Outback from the grave: Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright

The venerable Canadian-born filmmaker will be in town tonight to present his deep and disturbing 1971 film, once thought lost but now restored to its former glory.

Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright has quite a storied history. The 1971 film, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and released to much critical acclaim, was thought to have disappeared completely. In 2004, a negative of the film was found in a Philadelphia warehouse, destined for destruction. A few years later, it was rescreened at Cannes and released on DVD after being painstakingly restored. And tonight, Kotcheff himself will be in Montreal to present the film at the PHI Centre.

“I love this film, I think it’s one of my best films. And I love Montreal,” the 81-year-old director says, speaking to Cult by phone from his current home in Los Angeles. “The combination of the two was a slam dunk” for him to come visit for the screening.

The Canadian-born Kotcheff is best known around these parts for his 1974  adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He’s also directed films ranging from First Blood (aka the first Rambo movie) to Weekend at Bernie’s. But Wake in Fright was made before any of these. Kotcheff, who’d left Canada to find his fortune — “Back in the ’50s, there was no such thing as a Canadian film industry,” he says — was living in London and was introduced to Kenneth Cook’s novel Wake in Fright by screenwriter Evan Jones, who proposed adapting it.

The simple yet layered story finds teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) on a layover in the small Australian town of Bundanyabba (known to locals as “The Yabba”) on his way to Sydney. Before long, his visit turns into a three-day bender of booze, gambling, awkward sexual encounters and violence. “I’m always attracted to stories about people who don’t know themselves,” says Kotcheff. “This one is about a man who succumbs to the shadow side of his own nature — the yahoo within all of us.”

Among the film’s many memorable scenes, the most shocking is a late-night, drunken kangaroo hunt that looks awfully real. Despite a slippery-worded disclaimer at the end, it appears that animals were harmed in this production. “I’m a vegan — I don’t even eat meat,” says Kotcheff. “The idea of shooting an animal for a film is unpardonable. So I was flummoxed for how I would do it — there were no animatronics at the time,” he chuckles.

As he recalls, while he tried to come up with ways to stage the scene, he was informed that several kangaroos were shot in the bush on a nightly basis, to provide fodder for American pet food production. Kotcheff accompanied the hunters on their trip and filmed their kills. “I rationalized it and said no animal was killed for my film. But I filmed the slaughter of these lovely creatures,” he admits. However, he takes comfort in recently finding out that “15 years ago, as a result of my film, they ended the slaughter of kangaroos for American pet food processing.”

Despite its critical acclaim, the film bombed in Australia — “I think people were affronted by the depiction of the Australian male,” says Kotcheff — and not long after, the production company went bankrupt. “If a picture doesn’t succeed financially, it’s just dumped and forgotten,” the director explains with resignation.

But years later, it’s getting its proper recognition again. And Kotcheff, who hasn’t made a film since 1997 but has kept busy as a producer and director on Law & Order: SVU, says not to count him out of the game just yet. With the difficulty of getting a film made and released, he says, “I only do films that I care very strongly about.” ■


Wake in Fright screens Wednesday, Nov. 14 at the PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre), 7:30 p.m., $13.25, followed by a Q&A with Ted Kotcheff.



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