by GREG KING
“We wanted to make a film unlike any that had been made in Australian cinema before,” says Richard Flanagan, novelist, writer and director of The Sound Of One Hand Clapping. Flanagan found that the best way to get his words onto the screen was to make the film himself.
“As that Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier says: ‘If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don’t know who you are.’ At some point in our lives everybody must turn around and walk back into the shadows of the past to understand who we are,” says Flanagan.
For novelist turned tyro filmmaker Richard Flanagan history plays an important role. Born in Tasmania in 1961 he was the fifth child in an Irish Catholic family whose ancestors were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. “I think growing up in Tasmania affected me a lot, because there, of all the places in Australia, the past is most powerfully at work in the present. I grew up with a very strong sense of what the past was and what it meant. I think all our lives are influenced because we carry those memories. Today is just a small part of our lives. It’s logical that the past will always be a more powerful force on our lives than the present.”
Before eventually turning to a career as a writer Flanagan worked in many menial jobs. Since leaving school in 1977 he has worked as a labourer, a chain hand cutting lines through forests, a river guide and even a doorman. He then returned to university, earned a Rhodes scholarship and developed an interest in history. he publisehd several works of historical nonfiction, and then began writing more personal essays before successfully turning his hand to fiction. In 1995 he was awarded the Victorian premier’s Award for First Fiction for his debut novel Death Of A River Guide.
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping is a deeply moving and powerful tale about the estranged relationship between Sonja and her father Bojan, an immigrant labourer who came to Australia after the war with dreams of a better life. One night his wife walks out of their small home into a bitter snow storm never to return. Bojan sinks into an abyss of despair and alcoholism and abuse, which evetually drives Sonja away, vowing never to return. Sixteen years later Sonja does return, pregnant, alone and frightened. She has returned in an attempt to understand the family history that has caused so much despair and heart ache and psychological damage.
Flanagan concedes that getting the film made in the first place was a monumental task. He initially began work on the screenplay in 1991, writing rough drafts while working on his first novel, which was published in 1994. Although there was some interest in the screenplay for The Sound Of One Hand Clapping, potential investors and producers felt that his singular vision was too dark and difficult. After all, this was an era of crowd pleasing comedies like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, and producers were looking for more of the same. The script languished, but Flanagan decided he wasn’t finished with the story yet. Deciding to turn it into a novel he spent the next two and a half years rewriting the story. Irtonically, shortly after he had delivered it to his publisher Flanagan received a phone call informing him that the money was finally available to make the film.
Surprisingly enough Flanagan had no formal training in the art of script writing or directing. Even though he hadn’t written a script, made a short film or even directed a commercial before, he seems to have very firm ideas on what he wanted.
“I think that they are both forms of story telling,” he says. “Coming from writing books I had a strong sense of how I wanted to compose it, how I wanted it to look, how I wanted it to sound. I had never directed anything, and I knew nothing about the vast array of technical processes that are so much a part of filmmaking. But I always knew exactly what wanted to see on the screen, and it was just a case of imbuing the other people I worked with with that same vision, and inspiring them. I had some very gifted people to work with, and they took it beyond what I had hoped. I was fortunate in that.
“Directors are an odd combination of the guardian of the soul of the film and a sort of security guard for the project to stop people busting in and wrecking it,” he continues. “You have to be a bit of a street fighter – one part artist, one part politician really. I wasn’t prepared for that part of the business. The filmmaking I loved, but the politics I wasn’t too keen on. But that’s part of the process. It is part of any aspect of life, but more so in film because there’s so much money at stake. And in the end, whether the film succeeds or not is on the director’s head.”
Flanagan admits that it was a huge responsibility for a first time director. “I was very frightened throughout it all. But then I thought a huge gamble had been taken with me. At that point I thought that I would rather take every risk that I can. If the movie was going to fail I’d rather it fail where I felt that I took every risk to make a film that mattered rather than compromise and do what I was told, and I never really made the film that I felt I could have. So we just took risks at every point, and we wanted to make a film unlike any that had been made in Australian cinema before. That was the ambition of it.
“There are people trying to force your hand all the time because they think they know what will make the film successful, and that the director will make it fail. To direct is very lonely. You have to make hundreds of decisions every day, and you just can’t run to someone and ask advice. That’s your job, to work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week just to make those decisions. Those decisions aren’t that hard if you have a strong vision of what you want your film to be.
“The script was very strong, and it had a strong story. A lot of work had gone into it, and nobody thought there was a need to improve it much. But if an actor thought that some part of the character didn’t work for them then it didn’t work. I was trying to balance being open, but not drifting too far from the script. The dilemma is that everyone will have a really good idea in their are, but it might be getting away from the look of the film. The only person who keeps the overall look of the film in their head is the director. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. I think those directors who do this endless improvisation of actors building up their characters don’t have a strong script. They can create a strong film that way. In this case we started with a clearly defined script and didn’t have to really do that.
“I’m determined to be as accessible to as many people as possible. That really matters to me. I want to make things of the highest standard possible, and never condescend to people. I don’t want them to be esoteric, but I want them to be accessible to everybody.”
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping is screening at BOFA at 3pm on Sunday November 9. Richard Flanagan will be in attendance for a Q&A.
This article is reprinted from Greg’s original interview with Richard Flanagan for BEAT magazine, published in issue #600, April 22, 1998.