It’s strange to think that one of the year’s very best films was actually released in 1971. “Wake in Fright,” a gonzo descent into madness set against the bleak backdrop of the Australian outback, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and, after a brief theatrical run, was more or less lost to the sands of time. Thankfully, a worldwide search turned up the original negatives and in 2009 it was screened at Cannes again, this time in a painstakingly restored version. That restoration is now making its way across the country, courtesy of Drafthouse Films, premiering in Los Angeles today and expanding to 35 major markets before being released on a new high-def Blu-ray in January. We got the chance to talk to the film’s director, Ted Kotcheff, and while some scheduling conflicts cut our conversation short, we were still able to talk about what it was like for a Canadian to make a definitively Australian film, how a film gets lost, and what it’s like having Martin Scorsese as a high-profile booster.
At the time of production of “Wake in Fright,” Kotcheff was a Canadian filmmaker known for his austere British dramas, things like the civil rights drama “Two Gentlemen Sharing” and the “Room at the Top” sequel “Life at the Top.” Critics of “Wake in Fright” often cite the film as a ‘phony’ Australian exploitation film because it wasn’t made by an Australian and yet serves as a harsh critique of the country’s landscape and people (a sentiment echoed in Oz doc “Not Quite Hollywood”). And Kotcheff says at, at least initially, he was worried about tackling the foreign land. “Being a Canadian I was a bit trepidatious about directing a movie about a country I knew nothing about,” Kotcheff said. “But then I found that the outback wasn’t that different from the Canadian north. It was the same vast empty spaces that paradoxically were not liberating but were claustrophobic and imprisoning. And they also had the same hyper-masculine societies.” Kotcheff added: “In fact, I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks.”
And while the criticism of the film not being a “true” Australian film still lingers, it has largely faded away. Kotcheff, to his credit, sternly defends the film, too. “There are three directors who disagree with that – Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir,” Kotcheff said proudly. “They’re all Australian directors and they all came to me and said, ‘Your film is a seminal film.’ They felt that, when they saw it, they were very inspired by it. They never thought that it was possible to make a good film in Australia, they thought you had to go to Hollywood.” In the years since, of course, Australia has developed a booming film industry, and now Kotcheff says that his otherness aided the film. “It was funny, a producer came to me and said, ‘That film’s got a tremendous wallop. No Australian could have made that film,’” Kotcheff explained. “It needed that kind of detachment.”
We were curious how any film gets ‘lost.’ For decades you would never hear anything about the film, and it was never released commercially on home video, the format which ensures cinematic immortality. Kotcheff ran down the film’s sordid release history for us. He says, at least initially, the film was something of a hit, at least in France, where it premiered following its gala debut at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was in competition). “The film was a success in France because they like films about men under existential stress. That was the only place that it was a success. It ran in Paris for nine months,” Kotcheff said. The American roll out was considerably rougher. “It came to America in 1972 or 1973 but United Artists [the domestic distributor, which has a history of financial crises] never believed in it. They told me, ‘No American is going to come and see this.’ So they opened it in a small cinema on the east side of New York on a Sunday night during a blizzard. Of course they were right – nobody came! They yanked the film and nobody saw it.” In America, too, it was saddled with the much-less-evocative, more explicitly Australian title “Outback.”
For a while that seemed to be the end of “Wake in Fright.” “When films don’t succeed, they were just discarded,” Kotcheff lamented. The filmmaker would go on to have a hugely successful and singularly strange career, including everything from “Fun With Dick and Jane” to “North Dallas Forty” to “Uncommon Valor” to “First Blood” to “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Thankfully, UA wasn’t the only financier of “Wake in Fright,” and the movie still held a certain amount of mystique in Australia. “Half the money put up for the movie was Australian and 25 years later, Australian directors, Australian film schools, would say, ‘Hey we would like to see this film. But we can’t find it.’ They looked in Sydney, they looked in London, and they couldn’t find it,” Kotcheff said. “Then the editor, a wonderful man named Tony Buckley, made it his job to try and find this negative. He took two years on to try and find it and he finally found it in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, in two big boxes with inter-negatives, sound reels, everything.” Buckley’s timing couldn’t have been better. In a turn of events worthy of “Wake in Fright,” Buckley saved the film in the knick of time. “On the outside of the box it was marked ‘For Destruction,’” Kotcheff said with a nervous giggle. “Had he arrived one week later, they were going to make room in the warehouse and ‘Wake In Fright’ would have been lost forever.”
One of the most vocal advocates for the film is Martin Scorsese, whose quote appears on the re-release poster and who, you can tell, borrowed some tonal elements for his own what-else-could-go-wrong epic “After Hours.” We wondered how this started. Happily, Kotcheff told us. “In 1971 at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it was a four o’clock screening, and there was an American voice behind me, which was unusual because it was in France and you would hear either French or Italian voices. And the voice kept saying ‘Wow! Wow!’ and he kept making all of these noises,” the filmmaker explained with a laugh. At the time, of course, Scorsese was an unknown film freak. “Finally the film finished and I looked back and saw this 25-year-old kid in a striped shirt and spectacles and I didn’t know who he was. Outside I went to the PR guys and the PR guys said, ‘Oh yeah he’s a young American director and he only did one film and it flopped.’ They were right: I had never heard of him.” Of course, Scorsese would go on to become one of the godfathers of American cinema, and the two filmmakers’ paths would cross again.
“Of course, the film disappeared and 38 years later, this new print was struck and the Cannes Classics department asked to see it and it was deemed a Cannes Classic and was screened again, at the festival again,” Kotcheff said proudly. “Only two films have had the honor of being screened twice at the Cannes Film Festival – ‘L’avventura‘ and ‘Wake In Fright.’ And you know who is head of the Cannes Classics selection department? Martin Scorsese.” While Kotcheff was playful about telling the story, he sounded deeply affected that Scorsese had singled him out. “It’s touched my heart that he would still remember the film,” Kotcheff said. “I’m absolutely knocked out.”
You’ll be knocked out, too, if you go see “Wake in Fright.” The film is playing in New York now and opening in Los Angeles today, before expanding around the country in the next few weeks.