Interview: Rolf de Heer (The King is Dead!)

Interview: Rolf de Heer (The King is Dead!). By Simon Miraudo.

Rolf de Heer is one of Australia’s most significant filmmakers, having produced such local classics as Dingo, Bad Boy Bubby, Alexandra’s Project, and The Tracker, as well as AFI Best Picture and Cannes Un Certain Regard prize winner Ten Canoes. He returns with the black comedy The King is Dead! (enthusiastic exclamation point included in the title), starring Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic as a sweet couple who unwittingly move in next door to a trio of insane criminals, headed by the eponymous King (Gary Waddell). We spoke to de Heer about the picture’s dark final act, shooting on a shoe-string budget (and in his own home), avoiding easy laughs, and how he’s defied lacklustre Australian box office expectations by not second guessing his audience.

Check out our review of The King is Dead! here.

SM: What horrible experience happened to you to inspire The King is Dead? What kind of neighbours did you have to endure?

RDH: Oh, look, I’ve had a lot of neighbours in my life. Some have been good; some have been bad. When I did Bad Boy Bubby, the general run of questions was: “Ooh, what were your parents like? What was your childhood like?” I had this wonderful childhood. And my mother is a lovely woman and she’s perfectly normal. I’m a filmmaker and this is what I do. Now, yes, I’ve had bad neighbours in my life and good neighbours in my life, and they have given me some inspiration, but equally there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s never happened to anybody.

SM: If all films were autobiographies, it’d be a very scary world indeed.

RDH: [Laughs]

SM: How about King, for instance. Was he based on anyone in particular, even in an exaggerated form? How was that character born?

RDH: I began to write a script in this sort of area, though it ended up quite different. Part of the way through, I thought, “Ah, Gary Waddell. Gary Waddell. Actor.” He came into my head for King, and he wouldn’t leave, so I just accepted it. Gary had starred in a film years, years earlier called Pure S***  – Pure S at the time – and then I’d met him a few years ago, and had spent a couple hours in a car with him, and liked him. I’d admired his performance in Pure S enormously; he was just a young man, but it was this energetic, kinetic performance. And here he was quite older, and still interesting. He’s got this wonderful noise and all this kind of stuff, so I thought, “Don’t make him go away. He’s now your King and you can play with that.” That starts to inform the character, without him being the character in any way shape or form. But it informs what you do with the character and of course the requirements of the story start to inform what you do with the character. Mostly, a character at the beginning when you start to write is different to the one you end up with.

SM: Of course. To that point, with Max and Therese, do you see bits of yourself in them, or are they just your idea of regular, good-hearted people?

RDH: They are. There’s a little bit of me in Max, there’s a little bit of me in Therese, and there’s even a little bit of me in King. That’s what this sort of writing is. For me, like, a great example is Alexandra’s Project. You have these two profoundly different people who don’t get on in any way, shape, or form. There’s quite a bit of me in each of them, but neither are like me at all. So, that’s the case here. I’m not a science teacher and I never have been; I’m not a tax accountant and I never will be. I do things differently, but some things I might look at in the same way.

SM: I got a bit of a Straw Dogs vibe from the movie. Obviously, this is a comedy. Not so much with Straw Dogs.

RDH: [Laughs]

SM: I know that films don’t necessarily have to be inspired by other movies, but were there any films that you considered during this period, that may have informed the making of The King is Dead?

RDH: No, I haven’t seen Straw Dogs. I know of it, of course, quite well, but I don’t know it as a piece. Normally what I try and do is anything but. I normally try and let go of influences, and make the piece work for what it is; what it wants to be, and not what something else might have been. If there’s any film that’s influenced it, it’s a film I admired quite a lot at the time, but it wasn’t so successful at the time. What I liked is how the tone shifted, and it gave me permission in a sense to do this sort of stuff, and it’s a film called Something Wild.

SM: Melanie Griffith?

RDH: It could be. Ray Liotta comes into it halfway through, and I can’t remember who the main bloke is… anyway, it’s worth looking up [Ed: Jeff Daniels]. It starts off quite light, but it takes a sudden turn halfway through – follows none of the formulas and none of the structures – halfway through it just goes [swoosh noise]. Takes a right angle turn and becomes vicious. That’s not what we do with King. But that’s a film I’ve thought about for a number of years, because it takes you into totally unexpected territory. To have permission to do that, in a way.

SM: That’s one of the delights of The King is Dead. Not that it takes a sharp turn, as it certainly builds to it, but the last act is definitely darker than what has come before. Was there a temptation to go the whole hog, and not have, for lack of a better term, a ‘happy ending’? To not return from the darkness?

RDH: Um, I can’t recall. With any script that I write, I write it non-linearly. It’s like a patchwork; it’s like a mosaic. Things get shifted around, with cards on the wall. 90 per cent of the writing is pencil, rubber, cardboard; the last three or five days – the last week or two weeks – is just tightening it up. I may well have had the ending before I got into the dark spot. I can’t remember, because it’s a bit too long ago, and I’ve written too many things since.

SM: As you said, you wrote it a while ago – and please correct me if I’m wrong on any of this – but I understand it sat on the shelf for some time while you moved onto other projects.

RDH: And that’s quite a normal thing; it happens to me quite a bit. I write something, and I like it, and then something happens, and I’m doing something else, and then suddenly something happens and click, click, click, it’s the time to make it.

SM: Was the realisation that you could make it on a small budget, in your home, what made it click?

RDH: Yes. It was to do with the fact that we were going to be selling our house in the next year or so, and the sudden click, click, click : “What a great idea to make it here! We can do this; we can do that. We can have the production office in the front room. We can blah blah blah wardrobe up there. We can get George to grow the grass through the shopping trolleys months before.”

SM: This is your neighbour.

RDH: Yep, neighbour on that side. “We could get our other neighbour to do this, and make this fun thing together. Not only is it very economical, but because it’s economical, we have a bit of extra time to shoot and you can get good quality whatever.” I always thought it was a fun script; if we maybe got a good cast for it… you know? Click, click, click: let’s go do it.

SM: Does that alleviate pressure when it comes to the box office for its cinema release?

RDH: Uh, I don’t know what you mean.

SM: There are a lot of box office expectations on Australian films…

RDH: [Laughs] Simon, Simon….

SM: Don’t misread me. Don’t misread me.

RDH: The expectations on Australian films is that they’ll fail at the box office.

SM: And that’s my meaning. Sadly.

RDH: It is.

SM: The fact that it’s a very small project, do you feel less pressure in terms of that negative stereotype?

RDH: I never worry terribly much about it, OK? It’s not that I’m not concerned about trying to get investors returns, because I think I’m more responsible about that than most people are, but I know you can’t second guess the audience. Don’t even try. I also know that you can make a very good film, and it can be seen by a lot of people, and you can make a very good film and have it seen by almost no one. You can make a very good film that no one sees, and you can make a very bad film that a lot of people see. There seems to be no direct correlation between who sees what and how good it is.

SM: No one has figured out the formula yet, unfortunately.

RDH: Very fortunately, I think. It’s more interesting that way, otherwise it’s like making baked beans. Well, they have to an extent, because most American tentpoles work with audiences. Not all, but most. So, all I know what to do – well I know how to do a bit more than that – but what I set out to do is create a work that I think will work for an audience. Not the same audience every time, but if it works for me, then OK. All I can do is try to make that film work as best I can for a reasonable amount of money; meaning that it gives good value for money. Because, look, people talk about “commercial” films; in my mind, a “commercial” film is one that has a chance to make its money back. We could go out and shoot a film together of 90 minutes of grass growing; it may cost us $50 to make…

SM: Oh, we only need to sell a few tickets!

RDH: At $15  ticket, we can make a s***load of money! It’s a very commercial piece of work. That’s part of the thinking. I don’t let it pressure me, because I know you can get it wrong if you do. My track record is OK. It’s not fantastic, but it’s OK. One Australian film in seven, I think – throw away anything American or Bollywood – about one film in seven breaks even. If you get two out of fourteen… hey, I think I’ve got three that have broken even, and two have gone into profit. Well, that’s doing OK.

SM: I’m glad to hear that. Going back to the shoot, how many days was it all in?

RDH: Seven weeks; 35 days.

SM: Is that including the studio time for the final act?

RDH: Yeah, the whole lot. But it felt much more generous than that, because we had the three houses next to each other (that was the neighbours and ours) and we could shoot anytime we wanted. We just left the equipment there; it was like one location. Normally you’re hopping around from location to location; you pack up and everything else. The only other location was the studio for two weeks. So you have a lot more shooting time than normal in those seven weeks. For a film of this budget, it’s four or five weeks maximum, and generally more locations. In that sense, it allowed us to take our time to find the good performances.

SM: That sounds liberating. But, with any film shoot, there are obstacles. Was there a particularly bad day on set, or a moment or scene that you struggled to nail down?

RDH: No, no, no, because we never felt that sort of pressure. Inherent within that way of shooting, especially if you shoot largely in sequence, and there was no reason for us not to shoot in sequence, because it’s all about how you schedule it, and make sure the actors are around.

SM: In that three house radius.

RDH: So, if there was something that happened that I wasn’t sure about, I’d look at it, put it together, and say, “No, no, no, let’s shoot it again.” That particularly was with humour. The difficulty is holding the tone.

SM: It can be tricky if you’re doing it out of sequence.

RDH: It can be. It’s tricky anyway, with humour, because there are easy laughs available. There is one particular sequence where Max goes out to paint [King’s] fence at night. Now, we shot that, and it was very funny. He had a different costume on, and it was very funny. But in the end, it was the wrong sort of funny. The sequence now is still quite funny,, but not nearly as funny as it was, but it sits in the film perfectly well. Whereas, the other way of doing would have been a cheap laugh. Everyone would have laughed, OK? But the film as a whole…

SM: You never come back from that.

RDH: You never come back from that.

The King is Dead is now showing in most Australian cinemas, expanding on July 19, 2012. 

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