INTERVIEW: A Man's Movie is His "Castle," Rob Sitch's Aussie Debut
by Anthony Kaufman
Guys, can you check, the acquisition was reported at 6 mil, wasn’t it?
Rob Sitch, along with his four partners in the Australian television and radio collective known as Working Dog, have conceived their first feature film, “The Castle,” a comedy about a father trying to save his pride and joy of a home from airport expansion. Self-financed, written in just two weeks, and shot in 11 days on Super 16mm, the Australian indie’s simplicity and dead-pan humor made a big impact in its native land, where it became the highest-grossing domestic release of 1997, and at Sundance 1998, where it was picked up by Miramax for a reported $6 million.
After a long wait in Miramax’s acquisition vault, “The Castle” finally opens this Friday. The movie’s underdog status will face its biggest challenge yet, playing just a week and a half before the opening of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” a situation that Sitch doesn’t fail to make jokes about. In fact, Sitch doesn’t fail to make jokes about almost everything. Except for the important of story and touching upon a basic truth of life. Sitch met with indieWIRE at one of Miramax’s many downtown New York corporate offices, down-to-earth and eager to entertain in his unmistakably Aussie accent.
indieWIRE: I wanted to start off at Sundance last year. There was all this excitement surrounding this little film from Australia which sold for a huge sum of money? Like $6 million. . . ?
Rob Sitch: I cannot confirm or deny, but it was more than the cost of the film. . .
iW: And how much was the cost?
Sitch: I think we finally agreed on a final figure of $750,000 Australian, which is twenty-five dollars U.S. on the current exchange rate. (laughs)
iW: Tell me about your Sundance experience? What were you expecting?
Sitch: When you travel with anything that is even mildly artistic, you think the world is ready to attack you and sneer at you. But when we arrived in Sundance, you see American culture is such a part of Australian culture and in our hearts, Sundance is the film festival.
Cannes has got the reputation, but to a filmmaker’s heart, Sundance is the film festival. . . .
It was a funny experience. We had the last room in Motel 6 in the outskirts of Sundance; there were cattle in the next room, that’s how far out we were. At the screening, I was so surprised. Americans were getting jokes that Australians didn’t get. Movie experts in Australia were saying Americans won’t get this. And I’m going, ‘it’s about a family, what’s there to get?’ It was amazing that people got the warmth. We worked really hard to create that special kind of warmth, and the jokes, of course.
iW: In between Sundance ’98 and now, there was this question of what happened to “The Castle.?” We wondered if Miramax forgot about its big acquisition.
Sitch: We tried to add special effects. (Laughs) I think even in Australia, we finished the movie in July and it wasn’t released until a year later. And I can’t even put my finger on why it took a year to be released in Australia, let alone here. It’s very easy to keep putting back the date. Then everyone got clever in Australia and said, let’s do it in April of ’97 for the re-release of “Star Wars.”
iW: Were you ever in any doubt that it would actually play here?
Sitch: Nothing is definite in independent cinema, I mean it doesn’t have Tom Cruise in the first credit line. It’s nice that it will come out. I’m sad to say that George Lucas has to go up against us. They actually moved the date away from us.
iW: There’s a group of you who made this movie. Is it some kind of collective, Working Dog?
Sitch: It’s a cult. Five of us have known each other since college days. And we’ve kind of found our roles within it, but all big decisions are made by the five [Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Michael Hirsh, and Sitch]. So it’s like a creative collective. We do a lot of television in Australia. We’re sort of out of short pants and into long pants now, but we’re still the same. We still write, effectively produce, direct and edit and do all those things. We’ve always done comedies.
iW: Do you feel any difference in going from T.V. to making this movie?
Sitch: “The Castle” is a very simple film and we deliberately wrote it like that. It’s a kid remembering things: my dad is big; my dad is this; my family was this; my house is the best house. And so you don’t move the camera for that. You just go, ‘this is my house’ that’s the way kids tell stories. . . . When you don’t have a lot of money, the only thing you have is scriptwriting. So we wrote this at the end of three years of concentrated drama writing [from their TV show, “Frontline“]. And I think it’s easier when you’re used to the form of writing drama.
But in movies, the minute you go pass 30 minutes, all the troubles start. If you don’t strike some resonant chord with people, without some basic truth of life or some truth of life that people’ve forgotten, then the film collapses under its own lightness somewhere around an hour. I think that’s the only kind of alchemy or magic that I can have in my head is that you have to reinvent or reinvigorate a basic truth of life. For me, the truth in “The Castle” is that you’re very easily distracted to think that money is the true scoreboard of your life, whereas in effect, it’s the spiritual value that we put on a house that matters. . .
There’s no crutch in the film. There’s no special effects, there’s no kung fu, the camera doesn’t move, it’s not particularly an attractive location, there’s nothing but the script and the performances. In a way, I found it surprising at first, and heartwarming in the end, that
people found that extraordinary simplicity actually refreshing.
iW: What is the breakdown of the roles in Working Dog?
Sitch: Because it’s not hierarchical, sometimes people resent us. They go, ‘surely you argue?’ but we have a structure. Two people write a draft and the other two script edit. And then that will proceed until one of the script editors says, ‘can I do another draft with you.’ So we’re quite formal. We do readings, the script is laid out, everyone gets a coffee and you present to each other. Internally, it’s quite formal. One of us will say, for example, I like directing, I like having a limited budget, a limited amount of time, I’m a good compromiser, so I put my hand up when things need some direction or planning. Someone else does a lot of casting, because they love watching television and movies and they’re aware of everybody. So we rarely use a casting agent and we don’t audition. We’ve learned a lot of tricks over the years, which people find fairly odd. We pull people in and say, ‘you’ve got the part if you want it.’ But we’ve found it gives people confidence. As long as we know they can do it, then they don’t even need to know they can do it.
iW: You’ve learned this all on your own, no training or film school of any sort?
Sitch: It’s not like I scorn on schooling in film. It’s a fast track way of learning a lot of good things. We wrote a lot of comedy sketches ourselves, and produced them ourselves and edited them ourselves, so we were going to school on our stuff and learning in a very gradual process. We went from doing 3 minute things to 10 minute things to 30 minute things. There are a lot of rules that apply. If we hadn’t been having so much fun doing what we were doing, I probably would have tried to go to film school. If I’d gone, I wouldn’t be making the mistakes I make now. But mistakes aren’t that bad, as long as they’re not fundamental. There are mistakes in every film. Like “Star Wars,” it just kills me that they can travel through time, and exceed the speed of light and yet no one knows how to make good quality cotton. It’s been staring at me in the face for 20 years and it only occurred to me the other day, they’re walking around in canvas, like they lost the cotton technology.