Ray Lawrence, Jindabyne
Ray Lawrence pulled one of world cinema’s most surprising disappearing acts. His debut film, Bliss (1985), an adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel co-written by Lawrence and Carey himself, played in competition at Cannes, garnered rave reviews and dominated the Australian film awards. Lawrence joined Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and Bruce Beresford as an Australian director worthy of global attention – but then did not make another film for 16 years. However, when his sophomore effort, Lantana, finally came out in 2001, it cemented Lawrence as one of the most important and distinctive voices in contemporary cinema. The movie featured superb performances from Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and Barbara Hershey, and utilized the format of a slow-burning murder mystery to examine the emotionally dysfunctional lives of a group of people connected to the homicide.
In Jindabyne, Lawrence’s latest film, the director returns to the themes of death, guilt and emotional conflict in a transposition of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ (which was also one of the strands of Robert Altman’s 1993 Short Cuts) to a one-stop town in the Australian outback. The discovery of a young woman’s body by Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and his friends on a fishing trip leads to a schism in the local community. The lines are drawn between men and women, white and Aboriginal, as the characters are forced to face up to the ghosts of the past. Uniformly strong acting by the whole cast, Beatrix Christian’s nuanced screenplay, David Williamson’s beautiful cinematography and assured direction from Lawrence combine to make Jindabyne an powerful and affecting film, and one of the most emotionally rewarding moviegoing experiences of recent times.
Filmmaker conducted an email interview with Lawrence in which he discussed Jindabyne, his years in the wilderness, and being beaten to the punch by Altman.
Filmmaker: You had a huge success in 1985 with your first film, Bliss, but then did not make another film for 16 years. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Lawrence: Not at all. I was working on a lot of other projects but unfortunately none of them managed to get financed. There were a quite number over the years: Tracks, which was based on the book by Robyn Davison; Sweetlip, which was set it the tropical north of Australia, a murder mystery; and Machete, set on the west coast in a desert town. This story was the start of my interest in the male, female differences. They all made it to final draft.
Filmmaker: Were you only willing to make films on your own terms?
Lawrence: Yes, it’s the only way I can do it. If I am the one that instigates the idea. It’s probably a different matter if I was interested in a project that was brought to me.
Filmmaker: With the success of your recent films, do you regret the years you were inactive in filmmaking?
Lawrence: Of course.
Filmmaker: Were there many projects that you are sad you couldn’t get made?
Lawrence: Yes, it doesn’t make me happy to work on something for four years and then it doesn’t get up.
Filmmaker: When did you first read ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’?
Lawrence: ‘So Much Water’ was a story I found straight after Bliss. The book was given to me by Paul Kelly (he did the music for Lantana and Jindabyne).
Filmmaker: Why did you transpose the film to Australia?
Lawrence: Simply because I live here and know the place better than any other.
Filmmaker: Were you deterred by Robert Altman having covered the same story as part of Short Cuts?
Lawrence: Only in the sense I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it seeing he had used the story. But in another way I thought it was still possible.
Filmmaker: Can you explain the reasons behind the drowned town being in your film, and any deeper significance it has?
Lawrence: One of the things Jindabyne is, is that it is a ghost story, in the sense that it’s about things that haunt us from our past. The drowned town was a perfect metaphor of this.
Filmmaker: How much did the success of Lantana affect you professionally? Did it make this film a lot easier to make?
Lawrence: It helped a little, but not enough to make it easier or quicker between films.
Filmmaker: Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney’s characters in the film feel as if they were specially created for them. Was the script written, or altered, to accommodate them?
Lawrence: No, but they made the characters their own, as did all the other actors.
Filmmaker: Was there a specific look or storytelling style which you had in mind for the film?
Lawrence: I just want it to look like it is.
Filmmaker: There is a warning at the start of the film to certain Aboriginal tribes. Did you have to be careful what you put in the film because of them?
Lawrence: That warning should be on all media that involves Aboriginal people. They don’t necessarily want to see the image of a dead relative. It gives them the opportunity not to watch it or listen to whatever it is. I spent two years going through the protocols with the different tribes to get their cooperation and trust.
Filmmaker: Your films are very rooted in Australian-ness and a sense of their own community, although their issues and themes are universal. Are you ever tempted by offers to make movies in Hollywood, or will you continue to have Hollywood actors come to Australia for you?
Lawrence: I receive scripts from all over, not just Hollywood. I’m open to any good story as long as I can tell it in my own way. I don’t have any regrets in regards not taken any of the scripts that were offered. If they had been of interest, I would have been on board.
Filmmaker: Who are your strongest influences, both cinematic and otherwise?
Lawrence: Life itself is a pretty strong influence, but Ken Loach has always been a favorite of mine.
Filmmaker: What phrase best describes your philosophy on life? And your philosophy on film?
Lawrence: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Lawrence: Keep at it, that’s the test.
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest compliment you ever received?
Lawrence: A critic said that she felt that Jindabyne was my ‘sorry film.’
Filmmaker: And finally, should a director always take risks?
Lawrence: Of course.