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Ray Lawrence has sometimes been called the Australian Terrence Malick — a comparison that likely has less to do with both filmmakers’ rapturous framing of natural landscapes than with the simple fact that Lawrence has directed only three feature films over the past 22 years. (Malick, meanwhile, has managed to give us four films in 34 years.) For his part, Lawrence, who spent most of the 1990s watching one potential project after another — including a planned adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s desert memoir, Tracks — fall apart, wishes he’d worked more. Then again, he doesn’t make it easy on himself: Beginning with his debut feature, Bliss (1985), and continuing with the acclaimed Lantana (2001), his films have been rigorous studies of mortality, everyday disappointments and human lives that don’t fit into the cookie-cutter archetypes of most mainstream movies.
In Lawrence’s latest, Jindabyne, which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and opens locally this weekend, four white male friends on a weekend fishing trip come upon the body of a murdered Aboriginal woman and, instead of reporting their discovery right away, continue on with their holiday. Then the men return home, where news of their behavior sends seismic aftershocks rippling through their personal lives, their community, and an entire nation still grappling with its apartheid past. Recently, I spoke to Lawrence from his Sydney home about his serenely powerful new film and its unlikely source of inspiration: the inimitably American writer Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home.”
L.A. WEEKLY:Even though you once nearly made a film about a woman crossing the Australian outback by camel, the three films you’ve directed are all group portraits and ensemble pieces.
RAY LAWRENCE: I do seem to like the ensemble thing. I guess I might get bored [working] with just one or two people for eight weeks. Somebody said that the films are a trilogy on death and family, and you could also look at it that way, I suppose.
The deaths — or, in the case ofBliss, a near-death experience — occur at the beginning of these stories, and then the rest of the film is about how those events cause all sorts of hidden things to bubble up to the surface.
A lot of films end with death. Maybe there’s something in the structure of starting with it that appeals to me. Honestly, it’s not a conscious thing. If it was, I probably wouldn’t have repeated myself like that. In Jindabyne, I also wanted to explore the idea of taking something really small that was happening in a relationship and paralleling it with something much larger that was happening to a country. Every Western country has fucked over its indigenous people. I’ve been reading a book lately about Australian explorers, about how difficult it was for them and so forth, and there’s very little mention of Aboriginal people: It’s almost as if they were part of the flora and fauna. That’s a thing that haunts us as a nation. One of the critics here called Jindabyne my “sorry” film, and in one sense, it was an opportunity to make people here think about where they live. It’s also about other things. There are a lot of different layers to it.
One of those layers is the source material by Raymond Carver. How does he fit into all this?
Raymond Carver was a great inspiration. He said that he attacked his characters straight on. He didn’t come from the side or around the back. I love his writing and I was inspired when I first read this story, but it was really the simple moral dilemma within that story that was the germ of the idea. Then [Jindabyne screenwriter] Beatrix Christian started to hang on it all these other things that we discussed. It became about a community, it became about a family, and finally it became about a nation — two nations, really. And it seems to be resonating well: You have audiences at the opposite end of the world responding to something that seems to be quite unique here, but which is obviously not unique.
It seems true of movies — and maybe of art in general — that the most specific stories can often have a universal resonance.
That’s very true, but it creates a problem for the marketing people at the studios, because they ignore that. They try to sanitize things to the point where nobody’s interested. I think it’s the independent filmmaker now who has the responsibility and the opportunity to tell such stories, because the big studios just aren’t doing it. Consequently, it’s very difficult to raise money for these films, not only in Australia but everywhere, because you’re trying to convince backers that these original little stories can resonate throughout the world. Meanwhile, those people are being influenced by numbers on big-budget movies that really don’t reflect much at all. The expectation when those curtains part is . . . you never get a better moment for an audience. And then we continually let them down. It’s not until a real audience actually sits there, with some enthusiasm as opposed to skepticism or whatever agendas financiers and distributors have, that you’re going to get a real reaction.
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