The Proposition: John Hillcoat interview
The Proposition is another one of director John Hillcoat’s numerous collaborations with fellow Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave. Based on years of research, The Proposition was written by Cave and stars a stellar cast that comprises Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson and John Hurt.
Set against the harsh Australian outback in the 1880s. Ray Winstone plays Captain Stanley, sent to Australia in order to ‘civilise’ society. Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, an Irish outlaw and one of the infamous Burns brothers. Stanley offers Charlie a proposition, bring him his renegade older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and his captured younger brother life will be spared. This sparks off a series of devastating consequences.
The Proposition is out nation wide on the 10th March
LOVEFiLM: I read that you originally asked Nick Cave to write the script, as opposed to him approaching you?
John Hillcoat: That’s right. It’s been 20 years of talking to him about it. I was just looking for the right story. It finally came to the crunch where we were both getting fed up of it not being made. I knew Nick was a narrative songwriter so could at least come up with a basic story and then get a professional in, someone particularly to do dialogue, because both Nick and I weren’t sure he was capable of doing that. But once he got writing it all came out and of course in retrospect we should have realised.
It was a new experience for him and I think the key is that he watched so many DVD’s and films, he sees more films than anyone I’ve ever met including more than film critics! And over the years I think its all kind of absorbed in some way, he tends to kind of watch movies in his free time whereas I listen to music which is probably why we work well together
LF: What grabs you when you watch the film is the landscape, its both astonishingly stunning yet incredibly harsh, it must have been punishing for cast and crew.
JH: Yeah [the landscape] was very much part of the research that I pitched to Nick. The landscape was very much a major character so he really kind of brought that into play. The conflict was between man and nature against each other.
It was a remote frontier and kind of still is. Most of the population of Australia is on the coast and the aboriginal population was too, but then they were pushed very much into the interior. It’s a vast, daunting place more like another planet let alone another country and it’s very harsh and brutal, and yet it’s also stunningly beautiful. So myself, the production designer and the cinematographer went to pains to try and capture the lyrical beauty of the land and the power of the land you know what I mean?
LF: Yes I do, it kind of overwhelms you really. There’s a spectacular scene where Guy Pearce and Danny Huston, as brothers, are sitting on a cliff watching the sunset and the vast expanse in front of them is blinding.
JH: Well yeah it was great to work on location. Everything was on location, because that kind of stuff is very hard to reproduce. But it did make it hard to work in. The script is written like it is on the screen - but we weren’t actually planning to make it and that time of the year! [laughs]
We were hoping to film it earlier and just simulate the effects of the heat but instead our dates slid and we ended up with a choice: Do we go ahead? Knowing that it’s going to be very, very hard or do we call it quits? But I have to say it was such an amazing experience that everyone kind of rallied together despite how tough it was. And for the cast it ended up being - in a bizarre way - an inspirational force in terms of they really were thrown into this situation.
Of course we did our best to try and cope with it. We had medics on set the whole time; we had all these different cooling devices. But you still have to acclimatise; it’s amazing what humans can cope with. It’s scary what you can acclimatise to. It was very precarious and very tough.
I had a near fatal car accident a week before the shoot because the roads are all dusty and with four wheel drive it’s very dangerous. Myself, the production designer, the art director and my assistant were all in this [car] going at a 110k and we went into this rock, and just started to spin, rolling three times. The whole car was totally crushed; they thought I’d broken my neck. The flying doctors flew me to a mining town where they had to do all the CAT scans and all that, but luckily I was ok.
Straight after that I met the cast, who were being flown in on a charted plane. There I was, wearing a neck brace, black eyes and cuts all over me. And that’s how we met! “Welcome to Winton!” There were a few other accidents during the shoot so yeah it was very, very hard to make.
LF: The Proposition boasts a superb cast. Did you always have Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Danny Huston in mind? Or were you somewhat lucky with the casting?
JH: It was a bit of both. I mean, Guy was the one that we started with. Even when the script was still being written Nick and I were talking about Guy. I think it’s like a jigsaw puzzle of who goes with who. Ray was onboard from a very early stage - although different things happened - but finally we ended up with largely the dream cast that we wanted.
We were incredibly lucky, and also with this cast I’ve realised it was so special because a lot of them had always wanted to work with each other, which I didn’t realise. Ray Winstone and Emily Watson has always wanted to work with each other and everyone wants to work with John Hurt! There were all these mutual desires just to work together. And then in the elements it was up to 57 degrees Celsius at times and we had to go into night shoots and it did bond the cast.
LF: I felt so sorry for Emily because she had to wear that fantastic Victorian dress…
JH: Ah well she did suffer the most. The dress [she wore] was velvet and with a corset! The dresses were insane. In fact the number one cause of death back then was from heat and particularly [affected] women. The childbirth situation was terrible, the amounts of deaths of the mothers or children was terrifying - but a lot of it had to do with the fact that their whole insides were crunched and then heated to sixty degrees!
LF: Looking back at your previous films, Ghosts of the Civil Dead for example, ideas of rehabilitation and civilization seem to be a key theme running through your work?
JH: I am very distrustful of that word [civilization] because usually the people that use it are the most dangerous people in the world, as we’re witnessing over in America. It usually comes from someone who has a lot of power behind them, and they have certain ideals and they want to impose those ideals on other people and other cultures - it’s almost always a recipe for disaster. However, that’s also a reality and its how nations get built often, upon this.
I guess it’s that kind of moral ambiguity and the moral compromises that people make that really fascinates me. I guess there is that law and order element that ‘Ghosts’ has that The Proposition has also. And in a way I guess they are very Australian too, even though ‘Ghosts’ was about a new generation high-tech prison, Australia began as a prison colony - so yeah I guess I am fascinated by that period, and also the way that the lawman often reflects the outlaw.