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Feature: Australian feature film


Visions, illusions and delusions part II

Peter Sainsbury

Peter Sainsbury was Director, Film Development for the AFC between 1989 and 1992. As an independent producer in Australia he produced What I Have Written (dir. John Hughes 1995), The Goddess of 1967 (dir. Clara Law 1999), and Bartleby (dir. Miro Bilbrough 2000). He is currently producing Floodhouse (dir. Miro Bilbrough).

The Tracker on location The Tracker on location
Reader response to part one of “Visions, illusions and delusions”, film producer Peter Sainsbury’s address to the 2002 Australian Screen Directors Association [ASDA] Conference, was appreciative and passionate. A few said that Sainsbury’s account of the tensions between vision and pragmatism in filmmaking apply equally well to other artforms. In Part II, Sainsbury discusses recent Australian films, The Tracker, Lantana and Dirty Deeds, and defines what he sees as the constraints on visionary Australian filmmaking. Part I appeared in RT53

The priority of vision

I want [to discuss] a recently released Australian film, which is unusual for a number of reasons. The Tracker, written and directed by Rolf de Heer, is a beautifully structured and measured piece of filmmaking with a deceptively simple narrative line. What is achieved here is a truly elegiac account of the collision of Indigenous and European cultures and a magical insight into the nature of their difference. And of course to see that difference is to glimpse the possibility, at least, of reconciliation. To this extent, The Tracker is a visionary film reminding us how effective humour, irony and integrity can be in the face of murderous violence, and how racism is but a prison of the mind. The desire in play here is no less than the desire for freedom from that internal prison.

The Tracker also reminds us that the visionary is not necessarily complex or pretentious, though it is probably metaphorical. It also demonstrates that within a visionary enterprise all sorts of pragmatic decisions can be made to solve problems in reconciling intentions and resources. So long as the vision comes before and has priority over the choice of solutions, constructive solutions that enhance rather than detract from that vision can be found. But what’s particularly interesting about this film is that it reversed the 2 major terms of almost every Australian project development—the film was financed before the script was written. The Tracker was not so much invested in as commissioned.

I spoke to de Heer and executive producer Brigit Ikin about this process. When SBS Independent and the Adelaide Festival decided, with extraordinary bravura, to commission a number of films, the South Australian Government made its financial support conditional upon a South Australian director being among those chosen. De Heer took a gamble and declared that if the commissioning bodies wanted his film, for which he had a 10-page treatment, they would have to guarantee funding. He would then write the script and deliver the movie. Which is pretty much what happened.

Now this was a low budget production, less than $2m. And de Heer is a particular kind of operator within the industry and unique in many ways, having put years of work into becoming the filmmaker who could reverse the dominant process in this way and obviously he had a great story. But I don’t think the importance of the way in which his film was financed can be over estimated.

In this case a director’s vision was the driving force of the project, rather than the director or the writer having to prove his or her credentials with draft after draft of a script, each put through a number of arbitrarily designed tests, chasing deals around the world in an often fruitless and always pragmatic search, often entailing compromise after compromise, for a final deal to put to the FFC. This teaches us a lesson about the relationship and the difference between visions, illusions and delusions.

The values of funding bodies

I have argued the proposition before—that the films emerging from a given funding system largely reflect the values and processes at the heart of their funding organisations, whatever they may be, and that films produced in any given cultural zone in any given period reflect the diversity of the funding systems that existed then and there, or a lack of diversity as the case may be.

I think this can be proven in the relationship between industry structures and movies made in the UK during the 1980s, in Germany in the 1970s, in France in the 1960s or under the American studio system in the 1950s. And you could certainly add to the weight of that proof what’s happened in Australia since the 1990s. Let’s look at the relationship between funding methods and creative outcomes in Australia.

An industry held hostage?

When film funding in Australia was effectively removed from the anarchy of deals driven by tax incentives toward the end of the 1980s, it was brought into the safe haven of the public service. What kind of safety is this and for whom was it provided? Sociologists know that bureaucratic imperatives place the safety of the funding agency and the unimpeachable position of its executives before all else. So it was and is in the Australian film industry. Film financing became hostage to the 3 principles of bureaucracy—prudence, objectivity and blamelessness.

Prudence and blamelessness were served by the building of a buffer between the bureaucratic funding decision and the result of that decision. This buffer was the market. FFC funding cannot be triggered unless the project in question has already attracted the imprimatur of the market through distribution deals, presales, distribution advances and equity investment in various combinations. When it does, the FFC may invest. The justification for this lies, of course, in the belief that films so financed will oblige committed distributors and sales agents to get them to an audience so that revenue will follow and top up the fund. And so that the films financed will have a self-justifying public profile. This is prudence. Where this formula fails to produce satisfactory results, the funding body cannot be faulted for the market had spoken and the rules had been followed. This is blamelessness.

Bryan Brown, Sam Worthington, Dirty Deeds Bryan Brown, Sam Worthington, Dirty Deeds
photo Brian Mackenzie
A market or an audience?

Unfortunately, satisfactory results have been rare and are getting rarer. I believe this is because the market and the audience are not the same. A market is a display of produce. An audience is that which favours one product over another. A good distributor earns our respect by knowing how to pick a movie from the market place and sell it to an audience that he or she knows well, and may even have in some degree created. Very few, if any distributors and sales agents, however, know much about the process by which a script becomes a film, or even what it is about a script that would promise a memorable film. As a result they frequently find themselves less than pleased with the outcome of their commitment. They often find themselves handling a film they never would have picked, had it been a film rather than a script with some names attached, when they chose it. They often find themselves handling a film to which they cannot deliver an audience. And every time this happens, we are all in trouble. The major flaw in the safety mechanism between the bureaucratic decision and the resulting film is enormous. And it becomes self-perpetuating as well as self-defeating.

As any producer will tell you, it’s becoming harder to get the commitments that the rules of the game require because distributors too frequently find backing a script, rather than a film, a bad risk or at very best an additional risk. This applies not only to the domestic market attachment that every project needs but also to the international ones. And on the international level other difficulties arise. Key organisations in the marketplace can undergo sudden re-alignments as did Canal Plus [in 2001], or can simply disappear, as Film Four did [in 2002]. Other economic factors intrude such as the collapse of the European Pay-TV market...All of these factors make it less likely that sales agents will provide advances to any but the safest properties. Or to properties which appear to carry the safest bet. This, of course, usually means the most pragmatically conceived ones.

Objective criteria: one size fits all

The pressures of this situation give rise to a universal hope. Can there be a set of criteria by which some of this risk is mitigated? This is where objectivity comes in, or at least a kind of pseudo objectivity. When getting a movie financed is always a matter of cracking the market before the film is made, and never the other way around, the script becomes by far the most important consideration in the risk business and its value is increasingly measured by quasi-objective criteria. As such, it has to promise a degree of safety. It has to look and feel familiar. It has to cover all the bases in telling a conventionally intelligible story. It has to comply with certain given rules of the writer’s craft. And above all, it has to entirely determine the film that is made from it. Thus we are back in a cinema in which the job of the director is simply to translate the written into the visual, rather than using the written as a means to discovering the world which the written can only imply.

Most problematic, is that the same kinds of tests are applied to all projects seeking the support of public funds. We allow no variety in the relationships that might otherwise come between financial inputs and creative outcomes. It follows that there is little variety in the kinds of films we can make. Of course different stories will be told involving different story values with different sensibilities and different kinds of appeal. But these are narrow differences in the context of world cinema today. In Australia, markedly different kinds of filmmaking, markedly different uses of film language and markedly different visions of the world do not and will not flourish.

Thus, in the context in which an overwhelming majority of Australian films are made, the development of individual projects is a reductive rather than expansive creative process. The more clearly a given script complies with limited, quasi-objective criteria, the less likely the vision it carries will be questioned. In other words, we have institutionalised pragmatism. For very few of the qualities I have identified as having to do with the visionary can thrive under these conditions. That which may be disturbing; that which may be tragic; that which may be fascinatingly bewildering; that which may risk the pretentiousness of speaking in terms of desire, or of what we don’t know about ourselves, of that which is not literal, will all be considered marginal, esoteric and unduly risky. That which is playful or surreal in its use of the medium itself simply does not exist. It is almost as though the use of the human imagination as a means of escape from our fears, our habits and our everyday reality has been banned. And it’s almost as if (to borrow a pithy phrase of Mike Thornhill’s) the modern cinema has passed Australia by. And by modern cinema I don’t just mean that which comes into my own definition of the visionary, but any cinema that concerns itself with anything that lies beyond ordinary perceptions, as in popular films like Being John Malkovitch, The Sixth Sense and American Beauty as well as Mulholland Drive.

It is tempting to find something sweetly ironic in the fact that The Tracker, a film that speaks eloquently of the power we have to escape the prisons of our mind, was financed through a reversal of the usual process and all the damaging limitations that process puts on the imagination. But it is not as easy as that. The FFC and the AFC and the SAFC all assisted, in one way or another, to get de Heer’s film on screen. There is no way that the argument I am advancing here can be reduced to a simple ‘us and them’ critique of the funding bodies. In fact I should put it on record that when I have managed to satisfy the FFC’s criteria for investment I have enjoyed a great deal of help and support from its staff and have had, and am currently getting, a great deal of support, sometimes creative support, from both the NSW FTO and from the AFC. This is not an attack on these organisations, or on the people who work in them. One of whom I once was.

So long as the rules are applied...

These organisations are symptoms of the culture and society that created them, a society in which there exists an almost craven desire for consensus. It is a society in which pretentiousness is a cultural crime, so that we rarely dare speak of anything that is not literally self evident or comfortably in conformity with abiding and accepted Australian myths, or entirely dependent on taken for granted ideas about human motivation and individual identity. Above all, it is a culture in which an extraordinarily paternalistic form of liberalism rules our lives. It is one in which we are happy to allow a complex, risky and highly skilled activity to be managed within the prudent, blameless, pseudo-objective and counter-productive rules and parameters of the public service.

I was brought up against this phenomenon quite forcibly when, while working as Head of Film Development for the AFC, I enraged an audience of filmmakers by suggesting that they should not ask us bureaucrats to spell out for them how funding processes and priorities should be organised, but rather tell us. Not only was the audience nonplussed and angry, but my colleagues in the organisation were visibly embarrassed. It was as if I had delivered a calculated insult. In the pub after the meeting I felt like a leper in a foreign land. So I drove home and decided I would not seek a renewal of my contract. For that was the moment at which it became clear to me that what we most want from our funding bodies is a set of rules. We want guidelines, within which we can be defined, organised and managed. We want transparent mechanisms by which our creative endeavours can be blamelessly rejected or benignly accepted. Just so long as the rules are applied.

This seems a travesty of creative work, as much for those who work within funding bodies as for those who need to work with them. Throughout the processes of script development and production financing, funding body staff, executives and board members do of course make value judgements. But their roles as members of properly conducted bureaucracies preclude them from pro-active intervention. My own time at the AFC was a battle between my desire to seek out and support the creative work that I considered excellent and important, and my obligation to passively follow the rules of assessment and submit to the consensus of a committee. In fact, this usually entailed several committees. A committee of assessors, of my colleagues, of board members and the parallel committees of any other organisation needed to get a project financed. Despite my willingness to take responsibility for creative decisions and my naïve belief that this was what I was paid for, I was forever obliged not to; but rather, to submit to consensus. And as we all know, consensus coheres around what is familiar rather than what is not. The procedural rules encourage the ordinary.

Sometimes this obedience to established rules even seems perverse. However poorly our films are performing and however obviously market attachments mean nothing to the audience and however hard market attachments are to attract and however far the vicissitudes of international financing structures work against us, we agree when the bureaucrats protest that not only is it not their fault, but we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? We wouldn’t want funding body executives to play God and decide what films should be made. No, we say. God forbid that anyone be held responsible for what goes wrong or fails to achieve what our delusions told us might be. And as soon as we collude with the lack of responsibility we allow our institutions, we have of course surrendered responsibility for ourselves. That means we will just have to live without the visionary, without what it might inject into our film culture, and without what it would do for us internationally. We’ll just keep chasing our pragmatic tales.

Chasing our pragmatic tales

This chasing of tales occurs as we conceive, develop, market and finance our projects and even as we execute them. A lot of the time, it’s not at all clear that this is what we’re doing. After all, the Australian industry contains a great deal of people with world class skills, despite their tendency to export themselves. Most of our films are models of technical and craft expertise and we often admire the performances turned in by Australian actors. When we deploy these considerable assets we do so with pleasure and confidence. But we delude ourselves if we think we can rely on these elements of our industry. Because there is no lasting value in doing something well if we discover nothing. Only the imaginative journey of discovery produces a successful cinema of lasting value, while the way we have structured our work militates against that journey being undertaken. As I have argued, we are hopelessly caught up in a pragmatic complicity with a cautious, conservative and consensus driven practice that we have imposed on ourselves, cementing it in place with rules, structures and processes that all but guarantee pragmatism and the superficiality it breeds.

Our creative relationships are often under developed, with producers, writers and directors working together in market-driven rather than discovery-driven enterprises. In doing so they are unlikely to discover what it is about each other that may or may not enhance the project. The project-by-project nature of the process and the fraught nature of life between projects denies us the time and space to discover what and with whom, best works as collaboration. Frequently, filmmaking teams come together in relationships of pure convenience, just because employment is on offer. The abiding ethos is that of getting the job done rather than discovering what is being done, why and how. We continue to rely on the taken for granted, skill driven aspects of our profession, badly neglecting the inner substance.

A job to be done

As a result, even our most widely praised and successful movies have something fundamental missing. When I saw Dirty Deeds, it had already lost its evening slots in city cinemas. At 5pm on a Saturday I was one of only a dozen people in the cinema. This seemed surprising for a film released with enormous publicity and a fair amount of critical endorsement only a few weeks previously. By the film’s end, I was no longer surprised.

An avowed attempt to make a commercial Australian movie, Dirty Deeds is in many ways a bravura piece of work, suffused with high production values and carried along by plenty of high octane yet ironic intrigue, action and cultural observation. But what is missing is a heart and soul. Nothing leads us to care about its characters. None of the incessant conflict causes a significant change in any of the characters nor provokes character-bending decisions. We may idly wonder what will happen next, but our curiosity is never heightened into a caring about anything. No amount of work by its actors can overcome the lack of anything more than the odd nod in the direction of character development. The film feels, for all its energy and skill, empty and gratuitous. If you are going to make a movie so obviously dependent on showmanship you need blockbuster resources. A car chase, a few beatings and shootings and a massacre of pigs doesn’t do the job, however acute the cinematography and the editing, however sharp the production design, however sophisticated the soundtrack. If you don’t have access to blockbuster resources, you have to dig deeper into the imagination and produce another set of entertainment values.

But pragmatism seems to have become a self-justifying ethos. Despite this film being a long time in development and the enormous commitment that went into getting it financed, it was always a job to be done rather than a truth to be discovered. It seems you can start with a pragmatic plan rather than an imaginative idea. You can slave away at a determined effort to establish yourself as something other than what has disparagingly been called a boutique filmmaker, and given the right mix of track record, credibility, collaborators and effort you can get over the financial line. Once there is confidence that the market is onside, you are able to do without what the audience desires. And this is never apparent until the audience withers and prematurely disappears. I don’t think I can overstate what damage this conflation of market and audience has done.

Success without vision

Sometimes pragmatism can be distressing. The Rabbit Proof Fence addresses an issue of fundamental and deeply troubling significance to Australians, but in a misguided fashion. Striving to create a credible story from a remarkable event, it was levered toward market endorsement by involving high profile creative collaborators. But in truth this was a vain attempt to give substance to a story of one dimensional characters, episodic encounters and almost negligible dramatic power. Only in a heart rending moment at the end of the film, when we hear from those whose experiences were used in the story, do we glimpse the deeply moving and important drama documentary struggling to emerge from inside the material. The bearing of witness and the power of testament have been forsaken, but for what? Not for the audience, but for the market.

Lantana has been much praised and much awarded and sold something like 10 million dollars worth of tickets at the domestic box office. I wish that either of the Australian features I have produced had sold half as many. With the exception of Adrian Martin, everyone seemed to like it. But despite the film’s success, I agree with Martin. The film really is glorified television, a middle class soap opera. In a cultural context where adult television of any interest comes with a foreign accent, it’s not surprising that Lantana got an audience. It obviously met the needs that most of its audience brought to it. But not everyone found that the prodigious work of its actors, its cinematographer, its editor and brilliant composer could overcome its dialogue driven, coincidence-riven narrative. Again, an opportunity seemed to have gone missing. Although praised for its adult themes and mature observations, Lantana seemed to be content with the most superficial investigations into its subject. It never crossed over into the visionary. It told us only what is already known and taken for granted in everyday discourse and in ordinary behaviour about the frailties of marriage. It never dared enter the more risky and demanding terrain of desire. Characters struggling with what they knew about themselves and each other were never more than that. What they did not know about themselves, the structure of their identities and the source of their compulsions, remained hidden and the importance of the film was to that extent reduced.

It’s important to say that my criticism of Lantana is not a criticism of this film’s success. It was a success we all in a sense needed. It’s more an attempt to demonstrate how half-baked is the discourse of ideas that runs through Australian filmmaking generally.

I hope my contribution to this conference has been more than negative. What I am offering is an imperfect but I believe important analysis of how mediocrity has been institutionalised. Only when we fully understand the relationship between what we do and how and why we do it can we hope to understand what kind of changes we need to make.


“Visions, Illusions and Delusions”, Peter Sainsbury; The Persistence of Vision: ASDA Conference, Sept 2002.

Peter Sainsbury was Director, Film Development for the AFC between 1989 and 1992. As an independent producer in Australia he produced What I Have Written (dir. John Hughes 1995), The Goddess of 1967 (dir. Clara Law 1999), and Bartleby (dir. Miro Bilbrough 2000). He is currently producing Floodhouse (dir. Miro Bilbrough).

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 15-17

© Peter Sainsbury; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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