The Proposition

By Jason Wood

proposition-john-hillcoat-1.jpgThe Proposition, 2005

An exclusive interview with the director, John Hillcoat and scriptwriter, Nick Cave


The Proposition
a powerful and intelligent Australian Western set in a savage corner of the bushranger outback. After the capturing two of the outlaw Burns brothers, lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) risks all by releasing the older brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) on one desperate condition: Charlie must kill his eldest brother, a violent monster and the leader of the gang, in order to spare the life of his young sibling. The Proposition is the third collaborative feature between director John Hillcoat and writer-musician Nick Cave. Bloody and uncompromising, Hillcoat pictures the outback as a place of extreme cruelty and beauty, whilst strong performances from all the cast do justice to the elegance of Cave’s script. The Cave-Warren Ellis score further heightens the film’s astonishing existential force.

Jason Wood: Was it always your ambition to make a Western?

John Hillcoat: I’ve always been into the anti-Westerns of the 1970s. I’ve always been amazed at the history in Australia, and I wanted to embrace that genre, particularly given that our bush-ranging films actually pre-date the Western. I thought the ingredients of struggling with the climate, the clash of cultures and that kind of lyrical, mythical quality of the power of the landscape hadn’t been fully explored.

JW: Did that interest you too, Nick?

Nick Cave: Not really. Basically, John has been talking about doing an Australian Western ever since I’ve known him, which is about 20 years, and that I would do the music. But it was taking an enormously long time to get a script together, so eventually John asked me to write it. I wrote the script in order to do the music really, which is what I was mostly interested in… I was more interested in writing a script per se, than this particular one. I grew up in Kelly country, where Ned Kelly died, so I knew a fair amount about these kind of characters already.

JW: You’ve said that you found the narrative parts pretty easy to write, because you’re a narrative songwriter, but you found the dialogue hard – how did you get over that?

NC: I didn’t come hard to it, but initially I didn’t know whether I could do it or not.

JW:The two of you have worked together before on Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead (1988) and To Have and To Hold (1996). How does your relationship work?

NC: I didn’t really do any research, but Johnny did an enormous amount. I would just email my pages to him and we’d talk about it in the evening, and it just continued that way.

JW: You can see the heat and the flies in the film. Were the crew and cast surprised by how arduous filming was?

JH: Yeah, particularly the British actors who had never worked in Australia. Ray Winstone stopped off in Dubai to try to acclimatise, but he had no idea. I had a dialogue with Emily Watson before she came out, and she was explaining that when the temperature is in the twenties, it’s okay, but in the thirties she really starts to struggle, and we were shooting in the high fifties. And she had to wear a corset and all the fabrics were original and thick wool. It was extremely difficult. It actually changed how they moved and even how they spoke. In the scene where John Hurt first appears, it was 57 Celsius and the medics were getting very worried about John, and the camera eventually got so hot that it couldn’t be touched, so we had to go to night shoots. When we came to do the reverse shot on Guy in that scene, there was just a little tip of John’s shoulder in the frame. I asked Guy if he wouldn’t mind letting John step out and cool down a bit, which he was fine about, but John insisted on being there for Guy, and he performed as if we were doing a close-up on him. That was the feeling amongst the cast – they were incredible loyal and generous.

proposition-john-hillcoat-2.jpgThe Proposition, 2005

NC: I wasn’t there for the shoot, but I went for a week before to rehearse with the actors. It was very moving for me to see this pile of words that I’d written being brought to life by these brilliant actors. Guy was incredibly pernickety about it every detail – why does he get off this side of the horse instead of that side - there was this endless stream of nonsense that came out of Guy’s mouth. But that’s the way he works. Ray was the complete opposite of that. I really enjoyed that process.

JW: The location plays a central role in the film. What was the experience like?

JH: It was quite a weird experience. For anyone who knows Australia, it was a three-hour flight and a three-hour drive to this tiny town [Winton in Queensland]. The location featured lots of sacred Aboriginal sites and massacre sites. The place has an amazing history, and the Aboriginal people lent their support because they really want to get this side of their history out there.

The people in the town were extraordinarily supportive, and a lot of the extras were from the town. There were all these weird connections – like my sister conceived her first child in Winton, and her son is half-Aboriginal, so his ancestral lands were there. But we ended up at that location by pure coincidence, for pure financial reasons. Then I discovered during post-production that my grandfather and his father both lived and worked at the same station where we filmed.

JW: The violence in the film is pronounced, yet is often followed by moments of sadness and longing. What role do you think it played in the film?

JH: For us, the film was about the physical and psychological effects of violence and we didn’t want to shy away from how brutal those times were. I deliberately didn’t use any slow motion, so everything is deliberately fast and chaotic and slightly confusing. What we wanted to linger on was not the violence, but how people are affected by it. In our history, I believe very strongly that everyone involved was morally compromised, whether you had righteous ideal like Ray Winstone’s character or whatever perspective you were coming from – no one came out unscathed. We wanted to show all the kinds of violence from that time, including the black-on-black violence. It was actor Tom E Lewis’ idea to kill the tracker, because he said that was the first person he would attack. We have this notion that Aboriginal people were very nomadic and peaceful group that were then annihilated, but actually they put up a fierce battle, and they were also fighting each other.

JW: What were the emotional effects of being out in the landscape?

NC: I grew up in a very small country town, so I was horrified to be there, because my entire childhood all I wanted to do was get out. But coming back as a grown-up, it was very beautiful.

JH: Most Australians haven’t been to the outback. They’ve been everywhere in the world except the interior. The power of it is amazing, and like John Hurt said to me, it’s like eternity, like another planet. I got a strong, strong feeling – that Nick also picked up – that we don’t belong there.

JW: What kind of human traits inspired you to come up with the psychopathic brother, Arthur?

NC: I was increasingly tired of watching films where in every scene the villain was as bad as he could possibly be – it’s like this arm wrestle between film-makers to see who can make the most despicable villain. I really wanted to create someone who had a great love of things as well as having an amoral side.

JH:.And like a lot of psychopaths, when the sunset comes, he gets very sentimental.

NC: There is that mixture of sentimentality with people. I’ve found that quite common in people.

JW: Who is the hero in the movie – is it Captain Stanley or is it Charlie Burns?

NC: We were trying to make an Australian Western, and the difference is that America sees its history in terms of black and white, the good guys and the bad guys. We wanted to create something where morality is blurred and where your allegiance to the characters swings back and the forth, the way it does in real life. I don’t particularly believe in the concept of good guys and bad guys.

JH: It’s also an Australian thing – our whole history is inspired and based on failure.

NC: Fervent incompetence. It seemed important and poignant in some way that the boy who hangs out in the hills was a really nasty piece of work, but at the same time had a really nice singing voice. There’s an innocence about him.