The New York- and Melbourne-based director talks about The Eye of The Storm, his first Australian film in 22 years.

Director Fred Schepisi’s family drama/dark comedy The Eye of The Storm is his first film in Australia in 22 years, since he made A Cry In The Dark.

Charlotte Rampling plays a wealthy, and difficult, family matriarch who is visited on her deathbed by her estranged children, played by Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. The screenplay is adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize-winning Australian novelist Patrick White.

The film shot for 42 days mostly in Melbourne (for 1972-era Sydney), with some scenes also shot in Sydney and some in Fingal Head in northern New South Wales.

Sycamore Entertainment Group has partnered with Gravitas Ventures for the day and date theatrical and video on demand release of the film in the US on Sept 7. Screen spoke to Schepisi at last week’s RiverRun International Film Festival, where The Eye of The Storm was the closing film.

For more on Schepisi’s upcoming projects, see news story here.

Did this film come together easily?

No, not at all. Antony Waddington initiated the project, as a first-time producer (he’s also an actor). It was his dream to get a great Patrick White novel made and he beavered away for quite a while. He came to me four years before we actually made the film. He and Gregory Read and Jonathan Shteinman ratched up a lot of money out of Sydney, the wealthy patrons of the arts there wanted to see something like a Patrick White film be made.

We counted on the 40% rebate and we got got money from Film Victoria, who did everything they could to help us get it made. Screen Australia were not so willing, they stood on bureaucratic reasons for not jumping in with us, some of which I’ll never understand. They said the private equity investment didn’t reflect on the commerciality of the film, because they were not sophisticated film investors. But the whole charter was to encourage people to invest in film….They [Screen Australia] did come in many weeks after shooting, and after looking at the footage. So I’m glad that they did.

What was it like shooting in Australia again?

It was fantastic. I’ve got a coterie of people I work with, like Ian Baker the cinematographer, Kate Williams the editor, and Paul Grabowsky the composer. So I’ve got a comfort zone there, but we don’t work in comfort zones we push one another very hard. Every member of the crew just bent over backwards because they were delighted to be working on something of such substance. It’s a wonderful atmosphere to work with. Directors and actors get the credit but nobody quite realises the contribution that everybody else makes, and it’s major.

What was it like directing your daughter, Alexandra (who plays Flora)?

I had the casting people approach her the same way as everybody else, put her through all the same tests…you never know what your blindsides are, so I had some of my colleagues on the film watch the tests. And they all agreed. She was nervous. She said, ‘Do you mind if I don’t call you dad so we’re very professional?’That lasted two days. I just treated her like everybody else and she did the same. It was very good. Obviously everybody asks what about the sex scene with Geoffrey Rush. Well, I say, ‘Look at the film, see how careful he was’ [laughs].

What was it like working with Geoffrey Rush?

I hadn’t worked with him before and I found him a great ally, a great contributor to the process. And a great willingness to be whatever the part needs.
I got them all to plumb the novel, because there is great information about them as characters. All of them were concerned about the whole project, not just their own roles.

How did you convince Charlotte Rampling to play the matriarch?

It’s not easy convincing women to play 15 years older. But Charlotte is wonderful, she’s not vain like that, she was interested in doing a part that would stir her up, that she could relate to but was unusual. Her main concern was to not have a mask or prosthetics on, and I agreed. Her face would have been immobile and she wouldn’t have been able to express herself as well.

Before this you did Empire Falls, would you think of doing more TV projects?

I never thought of that as television. It’s HBO. We actually shot it as a movie. In a way that made it more difficult for them. If you are doing miniseries, you have to pull out a cliffhanger for each part. In Empire Falls, it just gradually draws you along. It was Colin Callender’s idea at HBO to do it in chapters. Not so it could be broken up, but the reason is that you’re going for three and a half hours, you can’t start at A and keep going up and up on a straight angle. You’ve got to ebb and flow a bit, and the chapters allow you to come up to a certain point, stop and take a breath, and drop down a little bit.