Interview: Ted Kotcheff, director of uncompromising Aussie drama Wake in Fright
The claustrophobic drama is experiencing a resurgence after almost 40 years in obscurity
Wake in Fright is a powerful film. Gary Bond plays John Grant, a teacher who gets trapped in 'The Yabba', a rough mining town in the middle of the Australian outback, where he gets dragged into a world of drinking, gambling and violence. 'It's an odyssey of self-discovery and he finds his sense of superiority is completely unwarranted as he does things he would never have dreamed of to prove his virility,' explains director Ted Kotcheff. 'He discovers that education and civilisation are very thin defences and that we are all capable of things that are morally wrong.'
Virtually ignored on release in 1971, Wake in Fright was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival but died at the box office and vanished for almost forty years. The film's editor Tony Buckley embarked on a five-year search for the film via Dublin, London, Australia and New York, eventually tracking down a surviving print in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. Marked 'For Destruction', if he’d arrived just one week later it would have been lost forever. After spending three years restoring the negatives, it's now viewed as one of the most important films in Australian cinema.
Despite such standing, Kotcheff is actually Canadian and was living and working in Britain at the time. He was hired via his association with screenwriter Evan Jones, who was adapting Kenneth Cook's source novel. 'I hadn't been to Australia at all, so obviously there was some trepidation,' explains Kotcheff. 'However, when I arrived I discovered the outback wasn't too dissimilar to northern Canada, with the same vast empty spaces that, paradoxically, are not liberating but claustrophobic and imprisoning, and in both there was the same type of masculine society.'
The film delves deep into the male psyche. 'When I arrived in Broken Hill, where the book is set, I took out the editor of the local newspaper and one of the first things he said to me was: "men outnumber the women in this town three-to-one." So I asked, "What do they do for human contact?" "They fight". And he was right. This was the late 60s. I had long hair down my back and a handlebar moustache and wherever I went, people wanted to fight me, but the fighting had nothing to do with belligerence, they were just desperate for the human touch."
The film features an infamous scene that uses real footage, shot my Kotcheff, from a kangaroo hunt. It's still incredibly uncomfortable viewing. 'I'm a vegetarian, and to kill an animal for a film would be unspeakable,' says Kotcheff. 'I was very, very anxious about how we were going to do that, because this is the climax of the film where we see the lead actor really hit rock bottom. I used a few tricks, but a lot of it is pure documentary footage and some of it was so horrific I couldn't use it.'
Now in his 80s, Kotcheff is still working, most recently as executive producer (and occasional director) on crime procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, while his varied filmography includes everything from seminal action movie and Rambo's first screen appearance in First Blood to gross-out comedy Weekend at Bernie's. 'I started in live television back in '52 at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so I did an hour-long play every three weeks. One week I'd do drama, the next week a comedy, the next a thriller, the next an action piece so it was a continual variety of subjects and I think that carried into my filmic life.'
Wake in Fright (Eureka!) is released on DVD and Blu-ray, Mon 31 Mar.