FORTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD writer-director Fred Schepisi is definitely the most controversial and arguably the most talented of all Australian filmmakers. With only three feature films to his name, he’s won an international reputation as a sensual visual poet and an intrepid explorer of volatile subject matter. He’s viewed as an individualistic outsider — with good reason. He not only wrote and directed his first feature, The Devil’s Playground (1976), but promoted it and distributed it down under virtually all by himself. This tragicomic study of life in a Marist seminary swept the Australian Film Awards and finally opened in New York in 1981 to rave renews. Schepisi’s next film, the incendiary The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), from the novel by Thomas Keneally, outraged home audiences with its frank depiction of racial violence in nineteenth-century Australia but was also hailed by American critics as a masterwork. Schepisi’s first American movie, a visually arresting, spirited western, Barbarosa, has yet to open outside the South and Southwest. Its distributor, Universal Pictures, chose to market it regionally as a conventional shoot-’em-up instead of premiering it in the major northern cities to take advantage of Schepisi’s large critical following. Though the film stars both Willie Nelson and Gary Busey at their best, Universal is now debating whether to open it elsewhere or cut its losses. When I met Schepisi a few weeks after the movie’s regional opening, he spoke quite frankly about its failure to find an audience.
Why is Barbarosa in trouble?
I think the problem is that Universal didn’t like the film. Studios are able to convey their feelings to everyone who sees a film. They had an exhibitors’ screening in New York and managed to make it quite clear that they were not keen on the film and that it was not high on their list of priorities. Both trade reviews led off by saying the film would be difficult to market. That’s no coincidence.
I was in advertising myself, so I’m not just speaking as a director. I think the people who didn’t like the film wanted to be proved right They want to think they’re good marketers. But a good marketer is a person who’s able to take a difficult film, figure out what its audience is and how to reach that audience, and then market it. These days, everyone is after the big one. No one’s content with a modest success.
What attracted you to Barbarosa in the first place?
It has this roguish, picaresque quality, and it allows me to examine hatred as a catalyst for uniting people. The Mexicans unite against Barbarosa the way the American people united against the Ayatol-lah Khomeini.
All your films are about what unites and separates different cultures.
Arthur Dignam, an actor who played in The Devil’s Playground, told me I always deal with individuals outside of a system who are struggling to become part of a system and yet remain individuals. I guess that’s right. On the one hand, I’m conservative — I’m suspicious of extremist factions in society. On the other hand, I’m an-tiauthoritarian and against institutions.
The Devil’s Playground, which is, in some ways, critical of the Catholic church, contains a real respect for ritual.
Rules and regulations are usually set up for good reasons. When I was running my own business (a film production company specializing in commercials), a-couple of university people studied it as an example of open management. As long as people did their jobs, that was it. We all shared in the goodies. Well, I cannot tell you. One man came in drunk. I lost some people. One man came in crying, saying, “I’m becoming a bum. You’ve got to tell me what to da” I had to become a benevolent dictator. But you have to create a balance. You can’t let regulations become rigid.
Why do you think Jimmie Blacksmith upset Australians?
Australians are basically racist, and they are able to avoid facing it because most Australians live in cities. The black populations that remain, that weren’t killed off, are either confined to a specific suburb or live in country towns or right outside of country towns. So most Australians can live a whole lifetime and never come into contact with blacks on any day-to-day basis. They can have very liberal attitudes without ever having to put them to the test.This film put them to the test.
There are some visual similarities between Barbarosa and Blacksmith.
The running scenes are somewhat similar. But in Blacksmith, all the shots of the aborigines were directed to look as if they grew out of the landscape. The whites in the movies were shot as if they were alien to the landscape: up and out, so that they were fighting against it, and there was violence in everything they did. Barbarosa is shot differently, except for the Mexican banditos all tucked down in the canyons. There are two things I tried to do visually: to show you the beauty of the countryside as it looked to Barbarosa — he does stay there because he likes the joint; and to convey the reality beneath the surface — that it’s harsh and rocky and thorny, that it hurts.
What bothers you the most about American movie making?
You spend more time making deals than you do making the films. You don’t get to make many of the films you work on, and if you do, there are so many compromises along the way that the film you make is very different from the film you agreed to make. Fighting with the powers that be can be depleting for an artist
But if what you say about hate is true, then artists could band together against the businessmen.
Well, I hope it’s not true., I hope there are greater motivating forces than hate. The ayatollah united this country, but.so did the U.S. Olympic hockey team. When they won the gold medal, I’d never seen such a national explosion of joy!