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Making a Rabbit-proof Fence

Hunter Cordaiy talks to Christine Olsen

Christine Olsen Christine Olsen
Christine Olsen’s documentary production credits include Riding the Tiger and the award-winning Hepzibah. Her screenplay for Rabbit-proof Fence is an adaptation of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book about her mother’s story, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence. For Olsen this a double first—a feature film as co-producer and her first screenplay.

Rabbit-proof Fence is an adaptation from a book. To write the script you were confronted with one text and then had to turn it into another—can you describe how that process worked?

I knew that the book would provide the story for the film—it seemed to me to be a classic story; 3 little girls taken away from their homes decide to run away and walk back home. A very simple structure, and I think these stories make the best films.

So it was the journey which you saw as being classic?

It was like a classic fairy story actually, even down to the number 3, which you quite often find in fairy stories—3 sisters, 3 brothers, 3 witches—and it was about 3 little girls stolen from their home by the wicked witch and taken to her house where everyone is under a spell, and it’s a spell of forgetting. The longer you are in the house the stronger the spell becomes. It was imperative for the girls to get away as fast as they could before they fell under that spell.

This is the first screenplay I’ve ever written and now, looking back on it, the process of writing is the process of finding out what that story really is…and what you have to do is find out what that story is within you, why is it that you are completely obsessed…being completely taken over in your mind…constantly making notes, having thoughts about it at the kitchen sink, and why that strength of story carried you through 3 or 4 years of writing.

At various points I thought I knew what the story was—yes, this is what the story is, it’s a classic fairy story—you keep working on it and then you think…maybe this is an escaped prisoner story, a world war story; this is a script about a land taken over by invaders, they’re now reaching far into the hinterland and are stealing the children and taking them back into their own territory to train them as domestic slaves. The children escape as in any prisoner of war story and make their way home through enemy-occupied territory. Then this becomes a layer within the story. I think when I finished the script I knew this was film about home and what home means.

From there you developed the script and you weren’t necessarily being faithful to that original text?

Not at all…I felt completely free to do whatever I wanted with this story…there’s very little drama in the book and I didn’t know how to make a film about 3 little girls walking along a fence…But the moment I realised that the central idea is an argument between Molly and Mr Neville—who said ‘I know what is best for you’ and Molly says no, ‘I know what’s best for me’—I had my dramatic argument.

And it gave the script a voice that was different from the book?

Yes, I think it’s quite different.

How did you come to that conclusion?

The book was told very quietly, almost passively, and I knew instinctively that I actually had to work out why this film was important to me, why it obsessed me, and what drove me…

This suggests that writers must engage with a story on a very deep and personal level in order to sustain the vision.

Absolutely, otherwise…there won’t be any lasting interest. If a story is going to reverberate with people, that’s where it must come from...there’s something there that is universal, the extreme becomes the general.

So the process involves a couple of years of writing, and then you send the script off to Phil Noyce in LA and wait…How do you keep the writer’s obsession with the project over that length of time?

I did heaps of research…historical research. I went to Perth, I read everything I possibly could about the Stolen Generations. I knew that the key to this was actually going up to Jigalong and spending time there, and until I had nailed down Molly and Daisy I was going to be writing a white person’s film based on the whites in the film…I always thought I knew those people…they are our grandparents…they’re my family but I didn’t know the little girls.

I’m very proud of the way we handled the Indigenous issues in the film, consulted with the Jigalong people. We were very careful to take notice of their concerns, and their major concern was who would be playing Mardu people on screen. That process has enriched the film and it’s been such a positive thing to have done…it’s easy…it’s important to tell people it’s not hard to do this properly…you just have to listen.

Is there something about the production process that threatens or supports the holding of this writer’s vision?

One of the things I did was to be co-producer…and this meant that I was there the whole way through…

And normally writers aren’t, are they?

No, but because I had my experience as a documentary producer I was determined to have a creative input. And one of the things that happened that was vital to this whole process was that in June 2000, when Phillip had committed to the project, we spent 10 days working on the script.

When you worked with the director did you make substantial changes?

I think what happened was that we heightened the story…he was always saying ‘take it as far as it can go and if it’s too far we’ll pull it back’…that was his mantra. And also because he is such an experienced director he could say what we didn’t need and how things could be done…it was an immense learning curve.

In the last shot of the film we see 2 of the women whose story it is, and you suddenly come out of the fiction to living people…was that abrupt change always in the script?

Yes…in a sense that image says it all…we are still here and living in this land…what’s happening is that you’re confronted with a multitude of emotions at the end of the film and the lasting one is that these people have survived.

Rabbit-proof Fence, writer Christine Olsen, director Phillip Noyce, distributor Becker Entertainment, currently screening nationally. See p15 for Jane Mills’ commentary on the film and Darlene Johnson’s ‘making-of’ documentary.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 16

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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