Magazine article Metro Magazine

An Underdog of Australian Cinema-Fred Schepisi

Magazine article Metro Magazine

An Underdog of Australian Cinema-Fred Schepisi

Article excerpt

After seeing Fred Schepisi's latest film Last Orders (2001) I found myself wondering, why isn't Fred Schepisi like many other Australian and overseas directors these days, a household name? Given the success of not only Last Orders but many of Schepisi's earlier films, the fact that he successfully adapted a Booker Prize winning novel and capably directed such well regarded actors as Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren among others, the question deserves more than just fleeting attention.

Ordinarily, Australians jump at the chance of clutching to our collective breast and claiming anyone who becomes successful in Hollywood as our own, even if their link with Australia is somewhat tenuous. We are particularly fond of doing this to New Zealanders, Russell Crowe and Jane Campion to name just two. Country of origin need not interfere in national pride; I once heard Tom Cruise described as 'Australia's favourite son-in-law'.

With such an extraordinarily diverse body of work it is difficult to conceive of any member of the Australian viewing public who wouldn't have heard of at least one of Schepisi's films. Whether it be The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) or Roxanne (1987), The Russia House (1990) or Evil Angels (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993) or IQ (1994). Perhaps his diversity makes it difficult to recognize a signature Schepisi style or tone of film-making.

In the 1980s Schepisi features in 'The Australian New Wave,' (meaning Australian feature film directors working successfully in the US) alongside Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show), Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Silent Fall), Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, The Piano) and George Miller (The Mad Max Series). And yet Schepisi hasn't really gone out of his way to entrench himself in this association. Rather, he doesn't see this collective as some kind of identifiable breed. What he will concede is that:

Bruce, Peter, Gillian and George and I were brought up on a diet of good English and European cinema, as well as American commercialism. Our stand off, observed, atmospheric style of film-making is influenced by European and Japanese films. We are a mixture of everything warmer, say, than the Europeans, but not as warm or as exploitative as the Americans.... that is what makes us different. It isn't necessarily what makes our films sell more, because they don't. (1)

Schepisi also believes that Australian directors develop a broader understanding of all the different facets of film-making, due to developing their skills with very little money and fewer resources. (2) He frankly sums up the real rationale behind this grouping: 'We are ... good.' (3)

In a world where Ian Thorpe would be criticized if he ever, (which he wouldn't) dared to say 'In case you haven't noticed I am actually a rather good swimmer', Schepisi doesn't seem to bother with such niceties. I attended a Q & A session recently in Melbourne at which he spoke. Which is why I am writing this article based on answers to questions put to the director not by myself, but from other members of the general public. Quite frankly he scares the living hell out of me. Take the story of Schepisi's first meeting with Steve Martin. After convincing the producer Dan Melnick that he was the right man for the job of directing Roxanne, Melnick arranged for a dinner with Steve Martin, who had written the screenplay based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. Schepisi reminisced, 'We had dinner and I took the bull by the horns and said, "Steve, your script doesn't start until page 61. What are we going to do about it?" Fortunately Steve agreed and we got stuck into it.' (4) Twenty-seven drafts later, they began shooting but continued making changes throughout.

Schepisi has openly talked about how badly the distribution of his first two US features Barbarosa (1982), a Western starring Gary Busey and Iceman (1984), a film about a prehistoric man who is revived after being frozen in Arctic ice for 40,000 years, were handled. …

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