Bill Bennett  – a “Sick Fuck” ??

Australia has fostered a lot of film making talent on the world, and Videodrome was lucky enough to talk with Bill Bennett, a writer/director who has worked with the likes of Stephen Curry, Eric Bana, Burt Reynolds, Rufus Sewell and quite regularly Max Cullen.

Bill Bennett was relaxing in the foyer of the Hotel Lindrum in Melbourne when he took time out to give Videodrome some insight into his techniques as a film writer and director. It seemed like working in America was agreeing with him. Bill was doing the press junket for Tempted staring Burt Reynolds. We started off talking about why so many of his films deal with sexual politics.
“It is really weird, because as a director I find it such difficult material to deal with and I’ve avoided doing anything with any kind of sexual nature to it, up till my ninth film. I go into films with any kind of sexual content with a great degree of personal discomfort.”
Ironically the two films before Nugget (2002), In A Savage Land (1999) and Tempted (2001), were very sexually orientated, and they were both written and directed by Bill. “In the case of in A Savage Land, it really was about taking a conventional marriage and putting it into an environment where those conventions weren’t in anyway respected or adhered to. In the same way that road movies like putting people in a car and then applying the heat – that was the case with In a Savage Land.
Bill hesitated when he begun to talk about the nature of “Tempted”, and then he gave us the exclusive that “I’ve not told anyone else this”.

‘I’m going to be away filming for a couple of weeks, how about you take this girl out, I’ll pay for dinner, and see if you can crack on to her.’

“With this story [Tempted]… I did this. Before I was married I was going out with this ballerina. I’d met her in Shanghais and she lived in Melbourne. We had a couple of steamy nights in Shanghais and we continued the relationship back here when we came back to Australia. This relationship went for about 18 months or so. Prior to meeting me she had been incredibly sexually active, and she was starting to talk about marriage. I had just come out of a long-standing relationship and I didn’t quite know whether or not I wanted to marry this girl. In the back of my mind I was wondering, if I did marry this girl, if in the long term she would be faithful to me – over a period of time. I was working at this time making documentaries, and I was working with [name withheld]. I know that she had always fancied [name withheld] – I knew that she liked guys with blond hair. I was about to go off on a shoot and I said to [name withheld] ‘I’m going to be away filming for a couple of weeks, how about you take this girl out, I’ll pay for dinner, and see if you can crack on to her.’ Tragically this is true. [name withheld] was absolutely outraged. He said ‘You are one sick fuck’ and I went, ‘Come on, she’s an attractive girl’. Anyway he didn’t, and we’ve barely spoken since, and we were really close friends up till that point. I think that he thinks that I am quite a sick fuck. At the time I was able to look at what I had done and stand back and think ‘gee, that’s interesting – maybe there is a movie in that’.
[At the time this story made the interview somewhat un-publishable, but since then Bill has come out and told the story (albeit with less details) in the bonus features of the DVD of Tempted, so with the names omitted we feel that we wont be betraying his trust.]

Bill Bennett's alter-ego

This information surely sheds new light onto the casting of Burt Reynolds as the suspicious husband in Tempted, this now being something of a Bill alter ego.
“When I finished the script and started to think about who was out there and who could do it, I did think of [Burt]. Only because he has the charm and he has the menace and he is able to alternate between the two so effortlessly. You look at Boogie Nights and he is one scary character in that movie.”
I pointed out that he seemed like one of the more likeable characters in Boogie Nights. “Oh yeah, but underneath there was this darkness, and that was really what I was looking for. That ability to be so disarming on one level. The other thing about Burt is that as a person he has been through a lot. He has really been through the mill. Any actor, particularly in an improvised film, brings their life experiences to it, so they can draw on stuff. I was reading a review of Van Morrison’s latest record, and the reviewer was saying that his voice now has an age that allows it evoke so much. You look at someone like R L Burnside who is in [Tempted] – same thing. They bring all the pain, all of the hurt and all of the disappointments from life, and they bring it to a roll.” It may be of interest that a comment I found on the Internet had the viewer confused as to whether Burt’s role was “the good guy or the bad guy”.

Five of Bill Bennett’s films have been improvised. This is where an actor gets to know character so that when it comes to performing a scene the choices cease to be arbitrary. With both Kiss or Kill(1997) and Tempted Bill wrote an outline of only about 60 pages. The outline only contained a scene-by-scene breakdown and some suggested dialogue. Rehearsal was a very intensive process of character work and script work, but not involving acting out scenes or talking about dialogue. This does seem to be a demanding method. In any given scene there are a myriad of choices available. The actor must reduce down the number of choices available to the character, just as in real life the actions that people may choose are reduced based on life experiences, upbringing, relationship with whoever we are interacting with and what may have happened yesterday or three hours ago, etcetera.
The sort of enveloping yourself in a character is not uncommon with committed actors (famously Sean Penn made everyone on the set of Fast Time At Ridgemont High only refer to him as his character, Spicoli), but Bill Bennett actually uses a lot of non-actors for rolls in his films, like the police and some construction workers in Tempted. “It comes down to the way a persons mind works, when I cast someone I am looking for they way they think.”
“What we normally do with casting is send [the actor] a script, and if they respond to it, we sit down and talk to them.” To get an insight into the actors mind Bill asks the person what their favourite colour is, at which point Bill demonstrated this technique by asking a series of questions, each responding to the answer of the previous one and all based on why choices are made. The real aim in the casting is to see if the actor can preform what would be the most difficult aspect of the character, the “bottleneck”. That is identifying the once action of a character that only one person out of a dozen possible actors, could do, like break out into a fit of rage. “So what I do when I am casting is I look at every character and I try and find that bottleneck, that one thing. There will be one thing that that person has to be able to do, whether it is something physical like be able to play the piano or whether we discover that they are gay, so there has to be a slight element of the effeminate, all of which differentiate that person from any other person for the roll.”
The sort of traits that help narrow down the list when casting are personal honesty and the ability to articulate what they are thinking, “I’m basically looking for the gap between the synapses”.
Allowing so much freedom to an actor creates the problem of an actor feeling that they know the character better than the writer/director, “this is one of the inherent problems with working this way, and it is something that I call ‘The disease of proprietary ownership’. By that I mean that because this process is so empowering the actors can get to a point where they think they are running the circus, and that happens in every film. In every rehearsal I go into it saying ‘this is going to happen’, you are going to think that you know your character so well, like the character of Lily [in Tempted] going ‘my character wouldn’t kill my husband’. I’ve got to be aware of it, and I’ve got to have the strength and the courage to control it.”
We digressed into talking about a couple of the actors Bill had cast. In Spider and Rose the late Ruth Cracknell played the feisty Rose. I pushed with the inevitable question, were those Ruth Cracknell’s first nude scenes? “Yeah, it was. She was very nervous about it. I spoke to a number of British actresses and one of them was Dame Judi Dench and nude scenes were a real issue with them, as it was with Ruth. I talked through with Ruth dramatically why it was necessary and as soon as she understood it she was really cool. When we came to do the scenes she was so professional and so straightforward. Poor Simon Bossell [Spider], he was the one who was having kittens. The casting on Nugget was very methodical. Stephen Curry was the only one I had in mind from the start.”

Having covered Ruth’s nudity, we moved into film production issues like storyboarding a scene, “When I have to. With an improvised film you are basically trying to keep things very loose and very free. With Tempted I storyboarded the stunt stuff, the shoot out stuff. I storyboarded the whole opening sequence with the camera.” And writing, “I consider myself first a writer and if I wasn’t doing this I would be writing novels I guess. Normally what happens is I write it, and when I’ve locked off on a script it’s like Bill Bennett the writer hands it over to Bill Bennett the director. Then I treat it like any other script that has been handed to me, which is – how should I best handle this.”

Mr Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett took an indirect route into filmmaking. He started studying Biochemistry, and while doing that he started working as a photojournalist for Surfing World magazine. Loving that he gave up medicine and went into Journalism. It was while working for the ABC as a first year cadet that he had an idea for a short documentary, which he took to the news editor. He wrote a proposal for the film on the long distance swimmer Stephen Holland, and was subsequently sent out with a crew and no idea what to do. Despite that he made the documentary, and when it was cut together, Bill knew that this was what he wanted to do.

A recurring theme in Bill’s films is “lost” individuals in remote locations. “I’m really interested in is the way landscape shifts and shapes behaviour and character.
“When I was working for A Big Country [the ABC documentary series], it was the most wonderful job. They would give you money to go and take a crew anywhere in the country of your choice and make a film.
“I went to either far north Queensland or [the] far South of Tasmania, and that’s where I found my people.” What Bill found in the extreme parts of the country was the really strong and great characters, the people that made for fascinating documentaries. Subjects in other parts of the country were boring in comparison. Without realizing it, Bill was using this association of remote locations and eccentrics in his films, which is perfectly exemplified by Barry Otto and Max Cullen in Kiss or Kill, “and the same way in The Nugget Max Cullen’s [character] talks about these forces, about how we don’t understand the land. That the land brings for something to test us, and then takes it away again.
One of the things that I think is really interesting about Australian is that we are just visitors here. We have only been here such a short while, we don’t really understand it. We haven’t got a clue. The people that have been here 40, 50 thousand years have a much deeper understanding than we have. Stuff happens that we try and rationalize, that we try and give scientific justification to, but there is a much deeper thing happening that we just aren’t connected to, and that is what really fascinates me.”
With such an admiration for Aboriginal culture, I asked why Aborigines hadn’t featured in any of his films, “I’m scared of them. It’s a culture that I don’t understand.”
Despite, or because of that Bill is working with Nick Enright (Blackrock, Lorenzo’s Oil) on a script about Bennelong, and the relationship between Bennelong and Governor Philip. [Bennelong, born c. 1764 of the Wangal people being one of the first native Australians to be ‘civilised’ into the European way of life and to enjoy its ‘benefits’.] “I’m not writing it myself because I don’t think I am a good enough writer, but Nick is one of the few people in this country who could write something as important and complex as that. I’ve been researching it now since 1987, and Nick has been working with me for 3 years. We are just taking our time and getting it right.” Bill may not even direct what he thinks would be a $30 million movie, because he feels that it is such an important story, he wants to see it given justice – “I don’t want to fuck it up”.

Originally published in Tabula Rasa – September 2003