[FILM: Interview] The King Is Dead!
On one level, Rolf de Heer is a giant of Australian cinema, with an almost three-decade career that encompasses classics Dingo and Bad Boy Bubby, Cannes winner Ten Canoes, and the critically acclaimed outback drama The Tracker. Across 15 features, he’s covered just about every conceivable genre – silent slapstick, magical realism, social realism, sci-fi, Ozploitation, family-adventure, and even a film about jazz…
On another level, de Heer is the quiet achiever of our industry, turning out low-budget features with a minimum of fuss (with perhaps the exception of his one international venture, the behemoth 2001 drama The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, starring Richard Dreyfuss), and often without government funding (“I don’t like going that way ya know,” he tells me. “I don’t like writing under pressure, I like to do it when I feel like it, rather than ’cause I have to do it.”)
In person, de Heer is unassuming and friendly. Now a resident of idyllic rural Tasmania, he’s in Sydney doing press for his latest film, a dramedy as modest in concept as it is in budget, about a young couple (played by Bojana Novakovic and Dan Wyllie) who struggle to maintain their tolerant composure after moving next-door to a den of dealers. It’s based on his various experiences of neighbours – from the age of ten, when he was a new-immigrant living in Sydney’s outer suburbs, through five decades of different living situations, and neighbours that ranged from saintly to sinister.
“I once lived somewhere where I heard a racket going on next door such that I almost called the police during the day, and then it quietened down; I thought I heard a gun shot, then it quietened down, and I went back inside; 15min later I went back out and I saw two Maoris get out of a car with baseball bats and stroll across into the place next door,” de Heer recalls. “I called the cops, but as the call was going through I could hear them all laughing – and so I stopped the call. That was my sum total experience, and it became that entire sequence [in The King Is Dead] – I just thought ‘What If?’”
It was the years living next-door to meth-heads that directly informed the story for The King Is Dead, which stars Anthony Hayes, Luke Ford and screen veteran Gary Waddell (of ‘70s heroin flick Pure Shit) as leery junkies with a taste for loud music, domestic violence and petty theft. De Heer tapped into this story idea after a funded script treatment he was writing hit a dead-end. He offered to give the funding agency their money back, but citing red-tape nightmares, they told him to just submit ‘whatever’ – and he knocked out a script without further ado.
That was almost 15 years ago now. Not long after finishing the script, de Heer was commissioned to direct The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, and the project was put on the backburner – to be revived a couple of years ago when a ‘lull’ between selling his suburban house and moving to Tasmania coincided with a brilliant idea to shoot the ‘neighbours film’ in his own house, on his own street, working to a super-tight budget and schedule.
Of the element of serendipity that pervades his career, de Heer (who has previously said that he works constantly out of necessity as much as choice) says, “It’s such a difficult thing to do to finance a film [that] I tend to not get enough energy to do it unless there’s a confluence of circumstances. Ten Canoes, for example, was not a film I intended to make, but there was this confluence of circumstances where suddenly I thought ‘click click click click, this this this this this’ – irresistible. And that’s how things tend to happen for me with most films. [The King Is Dead] was no exception – except for the casting.”
De Heer describes a protracted and complex process of casting the film according to the chemistry and ‘threat dynamics’ of various pairings and groups: every character/cast-member needed to fit together just so, to be convincing. As he writes in the press notes, “casting a film well is the next most important thing in the entire process after getting the script right.”
De Heer writes (or at the very least adapts) all his scripts (“Writing is the first 50% of making the film and for me I just couldn’t imagine wanting to make a film that I haven’t written,” he says) – right down to the lyrics in any original music, which in The King Is Dead meant a particularly offensive piece of gangsta rap called that recurs throughout the film, courtesy of local goon ‘Shrek’ (played by Luke Ford).
Besides being gentle-mannered, de Heer is 61 years old – could he not just have got a professional to handle the rap? “Nah you can’t,” he assures me. “The Tracker taught me that. [With this song] you have to be offensive – and that’s easy enough, anyone can do that. However it has to be right for Shrek, and at that stage I knew Shrek and other people didn’t… So Graham [Tardif] the composer did the [beats], then I went to a music store [and] found someone who knew a bit about it: ‘I need gangster rap! Okay, give me two [CDs] but across the spectrum.’ So there was a compilation one and there was one from Eminem…
“But then I realised I had to learn how to rap in order to write it,” he continues, almost incredulously. “So there I was with headphones on… [saying] all these words… it took me something like two days to make it all fit, to make it all work, and I thought it was good. And then I went into the production office – the production manager, the production co-ordinator were there – and said, ‘Do you reckon this works?’ and off I went: ‘motherfucker this, motherfucker that’. Well – they all fell about laughing… We’re just about to post on YouTube a music video we’ve cut to it. We’ll try and get some airplay, but there aren’t many programs that’ll do it…”
What: The King Is Dead! – Dir Rolf de Heer
When: Opens July 12
Where: Hoyts Cinema Paris