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Exclusive: Ted Kotcheff Looks Back at Forty Years with Wake in Fright

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It’s hard to believe that after 40 years since its release, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright is getting a rerelease in America courtesy of Drafthouse Films after the film was grossly mishandled during its first theatrical run back in 1971.

For those of you who may not have heard of the Australian thriller that almost disappeared forever, it follows a British teacher (Gary Bond) living in Australia who loses both his money and his way during a lost weekend in a small town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” to the locals) located in the blistering wilderness of the Outback. Also starring in the film are horror legend Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty.

Since helming Wake in Fright, Kotcheff has gone on to direct many successful films in several different genres including North Dallas Forty, First Blood, Uncommon Valor and another movie about a lost weekend of sorts- Weekend at Bernie’s.

Recently, Dread Central had the opportunity to chat with Kotcheff about the new resurgence of interest surrounding Wake in Fright after 40 years, more on his experiences creating the controversial film including the real-life terror of the infamous kangaroo hunting scenes and so much more.

Check out our exclusive interview with Kotcheff below and look for Wake in Fright during its upcoming limited theatrical engagement (it’s currently playing in NY, expands to other cities in the coming weeks).

Dread Central: How did it feel to find out after all those years of thinking Wake in Fright was lost that not only had it been found but that it was also going to get a new theatrical release as well?

Ted Kotcheff: It’s a miracle, really. I remember how the film went to Cannes in 1971 which is something every director dreams of but then after it was released in New York, it failed terribly and now 35 or 40 years later, it’s coming back out again. Wake in Fright literally rose from the dead and now here we are talking about it; the film refuses to die (laughs).

It’s hard to believe in this day and age but films still do go missing; I’ve heard of films being dumped in the trash all the time which is really sad considering the work that goes into them but we were very lucky that we found all the missing pieces of this movie so that we could restore it back to its original state. It looks beautiful.

Dread Central: So how did you go about tracking down a film that you made four decades ago but lost track of?

Ted Kotcheff: We spent ten years tracking the negative and that was mostly to do with the film’s editor, Tony Buckley. He spent years going everywhere- New York, London, Dublin- he went all over the world to find the negative. He’s really the only one who didn’t give up on it.

And then finally, they found the negative in a warehouse in Pittsburgh of all places; there were five big boxes filled with soundtracks, all the music tracks, the internegatives- everything. But the boxes were labeled to be destroyed so it fortunate that we got there in time before that was all destroyed forever. When Tony finally tracked it down, the negative was in very bad condition; it was torn, scratched and faded- it just had this horrible pinkish quality to it. But then Anthos Simon from Deluxe in Sydney came on board and spent two years using the latest digital techniques to save it. He worked frame by frame to restore the negative to its original form and I thought his work was astonishing. It looks even better than I had remembered it.

Dread Central: Speaking of how the film looks- can you discuss what your approach was in regards to the visual style of Wake in Fright. What I thought was remarkable was how you managed to keep this underlying tone of claustrophobia running throughout the film even during some of the more ‘vast and open’ type scenes.

Ted Kotcheff: You know, I’m a great believer in the idea that art does not consist of abstract details; I knew that the way we would film Wake in Fright would become the pictorial medium to tell this story so it had to feel the way that Gary’s character feels when he arrives in The Yabba. You have to feel as hot and uncomfortable as he does so I banned cool colors from the set- only reds, oranges, yellows and browns.

The red dirt was also a huge component to the look; when you visit these types of towns, there’s always this layer of filth to everything which is the red dirt that gets into everything and seems to cover any surface it can, even in doors. I wanted that dinginess in Wake in Fright so I had a barrel of red dirt that I would hook up to a spray gun and we’d just spray down the sets and everything just to give it that dirty feeling. It would sort of hang in the air when we were shooting which also added a nice touch the look of the film overall.

Dread Central: Donald Pleasence is probably one of my favorite genre actors of all time so seeing him in such a different role in Wake in Fright was really remarkable for me; can you discuss your casting process and what made him and Gary (Bond) great fits for their respective roles?

Ted Kotcheff: Donald was a great actor friend of mine that I asked for him to be a part of this. He was a charmer so I knew he could pull off this performance; we got along so well together. Donald was a great actor, one of the best really, and it was always a pleasure to work with him. He also had this kind of a wicked sense of humor that you could see flecks of in his eyes all the time; you never knew whether he was being serious or not with some of the things he was saying, which gave tremendous depth to the character of Doc.

With Gary, I had seen his work in Evita during its West End tour and thought he was magnificent so I hired him for this. I thought he had such a likability to him that it would make it easy for audiences to want to follow him on this terrifying journey. I also worked with a lot of local actors which were all great and of course Chips Rafferty who was a pretty big Australian star at the time.

Dread Central: One of the more unsettling moments of Wake in Fright had to be the kangaroo hunting sequence; it’s a tough watch. Was that one of the bigger challenges you faced when you made this movie- pulling off that scene?

Ted Kotcheff: You know, at the beginning I really didn’t know how I was going to do that sequence; I wasn’t sure how to make it look real because I would never condone killing animals just for a movie. That’s immoral. But then one night, one of the Australians on the film crew said, “You know, they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night in the outback professionally? “They have these refrigerated trucks where hunters go out in pairs on them. They shoot the kangaroos and they bring them back, put them in a refrigerator, go out and then kill some more of them. So why don’t you put your camera in the back and go out with these hunters; they’re killing hundreds anyway and sending the meat out for pet food.”

So, it was kind of gross, knowing that pet food back then was made out of kangaroos too but I was not going to kill one kangaroo for my film either. So I went out with the hunters and shot some footage which was quite an experience. It was so incredibly grueling to watch them shooting the animals but I just photographed exactly what they did and made no judgments on their actions.

There was this spotlight at the top of their truck and a reversible windshield so when they lifted their guns on the dashboard, the light would hypnotize the kangaroos so they were able to shoot them without any problem. To me, I think the most horrific thing in the film was the way the kangaroos’ eyes were red as they stood there waiting for death. It haunted me. But I know we had that warning at the end of the movie about the animals but that’s something I wished we had put in at the beginning, just so audiences would know that we wouldn’t mercilessly kill animals just to make a movie.

Dread Central: Another controversial moment was the implied rape scene between Donald and Gary Bond? Did you find that was that another tough moment for audiences too?

Ted Kotcheff: You know, back in 1971 when I was at the Cannes Film Festival screening, as I was sitting there, there was this voice behind me kept saying, “Wow- what a scene! Great! This is great!” So then when the homosexual rape scene came up, he said, “Oh my God- this guy has gone all the way! Wow!” and that’s all I kept hearing from this 25-year-old American kid sitting right behind me the entire time.

I knew he had to be in the film business because of where he was sitting in the theater so later I asked our PR guy who it was, and he said, “Yeah, he’s some young American director that’s only made a flop so far. His name…oh yeah, it’s Martin Scorsese.” And of course, he was right- I HADN’T heard of Martin. But when Wake in Fright was found again and word got around that there was a new print, coming, Martin was one of the first people to ask for one. I guess he remembered my work after 38 years or so and since he heads up the classic film department at Cannes now, he declared Wake in Fright a Cannes Classic.

Only two films have ever been screened twice at Cannes: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and my film, Wake in Fright. It’s pretty remarkable to think about how this strange little film has had such an incredible life even throughout the years when it was deemed ‘lost forever.’

Exclusive: Ted Kotcheff Looks Back at Forty Years with Wake in Fright

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