Legendary Aussie actor, John Jarratt, talks with us today about his most memorable film and television roles, his new autobiography, The Bastard From the Bush, and his new film, StalkHer, which co-stars Kaarin Fairfax. Having starred in such notable productions as Wolf Creek, All Saints, and McLeod’s Daughters, John discussed what he sees as the future of Australian cinema and his upcoming cinematic release, Boar.
SR: I was lucky enough to catch the Saturday night screening of StalkHer and the crowd obviously really enjoyed the movie. What’s it like to watch early screenings with an audience?
JJ: Well, I don’t sit in on the film because I’ve seen it about a million times, but I do occasionally go in and listen to the audience and their responses. So, I don’t sit through the film; but I’ve been in there enough throughout our tour to know that the laughs are coming in at the right places and that’s been very encouraging. It’s all about the laughs. You go for the laughs – that’s what acting’s all about.
SR: While you were shooting, did you have much leeway for improvisation?
JJ: No, because the script was so good that we didn’t want to mess with it. But we workshopped the living daylights out of it and made it our own over a two-year period – Kaarin and myself. So we pretty well nailed it and got it extremely tight by the time we put it on set. So we didn’t mess with it too much, not in the impro side of things anyway.
SR: You had the writer, Kris Maric, with you at the screening on Saturday. When did you first hear about the project and what were your first impressions when you read the script? You said that when you went to edit it you found that you didn’t need to because it was so good.
JJ: I was looking to do a script called Passing Winds and we were working on that. But the budget was going to end up about $6 million, so we thought we should do something a bit simpler. And I was talking to Kris Maric about it and she had the script. So we ended up using her script and I thought, ‘My God, she can write as well.’
SR: Do you do a lot of writing, yourself, lately?
JJ: Yeah, I do. I’ve written a film called Savages Crossing that was produced and I wrote Passing Winds. I’ve got into writing lately. I’ve written a mini-series that I’m pretty keen to do. So, yeah, I’m into it, well, in my later stages – I’ve only been doing it for the last couple of years. And I’ve just written a book called The Bastard from the Bush, which is an autobiography, and they’re pretty happy with that so it’s coming out in October. Yeah, writing’s becoming a part of what I do in my older years.
SR: I first saw you on screen in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Do you look back on those days post-NIDA and in the early years of the Aussie New Wave, fondly? What are some of your recollections from that time?
JJ: Yeah, they were great times because I was 22 years old and just out of NIDA and everything was amazing. And I ended up playing the lead in my first film, The Great McCarthy, and a couple of months later I was in Picnic at Hanging Rock, with Peter Weir. I was a 22-year-old thinking, ‘My goodness, I’m in the movies.’ It was pretty exciting. I just happened to walk out of NIDA into the renaissance of the Australian film industry. So, you know, I was a very lucky boy really.
“…The Wolf Creek TV show. I’ve got a six-part TV show…”
SR: What’s your history with Kaarin and what was it like collaborating on this project?
JJ: Well I first met Kaarin when she played my little sister, Grace, in a miniseries called The Last Outlaw, which was about Ned Kelly. So we go back 30-odd years. We’ve got a long history.
SR: How did you get together again to work on StalkHer?
JJ: Oh because I read the script and I thought she would be the best person to play the role. I know what she can do and she’s perfect for it. She had a big history before she had two children. And then she took a back seat and raised the kids because being mum was number one to her. Her kids are all grown up and they actually sing one of the songs in the film and she’s back into it and, luckily, she did StalkHer with us.
SR: And you have six kids. Have they followed in your footsteps, artistically?
JJ: Yeah. The young fellow who comes in during that dream sequence in Wolf Creek – that’s my son, Charlie. He’s a singer and an actor. I did a song called Killer in Me and he sang the chorus with me and you can’t tell the difference between the two of us, and it’s actually in unison. So, genetically, our voices are the same.
SR: Did you enjoy shooting the Killer in Me video clip? It looks like it would’ve been fun.
JJ: Yeah, it was good fun. Yeah. I enjoyed putting down a vocal. It was something a bit different. And it was a good song, so I got right into it – I enjoyed it.
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SR: Well, of course everyone knows Mick Taylor. The night I went to see Wolf Creek, I was really excited to be seeing this highly anticipated home grown horror. I had an inkling that it was going to be scary, but nothing could’ve prepared me for just how frightening it was. People actually left the cinema in terror! When you first read that part, what was your response? And what was it like to see it onscreen the first time?
JJ: Well, when I read it I thought it’d be a good film but I never realised it was going to be as great as it had become. But the director’s a very clever guy, so it was obvious that I don’t come into my own and I had a young director who knew what he was doing and I was given a role that I knew what I was doing with. So the combination was pretty good.
SR: Are you able to appreciate your films from the position of an audience member, even though you’ve obviously lived through the scenes we’re seeing?
JJ: Yes, I can divorce myself from it and sit down and watch a film. I do have that ability. Not every actor does, but I can look at it and get wound up in me playing the character. I can divorce myself from it and enjoy the film.
“…At the moment, we’re punching the shit out of illegal downloading with both fists and we’re going to win that battle. It’s just always like wading through treacle, but we know we make among the best films in the world. And we’ve got some of the best actors in the world…”
SR: We hear that you’re currently shooting Chris Sun’s new horror, Boar, in Kandanga. Can you tell us a bit about shooting that film?
JJ: Yeah, well it’s about a monster pig the size of a rhinoceros. I’m playing a bit of a hero character, really. It’s an ensemble cast and it’s very equally written. It’s got people like Ernie Dingo, Steve Bisley, Roger Ward, Chris Haywood – all these jurassic actors, so it’s been a ton of fun. I’ve only done a day so far, but I’m back to do a week next week and the week after. I think it’s going to be very good, because the script’s been written really well and it’s got a real community feel about it. He’s captured the town people and when they start getting torn up by the pig, everyone feels ill at ease. I think it’ll be a good film.
SR: Well, you’ve done a range of stuff for both TV and film. Which is your favourite form and why?
JJ: I don’t prefer any of it. I just like being offered challenging roles and I can hardly wait to get into it once I get a challenging role. That’s basically how I operate.
SR: Which of your acting roles would you most like to be remembered for?
JJ: Oh, Ned Kelly from The Last Outlaw, Jacko from a miniseries called Fields of Fire, a film called The Settlement, and another called All Men Are Liars. They’re not all necessarily great films as far as public awareness of them… And Mick Taylor, I suspect. And StalkHer, which I just did – that was a challenging role, and it was pretty good to get your teeth into.
SR: There are many intense scenes in StalkHer. Was it hard to wind down after a day’s shooting?
JJ: I never had a chance to wind down – I was directing it. They’d say, ‘Cut!’ and I’d go over and put out all the fires, like all directors do after a day’s work and the wrap-up, and then think, ‘Okay, what are we doing tomorrow?’ And then we’d go back and sit with Kaarin and my daughter who was home with me while I was on that shoot. We’d make some soup and then go through our four ton of lines for the next day and go to sleep. Then I’d get up and I’d go back in and it was just relentless. So I didn’t have time to settle back.
SR: And the film was produced by your company, Ozpix Entertainment. When did you put that company together and what’s your vision for the company’s future?
JJ: We got together about five years ago and we just want to make films that are entertaining and the kind of films that people want to watch. The difference between arthouse and commercial films for me is that people want to watch commercial films. They’re the kind of films that I want to make. And they’ve got to be good. The scripts have got to be good. You need three things to make a good film: the script, the script and the script. You can’t build anything without the foundations. That’s basically what we want to do. We want to build an entertainment base within our company that people enjoy.
SR: I was watching an exchange on Facebook recently between a local cinema and its patrons. This particular cinema chastised moviegoers for not supporting Aussie films.
“…I just hang for the next experience and the next decent script…”
SR: I mean, we all want the Australian film industry to thrive and would all be devastated to see it fail, yet people don’t seem to want to get behind locally produced efforts. Why do you think that is?
JJ: Somehow or another, back in the late eighties or early nineties, someone or something put a poisonous note out that Aussie films were no good or something. And sometimes, bad press sticks and we’ve just got to turn that around. We’re definitely not bad filmmakers. I mean, we’ve got an amazing history of making great films. It’s just this perception that they’re not good and it’s an absolute fallacy.
SR: An extension of the cultural cringe, maybe?
JJ: Oh yeah, we’ve all got that. And the tall poppy syndrome, you know? It’s okay when you’re battling but if you make it, you’re up yourself.
SR: What do you predict for the future of Australian cinema?
JJ: Well the people I work with and have worked with for years are an integral part of the industry. We’re tough bastards and we will survive. The tougher it gets, the harder we go and the more determined we are to keep it happening. At the moment, we’re punching the shit out of illegal downloading with both fists and we’re going to win that battle. It’s just always like wading through treacle, but we know we make among the best films in the world. And we’ve got some of the best actors in the world – 50% of the biggest actors in the world now are Australians and it’s because we know what we’re doing and we’ve got a bit of depth and a bit of magic about us as a race. We should be very proud of it, and we’ve got the larrikin factor that no other country’s got. They don’t even know what the word means. And that goes for the men and women. So, I think we’ve got the potential to be extraordinarily successful – we’ve just got to keep pushing it to the point where everyone takes notice, and if we can get some of those big stars back here to do some of our films, that’ll establish it. I mean, we should be making films that attract big Aussie stars to work in their own country.
SR: Yes, it’s a shame to see this mass exodus of talent.
JJ: Well, they don’t just run off. They get offered $2 million and go and earn it. If someone offered me $2 million, you wouldn’t see me for skid marks. I’d go. But I’d never leave Australia – I’d always have a return ticket. And there are a few of us like that. I mean, Geoff Rush lives here, Guy Pearce lives here, Russell lives here. It’s going to work eventually… and Russell doing the Water Diviner… It’s all good, you know? And Geoffrey being in Aussie movies and stuff. And same with Cate Blanchett – she does her fair share of Aussie films. So, I think that’s the future – if we get the biggies to keep influencing the industry, it’ll grow.
SR: I was amazed by the trajectory of The Babadook. We had this incredible locally made film that was barely a blip on the local radar before it was yanked from cinema schedules. The next we heard, it was this rip-roaring international success being praised by the likes of the director of The Exorcist. You had to shake your head.
JJ: Yeah. There’s also a real struggle if you’ve got no one in it. It’s harder to sell, you see, in this country. And without bashing my own tin, it’s the same genre as Wolf Creek really – it’s a horror – and you can sell Wolf Creek a lot easier with someone everyone recognises. It’s also important to have somebody in the movie that you can hang your hat on. That makes it easier to sell. You can have a great film, but if you haven’t got a face to promote it… You know, say I made a brilliant car but it’s not a Commodore… If it’s called the Witzelheimer or something… it’s harder to sell. It doesn’t mean it’s any less good than a Commodore. It’s just that someone says ‘Commodore’ and you know what they’re talking about. So, it’s very important if you’re going to make a movie that you’ve got someone who can help you flog it. That’s the biggest part if it’s hard to sell. But overseas, it can be a quirky foreign film, and it can go into that realm. Foreign film festivals are more open to that than Australians, you know?
SR: What are some of your favourite recent Australian films?
JJ: Oh, well my favourite Australian film is Balibo, of recent times. I thought Anthony LaPaglia was bloody amazing in it. I just thought it was a great film. His dying scene I’ll never forget – it was extraordinary. But we make lots of good films.
SR: Which of your onscreen characters are you closest to in character?
JJ: Well, funnily enough, probably Ned. I was the same height, same age… He was Irish… I’m Irish. What gave him the shits gives me the shits. It’s just that in those days, you got hung for it.
SR: Is there a role type or a movie category you haven’t had a chance to explore yet that you’ve always wanted to tackle?
JJ: I don’t think like that. I just hang for the next experience and the next decent script. I’ve always wanted to do a comedy, so that’s why I wrote Passing Winds. A comedy/western – I’ve always wanted to do that. I thought that would be a ton of fun. So I’ve written that and it’s something I really want to do.
SR: Who inspires you, creatively?
JJ: Lots of people inspire me. My Uncle Ben inspires me. He’s the greatest man I ever met. And you know, the Mandelas of this world who don’t hold grudges – who move on and don’t live in the past and who teach people how to handle things well. My son inspired me when he said about the Bali people being killed – he was 11 at the time – and he said, ‘Nobody should be allowed to kill anybody – even if you’re the president.’ And I thought, ‘If an 11-year-old can work this out, why can’t you?’
SR: So what’s next for you, after Boar?
JJ: The Wolf Creek TV show. I’ve got a six-part TV show.
JJ: I thought it was going to be a crazy notion, but the Underbelly guys have written the scripts and they’re really good! I was very surprised. I was a bit worried about it. I thought we were maybe trying to exploit it just a little bit too much but the scripts are really good and it’s going to work, I think. And then I’m doing a film called Who Cares Sal? The lead character is a Down’s syndrome guy who’s going to be played by Gerard O’Dwyer who got Best Actor at Tropfest back in 2009. He’s a really good actor. It’s a great story and we’re really looking forward to that.
SR: What’s the premise?
JJ: That his mother’s dying and he’s got nobody. He’s 30 and his father was a one-night stand back in ’83. So he goes out in the middle of Sydney looking for his father who’s a faded rock star and he finds him. So he has someone to live with. But Dad’s an alcoholic and Mum’s dying.
SR: When will work start on that film?
JJ: As soon as I get the rest of the money.
SR: Thanks so much for your time today, John. We really appreciate it. All the best for the rest of your StalkHer tour and for the Boar filming.
JJ: Thank you so much for your support. I really appreciate it.
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