The deeply unsettling Australian New Wave classic Wake in Fright makes a long-awaited and welcoming return to cinemas this weekend. We recently spoke to the film’s director Ted Kotcheff about his experiences whilst making the movie in the sweltering and barren Aussie outback. The veteran filmmaker (who has worked on a number of varied and well-loved features in his career, including First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s) talked candidly about the initial challenges faced in bring this weird, booze-drenched tale to the screen.

HeyUGuys: What drew you to the material originally? It’s not the most obvious of choices for a US-based filmmaker.

Ted Kotcheff: I’d just done a project in the UK with a writer friend of mine named Evan Jones and we were hired by a film company over there. Evan told me of this wonderful Australian book which he thought would be right up my alley. He asked me take a look at the book, and if I liked it, he would speak to the film company about hiring me as the director. I read and instantly loved everything about it – the atmosphere, central characters, the hyper masculine society with all the drunkenness and fighting. The world that had been created was so powerful and I really responded to it. I said I’d love to make it and they hired me.

The film’s setting is quite extraordinary. How close was it to capturing the actual real-life surroundings?

It was semi-autobiographical. The book was by a journalist named Kenneth Cook who working up in Broken Hill [renamed Bundanyabba for the story], the place where the film is set. It was strictly a mining town and the men outnumbered the women, three-to-one. One of the things I’ve learned about doing films is that if you want to discover more about the area you’re shooting in, visit the local media. There was a small newspaper in Broken Hill and I took the editor out for dinner and he told me all about the place. We discussed the huge amount of men living there, and I asked where the brothels were, to which he replied there wasn’t any. I asked what the men did for human contact and he simply said “they fight” (laughs).

[The town’s residents] always wanted to fight me at first. I had long hair and a real 60s hippie look, and I’d go into pubs and they’d want to fight me. I grew up on the streets of Toronto and the old rule about winning in a street fight was to get in there first,  but I soon realised that they didn’t want to hit me – they wanted me to hit them! They needed some kind of human contact, however extreme. It was sad really.

There’s a lot of humour derived from that outsider scenario in the film. Was it inherent in the original script or did you find that as you were filming?

I love doing research, so I went up to the area two or three weeks in advance [of filming]. Unfortunately, the budget was so small that we couldn’t afford to bring the writer over from London so I did a final rewrite. I visited all the pubs and bars and there was one place in particular where a deathly silence fell as soon as I walked in, and forty pairs of drunken eyes stared at me. It was like a scene out of a John Ford western. I ordered a schooner of ale and a guy next to me, very drunk, looked at my long hair and moustache and said “sheeeeeit”. He referred to me as ‘Stalin’ and I held up my glass and smiled at him saying I’d love to talk, but I was dead. He didn’t get it at first, then he began to laugh and the whole room followed before he announced “I love a man with a sense of humour, get this guy a drink on me”. It diffused the situation and from then on those guys in that pub looked after me.

That’s quite similar to what happens with the protagonist in the film.

That’s right. It’s was a very strange culture (laughs). The women weren’t allowed in the bars. They were hardly seen anywhere and the suicide rate of females in that area at the time was five times the national average.

Wake in Fright was regarded as one of the founding films in the new wave of Australian cinema. Were you conscious of starting that trend during production or did you only become aware afterwards?

I didn’t know at the time, but what happened was I became friends with a lot of the young Australian directors, particularly Fred Schepisi and Bruce Bereford, and they asked if I was aware of starting the Austrian film renaissance, which I wasn’t! Those filmmakers thought that if they wanted to make movies, they’d have to go to Hollywood, and suddenly they saw Wake in Fright and realised they could make good films where they were based.

A young man actually came up to me while I was making the film and politely asked if he could sit and observe me directing. He was there for a few weeks watching me work. It was only much later did somebody reminded me that this guy was actually a young Peter Weir.

Was the outback environment a punishing experience?

It’s a strange world. The ground is red and the trees are grey. It’s a wonderful kind of otherworldly landscape and I was totally intrigued by it, but it’s tough out there. I told the wardrobe and production team that I didn’t want any cool colours in the picture. I didn’t want any blues or greens, only yellow, red, orange and burnt sienna. I wanted the audience to feel that heat which drives you, literally, to drink.

I’m a great believer in getting all the small details right, so I had the props guys get me some red desert dust which I would sprinkle around the set before each take. I also got a huge supply of flies from the University of Sydney and I’d release hundreds before I called action (laughs). The flies drove me crazy because I’d be directing and they’d all fly into my mouth and stomach. I’d swallow a huge amount of flies everyday (laughs). I wanted audiences to feel total discomfort from the heat while they were watching the film.

How were the kangaroo hunting scenes achieved?

That was one of the things which worried me the most about making the film. I don’t eat meat anyway, but the idea of killing an animal for film is unthinkable for me. This was decades before computer effects, of course, and I really struggled how I’d do it. One of the crew members informed me that hundreds of kangaroos were killed in the outback every night, to be used in the US pet food industry. It was suggested that I could photograph this culling one night. I went to the RSPCA and spoke to them and they insisted I capture it as those who lived in the cities could be made aware of that was happening in the outback. In the end I used the least difficult material captured from the hunts. Some of it was so gruesome I was worried viewers would run screaming from the cinema if we had included it.

About ten years after the film was released, as a collective result of the film and the work done by the RSPC, they stopped the slaughter of kangaroos for the pet food industry in America. I was happy that my film had made a difference in that area. Kangaroos are the most fascinating of animals, there’s something anthropomorphic about them.

It’s a very unsettling moment in the film where the men are actually square up against one.

I lucked out there. Kangaroos are very specific creatures – if you threaten them, they’re very passive. We couldn’t get the one we were using to jump around as it felt so threatened, so I asked the wrangler to bring another over. This huge, eight foot-tall kangaroo stepped in. He had previously been shot at, and was now missing in eye. He was the Moby Dick of kangaroos. He hated human beings and really went for the actor upon action. I scheduled that sequence for three days and we finished it in three hours as the result of the kangaroo’s performance. I named him Lord Nelson because of his eye and after we’d finished filming everyone applauded him as he looked around confused as to what was happening. We opened up the fenced area and he hopped away into the darkness.