John Cur­ran talks Robyn David­son’s Tracks

Robyn David­son was the one per­son the Tracks film­mak­ers were anx­ious to please, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS -

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

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