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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Australian director John Duigan has made some memorable films, from early classics such as The Year my Voice Broke, to Sirens and the rarely seen Journey of August King. PAUL FISCHER met with him at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to talk about Lawn Dogs, his latest film, which has already won awards and adulation, as Duigan's most mature film to date.

John Duigan, in a thick parka and quaint woollen beanie complete with yellow pom-pom, is quick to play down the parallels between his classic The Year my Voice Broke, and his latest film, Lawn Dogs, which screened at Sundance, the world’s pre-eminent showcase dedicated to independent filmmaking. "I probably don't have much of an overview of the films that I make", he confesses.

Lawn Dogs is officially a British film, yet it's a curious hybrid: set in the deep south of America, written by a dramatist from Kentucky (Naomi Wallace) and directed by a film-maker who has spent most of his career in Australia, this beautifully haunting fable is the story of the unlikely friendship between two outsiders. Trent Burns (Sam Rockwell) is a twenty-one-year-old who lives in a broken-down trailer on the outskirts of upper middle class Camelot Gardens, where he (along with a handful of other ‘lawn dogs’), mows lawns, and does tree work for the cashed up residents of the comfortable, improbably pristine community.

"What really drew me to Lawn Dogs was that I really liked the central relationship"

His clients include members of the Stockard family: Morton (Christopher McDonald) and his wife Clare (Kathleen Quinlan) whose 10-year-old daughter Devon (Mischa Barton) takes refuge from the clinical world around her, in fantasy. It's not that Devon is abused: quite the contrary. She is patronised by her parents who want her to make friends, and given gentle advice when she goes out to market cookies to the community. Shunning kids her own age, she becomes friends with the impoverished mower of lawns and makes daily excursions to his trailer, which in her eyes is the retreat of Baba Yaga, a powerful figure in the fairy tales that she had heard from her uncle.

Duigan's film contrast the rough, rudimentary lifestyle of the young misfit, who lives in a trailer in the woods, with the cosy but soul-less suburban existence of the little girl' parents. As with his acclaimed The Year My Voice Broke, Lawn Dogs explores the notion of the outsider, and he sees this as the only dominant link between the two films. "It was the outsider thing that I can see, but what really drew me to Lawn Dogs was that I really liked the central relationship a lot. I also felt that the treatment of the story was different to what I would normally do and presented different problems from a director's viewpoint. Amongst the other things in the ingredients, I thought that the nature of the sustained fairy tale was maintained all the way through, and that Devon gives a modern rendition of this fairy story in the light of the actual events taking place around her."

This results in some of the most extraordinary use of special effects; it is the first time in Duigan's career that he was called upon to create such filmic elements. "I got a lot of help in developing those special effects shots from producer Duncan Kenworthy, because he'd had much more experience in doing that in some of his earlier projects than I had. But I certainly found that a fascinating process to be a part of."

"I also wanted to try and give the film a much more detailed sense of structure"

Duigan, who has also directed Flirting, Winter of our Dreams, Wide Sargasso Sea, Sirens and more recently, The Leading Man, agrees that Lawn Dogs represents a major stretch in his career. "I also wanted to try and give the film a much more detailed sense of structure. I devised slightly different shooting styles for the world of the community and the world outside. We used different colour schemes for the two, so that the colours outside are much earthier, while those inside the house and the whole Camelot community are more manufactured colours. Also, the filming style is much tighter and much more carefully composed."

Star Sam Rockwell may have won the Best Actor prize at the Montreal Film Festival, but it's 10-year old Mischa Barton who steals the film as Devon. Hers is an exceptionally mature and complex performance for one so young. "One of the things we're proud of, is that we delivered her back at the end of the film, still as an unspoiled, innocent child. She's incredibly young, but when she was working, she had a tremendous assurance and maturity, and was able to say: this is play, this is work."

"I try to express that there are levels operating beyond the material world"

With ingenious subtlety, Lawn Dogs satirises middle America, but Duigan hopes it also has the universality of folklore. "In my work," he says, "I try to express that there are levels operating beyond the material world, of which people are only obliquely aware."

Duigan feels confident that Lawn Dogs will have no difficulty finding a broad audience. "I think that the two central characters are so engaging and their friendship is so unexpected, that it gives people a different experience to what they're normally getting on film. Also, even if people have an OVERALL sense of the direction that the film is going in, it takes all sorts of unexpected, subtle turns that surprise people, especially the ending itself, which is a BIG surprise."

Duigan is now about to tackle mainstream Hollywood, with his first studio film, Molly, (in preproduction at the time of this interview). The film, loosely based on a true story, revolves around a man's autistic sister (played by Elisabeth Shue), who is released from an institution into his care. He allows her to undergo an experimental medical treatment, with unexpectedly drastic results: It transforms her into a genius. "It's a sweet story and I think an unusual one for a studio to make."

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John Duigan


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