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Directing Hollywood royalty like the Douglas family in their first ever movie together was a challenge for Australia’s Fred Schepisi, but the history making effort was an eye opener, he tells Andrew L. Urban. 

It’s a ferociously gorgeous late autumn Thursday at Sydney’s Circular Quay, the Opera House strutting its white tiled stuff in competition with the industrially assertive arch of the Harbour Bridge. Fred Schepisi arrives in the bar overlooking the bustle of the Quay in a muted desert red dust shirt and tie with matching casual jacket. His presence is a combination of order and chaos; a designer larrikin.

"a designer larrikin"

We’ve done this before, meeting in a bar for a chat about his work, the last time in a pub just down the road in The Rocks, where we talked about his film, Last Orders, over an early midday beer. The connection in geography and his latest film, It Runs In The Family, is like a banner over our heads. It was after seeing Last Orders that the Michael Douglas production machine reached out for Schepisi to get him involved in the film that would unite the Douglas family on screen for the first time – ever. 

This was Hollywood royalty calling. Schepisis listened.

On screen there is son Michael and father Kirk and mother Diana and grandson Cameron and offscreen it’s brother Joel (associate producer). How come Schepisi directs? Did he have to become an honorary Douglas?

Schepisi lets out a low, throaty guffaw as he answers with a sly grin, talking about a scene he slipped in when we first meet Cameron Douglas’ character, seated on a settee, framed by two women. “One’s called Shepeesy and the other one’s Chepeesy…” he chuckles. “That was my little joke. One’s a actually a distant cousin of mine the other has a family background that’s sort of similar.” Of course his own name is pronounced Skepsi…

"I’m suddenly the old blokes expert"

But the real question behind my jokey one is how come Fred Schepisi is directing a Douglas film? “Marcy Drogan, who runs Michael’s company in New York, had seen Last orders in Toronto… you know, there’re some old blokes in that, so I’m suddenly the old blokes expert. You may laugh but that’s really how it works,” he adds as I laugh; ‘he can do old guys…’

Alex Gromberg (Michael Douglas) is the man in the middle – between his ageing but feisty father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) who founded the law firm where Alex works; between his work and his family: wife Rebecca (Bernadette Peters), 11 year old Eli (Rory Culkin) and teenage time bomb Asher (Cameron Douglas). When his mother Evelyn (Diana Douglas) dies, she leaves behind a family that has trouble keeping itself together, with external relationships that do little to help the emotional kerfuffle. 

Reservations? He had plenty. “I had to make sure that Kirk was physically strong enough to withstand the rigours of shooting every day, and if he wasn’t strong enough just how much you could use him every day. Whether his control of his speech (after his stroke) was so good his diction would be clear enough, and whether tiredness would effect that, and whether maybe we could dub Michael’s voice and treat it electronically … you have to examine every contingency.” (In the end, there was no need to resort to digital skullduggery.)

Schepisi worked out a way to shoot the schedule and keep the pressure of 86 year old Kirk and still manage to get what he wanted. But it was not encouraging the first time Schepisi met Kirk. “He’d had a couple of sherbets,” he says in perfect Australian, “and his diction wasn’t too good at all!” We slurp our own sherbets as we laugh.

"The whole experience was great"

Schepisi needn’t have worried. “I tell you, the longer we shot the better he got. We’d turn that camera on and out steps a different person. And the enthusiasm! Watching him sit on the set, making notes on his part – and everyone else’s…it was great. The whole experience was great and I think the end result is pretty good.”

The big fear, he says, was that the film was going to be the equivalent of vanity publishing. But, Schepisis says, the script is very much about the fictional family. “The script existed before the Douglases decided to engage with it…. And look, good acting comes from within yourself, and you draw from your experiences, plus research…so the combination add a reality that’s impossible to get otherwise. Well, not impossible, but it’s different.”

The main thing, he says, is to be sure never to cross over the line “and go into actual reality – then it’s a vanity project. And they’re pretty smart and they’re aware of that.”

It was one of the first subjects of discussion. Another one was adjusting Michael’s role. It was pretty slight when Schepisi read the script. “Cameron’s part was well written and Kirk’s part was well written, the women’s parts were not bad… the one part that was not substantial was Michael’s.” 

"make the material even more interesting"

It was Michael who suggested his own mother, Diane, for the role of his own mother. How does an outsider respond. “What you do is you examine it on its face value. It’s a nice idea and it would be good publicity, and if it really worked it would make the material even more interesting. But you don’t just accept it; you gotta go make sure they’ll be good.” 

As for Cameron, Schepisi insisted on coaching at least three times a week, “and I would check him regularly every week or so, and if he didn’t come up to the standard I wanted at each test, he wasn’t going to do it. And you know what, apart from the movie, you have to consider the kid. A raw performance and energy in an independent picture is one thing, but a raw performance and energy against two of the most polished actors of their generations is another. And he could get professionally killed…the world press would be all over him. So I factored that in. It’s not just about the movie. People have a life.”

It was also Michael who suggested both the young Rory Culkin as the youngest son and Bernadette Peters for the role of Michael’s wife. “Originally we were talking to Sigourney Weaver, which would have been quite different. Bernadette was a really nice balance, playing straighter than you’d usually see her play….”

Beyond that, Michael is producer of the film, and Schepisi found interacting with him on that level both challenging and valuable. “He’s got great instincts commercially, not always the same as mine, so we’d argue the toss about a few things, but I thought that was good. To me it was having someone with slightly more commercial instincts than you trying to find a balance…interesting journey for me. An eye opener.”

"a lot of it is quite personal and recognisable to me"

Schepisi brought his own life into the background for the process of making the film. “I’ve been married three times and have seven children through a vast range of ages, so a lot of it is quite personal and recognisable to me. So you inform the material with your own experience.”

The film is light in tone, but it does confront subjects that Hollywood doesn’t usually confront head on: ageing and death. “Yeah! You’re right about that. There were a lot of studio notes about not doing too much of that, too!” he adds with that unmistakable beer-glass level Australian laugh. “I always just think of it as reality and it should be dealt with.” 

But that wasn’t the central theme for Schepisi. “What I liked about it was for Kirk’s character to have a love story for an older couple that you never see. A genuine love story that’s about a marriage that lasted through all its accommodations. He’s never played that sort of stuff. So he saw it as a chance to do that.”

Would Schepisi work with Michael again? “Oh sure!…. would he work with me?!” he laughs and we finish our sherbets.

Published August 21, 2003

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Fred Schepisi


... on the set

LAST ORDERS INTERVIEW by Andrew L. Urban (July 11, 2002)

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