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.
Wake in Fright speaks to the darkness that lurks within all men, but did you find that Australian men differed in any significant way from American or Canadian men?
People point to the shooting of the kangaroos but Americans wiped out the buffalos! They hunt and kill wolves! In northern Canada, they hit seals, crushing their skulls, instead of shooting them because they don’t want to damage their furs, which they sell very profitably for women’s coats. So brutality is not limited to Australia.
One thing that was interesting in Australia was the amount of fighting; people like to fight as well as drink. In the town where we shot, Broken Hill, men outnumbered the women three to one, and there were no brothels. My explanation is that the lack of female presence made the men crazy.
When I made this film I looked like a 1960s hippie. I had a handle-bar mustache, my hair was down to the middle of my arms. Guys always wanted to fight me. I’d say, “No, I’ve got no quarrel with you,” and they would stick their jaw in my face. If I took one strike I’d break their jaw. I rapidly discerned that they didn’t want to hit me, they wanted me to hit them. They were so desperate for human touch, and hitting was the easiest way of getting touched without indulging in homosexual behavior. This is my theory anyway of why the fighting was so prevalent.
What were the logistics of the infamous kangaroo hunt? How did you manage to get those amazing, brutal shots?
I am very against the killing of animals. I have never understood the pleasure that people take in shooting a living creature and killing it. When I was faced with one of the climatic scenes of the teacher’s degradation, I said, “How am I going to do this?” While I was pondering, one of my crew members told me, “Ted, they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night. They bring up these great refrigerator trucks, and six pairs of hunters in state trucks go off in different directions and they kill 10, 12 kangaroos and they bring them back and skin them for their pelts and then they hang the carcasses in the refrigerator.” I said, “To what end?” He said, “They’re shipped to America for the pet food industry.” I said, “You’ve got to be joking. All the cats and dogs in America are fed on kangaroo meat?” And he said, “Yes, it’s a very lucrative business.”
I went up to one of these refrigerator trucks and I spoke to a pair of hunters and I got my camera and I said, “I’ll ride on the back of your truck, shooting over the cab, and you go on with your business.” They were very accommodating. That is basically how I did it. I also did little visual tricks, like I would zoom in on a close-up of a kangaroo, and I’d say “Jump!” and he would jump out of frame and it would look like a bullet had hit him.
Some of the footage that I shot was so repulsive, heinous, and bloody that there was no way I could even use it.
What was your experience riding with the hunters during their hunt?
The hunters were great marksmen. One of them asked me, “Where do you want us to shoot them? We can shoot them in the kidneys, the heart, or the brain.” I said, “What’s the difference? You’re killing them.” He said, “If you shoot them in the kidneys they drop dead on the spot; if you shoot them in the brain they take the most unbelievable leap up into the air and then come crashing to the ground; and if you shoot them in the heart they take three hops and then they die.” My blood turned cold with horror. [Laughs.] I said, “Look, don’t do anything for me, just get on with your job.”
From 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. they were killing with great efficiency. Suddenly, around two in the morning, they started to miss and wound the animals. It was horrendous. The kangaroos were rolling around on the ground, and they were chasing the wounded kangaroos and putting them out of their misery. I learned that they had drank a half of bottle of whiskey. Some of the footage that I shot was so repulsive, heinous, and bloody that there was no way I could even use it.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gave me the seal of approval for everything that happened because they realized no animal had been hurt or shot specifically for my film, that this was all documentary footage of an actual hunt. I gave them the worst footage to put into their propaganda films, and even these hardened environmentalists were horrified at what they saw. One of the nicest outcomes of the whole thing was, about 10-15 years ago, as a result of the kangaroo hunt in my film, they banned the killing of kangaroos from the pet food industry.
In addition to the shootings that take place from the car, you got some remarkable footage of Peter Whittle and Gary Bond (below, right) going toe-to-toe with kangaroos. How did you pull that off?
As part of their machismo, the hunters challenge a kangaroo to a fight. On the whole, kangaroos are not vindictive or aggressive, but fighting one is very dangerous. The kangaroo has powerful jumping legs, and if you try to attack them they lean back on their prehensile tail, all four legs off of the ground, then they embrace you with their upper arms, which are very much like human arms, and they raise their kicking legs and they give you a kick that breaks every bone in your body and kills you.
We built a huge compound for that particular scene. I was surrounded by kangaroos. They didn’t want to fight. They looked very comfortable lying around, just looking at me looking at them. [Laughs.] I said to the sheep rancher, “Let these kangaroos go back into the Outback, and get me a really big kangaroo.” They came back with this eight-foot kangaroo that I called Lord Nelson, because some human being had shot one of his eyes out. He was the Moby Dick of kangaroos; he hated human beings for what they had done to him.
When we shot the fight sequence, this kangaroo immediately wanted to destroy Peter Whittle and went after him. I don’t know how Peter did it. There was no double, no stunt man, it was him all the way. Peter kept dodging Lord Nelson, and finally, of course, he lifted his tail off the ground, which renders them impotent, and we pretended to cut his throat.
After three hours, I had the greatest shot and they were both exhausted. I have the greatest picture of Lord Nelson and Peter Whittle. There was no animosity between them anymore; they were leaning on each other from exhaustion.
I said, “OK, let’s give Lord Nelson applause.” The whole crew applauded and he looked around like, “What is going on here? Why are these people applauding me?” All he knew was that human beings were trying to kill him. And then I said, “OK, you can go now.” He looked at me dubiously. We opened the doors to the compound and he took five exploratory jumps and looks back at me and I said, “I mean it, Lord Nelson. You’ve done a great job and you may go. Bye.” And he hopped off in to the darkness, the one kangaroo that hated human beings.
First Blood, the first Rambo movie, is another exploration of hyper-masculinity. It did considerably better at the box office. To what do you attribute that success?
First Blood was different. John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) was a man who was a trained engine of violence, who fought in the jungles of Vietnam and comes back to his country. We treated Vietnam Veterans so badly. The right wing thought they were a bunch of losers for losing the war, and the left wing accused them of being baby-killers and women-killers. They were totally rejected. I think the film succeeded because people were thinking, “Oh my God, what have we done?”
Brian Dennehy, who played the sheriff, Teasle, in First Blood, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his last night in country he had a horrible firefight and all his friends were being killed and he killed 10 Viet Cong who were coming in attacking the village. And then they said, “OK, your tour of duty is up Mr. Dennehy, get on the plane.” He got on the plane, they flew him non-stop back to San Francisco, and they dumped him out on the street at midnight. He didn’t have a place to go, there were no welcoming bands, and nobody even to help him find a place to stay. It was just appalling.
What Rambo feels is that there's no place for him in society. That’s why he comes back across the bridge at the end of the movie. That whole thing was a suicide mission. In the original ending, when the colonel comes in, Rambo says, “Go ahead, kill me. You made me, you created me, you trained me, now kill me.” Of course the colonel can’t do it, so Rambo reached for the gun and pushed the trigger and committed kind of a harakiri and he was blown backwards into the filing cabinets in the police office. That was always the intention, that when he crosses that bridge and comes back into the town he knows what he is doing that this is a suicide mission.
In the test screening, when Rambo committed suicide you could've heard a pin drop. A voice said, 'If the director of this film is in this movie house, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost!'
How did the alternate ending come about?
We shot the suicide ending, and then Sylvester came up to me and said, “God, what we've done to this character, he jumps off cliffs, he’s chased by dogs, he’s shot and he has to sew up his own arm. After all of that, we're gonna kill him?” One thing about Sly, he always had a popular sense of what audiences wanted to see. I said, “We've always conceived of it this way.” He says, “Do you want to come back here three months from now when the distributor asks for a happy ending?” I said no. [Laughs.]
I had a great idea to cut out that scene with the colonel and Rambo comes down the steps, as we see the sheriff being loaded in to an ambulance, so we know that he's not dead, and he goes down the street of the city that he has totally just wrecked and gets in the jeep and he drives off with the colonel. The producer was like, "You are over budget! Why are you shooting this? We're not going to use it! It's a suicide mission—he's going to survive now?"
I shot it over their protests, and when they tested the film, the audience yelled and screamed and loved the film, but when Rambo committed suicide you could've heard a pin drop. A voice said, “If the director of this film is in this movie house, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost!” [Laughs.] I said to my wife, “Let's get out of here before they lynch me!” When the cards came, every card said the same thing read: "This is one of the greatest action films I’ve ever seen. But the ending!" I looked at the producers and I said, “Well, boys, I just happen to have an alternate ending right here in my breast pocket.”
Do many people recognize you for Weekend at Bernie's?
Whenever people meet me and they don’t recognize my name and they ask what pictures I've done, the two that everybody has seen are First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s. Every man women and child I’ve ever met has seen that film. At Christmas time it still sells thousands of DVD’s. It is the most amazing thing.
I guess a comedy about death is fascinating. I love social comedy, like Fun with Dick and Jane, which I did with Jane Fonda and George Segal. There’s that iconic moment in Weekend at Bernie's when the girl comes up and goes, “C’mon, Bernie,” and she puts her hand in his pocket and pulls out some drugs and goes off and his corpse is just sitting on his sofa in his house. People don’t care whether you are alive or dead as long as you are of some benefit to them.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)