Rolf de Heer: Dingo and All That Jazz

February 2, 2021
The revered filmmaker remembers 1991’s Dingo, starring Colin Friels, Helen Buday and Miles Davis.

With a career spanning almost 40 years, Rolf de Heer is a prolific player in the Australian film industry. Before receiving international recognition with Bad Boy Bubby, however, de Heer directed Dingo (1991) – a film about a dingo catcher in outback Australia with a dream of becoming a jazz trumpeter in Paris.

The special edition Blu-ray of Dingo has been released by Umbrella Entertainment as part of their Sunburnt Screens range, focusing on classic Australian cinema.

“I try to bring to each project what I think the script needs,” says de Heer on the light-hearted themes of Dingo in comparison to some of his other films, including the more macabre Bad Boy Bubby. “I become a different person when I’m making this film than I am when making that film.”

Described by de Heer as passion-project of the film’s screenwriter, Marc Rosenberg, Dingo is in itself an ode to passion and to chasing one’s ambitions.

Jazz-themed films have become popular more recently: Whiplash, La La Land, Soul. It feels like Dingo was tapping into something before it became popular. What do you think?

“I’ve been in a band; music is very much part of who I am and what I like – except for Jazz! I never liked Jazz very much, and I thought that was a very good qualification to make the film. If I can like this, it means a lot of people who don’t normally go for Jazz will also like it.”

Rolf de Heer

The opening scene of Miles Davis playing for the outback town immediately positions the film in a fantastical realm. Do you think Dingo lives in a kind of music-fuelled dreamscape or is it meant to reflect reality?

“When I hear you describe those two things, I think “I definitely prefer the first one!” I think that’s a more accurate way to look at it.”

Compared to a film like La La Land, Dingo doesn’t present Jazz as a “lost concept” that needs to be “found” again. It’s more of a puristic appreciation of Jazz. Can you speak to that a bit more?

“[Dingo] is less about Jazz and just happens to use Jazz. It’s about the fulfilment of dreams and avoidance of regret – and Jazz is just a part of telling that story.

“Originally it was not going to be Miles Davis playing the role of Billy Cross. Miles came to the project very late in the piece. At one point, it was going to be Sammy Davis Jr., who was a pretty good trumpeter and actor. But various things happened, and we ended up with Miles and so the film became very much more about Jazz than it would otherwise have been.

“If a character deals with Jazz in the way that Billy Cross does in the film, then Jazz suffuses the film. But the main themes don’t really have anything to do with Jazz. It doesn’t feel like it needs to rediscover Jazz, or present Jazz as a lost art – because it’s not about that.”

Is the narrative structure intentionally unconventional – like Jazz?

“To what extent it was intentional to be like a Jazz riff, I don’t know. Marc created the structure of the film. It works for the film and it worked for me in the reading of the script. It’s a lovely script – one of the most lovely scripts I’ve read.”

Is there a reason, outside of Miles Davis living there, that you chose Paris as the location of the pipe dream, and not a southern-American state like New Orleans?

“When Marc first started writing [the script], it was set in America. Dingo Anderson was a drummer who went to America to fulfil his dream. You can imagine the scenes where he gets himself drunk and hits a policeman happening in Los Angeles. But then Crocodile Dundee came out – a bloke from the outback goes to America – and it completely killed [the idea].

“Marc had already done a lot of research. He knew anyway that a lot of Jazz musicians ended up in Paris because of racism: in Paris, they were respected and in America, they were not at all. So, Paris seemed like a very good way to go – it’s sort of more interesting, too.”

Screenwriter Marc Rosenberg

Miles Davis doesn’t feature until quite late in the film. Is there a reason you didn’t exploit his presence more?

“The script was written to tell the story of John “Dingo” Anderson. Billy Cross is a supporting character in that sense, as a means to tell Dingo’s story. To change the script just because we got Miles Davis wasn’t an idea that occurred to any of us. It felt right the way it was. It’s not about Miles Davis – it’s about Dingo Anderson.”

You keep referring to this film as Marc’s project. It isn’t common for directors to do that once they get involved in a film.

“The essential vision that is in there, I always feel it to be Marc’s. But, of course, I will take credit for things in Dingo that I deserve the credit for.

“One of the areas of difficulty [while working] on the film was Marc and me – our relationship. We were good friends. This film was, for Marc, so important. He’d been working on it for years. If I was offered the film now, going back in time, I would say ‘no, Marc. We’re friends!’ Because you can’t make somebody else’s vision. I had to try and make it the way I thought was right.”

You can find the newly-released Blu-ray version of Dingo on Umbrella Entertainment’s official website. Extra features include:

  • Interview featurettes with director Rolf de Heer and lead actress Helen Buday
  • Rushes Reel: The Desert Runway with audio commentary by Rolf de Heer
  • Theatrical Trailers for Dingo, The Tracker and Bad Boy Bubby
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