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Death, Landscape and Raymond Carver

The man from the Snowy Mountains: Lawrence directs Linney on the Jindabyne set. (Matt Nettheim/April Films)

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 of Bliss, 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.

You’ve been drawn to working with collaborators who have a theatrical background, like Beatrix Christian and Lantana screenwriter Andrew Bovell.

If you work in theater and film, you notice that theater explores much more dangerous subjects. When you go to a script meeting in a theater, they’ll say, “Well, can you take it a bit further?” Whereas when you go to a script meeting in film, they say, “Well, can you pull it back a bit?”

One of the most affecting things about Jindabyne is its sense of how people can sometimes justify the most reprehensible behavior to themselves, how they can rationalize things in the name of moving on with their lives.

That was the initial thing that attracted me to the story. Going back to Carver, I remember listening to an audio interview where he said that he could write a story about the smallest thing. He was on a plane once and, as the plane was landing, he looked down the aisle and he just saw this man’s hand, and the man took his wedding ring off and put it in his pocket. And Carver said, “That’s all I need.” He also used to talk a lot about Chekhov, who was a master at throwing up questions that there were no answers for, and so you ended up working them out for yourself, within your own life. I do believe that intellectual engagement is an entertainment. If you read a great novel that’s challenging and difficult, when you get through it you’re that much better for it, because you’ve put the time in. But now we want everything instantly, and again, that’s the ?difficulty of making an independent film. Somebody said to me of Jindabyne: “This is not a McMovie. You have to chew it.”

It’s one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking not to make a movie on open water. I gather that this was not an easy shoot from a physical perspective.

I love those sort of difficulties. I don’t like sets. When we were shooting Lantana, one night somebody threw a small refrigerator out the window of an apartment block into the street where we were filming — at us, because we were annoying them. Shooting in the Snowy Mountains, on Jindabyne, was equally difficult. The river — somebody could have snapped his or her ankle. There were a lot of snakes. There were a lot of precarious places we had to get gear into. But all that actually contributes to the film, in the sense that it stops the actors from thinking about who they are.

The sense of the natural landscape in the film — and the sense of connection between people and their surroundings — is very powerful.

After doing Lantana, I did want to get out into the landscape. Just as cities can be used as characters, the landscape can be a character too, and I like the idea of that. When I was down there in the Snowy Mountains, the landscape is so overwhelming, even for an Australian, that I was continually concerned about whether I would be able to capture it. Some places are so beautiful that their beauty can get in the way of the meaning of the place. So you have to find the spirituality of wherever you are, whether it’s the city or the country. You know, in Aboriginal culture, the highest point in the landscape is the most significant. So we were filming at the highest point in the whole country, and it’s an area that [the Aboriginals] have been dispossessed from, and one of the reasons that we had so much help from the different communities there was that they all wanted people to understand that. It’s a very important place for them, as it is for the white people, and there you have the conflict.

What do you hope to achieve through your films?

An old woman — she was a painter — said to me once that art is nothing more than something that you see that you have to share. It’s like going for a walk with your wife, along the beach — which I do — and pointing to something that’s really beautiful and saying, “Look at that.” For me, it’s that simple: I see something, and there’s a story there, and it’s only because I am interested in it that I need to go put myself through a ridiculous amount of stress and aggravation to get to a point where I’ve got 400 or 500 strangers sitting in a cinema on the other side of the world, looking at it in wonder and sharing it. It’s that simple, and it’s that complicated.