INTERVIEW: Yank Curran Makes Waves with Aussie Debut "Praise"
by Anthony Kaufman
Andrew McGahan‘s novel “Praise” was a cult hit in Australia, winning the prestigious Vogel Award for best Australian first novel of 1991. The grungy story of two down and out Brisbanites in love — Gordon, an alcoholic chain-smoking asthmatic, and Cynthia, a sex-addicted head-case with bad eczema — captured the damaged hearts of cynical Aussies everywhere. So when it came to making the film, you’d think some upstart Australian filmmaker would jump at the chance. Well, it sort of happened that way.
John Curran was born and raised in New York State, went to Syracuse University, lived in New York City for a couple of years, but then jumped the continent at 25 and moved to Australia. He lived there for 10 years before embarking on the film version of “Praise” and the result reflects a vision of Australia truly warped, evocative and oddly heartfelt. With masterful cinematography by South African D.P. Dion Beebe (Alison Maclean‘s “Crush,” Jane Campion‘s “Holy Smoke“) and two stand-out performances from its leads Peter Fenton and Sacha Horler, “Praise” is a welcome addition to new Australian cinema. Curran has since been working on commercials in Sydney and Los Angeles, however, and a new feature script he assures me will be “American” — whatever that means.
Following its FIRPRESCI critics prize at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival, “Praise” screened at Sundance 1999. Horler was launched to Aussie stardom winning multiple awards for her debut film performance, and the film was acquired for a U.S. release by Strand Releasing. Curran spoke with indieWIRE‘s Anthony Kaufman about Australian light, the enthusiasm of raw, unjaded talent, and the pleasures of bad sex.
indieWIRE: Back at Sundance 1999, I remember saying to you, “I’ll talk to you again when you’re film is released in New York,” but it took a little longer than I expected.
John Curran: Everything does in this industry, doesn’t it?
iW: So why do you think it took so long?
Curran: Specifically, in the last couple of years, I think the whole idea of art-house smaller films have become tougher to get released, anyway. And “Praise” certainly was never going to be a mainstream film. Distributors probably can afford to wait and see how something is marketed and how it goes in its home country before they admit to it.
iW: So how did it do in Australia?
Curran: It was critically really well received. We couldn’t be happier. It was a small platform release and everyone was really blown away by it. And it was up for some 10 Australian Film Institute awards.
iW: So what was it like coming to this Australian story, having grown up in the U.S.?
Curran: Living here as an outsider, you can actually see a culture for what it is, as opposed to being part of it. The film was an opportunity for me, particularly the fact that it takes place in this Australian old man’s home, it allowed me to pay tribute visually and orally, to a lot of things that I see as quintessentially Australian: the color scheme, the architectural design, the style of pubs, and on the background soundtrack, there’s old Australian documentaries. I got to play with different levels and infuse it with what I see as Australianisms.
iW: The cinematography is really incredible, especially the way you’re able to get into the character’s minds and how you reflect that visually.
Curran: We knew that, on a really fundamental level, it was a subjective film. And that all the decisions we were going to make were going to spring from the character of Gordon, meaning the pace of the film had to reflect his character and the look of the film had to reflect his attitudes, and the soundtrack had to chart his emotional journey. The fact that it was going to be predominantly set in a room, we also wanted to have that reflective of Queensland, specifically Brisbane, so we talked about the quality of light and the sound design to establish a Brisbane state of mind. The story is set in this squalor; but we wanted to find beauty in the squalor. We didn’t want to be judgmental and present this world as disgusting. Dion [Beebe] and I were closely aligned from the beginning that it would be a relatively still film, strong compositions, and it was going to have a painterly quality to it. And because of the fact that one of the main themes of the film is addiction to cigarettes, we wanted to have this hazy smoke throughout the film that you felt and added to the claustrophobia, but also to soften the images, as well. All of our decisions really came from the character of Gordon, to the point where our decision making process was based on “Is this Gordonish or isn’t it?”
iW:You mentioned the colors of Australia; I remember lots of blues and yellows. . .
Curran: We really had only one room to play with, and it would be really boring if it was just a cube that didn’t have different personalities in it. The kitchen was very much fluorescent and cold and we set specific scenes in that room for that reason. It’s a very blue room with a cold light. And the bedroom was the classic Queensland walls with a sort of yellow mustard color. That maroon and gold is very Australian to me, particularly in a lot of older pubs and older houses, it’s really a signature color that you see a lot. We used that for warmth and also that specific Queensland feel.
iW: So I wanted to ask you about working with Sacha Horler and Peter Fenton, two people who came with interesting backgrounds; Peter is a musician, not an actor, and Sacha had never done leading film work before.
Curran: There’s a lot to be said for experienced, well-trained actors. But for me, there’s something really interesting about unformed raw talent, that’s really, really eager, that isn’t jaded yet, that isn’t experienced in the politics of the business, and it just gets in there and just wants to work and is really hungry to do something. I suppose there’s an advantage in this country in terms of casting where you have to cast names, because here there really aren’t names. We were free to cast correctly. There’s a lot of films you see that have big names, but they’re the wrong people. They might have helped get the film financed and distributed and maybe a lot of people went to see it, but it’s not necessarily the right casting decision. Whereas with “Praise,” we just waited until the right two people came to the door and it happened to be Sacha. I was having trouble finding a Gordon that had the balance of woodenness, discomfort in his own skin, but also sort of a grace, as well. And Peter had that right balance. And Sacha, of course, for Cynthia, needed to have that whole spectrum of emotions and needed to be a pretty capable actress and she is. She’s strongly trained.
iW: How was it working with two people not used to being on a film set, and not used to baring their souls — and bodies — in front of a film crew?
Curran: I think that Sacha’s talent and experience, in terms of really immersing herself in a role, helped influence how serious and how focused Peter became; she was a great influence on him. They worked off each really well. Since she was the more experienced, he had to follow her lead and live up to it. And because he was untrained and he was naturally focused on listening, he helped set the tone on certain scenes where it had to be more lower key and intimate. He helped diffuse any theatrics that a trained actor would try out.
My memory of the shoot was that it was the easiest part of the process. We had a great crew and all the principle heads of the departments got along really well with really good lines of communication, and everybody was really eager and passionate. And I think it just set a tone where everyone got in there and did it. We had our tough days, of course, and our emotionally draining days, but their inexperience was more than made up for in their enthusiasm.
iW: There is a lot of sex scenes. And that can be an uncomfortable experience for actors, especially neophytes. How was that handled?
Curran: In the original casting, when people came in, one of the first questions we talked about was the graphic sex in the film. And I didn’t want to crap around about it, I just wanted to be sensitive and be as private as we could, but let’s face it, we’re doing a film shoot, and there’s going to be people standing around. I didn’t want to be gratuitous in the sex scenes. We weren’t trying to eroticize the sex to be exploitive; we were trying to be honest about it. And I think both of the actors appreciated that it was about doing honest sex and that was a fun challenge, as opposed to having the responsibility to make it beautiful and erotic, that creepy false thing. But to get in there and have bad sex, it’s a lot easier and it’s a lot more fun in a way.
iW:It’s a credit to the film that you have these unappealing characters who are so appealing. That must have been a careful balancing act.
Curran: I think “Praise” is 99% casting and it’s always going to be that. If you didn’t like these two people, you’re going to bail out of the film really early on. The idea was to really tell a love story from the perspective of a guy that doesn’t really know anything about love and is admittedly a failure in the bedroom, but also shows his genuine love for this person who we’d normally not see on the screen. I think the majority of relationships out there are probably like this relationship. They’re not necessarily beautiful people that have great sex all the time and they’re really charismatic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting and have (good) stories to tell.