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3:30 AM…October 1999. Fast asleep at my home in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles. A deep and contented sleep. Deep because post-production on ‘The Bone Collector’ is finally over and already early pre-production has started on ‘The Sum of All Fears.’ Contented because I’m being paid millions of dollars to direct Hollywood blockbusters, featuring stars that will guarantee a gigantic first weekend box office and further inflate my market value as a director. Life couldn’t be better.
Then the phone rings. The phone number that nobody except my agent, studio heads and immediate family have access to. At this hour it must be trouble. Big trouble - it’s a scriptwriter. An Australian woman who has confused the time difference, tells me something one hears almost every day in Hollywood, ‘I’ve written the perfect script and you’re the perfect director for my story.’ Gently, I encourage her to call my office during daylight. I immediately leave a message for my assistant, warning him not to encourage her and to announce that I’ve had to leave hurriedly for New York. Three months later, after three employees have pleaded with me to read the manuscript that the mysterious caller had sent, I finally relent. I had become such a part of the ‘machine’ that I’m convinced nothing worthwhile could possibly reach my desk except through the Hollywood filtering process of studio executives and agents. Worse, the dawn caller [or the crazy lady as I’ve now christened her] has never written a screenplay before. Her name is Christine Olsen and you’ll now find her name on the poster for Rabbit-Proof Fence, credited as screenwriter and producer.
Ten pages into the screenplay I ask myself if I’m experiencing a late mid-life crisis occasioned by my imminent 50th birthday? I find myself crying. It’s the story of three Australian aboriginal girls, forcibly removed from their outback families in 1931 to be transported 2,400 km to an infamous government institution where they are to be re-programmed to take their places in white society. Led by the eldest kid, they escape.
As I read, those children quickly become my children and strangely I become a child again, yearning to find the Rabbit-Proof Fence that bi-sects the Australian continent and just might be the way back home. For me and for them. After ten years in Hollywood, I’m still an outsider, a migrant guest worker telling other people’s stories. As a citizen of the world, without nationality, I’ve become the ultimate Hollywood foot soldier, directing action/adventure, escapist stories designed to mesmerize across all boundaries. I know that black-themed films have never worked at the Australian Cinema box office. But it’s time to go home.
Five months later I’m traveling along the remnants of that fence in outback Western Australia, crossing the vast flat desert landscape that will lead me finally to the tiny Aboriginal settlement of Jigalong. I’ve left behind a $US6 million fee promised for directing the $US 90 million budgeted ‘The Sum of All Fears.’ Ben Affleck has replaced Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan and Phil Alden Robinson is now preparing to shoot the adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel. Rabbit-Proof Fence will cost $US 6 million in total.
At Jigalong I meet 86 year-old Molly Craig and her sister, Daisy Kadibill Craig . Seventy years previously they had walked 2,400km across the desert that I’ve just traversed for three days in an air-conditioned 4-wheel drive. Molly’s face is etched by the desert winds. But it’s the legs that one cannot help but notice. The legs of a thoroughbred. Long and strong. Molly made the journey twice. The second time she carried her infant daughter, rescued from capture after the authorities had seized her own children. A year later, the Chief Protector of Aborigines would order the youngster to be seized again. In 2001, Molly still waits for little Anabell to come home.
Molly and Daisy are but two of the tens of thousands of indigenous children forcibly removed from their families over a seventy year period in what a 1997 judicial inquiry would label ‘genocide.’ In Australia, we call these kids ‘The Stolen Generations.’ For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim.
1958. I grew up in the small southwestern New South Wales town of Griffith, a place made infamous by the 1970’s gangland execution of an anti-marijuana campaigner. Donald Mackay had gotten in the way of some local Italian farmers who had used their citrus trees to disguise the ultimate cash crop. Anglo Irish returned soldiers had taken up land grants in the area after WWI. The third and fourth sons of Italian families came first as labourers and then bought out half of the Australian-owned land. Fifteen miles out of town, behind a barbed-wire fence, in the equivalent of an American Indian Reservation, we had effectively imprisoned the area’s original inhabitants, who had arrived about 40,000 years before all the others. Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens. At school, we marveled at the exploits of our European forefathers, who explored, conquered and “civilized” the land. Nowhere in our history books was there anything but a passing reference to the complex civilization that had preceded the European invasion. No one talked about the Australians living behind those fences outside of countless country towns. So many questions remained unanswered because so much had never been asked.
Back in the Nineteenth Century, a British settler had thought to cure the boredom of colonial life by importing some English rabbits to hunt. With no natural predator in sight, the rabbits soon outnumbered humans a million to 1. In the early 20th Century, the Western Australian Government decided to stop the rabbit plague. Completed in 1907, the rabbit-proof fence would be the longest continuous fence in the world, running from the top to the bottom of Australia and keeping the hungry rabbits out of the new pasture lands. The fathers of our three heroines were workers on the rabbit-proof fence, the first whites the Aboriginal families in the area had ever seen.
July 2000. Now I needed to find three girls who could play these outback Aboriginal children. Indigenous kids in the cities and towns seemed to have become homogenized by the MTV culture that is rapidly making children all over the world identical. I realized we’d have to search in the remote northwest of the country, where black and white had “contacted” as late as the 1970s and where isolated communities were still living in touch with traditional ways. I traveled with casting director Christine King by light airplane, 4 wheel drive and boat to scores of tiny communities. In Djarindjin, on the Dampier Peninsula outside Broome in the Northwest, we found eleven year-old Everlyn Sampi. She would become the star of our movie and the face that adorns the film’s poster worldwide. Everlyn knew the story of The Stolen Generations because she’d lived it. Her mum was taken at age 4 and is still today haunted by her experiences, not sure if her own mother had abandoned her as the authorities claimed, or if she’d been stolen, as she now suspected. Like the character she plays, Everlyn was feisty and independent. She ran away from us twice, even before shooting commenced.
Nine year-old Laura Monaghan, who plays GRACIE, would appear on a videotape recorded at her primary school in Port Headland, Western Australia. Seven year-old Tianna Sansbury would join our cast just 4 days before shooting commenced, after the original choice to play DAISY had become homesick for her outback desert community. These three children were gifts from the past - in touch with nature and Aboriginal culture in ways that could never be taught or acted. My task would not be to get them to perform, but just ‘to let them be’ - a process that involved overturning every truism the Hollywood star system had inculcated in me.
December 2000. Having completed seven weeks of shooting in the barren Flinders Ranges of South Australia, Cinematographer Chris Doyle and I fly directly to Ho Chi Minh City to begin Pre-Production on ‘The Quiet American.’ From Vietnam I continue to London in search of a Vietnamese actress to fill the role of Michael Caine’s mistress in the Graham Greene story. At the Metropolitan Hotel I meet up with Peter Gabriel and offer him the choice of two film projects as composer. ‘The Quiet American’ comes with a music budget of half a million dollars. On a whim, I also tell him the story of ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ though I can’t help but honestly report that we can only afford recording costs – there is no money for a composer’s fee. From that night to this I’ve never seen Peter Gabriel in person again. But for the next ten months we enjoyed one of the closest collaborations I’ve ever had with a film composer. When he accepted the job Peter said that he wanted to make music that ‘came out of the earth itself.’ Month after month my sound team would send the real sounds of the Australian bush to Peter’s studios in Bath, England. Via mp3 file, Peter emails back the results of the samples that he and his team have orchestrated into a musical score. My assistant downloads the files, presses countless CDs and we experiment mixing the music with the film’s soundtrack in a continuous five month sound mix. It’s as if our mixing console at Fox Studios in Sydney is linked via the internet to Real World Studios in Bath.
February 2002. World premiere night for an audience of two. Molly’s grandson has dismantled an old 35 mm projector from a cinema in Perth and transported it by truck to Jigalong. We inflate the giant movie screen imported from Germany and test the Dolby Stereo Surround Sound that has been set-up in the desert outside Molly’s house. Two days later, the two hundred residents of Jigalong are joined by 800 black figures that materialize from the desert haze. The dark storm clouds blow over, replaced by a canopy of stars behind the screen. A half hour before sunset, Molly Craig and her sister Daisy Kadibill Craig arrive for the first movie they have ever seen on a cinema screen. The crowd parts as the flashbulbs pop and a thousand people sit down to watch Molly’s story. As the movie proper finishes and the end credits roll, a giant moth flies into the projector and burns up on screen. The film disintegrates and breaks.
From the day the movie opens in ninety-six Australian cinemas, the bitter attacks begin. Unable to simply celebrate the glorious bravery of three Australian heroines, right wing commentators start a media campaign to discredit the movie. They claim the film distorts the manner in which the kids were removed from their parents and exaggerates the general suffering in the government re-education centers. Politicians join in, with one minister using government funds to print leaflets warning his constituents against seeing the film. The controversy fuels enormous audience interest. The movie’s weekly grosses actually rise in its third month of screening. After twenty-six weeks, Rabbit-Proof Fence ends its cinema run in Australia. As the most successful Australian film of 2002 it has overturned conventional Oz film industry wisdom. Films with black content are no longer box office poison.
August 2002. I return to Hollywood to prepare for November openings in the U.S. and U.K. of both ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ and ‘The Quiet American.’
October 2002. I apologize to Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Pictures, for leaving ‘The Sum of All Fears’ after promising to her that I’d direct the film. The action/adventure scripts start piling up on my desk. I ponder my future, remembering Billy Zane’s line to Nicole Kidman in ‘Dead Calm’…‘There’s no going back Rae. There’s no going back...’