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The Proposition - John Hillcoat/Nick Cave interview

The Proposition

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. John and Nick, you’ve collaborated before, how did this project come together?
John Hillcoat: The subject matter was of mutial interest. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time and I spoke to Nick about doing the soundtrack and the gestation period was just far too long for Nick so we mutually agreed that he would give the screenplay a go as well.
I was looking for a great story to hang the idea on, which was just doing a uniquely Australian western. It turned out to be a beautiful thing.

Q. How did you find tackling a screenplay for the first time? Was that a challenge?
Nick Cave: That was my main interest, not so much the theme but writing a screenplay. The theme was kind of secondary and very much John’s theme. He’d been talking about it for years and years, about doing this Australian western and not really getting it off the ground. But he eventually asked me. We’re neighbours. We both live in Brighton by the sea.

Q. So you were writing this very Australian story in Brighton?
Nick Cave: Yes, in my office in Brighton.
John Hillcoat: But we both know the Outback, we’re old hands.

Q. Having actors come back to you with your script and ask questions, how was that as a collaborative process. Was it enriching?
Nick Cave: Yeah I had about a week rehearsing with the actors before it got shot and it was just great for me. For me, it was just a pile of words and watching the actors bring it to life was an extraordinary thing and I think the characters just brought it to life. It changed, I think, considerably from the script in a very positive way. They became much more delineated and themselves. I have a particular style of writing and that permeated each character, but the actors were able to separate the characters.

Q. I believe because of the way the financing happened you had to shoot the film in the summer? How difficult did that make it?
John Hillcoat: It was enormously difficult to finance so we did slide into the very precarious period out there. We were very lucky with the weather because a week after we finished these really strong winds came and literally the jail and town were flattened. The heat was the main killer. It got so hot that we couldn’t use the equipment. We had to go into night shoots. But in a strange way, it added a level of realism that we wouldn’t have got, gruelling though it was.

Q. If you moved to night shoots, were those as cold as the days were hot?
John Hillcoat: No, it cooled down to a manageable level at night. But the day that decision was made it was 57C and the equipment started melting.

Q. Can you comment on the vein of black humour running through it? Was that deliberate?
Nick Cave: I thought it was very funny the whole way through. Same goes for my songs. I’m always kind of laughing and thinking they’re really funny. It’s only when they come out that people don’t share the pleasure I had in writing them. A lot of weight has been put on the violence in this film as if that’s all it’s about and there is violence in the film and it’s graphic and brutal. But there’s a lot of levity, from my point of view, in the dialogue that counterbalances the violence. It’s that sort of stuff that I really enjoy writing, the dialogue and the humour and some of the tenderness that goes with that.

Q. Having written the screenplay and the music did musical themes suggest themselves while you were writing the script or did they come after the images?
Nick Cave: The thing is, John’s been talking about making this Australian western for 17 years, before he made Ghosts of the Civil Dead. So I’ve been thinking about it for 17 years and we’ve talked about it a lot. Very often, we would talk about different films, so for me writing the script, it was a very musical thing. The dialogue was very rhythmic and lyrical and there were actual music cues in the script itself. But really, when it came to doing the music, it changed immeasurably because of Warren Ellis, who was brought in. To me, it was very much Warren’s score. It’s very much him, a lot of violins. He had an enormous part in the music and took the score somewhere special. He’s an extraordinary musician and just a dynamo to work with.

Q. What were the other films you looked to when writing?
Nick Cave: I think the big one was Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. Bob Dylan sat around and wrote some songs and it was glued into the picture in some kind of way that had the same kind of feel to it. We wanted to take that a step further and try to create something that had a feeling of the time but was contemporary music. So there were acoustic instruments, violins, pianos, strings, also a lot of technology used as well, with loops. So we tried to create music that was contemporary but harked back to that period. We wanted to stay away from Irish jigs and Danny Boy, although that sticks its head up.

Q. Could you explain the disclaimer at the start of the film and also describe the reaction you’ve had from Aboriginal communities?
John Hillcoat: That’s standard protocol to have that disclaimer at the beginning because there are certain traditional tribal members who find images, even still photos, extremely offensive, so you need to give them that warning so they can not watch it. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive from the Aboriginal community. The support was just fantastic. The whole Aboriginal cast brought lots to the film. They kind of expanded it in a way. The main thing for them was getting to see things that have never been portrayed before, like on all the different levels of how their community is integrated. If you look at those bush ranger films there’s an absence of Aboriginal people, so we wanted to get it as truthful as possible.
Nick Cave: It was also to treat Aboriginals without an agenda. Aboriginals are usually portrayed in films as people who exist to show white people what the Aboriginal situation is, rather than as being an integral part of the film itself. There’s always an agenda. They were extremely excited about being part of a film without the politics. At the same time, it showed things that pretty much aren’t shown in Australian films, particularly black on black violence. Especially black on black violence. And that there was a resistance, to be in a film where there was an opportunity to fight back, to kill a few whites, those things are rarely portrayed in Australian films.

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