Ted Kotcheff on Wake in Fright
The thrill of finding new movies to champion motivate the film fan, your humble scribe. Especially when said film is from the past, and not the latest flavor of the week. Such a film is Wake in Fright, a 1971 Australian movie that launched the Aussie renaissance of movies that included Walkabout and culminated later in that decade with Mad Max.
Ted Kotcheff, perhaps better known for films like First Blood, North Dallas Forty, Weekend At Bernie’s, was attracted to Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel due to its uncompromising look at the Australian Outback and the people who live there. Only after a brief domestic release Wake in Fright disappeared and was considered a lost film. “It was exciting, even miraculous, but after 38-years the film rose from the dead,” Kotcheff tells Free Press Houston in an exclusive interview. Wake in Fright’s editor Anthony Buckley literally located a copy of the film in a warehouse in Pittsburgh just days before it was scheduled for incineration.
Wake in Fright follows repressed schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) who goes on a vacation in the Outback that takes him into the darkest recesses of his moral center. Arriving in the town of Tiboonda, what the locales refer to as The Yabba, Grant rapidly loses all his money in a game of Two-Up and stumbles through an alcoholic haze egged on by a society of men who drink and hunt with vengeance.
“We shot in Broken Hill, a mining town,” says Kotcheff. “During our location scout we found a bar in the middle of nowhere. It had a 30-foot beer bottle sign on top. This is a very closed society, women are not allowed in the bars, they mingle outside while their men drink.” The bar was surrounded by cars driven by the miners who were all inside imbibing libations and blowing off steam. The location scout advised Kotcheff not to go inside but rather to wait for the next day when the place would be empty. Undaunted Kotcheff went in. “I had hair down to my elbows and a handlebar moustache. I walked up to the bar and the entire place became as silent as a tomb. These men would just as soon fight as drink. One fellow next to me kept calling me Stalin. I guess he thought that was an appropriate term for a hippie. I finally said ‘I’d love to talk to you but I can’t because I’m dead.’ It took him a couple of seconds to process what I’d said, and then he burst out in laughter. ‘I like a bloke with a sense of humor’ he said loudly. I incorporated that line in the film, we hear the sheriff played by Chips Rafferty say that to Bond,” laughed Kotcheff.
Grant, having lost his savings and with a single dollar in his pocket finds himself living in a shack with a heavy drinking doctor played to perfection by Donald Pleasence. Personally I’ve always admired the solid characterizations of Pleasence’s roles from The Great Escape to Cul-de-sac to THX1138, and of course his horror output in the ‘80s, but his acting in Wake in Fright registers off the charts; after seeing WIF I consider his turn as Doc Tydon to be his career defining role. “Donald and I were friends,” states Kotcheff. “There’s a scene after the kangaroo hunt where the men get really drunk and Donald has this Socrates speech. He told me after we shot it that he had to do it over. ‘I can’t do this scene sober’ he told me. After seeing the dailies I agreed with him and we shot it again the next night. Donald gave the speech a mad demonic quality that I really think was amazing.”
The kangaroo sequence includes footage shot of licensed hunters killing kangaroos at night. Despite its graphic nature the same footage was first shown to animal advocacy groups who approved its use in WIF and years later used portions of the footage in a campaign that resulted in the prevention of killing kangaroos (the meat of which was used for American pet food). The hunting footage is expertly cut between close-ups of the men, prop carcasses, and shots where the actors wrestled with actual kangaroos that’d been herded into a pen for filming. “Our wranglers herded the kangaroos into a area the size of a football field,” recalls Kotcheff. “There was one that was the Moby Dick of kangaroos. I called him Lord Nelson because he was missing one eye. They’re very intelligent animals, and they’re scary big.”
Wake in Fright opened in New York last week, opens in Austin this weekend and will roll out to several more cities in the next month. Kotcheff offers a strong thematic visual sense by constantly returning to the motif of a lone light bulb that shines over the characters. The Two-Up game is played where coins with a cross drawn on the tail are tossed and you bet heads or tails. At one point Kotcheff shot at three times the normal frame rate for slow motion shots of the coins in mid-air. John Scott’s score evokes the desolation of the characters even weaving in occasional tones of a didgeridoo. The majority of beer consumed onscreen was non-alcoholic, but Kotcheff notes that Chips “insisted on drinking real beer. We shot eight takes and he drank a pint every time and never once slurred. I always thought I knew how to handle a beer but these guys could drink me under the table every time.”
— Michael Bergeron