Charles Waterstreet was once a very Sydney type of celebrity. His notoriety reached out of the tabloids to touch movies, stage and tv. He rose to prominence as a barrister over three decades ago, a formidable advocate for the defence. Waterstreet fought his high-profile cases with absolute integrity and turned the grim forum of a courtroom into a stage for his silver tongue and rapier wit; a satisfactory outcome for a man who once wished to be a stand-up comic.
Behind it all was a self-destructive streak. He had a reputation for drugs, women and naughty excess. It was all immortalised by Richard Roxburgh in the hit series Rake.
Waterstreet shares credit as co-creator for the series. But about four years ago it all started to come apart for this rich, privileged lawyer, and filmmaker Ricardo Skaff was there to capture the fall.
What has emerged, Skaff says, is a universal story where Waterstreet’s fame, or better yet, infamy, once a source of envy, is now, in the age of #MeToo, a cautionary tale of dread.
As director Skaff and producer Felicity Verdouw progress to the next and final stage of production on their first feature documentary, Waterstreet, we spoke to them about the challenges of making a film at the hot centre of cancel culture.
Charles Waterstreet is a long-haired seventy-year-old with a face that looks like it has been moulded from three-week-old sourdough. A lot of people got to know the face – or at least a version of it and understand the what the name meant – when artist Nigel Milsom won the Archibald Prize for his Waterstreet portrait in 2015.
Ricardo “Right! When I started on this project, I remembered the Archibald. But I really did not know much about Waterstreet. I had no interest in the Law. Until I started worked on this film, I had never even been inside a courtroom.”
Felicity “Typically, when you start a documentary, you have a concept. You pitch it, that triggers funding and then you commence your field photography. That’s not what happened with Waterstreet. Ricardo had already been filming for three years when he showed me the prospectus. That was early last year. I came on board. I thought ‘here’s a movie’.”
Ricardo “There was a strong mythology around Waterstreet. He is described as ‘eccentric, a womaniser, a drug addled celebrity barrister’.”
Felicity “I know from the first time I met Waterstreet, which was before I read the prospectus…I felt charged and confused…I wanted to understand him and where all that comes from.”
Waterstreet’s troubles really began in 2017. There were accusations of sexual misconduct. There were three women involved.
Ricardo “Yes. When we met with Waterstreet for the first time it was not long after the allegations surfaced. A friend of mine who I was working with then told me about him. We sent him an email. We got a reply in three hours. The message we got was about how ‘no one hears my side’. We met at his chambers. There were two or three other people there. It was a total circus. We walked out and right there on the footpath decided to make the movie.”
Waterstreet has been involved in show business (he was a producer on the features Howling III and Blood Oath and the stage hit Boys Own McBeth.) He seems a very ‘big’ personality, used to dealing with egos. Watching the various clips of him – interviews, TV features – in the public domain – he seems quip-a-minute, very funny, a little self-absorbed, happy to be the centre of attention, yet somewhat aloof…
Ricardo “He’s a man impervious to interview. He goes off in tangents. He was famous for the way he conducted himself in the courtroom; his court transcripts are like reading great British comedy…but in interviews he was emotionally evasive.”
Was he forthcoming?
Felicity “Well, he is co-operating. It’s hard to say how he feels about seeing himself.”
Ricardo “We would set appointments. He would break them.”
Felicity “A while back, Ricardo just had to speak to him. He told him, ‘you must trust us and you must be honest’. We have access and approval, but it’s not an authorised biography and he has no editorial entitlements.”
It’s not a talking heads film, then?
Ricardo “No! It’s observational. Reflective. The narrative of the film is a rise and fall. I never really wanted to ‘get into’ documentary filmmaking. The inspiration for what Waterstreet is, is not other documentary films. It’s things like Raging Bull. It’s a biopic. It’s the story of a man who is no longer relevant. He has to decide to look that in the eye and ask whether he can re-assemble himself.”
Felicity: “It’s a tough time for men right now – they are being held accountable and how we hold them accountable says a lot about who we are.”
This is the first feature for both Skaff and Verdouw, who are old friends, a relationship that has helped, they say, to negotiate a project that met a lot opposition and push back. Last year Waterstreet declared bankruptcy. A year ago, the Bar Council cancelled him, barring him from practice. Waterstreet says he is innocent of any wrongdoing no matter what the accusation.
Felicity “No one wants to be seen to be allied with [the sort of behaviour he is accused of.] Particularly men. We have more support from women. Because of the nature of the content, we have to be very careful about how we reference the other people in his life; careful about protecting identities.”
Ricardo “For many years, Waterstreet was someone who was at the top of his game. He was the opposite of corrupt. He was coveted and loved. Overnight that all changed.”
Felicity “Waterstreet is an exploration of the current ‘villain’ in our society. The court of public opinion destroys lives. What is at risk is compassion and empathy. Waterstreet has suffered as a consequence of his actions. I think [the film deals with the consequences of who he is and the consequences of cancel culture]. It makes for a more intelligent conversation.”
Ricardo “He is who is because it was profitable for him to be that.”