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.