By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Ray Lawrence and Laura Linney on the set of “Jindabyne,” left; Linney as Claire Kane, below both courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
Known for his wonderful use of natural lighting and well-orchestrated ensemble casts, acclaimed Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence (“Lantana,” “Bliss”) has been a long-time fan of Raymond Carver’s pared-down short stories. With “Jindabyne,” Lawrence finally had a chance to adapt one of the Carver shorts with which he’s long been obsessed, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Named for its mountainous New South Wales setting in the southeastern part of Australia, the film explores the ethical, emotional and social ramifications of four buddies who find a murdered Aboriginal girl in the river, but decide to tether her body for the weekend so they won’t have to end their fishing trip early. If that sounds familiar, you might remember it as a plot thread from Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” that was adapted from the same Carver story. The crux of this version, though, is the psychological gender divide between a fisherman (Gabriel Byrne) and his wife (Laura Linney), as the media scandal and culture clash that follow only adds heat to their embittered relationship. It’s a mature, dense, somber, and most excellent piece of drama, which makes it a shame that it’s only Lawrence’s third feature in a little over two decades.
I understand that, prior to filming, you were already familiar with the Jindabyne area?
I hadn’t been for a while. I used to go fly fishing there over the years. It’s the only mountainous area that we have in the country. It’s nothing compared to your mountains. Ours are so old, they’ve been worn down to virtually nothing. But I think a high point in the country, any country, has a quality. To the Aboriginal people in Australia, as I’m told, the highest point in the landscape is the most sacred or significant, so they can see their country fogging up in front of them. When I read the Raymond Carver story, that seemed to be set in the mountains, so [it was] a natural thing to do up there.
In transplanting Carver’s story to Australia, did you and screenwriter Beatrix Christian have concerns about making too many alterations to a classic?
The story’s quite old now. It’s like 30 years old, and I think the men in this film are different from the men in the story. Once we started to work on it, they became different. The sexual qualities have changed to a certain degree from that period of time. In the Carver story, they were more disenfranchised, more on the fringes of a community. It’s a much more intimate scene, all in one house. They do get out a little bit, but it’s basically between one man and his wife, revolving around her feelings for what he has done.
I’m a great fan of Carver, always have been, and I like his characters. What interested me in this particular story is that it’s about responsibility to other people. And again, it was a view of how men and women react to a situation differently. So, I’ve built on that notion and other things I’ve found along the way. For instance, once we decided to make the young girl that’s murdered an Aboriginal girl, we were dealing with a very, very big subject. It became a race thing. That’s relevant everywhere.
What do you find most fulfilling about working with ensembles?
It’s a coincidence I’ve worked on three ensemble films I’m just basically attracted to really good stories. I’m trying to raise money for a film version of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” with Anthony LaPaglia. That’s very much an ensemble piece. But at the same time, I’m taking on another film in Bosnia, and there are only two people in that. I don’t know, I like working with a lot of people. Maybe I get bored having to deal with the same two people every day.
It has become a clichÃƒÂ© to compare ensemble films to Robert Altman, whose name was often mentioned in the same breath as “Lantana.” Now it’s become impossible to read about “Jindabyne” without seeing reference to “Short Cuts.” Are people off-base by suggesting Altman is an influence on your work?
I was particularly influenced by “M*A*S*H,” but at the same time, I was influenced by Bergman’s “Secrets of Women” and Ken Loach. Roman Polanski once said that we’re influenced by eating wheat germ. I remember seeing [“Short Cuts”] in Canada when it first came out. I rushed to see it, mainly because of my interest in Raymond Carver’s stories. I don’t know, maybe I’ll watch it again. It’s sort of like, when you learn how to do a magical trick, the magic disappears. In some ways, going back and looking at that film would take the magic away from it.
The film’s poetic sense of dread even reminded me of early Peter Weir films, like “The Last Wave” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Have you ever thought about making a straight horror film?
There’s a gothic horror film that I would love to make. It’s a strange situation because I don’t like gratuitous violence. I don’t like violent films. But, there’s a story by Cormac McCarthy called “Child of God” that I would love to make into a film, about landscape and culture. The interesting thing about that story is that the main character [a demented, rural murderer] you have to have sympathy for; the book does it. I asked Hugh Jackman if he would like to do it because he’s a really good actor, but he’s always playing heroic roles. It would be probably too hard to raise the money for, but I am interested in that level of horror.
It’s not so much horror, but there’s a certain violence in the landscape, any landscape. You can go to the Arctic or the Minaret plains we were on in “Jindabyne,” or the desert, wherever. At once, it’s awe-inspiring, but silence comes down on you like a lead blanket, and it can be very frightening. The Aboriginal people are the only ones that seem to be able to live with it. They’re the oldest continuous culture of the world, and because they are hunter-and-gatherers and they wander all over the landscape, they have a huge respect for it.
Working with Aboriginal actors, have you learned anything from them that you weren’t privy to in your Australian upbringing?
It’s a secret culture. I mean, if you want to be a Buddhist, it’s easy enough, you just go to study. But you can’t be an Aboriginal, you have to be born one. The culture is a sacred thing. There were some personal things told to me by the elder that I worked with. They have a very logical system within the family, and it’s an extended family. When the children get to a certain age, where they start to listen to their parents less, they are governed more by their uncles and aunties. Their sense of place and country is very, very accordant.
It was a privilege to find out these things. It took nearly three years of protocol to get it right. In the end, it is what they call a “gammon,” which is make-believe. I think it’s a partly Irish word. You know, the Irish have experience with the English, and the Aboriginal people have experience with the settlers that’s very similar. In fact, a lot of Irish convicts have inter-married Aboriginal people. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have an Irishman in the film; it’s part of the subject.
As I said, this gammon is make-believe. So, the ceremony in the end is accurate up to a point. There hadn’t been one performed for, I think, 90 years in that area. And in the desert, when they have a smoking which is basically what the ceremony is the fire is very small because the desert’s flat. The reason the smokestack is so big is that the smoke has to get up and over the mountains, so there’s a certain logic to that. Smoke is a thing that cleanses the people of evil spirits, and it’s all about their respect for the dead and the landscape. It’s all very complicated, and I only touched the tips of it.
“Jindabyne” is now in theaters (official site).