James, your new piece is a documentary drama called ‘The War That Changed Us’. Tell me briefly about how you got involved with the film?
It was a call out the blue actually. I feel quite lucky. I’d just got a text from Andrew Olgivie; well, it was a bit of a scrambled text, and I didn’t answer it [laughs]. Then about a week later, Lawrie [Silvestrin] the editor said, “James, what the fuck are you doing?” [laughs] and I was what, what? So, Don was in town, Don Featherstone - the series director - and he was just about to fly out when Lawrie called me. I had a quick chat to Don. I had met Don many, many years ago, but he didn’t remember me. I was just a camera assistant at that stage, and Don had been around forever - y’know a legendary Australian documentary director. They wanted to get a Malick vibe...not much dialogue in the scene. They wanted to get the emotion. They showed Don the trailers of my films and said “You should get this guy”...he really liked my trailers. So, at the end of the day, you make these films and think they don’t add up to anything, but maybe they do [laughs].
There is a sense that when we meet a character in an James Bogle film, then we are going to go on a dangerous journey that will reveal the raw matter that makes up that individual. At the same time, we’re always being engaged with wider ideas. So what ideas in your work do you feel resonate most with audiences?
Y’know, anything with a sense of comedy. So that discounts everything I’ve done. [laughs]
Shall I move on?
No, look, I think comedy’s the hardest thing to do, especially in Australia. Because a lot of our money comes through funding bodies, and because private investment doesn’t drive projects, I think it’s really hard to make a good comedy in Australia. And with any committee assessing a script, if it’s a comedy, you only need one person that really doesn’t like it...it’s dead. So, yeah, I’ve developed a number of comedies over my years and never had success getting a comedy up. I’m quite interested in really broad comedy - that, or rather dark stuff. I feel that’s the mountain you have to climb if you want to make lightning in a bottle. It’s very hard to do. And you look at all the great Australian films...I admire the comedies that have worked, whether I’ve liked them or not. The big films - Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom - there’s a handful of them that are miles ahead of other films. But there was a period where there were a lot of dark films getting made and I was lucky. Tim Winton (who wrote ‘In The Winter Dark’ was someone I could really relate too on screen and he’s got a lovely sense of humour to his work, very grounded in the nature of being a human being - the torturous sort of madness we go through because none of us really know what’s going on - and his stuff is great like that. Yeah, there’s a lot of humour in the films that I’ve done, but it’s buried in amongst textual stuff...that can get overlooked. I remember when I was going around the world with ‘In The Winter Dark’, to all those festivals, and when I spoke before the film I’d always try to talk the humour up to kick them off in the right direction. Because there is a sense of humour in all my stuff. A lot of my short films are light and weird [laughs]. They’re so old now, I probably wouldn’t do another. I could put them online - should I do that? I’ve been thinking of doing some Vimeo stuff - or maybe I’ll donate them somewhere.
Where do you first develop the key ideas for your films?
My stuff is always very character based. I’m aware of the power of story and you always need a great ending - I mean, if you don’t have a great ending you’ll probably have to make one up...or just give it away and find something else. I did find, at a certain point in time, I thought adaptations were my thing. Because they’ve always got great characters. And the idea of me sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and starting a screenplay, coming up with something that’s 90 pages long, which is going to be financed, is probably out of the question. It’s just too hard [laughs]. Look, I’ve tried a couple of times - everyone does, you have to go through it - but I think it’s really hard to write a great screenplay where people are going to give you $50,000 a page or whatever it is. So, yeah, for a while, I just went “I’ll adapt books” - and I’ve adapted 3 books, two of which have been made into films, which isn’t a bad strike rate. But if you think that’s over 15 years...it’s just crazy.
So you would lean towards adaptation more than writing an original piece?
To write? Yeah. I’ve given away writing now. I did work on ‘The War That Changed Us’ with Don because it felt like it needed a director’s pass. And he, being the series director, did all the documentary style whereas I did the drama - the drama being 70% of the four hour series. Don and I got on really well so he was open to my contribution.
How much do you work with writers on development and what are the issues you face as a director in regards to this?
I feel I work with writers more and more because having tried to write stuff, and being reasonably successful, I know how hard it is. So I’m always up to work with writers. I don’t offer to read scripts anymore because I’m a slow reader and I like to be particular about a script. And if I give people any good notes, it’s going to take me the best part of three or four days of really pondering and reading and making notes and so on. So, consequently, I’m probably not giving myself the best opportunity to come across really good scripts.
What’s the best way that a director can approach working with a writer?
Well, as a director, you have to trust your instinct. If you can’t do that, then directing is probably not for you because you are going to get sorely tested. And if people get a sense that you’re not sure, or you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’re kinda fucked. So, in terms of reading someone’s work, working with a writer, I suppose that’s why it takes me so long - I want to be sure I know what I want to say. But I also want the flexiblity to test, to spitball shit, and find out if they know what they’ve written. See whether it’s the same thing as you think that they’ve written. That’s a good starting point.
Do you find that there are connections between how your ideas develop and how you explore them within the form in which you’re working e.g. docudrama as opposed to narrative drama?
Well, commercial documentaries are getting to the point today where they have so much CGI, and a lot more drama, or they just don’t get funding...they’re shifting away from the old style of doco with 3 parallel stories or whatever...that’s been left for current affairs now, I think - it’s gone, done and dusted. I think that’s probably because of the nature of reality TV. Because everyone now wants to be in someone’s life, first hand, in first person. ‘The War That Changed Us’ was a really different experience for me and I really enjoyed it. I got this 400 page document - which took me a long time to read - and there’s basically ten scenes on every page. The first episode is 40 pages long - so there’s 400 scenes and you suddenly are looking at shooting 70% of it... [laughs]
How long did you take to shoot it?
Well, that’s what I was worried about - it was a six week shoot. After the inital read, I could see a lot of the scenes were just moments out of a bigger construction of the same scene - but you’ve still got to shoot them. That’s one of things I went through with Don - looking at each scene and trying to give it more form and get more out of each situation. I think we started out with something over 700 scenes to shoot in 6 weeks. We just weren’t going to be able to do that...we had to get it under 500, preferably under 400. We finished up doing that. And we had to do that fairly fast too because we were already in pre. So, it’s an interesting scenario...but at the same time you’re looking at vignettes, classic dramatised pieces. We were very keen on getting that Malick feel, where drama leads the documentary. So you cut to a new scene, where you don’t know initially what’s happening, and then you find out what is happening with voiceover, historians...but they wanted to lead with drama which I thought was a really great idea. So, essentially it was a matter of building dialogue and contructing the scenes in a more dramatic style...and Don loved doing that, and we got on really well, because he’d written the thing and now we were throwing ideas in. We did that for about a week and then he went away and rewrote it all just before we shot it all.
Do you find yourself seeking feedback as you go along – or are you fairly guarded about the work until you have your close to final cut?
I am, I am, yeah...and I think that’s just come from having confidence about what I’m doing. I find that when people are confident about you as a director they leave you alone. And when they look at the rushes and realise they’re fantastic then there’s no problem. But I find sometimes there are contributors, especially money people, there’s always that problem, y’know... they can bring a sense of paranoia to the project. Because everyone’s freaked out - you’re spending $50,000 a day or whatever - so you sort of have to carry that. And the best way to deal with that is to lead - make sure the cast are cool, calm and collected and work with a really good crew, and let those people do their thing. Make sure you create that space. And one of the ways to create that space is to keep people off set [laughs].
How do you know when a script is ready to be filmed? Is this intuitive or a pragmatic decision?
I’m of the school of thought that nothing’s ever finished. You can always improve it. You just have to be careful you don’t just write something different - it’s not better, or worse, it’s just different. That’s the hard part - remembering what’s really good about it or if it’s just little bits...so you don’t destroy it. And that happens. Getting back to comedy, that happens a lot - you try to improve it and you just fuck it up. Three drafts later it’s worse than if you had left it alone [laughs]. With drama you’re always trying to find a way to make it better - and even when it’s funded it’s great to do a director’s pass after the film’s been funded so it’s more recognisable on the page for the crew to understand, more specified.
Has the process of directing a film changed as you have matured as a director?
Oh, yeah, I’d say so...
In what ways?
I started out as a cameraman. I’ve shot 8 series and when you’re doing a lot of shooting you just kinda grow into it. But it takes years - just how to break down a scene, how to deal with actors, what lenses to use, how to talk to crew, any difficulties at all that happen on set...you’ve been there a million times, y’know? I used to care so much I drove myself insane...to the point it really disturbs you if you’re not getting what you want and you’re feeling like you’re getting fucked...whereas, I don’t feel that anymore. I know the process now. I know the madness that can happen, and all the great things that can happen too, out of just being in the moment. And that’s the fun of directing for me. It’s sort of existential - making sure you’re right there when you’re shooting stuff, not anywhere else. That’s why I find distractions on set really difficult. People want to start talking about wanting to change stuff on set - you either talk about it before or after, y’know? You know [laughs].
Can you talk a bit about how you manage the process of handing your film over to the other members of the creative team in post production? Do you stay involved in that process or step back?
On ‘The War That Changed Us’ I’m happy to take a step back because I’m only the drama director and I’ve got a lot of faith and belief in Don. And also the guys that are cutting it because they’ve got a lot of experience. Lawrie in particular I’ve worked with before, so he knows my stuff. They said I should get involved in post, but I thought I’d probably just get in the way. You don’t need another voice in the cutting room. So I’ve gladly stepped back. And it’s Don’s film. We’ve offered him up some fantastic footage and everyone’s super happy with it...beyond the other 99% of productions I’ve ever done. So it’s kinda nice to go “Don’t fuck it up” [laughs].
As a director and are you ever anxious about what might turn up on or in the film as you walk onto the set?
Look, if you rehearse with the actors then you’re not going to get any surprises and nor are they. You’re not actually going to come out on set in front of a whole crew and say “Now hang on, let’s do it completely differently”. In a way I suppose it’s very similar to theatre - make sure you look at all the different avenues with your actors and get a sense of trust and make sure by the time you get on set you have very little to say. So, then when you get on set, there’s always suprises...there’s such a multitude of things to be across. And sometimes, in the modern era, you don’t get to rehearse. So, you have to make sure you’re choosing experienced actors who know what they’re doing. Or you do find yourself in that position where you have to redirect things. But there’s ways of doing that. Obviously, the best way is to talk to the actor without anyone else listening, or if anyone’s barking up the wrong tree it’s a matter of being discreet. I mean, crews...good crews are really good teams...sometimes someone’s not playing a good game; everyone holds the line until they get it together again. I mean, you shoot so many hours, you get to know everyone really well. And everyone has dead spots, where you just kinda lose it. Crews do it too. But everyone carries each other. That’s what I love about film making, I guess.
Making a film requires a great deal of collaboration. In your time as a director, have you developed consistency with collaborators and how did these collaborations come about and are they always harmonious in nature?
I think the longer you work in the industry the more you value great collaboration. And you try and make them work again and again. At the same time you have too have the flexibility to work with anyone. Because I started off as a camera assistant I really understand crews, where they are coming from. Meal breaks are important [laughs]. I’ve certainly got my eye on it...the machinations of how to work with a crew. And what they expect out of directors...that’s been really handy over the years. Same process with actors. Collaborations with actors are always really fantastic once they’re established - there’s so much trust that has to be taken on board by both actor and director. And actors are in such vulnerable positions...y’know, sometimes they’re putting stuff out and they don’t know if it’s working, or whether it’s...They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just doing what you ask them too, and that must be horrible - so I’ve got a lot of respect for actors. I try and make sure I look after them. And I think this has generally always worked for me. And you find actors coming out of their specialised fields in different ways. Directors are different too. You need to find different ways to work with different people.
How did you find working with the large cast on ‘The War That Changed Us’?
It was brilliant. It was a really good cast. As it turned out they were all fantastic. It was a big cast - 55 speaking parts, hundreds of extras - 5 key people. The people who got the parts shone through, I couldn’t be happier.
I chased after Virginia Gay for one particular spot because I knew she’d be great for this part. So it was great to be able ring her up out of the blue and say, “Listen, I think you’re perfect for it, and I understand if you can’t fit it in...” But she ended up coming over and we ended up shooting all her stuff in 3 days out of 6 weeks. And she’s one of the key people...but all the actors I was very lucky with.
Do you recommend searching for collaborators or should the process be organic?
Search, you’ve gotta search. Anyone who’s done something that you like...it’s really good to try and track them down and let them know. Because the world just moves so fast. And in the process if you happen to meet people...
Many of your films are framed within the construct of a family unit or, if not actually related, have something akin to a family unit. Has this developed by accident or is the family inherent in your work?
Oh no, I think it’s inherent. I like the idea of an ensemble cast. And in ‘The War That Changed Us’, it’s pretty much a 5 hander. I was very aware that even though they’re all individuals, who’ve written diaries and come from all different walks of life, that they had a chemistry. What was going to happen between them as a family. All the stories are separate stories and in this particular series they never meet each other - but they are all the right textures and energies to compare and contrast as you’re watching it - that’s really important.
I’m interested in outsiders stories, not mainstream stories. All my films and work, like the Circuit 2, are stories about people on the fringe, and I kind of like that world - I’ve been fascinated about that world for at least 30 years.
In your work, I’m often struck that you seem to capture a modern Australian voice that doesn’t feel as though it’s commenting on being Australian, whatever that might be. Do you think Australian directors are coming to terms with our cultural identity and if not, why not?
I think it’s very hard with modern thinkers because there is a greater sense of internationality - and that might make it harder, it might make it easier, I’m not sure. You look at some of the films that are made...if it’s not a hero’s journey, it’s looking at finding a story about someone who has something amazing happening to them. Usually the best films are the films where people are under incredible pressure, psychological pressure, for some reason and so that’s the sort of person that interests me. The film that I’m developing at the moment which has been brought to me by Paul Elliot and Justin Monjo, to be produced by Tony Leach, is based on a book about an outsider - having schizophrenic difficulties about visions of the Batavia, in our world now. And that’s probably the best script I’ve read in 10 years. And I delivered them a whole bunch of notes and then they went away and wrote another script [laughs]. But you look at that story, based on a book, and it’s about a kid very much on the outside. I was reading it and not sure what was going to happen next, and I just love that. There’s a real sophistication in being able to write that, and hold someone’s attention until page 100. And the script I read...I got up to page 75 until I gave up on it [laughs]. And I thought, “That’s good”, because I’m usually gone in the first 20 pages [laughs].
So, finally, what are the issues or ideas that you are currently obsessing over that you feel are pertinent to film audiences that you might want to deal with in the near future?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what your voice is, how you want to express yourself and what story you want to tell. As I’ve done more television I’ve become more open to different things. I love the woman’s story as much as the man’s story - whereas as a younger man I was totally keyed into the male thing. Whereas now much more interested in articulating what the story is. I’m not closed on that anymore - I’m very open to anything. It’s just a matter of whether I can find something in it. And that was the fun of ‘The War That Changed Us’...each character is based on diary excerpts, real lives, so you don’t have your classic three act structure in the stories. It’s not articulated like that because they just wrote honest diaries. Yet, the form allows it because of the documentary aspect - historians also get to tell their stories. So, it was really fun to look at their stories and figure out how to tell the highlights and the lowlights with a beginning, middle and end.
You know, you come back to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey and you do find that everyone comes home towards the end of their life whether they’ve succeeded or not. So I’d like to try and find stories that articulate that within whatever the story is. I’m still very character based, I’m just not as closed as I used to be - I’ve got the experience to be confident.