This is the story of how Ted Kotcheff, the Toronto-born director of such rough-and-tumble gems as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, North Dallas Forty and First Blood, found himself staring down an eight-foot, one-eyed killer kangaroo named Nelson in the middle of night in the Australian Outback in 1970.
It is also the story of how the movie that dropped Kotcheff into that circumstance, a classic of devolutionary machismo called Wake In Fright (opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday), was made, lost and found and restored to all its gamey glory.
Kotcheff, who turns 82 next week, spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
It’s a long way from Toronto to the Australian Outback. What delivered you there in 1970?
In 1969, I was living in London. At the time, there was no film industry whatsoever in Canada, nothing. You had to go abroad. A screenwriter and good friend named Evan Jones came to me and said, “I’ve been asked to write a screenplay of an Australian book, Wake in Fright, by Kenneth Cook. You ought to read it. Right up your alley. A Lost Weekend in the Outback.” And he was right. So I went to see the man who was head of a company called Group W in London. That’s how I got the job.
It’s the story of a schoolteacher who debauches himself almost out of existence over the course of a weekend in a tiny Outback town. Weren’t you concerned about it being so foreign to your own background?
I was a bit trepidatious at first about making a film about a world I knew little about. What do I know about Australia, their customs, their mores? Getting the behavioural details right is the essence of filmmaking. But when I arrived in Australia, I discovered that the Outback is that not that dissimilar to Northern Canada. The same vast, empty spaces that paradoxically are not liberating but claustrophobic and imprisoning. I used to refer to Canada as “Australia on the rocks.”
It’s a tough movie. There’s no real “hero” to speak of, there’s an extended sequence in which kangaroos are hunted from trucks mounted with guns and spotlights. What kind of reaction did it get when it was released?
When the film was released in 1971, it got a strong critical response, but the popular reaction in Australia was rather lukewarm. I think the people there were a bit affronted by the depiction of the Aussie male and what they considered a harshly critical take on the national character. But it did garner a loyal following among film critics there and in film circles. It was selected to go to the Cannes Film Festival that year and, of course, the French loved it. Men under existential stress, et cetera, et cetera. In America, it opened under the title Outback. It got good reviews, but the distributor just didn’t believe in the film at all. It opened without any publicity in a small art house film in New York on a Sunday night in a heavy blizzard, so, as you can imagine, nobody came.
Then it got lost?
In 1996, some of the Australian film critics who loved the film back in ’71 went to Bobby Limb, the Australian producer, and said, “We keep talking about this seminal film Wake in Fright, but there’s no copies of it. Where is it?” So Bobby Limb began to make inquiries. The canisters containing the original negative of the film could not be found either in Sydney or London. Then, five years ago, the retired editor of the film, Tony Buckley, found the negative in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, of all places. Over two hundred cans of negative, interpositives, internegatives, music tracks, soundtracks were in two big containers, and in big red letters on the side was painted “For Destruction.” Had he arrived only one week later, the negative would have been incinerated and gone forever.
At the end of the movie, you have a disclaimer that says that the brutal footage of the kangaroo hunt was from an actual hunt that took place and wasn’t staged. Tell me more about that.
When it came to that sequence, which is crucial to the movie, I faced a very, very tough creative decision. I would never kill animals for any film. So how was I going to do this? Then one of the members of the crew came to me and said, “They kill hundreds of kangaroos every night out in the Outback. It’s a big business. …They use it for dog and cat food. Maybe you can make contact them and get to film what they’re doing. Because they’re killing them anyway and you’re not going to stop them.” So I got in touch with a firm that kills hundreds of them every night. It’s done exactly the way it’s depicted in the film. They have a spotlight which freezes the kangaroos and they have a retractable windshield. They rest their guns on the dashboard. So I said, “Do you think I could go out in the back of the truck? Don’t you do anything for me, I’d just like to photograph what you’re doing.” I thought they’d never let me do that. But they let me and I just put a camera there and all that footage in the film.
Okay, so tell me now about the eight-foot, one-eyed killer kangaroo named Nelson.
You always need luck in making a film, and Nelson was one of the luckiest things to happen on this film. This is the scene where the actor Peter Whittle fights a wounded kangaroo mano a mano. How were we going to fake that? The producers built a huge pen the size of a football field with a high fence covered with muslin. One end of the corral opened and a local sheep rancher herded some kangaroos in. And kangaroos, they’re like Gandhi, they practise passive resistance. They just refused to fight. I asked the sheep rancher to get us kangaroos from the wild, and he came back with this huge kangaroo. Eight feet in height, the Moby-Dick of kangaroos. Some hunter had shot one of his eyes out and that’s why I gave him the name Nelson.
With good reason, Nelson hated human beings. He wanted to kill, rip apart every human being in the world. Take after take, he went after Peter, wanted to rip him to shreds. The whole crew applauded Nelson when he finished and he looked around totally baffled. We opened the gates to the corral and I said, “Nelson, you did a great job, you can go now.” He hopped a slight distance and stopped and looked back. He didn’t trust that we weren’t going to shoot him in the back. And I said, “Nelson, we love you. You can go now.” And we all waved goodbye and he disappeared into the darkness. That was that sequence. Talk about luck, to get the one kangaroo in the whole of the Australian Outback that hated human beings so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.