Australian filmmaker Rowan Woods enjoyed a multiple award winning feature debut with his 1998 film The Boys. Seven years on he is back with Little Fish, a story with a strong female perspective about the Heart family. Touched by tragedy and almost destroyed by drug addiction in the past, the lives of Tracy (Cate Blanchett), her brother Ray (Martin Henderson), mother (Noni Hazlehurst) and close family friend Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving) remain bound together as events overtake them once more.
Little Fish seems like a distaff take on some of the themes in The Boys. These familial relationships clearly interest you, don’t they?
I’ve always been attracted to films that attempt to get inside families and all the complex and twisted dynamics that happen there. I guess this is the positive side of The Boys in a way. I think there’s a realistic and logical, and hopeful conclusion to what goes on in this story.
Women are supposed to be more nurturing anyway, aren’t they?
I think so. That also made it actually quite an interesting piece of cinema to me, and it made it quite attractive when I first read the screenplay. It struck me as unusual that a central female character should be fighting a heroic battle against her own temptations. The character that Cate Blanchett plays struggles admirably, with the help of her mother, to avoid the evil temptations of her past. To that extent it felt very real to me, but it also struck me as a great genre yarn as well, the fact that you could suck the audience into Tracy’s heart of darkness, just as I sucked the audience down into the heart of darkness of those boys.
How did this collaboration with your wife, screenwriter Jacqueline Perske, come about?
I didn’t have anything to do with the initial development of this, though I actually sparked the idea when I came out of film school. That’s where I met Jacqueline. She’s a very well known tv and movie writer in her own right, but she took this idea when I ran out of steam. She developed that for three or four years and then showed it back to me. I was amazed because she basically, completely, fundamentally changed what I’d originally set out to do. She made the female character the central character, where my original story was about the brother.
This changed the dynamic significantly then?
It did, it made it an unusual love story, which was never in my treatment. She completely came up with a new spin, and I was captivated by that. I came on at the end stages of the development, as did Cate. Concurrent to that timeline Cate and I had been searching for projects to do together. She’d seen The Boys and really loved that, she’d pitched me for a couple of films, one in Hollywood and another over here. They didn’t come off so I eventually showed her Little Fish, and she was entranced by it for the same reasons that I was. We went from there.
The Boys was a big success at home, was there any particular pressure to follow it up quicker than the seven years it has taken?
Frankly I was nervous that not following it up would make the financing of my second film difficult. But I think the reputation it had was solid. Obviously in the world of financing movies it’s all about stars and I’ve always wanted to align myself with actors whose work I admire, but who are also then capable of functioning as quasi-producers, standing side by side with me and developing the end stages of the script before partnering me into production. I did that with David Wenham on The Boys, and with this one Cate helped enormously. She was an important filmmaker aside from being a magnet for finance and other actors.
Can you describe how Cate rose to the challenge of playing Tracy Heart?
I think for the first time in her career she was playing a contemporary Australian, someone who was close to her in place and time. She’s known for her exemplary craft, as it applies itself to these incredibly exotic incarnations where she often has to age up and physically change. But for the first time she was doing a role that was really, really close to her. Not that she didn’t apply all the same rigorous research and craft to the transformation, it’s just that the aim of the exercise – and we talked about this a lot – that Cate would come up with this Tracy character that was going to be more affecting for its emotional rawness rather than it’s amazing transformational quality. And she achieved that wonderfully. A lot of people who know Cate have watched the film and actually got quite emotional because they’re seeing little Cate for the first time, this raw, contemporary woman pouring her heart out in the film.
When you deal in situations like these, of working class strife, recovering addicts and shady criminals, how do you go about avoiding cliché?
It’s really difficult. You have to check yourself all the time and ask yourself whether you’re really being truthful to the character as written and the character that would exist in the real world. It involves lots of research.
So is there a parallel with the way someone like Mike Leigh works?
My process is the opposite of Mike Leigh, who works with an ensemble to create a story over a long period of rehearsal time. I do precisely the opposite, I’m purely a director and I underscore a piece of writing that’s already written. I value great screenwriting and when I do my research it’s completely separate from the script, I’m really just testing the characters and whether they’re actually functioning as they would in the real world.
And you do this by speaking to people who would share some of the experiences of your characters, don’t you?
I research the subjects in the film so that I can know more about it and I can inform the actors and shed some light on the meaning of the piece and the nature of the real world. We’re actors and directors, we’re not living this stuff, we’re not method people. I distribute voluminous amounts of research of DVD, and that happens at the end of the script stage very often, two years in this case. I distribute that to the actors and the designer and the cinematographer. They then send me notes back and I’ll do another wave of research in response to their needs, and then send the DVDs back to them. There’s a very substantial interchange of research material between me and my co-workers, that tests a piece of writing that already exists. And to an extent that informs the final stages of script development.
How would you classify Hugo Weaving’s performance as the key character of Lionel?
Hugo’s embodiment of this tragic, decrepit character is absolutely amazing. I’m so pleased that I cast him, because it was such a difficult role to play. He had to completely transform beyond what the audience recognise as a Hugo Weaving character. He really had to fool the audience and become decrepit and unrecognisable and really disappear into that role. But at the same time he had to be the most lovable and the most cherished character in the story. That’s a difficult combination to do. In the history of cinema there’s only a few standouts for me where that sort of character has been achieved. One that Hugo and I talked about was Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. It’s a hard thing to do, and Hugo put in a lot of work. Hugo’s become famous for a couple of characters who are pretty cold. Brilliant incarnations, but they’re fairly emotionally cold people on the screen. He had to be precisely the opposite here.
In the end Little Fish seems to be about characters accepting the responsibilities of adulthood, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. I think as a generation the Generation Xers have problems growing up. We didn’t experience wars, we weren’t forced to grow up like previous generations and stand up for ourselves when we were 18 or 19. We sort of drifted into tertiary education a lot of the time, or whatever we did, and it was accepted that we’d stay at home longer than we ever have as human beings. It’s a very, very common experience that even as you go into your 40s and 50s you still don’t feel like you’ve grown up. You haven’t done the hard yards.