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John Duigan

Articles - Directing

Of the 1970s and 1980s
Australian New Wave filmmakers, no one comes as close to transcending
the boundaries of that auspicious moniker, "Australian," as
writer-director John Duigan. He is the one filmmaker who opted
to stay home at the time and make movies in Australia while Bruce
Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and even Gillian Armstrong
defected to the lure of the Hollywood golden dream. Duigan consistently
stood his ground and viewed life through his unique perspective.
Outside of Romero, which was shot in Mexico and Wide Sargasso Sea
in Jamaica, Duigan prevailed at presenting the stranger in a strange
land even on his own turf. Born in England and raised as an Air
Force brat in Malaysia, Duigan settled in Melbourne where he became
involved with the LaMaMa theatre troupe and began to make films.
After a move to Sydney, which was instrumental in his creative
growth, he moved back to England.

On this early, rainy Seattle morning, one gets the
sense that Duigan would rather be sleeping than talking. But his
is a remarkably articulate and thoughtful interview, able to effortlessly
put into decisive terms his thoughts and ideas.

He is here to discuss his first American venture,
The Journey of August King, which stars Jason Patric and Duigan
discovery Thandie Newton. They play two damaged souls who meet
in the Carolinas when a slave (Newton) runs away from her sadistic
master, seeking refuge — and freedom — with a guilt-bearing frontiersman
(Patric) who cannot overcome the pain of his wife’s death. With
a resume that is overwhelming in its ability to define and create
home wherever he might happen to be, Duigan can boast about such
personal-vision films as Winter Of Our Dreams, which featured a
then relatively unknown Judy Davis, as well as Far East, The Year
My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens and Wide Sargasso Sea.

Duigan’s most distinctive trademark is his ability
to create a natural extension of the geography. His characters
have a fragile place in the landscape; they seem to be passing
briefly through enroute to a new plateau of self-enlightenment.
Duigan told me that, "hopefully the films taken together articulate
some kind of philosophical position on a range of areas, particularly
ethical and moral. Certainly the identification to the land is
very important to me. When they’d come around with the census in
Australia and say name your religion, I’d say pantheism. But it’s
something that stems back to when I was young and I would be wandering
around the countryside. I would feel certain things I never heard
people talk about or describe. Later on in life, coming across
some of the views by aboriginal or other indigenous people, that
sense of wonder and of a tangible interaction with the brute reality
of the land became a common human experience. It’s just that our
layers of civilization tend to divide us from it. I try in my films
to evoke this, sometimes explicitly, sometimes organically within
the piece. That certainly was an element of The Journey Of August
King. Jason Patric’s character actually talks of the mountains
being alive; you cut them and blood flows out of them. That was
part of its appeal as a project, although it’s a substantially
more internal journey of two vary damaged characters going through
an evolution of trust. They will probably only understand it retrospectively."

Thandie Newton, Kym Wilson and Naomi
Watts in Flirting.

When I mention that his male characters often
feel laconic or enigmatic, that they are initially more passive than
their female counterparts who move about the stillness and make the
action happen, Duigan noted that, "It’s a reflection of the
time we live in at the moment. Women have been going through enormous
changes, analyzing their roles, analyzing all aspects of themselves
in relations with men and with each other. So they’ve been in a state
of active flux. Men have been reactive to this. They’ve not undergone
anything as soul-searching. Moreso, I think it’s the very male quagmire
of dealing with the emotional side of life which is so much at odds
with whatever facet of machismo that is present in any cultural male
stereotype. My films are a reflection of that dynamic. There is a
degree more emotional fluency in the female characters. They are
often wrestling with that sort of nexus of problems that result from
the repression of emotional expression."

Duigan has been instrumental in his discovery of
new faces — Noah Taylor in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting;
Nicole Kidman in Flirting; Thandie Newton in Flirting and The Journey
Of August King. I ask him what spark he sees in the casting process
when he comes across an unknown talent. After pondering a moment
he notes "it isn’t something I analyze. I take the time to
work with them and then they’ll spring off the screen for me. You
just know within yourself that these people have some element of
life in them. Occasionally I come across people in life who I think
would be fantastic as actors."

As for crew, Duigan likes to use the same one he
used before, if possible. It ties into his eternal search for extended
family and familiarity. He "took five or six key people over
to Mexico for Romero and to Jamaica for Wide Sargasso Sea. On The
Journey Of August King that wasn’t feasible. They were completely
new so it was slightly daunting not having anybody I’d worked with
before. Apart from Thandie, actually. That was nice to have her
there. It was a very hard shoot and we only had 40 days. It was
a very complicated film, particularly from the location point of
view. We had to use all our ingenuity to do it in seven weeks,
particularly because it rained for 35 of the 40 days. But the crew
had worked on independent films of all sorts, so their expectations
were similar and it sort of gelled together very well."

Light, too, maintains a standing as a character in
a Duigan movie. I tell him he seems to have a painter’s temperament
and sensibility. He laughs, noting he loves painting but is totally
incompetent at it. "But I love going to galleries like the
Tate in London. I evolve a look with the cinematographer from the
start. We work together with the production designer and pick very
specific key colors for each film. The production designer will
make sure the costumes and sets stay in that key. I leave the lighting
to the cinematographer and I only raise something if it seems we
won’t achieve a particular look in the scene. I can then concentrate
on working with the actors on the actual shoot. The decisions made
beforehand will enable them to prepare for each scene well in advance." I
ask if he opts for a certain reference point in his films. Sirens,
I mention, feels influ-enced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Duigan concedes
that "he keeps a notebook for each film and puts notes or
photographs or postcards into it. In Sirens, as it was about a
painter, I took one or two compositions from his work and some
compositions from the Pre-Raphaelites, you’re quite right. Ophelia
was one we deliberately were evoking, when she lies back and there
are flowers in the water around her. It’s my favorite scene."

When it’s nearly time to end the discussion, I ask
how autobiographical he wrote the character of Danny in The Year
My Voice Broke and Flirting. He smiles and concludes enigmatically, "To
some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities
on various things, but i’ts not strictly speaking autobiographical,
except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely
different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar.
I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give
them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had."

He laughs, noting, "Like meeting Thandie Newton
at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography
because you can do anything." MM

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