The Dish
Interview with Rob Sitch
interview by Elias Savada, 4 April 2001

Mr. Sitch Goes to Washington. Where his new Australian Capra-esque comedy The Dish will open a month later (it just has as I transcribe this). It's March 14th on a sunny, breezy, near-spring day and Rob Sitch may be weary from the usual grind of an already three-week long publicity tour, catching the red eye in from Los Angeles the night before, out to Cleveland after a special diplomat-encrusted screening later this evening. An initial impression is that of the quintessentially amiable kid next door, suffering from a mild case of jet lag. Not cocky with the fame of being the director of one of the most popular Down Under films of all time ("Nothing beats Crocodile Dundee" he notes, with a smile.), garnering a well-deserved 8.2 rating in the Internet Movie Database. Rob is receptive, apparently oblivious to the glowing reviews the morning papers have lavished on his film following its New York City opening this very day. As we are introduced in an upper floor corner suite at the posh St. Regis, I wish him a Happy Birthday, as he will turn 39 three days hence. The publicity folks from Allied Advertising wonder how I was keyed into this seemingly obscure fact. Hey, that's my job. Rob and I semi-wink; the great god Internet, of course. So all is good for the lad from Melbourne as we spend a half-hour chatting it up two blocks from the White House. As we sit down in two plush chairs, he pours himself a Diet Coke and offers me a glass of ice water. White slacks, black shirt. Very casual. Closely cropped hair (and slightly receding). We schmooze briefly about Mad Max ("Which one of the three was called The Road Warrior over here?") before heading into more personal waters.

Elias Savada: Even before your new film has opened here in the U.S., the crowds at Sundance and Toronto film festivals fell in love with it, as did all your friends, family, and moviegoers back home. Did you expect such a big hit?

Rob Sitch: It's always feels like the roll of the dice. You know how many films you like or don't like yourself, so you can't expect other people to be different than yourself. We (Working Dog, his production entity with Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy) always liked the stories.

ES: Both of your films, The Castle and The Dish, have unique, eccentric, heartwarming, human stories. I think that's the key to any successful film. You've loaded these films with odd characters always battling something, whether it's big business or natural causes.

RS: The funny thing with The Dish is that the truth makes the eccentricities alive. The mayor of this town, to this day, is a visionary. He presented us with a plaque on behalf of the people of Parkes (in New South Wales, where the film is set and was shot). We said, "Is this in the movie, or is it real life?"

ES: Art. Life. Art. Life.

RS: Right. There's a bit of that, like there is eccentricity in the Crocodile Dundee character. He is indicative of the style of person who lives a long way out of the big city.

ES: Variety magazine mentioned this and I noticed it too, that the film feels descended from the self-depreciating, understated comedies that Britain's Ealing Studios released in the late 1940s and early 50s. Was that intention?

RS: No. It was like the first time someone said the cast was very Capra-esque. I nodded. And then I went and picked up a book to find out who Frank Capra was.

ES: Now you'll have to look up the Ealing Studios.

RS: Actually I'm familiar with some of those comedies. The Lavender Hill Mob. I think people are just attracted to tying film history together.

ES: When you see so many hundreds and thousands of films, certain styles inbred themselves on you. You do look for the connections.

RS: But don't forget the story.

ES: And how did the story come about? For The Castle and The Dish?

RS: The Dish was simple. They were both simple. We (Sitch and his Working Dog partners) sat down one day. We had been wanting to make a movie for a number of years, so we finally said let's get serious about this. We literally had a meeting, and put all the ideas we had been thinking about on the table. We put some silly ones and fu ones.

ES: What were some of the silly ones?

RS: A boy inherits a bad circus. We never got past the theme. Another idea was about people that go to dog shows.

ES: Ah, Best in Show. (Sitch shakes his head in acknowledgment.)

RS: We were wondering if there was a film in that. It's funny that five years later Christopher Guest came out with his version. Tom Gleisner, who I've worked with for 20 years now, said "Did you know about Australia's involvement with the Apollo 11 mission?" I said, "That's an old myth." I thought it would be something very tiny and obscure. Then we found a chapter in a book on Australian astronomy about the Parkes radio telescope. What was attractive was that no one in Australia knew the story either. We started digging into it and eventually fell in love with it. We couldn't get it up (i.e., produced), so we made The Castle instead.

ES: So you actually thought up The Dish first?

RS: Yes, we wrote it then thought of making it. We backed away and filmed The Castle with the limited resources we had. And that film kind of took off. For us, we just felt lucky that the film made it out of the country. There's a myth in Australia that it would never make it outside of Australia. We proved that wrong.

ES: The Castle was a 10-day shoot.

RS: Eleven. (Sitch distorts his face, wondering if the one-day difference actually matters.)

ES: What was the budget?

RS: Funny enough in Australia we still don't discuss budgets. It's one of the few parts of the world that such things are not talked of.

ES: Can we call it low budget? Shoestring?

RS: Yeah, shoestring


ES: Within that small budget, it's still a great looking picture.

RS: (as if admitting defeat) It gets there. I think if it tried to look any better, you'd start to turn on it. The film's become something of a standard in Australia. It was repeated on television there the other day and became the number one film of the year on television. In repeat. A lot of his phrases (central character Darryl Kerrigan) are stolen from what people say. A truck driver will say "You're dreaming." We used it and then people would write to us asking permission to use the phrase. We laughed and said it wasn't ours. It's yours.

ES: Well you used it very well.

RS: Thank you.

ES: Both of your films fall into a category I call "wacky Aussie comedies," which include The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Muriel's Wedding, and Strictly Ballroom.

RS: Strictly Ballroom is one of my all time favorites.

ES: Your films fall into that same quirkiness. Keep coming up with more.

RS: I think Australian humor looks quirky to Americans.

ES: And it's probably just standard issue to you guys.

RS: Pretty standard issue. I do think Australians love the characteristics of people that are amusing.

ES: I hate to call it a foreign stereotype. It's just a different stereotype that we, as Americans, are used to seeing. Certainly within the parameters of The Dish everyone is different.

RS: Comedies here (in America) are either gross-out comedies or where a person is consciously funny. I found Meet the Parents a classically unconscious comedy.

ES: How long did each of your films take to edit?

RS: The first cut of The Castle took two weeks. We really moved quickly. The Dish took six months.

ES: Well, it's a bigger film.

RS: And the same editor as Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom.

ES: I see a thread here. Did anyone repeat from The Castle to The Dish?

RS: (His brow crinkling in long thought) Er, I don't think that they did. (Actually a handful of miscellaneous crew members carried over, and Charles "Bud" Tingwell, who played barrister Lawrence Hammill in the first film, has a few seconds preaching in The Dish.) When we think up a story and the person, then at the end we cast. We've done a lot of performing over the years (15-20 years in fact, on radio and television). People said "Why don't you perform in your own movies." When you write something with a character in mind, then in the end you wonder who will play that role. The character in the story is the determining factor.

ES: So you don't determine who will be good for the role first (while writing the screenplay)?

RS: Sometimes you do, because within three lines you know this is such-and-such an actor. We do it occasionally. The mayor we always wrote with Roy Billing in mind.

ES: How about Sam Neill, one of Australia's greatest treasures, who easily jumps from comedy (Children of the Revolution) to drama (The Piano) to action (Jurassic Park). How did you connect up with him?

RS: Sam made it surprisingly easy. I think he likes to do films at home every now and then. We approached him, and he took the incredibly long period of one hour after he finished reading the script to say "I'll do it."

ES: Do you have any interesting stories to relate about filming The Dish?

RS: Because the dish was in the middle of a sheep paddock we should be creative and truck in some sheep. This is the "smart" city person speaking. Shocked that I should to listen to someone who lives in the country, one of the locals had the impertinence to put his hand up and say, "If it's in the sheep paddock, isn't there a fair chance that there will be sheep in the paddock?" Ok, but I asked how are we going to get the sheep to the fence? (Sitch is starting to broaden his smile as he continues with his egg-on-face story.) The response: "Well f it's a sheep farm, the farmer will have a sheep dog." And tus the Lord blessed us. So we rented a farmer. We were all set to hire sheep wranglers and thinking "headache, headache." The farmer just walked up, asked us where we wanted the sheep. Right on cue, a flock of sheep and the barking dog weaved this way and that.

ES: Was the rest of the cast as delightful to work with? I'm also wondering if there are any bad Australian actors?

RS: No, I don't think you want to be the dickhead on an Australian film set. In everyone else's mind they'd be voting you off the island. (Keying on the Survivor II connection, I see). You don't want the tribal council casting ballots with your name on it. If our set had a tribal council, you'd be gone if you were "bad." But we don't have that problem on Australian sets. I think that makes for a pretty relaxed environment. Yes, we shot it in 28 quick shooting days, but with a plan.

ES: How many hours each day?

RS: Only ten. Our hand was forced a little because we had seven days at the actual dish. Or maybe six. (Must be the jet lag playing with his memory.) Everything had to be done like that. (He snaps his fingers several times in quick succession.)

ES: Are you married? Kids?

RS: No. That girl from the cover of Sports Illustrated keeps ringing me up, but I just say "Enough!"

ES: How did you decide on the name Working Dog for your company?

RS: (shaking his head and criss-crossing fingers from either hand over each other, as if they were two magnets with opposing polarity) Naming things is one of the most painful things that you do. Whether it be film or whatever. Although The Dish was The Dish and The Castle was The Castle from the start. But when we got "clever," we thought now we need to name our company. At the start of such deliberations someone casually remarked that we all have working dogs as pets, so why not name it Working Dog. Everyone else said "pffft," we're too clever for that! Literally we took a year thinking up names. Then Michael (Hirsch, a producing partner) got stationery printed up with the working dog one it. We just started using it. I don't think we ever officially named ourselves.

ES: Your background spans many years as a popular writer-performer in Australian radio and television, particularly the unseen in the U.S. Frontline and The Late Show. How did you get into the business? And when did you join up with your fellow working dogs?

RS: Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner I met at the University of Melborune. I think this is our 20th year working together. At various times we were a bigger group. Some people stopped. One went back to law work.

Magda Szubanski, who was the farmer's wife in Babe, was with us for a while. Jane (Kennedy) we met while doing radio. Michael, too. That was ages ago, so we feel like we are legally married.

ES: What's up after The Dish?

RS: We do a Tonight Show in Australia. Ours is called The Panel. It's prime time live, and we all just sit around and talk about the week's events. We decided to start the year late, until I get back. We don't take it very seriously I admit. It's the one thing in our lives we haven't taken seriously. We wanted to do disposal television. The people (I assume the network) said, "Let's do it live-to-tape." We said, "No, let's do it live." So we do and hour or an hour-and-a-quarter live every week. Even in Australia, they hardly do live television anymore.

ES: Other than sports and news, not much is live here in the States. Except Saturday Night Live.

RS: (mistakenly believing) It's not live. They do it to tape, don't they?

ES: No. Not on the East Coast. The West Coast does get a time-delayed telecast.

RS: Sorry. My mistake.

ES: What type of show is The Panel?

RS: It's literally five people (he points as if they sit around a table or form a semi-circle perhaps). We have guests. We just sit around and just talk. We really didn't want to do it on prime time, but it was the only place we could find. It's found it own audience. We started to have musical guests on the program, but it's a small studio. So whatever the person can bring on (as a musical instrument) so long as it fits behind us. We had Anastasia, who came in with three back-up singers, all scrunched up in the room behind us. The studio is probably smaller than this room (about 20 x 20 ft.).

ES: Speaking of music, the soundtrack for The Dish is terrific. The musical selections set it squarely in it's appropriate time frame. I'm especially appreciative of anyone who uses Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman.

RS: I love that music.

ES: How do you go about selecting the songs, in particularly the Hawaii Five-O theme song as the American national anthem?

RS: (a wry smile breaking out) It was originally going to be Bonanza, which I love because it makes us laugh. (Sitch starts to hum a few bars.) But people would take two bars to figure out what the song was. Plus getting (the rights to) Bonanza was proving difficult. So we thought of Hawaii Five-O. Which was better and more quickly recognizable. That was a no-brainer. For the other songs, we got a print-out of all the 1969 music, up until that date in July. It was a great year for music. Lounge singers like Burt Bacharach. Then there was Led Zeppelin.

ES: Did you have any licensing problems?

RS: Actually we had a pretty good run. I think being in Australia helped. Creedence Clearwater Revival rarely licenses their stuff and we got permission for one of their songs. Sadly we couldn't use it. The hardest problem we had was with Engelbert Humperdinck. All these big artists like Led Zeppelin are saying yes, with Humperdinck is saying no. Engelbert! (Berating the artist, Sitch slaps the back of his right hand in his left palm several times) Get to the back of the queue again!

ES: I noticed that you are a qualified medical practitioner? What made you drop your stethoscope in favor of a megaphone?

RS: I did it through college. I was doing television.

ES: For the college station?

RS: No. No. We had a stroke of good luck. We took a year off to do a stage show around Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation saw our show and caught it and asked us to consider doing a youth show. We were maybe 20 or 21. Too young to be scared. So we said, yeah, sure. I think at the time, even then, we had plenty of talent and horsepower. We were the half-hour after Friends (hmmm, later I wonder if he was thinking of another show; Friends started in 1994). It could have been a piece of crap (he's not saying it was), and it was still going to rate okay. Good fortune can go a long way at the right time in your life.

ES: Why didn't you decide to be a doctor?

RS: It's not like sentencing yourself to execution. It was like death of a thousand cuts. I'll take a year off. Then another one. And then I never went back.

ES: The Castle was distributed in the United States and most of the rest of the world by Miramax. The Dish moves you up the prestige ladder as a Warner Bros. release here in the States. Have you noticed any difference how each of these studios handled your product?

RS: Both approached each film with good intentions. What happened with Miramax and the first film was, we were at Sundance, where the film got a lot of hype. A lot of buzz. Then the release got delayed. Then we blinked and the film wasn't in theaters until 16 or 18 months later.

ES: Which isn't all that unusual.

RS: But it's a bad move. If you can, you release the film the same year. In our case, there was another Sundance after the one where The Castle was shown. That was hard on marketing the film. Years ago, auteurs would rant, "Marketing, oh I hate marketing!" I don't think you can do that these days. I think marketing is just as important as making the film.

ES: Of course, audiences can be fickle no matter what you do. There's no accounting for American or worldwide tastes.

RS: Well throw us in there, too.

ES: Do you have any ideas for your next feature?

RS: We don't have it settled. We're squabbling over it.

ES: Is it one of those scripts from 6 or 8 years ago?

RS: Well, we've got everything from 10 years ago to 6 years ago to 4 months ago.

ES: Are you going to put all the projects in a big box and pick one out?

RS: No. To get through making a film you have to really have a desire to see how it will turn out. And if it's gone stale in your head, I don't think anyone's going to want to make it. When we came back to The Dish we did enough re-writes with good ideas.

ES: You all share screenwriting credit. How well did you work with each other?

RS: We do it pretty well now. Two of us will write a draft, which you have to do with comedy. You can't do it by yourself. We structure it pretty carefully. The draft follows. Then the others will script edit. Then we'll put it up on the blocks (his arms motioning as if it were an automobile) and pull scenes out. Dismantle them and put them back together. Even then, you still make changes.

ES: Who came up with the "whizzing in space" concept (a offhand whistle signal for the designated number 1 or number 2 form of relief)?

RS: (rearing his head back with a large grin) Santo, I think. Whenever there's a really good joke in the film, it's generally from Santo. The funny thing is that the American Ambassador came to see the film, and now he's doing it. (Sitch does a little number 2 whistle.) The ambassador is just so proud he's portrayed in the film. Because the ambassadorship to Australia isn't a "plum" assignment.

The topic switches gears as I talk of some day visiting Australia.

RS: It's beautiful. New Zealand is more beautiful. I used to tell foreigners they needed a couple of months to visit. Now I've changed my tune. If you have two weeks, you'll get such a massive hit of the country that you have a great dose to take back home. You'll feel like a de-facto child of Australia. Two or three days in Sydney is all you'll need, and it's a stunning city.

ES: You still live in Melbourne though?

RS: Yes.

ES: Are your folks still alive?

RS: My mom is. My father passed away about 4 or 5 years ago.

ES: How does your mom feel about your success?

RS: Ha. She's at that age where she interprets it in an entirely different way than I would.

ES: Really?

RS: If I was on Australia's Most Wanted, she would proudly exclaim "I saw you on television!" So I can always on her to pick up a certain level.

ES: Brothers? Sisters? Are any in the "business"?

RS: Three brothers. One is an entertainment lawyer who does a lot of international work. The other one lived in New York for 12 years, but everyone's back home now. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

And then the talk turns to politics and the ballot fiasco…

RS: I didn't mind the election. George W. Bush just cracks me up full stop. But in the midst of all that (pursing his lips like our president) "I want a recount/no need to count again," I just get the impression it is so clear you need to recount every vote. But then Gore decides he only wants a recount in a few counties. Which didn't seem fair either. And then the Supreme Court, which we hold up to be the most impartial organ of justice, votes along party lines. And now you know what presidents take such care in selecting Supreme Court justices.

ES: Do you consider yourself Democratic?

RS: I have a foot in both camps on some issues. But it's funny when the Republicans come to town. I heard the joke the other day, after Cheney had his coronary problems, that Bush is only one heartbeat away from being president. Cheney certainly looks like he's in charge. I can't believe that only half the people vote over here. You get fined if you don't vote in Australia. You have to vote.

ES: One last question. Why the jump to features after radio and television?

RS: I think that you're always attracted to slightly harder things. There's a dynamic in film. I love sitting in the theater and hearing comedy. I'd love to do a couple more.

ES: Please do!

RS: (the jet lagged humor really starting to take it's toll now) And then I'll do a French artistic think piece. There'll be no words in it, just notes. And a harp.

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