Robert Connolly

The Turning is one of this year’s more original film-going experiences and while he was in Brisbane for a special preview screening, I spoke with creator/director Robert Connolly (The Bank, Balibo) about the film (oh, and you can check out my review here)…

Matt:  Straight out – this is an audacious project – the idea of taking 17 short stories and putting them together into a 3 hour movie.  What made you decide to take it on?

Robert:  Well, I love the book, I love Tim Winton, I love his huge body of work.  The Turning is all these different stories where some connect and some don’t connect.  In trying to think how to make it into a film, we came up with this idea that we’d invite 17 creative people to make on each.

It’s a little bit like the Paul Kelly concert where these performers were invited to perform their favourite Paul Kelly song in their own style.  That was the idea at the beginning of the journey and now here we are 4 years later with this finished work.

Matt:  Normally with a film I’m used to the credit “directed by” but here you’re the head and billed as “created by”.  What did that involve?  For example, how did you get all of these directors together?

Robert:  The first stage was inviting people that I liked including friends and creative people I admired.  There were also actors like Mia Wasikowska – the 23-year-old who I love watching on screen.  There were choreographers like Stephen Page and then Yaron Lifschitz from Circa who is based here in Brisbane.  It was a real mix of people.

I sent the book out with either a note or a phone call and said “we’ve got this idea – what do you think we could do with it?”  It’s a credit to Tim Winton’s work that people responded so positively and they found a story within the book that appealed to them personally and one that they wanted to explore on screen.

Matt:  So is that how you decided which director got which story?  Did you have a few directors who wanted to do the same story?

Robert:  Bizarrely, it kind of found a natural shape.  I let people pick 2 or 3 stories that they liked and it kind of took a form that I was surprised by.  I thought it would have been a little more complicated.  I think Tim’s work speaks of many aspects of our life and each filmmaker found something personal that they loved.

Matt:  I often think with movies that the less you know going in, the better, because it helps preserve the experience.  But there’s a lot in this film.  When I watched it for the first time, it took me a while to pick up on the connections between the characters.  Do you think it’s better if you know a little bit going into this film or would you rather people watch it knowing nothing?

Robert:  Yeah, I think you can go in knowing nothing and still enjoy it.  It’s like going into an art gallery or listening to an album of music.  If something intrigues you, you might want to find out a little bit more about it and that’s why we’ve created a program that people can take away from the cinema.  

I’ve always loved the idea that audiences don’t need to know everything up front.  The Hollywood thing is “oh no, the audience is confused, there’s something wrong” but I think audiences like a bit of mystery.  This film is like unlocking a puzzle and giving people the program with information about each short film was the idea that people might ponder it.

What I love is watching people fight about their favourites or the ones they don’t like.  You get this vehement discussion because no two people have the same list.  It’s a very personal experience watching the film.

Matt:  You’ve got some great cast members – people like Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxborough and Hugo Weaving.  Was it each of the directors who went and found those actors or were you helping out and pulling a few strings to get some big names in the film?

Robert:  Yeah, we helped.  We had a casting director, Jane Norris, and we had an approach to try to get some really good actors.  In the end, it was like a magnet for good actors.  There was something about the film that, once we announced it, attracted people like Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett.  I think they were drawn to Tim Winton’s work but also the boldness of the idea.

Matt:  It’s interesting the way the film is being released with an intermission half way through.  Is that something that you have a decision in?  

Robert:  It’s something I proposed.  The idea that there’s a program and an interval where you can grab a glass of wine was interesting to me.  I’m curious about the idea that cinema can be like a theatre event.  It’s like going to see a band or a live show.  I love an interval because you can reflect on what you’ve seen with your partner or whoever you’ve taken to the show.  It’s been a great result that the cinemas have all embraced.  They’re very aware that some audiences want something a bit different.

Matt:  With all these films being made concurrently, how was this film funded?  Was there a central pot of money that was divvied up amongst everyone?

Robert:  I raised the money and then divided it equally amongst the 17 filmmakers.  I like the fact that everyone had the same amount of money.  There was a nice competitive edge where everyone was trying to work out how to spend the money as effectively as possible.  It’s like renovating houses on The Block – people trying to work out how to spend the same amount of money differently.

Matt:  People seem to have shorter and shorter attention spans these days and so was there any trepidation by investors about the commercial viability of a 3 hour movie being released in cinemas?

Robert:  Interestingly, people were really up for it from an early stage – the idea of the interval and the program and the art gallery type nature of the project.  We’re at a time when being innovative is very attractive and people are trying to find new ways of making the cinema experience very exciting.  I was really fortunate to be supported considering how bold the project is.

Matt:  Tim Winton – the author of the novel – can you tell us what he thought when he saw the film for the first time?

Robert:  He loved it which was a great relief.  I promised that I’d take the finished film over to Fremantle and put it in a cinema to show him.  I did that for him and a mate while I paced around outside wondering what he thought.  We had lunch afterwards and he told that he loved it and he’s subsequently seen it three times.  He’s met the filmmakers and had discussions with them.  He’s a very generous man in that he gave us incredible creative freedom.

Matt:  I think about some of your other work like The Bank and Balibo, what have you got planned next?

Robert:  My next film is Paper Planes.  It’s a kid’s film that goes into pre-production in two weeks in Perth.  A young boy from the bush discovers that he has a genius aptitude for making paper planes ad so he travels to the world championships in Tokyo to compete.  So it’s about flight and he also meets a Japanese girl who is the Japanese world champion and they become friends.  It’s a great kid’s film.  It’s like a little fable.  I’ve got young kids and it’s definitely for them.  Very different from my other films.