“David had some land management agreement meetings that were more important to him than walking the red carpet,” writer/director, Rolf De Heer, told FilmInk in 2013. “I applaud that.” The red carpet that De Heer is referring to is the one at The Cannes Film Festival, and the man who refused to walk it is David Gulpilil, Australia’s most recognisable and accomplished indigenous actor. It speaks a lot to the character of this charismatic veteran performer, who became famous in the seventies with his unforgettable performances in Walkabout, Storm Boy, and The Last Wave. Always more interested in his country, his people, and their often brutal struggles than the money, flashing lights, and adoration that come rolling in as part of the job of appearing in movies, it’s no real surprise that David Gulpilil had better things to do than go to Cannes. Which is not to say, however, that he was snubbing his nose at the event. “He’s delighted about the film, and the award at Cannes,” De Heer says.
Invited to screen as part of the prestigious Un Certain Regard competition, 2013’s Charlie’s Country, another fruitful collaboration between De Heer and Gulpilil, ended up netting the performer a Best Actor award. The film – which had previously enjoyed a highly successful premiere at The Adelaide Film Festival – touched hearts and tickled funny bones in equal measure. “I didn’t know if it was going to work overseas, and it did, which is very pleasing,” De Heer told FilmInk. “We had a share of people at Cannes who cried in an inexplicable way for them. The majority of people that I spoke to were just so enthusiastic about the film; in equal measure with the film and what it’s about. They were attracted by the humour, but they engaged with the issues too, and they also responded to it as a piece of filmmaking. It’s the best way that it can be.”
Co-written by De Heer and Gulpilil, who ripped the story together from the muscle and bone of his own turbulent life, Charlie’s Country is the haunting tale of the eponymous ageing “blackfella”, who lives in an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, where he’s gradually, painfully feeling the strictures of white society pulling tighter and tighter around his neck like a perfectly placed noose. His community is heavily policed by white law, and Charlie is constantly reminded of what he doesn’t have: a proper home, enough food, and the freedom to do what he wants to do. When he goes hunting with his friend, Pete (Peter Djigirr, who is also a co-producer on the film), the pair are quizzed by passing police about licenses for their firearms: “I’m gonna shoot it, not drive it!” Charlie laughs. Sick of whitefella ways, and pining for the old days, the ageing iconoclast goes bush, but his body’s not up to it, and he’s soon pulled back into contemporary urban society – with all of its vices and temptations – largely against his will, a twist of fate that will upend Charlie’s already chaotic life, as well as reverberating through his small community.
In Australian cinema, there has been no performer like David Gulpilil, and his vivid, energetic, and uncompromised personality literally spills forth from the screen in Charlie’s Country. “It’s very difficult to tell you about Gulpilil,” director, Peter Weir, told American journalist, Judith M. Kaas, of the actor, for whom he had specifically written a principal role in his 1979 thriller, The Last Wave. “I know very little about the man. He’s enigmatic; he’s an actor, a dancer, a musician. He’s a tribal man, initiated in the tribal ways, but he was found by Nicolas Roeg at a very early age and put into an international movie. Roeg took him on publicity trips to Europe and the States. He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.”
Nicolas Roeg’s casting of Gulpilil in his 1971 cult classic, Walkabout, irrevocably changed the young man’s life forever. Though he went on to feature in films like Crocodile Dundee, Mad Dog Morgan, Dark Age, Dead Heart, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Australia (even making a cameo appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff), Gulpilil’s relationship with the film industry has always been an uneasy one, and his fame constantly put him at odds with his community in Ramingining in The Northern Territory. “I was brought up in a tin shed,” Gulpilil told The Age in 2002. “I wandered all over the world – Paris, New York – and now I’m back in a tin shed. How come I don’t have a house? I’d like to know. I travel the world. I come home; there’s no home. All the world thinks that I’m living in a luxury house right now. This community forgot me. People say to me, ‘You’re a big name. You have money. Why don’t you buy yourself a house, and get out of Ramingining?’ But this is my country. I belong here, and I’m broke.”
Gulpilil had had problems with alcohol (“You gave your people and the people of Australia a lot of pride,” a Darwin magistrate said when sentencing him in 2000 for his sixth drink-driving conviction. “You could have done a lot more if you could have stayed away from the grog”), and many in his community thought that he’d lost touch with them because of his acting and overseas travel. Though angry at the time, and in the midst of lobbying politicians to get a proper house, warning them that his circumstances were an international embarrassment, 2002 was a watershed year for David Gulpilil. He featured in Phillip Noyce’s excellent high profile drama, Rabbit-Proof Fence (tellingly playing a man figuratively strung on a tight-wire between black and white society), and he also met Rolf De Heer, who cast him in his first lead role in over twenty years in The Tracker, a disturbing period drama about a policeman (Gary Sweet) leading a small troop through the outback in pursuit of an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Gulpilil assuredly and magnetically plays the group’s wily tracker, who has an agenda all of his own. “I’m very happy [with the role],” the actor cockily told The Age in 2002. “I deserved it; that’s what I’ve been waiting for.”
Though Rolf De Heer – who at the time had established himself as one of Australia’s most strikingly original directors, with stunning works such as Bad Boy Bubby, Dingo, The Quiet Room, and Dance Me To My Song – described working with Gulpilil as “intense”, he also told FilmInk that his leading man was “a gifted actor who takes direction easily. David also worked very hard out of hours, on set. He worked very, very hard to do it.” His co-star, Gary Sweet, was bowled over by the on-screen presence of the legendary performer. “David Gulpilil was great,” he told FilmInk. “I’ve never seen a more noble face on film. And he can do anything. He can sing, dance, ride a horse…whatever you want, he can do it. The nearest town was about eighty kilometers away, and it was four-wheel drive country – there was no other way to access it. So David and I would often just jump on our horses and ride in because it was quicker.”
After the critical success of The Tracker, De Heer and Gulpilil forged a bond, and agreed to work together again. After the director locked off his controversial 2003 emotional thriller, Alexandra’s Project, he and Gulpilil started work on Ten Canoes, a tale set in Australia before white settlement, and dealing humorously, honestly, and candidly with Aboriginal culture. The film was financed largely on the proviso that David Gulpilil (who came up with the initial concept) would star and also co-direct with De Heer. “I had gone deep into it,” the filmmaker tells FilmInk. Unfortunately for him, the erratic and ever unpredictable David Gulpilil decided that he would walk out on the project, partly born out of problems that he was having with his community in Ramingining. “When his involvement didn’t happen, in a sense, all bets are off, and in that sense, it was almost a disaster,” De Heer says. “But the investors held the faith with the project. It was the only film that I have been involved with that could have been a possible catastrophe. It would have meant that a certain amount of money had been spent – not a huge amount, but a certain amount – and the project could have disappeared.”
Ten Canoes, however, stayed afloat, with De Heer ultimately co-directing the film with Peter Djigirr. David Gulpilil eventually returned to do the film’s narration, and his son, Jamie, features in one of the lead roles. Acclaimed and financially successful in Australia, Ten Canoes also took out the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at The 2006 Cannes Film Festival. De Heer, however, was criticised in some quarters as a white director inappropriately making an indigenous story. “They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can,” he said in response to these claims in Time Magazine. But De Heer’s deep personal investment in the project – and continued consultation with the Aboriginal community – didn’t go unnoticed. “I give ups to Rolf De Heer because of what he’s done,” indigenous writer and actor, Leah Purcell (Wentworth, Lantana, Jindabyne, The Proposition), told FilmInk in 2008. “He’s been around that mob now for ages. It’s a blackfella thing; if you’re going to talk up, then have a bit of life experience behind you.”
Problems aside, De Heer and Gulpilil’s experience on Ten Canoes ultimately ended happily, but the director and actor’s paths would soon diverge. De Heer went on to direct the oddball black-and-white silent film, Dr. Plonk, in 2007, and then the suburban black comedy, The King Is Dead!, in 2012. Gulpilil featured in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 epic, Australia, and in 2012’s Satellite Boy, in which he plays a wise grandfather. “When I was growing up, Walkabout and Storm Boy were touchstone films,” Satellite Boy’s director, Catriona McKenzie, told FilmInk. “There are shots in Satellite Boy that pay homage to Walkabout. It was a lovely act of coming full circle. David is a fifteen-year-old-boy in Walkabout, and in Satellite Boy, he’s now the grandfather.” Despite this film work, Gulpilil’s battle with the bottle continued, and the actor ended up in gaol on an eighteen-month sentence for assaulting his partner while they were both drunk. “He’d shifted out of Ramingining, and into Darwin,” Rolf De Heer told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2012. “He had taken to drinking heavily in a sustained way, and had often been homeless. He was in some way drinking himself to death.”
It was during a visit to Gulpilil in prison that Charlie’s Country was born. Shocked at the state of his emaciated and depressed friend in his sad, shadowy prison cell, De Heer asked the actor what he really wanted to do. Gulpilil replied that he wanted to make more films, and the prolific director kicked into gear, instantly starting to formulate a project that would give the actor a sense of purpose, as well as some money and much-needed distraction while he was on parole. “But to do that, it had to be something that he believed in,” De Heer told The Sydney Morning Herald. “He had to be the main character, and it had to be his film.” As De Heer intended, Charlie’s Country indeed became Gulpilil’s film. “It’s my life story,” the actor told The Sydney Morning Herald. ‘‘It’s a story about drugs and alcohol and everything that I’ve done wrong. I’ve changed my mind: I don’t want to touch alcohol and drugs and all that. I don’t want my son’s children to become like me. We want to stay the way we were born – no alcohol, no sugar, and no drugs.”
When composing the story for Charlie’s Country, De Heer worked in the way that is now commonplace for him: by spreading his ideas for the narrative across a collection of small cards, which he then sticks to his office wall. “That’s the way that I work on almost everything that I do,” he told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “The project forms, usually in a fairly mosaic like fashion. It works non-linearly with writing. It’s the best way to form the whole, and to allow the little parts to be strong and shiny, but to still fit within the whole. That’s the way that I’ve worked for many years now.”
Where does the overarching idea fit within this framework? “There rarely is an overarching idea such as you suggest,” De Heer replies. “Those overarching ideas end up in the film quite naturally and subconsciously. I’m not conscious that I’m making it about something when I’m doing it, because then I start to contrive the thing. I want my films to be authentic and real. I want it to feel correct. If I start to plant stuff in there, it feels wrong. I try to avoid working intellectually, and bringing external intellectual thoughts to it. I work instinctively. I limit my internal debate to: does it feel good or does it feel wrong? If it feels good, it stays, and if it feels wrong, it goes. That’s the extent of my questioning. If I start to think, ‘Oh, I want to make it about racism’, then I’ll start putting overt racism stuff in there, which doesn’t work. But if I’m naturally exploring something to make a story that works in that milieu, then these issues will come into it by themselves.”
For the film’s shoot, De Heer once again turned to cinematographer, Ian Jones, to operate as his right hand man. The pair have worked together frequently since 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby, and the DOP made things easier for his director in the face of remote locations and a cast of largely inexperienced actors. “If I started taking it in a direction that wasn’t natural enough, it would have been pushing it,” Jones told FilmInk of his shooting style. “All the technology that we had chosen was about getting the shot in the can, to use a cliche. It was tricky at times for varying reasons, in order to get things covered, and we had a small crew, as we always do with Rolf. I hadn’t read the script before Rolf approached me, and my first question was whether it was contemporary. That in itself puts a certain light on what you’re trying to achieve. The fact that it was set in a contemporary Aboriginal community, which we hadn’t shot in before, brought in other aspects. You have to show that to the audience to give them a sense of place. The other things then kick in as far as the cast goes. David Gulpilil is experienced, but he’s not necessarily going to deliver his lines fluidly. We have to work with his limitations. Certain dialogue he can remember, and certain dialogue he can’t.”
Though keeping it quick and focused on set to maintain the inexperienced cast members’ sense of energy and timing, the budget and schedule did allow for rehearsal, but De Heer kept it to a minimum. “Like Ten Canoes, there was very little rehearsing done with the actors,” the director told FilmInk. “The inexperienced actors that we had on both projects tend to go downhill very rapidly with rehearsals. We’d try to rehearse the camera without the actors, so the camera knows what it’s doing. And then you try to capture the actors as quickly as possible without rehearsing them at all. You can’t control a ship like this, so you can’t storyboard the whole thing.”
According to Ian Jones, however, all of the scenes would be solidly worked through, if not wholly rehearsed per se. “We’d talk with David about where the scene is coming from, and where it’s going to,” the cinematographer explained. “There are all the traditional director/actor conversations. By the time that I’m rolling the camera, all the little indiscretions have been ironed out. It doesn’t stop David from adlibbing if he feels that it’s emotionally working for him. In truth, he needs time to work and associate where he is and what a scene is delivering for him as well. The key is the rehearsal time, and keeping that simple and finding where that character should be. David is capable of that. He certainly delivered just through the nature of who he is, and enjoying being in front of the camera. David is charismatic, as we all know, and the close-up is really important. As everybody knows, he can truly deliver in that department. The script always had the content, so it was just a matter of delivering that to the screen. The actual narrative, and the rationale behind the way that the character moves through the story, was always there on the page. Like every script, it depends on the cast to deliver that, and that’s what David did.”
And though most renowned for putting the polish on Hollywood blockbusters, Ian Jones also knew that Charlie’s Country would benefit from a little post-production tinkering. “I knew that I had control in post, and that helped immensely. I was there through all of the digital intermediate and grading. In this day and age, you can manipulate small nuances which only enhance the film, and that’s where I was putting my energy. David Gulpilil is very dark eyed, and the whites of the eyes aren’t there. The modern digital post part is so good that you can model those looks, and get the detail that you’re after.”
Fine-tuning his work is something that Rolf De Heer is wholly familiar with. He truly owns his projects, driving them from concept to release, and continuing to put out films at a rate that most local directors could only dream about. He hit the heights early when the mind-blowing and ingeniously shocking Bad Boy Bubby became an international film festival cause celebre. “I’ve been very lucky with how things have worked for me,” De Heer told FilmInk in 2013. “I discovered the dark side of the coin early, and was able to eke myself through it by realising that I didn’t want to do that. I’m not interested in earning lots of money, so I’m not going to Hollywood, so to speak. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to make a film there, but it’s not about making money. I learnt all that stuff early, and in a very good way, so I haven’t been bothered about it since. I remember turning up at The Venice Film Festival as a nobody, and people would run up and say, ‘Excuse me, are you famous?’ You just laugh. And then they say, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ And you laugh again. When you think about things like that, you form an attitude, and it’s really worked well for me.”
Ironically, one of the most prolific and incisive documenters of Australian culture was born in Heemskerk in The Netherlands, and didn’t come to Australia until he was eight-years-old. “I simply feel like an Australian,” De Heer says. “I left my Dutchness behind a long time ago. I’m sure that it’s still in me, but I’ve never felt like anything but Australian. Quite quickly, I was at ease in the Australian milieu. I feel about issues in much the same way as any Australian does. Obviously, different Australians feel about different issues in different ways. I’m just one of them. The fact that I’m dealing with indigenous issues is part of a process that has come to me in a very particular way. I feel very lucky and privileged about the way in which that has happened. It started many years ago in my filmmaking career when I was commissioned to write a script about first contact. I had to do a lot of research, and that’s really what started it off. That was about 25 years ago. That script never got finished and the film never got made, but it kicked off an engagement with those issues in a way that most people don’t get the opportunity to experience. I had to go and stay in an Aboriginal community, and that’s how I came to it. Before that, I was just as ignorant as all of us were back then. The stories of our relationship with Aboriginal people – the stories before 1990 – were different stories than we know them now to be. At school in Australia, I was taught a comic book version of history.”
That engagement with true Australian history, of course, sent Rolf De Heer hurtling into the often bizarre and unpredictable orbit of the great David Gulpilil (who won an AACTA Award for his work in Charlie’s Country), and between them, they have made an enormous – though usually humbly stated – cultural impact with regards to shifting that once readily accepted comic version of history. “In my discussions with David, I have often enough said, ‘Look, David, we can’t change the world, but we can make a tiny bit of difference, and let’s hope that it does make a tiny bit of difference.’ He wants people to see it. Charlie’s Country has a chance because it does engage people emotionally, which is often a wonderful thing. If you go to the cinema and you are amused by stuff, but in the end you feel strongly about things, then that’s a really good cinema experience.”
Charlie’s Country is available now on DVD. For more on NAIDOC Week, head to the official site.