Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

David Caesar

Ray Argall interviewed David Caesar on 3 June 2009:
David took us out to the western suburbs of Sydney, where he shot his early features Greenkeeping (1992) and Idiot Box (1996). We drove around looking for, but not finding, locations that are now buried by new development and freeways. David discusses the wide open uniformity that attracted him here in the first place and talks about car culture and growing up in an automobile-dependent society.

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Tell us about one of your titles on the website

The music in my films is very important, and I listen to music when I’m writing, and, um, a lot of elements of the film are sort of like, designed in my head, as music, around the way music works. There’s, like a, in Mullet (2001), there’s a sequence where Susie Porter’s character Tully – she’s standing in the room while her husband, who’s a cop, is getting ready to go to work, and there’s this whole friction in their life, and she starts singing an old Australian song by a band called Dragon, well New Zealand-Australian band, called 'I’m still in love with you’. And it’s – and the lyrics go something like, um 'It don’t matter what you do, I’m still in love with you. It doesn’t matter what you say, you can have me anyway’.

And she’s singing in this sort of really sad, unmelodic way, and it kind of, for me, I mean, like that’s kind of – getting, in a lot of ways, towards pure cinema for me, and the sort of thing I’m trying to get to where you get the sense of where someone is emotionally, but it’s not explicit. I think people tend to talk around what they’re feeling and talk around what they mean. Whereas I think that people can often sing a song that means exactly what they mean.

Where are we?

We’re driving through the outer suburbs of Sydney. I’ve no idea where we are because I’ve never been on this road, but I think the next turnoff is Cow Pasture Road, to Green Valley, which is where we shot most of, um, Idiot Box (1996). I could never find the exact look I wanted, and so I’d come out here by myself and just drive around and drive around, drive around until… It’s weird, because this used to be the edge of Sydney, and there’s all these suburbs out there.

And I think there’s just always been this sort of thing with the whole Australian self image, which has been based on the idea that exciting stuff, or cultural stuff, or things that really matter happen somewhere else – happen overseas, or, and I actually don’t think that’s true. I actually think that – that the lives, people’s lives are sort of consistently equally exciting.

Yeah, I’m just trying to work out where we are, because all these new houses, so how could that be? Fourteen years later. All these new houses. I think I know where I am now.

When I did that film Greenkeeping (1992), I was – I had this sort of idea in my head that the bowling green itself was sort of in an abstract way Australia. It was like this island. And I wanted to have that sort of idea of – that all this dramatic stuff happening in this – you know, island that was dying because they weren’t looking after it – the environment. Though that wasn’t really an issue, I have to say.

Somewhere in here’s where we had the house for Idiot Box (1996) – but anyway. I’m not sure, that may be the house there. That it? No, maybe not.

How did you get started?

So when I was about 14 or 15, I used to work at a car yard as – selling spare parts on the weekend, and in the holidays, and detailing cars as well. And I saved up and got a Super 8 camera, and I started making little animated films on Super 8 when I was about 15. I had no concept of most of the principles of filmmaking. I just – I used to make these little films, and then, I’d look at them and I’d go, 'Oh, that’s too long. That bit’s too long’, and I didn’t know that you could just cut that little extra bit off, so I’d go back and reanimate the whole thing.

On collaboration

I’ve had a lot of people who’ve been really, you know, helpful over – to me, over the years. And I mean, that’ve been really supportive. I mean, Glenys [Rowe] was very supportive for a long time, and uh, a television guy called John Edwards has been really supportive to me. I’ve found working with some – Bryan Brown’s been – he’s been really supportive, and yeah – but I haven’t had – there wasn’t like a teacher at school, or anything who was sort of, you know, like a Robin Williams character or something.

An interesting working relationship

I have a sort of a – ongoing relationship with Ben Mendelsohn, and I really enjoy working with him, and – and we have these quite deep, philosophical discussions about the character and the film and the story and every … and the idea of what we do as well, and I enjoy all that. He is a really brave actor in that he’ll go anywhere. He’ll always push it, and I enjoy that. But I also find that we have a shorthand in terms of communicating with each other.

What do you do when you're not making films?

I watch films. No, I live on a farm, and a huge amount of my time is spent fixing up the bloody road. Uh, what else do I do? I read a lot of books, a huge amount of books actually. About three or four books a week. And I watch a lot of DVDs. Looking after kids is a big part of life, and it’s a time vacuum, and that’s sort of really been a big issue in the last few years. The whole family thing sort of completely changes – I mean, it’s a cliché – but the whole family thing completely changes what you – how you live your life.

How do you relate to the digital era?

Well, I find the digital era easier to understand than the chemical era I have to say. I have to say I have no romance about film at all. All those bits are really fast, and can work fast, so people think it should be fast. That’s the only problem I have really with the digital age, is that people expect stuff to just happen, and it can just happen, but those thought processes and the evolution of ideas that can happen over time, I think you lose that, and I think that’s a shame. I mean, I’d love to be able to have the digital technology with the analogue, um, schedule.

What is your strongest personality trait?

I find it really easy to sort of exude a level of confidence, and I think that when you’re on set, the sense that if people think, even if you are really worried, and really concerned about time, and really concerned about, um, someone’s performance, or concerned about getting enough shots to cut the scene together, if you’re there, but you feel like – and people are – everyone else feels like you’re on top of it, and that you’re confident, then people tend to just get it done – quicker than if you’re panicking and trying to micro-manage everything that they do.

Advice for young players?

I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve learned it over my whole career, and I wish I’d sort of, like, really studied, say, traditional storytelling, even if I wanted to break those rules, I wish I really understood instead of going 'I’m not interested in that’. I think there’s sort of this huge amount of stuff that you can garner, like, and that’s the other thing, I guess that, I mean, I’ve just been looking up all this stuff about theories about writing, and finding it on the net, like I didn’t know anything about those sort of – like, the – the – a lot of those Greek theories of uh, tragedy and comedy, you know, in the basic principles of drama, you know. It’s like to try and not be so caught up in your own ego, that you can’t learn from other people that are experienced. So, you know, you grow up, and you learn this stuff, but, you know, that’s part of the process too.

Ray Argall: So thanks, David, that was great.

How is your work-life balance?

Everything about the process of filmmaking I actually like. I actually like all the recces and the planning and the, all the early stuff. I enjoy all that. I sort of understand that more than I do sort of real life in a lot of ways. I actually understand what you’re supposed to do when you’re on a recce or when you’re making a film or, you know, it’s very clear what everyone’s role is, and I find it really enjoyable in a way, but I find real life a little bit confusing.

Sound

I think there’s a lot of work that’s been gone – that’s been got into the films. I remember when we were doing Bodywork (1988), we layered up all this layers of moist – there’s no images of death in the film, but we found, like, 50 different types of wet sounds, and so we had this sort of – there’s this moistness to the film, like that you just feel when you’re watching it. There’s – we got – they’re all sorts of sounds. We had the sound of this pig drinking in a trough, and we got that sound and we slowed it down 20 times, and we just had this – these sort of sub-textural bass-orientated thing, but there’s something about these sounds, because they’re wet sounds, it gives you this slightly clammy feel when you’re watching the film, and you don’t notice it, but – in an explicit way, but you kind of feel it. And I think that affects the way, when you’re watching the film. And I wanted people to feel a bit uncomfortable. I mean, it’s about dead bodies, and – but I didn’t want to show dead bodies, so I wanted to have that. And it was – that was really effective, I think.

Car culture

I used to drive trucks for a living before I went to film school for a while. And, um, it was sort of that era where people used to get old EH Holdens and hot them up, and it was sort of the end of the whole sort of panel-van-with-murals-on-them era, you know. I think there’s not may people who’ve grown up in Australia where the whole influence of cars – whether it’s a, you know, like a Suzuki Swift, or whether it’s a muscle car, hasn’t had a large bearing on their life, the fact that a big part of your experience of being in a family’s been stuck in the back seat of a car bickering with your siblings, or parents, or whatever, you know, it’s a big part of our identity as, I think, Australians.

Basically you can tell a huge amount about a person from the car they drive. They’re a huge definition of – of who you are as a person, in a very public, public way. And I also think that the way someone drives a car says a lot about their personality because you kind of can’t hide it, with cars. I mean, this was a big thing for me in, you know, when I was doing that film, Carcrash (1995) – when you’re driving a car, your true personality comes out, you know, whether you’re impatient or whether you – you can’t make a decision, or – all these sort of things are very evident in the way a person drives a car.

The toolbox

I think it’s about sort of like if you have a toolbox when you’re a filmmaker, and they’re all tools that you can use, like the sound, and the characters, and the music and the – and the – if you don’t use them, you’re sort of like limiting your ability to tell the story.