Director Rolf de Heer’s latest feature sees a return collaboration with actor David Gulpilil. Unlike The Tracker or Ten Canoes, Charlie’s Country is a contemporary depiction of one man’s struggle to reconnect with his heritage. The BRAG had a chat with de Heer about writing and directing his latest work.
“It’s a culmination of a 15-year friendship with David Gulpilil and a culmination of 25 years of learning about indigenous culture, indigenous communities, indigenous politics and so on,” de Heer says. “In another way it is much simpler, as David Gulpilil – one of the great artists of this country – was in jail, he had gone into an alcoholic spiral and had committed violent offences that the authorities thought warranted putting him in jail. I went to visit him and asked him what he wanted to do, and he wanted to make another film with me, as he thought The Tracker was the best work he had ever done. In the end I felt I had no choice but to try. We began to work on another story while David was still in jail, then in rehab.”
De Heer has often acted as screenwriter for his own productions, including Ten Canoes and Bad Boy Bubby. “Scripts are pivotal. For me, the first half of a project is writing a script. If you get the script right and cast it well then you could shoot it half out of focus and it will still work. I was specifically interested in it not being autobiographical. What it is instead is at the time David and I started to work on the script – well, I had seen David in jail and I didn’t know he could do it anymore.” De Heer pauses. “I didn’t know his performance level would still be there. So what I did was work out how to get a great performance out of him irrespective of how he was. If we put things in the film that he is familiar with then he can draw on that, and use things that he knows. As it turns out he was in perfectly good shape, he was just depressed when I saw him in jail.”
Although de Heer was not originally planning on starting another project for at least a year so he could allow himself some time to build a house, he found himself working eagerly towards the creation of Charlie’s Country. “It was not easy doing all the scripting, the financing and the contracts in a shed in southern Tasmania in the middle of winter. Still, that’s what happened.”
Despite the difficulties of filming in remote locations in the tail end of the wet season, the effort has paid off. Gulpilil’s performance in Charlie’s Country has garnered much critical praise and earned the Best Actor (Un Certain Regard) award at Cannes.
“In the past that may have been the greatest thing for him, but now it’s not,” says de Heer. “The greatest thing for him is working to move onto his traditional land again. He now has things in his life that are more important than walking the red carpet.”
Charlie’s Country (dir. Rolf de Heer) is in cinemas now.