Greg King talks with Richard Flanagan, novelist, writer and director of the critically acclaimed new Australian film, The Sound Of One Hand Clapping.
©Greg King April 1998 Melbourne Australia
For novelist turned film maker Richard Flanagan, history is important. “As that Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier says: ‘If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don’t know who you are.’ At some point in their lives everybody must turn around and walk back into the shadows of the past to understand who they are.
“I think growing up in Tasmania also affected me a lot. There, of all the places in Australia, the past is most powerfully at work in the present. I grew up with a very strong sense of what the past was and what it meant. I think all our lives are influenced because we carry those memories. Today is such a small collection of our lives. It’s logical that the past will always be a more powerful force on our lives than the present. It is what we are.”
Born in Tasmania in 1961, he was the fifth child in an Irish Catholic family, whose ancestors were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840′s. Before eventually turning to a career as a writer, Flanagan worked in many menial jobs. Since leaving school in 1977, he has worked as a labourer, a chain hand cutting lines through forests, a river guide, and even a doorman. He then returned to university, earned a Rhodes Scholarship and developed an interest in history. He published several works of historical non-fiction, and then began writing more personal essays before successfully turning his hand to fiction. In 1995, he was awarded the Victorian Premier’s Award for First Fiction for his first novel Death Of A River Guide.
When he arrives at the downstairs bar of the Gateway Apartments for our interview, Flanagan candidly admits that he is becoming tired of the publicity routine. “I’m a bit burned out from it all,” he begins apologetically. After all, he has lived with The Sound Of One Hand Clapping in one form or another for the better part of six years. He feels that it is time to move on to something else. He has already commenced work on his third novel, which he has promised to deliver to the publisher by August.
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping is a deeply moving and powerful tale about the estranged relationship between Sonja and her father Bojan, an immigrant labourer who came to Australia after the war with dreams of a better life. But his dreams turned to dust. Bojan works as a labourer at a hydro-electricity scheme in Tasmania’s highlands. One night his wife walks out of their small home never to return. Bojan sinks into an abyss of despair and alcoholism and abuse, which eventually drives Sonja away vowing never to return. But sixteen years later, Sonja does return, pregnant, alone, and frightened. She has returned in an attempt to understand the family history that has caused so much despair and heart-ache and psychological damage. The film also taps into the unique experiences of those post war emigrants who came to Australia hoping for a fresh start.
He concedes that just getting the film made in the first place was a monumental task. He initially began work on the screenplay in 1991, writing the rough drafts, while working on his first novel, which was published in 1994. Although there was some interest in the screenplay for The Sound Of One Clapping, potential investors and producers felt that his singular vision was too dark and difficult. After all, this was the era of crowd pleasing comedy dramas like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, and producers were looking for more of the same. The script languished, but Flanagan decided he wasn’t finished with the story yet. Deciding to turn it into a novel, he spent the next two and a half years rewriting the story. Ironically, shortly after he had delivered it to his publisher, Flanagan received a phone call informing him that the money was finally available to make the film.
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping is the first feature film from Artists Services, Steve Vizard‘s production company, better known for its comedies and light entertainment rather than this challenging, dark and emotionally harrowing personal journey into one woman’s recent past. However, the company was looking to broaden their horizons and diversify into a number of other areas. Film was the ideal medium for them because it gave the company status and also the potential to achieve an international profile.
Surprisingly enough, Flanagan has no formal training in the art of script writing or directing. Even though he hadn’t written a script, made a short film or even directed a commercial before, he seems to have had very firm ideas on what he wanted and how to get it. “I think that, coming from writing books, I had a strong sense of how I wanted to compose it, how I wanted it to look, how I wanted it to sound. I think that they are both forms of story telling. I had never directed anything, and I knew nothing about the vast array of technical processes that are so much a part of film making. But I always knew exactly what I wanted to see on the screen, and it was just a case of imbuing the other people I worked with with that vision, and inspiring them. I had some very gifted people to work with, and they took it beyond what I had hoped. I was fortunate in that.
“Directors are an odd combination of the guardian of the soul of the film and a sort of security guard for the project to stop people busting in and wrecking it. You have to be a bit of a street fighter – one part artist, one part politician, really. I wasn’t prepared for that aspect of the business. The film making I loved, but the politics, I wasn’t too keen on. But that’s part of the process. It is a part of any aspect of life, but more so in film because there’s so much money at stake. And, in the end, whether the film succeeds or not is on the director’s head. There are people trying to force your hand all the time because they think they know what will make the film successful and that the director will make it fail.”
“To direct is very lonely. You have to make hundreds of decisions every day, and you just can’t run to someone and ask advice. That’s your job, to work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, just to make those decisions. Those decisions aren’t that hard if you have a strong vision of what you want the film to be.”
Flanagan admits that it was a huge responsibility for a first time director. “I was very frightened throughout it all. But then I thought a huge gamble had been taken with me, and, at that point, I thought that I would rather take every risk that I can, because, if the movie was going to fail, I’d rather it fail where I felt that I took every risk to make a film that mattered rather than compromise and do what I was told, and the film failed because I never really made the film that I felt I could have. So we just took risks at every point, and we wanted to make a film unlike any that had been made in Australian cinema before. That was the ambition of it.
“The script was very strong, and it had a strong story. A lot of work had gone into it, and nobody thought there was a need to improve it much. But if an actor thought that some part of a character didn’t work for them, then it didn’t work. I was trying to balance being open but not drifting too far from the script. The dilemma is that everyone will have a really good idea in their area, but it might be getting away from the look of the film. The only person who keeps the overall look of the film in their head is the director. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. I think those directors who do this endless improvisation of actors building up their characters don’t have a strong script. They can create a strong film that way. In this case we started with a clearly defined script and didn’t have to really do that.
“I’m determined to make each thing work. I’m also determined that it be accessible to as many people as possible. That really matters to me. I want to make things of the highest standard possible, and never condescend to people. I don’t want them to be esoteric, but I want them to be accessible to everybody.”
Although a historian, Flanagan says that he didn’t really do a lot of research for the novel, which delves into the migrant experience of Australia in the mid 1950′s. Flanagan says that the real inspiration for the story came from viewing old photographs of logging camps, and the stories and experiences of his wife’s family, who emigrated to Tasmania.
“I think that, in getting to the heart of stories, research can often get in the way. Because you accumulate a certain amount of detail you lose the human essence. Occasionally I checked up to make sure a certain fact or detail was right, but overall I just tried to write it on the basis of certain feelings and emotions. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be an alcoholic labourer with no future because life had become a living death. I tried to imagine what it would be like for a woman, estranged from her lover, who didn’t want to have a baby because she felt she could offer it nothing. To imagine what it felt like to be a stranger in a strange land, and so sad and desperate that you might hang yourself. It was an exercise in trying to understand the human spirit beyond yourself.”
Flanagan says that the title itself came from a historical essay on feminist politics, but it is also part of Zen Buddhism. However, he says that it actually means a lot of different things to different people. “People had all sorts of clever explanations for it, far more cleverer than anything I could have come up with. I liked it because it was enigmatic, and I think that titles, like stories, should be open to many interpretations and explanations. And I liked it because the story is about these two people who have their living deaths until they can acknowledge their love for each other. Until that moment they are like ‘the sound of one hand clapping’, which, for me, is an infinite nothingness. But at the point at which they do acknowledge each other they become human and begin to live again. That is the point at which they have hope and meaning once more.”
Flanagan had always wanted Kerry Fox (An Angel At My Table, Shallow Grave, etc) for the emotionally draining role of Sonja. He thought that she was a fantastic actress, always luminous on the screen, but he never thought that they had a chance of getting her. Fox somehow got hold of a copy of the script and read it and loved it, and started faxing the producers asking if she could do the film.
The rest of the cast was deliberately drawn from migrants, because, as Flanagan says, it was a film about migrants and their experiences. He had specific ideas on what he wanted and had a very good casting director who was able to find the right people for the roles. “Those people understood the characters and brought a lot of passion buoyed by their own experiences to the whole thing. I discovered there was this pool of talent out there that hardly gets used in cinema, which generally makes much more conservative choices and recycles the same actors again and again.”
Despite the acclaim heaped upon the film at its premier at Berlin earlier this year, Flanagan professes a reluctance to direct another film. “I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t make another one,” he says frankly. “It’s a very painful thing, especially when you try to set up on terms favourable to yourself to make sure you’ve got the best chance of making the film you want. Unless I’ve got that I don’t think I’d bother.
“Writing is the only thing I took seriously. I suppose I’ve had enough bad jobs that I knew a good job when I saw it. To write and to make films – they’re good jobs. I always thought that if I ever had the privilege of being able to do such things I would never want to blow it through laziness or arrogance or any of those sorts of things. Most people have to do dreadful jobs and their lives are miserable. I thought that if I was lucky enough to do such a glorious thing I should never let that go. If I blew it, it would be my fault!”
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping screens at the Como and Lumiere cinemas from April 23.