John Curran talks Robyn Davidson’s Tracks
Robyn Davidson was the one person the Tracks filmmakers were anxious to please, writes Michael Bodey
MANY have tried and all have failed to adapt Robyn Davidson’s epic journey across Australia into a film. Until now. Director John Curran, star Mia Wasikowska and the Academy Award-winning producer of The King’s Speech, Emile Sherman, have combined, with many others, to bring a faithful rendition of Davidson’s 2700km trek from Alice Springs to the west coast to screen.
Davidson, whose memoir of the same name was a hit in the 1980s after Rick Smolan’s photographs of her journey caught global attention in National Geographic, was inured to cinema’s many attempts to film her story.
She says she’d “lost count and interest” in the many botched efforts to adapt the book. “Some of them were a bit disturbing,” she says, smiling. “I’d get these scripts that were just totally bonkers, crazy scripts that were technically very good scripts but with outrageous things in them. Like: “Robyn Davidson being carried around an Aboriginal campfire naked and covered in ash!”
Tracks is no Eliza Fraser. Nor is it a Julia Roberts film, as was once pitched. It is a tale of an enigmatic character who still doesn’t quite make clear the motive behind her 1977 trek with a dog and four camels.
“It’s such an impressionistic film in many ways,” says Curran. “There are so many different ways we could have made it. We knew from the beginning the book doesn’t really suggest a clean film in a lot of ways and we had to find it.”
The result is not a simple travelogue. Anyone who has read Davidson’s book — and there are many — would understand why.
Yet for the filmmakers there was only one audience member to satisfy: Davidson. As she met the filmmakers, Davidson was content “it was really going to be a proper and honourable attempt”. But it wasn’t until the film was in its final post-production period that she realised “how vulnerable they were to my opinion”.
Davidson didn’t have any rights over the feature and she maintains film is such a different art form, she was content to trust them but Wasikowska recalls the relief they felt when the subject was satisfied.
“[Her approval] was probably the most stressful part, but for me it’s the best case scenario because once Robyn was OK with the scenario, for everybody involved it was a great sigh of relief. We didn’t care if it got into festivals or won awards or whatever, Robyn likes it!”
Of course the handsome film was selected to show at several festivals, including Adelaide, which co-funded it, Toronto and Venice, where Wasikowska’s performance was acclaimed. Its global reception, and sales to most foreign territories, is affirmation they’ve suitably filmed what many thought was unfilmmable. Even Curran was unconvinced when Sherman approached him with the idea. Curran backpacked in Australia in 1984 and was familiar with the book, which was very popular among female backpackers. But he didn’t read it.
Curran subsequently moved from his job as a New York graphic artist to Australia, where he schooled himself in filmmaking music videos and commercials before making the critically acclaimed feature Praise.
After four subsequent features made overseas, including We Can’t Live Here Anymore and the Chinese-set The Painted Veil, with Naomi Watts, Curran was keen to return to his adopted home. “This is still my home, that was such a big chunk of my life,” he says, sitting in an office in Sydney’s Surry Hills. “My formative years were here and my best friends are here. I love the film
community here and I wanted to come back here as much for the process and I also wanted Australia to be a character.”
Davidson’s journey, to a point, meant something to him, reminding him of his first arrival here. And Sherman’s pitch came at the point Curran was ready to return. Nevertheless, the director read it, he says, and thought “there’s a film in it but I’m not really sure what it is”. Reading between the lines, Curran appreciated the questions the book raised: about why Davidson didn’t really want to talk about her motive, her family or backstory. “Those are the things I felt we could bring some sub-layers to her character without overriding what’s going on in the present,” he says. “That’s a film I can make. That’s an investigation for me that can go deeper and beyond the book.”
Previous attempts to adapt the film tried to impose a narrative on to the book, turning the story into some kind of relationship story or action adventure. Curran believes that ruined the authenticity of the book. And its authenticity is in portraying a strange cat. Even today, Davidson, who is a fan of the movie — “each time I’ve seen it, I’ve loved it more” — says watching the film remains a “very strange, disorienting thing because it’s my story but it’s not my story, but you could also say that of the book in a way”.
Davidson appreciates the difficulties Curran had adapting the book and representing her character. She’s neither a hero nor archetype, rather a puzzle, which is why some reviews have questioned the film’s unwillingness to guess at Davidson’s motivations. Perhaps she doesn’t even know but she hints when praising Wasikowska. “It really required tremendous acting skills I think because so much of that journey is happening in her head,” Davidson says.
“Some people are just mysterious people and you never figure them out,” Curran says, adding Wasikowska and Davidson are similar in being “guarded people to a degree. They observe and watch and don’t react emotionally right away so it’s hard to read what they’re thinking. And I find those people really fascinating. The point wasn’t to explain her or reveal her, it was just to see her evolve in some authentic small way.”
Like Curran, Wasikowska, the Canberrareared star of Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are
All Right and Stoker, was ecstatic to return home to film after a five-year absence. She smiles, saying the film was unusual in that she was playing someone “around and present” although “it must be so much stranger for her”.
She notes it was taxing to film for eight weeks in the harsh sun: “But sitting next to Robyn, who was out there for eight months outside on her own, I’m going to keep the complaining to a minimum!”
Curran and cinematographer Mandy Walker wanted the Australian landscape to become a character in itself. Many filmmakers blithely say that, but this film has delivered in locations including South Australia’s Flinders Ranges and Coffin Bay, and Kings Canyon and Uluru in the Northern Territory.
They capture the absurdity of Davidson’s adventure. Curran says he had two requirements: he didn’t want to shoot the film guerilla-style with a basic crew and he wanted to film on celluloid.
“And nowadays, telling someone you want to shoot on film is like telling them you want to shoot on cheese,” he says. “I wanted a crew out there, I wanted to have dolly tracks and have a couple of cameras and wanted to bring an elegance to it. I didn’t see the personal returns in doing a film that was a run and gun version of it. I wanted the whole thing to have evolving moods and the changing light and landscape to represent what was going on internally.”
Even if no one still quite knows what was going on inside Davidson’s mind as she trekked in 1977. Tracks is open in cinemas nationally.
Mia Wasikowska and Robyn Davidson during the filming of
Tracks; Wasikowska as Davidson in a scene from the film, above; and director John
Curran, above right