Interview with Fred Schepisi for THE EYE OF THE STORM

We caught up with veteran filmmaker Fred Schepisi to find our more about his latest film

There’s something rotten with the state of cinema today. Especially if you want to make small, intelligent films. Renowned Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi – promoting his fine new film, THE EYE OF THE STORM – joins Paul Byrne on his soapbox.

As with so many interesting filmmakers who’ve been around the block a few times, Fred Schepisi is finding it increasingly difficult to get his films made. And distributed. And marketed.
Having scored enormous hits with the likes of ROXANNE (1987) and A CRY IN THE DARK (1988), and critical faves with the likes of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993) and LAST ORDERS (2001), Schepisi’s latest has been waiting to reach Irish screens for almost two years now.

Having debuted at the Melbourne Film Festival on July 23rd 2011, THE EYE OF THE STORM has been making its way slowly around the world, being released first in Schepisi’s home country, Australia, in September 2011, then, three months later, for a limited run in his adopted home, Canada, before hitting Portugal in August 2012 and then the US in September. Is it any wonder the man himself is a little frustrated with the state of play in cinemas today, when a fine film – Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis playing the spoilt grown-up kids of Charlotte Rampling’s dying, cruel millionairess – can hardly make it through the box-office blizzard of superheroes and high-concept comedies?
Unsurprisingly, the 73-year-old filmmaker has plenty to say…

A well-reviewed film with a wonderful cast and a highly respected director – annoying that it’s taking quite a while for The Eye Of The Storm to reach audiences around the world?
FRED SCHEPISI: It’s extremely annoying and indicative of the decreasing number of venues that show good, intelligent movies. Distributors are always looking for simplistic marketing hooks when buying movies, so for rich, complex stories, it’s getting harder and harder to find a home. A loss for all of us who care about good filmmaking.

It’s a wonderful cast – drawn together by the script, by the great Fred Schepisi, or by the billions on offer…?
FS: I wish it was billions. We had to rely on their desire to play complex and challenging characters as the main attractor to the cast. The writing of Patrick White is the original attraction for all of us. Then an excellent, considered and clever adaptation by Judy Morris. Everybody working on the film, particularly the actors, are fans of White’s, and in particular, this book, which was the main reason he won the Nobel Prize. The actors plumbed the novel for character and dialogue gems that may have been left behind in translation to screenplay. We all knew this had to be a genuine collaboration between all of us.

These are not particularly likeable characters, on the surface – casting much-loved actors helps counter-balance that evil, or is it more to do with a good actor who’s money at the box-office?
FS: Perhaps if you see the film again, you will perceive the actor’s clever craft in taking you inside their thoughts and feelings to help you realise why they are the way they are and get you to empathise with them. That, plus good use of cinematic technique to at first make the audience feel as our characters feel as they reconnect with the other members of their family from whom they have been gladly estranged, then draw you in to understand the reason for their alienation. Situations not dissimilar to what many families go through to lesser or more degrees.

Judy was delighted to get a co-producer credit here, alongside Geoffrey, but was disappointed that it gave her no real power. Was all the power with you on this one? Or is it always with the money men?
FS: Judy in her role as actress and co-producer was able to contribute greatly to the final result. This is not a question of power but of an understanding that a work of this scale and complexity needs the full and friendly collaboration of all the creative minds involved. This was the case with Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte, the writer, the producers and myself. Being an independent film their was no interference from ‘The Money’.

What drew you in? Or did the Patrick White adaptation start with you?
FS: The initiating producer, Anthony Waddington, started all this. He had a dream of making it the first Patrick White novel to be made into a movie. It was he who brought the project to my intention and the collaboration started there.

Geoffrey Rush has said he felt right at home making this film – did you? Back in your native Australia for the first time since 1988’s CRY IN THE DARK…
FS: It was a great experience. To work in your own culture is quite exciting because you are on the very warp and weft of it. You understand all the nuances from the inside. Everybody from the crew up where so happy be working on a film of such quality that they gave everything to make it the best it could be. In every way. So it was a pleasure all the way, and nice to be able to go home at night.

It’s the first of Patrick White’s novels to be adapted to the big screen, as you say – feel any pressure to satisfy the late writer’s hardcore fans?
FS: Absolutely. We knew the pressure and the dangers. And were careful to get all the experts involved early to make sure there was nothing that we missed in terms on subtext and theme, etc. They were very helpful while also understanding that a film cannot ever be the novel. All of them were really excited with the result, I’m pleased and relieved to say.

Your daughter Alexandra does a fine job as Flora – has joining the family firm ever been a struggle for her? Not easy, sometimes, working in a parent’s shadow…
FS: Actually it’s has not been easy for her and at one stage she considered changing her professional name. We both were very aware of the dangers in her being cast in The Eye. But it was a decision I did not take on my own. She had to audition along with many others in the normal way through casting agent. Then all my creative collaborators on the film made the decision that she was by the far the best. You may notice however how careful Geoffrey R was in the sex scene. Which was perfect for the way the film was meant to be.

The flaming red hair of Alexandra, your own ginger tints, a wife called Mary, the talent, the deep understanding of the human spirit – I keep thinking there’s an Irish connection…
FS: On my mother’s side, her heritage, two generations back, was all Irish. From around Cork I believe. On My Father’s side, his mother was a Bennett from around Cork who married an Italian from Salina in the Aeolian islands.

The slowing down of the work rate over the years – four years between FIERCE CREATURES and LAST ORDERS, six years between EEMPIRE FALLS and THE EYE OF THE STORM – just the cruelty of the business, or are you less and less inspired by the business?
FS: The problem is I’m more inspired to do better and better and far more interesting films but there are fewer outlets for them every year. Less money to make them and that money doesn’t always come from solid sources – so on more than one occasion the money drops out just as you are about to go into production. Heartbreaking stuff. But that’s the way of it, these days.

You’re currently filming WORDS AND PICTURES with Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen – how goes it? Any revelations? Any Lindsay Lohan moments?
FS: No LL moments. I just finished shooting last Sunday. It has been a glorious experience. One of the best. Everybody was giving their best and in such good spirit. I think the pleasure of making it shows in the results so far.

Finally, is there anything else you want to share with the group?
FS: Yes. Please keep seeking out and supporting our kind of film. In the end they are more rewarding and because of it more relaxing then the commercial fare that deluges cinemas these days. Plus they will stay with you longer.


Words: Paul Byrne