruder – the hand-held home movie of Kennedy’s assassination that we see every year, which was taken by the Warren Commission and referred to thereafter as ‘the Zapruder Film’.
My concept of ‘Zapruder’s Other Films’ was this mock documentary where you’re interviewing his kids, talking about his father’s career after this film, and how disappointing it had been for him that he’d had this one huge hit film and he went around the world trying to film other assassinations, hoping to relive the glory of the Kennedy one, and he never quite got there. Indira Ghandi was blown up an hour before he got there – the frustration of never quite being able to match the original Zapruder film.
Dom Romeo: That’s such a naughty idea; I like it.
ANDREW DENTON: It’s very black. But it’s lovely to me. I remember the first time anyone ever got it. I went up to Bond University on the Gold Coast to talk about the media, and the people who organised it, afterwards were going to give me my cheque. They said, ‘who will we make it out to?’ and I said, ‘Zapruder’s Other Films’ and both of them just stopped and said, ‘Aw, that is soooo cool.’ I thought, at last, I’ve found somebody that gets it.
Dom Romeo: I’ve got to commend you on some of Zapruder’s Other Films’ other films… like the Chaser stuff you’ve produced.
ANDREW DENTON: Thank you.
Dom Romeo: I look forward to the day that I can chat to you again about some of the other comedy series being released on DVD.
I never was a big Def FX fan, despite having a friend who was obsessed with them, mainly because I had repeated run-ins with one of their members on the 138 bus home from school most afternoons. That wasn’t the stunning Fiona Horne, of course, but a different bandmember. If Fiona wanted to terrorise me as part of her pre-fame daily high school routine, I would have let her!
Having an obsessive friend into Def FX and having been firmly entrenched in student media at a time when Def FX were recording and releasing popular music meant that I have had a bit to do with them interview-wise; I published a couple of interviews that I didn’t conduct in 1994, and one that I did conduct in 1995. This latest opportunity to interview Fiona comes couresy ofFilmInk, hence the run of film- and television-related questions at the end. I hope to have another chat with Fiona when she’s out here, for radio, when I can bung in a few Def FX recordings as well.
Demetrius Romeo: When you were a musician, had you discovered ‘wicca’ as yet?
FIONA HORNE: I’d had an interest in it since I was seventeen years old. I never talked about it openly while I was in the band, but the song lyrics I wrote definitely reflected my esoteric interests.
Demetrius Romeo: Can you give me an example of a song?
FIONA HORNE: ‘Spiral Dance’ was one of the songs on the very first EP, the Water EP. ‘Spiral Dance’ – “The wise witch wove her dream, spinning cold ropes of silver that wound round the trees” – that song was about a dream that I had after doing a very long mediation to do with my witchcraft. The lyrics, if you read them – and I actually published them in my first book in Australia, Witch — A Personal Journey – went “in the room at the back of the house, the walls are soft and pulsing, wet and cool, magic wells up inside of me until it overflows, cascading down my cheeks. Starry-eyed, I’m spinning slowly a spiral dance.”
At the time when I wrote that song, I didn’t know that the term ‘spiral dance’ was a very magical term that’s used by initiated witches to describe the dance of spirits through the heavens and the energy that conjured during spell-casting when we create a cone of power to fuel our spells. It’s like an energy vortex, I guess, which we’d create using our mind’s eye, our will and our intent to fuel our goals into fruition magically. It’s called the ‘spiral dance’, and I didn’t realise that. So I was tapping into some kind of universal collective consciousness – or unconscious – to be able to write that song.
If you look through the lyrics of Def FX you’ll see that often there are esoteric references to tehm and there’s also a profound love and appreciation for nature expressed through the lyrics that I wrote, like ‘Under the Blue’, many others. But really, the most overt that I ever was about it in my songwriting was when Def FX did the Majick album which was our last one, where I was very open with songs like ‘Spell On You’, ‘I’ll Be Your Majick’ and so on.
Demetrius Romeo: From what you’re saying, it sounds as if the power was reaching out to you before you reached out for it.
FIONA HORNE: I was open to it, but I was tapping into some kind of resonance, I guess.
Demetrius Romeo: To the uninitiated — like me, for example, because I had a very religious up-bringing — my response would be, ‘don’t mess with what you don’t understand’. There might be something out there, but it’s got to be evil. Apart from that sort response, there’d be people who didn’t want to know about it, or could only relate to fictional accounts as presented by popular culture. So what’s it like for you, working with witchcraft?
FIONA HORNE: Well, I was brought up Catholic, and I think that one of the greatest fictional works ever written is TheBible, so I’m very used to being brought up to find great meaning and profound truths in fiction, or in other people’s interpretations of events, which is what The Bible is; it’s been re-edited and re-constructed so many times over the thousand or so years it’s existed.
I always think that what appealed to me in witchcraft are some of the most profoundly spiritual experiences I had as a young child being brought up Catholic, were when I was alone growing up in the Australian bush. I live in Illawong, which was a suburb of Sydney. Now it’s full of houses and shopping centres and things, but in my day there were two houses on the whole peninsula of land and it was a very remote suburb and very beautiful, and I used to go out and play in the bush. We didn’t have Nintendo then, and we weren’t allowed to watch television, and it was really in the bush that I found a great sense of ‘magic’ in the world, so to speak. And so when I looked into witchcraft in my teens and realised that at its core it was pagan – ‘pagan’ meaning ‘to honour nature is sacred’ – and also that it places great reverence and respect for the goddess, the feminine principle of divinity, that was something that appealed to me a lot, because I’d been interested in Eastern religions like the Hindu religion which has a lot of goddess figures in it. And so for me, embarking upon this path of learning of my spirituality was very much a spiritual pursuit as much as it was researching spiritualities and expressions of spirituality from other cultures, as much as the practical experience of being outside and realizing that heaven is right here on this beautiful earth. It’s not up in the sky, out of our reach, and it’s not ruled by a man on a throne, or whatever, which is what my image of God was as a child.
I think one of the most profound privileges that people so often overlook in life is life itself, and that really is what my witchcraft is for me – it’s a way of exploring, through ritual and mythology and practical experience, the profound privilege it is to be alive.
Demetrius Romeo: Now when you put it that way, it just sounds like a commonsense philosophy.
FIONA HORNE: It is! It is very ‘common sense’; it makes a lot more sense than my Catholic upbringing! A lot!
Demetrius Romeo: What I mean is there are those overtones of… you know, casting spells, having control over people, being able to change things…
FIONA HORNE: Well there are three laws of witchcraft, which are:
Do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else;
Do what you want, as long as you don’t interfere with another’s free will;
– so, as you can see, you don’t control people – and
As you send out, so returns threefold.
So you have to be aware, as Jesus said, that as you sow, so shall you reap.
The modern witchcraft, when we talk about casting spells, we talk about creating change in our will – deciding that there’s something special that we want to do, and taking steps – both magical and practical - to achieve that goal. Tying it back in with the Catholic upbringing, I guess I used to have a bit of a giggle, and wrote about it in my book, about how I’d love to ask Jesus what the spell was for walking on water, and that one for turning two loaves and two fishes into enough to feed thousands… So often when we read these stories about these great, powerful figures in modern religion and spirituality, they were all doing something like spell-casting which was creating changes with their wills to benefit others. As a witch, you’re allowed to experience that divinity and that power. You’re encouraged to experience it by your own hand, to go, “well, this is my own life and it’s okay for me to have my dreams and to achieve them”.
Demetrius Romeo: How does it make itself apparent in your everyday life?
FIONA HORNE: Different witches practice differently. Having now practiced consciously with a degree of discipline for at least the last thirteen or fourteen years – or, at least being out of the broom closet for the last seven or eight years since I published my book – in my own personal time, the ritual and work that I do could be as simple as lighting a candle and meditating in the morning; taking the time as I did last night to watch the full moon rise; saying a prayer of gratitude and thanks to the goddess, to life itself, to this amazing wonderful world; to reading Tarot cards for a girlfriend who’s maybe having trouble making decisions regarding a guy she’s dating, whether she should date him or not — I’ll do a reading for her. After a while the craft permeates every facet of your life. It becomes who you are, not what you do. That’s what’s so lovely about it as well, because it really affects the individual. The individual expression of the craft is essential. There’s no one book written; there are basic laws as I described earlier and there is some structure, but you’re really encouraged to express your craft yourself, so it becomes really meaningful to the individual or to the coven or group that works together. I think it’s quite lovely, because I know, when I was growing up, that I felt quite powerless, in a sense, or very cut off and shut off from spirituality a lot in that you were told when to sit, when to stand, when to kneel, what to say. Somebody else made it all up. Whereas, in witchcraft, you’re encouraged to put your own stamp on it.
Demetrius Romeo: Where in the US are you at the moment?
FIONA HORNE: I live in Los Angeles.
Demetrius Romeo: Is it hard to stay in touch with nature when you’re in LA?
FIONA HORNE: No, nature’s everywhere. In my garden I have five birds; they’re all friends of mine. I have my two doves, my two mocking birds, my two blue jays. That’s six! Gosh, that’s right. And there was one squirrel, but now there’s five running around the house like crazy. There’s nature everywhere here. I mean, honestly, my other apartment, I was up above the Hollywood Bowl area; there was a deer in my street! The funny thing about LA is that everyone who hasn’t lived here thinks that it’s this sprawling mass of cement, but there is a lot of beauty and nature here. Sometimes it’s even more lovely and beautiful for the fact that it’s in the middle of this big city.
Demetrius Romeo: That’s amazing, because I always read that you can’t get around LA without a car, so in my head it was just a series of concrete overpasses… but then, when I think about it, the big ‘Hollywood’ sign is on the side of a mountain with woods.
FIONA HORNE: You know, you can drive for five minutes at the top of Beechwood Canyon and just disappear into the wilderness and you can’t even hear the city below, and there are signs saying ‘watch out for rattlesnakes and mountain lions’. I think that LA, because it’s the home of Hollywood, it has this great kind of myth around it. And it is a tough city – gosh, it makes you pay your dues when you first come here; it tests you over and over and over again! But if you just stay focused… You know, you do have to take that time. I think the great thing about Los Angeleans is that they go hiking; they go to the beach; they search out nature and they search out ways to commune with it. We’re very spoilt in Australia because we’re kind of just surrounded by it. Here, you do have to hunt it out a bit. But there’s some of the loveliest land and energy that I’ve experienced anywhere in the world here.
Demetrius Romeo: What took you to LA in the first place?
FIONA HORNE: Well, my first two books that were released in Australia, Witch – A Personal Journey and Witch – A Magical Year were edited together and published by Harper Collins in 2001 and that book did very well for me here. I was able to do quite an elaborate tour with book signings and guest appearances on television and radio. My band Def FX had toured here in the mid-90s and I’d always wanted to come back to America, so I decided to move over here and try my luck and test my skills as a television presenter and actor in this town and things are going well. Really well. And my books are still doing very well. I just did a huge new book deal with Simon & Schuster out of New York, which I’m really excited about because the publishing industry’s really tough at the moment. But I’ve just done a brand new deal – probably the best deal I’ve ever done, eight years into my publishing career, which is very exciting. We’re just signing the contracts now. It’ll be published next year.
I’m coming to Australia just to be there. I get so many e-mails and so many hits on my website from Australia and I still consider Australia as a very important part of my life, even though I’m a full-time resident of America now. It was just a wonderful opportunity to come back for a lecture tour.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you still do any music at all?
FIONA HORNE: Not really. Just for fun, not for work.
Demetrius Romeo: And you have a couple of films in post-production.
FIONA HORNE: I completed a film this year, and a film last year. Last year’s film is called Unbeatable Harold, and I had a featured cameo, I guess, playing Henry Winkler’s girlfriend. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s kind of fantasy love story. The main character is a guy, Harold played by the actor Gordon Michaels and it’s adapted from a stage play that he did in New York. Henry has a kind of featured cameo in it as his boss, and I’m one of his floozies. It’s all a kind of fantastical, exaggerated love story/romantic comedy. My first day on set, I was doing a dance routine with the Fonze! That totally spun me out.
Demetrius Romeo: Did you have a crush on the Fonze when you were a kid?
FIONA HORNE: Well, I think every girl did, yeah! Obviously, he’s older now, but Henry’s so charming and loving. His wife made cake and he brought it on the set. He put out cake, he brought lollies, for everyone. He’s very lovely and really accommodating for inexperienced actors like myself. He’s really encouraging and lovely. It was a wonderful experience.
We wrapped that in September/October of last year and it’s coming out later this year, quite possibly early next year.
And then I did, at the start of this year, I was asked to play pretty much a lead role in the film Cult. I play Professor Dianne Estabrook. It’s a horror film, and horror films are huge at the moment. It’s a massive genre. They’re rushing that for release this year. It also stars Taryn Manning and Rachel Miner.
Demetrius Romeo: What was it like, having a major role in a big film?
FIONA HORNE: It’s a bit unnerving, actually, because on the second day of filming, I get attacked. I had to be stabbed in the back and then in the eye. I had the special effects and stunt guy showing me how to collapse after an attack. It was really quite confronting because the blood looked really real and you’re in character, and you’re supposed to be on the verge of dying. You really internalise that.
There were other funny moments, like when I was lying wounded on the floor, and it’s three in the morning and I’d been lying there for a while, and there are other dead bodies around me and this and that, and I’m incredibly tired because there’s been some really long nights of shooting, and I hear off in the distance, “FIONA! FIONA!” And I open my eyes and… I’d actually fallen asleep! They all thought I was acting really well, lying there as if I was dead, and I was fast asleep. That was really funny: three o’clock in the morning on the floor of a Chinese restaurant, asleep.
One thing I enjoy about acting is that you get to live vicariously through your characters – there are things that Diane would do that I would never do, and I got to do them as her. I really like that about acting. You have this excuse to do whatever your character would do, whatever the script tells you to do, and I really enjoy that a lot. I enjoy acting very much.
And I also did a SCUBA movie. I work a lot for PADI, the Professional Academy of Diving Instructors. I’ve been a SCUBA diver for fourteen years now and I make a lot of appearances in their instructional videos for teaching SCUBA around the world, as well as voice-overs for those videos and radio ads for them, and I’ve just done an ‘introduction to SCUBA diving’ film which is just being edited. So I’ve been acting topside and below the water.
Demetrius Romeo: And so you’re experiencing your witchcraft – your appreciation of nature – on land and in the sea.
FIONA HORNE: It’s a big part of my spirituality, my SCUBA diving. Some of my most spiritual and magical moments are definitely underwater.
Demetrius Romeo: When you sit down to enjoy television or film, what do you sit down to?
FIONA HORNE: I recently got Vera Drake; that was amazing. I like things that are either nature documentaries or things that are intellectually stimulating. I’d sooner get those than fantasy or sci-fi, funnily enough. I don’t draw the line too much… for me, if I’m having a night at home and I want to get a couple of movies just for myself to watch, I’ll get ones that no one else will sit with me and watch, like Vera Drake, or maybe something about the great whites off the coast of Africa – a National Geographic documentary or something.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you go out to the movies much?
FIONA HORNE: I do sometimes. It’s fun to go out to the movies here, everyone makes such a big deal about it. And I tend to see… well I went and saw Saw the horror film my friend Leigh [Whannell] – whom I knew years ago when he did movie reports on ‘Recovery’ – and his friend James [Wan] made last year, that created a huge splash here. I was one of the first people to go and see it, that was very exciting. I was on a book tour in New York and I went to a cinema on Forty-Third Street because I had spoken to Leigh during the day and he’d said, “it’s premiering today and I’m really nervous,” and I said, “I’ll go and see it”. Forty-Third Street was around the corner from the hotel I was at. But even though I’d bought a ticket at four o’clock in the afternoon for the nine o’clock session, I still had to sit on the stairs to watch the bloody movie — they were turning people away. It just exploded here. It was so cool that James and Leigh, two blokes from Melbourne, had this massive hit on their hands
I really like taking myself off to the movies. I take myself out on dates. I’ll take myself to dinner and a movie and then shopping at Borders Books afterwards.
Demetrius Romeo: I find it hard to believe there wouldn’t be any number of people willing to do that for you.
FIONA HORNE: Oh, no, LA’s really bad for stuff like that. My girlfriends and I are all resolutely single and guys are really sleazy and awful over here, pretty much. I’m so busy and my work involves dealing with so many people whether it’s here or in Australia or wherever, that I like to spend some time on my own. There’s a great area here called The Grove and it has a great cinema complex and it has great boutique shops, a great Borders Books and really nice restaurants. It’s hard in LA to find somewhere where you can just walk around, and at this place you can just walk around so it’s a great afternoon where you can just relax.
Demetrius Romeo: It sounds like a little King Street, Newtown in LA.
FIONA HORNE: It’s more like an Italian Piazza – there’s even a singing fountain in there.
Demetrius Romeo: When you watch them are you just into the film or do you get into all the bonus features?
FIONA HORNE: I watch the ‘process’ as well as the film. I watch all the extra stuff and the interviews. I got the Reservoir Dogs special edition with interviews with Quentin Tarantino and everything because, as I’ve been acting more, I like learning about the process. I also did a two-day guerilla filmmaking course just to get an insight into the process of filmmaking so that as an actor, I can understand everyone’s roles better. I think that it’s really worthwhile doing that because you realise how worthwhile the grips are, how the director of cinematography is probably more important, in some regards, than the director himself. You just understand the roles and how everyone pitches in. There are so many unsung heroes in the process of filmmaking; there are people whose roles are so essential but the audience doesn’t even know.
Demetrius Romeo: Television doesn’t seem to play a big role in your life at the moment.
FIONA HORNE: I’ve had more work on television than anything else. I hosted a showhere last year and I was on billboards all over the country. Work-wise, I do a lot of TV. But I’m not the kind of person who comes home and switches on the telly unless there’s a particular show or movie I want to watch.
Demetrius Romeo: Is there no series that you’re addicted to?
FIONA HORNE: Well, Lost is one that I like. But often, my schedule is so hectic so I don’t watch those things because I don’t want to be tied to the TV screen. But if there’s a good special on National Geographic or Discovery, I’ll watch it. I’ve enjoyed watching Medium over here, that’s been pretty big. I enjoy watching Charmed sometimes.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you feel about shows like Charmed and Buffy?
FIONA HORNE: I’ve never watched either of them that much, but particularly with Charmed, people say, “what do you think of it? Do you find it offensive?” or something silly, and I say, “well, it’s not a documentary on witchcraft, it’s entertainment!” So it’s great. The girls look hot, the story lines are hilarious and it’s a great piece of TV. It’s a Spelling television show, you know. It’s great mindless entertainment.
I saw the advertisement for the DVD ofI Am Not An Animalon the ABC before they actually started broadcasting the series – as is the way now, the ABC will actually commission shows on the strength of being able to sell the DVD and the book of the series through ABC shops. I figured this thing about talking animal animations was the legacy of the Aardman studio’sCreature Comforts.
When a copy of said DVD appeared on my doorstep, courtesy ofFilmInk, I popped it on and realised that I Am Not An Animal was a very different show indeed. Rather than a bunch of animal animations built around real-life interviews with people, this show features a bunch of animals that, as the result of animal experiments, think that they are people; their dialogue is voiced by contemporary comedians. But the biggest difference is that, although you can get into Creature Comforts almost immediately, I Am Not An Animal takes perseverance.
I say with total confidence that if you watch and enjoy the show, you didn’t come to it by accident in the first episode and stick with it; you must have been promised by someone you trust that your dedication would pay off. The style of animation demands a lot from your eyes, the different voices, a lot from your ears, and all the information that has to be imparted to set the scene and the characters in that first episode just makes your head hurt by the end of it. But by about episode three, the satire is working a treat, you know which character does what, and the laughs are coming thick and fast. If you packed it in early, next time the opportunity comes up, give it another go.
I got to interview animation director Tim Searle for FilmInk just before the show started going to air in Australia, so I was able to slip a snippet onto NewsRadio the day of the first broadcast. But I never got around to re-cutting a long version, partly because the phone line wasn’t so good, and also because there was a lot of um… um…ing to edit out – much as I would have loved to pull some choice quotes of the DVD. Maybe one day when I’m cashed up and bored I’ll give it a go just for this blog. Meanwhile a short, narrative version of this interview will appear in FilmInk any minute now.
And just for anyone who isn’t aware, the show’s title comes from the now-legendary lines attributed to John Merrick, the so-called ‘elephant man’ in the 1980 film of the same name, directed by David Lynch and produced by Mel Brooks:
TIM SEARLE: I started work with Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, trying to develop an interesting narrative animation. Peter Baynham, when we were working with Steve Coogan, had this vague idea that it should include talking animals and we worked it out from there. It was very much of Peter’s brain, and we started looking at various technologies that we could utilize to bring it to fruition and we ended up with the photocollage look that we ended up working with, mainly because it’s so productive as well as looking a little bit odd. It’s got some sort of vague realism without going completely realistic.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you mean it’s more productive?
TIM SEARLE: The thing is that we do comedy, and the way that animation has tends to have evolved over the last few years is that you take it to storyboard and thereafter send it off to a cheaper market for animation. I wasn’t really into the idea of doing that. What I intended to do when I set up in animation, was do animation.
We do comedy, and I think comedy is very easy to get wrong. A scene can be as easily destroyed by over-acting or by doing an animation drum solo, as easily as if it were too wooden or too simple. I think the animation part of the process is too important to just let go of, so we use a digital desktop system that enables us to maintain a good degree of control.
Demetrius Romeo: You’re right about it being very distinctive, that digital collage method. How did you hit upon the idea to use that sort of graphic?
TIM SEARLE: We’ve been using the desktop system, using vector graphics, flat colour, and I’ve always been into photocollage. Mainly we use that sort of stuff in background work and what-have-you. We were looking at all sorts of ways of realizing it and Peter had this idea that the animals should look very distinct from other talking animals, like Yogi Bear, in terms of standing up and walking around, in that it should look a bit awkward that these animals wanted to be human and have human characteristics. So we needed to explore a way that would give us some sort of realism without it costing a fortune. We looked at full CG [computer generated images], but ultimately we realised that we couldn’t realize the ambition of this series using CG. It would have been too restrictive in the number of environments we could have had and characters we could have built. So we needed to find another way forward so we got the guys whose software we’d been using and they wrote us a means of using bitmaps, effectively, so that’s the way we could use the photocollage.
Demetrius Romeo: There are samples of, I guess, early ‘demo’-versions of animations on the DVD, and I’ve got to say they’re nowhere near as interesting to look at.
TIM SEARLE: Bear in mind that that stuff was generated four or five years ago; the CG work is something that everyone has a very high expectation of with Dreamworks and Pixar people doing what they do. The benchmark is so high that you need to hit it or you’re always going to be on the back foot. I quickly dismissed the idea of using CG, even though Peter was quite enamoured of the idea of having it look quite naturalistic so that the bizarreness of the comedy would be even more dominant. But in the end he was as much of a fan of the way we ended up working as anyone else.
The other thing we tried was motion capture because Steve Coogan, who played the Horse and Martin the Sparrow because he was quite interested in finding a way of getting his acting facial characteristics into the animation. We looked at that, but that was all in its infancy and it was going to be too restrictive as well. A lot of that stuff, you can’t get in to adapt the code – or you certainly could at the time – so it was just going to be too proscriptive. We wouldn’t have been able to control it effectively, I don’t think. So I just decided one day that enough’s enough, and I came back and worked up a few character designs on the basis of what would I do if no one was telling me that we’ve got to do this stuff and showed them to everyone who needed to see ’em and they just saw it as a way forward. That part of the process went very, very quickly; we went from situation where it all looked like the project was falling to bits, to a commission and getting going in a matter of a couple of months. I was very pleased that we just bit the bullet and went for it.
Demetrius Romeo: I want to talk about the antecedents to the show. You’ve got a few different animation fore-runners to the show, Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, and another show you do, called 2DTV that is satirical and animated. Tell me how these two shows might have influenced where you went with I Am Not An Animal.
TIM SEARLE: Technically, they were very important because Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, that was the first thing we did using cell action, which was the digital tool we were using for I Am Not An Animal. That was the first one we cut out teeth on it. Also, we were using animals and they were quite surly and conversational. I’ve always been into the idea of animals, or characters, having a bit of depth to them. Those characters were very broad.
And 2DTV is a topical comedy show, so we learnt to work very quickly on that. It is topical, so up to eight minutes of a twenty-four minute show are made in the last four days up to transmission, so we have to work real quick in order to turn it around. In order to make six half hours for I Am Not An Animal, we needed to work well and work quickly. Both those projects enabled us to do I Am Not An Animal, in more ways than one.
Demetrius Romeo: You’ve got great talent on hand doing voices on I Am Not An Animal – virtually the entire cast of Big Train plus Steve Coogan. A comment is made in one of the docos on the DVD that it would be too expensive to get the talent together to make it now if you were starting from scratch now.
TIM SEARLE: That was just an excuse from that exec from the BBC not to recommission it. I don’t think that’s true. I think the people who worked on it were such fans of the project that we would have been able to get them back.
Demetrius Romeo: With such a ground-breaking show, why weren’t BBC prepared to run with another season.
TIM SEARLE: Your guess is as good as mine. I really don’t know. It sounds presumptuous I guess, but we were working future episode ideas and we were looking forward to another series. I mean, we were critically well-received, and when people like Matt Groening of The Simpsons get in touch to say they thought it was excellent, then you think you’re on some sort of good path, but the BBC decided that because it didn’t get the ratings they were hoping for, they’d give it the chop.
Demetrius Romeo: I remember a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus where John Cleese says, “I wanted to get into program planning, but of course, I’ve got a degree.” You’re up against the same woes that comedians have been up against for some time.
TIM SEARLE: Well, the thing is with comedy, I think, if you make it animation, you’re making it a little bit harder for audiences to immediately grab. I’m Not An Animal, specifically, does take a few episodes to get your head around. I think comedy, generally, is one of those things that takes a while to bed in. You’d imagine that people at the networks might have grasped that one by now.
Demetrius Romeo: I must admit it did take me a while – at least the first episode. Once you get your head around the animation style and the characters, then you start to pay attention to what they’re saying and can enjoy it.
TIM SEARLE: The other problem with the first episode is we were so worried about setting the whole world up, setting up the whole rationale for how the animals got to where they got to, that the first episode is very plot-heavy and not as heavy on the jokes as future episodes. From episode three onwards, it settles right down, and each episode is funny in its own right, and we’re not so hung up on trying to explain everything all the time. I’m still proud of the first episode, but it’s just not as strong as the episodes that follow it, I think.
Demetrius Romeo: I know that the show copped a bit of flak early on because the animals are seen to be enjoying the environment of the lab where they’re being experimented on.
TIM SEARLE: Yeah. I think if anything, it’s an allegorical tale about people as much as anything else. It’s really having a dig at the way we all live our lives at the moment, in terms of people shutting themselves from real life. I think a lot of people, if they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere and had to fend for themselves, they’d be up the proverbial.
We all came to like the characters very much and sympathise with their plight. The fact that you’ve got this horse with literary pretensions who considers himself the leader and then Mark, who’s this bitter, fiercely ambitious sparrow with a penchant for writing bad, annoying songs. They’ve all got something about them which is a little bit irritating, and yet nonetheless they all get along as a group.
One of the things that we think it’s similar to is Dad’s Army: it’s a group of people who are all thrown together with a common cause, but their all different characters.
The backdrop of the vivisection lab was one of the things that got reported on early and the anti-vivisection lobby were quite vehement and got in early to criticise it without seeing it which is a shame. We were on the back foot from the start on that basis, I think.
Demetrius Romeo: That’s a pity, but then you do make good fun of the animal liberationists as well, I’ve got to say.
TIM SEARLE: Well, to be honest the animal liberationist is deliberately displayed in an over-simplistic way, but it would have been predictable and unfunny to portray the liberationists as angels. But you’d have to be a bit uptight to take offence at that, I think. A lot of people without watching it might think that we were making light of the suffering animals, but we certainly were not. The animals in I Am Not An Animal naively see themselves and all other animals as people, and to start with they’re clearly idiots and they’re innocent idiots who have no idea of what’s going on around them, and that’s made very clear. It’s a joke about ignorance and snobbery and the theme running through the series is about how they deal with other more ordinary and arguably more dignified creatures.
And the suffering of animals has been portrayed in other animations: Cruella DeVil wasn’t exactly kind to the animals in 101 Dalmations, and Chicken Run was set on a farm where the characters are destined to end up in pies. Numerous stories feature animals heading for a grizzly fate from which they are rescued and I think we weren’t unusual in that respect.
Demetrius Romeo: No, but you actually pinpoint the foibles of humanity particularly well in the process. Because they have human traits, we really are looking at how people behave. I particularly like the rabbit from the call centre – that is so funny.
TIM SEARLE:Arthur Mathews – he’s a really clever guy. He wrote Father Ted and Big Train. He was doing that rant quite a bit – the little Irish voice at the call centre – and Pete had this idea if part of that guy’s brain in the body of a rabbit and just goes off on these little rants.
Demetrius Romeo: The humour works well, the satire hits its mark and the animation is groundbreaking. Where do you go next?
TIM SEARLE: I don’t know, to be honest. We hope that we can continue to do other interesting narrative projects and we shall endeavour to do so. We’re developing material so we’ll wait and see what comes of it. At the moment we’re working on a pilot for the BBC which is a sketch show, and the animation is shared between three studios, so we’re doing a third of this pilot, so that’s the immediate future. But as Baby Cow animation we shall endeavour to do other interesting narrative work.
We’re really proud of the project and the fact that it’s animated I like to think is the icing on the cake. It’s a great comedy project that happens to be animated.
I had the pleasure of speaking to The Go-Betweens one gorgeous autumn in a Bondi Icebergs function room with a breathtaking view of the beach. Well, when I say ‘The Go-Betweens’, I mean Robert Forster and Grant McLennan (to whom I may collectively refer, at least in this introduction, as ‘The Gobby Twins’). Glenn Thompson, their current drummer, was also there and I did ask him a couple of cursory questions, but he graciously took his leave when he saw that I was far more interested in the lifetime members of the band.
Having devoured David Nichols’s biography
The Go-Betweens(published by Allen & Unwin in 1997, but no doubt revised since then) I had the good sense to select a ‘Modern Lovers’ t-shirt to wear to the interview. It clearly went down a treat, because Robert Forster ended the dialogue by telling me how “lovely” it was “to be interviewed by a man with a Modern Lovers t-shirt”. It’s that underground punk band thing that informed so much of The Go-Betweens’ early career, and still makes itself apparent, albeit less directly, in their work.
At one stage McLennan tried to solicit my opinion on the cover art for the new album but I had the good sense to keep shtum. To me, it’s the kind of expressionist chiaroscuro of Weimar cinema. The foregrounded Forster, with the shaded eye sockets, is a zombie, McLennan, the controlling mad scientist. Well, I was there ostensibly to conduct a film interview forFilmInk, so I’m allowed to ‘read’ everything cinematically. But I’m glad I kept that particular cinematic insight to myself: after I’d unplugged the microphone, The Gobby Twins started to talk about journalists who had ‘done them wrong’ in the past, the name of one scribe in particular causing Forster to declare that McLennan would hold the guy, while he himself gave him “a bit of this!” The emphasised ‘this’ was accompanied by Forster busting kung fu moves not unlike those favoured by the jump-suited Elvis Presley of the 70s in performance mode. Having thus divulged this scenario online, I daresay that the next time it is enacted, the scribe who is held by McLennan and kung fu’d by Forster will bear my name.
What follows is the cinema-heavy FilmInk article coupled with a version written up for the magazineLast, and the bits that don’t quite work are probably where segments of the different stories were grafted together.
This version is dedicated to Fritz, AKA Anthony Frazer, who was interested enough to e-mail me and ask why I hadn’t yet uploaded this interview, and to Paul Davies, who was hip enough to own Go-Betweens albums and lend them to me when, whether I realised it or not, I really needed to hear their music.
“It’s been a great – I hate to use this word because it’s been over-used and it has terrible connotations – ‘journey’,” Robert Forster confesses. The Go-Betweens, a band he formed with his friend Grant McLennan nearly thirty years ago, have released Oceans Apart, possibly their best album yet. It’s certainly up there with 16 Lovers Lane, the other contender for the title. The major difference between the albums is that 16 Lovers Lane featured the so-called ‘classic’ band line-up that included Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison. Nowadays it’s all too easy to regard subsequent members like bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson as ‘additional members’. In fact since Forster and McLennan are the only band members present in every incarnation, perhaps every other Go-Between has been an ‘additional’ member. “It’s been a bit of a curse that there hasn’t been a constant line-up,” Forster admits, “but it’s been good as a reflection of different eras. But with Glenn and Adele, we feel really great, and I think you can hear it in the music.” Forster confesses that Mark Wallis, who produced both Oceans Apart and 16 Lovers Lane, could also hear it in the music. “He was just going, ‘these two are great’,” Robert reports. “We know it, but people around us are saying, ‘they’re fantastic’.”
Despite the connotations, ‘journey’ perfectly describes the career trajectory that The Go-Betweens have traced. They came into being in 1978 in Brisbane, when Robert Forster approached his mate with the idea of forming a band.
“The fact that Bobby would ask someone who couldn’t play an instrument if he wanted to start a band – I thought that was really interesting,” McLennan recalls. “He didn’t ask me to come in and start playing the whip…” – a reference to Gerard Malanga, who used to dance with a whip in front of the stage when the Velvet Underground first started to play – “…or film it; it was to be a musician. That period when you’re a teenager and you’re dreaming of taking on the world or getting out of the world you’re in – which is probably more apt for me – the last thing that I really wanted to do was be a musician.”
More than a quarter of a century later, sitting opposite me in a room overlooking Bondi Beach with “a microphone shoved in my face – in a nice way,” Grant McLennan acknowledges that he made the correct decision. However, to begin with, McLennan was more interested in film than music. “I still think my film years are ahead of me,” he confesses. “Film was pretty much my first great love, and it remains so.” To prove his point, Grant announces that he recently acquired “a tremendous biography” of Francois Truffaut. “I’d been searching for an English translation of it for five years and I found one in America a couple of weeks ago.” Truffaut is McLennan’s favourite filmmaker, although he namechecks other ‘new wave’ French directors of the late 50s/early 60s that he admires: Rivette, Godard, Franju…
“They took the American language of film and put a European – and quite poetic – slant on it,” he explains. Truffaut, however, holds pride of place for McLennan, not merely because he’s a fellow Aquarian: “I like his depiction of female characters, I love the fact that he had a great love of books, and there is a gentleness to many of his films. He was also very interested in the passage of children into adults. And his use of music was amazing.” How apt! The same could be said of The Go-Betweens’ music…
Robert Forster is passionate about an earlier generation of cinema: the screwball comedies of the 30s. “Anything with Jean Arthur in it just gets me going,” he says, citing Easy Living (1937), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and both Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (“with Gary Cooper!”) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (“with Jimmy Stewart. I love Jimmy Stewart!”) However, having lived without a television in a German village for the last little while, Forster claims he “hasn’t seen many films” in the last ten or fifteen years. “Mainly, I see films on aeroplanes,” he admits, which explains not only his love for “commercial cinema that has old-fashioned Hollywood values,” but a specific admiration for “the cinema of Ben Stiller”. According to Forster, Stiller is “a modern-day comic genius.”
Unlike his collaborator, Grant McLennan is still an avid movie watcher. “I’m trying to structure my life so that I can see two or three films a day for the rest of my life,” he says. “There’s a lot I’ve got to catch up on.” But he’s not so keen on bonus features and the like. “The problem with DVDs is the same problem with CDs – people just jam too much on them. I’m not really interested in outtakes or the director’s cut in general. To me, if you’re going to deliver something to the public, you’ve got to have the guts to say, ‘that’s it!’ All this bonus material – there’s way too many other things in the world to do than to have to sift through four hours of outtakes of Dumb and Dumber.”
Hang on, I point out, doesn’t this mean that there wouldn’t be a time when The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?
“Well, it’s already happened, man…” Grant begins, a little exasperated.
Yeah, yeah, I jump in quickly, I remember the Red Eye and Beggars Banquet reissues; perhaps I should have said ‘doesn’t this mean there shouldn’t have been a time when The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue was reissued with alternative takes and flipsides?’ But the point I’m making, I tell him, is that he’s been caught out on his position…
“No, no,” he interrupts, “I think you got ‘caught out’…”
Well, okay, I must admit that I never invested in The Go-Betweens’ back-catalogue-reissued-with-bonus-tracks that were made available towards the end of the 90s – I was far too busy buying The Beatles’ Anthology CDs by the time I was hip enough and had the ready cash. But I knew the Go-Betweens’ reissues existed. Now I want to move on and, thankfully, McLennan lets me off the hook:
“When you’ve got the ‘cannon’, as Robert refers to the Go-Betweens albums,” he says, “and when you’ve got as many passionate fans as we do around the world, it’s a good thing to make sure those songs remain available, that they can be part of the culture and part of the dialogue. Part of presenting that to the modern public is to include everything.” Still, he maintains, he and Forster “have been very selective” in what they have allowed to be reissued. “The first six albums have all come out with the bonus discs, so there’s the b-sides, the radio sessions and the rare songs that never quite made the album. And the great thing about it is we will never have to do it again!”
Even if Grant McLennan sees his film years as lying ahead of him, at some level at least they have accompanied The Go-Betweens on their journey. The band’s first single ‘Lee Remick’ was named after the actress; their second album was called Before Hollywood; even the band’s name is a film title. 1970’s The Go-Between depicts a torrid, forbidden affair between characters played by Alan Bates and Julie Christie. Really, the only cinematic dimension missing from The Go-Betweens’ oeuvre is a film soundtrack.
“We never get approached to do soundtracks,” Robert Forster admits. “I don’t know why. I’m quite glad, actually, because I don’t think we could pull it off.”
This is clearly false modesty. I reckon the real reason The Go-Betweens don’t get asked to do film soundtracks is because their songs are already so cinematic in and of themselves. The imagery of the lyrics and the sound-pictures painted by the music conjure better scenarios than anyone could provide. Consider the album’s lead single, ‘Here Comes A City’ – every line of lyric describes the image you’d film to illustrate it. It’s clearly going to be a very strong radio single, I tell the duo.
It’s a fast-moving, black-and-white clip with jump cuts and quick edits, as seen from a hurtling train, I tell him.
“That’s the way I wanted to make it,” Grant McLennan says. “But you’re right, it’s black and white. And there are jump cuts. But the fast-moving stuff has all been done by the band. It’s very much a performance video.” He draws parallels to mid-60s New York: “…Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga with the whip, all that sort of stuff…” Not quite a reference to The Go-Betweens’ earlier interest in New York punk, it turns out, rather a nod at Warhol’s experimental filmmaking: “beautiful people doing disgusting things to each other,” Grant explains.
Other songs similarly hark back to earlier times. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, name-checking a host of former Go-Betweens’ associates including former manager and music journalist Clinton Walker and Died Pretty organist Frank Brunetti, specifically documents the band’s return to Australia in 1983. “We were touring for about six or eight weeks and were just hanging around a house in Woolloomooloo before we went back to England,” Robert Forster recalls. “We spent a lot of time and met a lot of people in Darlinghurst.”
‘Boundary Rider’ is also associated with that period, at least by default. The band’s breakthrough single in 1983 was ‘Cattle and Cain’ and ‘Boundary Rider’ appears to be similarly inspired by the McLennan family’s roots ‘on the land’. Yet, Grant says, beyond the memory of “riding fences” in order to maintain them and ensure your paddocks aren’t “getting mixed up”, the song serves as a metaphor for self-protection. “Most people spend a lot of time stopping things getting out,” McLennan explains, “but there are occasional times, and they’re probably more scary, when things come in that you’ve got no control over.”
An interesting track is ‘Lavendar’, which almost has a reggae feel despite, Forster explains, it beginning as a “folk toon”. Whereas Mark Wallis produced the album, ‘Lavendar’ bears a production credit for Dave Ruffy (former Waterboys, Ruts drummer), who programmed click-tracks for the original demo-versions of the album’s songs. ‘Lavendar’ is the only song that retains its original click-track. “Dave, who was doing some programming and some keyboard overdubbing, had this rhythm that he’d written that we were playing along to that sounded so good that we kept it,” Robert says. “Because he took the song ninety degrees that way – suddenly it’s got this reggae beat and we just really liked it. It took us all by surprise.”
Another interesting offering is the track ‘Mountains Near Dellray’ which, apparently, was McLennan’s idea, but Forster’s song. “I wrote a folk toon,” Forster begins again. “I had come up with the lyric and I went over to see Grant, as I do, and Grant had just come back from Tasmania.” McLennan related his Tasmanian travel experiences and Forster “immediately went home and wrote them down”. Now here’s the interesting bit: Robert thought Grant had mentioned ‘Dellray’ – “I misheard ‘the mountains near Dellray’ and thought, ‘that’s fantastic! There’s the song title!’ – when McLennan was actually talking about ‘Deloraine’. The former (in fact, Delray Beach) is in Miami, Florida, while the latter, as you’d expect given the context of Tasmanian travel experiences, is indeed in Tasmania, near the Derwent River. Scintillating, isn’t it! But there’s more:
“What I particularly like about the song,” Grant adds, “is that Robert says ‘Derwent’ and it’s one of his middle names. I think it’s one of Robert’s greatest lyrics, and the fact that there’s that parallel makes it even better.”
There is a pensive sadness to many of the lyrics, if not the actual music on Oceans Apart. ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ begins with “tears”, and even though another backward-looking song tells us with its very title that there’s ‘No Reason To Cry’, by its end, we are urged to “find a reason”. If, as it appears, Oceans Apart is the album with which The Go-Betweens look back upon themselves as a band, it’s worth noting the biggest difference between the ‘classic’ line-up and its current one. Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown served not only as Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s former musical partners; they were also their respective romantic partners. There’s clearly a different dynamic when lovers, or former lovers, are in your band. But is it a good or a bad dynamic, I find the courage to ask.
“Well I think Robert’s dating Adele, and I’m going out with Glenn at the moment, so we’ve managed to solve that problem,” Grant deadpans before offering a serious appraisal:
“We’ve always played with women in the band and there’s a certain island mentality that comes into being in a band – it’s like being in a gang. In my case, a relationship with a band member wasn’t something that I was looking for; it just presented itself and I’m very happy that it did. There’s a great passion and friendship within any Go-Betweens line-up, but I think I can speak for other people that have been in the band and say we’ve always believed in the songs. The most important thing has always been, making the songs as good and as clear as we can.”
With Oceans Apart The Go-Betweens have managed to do that again.
The opportunity to conduct another interview with Tara Moss is one I’ll happily pursue. This time around, it was for the ‘In Da House’ column forFilmInk, in which celebs are asked about their film consumption on DVD and video.
Our conversation happened to take place during this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Tara, now based in Melbourne, was happy to report that she was thus an even busier model-turned-novelist than she was before; in addition to watching an average of four or more films a week, she was now seeing up to three stand-up shows a day. I hadn’t realised that along with horror, comedy has been her other life-long love.
Somewhere in the middle of all this comedy and cinema, Tara also had to make time for Makedde Vanderwall, the heroine forever haunted by serial killers in Moss’s novels. This was what she was trying to do when I contacted her for the interview.
“I’m in my running pants, sitting at my desk as we speak,” Tara told me over the phone. I had to fight the temptation to stop and contemplate whether she meant sleek tracky dacks or little shorts, since either fantasy would distract me from the interview, which, at the time, was distracting Tara from her writing. But the writing was the logical place to start. The transcript is much longer than what I could fit in the final ‘In Da House’ column, appearing any minute now in the June issue of FilmInk.
Demetrius Romeo: Tara, will there ever be a film based on any of your novels, and if there is, who would play Makedde Vanderwall?
TARA MOSS: There has been a lot of speculation over the years about who would be a good actress to play Makedde. There’s a whole section of my website where people have been writing in. I think Angelina Jolie is at the top of the polls at the moment just because she’s a beautiful woman and one that chooses very strong, independent and interesting roles. But she obviously did a serial killer thriller not too long ago so I don’t know if I’d be lucky enough to have her in the film of one of my novels. But one can only dream, I suppose.
It’s kind of a funny thing for novel writers because we, for the most part, write novels to be novels; we don’t write novels to be movies. It’s great that they can be translated and put into a different medium, but it’s not necessarily the most comforting thought, and I’m one of the writers out there who can honestly say I get really uneasy thinking about my books being made into films. I know it would be a great honour and it would be a really interesting experience, but it would also be a harrowing one because I like to control my little world within the books, and you lose that control when you hand over the rights.
Demetrius Romeo: When I read your novels, I can’t help but see you in the lead role.
TARA MOSS: If I could act, that would be great, but I have an aversion to acting. I’m really, really comfortable being myself and I’ve found that any time I’ve felt not quite right doing something, it’s usually because I’m having to speak someone else’s words for some reason.
Demetrius Romeo: Are you saying you don’t identify with your lead character?
TARA MOSS: I identify with her, but I’m not her. I think of her kind of as a sister. I do have a wonderful sister named Jacquie, but my fictional sister Makedde is someone I understand, and also someone who occasionally does things that I wouldn’t do myself. I think it’s important to have that separation between reality and fiction. Otherwise it would be very limiting from a writing perspective. Imagine every time you go to a keyboard thinking ‘what would I do?’ rather than ‘what would make for an interesting plot?’ I think it’s dangerous territory when you identify too closely to that character. With Makedde I did borrow a lot of autobiographical stuff; that’s clear. But I don’t think I’ve ever viewed her as me per se, rather as a character who I’d want to know, a character that I can understand intimately, which I think is a different thing.
Demetrius Romeo: Your husband Mark Pennell is a producer; doesn’t being married to a producer make getting a film made somewhat easier?
TARA MOSS: No, not really. In fact, if anything, it’s made me more wary of the film business than ever before just because I see the struggles he goes through with it. Mark is an Australian film producer and we know how the Australian film industry is at the moment. He’s worked on some international projects and he’s certainly working on some pretty incredible stuff at the moment, but again: danger zone! I already know my personality well enough to know that it would be difficult to let go of my books and let them become movies. I think it would be doubly difficult if the person making them is my own husband. Let me put it this way: I have a happy marriage at the moment and I don’t want that ever to change.
Demetrius Romeo: You’ve said that you see four movies a week, on average.
TARA MOSS: Yeah, I do. Sometimes more than that.
Demetrius Romeo: Is that in the cinema, on DVD or on cable?
TARA MOSS: It’s a combination of DVDs and going to the cinema. I don’t watch television much at all. I pretty much use the TV for DVD rental. I love going through DVD shops and finding the most obscure foreign films or art house films or b-grade films and finding something delightful and surprising in them, and I see probably about 80 percent of what comes out in theatres, so I’m frequently at movie theatres checking things out. I just love film. I think it’s a wonderful story-telling medium. Obviously, I prefer books. I don’t read all the time; I read a lot of the time. And when I’m not reading, I’m probably watching a movie somewhere.
Demetrius Romeo: Are there any cinematic genres that don’t interest you?
TARA MOSS: I suppose particularly sappy, romantic films don’t interest me a lot. I have a lot of fun watching something like Notting Hill, something that’s like a romantic comedy but is a little more clever; that’s great. This is going to sound really awful, but if people aren’t gonna die and there’s no conflict, I’m not very interested in watching. I know it’s a terrible thing to say!
TARA MOSS: I found Edward Gorey’s kind of delightfully morbid, black humour really fascinating at that age, and I think I still enjoy that. The types of books I sometimes like, like the types of movies I sometimes like, deal with really dark issues, sometimes with humour, and I think that’s the best way to deal with things we don’t understand or are afraid of.
Demetrius Romeo: You said that you like even b-grade films…
TARA MOSS: I’m a big fan of b-grade films. I think there are some beauties out there that are so bad that they’re genius, like Ed Wood’s films, or Night of the Living Dead.
Demetrius Romeo: Give me an example of a so-bad-it’s-good treasure you’ve come across recently.
TARA MOSS: Recently I watched pretty much every zombie flick every made. I went on a zombie frenzy. I started having dreams that I was being chased by zombies, I was so immersed in them. I was watching three zombie films a day. Some of them were fantastic, but I can’t even remember the name of half of them because there were so many. But I watched all of the Night of the Living Dead series. Of course, Shaun of the Dead is fantastic fun, but that is recognized as being quite a brilliant comedy. But I think a lot of the ones that are panned as being ‘b-grade’ films are actually brilliant comedies in and of themselves. I find them quite amusing.
Demetrius Romeo: If you watch so many films, do you have time to go back and watch all the special features when you rent a DVD?
TARA MOSS: I often do look at a lot of the extras. For instance, I recently rented Anchor Man which I thought was hysterical, because I love Will Ferrell. I was on the floor laughing at all the outtakes and things like that. Sometimes I do quite enjoy the extras. But I don’t tend to listen to the directors’ commentaries because I don’t want to over-analyse stuff. Unless I’m aware that there’s a particular story behind some of the scenes, I won’t seek out the commentary as much as the documentary aspects of the extras. The documentary is more interesting to me than watching the film again with commentary over the top.
The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Graduate, which is one of my favourite films, was a wonderful edition that came out and had interviews with everyone now and their views on the movie at the time. To me that’s a bit more interesting, that documentary style. I like it because they gave some behind-the-scenes information about some really classic scenes. The one at the end when they’re in the church, and Katharine Ross is getting married to her man, Dustin Hoffman’s standing above where the ceremony is taking place, and he’s tapping on the glass – because he had his arms extended, it was thought to be somehow related to Christianity. Mike Nichols and Dustin Hoffman are saying, ‘well, actually, it was because they told us that if I tapped in the middle of the glass, it would break’. So since 1967 they’ve been analysing the Christian references at the end of The Graduate – which I think is just a classic! Those sorts of stories are the ones I like to hear because I do think there’s too much analysis of creative work, whether it be books or film. We stop enjoying things for what they are in order to search for ‘hidden meanings’ in things that sometimes don’t even have meanings.
Demetrius Romeo: Are there particular directors that you like?
TARA MOSS: I’m a big Tim Burton fan. I like his kooky sense of humour. I like David Lynch and Burton and these directors who create completely different worlds out of their own imagination. I love Quentin Tarantino. I also love the stuff that people pan: I loved the Lara Croft movies. I love a lot of films that people think are quite superficial. I like films for different reasons, and there’s something very satisfying about seeing Angelina Jolie swinging on a rope with a gun strapped to her leg, and there’s something very satisfying about seeing a subtle film like Sideways that’s a bit more gentle and a bit deeper and has some great comedic moments in it.
Demetrius Romeo: Are you much of a collector when it comes to films? Do you have to own them, or are you just happy to see them?
TARA MOSS: I have to own stuff. I have to own a lot of films.
Demetrius Romeo: What sort of stuff makes the Tara Moss collection?
A fabulous cheesy movie I recommend is called Ninja Killer. This is like a 70s Hong Kong action flick. If you’re used to b-grade movies, this is c-grade and it’s classic. The hair-dos, the outfits and the bad dubbing – it’s beautiful. It’s called Ninja Killer but there are no real ninja in it; it’s got a lot of people trying to pretend that they’re Bruce Lee, breaking up drug rings, with sideburns that could stop a truck.
Kill Bill Volume 1 – I don’t watch the whole thing over and over again, but I love the scenes in Japan, where Uma Thurman’s kicking butt! And I also love her short motorcycle scene in the yellow leather motorcycle suit so much that I went and had a red one made for myself. I have a red Kawasaki ZZR motorcycle and she’s riding a yellow Kawasaki ZZR motorcycle, so I thought it was very fitting. I also have films like Mystic River and The Thomas Crown Affair original, which is one of my favourite movies of all time – mostly because Steve McQueen is just a god! He’s such a ‘man’s man’ leading man. I love that really masculine leading man that we don’t see enough of these days. I also love The Getaway, even though there’s a lot of interaction between his character and that character of Ali MacGraw’s that’s now completely unacceptable. Thankfully. Feminism has come a bit further. Other than that, it’s a brilliant film, and very of it’s time. Blade Runner. Impossible to beat. It’s my favourite sci-fi genre movie.
Demetrius Romeo: Can the man’s man exist in a world where his woman isn’t so passive?
TARA MOSS: Absolutely. The man’s man can totally exist in today’s world now that women have power as well. I love powerful women. In fact, I like powerful women so much that I’m obsessed with actresses who starred in sometimes cheesy ‘powerful women’ roles. I love this current swing into female superheroes. I collect female action figures that all have a great deal of artillery and kick ass. But it doesn’t stop me from liking quite masculine characters. If a guy’s going to be a leading man, I don’t think he should spend more time looking in the mirror than I would. That should be the cut-off point right there.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you still have videos?
TARA MOSS: I do have some videos, but I don’t watch them very much, to be honest. I have The Shining, which is one of my favourite horror films, I only have on video so I’m planning on upgrading to a DVD version that hopefully has some very cool extras. The version I’ve got is a video, but it also has the documentary by Kubrick’s wife, about the making of the film, so it’s actually quite a good video. But it is a video; I’m sure they’ve got to be some updates since then. Kubrick was so before his time in terms of seeing a book like The Shining, seeing Steven King’s work, and seeing the primal way it taps into our sort of childhood fears, and treating that genre with respect. It’s one of those things I complain about often: just because something’s a horror story or a crime story or a serial killer story doesn’t mean you can’t treat it with respect and make it a really amazing piece of work, whether it be a book or a movie. I think there’s a lot of brilliance to be found in those genres, rather than just dismissing the genre because there are a lot of bad examples of it. There are a lot of brilliant examples of it, too. The Shining is one of those.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you think you’ll have a film script in you at some stage?
TARA MOSS: Not until I mature a bit more to be honest. Being a control freak, I’m very wary of the screenwriting process because it’s collaborative and the more I find out about the film business, the more I really don’t want to be in that position where I’m being told what to write and where the money matters so much that you have to make those compromises. Jeffery Deaver said something brilliant. He was asked how much he had to do with the making of the films of his books, such The Bone Collector. He said, “I have a lot to do with them; I cash the cheque”. I thought he was very wise: he’s a great writer, that’s what he does well; he was saving himself the frustration of actually trying to work with a whole load of people creating a film version of what he’s already done brilliantly as a book. Until I can separate myself a little bit more from my books, it would be a lot of frustration, and not the kind of frustration that pays off in the end. As we know, with the movie industry you can’t count on something being made or being successful or any of that. It’s a very difficult industry, and so, for the moment, I’m happy to stick to my writing.