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IN THE WINTER DARK - ON LOCATION

STRANGE DAYS IN THE VALLEY
ANDREW L. URBAN visits the mountain set of In the Winter Dark, Tim Wintonís story of things that go crunch in the night.

Ray Barrett gave birth to a calf, Richard Roxburgh melted his shoe and burnt his fingers, and Miranda Otto has gone black with smokey eyes; as for Brenda Blethyn, she cracks them all up. Itís not your usual shoot, this, locked down in the single location on the floor of the Kanimbla Valley in the Blue Mountains, in a weatherboard cottage stuck at the end of a twisting drive.

Among the unusual elements of In The Winter Dark is a script without dialogue for 40 minutes (not all at once) and surprising moments of humour in an otherwise dark, brooding story that is about fear, death, love and the demons of the night.

Adapted from Tim Wintonís novella (by the director James Bogle and Peter Rasmussen), it is an intense psychological drama around four people who live in a remote spot. Maurice (Ray Barrett) and Ida (Brenda Blethyn) are on old married couple whoíve said all they have to say to each other decades ago. One neighbour is Murray Jacob (Richard Roxburgh), a lonely, intense man with a tragic past; the other is a late arrival, a young woman, Ronnie (Miranda Otto), who is six months pregnant and recently abandoned by her boyfriend. Something is killing the local animals, and Ronnieís pregnancy stirs up memories of the Stubbsí sonís cot death. Fears and shadows play on their minds, making the four uneasy associates.

"I got really carried away with it actually and found it a terrific experience." Actor Ray Barrett on helping give birth to a calf

A day on set is filled with surprises: like the story of how Ray Barrett was called out to a Camden farm to help give birth to a calf even before the rest of the cast had signed their contracts, as director James Bogle snapped up an opportunity to film a real calving for one scene.

Barrett, "worried at first how Iíd handle it," says the 70 year old actor, but he soon found he handled it fine: "I got really carried away with it actually and found it a terrific experience." Later, the scene has to be matched and edited into the entire sequence. Barrett, staying with his wife Gail in a rented house overlooking some of the mountainsí top views near Leura, is enthralled with his role as Maurice Stubbs, who nurses his wifeís dead body at the start of the film, and recounts the events that led up to it in flashback.

"People kept telling me I had the most wonderful script, but it was too dark." producer Rosemary Blight

Barrett has stuck to this film for three years while producer Rosemary Blight went around the world trying to raise money for it.

"People kept telling me I had the most wonderful script, but it was too dark. James Bogle and I are unknown as filmmakers, so it was difficult. But people stayed interestedÖand I got quite obsessed with it. I pitched it about 350 times in five days at the film market in Milan in 1996, and people started to respond positively."

"But she stuck with us," producer Rosemary Blight on Brenda Blethyn's Golden Globe win

At the same time, Bogle went to London and wrote to Brenda Blethyn, asking her to please do it. When he rang her agent, he was welcomed with open arms, and Blethyn accepted. That was before she won the Golden Globe award or the Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. "But she stuck with us," says a delighted Blight. "She said sheís here because of James Bogleís incredibly strong understanding of the script."

Blethyn plays Ida, who has lived at this remote spot for over 30 years "and never felt at home," says Blethyn, rugged up against a chilly afternoon wind that shifts across the valley floor in the early spring.

"This is a great company and we can have fun," actress Brenda Blethyn

"We should always have fun," she says, smiling mischievously. "This is a great company and we can have fun, but it doesnít compromise the work."

She didnít see a kangaroo for days, but then when she did, she started dreaming about them every night.

Blethyn took to the script, she says, "because itís about four people who live in this wide open space but their lives are so claustrophobic."

"I saw my shoes smoking," actor Richard Roxburgh on set

Richard Roxburghís fingers were still a bit sore when we met for a morning coffee (after a midnight shoot) at his hotel, the smartly relaxed Lilianfels. "Iíd been sitting with my shoes up on this big drum in which the crew had built a fire, and saw my shoes smoking, and when I went to touch them, I felt all this melted plastic . . ." The unit nurse finally had something to do, and by morning he was joking about it.

He says of his character that Jacob is an "enigmatic, melancholy soul who delivered himself to the valley to live as a recluse. We worked out a back story in which his wifeís death had this effect on him, because in the book, itís a divorce and the death of a child. But the childís death had been transferred to Maurice and Ida. . . "

Roxburgh says when heís playing Jacob he feels "like an Easter Island head."

By contrast, Miranda Ottoís Ronnie is a youthful bundle of anger, dressed this day in black leather jeans, army boots with purple laces, and smokey eyes beneath a mop of spiky black hair. Itís a wig, she explains, because she is running back to the set of The Thin Red Line in Queensland as a natural brunette.

"The challenge is to rediscover that anger." actress Miranda Otto

When Otto first read the script, she responded eagerly to Ronnieís character, being herself at that stage "angry and mad at the world." Now, she says, "Iím much happier in my own life, so the challenge is to rediscover that anger." Perhaps itís to do with being in love with Roxburgh, off set.

She is led back inside the cottage for one of the rare scenes of open fun, as Ronnie and Ida get "wrecked" on two bottles of red wine. "The girls bonding," as producer Blight puts it.

Otto lies on her back, a glass of wine resting on her slightly pregnant tummy; Blethyn is in an armchair, her feet casually propped up on the coffee table between them. They start giggling even before the camera rolls, and exchange their lines with ease. Otto spills wine as she refills her glass, and Ida offers to lend her something more fitting (less fitting) for a pregnant girl. Idaís foot slips off the table, out of control. They giggle and stagger off camera. Take two is sloppy, but take three is great. Print that one, says Bogle. The camera is re-positioned to do the close ups for the scene, as the weak afternoon sun lights up the escarpment behind the cottage and birds sing in the approach of dusk.

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