first glance, Fred Schepisi looks like a quiet fellow. But he turns quite
effusive when he starts talking: sharply observant and possessed of a dry sense
of humor, he's comfortable expressing himself. At 62, Schepisi's been around the
movie block more than once. From his early work in Australia -- The Devil's
Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), or even
the First Big U.S. Movie, starring Meryl Streep but set in Australia, A Cry
in the Dark (1988) -- to his bigger budgeted, U.S. and U.K. projects -- Plenty
(1985), The Russia House (1990), his greatest critical success, Six
Degrees of Separation (1993), and 1997's Fierce Creatures -- the
writer-director has established a varied resume.
yet, Schepisi still struggles to get pictures made. To his mind, this is a
function of economics: he's not keen to make huge action pictures, but neither
is he looking to make a tiny picture that won't be seen or pay the rent. All
this makes him especially happy with his new movie, Last Orders despite
the fact that he made it under less than ideal circumstances: lousy British
weather, allotted money that didn't come through, a tight schedule. No matter.
The result, based on Graham Swift's novel, traces the complicated shared history
of four East Londoners: Jack (Michael Caine), Vic (Tom Courtenay), Ray (Bob
Hoskins), and Lenny (David Hemmings). Their multi-decades story unfolds in
flashbacks, following Jack's death, as the remaining three spend a day driving
to the beach where they will fulfill his "last orders," to scatter his
over the water. At the same time, Jack's widow, Amy (Helen Mirren) takes her own
journey, to the institution where her 50-year-old retarded daughter lives, to
say goodbye one last time, before Amy starts another life, apart from her
Fuchs: How did you come to make an accessible layering of voices and
points of view, from Graham Swift's novel?
Schepisi: The novel has a structure that's broken up, not in the same
way, but with the same effect -- each chapter was headed by the name of a
character. Within those chapters, while they were advancing the story, they were
reflecting on the past, and expressing their hopes for the future, pretty much
in monologues. The way I chose to interpret that, was similar to what I've done
in other films, and used to do it in documentaries; [it's] kind of like a mosaic
technique, if you like. Say, in The Russia House, there's a point where
Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer meet in the tower, and all those beautiful
Russian churches are outside. And you think you're just watching them, but
actually you're watching five different time zones in the story: you're watching
them and the tensions they're going through; you're watching a spy watching
them; you're watching the spy's report back to his bosses in the form of a tape,
a number of days after the event; and then you're watching two sections of the
past, as Michelle Pfeiffer tells a story.
think that's how we tell stories. It's how memory operates, how our thoughts
operate, because we go on memory, we go on apprehension of the present, and we
go on hopes or expectations for the future. When you tell a story, you're
throwing other lights on it, which makes the story richer and more interesting.
We can't stop saying, "Yeah, but don't forget the time you did such and
such..." To that end, I did not try to pick up ever on the time periods [in
Last Orders]. By that, I don't mean that the time periods aren't
accurate; they are incredibly accurate. But I don't come into them and waste
time going, "This is where we are," because, why is that of interest?
What's of interest is you, or your story of what's happening, and it's all about
your emotion and your understanding. So I've got to follow you, and then it's
the pleasure of the audience to pick up on all that other stuff that's going on
in the background, if they want to. If you do it accurately enough, they accept
it without thinking about it. So that allows you to move from 1935 to 1979 to
1950-something, to 1989, which is our actual present tense. I didn't do all that
conventional stuff, where you go to the old-fashioned poster or the lady with
the pram to tell you what time period it is, and didn't play songs or music from
the period to set you up.
That's a common device now, to use the compiled soundtrack, that you can then
sell as a cd.
Well, yes, but then you get pulled by that. You go, "Oh I remember that
song," and your mind starts to go to details evoked by your memory. But in
a picture like this, that makes you lose track of where you are. There is some
source music from within the eras, but it's more background, to help you accept
where you are without having to think about it. The score of the movie is done now,
kind of a pop-jazz-classical structure, that's got three themes going through
it. The role of the music corresponds with a particular belief I have, which is
that characters have themes, and when they come together, you're hearing both
those themes at the same time. The theme helps, because even as I change its
presentation or blend it with something else, you're feeling an emotion, and
you're not even aware you're feeling, because I've trained you to feel it
throughout the picture. Of course, when I say "I," I mean the composer
[Paul Grabowsky], the editor [Kate Williams], and all of that.
helps you understand the characters' inner life, what they're feeling, even if
it's not exactly what they're saying. It gives you pause for thought, other
information. Probably the boldest move in the film is the love theme, as it
becomes that, the theme of Ray and Amy, when you find out that they've been
unfaithful -- him to his best mate, her to her husband -- and within 30 seconds,
I'm playing the love theme of Amy and Jack, her husband, because she says,
"He loved me, and he always did."
The music does help to bridge the many storylines.
Yes, there are sort of three journeys going on at once -- two are going on in
our present time: Amy visiting her daughter [June (Laura Morelli)], and the
men's car journey. And the third, which is Amy and Ray, is actually taking place
a week before the other two.
Many films deliver characters in a present moment, and the story is about their
movement from that point. Your films tend to be more about how character might
be shaped, by past experiences.
Yeah, and this film kind of takes that to the Nth degree. Everybody thinks that
action is what it's all about, but the real action for me is the way characters
interact with one another. Somebody said that this is a film about ordinary
lives that proves there are no ordinary lives. When I was casting the young
people, they would read the script and say, "Oh my god! Is this what we're
going to have to go through?" It's so complex, what a struggle.
The sections of the film showing the characters as their younger selves almost
become another movie, though you know they're headed somewhere specific.
Exactly, I like the way you're drawn into that past part of the story and almost
forget the other one for a minute. You throw a whole other color on the emotion
that you're experiencing -- from both the older person remembering and the
younger one experiencing.
The pub culture is central here, with so many of the characters' memories tied
to it. But those memories seem to be mostly the men's, though Amy and other
women do appear in the scenes.
I think the way it works in most of those pubs -- though it certainly didn't
work that way in Australia -- is that the guys go over there and the women go
over here. So, the guys stand around the bar and do guy stuff and the women sit
at tables. It's very family-oriented too: kids go too. I don't think the U.S. or
Australia has an equivalent. In Australia, women weren't allowed in the men's
bars until 1976, when I think two women actually chained themselves to the foot
How do you see class working in the film?
Well, the characters are all from East London, they're of a lower class. Though
the distinctions are sort of changing. It even happened in acting. Michael
Caine, Terence Stamp, and Tom Courtenay were probably the first to be allowed to
use their actual accent. All the actors there are taught what's called received
English, the proper way of talking, and that's how all English films were,
before them. That's made it possible for a whole generation of actors to act in
films and plays about their own lives. Margate, for example, or Southgate,
another resort, is where the working class go; the rich go to Brighton. The
people who retire to Margate seem to go there quite young, at 62 or something,
though they look like they're 75. They're out to get the sea air and you see
them, dressed in woolen clothing, sitting in their deck chairs. And that's part
of what the film's about: that's where they go for their Sunday outings, if
they're lucky enough to have a car. That whole business of picking hops, that's
something they all did, but it's their holiday. Not the picking, but it got them
out in the country, and kind of camping. So, for him to want to go to Margate is
To do anything other than work, they have to travel.
Yes, well, their life is contained in that one area, but to go to places like
Margate, or to the home [where June lives], that's definitely a schlep.
The journey back in time takes us to WWII. How were you thinking about the war
Oh, that memorial! That's one thing I didn't actually do in the film, show the
difficulty of finding that memorial, it's so perverse. There's no beautiful
sweep up to it; you have to go through 20 suburban streets, and then, you're
lucky if you can find it because there's no signs. In the book there's this
whole thing that they can keep seeing it but can't get to it: in the sweep of
the film, that was like one frustration too many. That generation was defined by
that war, having fought in it, and having friendships bonded and friendships
lost, only going through Plenty -- I made a film called Plenty! -- in
1953. It took that long before England started going through good times again.
How has your understanding of the process of filmmaking changed over the years?
If I do an autobiography, it'll be called "The Films I Didn't Get to
Make." And that could be more interesting than the ones I did. For a while
I was able to make films that are not seemingly commercial, in the mainstream.
And over the last 9 or 10 years, that's not possible anymore. That's because of
the general attitude of the studios, and specific individuals no longer being
there, leading to corporatization. And now the costs of marketing have become
more expensive than the film in some cases. Therefore, that's almost negated a
whole area of filmmaking. So it's gone to $80 million and up (international,
high action, not hard to follow dialogue) or, each of the companies has formed
what they now call "classics" divisions, where they make films for $12
million or less. The more they can make them for less, the more they're actually
any time that you're in a middling budget picture, with interesting subject
matter, they're not doing those pictures anymore. If you're making a $25 or $30
million picture, you're still going to have to spend $50 million or whatever the
figure is, to release it. That's one of the factors that has sort of made those
pictures disappear, and me with it! If I was making Six Degrees of Separation
today -- which I made for $16 million [in 1993] -- I would not get $16 million.
I would get $8 million, if I was lucky. And so I wouldn't be able to make the
picture. So I have to go straddle two worlds, go back into independent
filmmaking. I've found one or two mainstream films lately, but they almost
always come crashing down. I was going to do Don Quixote with John Cleese
and Robin Williams, but it was $16 million, and so, though we got money from
foreign sources, but couldn't get any out of American, because, they said, it
Um, most U.S. movies are episodic...
Shhh! Don't tell them that! In fact, I was doing Shipping News for
a while, but I was doing it with John Travolta, and with his expenses, it was up
around $55 million. But they didn't want to do that book for that money; they
wanted to make a more conventional story if they were going to spend so much.
Or, I was doing I Was Amelia Earhart, a script I had done, a beautiful
piece. Even working very cleverly, it would have cost about $30 million. It
needs a romantic sweep, to show her joy of flying. You don't pull that out of a
hat: you've gotta wait for the light and the conditions [to shoot]. But they
wanted to rewrite the script for $20 million. No, then it's not that script;
it's this script. Then that went away. The trouble is, if you don't hook them in
on a certain scale, they can dispense with a picture too easily. They put it out
there and put a minimum amount of advertising into it. And if the public picks
it up, as you're witnessing with In the Bedroom, suddenly, it's terrific.
But for one In the Bedroom, how many pictures did Miramax dump? They put
all their eggs in one basket. And that breaks your heart: if you get to make the
picture, then it gets killed in theaters.
world I want to go back to is one much like the one I had [for Last Orders].
I had complete control. Yes, the money didn't turn up when I was shooting, and
yes, I only had $9 million, and yes, I only had 42 days to shoot it. But I had
great actors who came and wanted to act: they were playing parts that were in
their very souls and they were excited to act with one another. Even the young
people: they're going to be the Michael Caines and Helen Mirrens of the future.
They came so full of energy. It was raining and cold, and when a bit of sun
peeped out, there they were in their thin summer shirts and dresses, and they'd
plop down in the mud and pretend it was hot out.
I was able to give what I can give. When I did commercials, I was quite
arrogant, probably, though I didn't think of it as arrogance. I thought of it
as: when you came to me, I always knew that I was able to take you to the best
place you could go, and you wanted to go there, you just didn't know it existed.
As I know there are plenty of places that I don't know exist, that are beyond my
ability or knowledge. I'm always sort of scratching to get up there. But I know
that, and a lot of people don't know that. And they're so scared of it that they
try to pull it down to their level. And though they hire you, they don't let you
do what you do. I kind of vowed never to do that again, and to that end I've
written a number of projects, two originals, two from novels, and one from a
play, all of which I'm trying to get made.
It sounds like you have a lot in the pipeline.
Well, the other thing is, you've got to live. In the last 9 years, since Six
Degrees, I only did two [films] for which I really got paid, and then you go
and do a project like Last Orders, which you love, but you don't really
get paid much for that. If the opportunity comes along to get a bit of money and
it's a good thing, then you sort of take that chance, because that's going to
buy you the time to do the other stuff. The stupid thing to do is someone else's
passion project, where you don't get the money or the power, but that's another
story. The joy of doing something like Last Orders, it's fantastic. You
can feel it on the set every day.
Click here to read the Last Orders review.