Posted in: Interviews

Rejoicing about things Australian: Phillip Noyce

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Judith M. Kass interviewed Phillip Noyce, the director of Newsfront, and David Rowe, the production and marketing consultant for the New South Wales Film Corporation, when they were in New York City in September 1978 for the film’s showing at the Lincoln Center Film Festival. Newsfront uses Australian newsreel footage and integrates it—and the historical events portrayed therein—with the fictional story of Cinetone, an Australian newsreel company trying to survive in the 1940s and 1950s, until the advent of television in 1956.

Whose idea was the film?

Phillip Noyce: It was actually the idea of the producer, David Elfick. He conceived the idea, he says, in conjunction with some discussions he had with other filmmakers. Bob Ellis wrote the original script and I adapted it to produce the final shooting script.

Where did the funding come from?

PN: The funding came from the New South Wales Film Corporation, which is the majority investor in the film, but the budget was also met by private investors, one of the more significant being an Australian distributor called Marshak. For instance, the New South Wales Film Corporation is heavily involved in devising methods with consultant merchant bankers to fund and solicit investment from other sources, so some of the authorities are very much involved in production in an entrepreneurial way. Each bank would be termed, for want of a better description, as executive producers.

If this feature can be described as “your big break,” how did it come about?

Bill Hunter in "Newsfront"

PN: David Elfick had seen a number of films that I’d made before, principally a documentary film called Castor and Pollux, which was a cinéma-vérité film about a bike gang and a hippie guru in Australia made in 1974. I’d also made other documentary films, some of them mixing archive footage with recreated scenes (these were made for television but they were shown in theatres as well), and he had this idea which was, of course, to use original archive footage from the Forties and Fifties and intercut it with recreated scenes in which the fictional characters appeared as though they were back in real historical events. So he had to find a director who had some experience in both areas.

While we’re talking about that recreated footage, was original film shot in nitrate?

PN: Part of the original footage was shot on nitrate film and part was shot on safety base. Fortunately that part that was shot on nitrate was saved from rotting, as it was doing, in 1970 when the federal government of Australia gave our national film archive funds to transfer the nitrate-base stock to acetate. It’s available in the archives for use by anyone.

What are some other means for preserving the art and history of the Australian film?

PN: I was the executive director of the Australian Film Institute until a few months ago. It has similar aims and objectives to the American Film Institute and the BFI and others around the world. It also has something in common with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in that it now maintains in Melbourne one of the most substantial collections of information resources for supporting research into film that exists in Australia. At the same time, one of the many functions that the Australian Film Institute has undertaken is the Australian Film Institute Awards. They have become the most important annual film competition for the Australian film production industry. In fact, they’ve been more than a little helpful in making films like Newsfront possible, and helping them to become the box-office successes that they undoubtedly deserve to become.

You’ve said that Australia was just now getting rid of the barriers that prevented women and blacks from working in film there; the situation is getting better.

PN: Australian blacks are a race in decline because, first, they were killed off by the whites. In the state of Tasmania there was a systematic genocide, sort of like getting rid of flies in China. Everyone goes out one day and decides to kill flies and they’ve got no fly problem. That’s one way around a racial problem, I suppose. That actually happened in Tasmania a number of years ago; they didn’t actually go out on the same day. But what happened is that the Australian aboriginal has not found it easy to adapt to the white man’s ways. In fact, the white man’s life as lived by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon society we have in Australia is completely foreign to them, destructive in all sorts of ways. The aboriginal lifestyle is not based on materialism, not based on saving. It’s a much more easygoing lifestyle. But more importantly they’ve suffered terribly from the introduction of white man’s diseases, and they have been discriminated against on all levels of Australian society since the beginning of white colonization. So all of those factors have added up to the virtual destruction of the aboriginal race, much the same as the Indian race here in America. But blacks are now being given the opportunity to make films.

The same goes for women. Traditionally in Australian society … I guess it has an historical foundation in that initially most of the immigrants to Australia were male, and in fact right up to the 1940s men far outnumbered women. The ratio is now about equal. Australian women have traditionally been discriminated against in all walks of life, in work and in play. For example, up until a few years ago there was an unwritten law that women weren’t allowed in male drinking places, so that women in hotels and pubs and bars had to go into a special little room around the corner. Now that’s past. Up until a few years ago (and I suppose it was the same here in America) there were so many jobs that women were just not allowed to enter. All that’s changed, too.

This national discrimination that was going on, that was an historical fact, initially was repeated in the film industry. And one of the biggest barriers to women making their own films was their lack of ease with the technology of filmmaking. As a result of the Australian Film and Television School and various short-term film and television courses, plus the pragmatic experience that many women have gained making their own films on grants from the Australian film commission, we now have a large body of women filmmakers who have the ability to control their own productions entirely. And in fact I was lucky enough earlier this year to be a judge in the Sydney Film Festival short film competition where the judges were given the task of choosing the best four short films in Australia, and we found that three of the four were made by female directors. I would go so far as to predict that some of the strongest and best films in the new Australian cinema are going to be made by women filmmakers over the next few years.

So far, we haven’t had a feature-length dramatic film from a woman director in the new wave, although we did have several back in the 1920s, but the first feature by a woman will be going into production in a few weeks and it’s been financed by the New South Wales Film Corporation. It’s called My Brilliant Career. It’s directed by Gillian Armstrong, whose short film The Singer and the Dancer will be shown at the Australian Film Festival here in November.* It’s produced by Margaret Fink and a majority of the creative and administrative personnel are women.

Your film is full of references to the political climate of Australia. At one point there’s mention of the 1957 referendum banning the Communist Party; it was defeated. I’d like to ask about whatever species of McCarthyism you had in Australia at that time.


PN: We had the whole thing except that it didn’t reach the level of oppression you got here. We didn’t have anything like an Un-Australian Activities Committee that had the ability to blacklist people who were listed as Communists. We still don’t know some of the things that went on. One of the things that they wanted to propose was that a person could be incarcerated if two people declared him to be Communist. It was defeated. We had a prime minister—that’s our head of state—who was elected in 1949, Sir Robert Menzies. He was a conservative; he rules under the Conservative Party, which is called the Liberal Party, ironically, in Australia. There was the Red Peril. I think the Fifties were a time of fear all over the Western world, which was reflected in the movies that were made then, the sort of space movies and things like that. Menzies manipulated this fear quite effectively and, as you see in the film, he attempted to outlaw the Communist Party. He failed to do that, but what he did succeed in doing was to establish a link between the opposition Labor Party, who were very close to the unions, and the Communists. In every election between about 1951 and 1965 he could pull a Communist out of the closet and say that Such-and-such had once been a Communist, Such-and-such had been associated with the Communist Party. It was always effective in raising the ire of the people. He was also successful in splitting the opposition party into two parties, one which became known as the anti-Communist Labor Party, as opposed to the official Australian Labor Party. And in fact Robert Menzies and his conservatives stayed in power for 23 years, and he himself ruled for 17 of those years.

You’re implying that if he could manipulate so easily, the people were not terribly sophisticated—as we found we were not.

PN: Yes, we were about as sophisticated as the Americans in that respect. It’s not surprising in some ways because, I would say, at that time we were more of a working-class society. Our working class did have a lot of aspirations to join the middle class, and of course the 1950s were the first decade of stability after 15 or more years of Depression and World War. The desires of the Anglo-Saxon working class to be upwardly mobile brought them within striking distance of Menzies’s promises to provide security, prosperity and democracy after years of instability.

Was your film also a response to the Australians’ feelings of being isolated as a cultural entity, and to give some kind of expression to that feeling?

PN: Our picture, when we made it, was made just for Australians, so it’s funny that it’s struck a nerve in other countries as well. For example, the English have taken quite well to it. The Italians at the Taormina Film Festival took very well to the film. We’ve sold it in Germany and parts of Scandinavia, which was very surprising to us. Australia is a country the size of America with the population of New York. It’s 12,000 miles away from the Northern Hemisphere civilizations. In 1948, at the time the film starts, it cost a year’s wages to take an air trip to the Northern Hemisphere—America or Europe. That’s a lot! It produces a real isolation. With the coming of television and the character copying that the predominantly American shows on TV produced, with the domination of the film exhibition and distribution areas in Australia, our cultural heritage, in part, has been formed by copying styles, trends, ways of talking, of overseas cultures, particularly America. Because we were influenced so much by more dominant cultures, we felt very embarrassed by things that were considered Australian. The process of growing up is what Newsfront reflects: the newfound ability of Australians to look at themselves and recognize their sophistication by comparison, to recognize the naïveté that’s produced from all this, and to say, “Sure, we’re different; sure we don’t do the same things in the same way as they do overseas. But what we do is valid.” It’s national pride that we’ve only just acquired. Newsfront is the first Australian film that has rejoiced in things Australian; it’s a celebration that has allowed Australians to feel really good about their country. It’s a no-holds-barred, joyous film about Australia.

Do you find that Australian culture is less homogeneous now than before, that there’s more encouragement of diversity?

PN: Definitely. Up until 1943 we were a white Anglo-Saxon society. In 1946 we embarked on an immigration program under the slogan “Populate or Perish,” where we accepted refugees from Europe, from all over the world, so long as they were white. No blacks, Asians, etc. allowed.

David Rowe: The racism extended to quite ridiculous proportions. Cabinet ministers made jokes about the Asian hordes to the north, referring to them as the Yellow Peril. One very important cabinet minister at the time referred to the white-Australia policy, as it became known, by inventing a proverb that two wogs don’t make a white. It’s part of our history.

PN: This dramatic intake altered the makeup of the society. We’re now much more cosmopolitan. In addition, as I say, television has had a big effect on our outlook; we’re linked by satellite to all over the world.

There were films like Kangaroo and On the Beach made in Australia, and Chips Rafferty was an exported Australian actor. How did you feel about people coming in and making films that didn’t have much to do with your lives?

PN: We didn’t feel too good about it. I can remember as a kid going to see films like Robbery Under Arms and there being comment among the people that those weren’t real Australians. That was a film that was directed by Jack Lee and made partly in Australia. It was about Australian outlaws. Most of the interiors were shot in England; it was directed by an English director. Throughout the late 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s Australia was used as an exotic location for films that were set in the country but were directed by overseas directors and written by overseas writers and produced by overseas production companies. There was a small amount of indigenous production between the Second World War and 1970, but it was made very difficult by the fact that almost all the distribution and exhibition outlets were foreign-owned, largely by American companies and, to a lesser extent, by British companies. These companies were, for obvious reasons, not interested in disturbing the status quo where the parent company overseas produced the films and acted as an outlet carrying the films through Australian theatres.

So Australian films like The Overlanders or Summer of the Seventeenth Doll were really foreign films made there?

PN: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was based on an Australian play but it was interpreted by an English director [Leslie Norman] and American actors. [The film was released in the United States as Season of Passion.]

Some of Newsfront is in color, some in black-and-white—and I don’t mean just the newsreel footage. Why did you do that?

Phillip Noyce
Phillip Noyce

PN: The film is divided into a number of chapters which correspond to years in the central character’s life: 1948, ’49, then we cut to ’51, ’53, ’56. Each of these chapters is in either black-and-white or color, and they alternate. The reason for this is, first of all, we had to shoot part of the film, if not all of it, in black-and-white because we were intercutting with original black-and-white archive footage. The newsreels weren’t shot in color, at least not until the late Sixties. We were intercutting between newsreel and recreated scenes as though they were all taking place in the same time continuum, in the same location. This wouldn’t have worked with conspicuously clashing stock.

There’s another reason for shooting a film like this in black-and-white-because black-and-white is the way we remember news events of the past, because most of them were captured in history books, etc., in black-and-white, and black-and-white is the medium in which the cameramen were working. It’s a recreation of part of a black-and-white era of news as we remember it, as opposed to the color news that we see now on television.

But I wanted to shoot in color as well because I felt that being solely in black-and-white we’d really miss out on experiencing part of the Fifties trip—the decor, the atmosphere of the Fifties, the brilliance and pastels of colors, the costumes people wore. So it just wouldn’t have been as deep a portrait of the period.

Why were you so keen to define this period?

PN: It was the period of my parents’ generation, and therefore, in a way, my own. I think it’s true to say that all over the world in the late Sixties we saw a vocal revolution against the mores of the previous generation. In some ways it might have been the most vocal of those revolutions against the previous generation in this century. That’s OK and it was fashionable to knock certain principles, certain ideals that had been held by our parents—that is, the generation who reached maturity just before or during or just after the Second World War. I think it’s probably a sign of our own maturity if we can come to terms with the generation just before us, inasmuch as they obviously influence us: that is, either we take up a stand that’s opposed to them or we follow their principles.

There are a lot of things about that generation—for example, the way they saw the world in black-and-white terms, as opposed to recognizing the greys in between—that are positive. There’s the loyalty, sometimes blind loyalty, the nationalism, the way they were able to adopt a set of quite simple rules to live their lives by, rules which they were loath to break. The influence of the Second World War on this generation is something that we younger people have all found it difficult to come to terms with, accusing them of militarism and not recognizing the camaraderie that the war produced, as opposed to the worst negative aspects of killing and destruction and colonization that the war represented. So Newsfront is an attempt by myself and the others who have worked on it to come to terms with ourselves.

How were the flood scenes—which are wonderful—integrated with your narrative?

PN: The flood scene is one that people keep referring to and asking us how we did it. Which is sort of funny when you come to America, the home of big spectacle scenes, to be asked how you did this scene. It involved probably the most difficult integration of original footage with recreated footage. The script called for a cameraman to row down a flooded street past submerged houses and shops and people on rooftops; later on, this particular cameraman is drowned and his colleagues go search for him amongst the flooded ruins of the city. The way we achieved the intercutting of the original footage with our stuff was by building the façade of the original city in a lake north of Sydney, in about three or four feet of water, so even though it looks as though the shops are about 20 feet high, of course we could cheat since you can’t see what’s underwater. We produced the flow of the current, recreated the look of the flood, by using several jet boats and conventional pumps, and we threw in a lot of flotsam and jetsam, and books and animals and people in distress and car wreckage. We were able, quite inexpensively, to recreate a genuine flood. And of course the test of any recreation is a photograph of the real event. We didn’t just have photographs to compare; we were intercutting one archive, one recreated, back to archive, back to recreated. And it’s very hard to tell the difference. Only a very skilled film technician, by looking at the difference of the emulsion of the film, can tell which is which.

Are there newsreels today in Australia?

PN: No, there aren’t. In fact, I believe the only existing newsreel in the world now is run by Movietone News in London, and it’s a color magazine on things like Girl Guides biscuit sales and horse shows.

So you are preserving on film an era that can’t be presented in some other way?

PN: Well, anyone can go and watch the newsreels; but we’re actually combining the best elements of all the best newsreels and mimicking them and providing that larger-than-life magic in the context of a story about the people who made them. Newsfront is an attempt—and I think it succeeds—to recreate some of the magic, the mystique, of the Fifties newsreels. I’m sure that most people will remember the way in which the fanfare for a particular newsreel came on. In Australia it was a laughing kookaburra on the screen and the audience would all “Ahh!” throughout the theatre when the newsreel theme hit. And then the way in which the melodramatic, serial-type music was used to underscore the events. And the way in which the commentator, talking in the fast, high level of energy; and sometimes, like in the English newsreels, with a very laidback, sort of casual style, this voice of God enthused over the most mundane events. And the newsreels delivered all of the visual information, or most of it, about the world, about their own country, that people could get at that time….

Footnote: *The Australian Film Festival played ten full houses in the auditorium of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. My Brilliant Career was a success at the next year’s festival.

© 1979 Judith M. Kass

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.