In Australian cinema, there are two things that we don’t do much of: teen films and sequels. Making it something of a true original, John Duigan’s sensitive, honest, and often awkwardly hilarious 1991 comedy-drama, Flirting, is both. Our celluloid teen dreams are limited to the likes of Puberty Blues, The FJ Holden, Fast Talking, The Getting Of Wisdom and a handful others, while our history of sequels in the modern era pretty much begins and ends with Crocodile Dundee, Alvin Purple, Mad Max, The Man From Snowy River, Barry McKenzie, and Red Dog: True Blue, give or take a few others.
Flirting is the follow-up to John Duigan’s 1987 masterpiece, The Year My Voice Broke, the woundingly sensitive tale of fifteen-year-old Danny Embling (the gifted Noah Taylor in his first major film role), an eccentric kid who doesn’t even come close to being in step with the deeply conservative, wholly Australian rhythms of the small rural town where he lives in 1962. Attending a local dance with greased black hair, sunglasses, leather jacket, and cigarette dangling daringly from the corner of his mouth, Danny sees himself as a rebel, but he’s way too sensitive for that. Withdrawn, artistic and individualistic, Danny experiences a quintessential coming of age when he falls heavily for his childhood friend, the free spirited Freya Olson (Loene Carmen), who has a bundle of dark secrets in her past. When wild boy, Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), wins Freya’s heart, and ends up getting her pregnant, Danny is drawn into a situation that he’s not emotionally equipped to deal with.
Noah Taylor is stunning in the film, catching the bullied sadness of Danny, as well as his bruised optimism. “Danny was a nice fellow, and probably had a good influence on my own much more cynical teen persona at the time,” the actor tells FilmInk. With his strikingly unusual features, and scrawny physicality, Taylor makes Danny Embling the very picture of Australian teen angst. “The character seemed to physically fit me,” Taylor says of the role in an interview on The Year My Voice Broke’s DVD. “There was a lot that I related to in the script. The character prompted me to think about life in a different way. Danny was probably a more likeable person than I saw myself as being at the time, and he had a better outlook on life. I really tried to inhabit the role and the story. We were all at the age where imagination was still a big part of our lives. It wasn’t like we had to look back at what it was like to be innocent, or to remember first love…that was actually happening for us then.”
America had Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, France had Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, England had Colin Smith in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner…and Australia has Danny Embling in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. The teenage outsider has been a cinematic staple since the fifties, slouching and mumbling their way through a series of classic films, and John Duigan felt that there was more of a story to tell about Danny Embling, essentially creating two of Australia’s best films about the adolescent experience. Backed by local production powerhouse, Kennedy-Miller (with whom Duigan had worked on the TV mini-series, Vietnam), The Year My Voice Broke was a major hit, striking a rich chord with Australian audiences and critics alike, and even hooking in a few admirers overseas. “John Duigan makes his characters warm and sympathetic, avoiding any opportunity for adult laughter at their expense,” said The New York Times.
When Duigan came to set up financing for his sequel, Flirting, this large spread of positivity made the process fairly smooth. What many in the industry didn’t know, however, was that Flirting had actually been written before The Year My Voice Broke. “I wrote it about seven years before that,” Duigan reveals to FilmInk. “I hadn’t been able to get Flirting made at the time when I wrote it, though there were a few producers that were interested in doing it. But ultimately, it didn’t happen. So I subsequently wrote The Year My Voice Broke, which put me in a good position when it opened so well. Then I was able to move on to Flirting. I enjoyed working under the Kennedy-Miller umbrella. I felt very secure as a filmmaker working with that crew of people. In those days, Kennedy-Miller were doing a range of things. They were doing George Miller’s big films, my small films, and very successful TV mini-series. I really enjoyed working with those guys.”
Duigan’s sequel is set in 1965, and sees Danny shipped off to a snooty boarding school (“That sort of school environment was totally foreign to me,” Noah Taylor tells FilmInk), the leafy, lush surrounds of which instantly set the film apart visually from its arid, brown-dirt-and-blue-sky predecessor. Surrounded by loud, competitive schoolboys, Danny is an instant outsider, finding his heroes in the world of literature rather than on the sporting field. He takes his moral and philosophical cues from Jean Paul Sartre, but maintains the pained, romantic sense of longing that was first glimpsed in The Year My Voice Broke.
Despite his status as a near social pariah, Danny is still able to get the attention of the beautiful Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton in her first film role), who attends the girls’ boarding school across the lake. The pair are united in difference: like Danny, Thandiwe is bright and funny, but she is also black, and feels wholly disconnected from everything that spins around her. Eternal outsider, Danny, and the Ugandan-born Thandiwe meet at their school’s shared dances, and then during rehearsals for a play being put on as a co-production by the two schools. Danny and Thandiwe’s love blooms, but as in The Year My Voice Broke, it doesn’t come without at least a little pain.
More so than in The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting found screenwriter, John Duigan, tapping his own adolescent experiences for inspiration. The British-born, Australian-raised (his family immigrated to Australia from the UK when he was twelve-years-old) director had himself attended a boarding school (in the Melbourne suburb of Geelong), and was wholly familiar with the quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) injustices that plague such tony institutions. “I didn’t duplicate any events, but there were certainly incidents that were very accurate depictions of what happened,” Duigan says. “For example, at the beginning of the film, there’s a line of boys getting the cane. We were caned a lot at Geelong, and there was a teacher that used to put chalk on his cane, as the teacher does in the film, in order to hit the right spot to make it more painful. Another incident is when Danny Embling invites a girl to the dance, but then is not allowed to go to the dance, so the girl is actually there on her own. That happened to me. I was refused to go to the dance because I hadn’t had a haircut. But the girl who I asked had turned up to the dance, and didn’t have a partner. The petty cruelty of the teachers was completely accurate. Many of the teachers at my school were malicious and unpleasant people, but there are usually reasons for that. There are often slightly mitigating factors in their personalities.”
After shooting the impressive but grim 1989 biopic, Romero (which starred the late Raul Julia as El Salvador’s heroic Archbishop Oscar Romero), in Mexico, Duigan was happy to be back on home turf for Flirting. The success of The Year My Voice Broke provided a bedrock of warmth on which to construct the film. “There was a lot of enthusiasm in making a sequel,” Duigan says. “A lot of young actors were keen to be involved.” The prince amongst those, of course, was Noah Taylor, who had gone on to appear in a number of film and television roles after the success of The Year My Voice Broke. “Because he was the first ‘professional’ director that I’d worked with, there was a strong bond,” Taylor tells FilmInk of his relationship with Duigan. “John is excellent at coaching and nurturing performances, probably down to the fact that he was an actor himself for a while, and apart from that, he’s just a very funny, charming person. I never really felt that Flirting was a sequel though, but I knew that it had a logical autobiographical extension for John.”
It was an equally happy reunion for John Duigan. “In these two films, and when he gets the opportunity, Noah is someone who audiences can really empathise with,” the director says. “He can open himself up and reveal a great deal to audiences. That’s one of the most attractive aspects of him as an actor. We always had a very good method of communication; he understood very much the nature of a character who is a natural outsider, and who is a source of derision from other people. I’m sure that Noah drew on his own life for that, as I did in mine. I love working with him.”
The film’s other central role is that of Thandiwe, whose obvious exoticism sent Duigan on a long and involved casting search. With very few black actresses of the right age in Australia, the production widened its net, and had casting agents on the lookout in England and Africa. Duigan saw many young girls for the role, including an eighteen-year-old Naomi Campbell, prior to her wildfire success as an international supermodel. “She probably wouldn’t even remember that she auditioned,” Duigan laughs. “She actually did quite a good audition, but she just wasn’t quite right for the role.”
Duigan ended up casting then-eighteen-year-old, British/Zimbabwean Thandie Newton, who was a student at London’s Art Educational School, where she studied modern dance. A back injury, however, forced her to reevaluate her creative opportunities, and she turned to acting. Like Thandiwe in Flirting, Thandie Newton was also the only black girl at her school, though she had never been subject to any racial abuse as experienced by her on-screen counterpart. “When we moved to England, there were very few black people in the town,” Newton told Urban Cinefile in 1997. “We were almost a novelty. It was an opportunity for the neighbours to tell others: ‘I met an African girl! How exotic!’ I always saw being black as something very useful, a mysterious element that I could use to enrich my personality. Then I went into the arts, where difference is celebrated. So I’ve never really experienced racial hassle.”
Newton and Taylor have a particularly beautiful chemistry in Flirting, which gives the film its constantly radiating inner warmth. “Thandie was an utter delight,” says Taylor. “She was incredibly bright, and we just got on well, though she was much more mature than me.” Says Duigan: “Thandie was a very strong, intuitive performer, with great natural ability.” Newton went from Flirting to a strong international career, later booking roles in the likes of Beloved, Crash, W., Mission: Impossible 2, and RocknRolla. She also worked again with John Duigan on The Journey Of August King in 1995 and The Leading Man in 1996. “I was grateful for the opportunity to do Flirting, but at the time, I didn’t consider myself to be an actress,” Newton told Urban Cinefile in 1997. “In fact, this notion of being given something which altered your life so completely, never sat well with me.”
While Thandie Newton was uncertain about being thrust into the limelight, Duigan had another young actress in the cast who was already there. At the time of shooting Flirting, Nicole Kidman was a red-hot star on the rise, with roles in Emerald City, Dead Calm and TV’s high rating Bangkok Hilton and Vietnam to her credit. After having worked together on the latter TV mini-series, Duigan was able to hook Kidman for Flirting, giving her the role of Nicola, the boarding school’s “popular” (though decent) vice-prefect. “Nic and I talked about this as being her last opportunity to play a schoolgirl,” Duigan tells FilmInk. “She had a good time doing the film, and she was starting to become a big star.”
Indeed, Duigan had a number of stars-in-waiting in the cast of Flirting. Future Oscar nominee, Naomi Watts, and popular TV actress, Kym Wilson, play Thandiwe’s two friends at boarding school, while Les Hill (Underbelly) and Josh Picker (Heartbreak High) prowl the halls across the lake with Danny Embling. The shoot was a happy one for John Duigan, who speaks of the time with obvious fondness. “We didn’t have a big budget, but we knew the parameters,” the director says. “Many of the crew had worked on The Year My Voice Broke and Romero, so we’d been through quite a lot together. Romero was a very tough shoot in terms of the conditions, but it was also a great adventure. Flirting was far less dramatic. We didn’t have any trailers, or ‘honey wagons’ as they’re called. We just had an old bus for the cast, who would go in there for their costuming and make up. It was a good bunch of people. Nicole just mucked in with all the others too. She and Naomi Watts became good friends. The boys all got on very well too.”
Noah Taylor’s remembrances of the shoot, however, were not quite so warm. “I was preoccupied with some sort of doomed teen romance outside of the shoot, so I was a bit of a mopey bastard,” he laughs. That said, the actor remains happy about the work itself. How much did the film change from what was on the page, to what happened on set, FilmInk asks, and does John Duigan allow for much input in terms of story and character? “John’s scripts are very tight, and the shoots at that time didn’t allow for any wasting time, so it was all on the page,” Taylor replies. “Having said that, John allows a lot of performance input, as opposed to dialogue changes.”
Though essentially a coming of age story, Flirting – like several other of Duigan’s films, including Far East, Romero, and his last film, 2012’s Careless Love – has much to say about the state of the world in which it takes place. The racial issues thrown up by the relationship of Danny and Thandiwe are front and centre, and Flirting also comments upon the upheaval being experienced across the globe in 1965. “The film is very much about Noah’s character going through a series of broadening experiences, obviously on the romantic front, and in coming to get to know women,” Duigan offers. “But it’s also broadening in the sense that’s he’s coming to think of the wider world. Danny is from an isolated country town, but then he starts to think about the experiences of Thandiwe as an African, which is something that he hadn’t even contemplated before. There’s a montage of African events, and Danny starts to realise how – like so many people in Australia, or in England, for that matter – our knowledge about that continent was informed by superficialities. There are still residual colonial cliches.”
The film’s sense of depth and subtext – along with its more obvious qualities – saw Flirting receive a wonderfully warm response upon release. It won AFI Awards for Best Film, Best Production Design and Best Editing, and received three nominations on top of that. Interestingly, Duigan and his principal cast (save for young Bartholomew Rose, who received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his colourful turn as Danny’s eccentric best mate) were totally shut out, receiving no personal nominations whatsoever. Duigan had, however, picked up the Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film gongs for The Year My Voice Broke. The reviews for Flirting were generally positive, with most critics warmly praising the film’s performances, humour, and visual lyricism. That positivity, however, didn’t stop at Australian borders. Roger Ebert, the influential critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, was effusive in his praise. “So often, we settle for noise and movement from the movie screen, for stupid people indulging unworthy fantasies,” he wrote. “Only rare movies like Flirting remind us that the movies are capable of providing us with the touch of other lives, and that when all the conditions are right, we can grow a little and learn a little, just like the people on the screen. This movie is joyous, wise and life-affirming, and certainly one of the year’s best films.” Flirting was even impressively ranked Number 46 on major US magazine, Entertainment Weekly’s list of “The 50 Best High School Movies.”
Duigan was obviously buoyed by the film’s success. “It’s a film that you have to really be churlish not to be moved by,” he says. “I can actually only remember one indifferent review, which I think came from Neil Jillett in The Age, which was disappointing; the one indifferent review actually comes from a major Australian newspaper! People identified with the experiences of the characters whether they’d been to a boarding school or not. There are familiar echoes for most people from their teenage years. Most people’s teenage years are enormously rich because they are defined by such raw emotions. As we become older, we become used to the happiness and disaster. They become familiar, and the edge can sometimes be lost. It’s nice if someone can preserve the freshness of that. Adolescence is such a rich period…there’s intense misery, as well as intense joy. If a film taps into these experiences in an accessible way, it can really take people back.”
Despite its quality, Flirting exists somewhat in the shadow of another. The Year My Voice Broke is such a powerful, haunting, unusual work that it can’t help but rob Flirting of some of its lustre, even though the sequel stands as a fine, individual work. “I’m not sure why that is, because I feel that both films, at least in my own sense of them, are very close,” Duigan says. “I was very happy with both of those films. Flirting has somehow been seen rather less than The Year My Voice Broke. But on Flirting, I felt like we had sufficient resources to make the film that I wanted to make. Almost nothing changed from the script. That was probably the same with The Year My Voice Broke. Flirting is one of my favourite of my own films.”
When FilmInk asks Noah Taylor where the film stands for him today, the actor is decidedly less enthusiastic. “I don’t really think about old work,” he says. “I’m not particularly sentimental.”
John Duigan, however, is very sentimental about the character of Danny Embling, and his continuing on-screen journey. At the time of the release of Flirting, the director spoke during interviews about his desire to make a third film about the character. Even critic, Vincent Canby, mentions the heralded trilogy in his review of Flirting for The New York Times. “Mr. Duigan has announced that Mr. Taylor will again play Danny in the trilogy’s final film, which is to be set in Paris, but won’t be made until his star grows a bit older. It seems likely that Danny will finally emerge as a writer, a painter, or maybe even a filmmaker.”
Though he hadn’t mentioned anything about a possible trilogy at the time of The Year My Voice Broke (“The idea of talking about a trilogy when you haven’t made one film – which, who knows, might’ve been a dud – would’ve been premature,” Duigan laughs), a third film was certainly floated around the time of Flirting. “I actually wrote a plot for a third one, which had Danny Embling going over to France, and becoming involved in the events of 1968, and the student riots in Paris,” Duigan says. “That was one thought, and it’s obviously too late to do that with Noah now, as he’s in his forties, and that story is about Danny in his mature youth, if you will. I always thought that Danny would go to Europe, and then come back to Australia. If I do another story about the character, that’s what would happen.”
That’s right: John Duigan is quite possibly not finished with his series of films about Danny Embling. Even when he was speaking about continuing with the character upon the release of Flirting, Duigan knew one thing for certain: that Danny would reunite with Freya Olson, his first true love, from The Year My Voice Broke. “That film certainly still resonates a lot in people’s hearts and minds,” actress, Loene Carmen, told FilmInk in 2006 of her striking debut. “It really touched people, and they feel a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia about it. The great thing about being as young as I was when I made it is that you don’t have anything to compare it with. Obviously, it was very exciting to be making a film, but it just felt normal. I hadn’t struggled for years as an actress before getting the role.”
As Duigan sees it, Danny and Freya would now possibly be reunited in the eighties. “It would be whatever year corresponds to how old Noah is now,” Duigan says. “From time to time, I do bits and pieces of work on another installment, but I just haven’t written about it in full yet. The last time that I worked on it was probably a year or so ago. It might be set in the late eighties, or perhaps the early nineties.”
It would certainly be a beautiful reunion: the fraught, tragic bond forged between Danny and Freya in The Year My Voice Broke makes them one of the most unforgettable romantic couples – regardless of age – in Australian cinema history. It was no coincidence when director, Kriv Stenders, cast the pair as the married couple who kick off proceedings in his surprise 2011 smash hit, Red Dog, when they find the eponymous hound in the middle of the road and help him begin his incredible journey. “It was a secret ambition of mine to do that,” Stenders told FilmInk of the ersatz The Year My Voice Broke reunion. “I’ve known Noah and Loene for a number of years through mutual friends, and I thought that it would be so fucking cool to have a film open with them together. Red Dog is a salute to Australian film history. They were so much fun to work with. Everyone loved them, and that kind of thing is really important, especially in this kind of film. You want to create a real sense of family.”
The fact that Noah Taylor and Loene Carmen remain close friends (“Lo’s the best,” says Taylor, while Carmen proffers, “Noah’s my dearest friend to this day”) – and regular musical collaborators, with both being longtime stage performers, through various bands and solo projects – makes John Duigan’s dreamed-of trilogy even more of a possibility. Would Noah Taylor be up for the challenge? “Er…if the script and pay was right, why not?” the actor laughs. Get writing, Mr. Duigan, get writing…
Many thanks to John Duigan, Noah Taylor, and Sharon Williams for their invaluable assistance in making this feature story possible.
The Year My Voice Broke will screen at the Adelaide Film Festival on Sunday, October 15. For more information, and to purchase tickets, head to the official site.
For more on The National Film & Sound Archive’s restoration of The Year My Voice Broke, head to the official site.