Interview: Fred Schepisi and Alexandra Schepisi (The Eye of the Storm)

Interview: Fred Schepisi and Alexandra Schepisi (The Eye of the Storm). By Simon Miraudo.

It has taken thirty-eight years for Australian author Patrick White’s tome The Eye of the Storm to hit cinemas. Not just anyone could have been trusted with one of the Nobel Laureate’s signature novels, however. Enter another Aussie icon to do his work justice: director Fred Schepisi, the man who has delivered such classics as The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, as well as acclaimed comedies Roxanne and Six Degrees of Separation. The darkly comic film stars Charlotte Rampling as dying matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, whose children, Basil (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy (Judy Davis), visit her deathbed in the hopes of burying the ghosts of their past (and try to secure their inheritance at the same time). Schepisi’s daughter, Alexandra, also stars as Elizabeth’s sweet but manipulative nurse Flora. I spoke with the father-daughter duo about the “super awkwardness” of auditioning for your dad, the DVD-release status of Evil Angels, and the future projects in Fred’s pipeline, including the long-gestating drama The Last Man and a movie in which Steve Carell teaches his dog to speak.

SM: This is based on a Patrick White novel, obviously. Tell me how long you’ve both been familiar with the book and what kind of relationship you have with it.

Alexandra: I was completely new to the book. I read the book after I had read the script, and after I got the role. It’s the first Patrick White I’d ever read and I loved it.

Fred: I was completely new to the book. They came and asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, ‘Well, actually, I don’t know it. But I have a question for you: Patrick White – why?’ Because people have tried to get [his 1957 novel] Voss made, and other Patrick White films made and they’ve never been able to do it.

SM: I was going to say. It’s been almost forty years since this one was written. Do you have a theory as to why it’s taken so long and been so hard to adapt?

Fred: Well, it’s because he’s not straight-forward, narratively. He goes off into musings; internal musings, external musings. He gets quite surreal; he goes from past-tense to present tense, and within sentences, not just in a scene. But if you dig into it and get inside it, it’s really fantastic. But in terms of translating that to film, it’s not obvious that that could be a good thing. So, Anthony Waddington – the guy who had the rights to it – told me why, and I thought, ‘That seems pretty interesting. I better go read it’. I’d read some other Patrick Whites, but not that one. I started there.

SM: So by the time the project had been brought to you, had the screenplay been written at all? Did you get to work with [screenwriter] Judy Morris on that?

Fred: They originally wanted me to write it; I didn’t feel enough inside the material to do that. I had a lot of other stuff on, so I thought I would just hold things up. And I suggested Judy Morris because she’s an actress. Patrick White says we’re all actors. She knew Patrick White a little bit. She knows Patrick White’s world very well. She knows Sydney very well, and that time period is when she was getting her scraps. She seemed like an ideal candidate and she had a real commercial touch, having done Happy Feet and Babe [Pig in the City]. I thought, ‘It would be good to bring a commercial sensibility to it too’.

SM: Was there any aspect of the book that you had trouble translating for the screen? Even when you were filming, or editing. Was there anything you couldn’t quite nut out?

Fred: Oh look, it’s a constant thing. I think getting the ‘storm’ story right took a number of passes. Quite a number of passes. But, you know, a film is organic, and once you start doing something, another thing changes. And sometimes when you’re doing it, it gives you clues to a better way of doing things. Or, in the case of the storm sequence, it actually gave us clues as to the right way to do it. It’s ongoing. We would have done four or five drafts; then when all the actors got involved, we encouraged them all to read the book, because there’s a lot of internal musings for each character, so you can really find out exactly what Patrick White’s intentions are for the characters. And there might be little lines of dialogue or little threads of character stuff that were better than what we ended up selecting. Because – well [Alex] can speak better to this than me –an actress can see something from a far more specific point of view than you can in the overview; so we encouraged them to do that.

SM: Alexandra, I understand you’re a writer and director in your own right. Tell me about getting involved in the film. Was it a case of you approaching your dad and saying, ‘I want to take on this role’…

Alexandra: [Laughs]

SM: Or the other way around? I can understand that being – not a conflict of interest, by any means – but there being an awkwardness around that.

Alexandra: Yeah, super awkwardness. I don’t think you’re too far off the mark saying ‘conflict of interest’ either. It is potentially a very risky step for both of us to take. I was out shopping for a dress for my heavily pregnant bridesmaid for my forthcoming wedding and I got a call – so I was all scatterbrained – and I got a call from my agent to audition for the film. And I said, ‘What, dad’s film?’

SM: Had the dots not been connected by them at this point?

Alexandra: No! I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ I hadn’t heard anything from dad, and I didn’t know much about the story at this point either. So I was quite taken aback and felt really uncomfortable. And so I went through the normal audition process, and I did two auditions. I actually didn’t think I was gonna get the role. Something dad had said to me after my second audition, I felt like it was his way of letting me down gently; that I wasn’t quite right for the role. I kind of gave up on it, but then I got it.

SM: Tell me about the vibe on the set. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t your son [Nick Schepisi] assistant director?

Fred: Third assistant director.

SM: Third assistant. So tell me about the dynamic there. Working with family, but also on this big production. It’s still a film. Is that something you could ease into comfortably?

Fred: We nearly had another one, but she had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Alexandra: Yeah, that’s true. One of my sisters almost worked on the film as well. It was surprisingly easy. Yeah, it really was. It’s kind of nice for us to be able to exist in our professional roles around each other, and it worked. Thank God! [Laughs]

SM: Fred, I know it’s been almost a decade since your last film, and about twenty years since Evil Angels. By the way, are you aware it’s not available on DVD in Australia?

Fred: No, I’m not.

SM: Yeah, that’s definitely a shame. And something hopefully that changes soon.

FS: I wonder why. The rights to that are pretty complicated. Because it was started by Canon, which bought out Pathé, but the Canon partnership split up, then Pathé was bought out by MGM. Then Pathé split from MGM. And Warner Bros were half involved as well. So probably the reason is, no one knows who’s got it!

SM: That’s definitely a shame though, when films can get lost in that struggle. It’s been a little while since your last movie, and it’s not that you’ve not been trying to get them made. I understand you almost had a movie up in 2008 called The Last Man.

Fred: It’s not 10 years since I’ve done a film.

SM: Was it, It Runs in the Family?

Fred: After that I did a film for HBO.

SM: Ah, Empire Falls. Of course, sorry.

Fred: And that was done as a film, not as a mini-series. But they kept trying to turn it into a mini-series [laughs] but it was done as a film.

SM: Fair enough; thanks for correcting me on that. Can you tell me what happened to The Last Man in 2008?

Fred: Yeah, we just got the money three times; the last time was from an Italian industrialist. And two days before putting the money in, he decided he wasn’t doing it. He had invited us down to witness the putting in of the money and the signing of the contract, but then two days before he said ‘I’m not doing it’. Weird.

SM: Do you think that project will ever come to fruition? I know you’ve got a few on your plate. There’s The Drowner, and Geoffrey Rush has mentioned The Drowsy Chaperone.

Fred: Yep, and we’re developing Kate Grenville’s novel Secret River. I have a hitchhiking picture; a thing called Words and Pictures in the States.

Alexandra: A really light load of filmmaking then.

SM: Yeah! An easy kind of couple of years ahead of you.

Fred: And I have a really weird script that Steve Carell’s involved in. Real weird. Really good. Really good. I thought it was a comedy actually. I was laughing out loud. I must remember where that laugh was…

SM: That wouldn’t happen to be the one where he talks to his dog?

Fred: Uh, no. Uhh…

SM: Where he tries to teach his dog to speak?

Fred: Oh, yeah.

SM: Because I’ve heard he’s producing that film.

Fred: Yeah yeah yeah.

SM: Maybe no more can be said.

Fred: Yeah, don’t say any more, because I don’t have it. The script was sent to me, and I’m going to try to get to see him and get it done.

Alexandra: But the answer to that question is The Last Man is still sitting there waiting to get financed. So it may happen yet.

Fred: We’re taking another run at it.

SM: Good, I’m glad. Alexandra, what’s next for you?

Alexandra: I’m making my second short film at the moment. I’m shooting a film called Lois with Jacki Weaver in it, and we’re completing that in September in Greece.

The Eye of the Storm arrives in Australian cinemas September 15, 2011.

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