We’re standing in the middle of the Woomera Highway
outside Port Augusta in South Australia. The heat is rising from
the asphalt like waves of air spaghetti, and on the roadside, you
can hear the grass groan. Behind us is the town, ahead of us is
the road rising gently to meet the horizon. Nothing but sky. A
lone kestrel floats on air high above our heads.
Writer/director Bill Bennett is deciding where to place the
police car that will be smashed during the climactic chase at the
end of the film.
That morning, the entire crew and some of the cast gathered in
the dining room of the Standpipe Golf Motor Inn at Port Augusta
that served as both accommodation, production centre and dining
room. (The in house restaurant is run by an Indian family, who
make excellent curries.)
Stuntment Glen Boswell and Johnny Hallyday discussed the finest
details. Impact speed was expected to be 90 kph and the target
car - the police car blocking the road -was stripped to make it
lighter, give it more bounce at impact. The T bone crash, as it’s
called, would have to be perfectly timed.
Bill Bennett and cinematographer Malcolm McCulloch were anxious
to plan everything meticulously, in view of the narrow
time-window of opportunity that was available for the shot. The
final crash had to take place just minutes before sunset. There
was no room for error, no time for more than a couple of takes.
That whole day was devoted to this single scene.
The army depot nearby served as a temporary base, where make up,
wardrobe and the catering truck set themselves up. Foldaway
tables and chairs in a tent became the green room, where people
would have coffee between takes - and I’d do some
interviews, accompanied by frantic hand waving to chase off the
With the help of creative consultant Jennifer Cluff (his wife),
Bill found his dream cast: "We got our first choices,"
she says. They would respond well to improvising the dialogue, given that Bill was always there to give them support - because
it can be frightening for the actors.
"It’s the hardest acting I’ve ever had to
do," says Matt Day, "and everything I’ve wanted
out of acting. It makes you think." Francis O’Connor
agrees: "In some ways this is the most difficult thing
… but it’s also the most creative."
"Working with Bill calls for patience and
understanding," says Chris Haywood, who won the Best Actor
AFI Award for his starring role in Bill’s first feature
film, A Street to Die (1985). But they all agree it challenges
them to give their best.
Chris has a very high regard for the director: "He’s an
extraordinary film maker. I would’ve done it for just a walk
on part…you know it won’t be easy - but it’s
innovative film making."
"Look," says Bill, "it is terrifying for the
actors but the thing that I've stressed with them is that I won't
ever let them down. I'll always provide a safety net for them,
they're not out there by themselves and I won't let them look
foolish. And I think probably because of my previous work, they
do trust me. Plus, I must admit I'm becoming more confident in
This style is pretty well in Bill’s professional genes, from
his earliest days as a current affairs journalist on television,
through the award winning dramatised documentaries - both for
television and feature films, which he has made in the past 23
years or so.
"I started working this way because I'd come from a
documentary background and the thing that excited me about
documentary was the fact that you could turn a camera on people
that you've lived with for months and yet they would come out
with something that was so totally surprising and yet within
truth and within their characters. And it would all make sense. I
missed that when I went into drama; I missed that excitement,
that spontaneity so I started working like that in Backlash
(1986), trying to meld the two forms."
But improvised does not mean ‘make it up as we go along’,
"It's probably a bit misleading when people talk about an
improvised film. They probably regard it as being a very
undisciplined thing where you simply turn a camera on and the
actors get out there and start saying words. In fact, very rarely
do we actually get to a scene where the actors need to talk about
what's to be said. All of that has been discussed beforehand
during rehearsals and I've also got some very specific dialogue
in the script. So it's actually a very controlled and disciplined
process. I'd be crazy to go into something that was