Ted Kotcheff, the illustrious Canadian director, is well known for his work on several high-profile British television productions and as a director of films such as First Blood, Uncommon Valor and North Dallas Forty, Weekend at Bernies, and Rambo: First Blood. In 1971, he directed the classic Australian film Outback (Wake in Fright). It won much critical acclaim in Europe – and then was lost for more than 40 years.
The movie was found and restored. Alongside Mad Max and Walkabout, WAKE IN FRIGHT is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal films in the development of modern Australian cinema. Starring Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay and Jack Thompson, the film tells the story of a British schoolteacher’s descent into personal demoralization at the hands of drunken, deranged derelicts while stranded in a small town in outback Australia. Virtually unseen in the United States and renowned in its home country after years of neglect, WAKE IN FRIGHT is now playing select theaters in the US in October.
“The Best & Most Terrifying Film About Australia In Existence.”
AMFM:The actor that you chose to cast as the school teacher, Gary Bond, looked like Peter O’Toole there for half a second, was that on purpose?
TED KOTCHEFF: It was not done on purpose, but it has been brought to my attention many times.
AMFM: What do you want people to take away from this film?
TED KOTCHEFF: Well, I think that within everybody’s soul there is a desire for self knowledge, and sometimes i think that even unconsciously we put ourselves in situations where we can encounter ourselves and there is a shadow side to our being and during the course of this film light is cast on the shadow side of the protagonist. I think that is one of the things that attracts people. Finding people that have come to face themselves and what they are capable of and how to deal with it.
AMFM: Can we talk about the kangaroo killings and how people can suddenly debase themselves in a group situation?
TED KOTCHEFF:I talked to the Australians and they said ‘Oh! You depict us as monsters who kill all these kangaroos.’ I said ‘Now hey, no, It’s just men behaving badly. Look. I am a Canadian, every year Canadians kill seals and they kill them in the most horrible way, they hammer them over their heads. They bash their heads in for the white fur for the women to have. They kill the babies.
Every year people say we have to stop it, this it is monstrous. But they don’t stop, they still do it. And what about the Americans? They killed the bisons all over the plains of the United States. Men have been behaving badly for hundreds of years.’
I don’t believe in killing animals, for hunting or for whatever I’m just against it. I would especially not kill an animal for a film, I think that is despicable, immoral, unethical. I did not know how we were going to do those scenes at all. Then Sonya told me, ‘You know, they are killing hundreds of kangaroos every night out in the Outback.’
So I went out there, filmed it, and that is the footage that I used. It’s documentary footage that was shot with professional hunters who go out there and shoot animals. Then, they skin the them. Those nice little cuddly koala bears you give your kids for christmas? That’s their pelts. The meat from the carcass was hung in the refrigerator trucks and then sent to this country (U.S.) where it was given to the pet food companies.
Those canned meals you were giving your pets back then was kangaroo meat. Because I filmed a lot of the footage, I had the backing of the Australian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They used the footage for their purposes, showing that it was real. They told everyone that what you see on that footage is really what they are doing out there. But it had an effect, 10 or 15 years later they finally stopped the killing of kangaroos for the pet food industry in America.
AMFM: The thing about it is that the dark side of human nature is out there everyday and everywhere. To watch that horrific cruelty in your film, the glee and the wild abandonment, allowed me a glimpse into the mindset of someone who would enjoy it.
TED KOTCHEFF: You know, I was going through a rather strange phase of my life where I was disparaging about human beings. They were incorrigible. It was 1970 and the Vietnam War was going on. And then there was the threat with Russia, they were threatening each other with nuclear warfare. I thought ‘Human beings right now, because they have the H-bomb, are capable of committing suicide – if they unleash it they will kill everybody! They will kill the world. They will kill civilization. I was just disparaging, like I said, about human beings, I was very discouraged about the human race. And then I picture a lot of my despairing shows.
AMFM: Do you still feel the same way now?
TED KOTCHEFF: No I don’t, I feel much more hopeful now than I did then.
AMFM: Well, you were younger and more idealistic and now you understand that with the dark side comes a light side too.
TED KOTCHEFF:That’s exactly right.
WAKE IN FRIGHT originally made its debut at Cannes in 1971, where it earned a Palme D’Or nomination. The film made its return to the festival in 2009 courtesy of guest-curator Martin Scorsese, following the completion of a comprehensive restoration. It was there where WAKE IN FRIGHT held the honor of being one of two films to have been shown twice in the history of the festival.Believed to be lost for many years, WAKE IN FRIGHT was restored after an exhaustive decade-long search for original film elements. Fortuitously, the negative was unearthed in Pittsburgh, PA, in canisters marked for destruction just one week away from its impending incineration.
AMFM: Wake in Fright was your second feature film?
TED KOTCHEFF: No, it was my fourth. I did three films in England. I did a social comedy with James Mason and John Mills as my first film and I shot it in Tahiti. Imagine a first-time film director shooting in Tahiti. And then the second film was Life At the Top then the third one was about the racial situation in England in the ‘60s and the guy who wrote it, Evan Jones, became my best friend. He was the one that said ‘Hey, Ted, somebody has hired me in production of this book Wake In Fright by Keneth Kirk, it’s right up your alley.’ And I love it, I literally love it. And it’s because of him that I picked it up and I read it, and then I made a film out of it.
AMFM: Since then you have gone on to do all sorts of things, Weekend at Bernie’s, Uncommon Valor, and many more. When they found this film in the canister where you surprised? Were you happy or what?
TED KOTCHEFF: No, they never told me that they lost the negative, and if they told me, the little hair that I had, I would have lost it all. So they spared me the knowledge. They hadn’t told me that they lost it until they found it. You think it would be an uncommon event, but it’s not uncommon at all. People have told me many times that they had lost their negatives to their films. When they told me that they had found the negatives I then became involved in the restoration of the film which was just a process of color correction. They digitally restored the film.
When they found the negatives and all the material they had not been looked after for almost 20 years. You have to keep up and maintain film, and that’s why they burn them – because it costs money to look after negatives. When they found it there were two big boxes, completely full of negatives and positives and soundtracks and music tracks. Written on the sides of each of those boxes were the words ‘FOR DESTRUCTION’.
AMFM: Why? Did they mislabel them?
TED KOTCHEFF: No darling, they were taking up space in the warehouse.
AMFM: Didn’t they know what it was?
TED KOTCHEFF: They knew what it was, but who was interested in it? There is no interest in it. It is just taking up space. It is valueless commercially they think because it failed commercially. It was nominated for the Palm award but they didn’t give a damn. When the guy who owned it (the editor) found it – it was just one week until it was scheduled to be burned.
New York, October 5, 2012 at Film Forum;
Los Angeles, October 19, 2012 Landmark NuArt Theatre;
Nationally Oct/Nov 2012
Regional dates (adding weekly):
10/19- Los Angeles, Portland
10/26- San Francisco, Phoenix, Berkeley, Seattle, Santa Fe, New Orleans
11/2- Hartford, Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids
11/16-Philadelphia, Columbus, Denver