You wouldn’t think films about the dark undercurrent of suburban myopia, centuries-old indigenous love stories and a silent film starring an Adelaide busker could possibly come from a single director, but as Drew Turney learns, Rolf de Heer’s the closest thing to a journeyman Australian cinema has.
Could Rolf de Heer be our most successful film craftsman?
We use the term ‘craftsman’ rather than the more obvious ‘director’ or even ‘storyteller’, because few directors anywhere — let along Australia — use the limitations, possibilities and nuances of the cinema screen to such masterful storytelling effect. Although worlds apart in genre, style and content, de Heer could easily stand alongside Fincher, Tarantino and Bergman as those from whom you know every frame is going to be a long laboured-over work of art.
Yet you couldn’t find such a range of work from any other director. Since 1993, when he commanded attention with the darkly funny and disturbing Bad Boy Bubby, the Dutch-born filmmaker has visited a variety of onscreen worlds that put most Hollywood directors to shame with their lack of vision.
It’s not just the plots de Heer films (and often writes) that intrigue, it’s the use of the medium in such exciting ways. A movie about a man sitting watching a video sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, but 2003’s Alexandra’s Project was a simmering cauldron of tension. Every whirr of the tape inside the player, click of the play button and grainy image on the TV were as effective as a hundred car chases and explosions in far lesser films.
In many ways, Dr Plonk is de Heer’s first work of strong cinematic intent since Alexandra’s Project, a story told in a way that forces you to engage with the medium. Dr Plonk is a silent film, the look, tone, style and sound — in everything from the story to the picture quality — lifted straight out of the early 20th century. To make it, de Heer put himself, cameraman Judd Overton and effects whiz John Armstrong in the exact frame of reference he needed — using a single, hand cranked camera.
As he explains, there was only one way to make it happen, and that was not to pay attention to the limits of technology. “I often get an idea and think ‘it must be able to be done’,” de Heer says. “I can think of no logical reason why it can’t be done, so I’ll pursue it until it is done. We often made it up on the spot to achieve what we were after.
“In Ten Canoes for example, it was a very technical problem to record sound from ten to 15 people speaking unpredictably as there was no dialogue written, and wearing almost no clothes or none at all, so you couldn’t hide radio mikes. It was a pursuit until eventually we found the solution.”
You also couldn’t look at de Heer’s body of work without asking how a director goes from a movie about aboriginal tribesmen and the sexual jealousies that threaten them hundreds of years ago to a silent film about a crazy, abusive inventor. Is it conscious on de Heer’s part, intended to make him a constantly moving target?
“It’s not a conscious effort at all,” he thinks, “it’s what appeals to me after I’ve done the previous thing, and the previous thing has an effect on what appeals to me.
“Each film seems to be a reaction to the one that’s come before — not so much against, but [after Ten Canoes] the last thing I wanted to do was get back into the swamp or work in a remote area again.”
So surely then, he must be the ultimate player — carefully crafting his profile by choosing the most intriguing projects. To de Heer, that not only couldn’t be further from the truth, there’s been times he’s felt like leaving filmmaking altogether.
“After [1991 feature debut) Dingo, I stopped having a career. It seemed a lunatic concept because then you’ve got to guard what you do, you’ve got to pick the right things for your career and I’m not interested in that stuff. What I do is make films as the opportunity comes available.”
A particular hard time was 2001’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, and de Heer’s experience working with over a dozen producers (including a 70-year-old Frenchwoman whom he later expressed a desire to punch in the face) is now Australian moviemaking folklore.
“After Old Man I didn’t want to make any films ever again in my life,” he says, “and then The Tracker came along and I thought ‘okay, this is a good test’. It’s the antithesis of Old Man, it’s a small crew and I control the film and the budget completely.
And as anyone who’s seen The Tracker and subsequent movie Alexandra’s Project knows it’s a good thing de Heer enjoyed the experiences of both. They gave him muse Gary Sweet — De Niro to his Scorsese, if you like, and further cemented one of the great filmmaking talents we have.
Silent comedies might not be your style, but for yet another experience you’ve never had seeing a Rolf de Heer movie, it’s just another brave new world…