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Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders, one of three films* at Toronto directed by Australians, has a high calibre cast (who stuck to low alcohol Kaliber beer) yet was maddening difficult to finance, as Schepisi tells Geoffrey Macnab.

What do you do when your best friend dies and wants to have his ashes scattered at the seaside? This is the dilemma facing the protagonists of Fred Schepisi's new film, Last Orders. Adapted from Graham Swift's Booker Prize winning novel, this is a yarn set in a grey world of south London pubs and seedy English seaside towns. It's not, at first glance, a milieu that one associates with an director who has spent much of career in either Hollywood or his native Australia.

”Australian humour is not dissimilar to the humour from South London with the rhyming slang and all that,” Schepisi (The Russia House, A Cry In The Dark) conjectures when asked what drew him to the hinterlands of Peckham and Bermondsey. He adds that Londoners like Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins made sure that no ‘Australianisms’ were allowed to creep into the screenplay.

"Logic goes out of the window"

The writer-director has tried to stay true to the spirit of Swift's novel. His script spans 50 years, showing the Londoners as young men and as the shabby, middle-aged losers they have become.

Schepisi is clearly exasperated that it took so long to put together the financing for Last Orders. Despite assembling a cast that included some of the best-known names in British films and TV. “You would think sensibly as a member of the public, gee, I'm going to go and see Michael Caine and Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins and Tom Courtenay, but it doesn't work that way in the land of money,” he grumbles. “Exhibitors have this thing called a Q rating and it only applies to an individual. It has to do with things that are both wrong and incomprehensible. Logic goes out of the window. It's a rather ludicrous system to not allow for the cumulative effect of a group of actors like this.”

Caine plays master butcher Jack Dodds, a patriarchal figure who helps knit together a group of friends. When Dodds dies and leaves a will asking that his ashes be scattered at sea, these friends vow to fulfil his wishes. As they set off on a road trip, their petty jealousies and long-simmer grievances become all too apparent. Schepisi and the crew had to deal with Britain's appalling autumn weather. “Constant gales, being rained out - that sort of thing. The one day you want rain, you get sunshine. We had to be incredible inventive to make film for budget A on budget B.” Thankfully, though, the cast behaved themselves.

"it wasn't as raucous as the film might eventually suggest"

With old devils like Caine, Courtenay, Hemmings and Hoskins on set, there was always the danger that some serious carousing might go between shots. “We filmed in pubs almost all across Kent, “Hemmings concedes, but insists that the actors kept their thirst in check. “Kaliber (low-alcohol lager) was the order of the day. It was a very organized set. Everybody had the occasional day when they'd have a glass of sherry or whatever, but it wasn't as raucous as the film might eventually suggest. We're all far too old for that - and far too professional...it wasn't a quick rush to the pub and everybody down down a few. It wouldn't have been possible for an Oliver Reed mentality to have taken over on a movie as gruelling as this.”

Hemmings' character Lennie is the villain of the piece, “the stirrer, the prodder, the lush of the group. His one redeeming quality is that he's pathetic. He tries to be funny but he isn't. He needles the others to such a degree that people want him slung out of the car at Rochester as opposed to going to Margate. Fred thought I was wholly appropriate for it for reasons I can't explain.”

It's a plum role for the British actor who - at the time of Antonioni's Blow Out in the late 60s - was one of the most recognizable faces in Swinging London. Since those heady days, Hemmings has disappeared behind the cameras, directing endless episodes of The A-Team and Magnum PI. His comeback began in earnest last year when he played an important character role in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. He is also shortly to be seen in Martin Scorsese's turn of the century epic, The Gangs Of New York. “I play a character who is part of the upper class echelons of New York in the 1840s, a rich, elegant fellow who stretches his mind enough to wander with a group of his fellow upper-class New York intelligentsia through the city...it's the irony of one class being so completely and absolutely out of touch with another that I'm the first to be attacked.”

All three Australian films, as well as the opening film, are from Toronto’s Viacom Gala Screenings program, which includes such other features as Mira Nair’s Monsoon wedding, Michael Apted’s Enigma, and the Hughes brothers’ gothic From Hell, which stars Johnny Depp, Heather Graham and Ian Holm.

With this calibre of filmmaker, it is certainly a gala list; also screening is David Atkins’ anticipated Novocaine and Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House, plus the just completed war drama, Taking Sides, by István Szabó. (And a dozen more…)

The equally extensive – and perhaps even more eclectic - Special Presentations program ranges from the beguiling Amelie from Montmartre by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, to Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror by the late F. W Murnau. And in amongst those is David Mamet’s Heist - a contemporary heist movie with a cast that includes Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito, Sam Rockwell – and of course, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs Mamet).

But by far the largest program is Contemporary World Cinema, with dozens of films from every round corner of the globe, including China, India, the Balkans, the UK, the US – and Australia: Silent Partner, by Alkinos Tsilimidos, starring David Field and Syd Brisbane.

Published September 6, 2001

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The 26th Toronto International Film Festival, Sept 6 – 15:

Opening Film:
Last Wedding, by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney

Closing film:
Lantana, by Australian director Ray Lawrence

Australian films at Toronto:

Last Orders – Fred Schepisi

Hearts in Atlantis – Scott Hicks

Lantana, by Australian director Ray Lawrence

Special Presentations:



Viacom Gala Screenings program:

From Hell

Monsoon Wedding


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