As the film industry gussies up and hands out some awards at the AACTAs tonight, a chance to explore the roots of, and thinking behind, one of the great Australian films, Rowan Woods’ The Boys.
PEERING AROUND CORNERS AT THE BOYS
Playwright and screenwriter Stephen Sewell could well be talking about Australian culture in general or our warped contemporary political life when he says “We needed to go one step more, past psychology into philosophy: the need for control, the need for power, the need to project yourself in the world.”
In fact Sewell is talking about The Boys, the shattering 1998 film he wrote for director Rowan Woods that is easily one of the best films ever made in this country and one of the most disturbing with its story of three brothers on the path to a shocking if senseless crime, and the women who bear the brunt of it.
The AFI-winning feature didn’t need a camp aesthetic, wog jokes or a patronising middle class comic take on working class life. It didn’t pull in widescreen shots of iconic landmarks or star a soapie actor going legit. And it didn’t need balletic fight scenes.
What it did have was an intense atmosphere of barely suppressed inchoate anger, an emotional landscape as ragged and unfocused as the urban setting (captured in a striking blend of film and video, hand-held and fixed camera, present tense and flash forward) and an ensemble performance – grounded by David Wenham – that rings so true it scars.
Just how potent is The Boys still? While watching the newly released DVD of the film with the director’s commentary running instead of the dialogue or soundtrack I found myself just as disturbed as I had been in the cinema five years ago: stomach tightening, flesh crawling and eyes caught between fascination and flinching.
The DVD has been a long labour for Rowan Woods for whom the film was his first, and so far only, feature (though his next film, Little Fish, starring Cate Blanchett will be shot mid next year). Last summer Woods shot the accompanying documentary, Filmmakers Talking, a boon for more than cinephiles with its detailed interviews with key figures such as Sewell, cinematographer Tristan Milani, producer Robert Connolly and Gordon Graham upon whose play The Boys was based.
In it the physical and emotional aesthetic of the film is explained, from what Connolly calls the “peering around corners” nature of the camera work so that “the tension came from what you weren’t seeing” to the carefully calibrated shifts between film and video and the unusually long rehearsal process.
And as well as his quite personal commentary Wood’s included one of his earlier short films, Tran The Man, another film set in Sydney’s south-western suburbs, laced with the threat of violence and starring David Wenham.
“That particular short film was integral to the coming together of a whole lot of people at film school who went on to do The Boys [four years later] so it was fantastic to include that film in its entirety,” Woods says. “Not just for posterity’s sake but for cross referencing in relation to the documentary.”
But for Woods, who has had a long and busy career, both before and after The Boys in TV shows such as Police Rescue and Farscape, the DVD was a chance for more than nostalgia.
“Four or five years is a long time, especially when you’re going away doing other jobs to pay the rent, and as a filmmaker you can sometimes forget what worked and why it worked in your early films when you took time to do the things you wanted to do,” he says.
And in retrospect it’s time - time to plan, write and get things right - which he believes was the key to both The Boys (which took some four years from concept to film) and why he’s not made another feature since.
“When I look back through the making of the documentary you realise quite often your first film is better than succeeding pieces of work because you’ve given yourself the time, you’ve set the benchmarks and you’ve stuck to your guns,” says Woods.
“It sounds simple and obvious … but one of the reasons why I haven’t made [a second film yet] was that in my gut I was feeling something I couldn’t define but I can define now having made the documentary of The Boys. That was that I didn’t feel comfortable about the undercooked nature of a lot of the projects that were on offer.
“By comparison with The Boys a lot of the features that have been offered me hadn’t set the benchmarks in development of those scripts that we set ourselves. A lot of those projects hadn’t done the hard yards or they weren’t prepared to do the hard yards in the production timetable because they’d got the money and it was go go go: ‘we’ve got the star, the script is wonderful blah blah blah’. And I thought to myself, no no no and no.”
Crucially, as he prepares for pre-production on Little Fish (an idea he had before The Boys, taken up more recently by his partner, screenwriter Jacquelin Perske), The Boys has given Woods confidence and a renewed affection for his first film and the close working relationships, “the combination of minds at the top of the food chain”, that made it possible.
“I still love it. I feel guilty almost saying that because I have to admit there are a lot of pieces of work before The Boys I find a lot of fault in but I can’t find much to fault in The Boys, which is scary,” he laughs.
Or as he says in the documentary: “In the end you can’t answer any questions you can just pose them. I think our movie does that and I think that’s what movies should do.”