All against one and one against all: Fred Schepisi’s outsiders

The roving auteur talks widescreen isolation, collapsing timeframes, cranes in the bedroom and his recent adaptation of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm.

Dan Callahan
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The Eye of the Storm (2011)

The Eye of the Storm (2011)

The Australian director Fred Schepisi has been making movies for over 35 years, but there has been little serious analysis of his 15 feature films either thematically or on a technical level, maybe because they seem like an impenetrably eclectic group in terms of genre. Yet Schepisi’s visual style is unmistakable, and his interest in individuals facing off against a hostile world has been consistent across a wide range of genres, from the western (Barbarosa, 1982) to science fiction (Iceman, 1984), from romantic comedy (Roxanne, 1987) to espionage thriller (The Russia House, 1990) to high comedy of manners (Six Degrees of Separation, 1993).

Schepisi’s new film, The Eye of the Storm, is an adaptation of Patrick White’s novel headlined by a trio of tough-minded actors: Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. It is Schepisi’s first feature since maybe his lowest ebb as a director, the misguided It Runs in the Family (2003), which brought together the Douglas clan, Kirk, Michael and Michael’s son Cameron, for a kind of on-screen vacation. This film offered clear proof that Schepisi has sometimes been at the mercy of his material; he could also do nothing to salvage the misbegotten comedy Fierce Creatures (1997).

But when there is enough meat on the bones of his subject and appropriately unsentimental performers involved, Schepisi is one of the rare directors working today who can put you right inside the consciousness of drastically troubled characters. He’s often at his best when looking at milieus that are slightly outside his own experience, and he flourishes with collaborators who can give him some of the specific social information he needs to illuminate the wide worlds his films take in.

Fred Schepisi directing Geoffrey Rush on the set of The Eye of the Storm

Fred Schepisi directing Geoffrey Rush on the set of The Eye of the Storm

“I hadn’t read this book, but I’d read other books of Patrick White’s,” says Schepisi, speaking about The Eye of the Storm from a conference room in New York. He’s a big, bear-like man who talks slowly and calmly, as if he has all the time in the world to get things right.

“Everybody has tried to do White’s novels on screen and failed. They wanted me to write it, but I said they needed somebody who was more in that high-class Australian society and that world and all of that to write it, and I can help. White sort of goes on in the book about how everyone’s an actor or an actress, so I suggested they get this actress, Judy Morris, who’s also a writer, to work on the script with me.”

White’s novel is close to 600 pages, and at least 300 of those pages are comprised of the thoughts of the three main characters, Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling), a rich, ruthless hedonist, and her two disappointed children, Sir Basil (Rush) and The Princess de Lascabanes (Davis).

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a family that isn’t dysfunctional in some way or another, major or minor,” says Schepisi, who cast his daughter Alexandra in the important role of Elizabeth’s young nurse. “Australians have always claimed that an elite society only existed in England, but that’s nonsense, you know. There are those entitled people like Elizabeth in our world, too.”

The Eye of the Storm (2011)

The Eye of the Storm (2011)

No director working today uses the widescreen 2:35:1 frame as often or as well as Schepisi. “The reason I use very wide framing is that I can shut things down or I can open things up,” Schepisi says. “I can go wide to show you where you are. You can get so much more information onto the screen that affects what’s going on in the scene.” When he films two people talking, Schepisi almost never does a standard shot-reverse shot sequence but sticks his people together in the corner or the middle of the frame and cuts at strategic moments to long shots that make you aware of their environment.

A pertinent example of Schepisi’s method is the scene where Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) goes to speak to a diplomatic official (Ian McKellen) about her husband’s advancement in Plenty (1985). Susan is a disturbed, self-indulgent person, and Schepisi keeps Susan and the official together in his composition at first as they sit down to talk at the top of the embassy stairs, but then he gradually begins cutting away to shots of the grand, impersonal trappings of the embassy as Susan starts to get restless and agitated.

Given a major actress, Streep, and major, difficult material by playwright David Hare, Schepisi makes his own contribution to Plenty with cumulative, intuitive visuals that express his heroine’s interior disorder, which gradually begins to seem like a reasonable or at least understandable response to the complacent English society around her, a society she is determined to destroy in her own small way.

“With Plenty, where something was being said was as important as what was being said,” says Schepisi. “Because it often belied what was being said, or it often exaggerated what was being said. Using the wide lens, again, without making a big deal out of it, you could show all that, you could show all the monumental things pressing in on Susan.”

Plenty (1985)

Plenty (1985)

Plenty, like many of Schepisi’s other films, is about the fluidity of time and memory, and Schepisi makes wholly original choices to make us feel the way time can collapse.

At one point, at a tense dinner party, Leonard Darwin (John Gielgud) is speaking with some distress to his colleague Raymond (Charles Dance) about the Suez Canal crisis, and the other guests are still dining while they have their private chat in the drawing room. Schepisi gives Gielgud an extreme close-up to voice his displeasure about Suez and then makes a very hard cut to Susan sitting in a chair. The cut is so hard that it momentarily feels like she has been in the room listening all along, but actually this is a jump forward in time of only a few minutes, when all the other guests have again assembled in the drawing room.

This is the kind of deliberately disorienting editing Alain Resnais attempted, in a much more jagged, self-conscious fashion, in films like Muriel (1963), but Schepisi achieves effects like this almost invisibly, so that most audience members will feel them only subliminally.

“The editing has got to be in the writing,” he says. “You don’t leave that for later. You finesse it later, you shift it around a little bit, but basically everything, the intent, the way the sound goes through, the way the words go through, things that pull you through the progression when you’re in a different time zone, all of that is scripted, and it takes a lot of consideration.”

Fred Schepisi directing Sean Connery on the set of The Russia House (1990)

Fred Schepisi directing Sean Connery on the set of The Russia House (1990)

In his later films, beginning with The Russia House, Schepisi has often used distinctive camera movement to make you feel what his characters are feeling. In The Eye of the Storm, the camera in Elizabeth Hunter’s bedroom is almost always moving slightly, which gives you the sense of her wandering consciousness and also the effect she has on other people.

“We actually stuck big cranes in the bedroom,” Schepisi says. “I’m going in and I’m closing in on two people who are kind of uncomfortable with one another. Now, by my movements of the camera, I’m making you uncomfortable with them. That’s the intention. The moves are all a little concentric, they’re a little odd, and it’s to make you have the same unease that they have. And when it looks like they’re coming together, I use the wide frame by pulling away and I actually separate them. With the wide frame, you can stick them very far apart like that.”

Schepisi favours the same kind of fluidity found in his framing and editing right from the planning stage. “I don’t storyboard,” he says. “I write shot lists, but I don’t storyboard, because I can’t draw. I used to be very… I’d write down the shots and I knew what the images were going to be. You’ve got to be careful, because you can get locked into things that are not necessarily helpful to the actors. And when you get to the location, they’re not necessarily going to work that way.”

The Devil's Playground (1976)

The Devil's Playground (1976)

His engagement with actors has often been revelatory, right from his first feature, The Devil’s Playground (1976), a film based on Schepisi’s own youthful religious background. “I was called a junior because of my age, but I was in a monastery, yeah, for a brotherhood, not a priesthood,” he says. The Devil’s Playground is a thoughtful, fleet, generous, highly sensual film about the pressure of lust on an all-male community pledged to renouncing worldly pleasures and concerned with the ultimate outside judgment of God.

Schepisi’s second film was The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, who had played the priest in The Devil’s Playground where he gave a speech about what it’s like to burn in hell. The main character of Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) is a half-white, half Aboriginal boy who tries with all his heart to please his white bosses until the pressure becomes too much for him to bear.

“The boy who played Jimmie Blacksmith wasn’t an actor,” Schepisi says. “We discovered him in an airport. I had a guy who had some relatives who were Aboriginal, he was a good actor’s coach, and I had him work with Tommy for ten weeks. He worked with Tommy through music, through mime, through straight-out yelling and screaming, and he was getting Tommy to lose his self-consciousness about emotions, getting him to free up to be able to express emotions, to be able to yell and scream. Most amateur actors, if they yell, they’re too embarrassed to yell right out, or they’re too embarrassed to let emotions out. Tommy did that work for about ten weeks, and then he would come and work with me once or twice a week.”

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Lewis’s Jimmie Blacksmith is a boy who’s so desperate to impress others that he winds up at war with them because he can never do enough to get their respect or even their attention. The tragic and cathartic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, one of the most insightful and far-reaching movies ever made about racism, is probably Schepisi’s masterpiece, and it remains far too little screened and discussed today.

The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, both made in Australia, acted as calling cards to work elsewhere, and Schepisi took Hollywood offers on his own terms, patiently waiting for the right material.

“On Iceman, I still did shot lists, but we developed more of the philosophy of why we were shooting every shot,” he says. “In Iceman, we did a lot of movements through tunnels and things, to show these scientists in their own rats’ mazes. We shot things always through glass or reflections so that the scientists are always surrounded by their technology.”

Having delivered a second masterpiece with Plenty, Schepisi worked again with Streep on A Cry in the Dark, an overwhelmingly wide and detailed view of the notorious Lindy Chamberlain case, a trial by media where the entire country of Australia turned against one supremely tough and un-giving woman who had lost a child to a dingo at a campsite.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

“I wasn’t in Australia at the time of Lindy Chamberlain,” says Schepisi. “I was traveling around, and then I became quite alarmed at the brouhaha that was going on with this case. The producer Verity Lambert kept asking me to do it, and I didn’t want to. I thought it was difficult, and it was an ongoing case that would probably affect people’s lives.

“And Verity Lambert got onto me and said, ‘Listen, you’re not doing this because you don’t know how to.’ There had been a script. So I sat down for a week and a half and worked out the picture the way I did. And then I rang Verity up and I said, ‘This is how you do it.’ And I told him to fuck off and hung up!

“Six weeks later he rang me up and said, ‘I have someone to talk to you.’ And it was Meryl Streep. And she said, ‘We’re going to do this picture.’ And I knew with Meryl, and then subsequently with Sam Neill, that I had collaborators that would help get the picture made. So I was very relieved about that, and that gave me the courage to do it.”

In all of Schepisi’s best work, individuals who are seen in some way as outsiders are forced to deal with the hostile world around them. Jimmie Blacksmith cares only about what other people think of him and make of him, and his eagerness to please eventually destroys him. Susan Traherne and Lindy Chamberlain, on the other hand, don’t give a damn what people think of them, and their indifference to public opinion eventually destroys them too. These three movies, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Plenty and A Cry in the Dark, represent Schepisi in his most penetrating and unsparing mode, and no one has made stronger films on the theme of a solitary person marked down as different by society and forced to pay the heaviest price for their difference.

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

On the more comic side of this issue, the large-nosed C.D. Bales in Roxanne turns the perception of himself as different into a kind of victory of wit over matter. And Ouisa (Stockard Channing) in Schepisi’s note-perfect film of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation is a secure, cosseted Upper East Side wife who learns not to care what people think of her, which acts as a kind of liberation for her.

Finally, in The Eye of the Storm Schepisi has two weak characters, Basil and Dorothy, who care so much about how they are perceived that their lives are an extended agony of failure and self-consciousness, and one masterful character, Elizabeth, a woman so selfish and so indifferent to what others think of her that not even a climactic tropical storm can wash away any of her serene self-absorption.

Schepisi’s career constitutes a steady progression from Jimmie Blacksmith’s confused rebellion against society to Rampling’s Elizabeth Hunter emerging almost unscathed from a below-sea-level hideaway after an annihilating storm. Not only does Elizabeth triumph over other people, as Jimmie, Susan and Lindy cannot, but she even has a key and unforgettable triumph over hostile nature itself.

Of his films’ main characters, Schepisi says, “They’re the cutting edge for seeing what’s good and bad about everything. A single person up against the world or society, that’s good for drama, and it’s good for comedy, too. You can treat that as both drama and comedy, generally. But mostly it’s about humanity and looking at humanity and seeing how people relate or don’t relate to one another. Outsiders are a great way to look at the world, aren’t they?”

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