Swimming Against the Tide

By Jason Wood

jindabyne-ray-lawrence.jpgJindabyne, 2006

Ray Lawrence takes Raymond Carver into unsettling Australian territory with Jindabyne

On an annual fishing trip in isolated high country, a group of fishermen find a woman’s body in the water. Their decision to stay on is perplexing, almost as if the place itself is exerting a strange pull over them. When the men finally return home to Jindabyne, and report finding the body, all hell breaks loose. Their wives can't understand how they could have gone fishing with the dead girl right there in the water. Claire (Laura Linney), the wife of Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) is the last to know, but when she does find out a terrible pressure is exerted on the marriage as she begins a personal crusade to bring healing and redemption to the small but now divided community.

A compelling and complex drama concerning doubt, anger, shame and moral responsibility adapted from the Raymond Carver short story So Much Water, So Close To Home, Jindayane is Australian director Ray Lawrence’s third feature following Bliss and Lantana

Jason Wood: I saw Jindabyne in Cannes when you introduced the film to its first public audience. How was the experience?

Ray Lawrence: I was pleased with the reaction; they can be hard to please. I like the idea of mystery in a film and I think that mystery in cinema is slowly being eroded. It’s so rare that you discover a film. The last time I discovered a film was way back in the ’70s. I like the idea of going into a film without knowing too much what it’s about; I even like the idea of then coming out of it and not being too sure, of having to think about it, to ponder what the spectator has just seen. We managed to do this with Lantana to an extent because nobody really knew anything about that or, if they did, they weren’t particularly interested. The fact that it was successful in some ways made Jindabyne harder for me because I also had to deal with expectation.

JW: Despite attracting Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, and despite the success of Lantana I’ve read that Jindabyne was hard to finance.

RL: It was very hard and even having these actors on board wasn’t really advantageous. I feel especially sorry for scriptwriters. They have to write for people who, in the main, don’t understand the process and also don’t trust the process. I’ve worked with a novelist [Peter Carey] and two playwrights [Andrew Bovell and Beatrix Christian] and they both write for the actors so what’s really happening is between the lines. Those scripts, when you read them, don’t provide any suggestion of a blockbuster or crossover film. I honestly don’t understand the elements of success that constitute the ingredients of a successful script. Sure, there are factors such as the track record of the writer, the director, the actors etc, but it’s constantly proven that this formula doesn’t work. In fact no formula works; it’s really just a horse race.

jindabyne-ray-lawrence-2.jpgJindabyne, 2006

The sort of films that interest me, I’m frankly amazed that I even get them made. I slip under the wire. I can certainly attract good writers and good actors and that’s terrific, but I find it very difficult to then try to balance the commercial dictates of a film. For example, the process of cutting a trailer is very difficult. You want to stimulate people just enough so that they say, yes, I want to know more, but most companies want you to produce a trailer that explains absolutely everything. When you try to raise money in America it’s the marketing department that calls the shots. It’s a very cynical exercise. Art films are always looked at in terms of their potential crossover which is a tremendous amount of pressure.

JW: And are you able to disassociate yourself from these pressures?

RL: I honestly just try to make the films that I would like to see. I totally trust and respect the audience and I don’t want to let them down by suddenly trying to please them too much. I admire a lot of films produced in the 1970s, Coppola’s The Conversation for instance, and these could be described as quite slow in the way that they unravel and reveal their secrets. This is a path that I’ve also tried to follow. I lament what television has done to us as audiences. There is a trend now to speed things up to the extent that what we watch is just colour and movement. As a result, as soon as you leave your seat you have forgotten what you have just seen.

JW: The film has a lot to say about the racial and sexual climate in Australia.

RL: The interest in these issues and in Australia in general certainly interests me and is a pretty essential element of my work. We are a very multicultural country and it was important to me that the character of Stewart was Irish. I wanted a parallel with the Aboriginal experience, not only in terms of being oppressed, but in terms of the Irish being early inhabitants of the country. I feel very fortunate that I was able to make Jindabyne and retain these interesting themes in a filmmaking environment that is quite hostile to subtlety.

JW: Your characters are often confronted by striking moral dilemmas.

RL: It’s the root of all drama. A good moral dilemma is something that anybody can identify with and understand. There are so many different opinions of a work that people can have and as a novelist or a filmmaker one of the greatest compliments is to have people discuss and ruminate over what you have done. Confronting your characters with these moral complexities is a wonderful way of provoking discussion. I’ve had discussions with people who have seen Jindabyne and they’ve seen things in it that I never even knew were there. This perhaps makes the film that much more dense.

jindabyne-ray-lawrence-3.jpgJindabyne, 2006

I deliberately wanted to push the structure and the storytelling in Jindabyne so that there were deliberate pauses and resultantly room for interpretation. I was influenced by David Lynch’s Lost Highway in this regard. The structures of the film are obviously very different but I wanted there to be grey areas which people could interpret as they wished. For example, some people are annoyed by Claire’s character because she is on everybody’s case all the time. At moments she can be annoying, and we’ve all had friends that have taken on a particular cause and turned it into a crusade.

I also want people to recognise things in their own lives in the stories that I am trying to tell. To me that is fantastic because then they are connected to it. Also, if they can’t recognise your characters and the people in the film then they are never going to believe in the on-screen world that you have created. I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ken Loach and find myself always able to relate to his films, no matter where they are set. I also like the fact that they are often about the concept of the family and of course about relationships. That Loach’s films have such a strong political bent also impresses me.

JW: The Gregory character takes the film into a whole new territory.

RL: Gregory is an analogy for evil. Evil always has been with us and always will be with us. It’s just never going to go away. You could step into a lift with a bunch of people and have no idea if one of the people in the crowd wishes to do you harm. I was also interested in the notion that people who are bad will be caught in the end and brought to justice; they clearly aren’t always. It’s quite terrifying that Gregory gets away with it and I think that this realistic.

JW: What part did the film’s setting play?

RL: I like fly-fishing and the area where the film is set – though a lot of the rivers have now dried up – is one of the parts in Australia where you can still do it. It’s also a fairly mountainous area and in Aboriginal culture the highest point in the landscape is the most significant because they can see their country and their land. This makes the area where we shot very important to Aboriginal people. The word Jindabyne actually means valley and the town was flooded and is now under water. This supports the notion of ghosts and the notion of things from your past returning to haunt you. Claire’s ghost was her suffering from post-natal depression and, at least as far as Stewart is concerned, the resultant abandonment of her son. Once Beatrix and I had secured the rights we went up to Jindabyne in New South Wales and just walked around like a couple of journalists looking at characters and potential locations. It was whilst doing this that we found stories and inspirations that were in the actual area and incorporated these into the Raymond Carver story. We very much wanted to make sure that the film felt very connected to the area.

jindabyne-ray-lawrence-4.jpgJindabyne, 2006

JW: Yourself and DOP David Williamson like to work with natural light and with your landscape.

RL: Well, when you work in the kind of landscape we did you’d be stupid to ignore it so we made a conscious decision to make it a character in the film. I think I’d also trace my fondness for working with available light back to my love of Loach. It does affect the actors. The less paraphernalia in the eye line of the actors, the more natural their performances, I find. I also find it off-putting on behalf of the actors if they are trying to focus and all around them are huge amounts of crew members sitting around in baseball caps so it’s all about trying to have less distractions. The actors are the conduit for the story and the more relaxed and natural they are, the more they can take the audience out of simply being in the cinema.

Cinema is quite a primal thing if you think about it, almost like a group of strangers sitting in a cave. You can still walk up to the projector and put your hand in front of it and the image is gone. Take your hand away and the image is there again. Technically, I find that you don’t need superfluous elements when shooting. I guess that if we are making a very stylised film and want to create a different world then maybe, but I prefer to move away from what may be considered a throwback to the old days when you were expected to have all this equipment and all this lighting. Remember also that I always work on location and never on sets so I want to reflect the world that we are working in so that you can maybe recognise it. Even when we shot interiors, in kitchens etc, we preferred to use the lights that were already there. We simply turned them on. I’d like to hope that an audience subconsciously recognises that.

JW: Gabriel Byrne commented that he was persuaded to make Jindabyne because you claimed that it would offer an important spiritual experience.

RL: We are very fortunate to do what we do, and if we are working with like-minded people in a like-minded way and trying to reflect some semblance of life as it is lived then you are working towards a common goal. This undoubtedly has a spiritual quality to it. Now, with this particular project, if you marry all those elements to the mountain range in which we were working then I would hope that you would take something away from the experience. When I met Gabriel in New York I certainly told him that I hoped it would be a spiritually fulfilling experience. I’m pleased he responded to that.

JW: Your films seem to connect both with audiences and critics and so I wondered, as someone who is obviously somewhat resistant to filmmaking by committee, if you would be immune to overtures to work in America?

jindabyne-ray-lawrence-5.jpgJindabyne, 2006

RL: Gabriel told me that he worked on a Hollywood film directed by a European – and I’ll be discreet – and they would start at 6am and by 10.30 in the evening they still hadn’t shot anything because there was a group of executives sitting by the monitor and every time the director set up a shot they would offer suggestions on it. It would be impossible to work in those circumstances, for the crew and for the actors; there would be no vibrancy to it. I don’t like doing a lot of takes for this very reason.

The scene in Jindabyne where Gabriel and Laura have a fight, that’s the only take that we did. It was just so powerful, frightening and kind of fittingly embarrassing that when they asked if I wanted them to do it again I couldn’t think of what they could possibly do to add to it. I wouldn’t be able to do this in a mainstream American feature. I’d be given the sack. I’d also be wary of everything being smoothed out and made easy on a big film. Just to get to the location our actors would often have to negotiate a long walk, perhaps a river crossing, and even snakes and, to have all that made easy, I think that you would lose something. A certain energy is often taken away with money.

I’d certainly be interested in working outside Australia however. I’m working on two projects right now. One deals with the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict. The other, a collaboration with Anthony LaPaglia, is an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. The screenplay was written by Andrew Bovell with Millers blessing and is fantastic. Anthony played the part of Eddie on Broadway and received a Tony award and I’ve spoken with Frances McDormand about playing Eddie’s wife, Beatrice. I’d shoot the whole thing in black and white. This takes me back to where we began, I just can’t raise the money, not even with all these constituent elements. I wouldn’t change the way I’d work, and I think there’d still be an audience for it.

Jindabyne is released imminently in the UK by Revolver.

A film programmer and writer, Jason Wood's recent publications include The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (2006) and Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview (2007, Wallflower Press). Wood's writing has also appeared in Enthusiasm, Vertigo, Time Out, Sight and Sound and The Guardian. He is currently writing a book on Nicolas Roeg for the BFI's World Directors series.