When director John Hillcoat asked Nick Cave to pen the screenplay for a western set in the Australian Outback, Hillcoat figured it was safe odds the country’s infamously brooding singer-songwriter would spin a dark and violent yarn. The upset for writer and director alike was just how easily The Proposition, now in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, unfurled for the gothic troubadour.
“It was a mutual surprise,” says Hillcoat, with whom Cave had previously worked as both actor, co-writer and soundtrack composer on the 1988 prison drama, Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead. (Cave also penned the soundtrack for Hillcoat’s 1996 film, To Have and to Hold.) Although Cave had previous experience as a writer — his novelAnd the Ass Saw the Angel, was published in 1990 — The Proposition was his first solo screenplay. And he dove right in: Cave’s process was simple and aggressive, sending ten pages to Hillcoat by email every day. He was done in three weeks.
The resulting storyline attracted a cast of boldfaced names, including Guy Pearce (Memento) as one of a crew of outlaw brothers, with Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) as a British captain and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) as his wife. John Hurt and David Wenham (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) also appear in the film. Nick Cave does not.
“I don’t think [Hillcoat] wants low-level, second-run, aging rock stars walking through his films,” Cave jokes. “Both me and Johnny know that I can’t act. Also, there was the  Sam Peckinpah [movie], Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid . . . I think Johnny always felt that the one thing about that film that didn’t really work was Bob Dylan being in it.”
A western in the tradition of such films as The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, The Proposition works within a classic set of archetypes. “I just took them and turned them on their heads,” says Cave. The Outback of the 1880s was, Cave says, “an environment where morality is a kind of luxury
that nobody can afford.” Indeed, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, with all the characters embracing love and loyalty, as well as treachery and violence.
But while the American western romanticizes anti-heroes, the Australian western is that much more ambiguous — on empire, racism and the law. “As Australians, we see the law as inherently bad,” says Cave. “We have a real inherent distaste for authority in our makeup. Whereas America — whether you should make peace or not, I think you’ve made peace with your past. I’m not saying this in a condescending kind of way, but it’s quite simple: The making of America was a heroic thing. Australia has a much murkier, much more complex view of its history. It’s just full of all these open wounds we don’t really know what to do with. The whole aboriginal issue is still a kind of running sore in the Australian consciousness.”
The film picks at Australia’s founding wounds with gusto, portraying aboriginals who were criminals, aboriginals who were servants of the British and even aboriginals killing other aboriginals. Hillcoat and Cave were nervous about how people might respond to this: Some aboriginal tribes have a prohibition against images of the dead, whether a photograph or moving picture. (A disclaimer acknowledging this precedes the film.) But Cave says when the aboriginal actors — several of them well-known veterans of such films as Walkabout and Gallipoli — got onto the set, “They were like, ‘Finally, we’ve got a film where we can fucking fight back!'”
Cave has already penned another screenplay, an “English seaside comic drama” set in his current home base of Brighton, the writing of which he said took just two weeks. Cave’s also writing material for the follow-up to 2004’s twin release, The Lyre of Orpheus/Abbatoir Blues. And truth be told, he thinks the day job is far more challenging.
That’s probably because, while as a screenwriter Cave had nothing to lose, Nick Cave the songwriter is someone we expect great things from. “As a songwriter, I go into an office and I sit on my own and I never let anyone in on the songs,” says Cave. “You just sit there with all this fucking shit in your head, nonsense and petty bullshit and all that kind of stuff. You have to try and work your way to doing
something that’s meaningful. It’s really hard, actually.”