Parents should never have to bury their young, and artists should never outlive their greatest works. Fortunately for Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, his masterpiece, the 1971 dramatic thriller Wake in Fright, survives despite a near-death experience. The negatives of his critically lauded but financially disappointing film received an incineration death sentence decades after copies of it disappeared and everyone involved in its production lost track of it. Saved by the efforts of a devoted few, and given the Cannes Film Festival's "Cannes Classic" title by department head (and longtime fan) Martin Scorsese, the story of a man discovering his inner beast in the wild Australian Outback has finally received the recognition that it deserves.
With Wake in Fright now playing at NYC's Film Forum, Complex spoke with Kotcheff about this film's life-and-death journey, impressive Australian drinking habits, the controversial kangaroo hunt, the violence in all men, and the enduring appeal of his films First Blood (the first Rambo movie) and Weekend at Bernie's.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
How does a film, especially one as good as Wake in Fright, nearly get lost forever?
I’m just as astonished as you are. People have worked so hard to create the negative, spent a lot of money—how could you discard it? That’s a valuable asset. But it happens a lot more often than you think. My experience is not an isolated occurrence.
What happened in your case?
In 1971, I finished making Wake in Fright and it was released in Australia. Critics gave it very good reviews, but the audiences didn’t show up. I think people were offended by the unsympathetic depiction of the Aussie male. It did lukewarm business.
Then it went to Cannes and the French loved it. They love films with men dealing with existential stress. The only place where the film had commercial success was in Paris; it ran for nine months.
When it came to America, distributed by United Artists, they didn’t believe in the film at all. They didn’t think American audiences would come see this film, so they opened it, with no publicity whatsoever, in one small theater on the East Side of Manhattan on a Sunday night in a heavy blizzard. And guess what? No one came. [Laughs.] They said, “We told you no one would come.” I always loved American distributors for their self-fulfilling prophecies. [Laughs.]
When pictures don’t succeed, no one cares if the negative gets lost. No one worries about it because they think someone else will and it will exist, but they’re wrong. There were no prints in existence and 25 years went by.
How were the negatives of your film eventually recovered?
Some of the critics who liked the film originally asked the Australian producers for a copy to show in film schools, and they had no copies, so they tried to find the negative. They couldn’t find it in New York, couldn’t find it in London, where it had been processed, and couldn’t believe that it disappeared. It seemed to have disappeared totally. He hyperbolically described it as a "national disaster."
Chips Rafferty would drink at least 20 pints every day, never got inebriated, and never slurred a word. His countenance didn’t change at all, from morning to night. Australians drink so much, their whole system just hardens.
Another 10 years go by, and this time, Tony Buckley, who edited the film, made it a personal challenge to go and find it. At his own expense, he flew from Australia to London to check with the people who had processed it. They said they sent it to America but couldn’t remember where. He went to Dublin, where he’d heard there was a print, but that wasn’t true, and then he went to New York.
He took all these trips over two years and finally he tracked it down to a warehouse in Pittsburgh. There were two huge boxes full of Wake in Fright negatives and soundtracks. On the boxes, in big red letters, it read: FOR DESTRUCTION. He ascertained that if he’d arrived a week later they would have been incinerated and no longer existed.
What condition were the negatives in?
They hadn’t been looked after for 35 years and they were ripped, torn, faded, damaged. Another person who loved the film worked in Sydney at the Deluxe film laboratory and he set about digitally restoring the film, which took him two years of his own time. He digitally restored the film frame by frame and produced the most amazing print of the film, much better than the one that we had originally in 1971.
What were your emotions when you thought your film might have been lost?
No one told me that the negative was lost. They didn’t dare. They only told me after they had found it. I’m glad, because I would’ve lost all of my hair, and I haven’t got much left. [Laughs.] It would’ve been a knife in my back.
Acting drunk and acting crazy aren’t easy, and there’s a lot of both in the film. How did you and your cast manage such realism?
Chips Rafferty, who played the town policeman Jock Crawford, was an Australian film star, and obviously he does a lot of drinking in the film. He pours a whole pint of beer back and orders another one, repeatedly. The first day we’re shooting, he tastes the beer and says, “Ted, this is fake beer! This is non-alcoholic!” I said, “I may do six to seven takes of every setup. Are you gonna drink 20 pints a day?” He said, “You leave it to me, but I can’t drink this fake beer. I just can’t make it credible. I want real beer.” I said OK. He’d drink at least 20 pints every day, never got inebriated, and never slurred a word. His countenance didn’t change at all, from morning to night. It was amazing! Australians drink so much, their whole system just hardens.
Now, my friend Donald Pleasence, he could act all of it, but there was one scene, after the kangaroo hunt, where his character Doc Tyden drinks a lot of whiskey and makes a philosophical speech and afterwards goes crazy and smashes up the front of the pub with a chair. Donald said, “Ted, I don’t think I can do this scene sober.” I said, “Come on, Donald! You’re one of the greatest actors in the world! Of course you can do it sober.” He said, “You need that mad, demonic quality, and it’s so hard to act that. I need alcoholic inspiration.” I said, “Just do it.”
We shot the scene [sober] and the next day I looked at the dailies and I apologized to Donald. I said, “You were absolutely right. You need to drink for this scene.” [Laughs.] We re-shot the whole scene. That’s the only scene he played drunk. It’s an amazing performance. He knew how to use the alcohol as fuel for that madness.