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You’ll see Nick Cave’s writing credit on the poster, alongside John Hillcoat’s as director. It’s symbolic of the depth of their collaboration and of the future plans for their new film company, as they reveal how The Proposition was germinated. Andrew L. Urban meets the two men from Titan Films.

In the pressure cooker of a media tour promoting their latest screen collaboration, The Proposition, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave are a formidable double act. Seated side by side on the settee in a modest hotel suite on Sydney harbour, they look like polar opposites in dress as well as appearances. But as they talk, the seamlessness of their collaborative style is instantly evident. They manage to enhance each other’s replies without the old married couple syndrome of finishing each other’s sentences.

Both are blunt and say what they think, though, and they both exude a natural, contained passion for the subject.

"Hillcoat is not only research-driven, he is more analytical. Cave is more instinctive"

Their differences include Cave’s tendency not to do research, although in this case he did do some historical reading about Aboriginals in Australia’s penal colony days. Hillcoat is not only research-driven, he is more analytical. Cave is more instinctive, an artist’s trait he has refined through a multi-art career as writer, singer and songwriter; most people associate him with The Bad Seeds. (Their 13th album, ‘Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre Of Orpheus’ was released by Mute in September 2004. The band performed a sell out tour of the album in Europe at the end of 2004 in and Australia in May of 2005. They headlined a string of European music festivals in recent months.)

As we begin talking about The Proposition, Cave is distracted to discover he has no roll your own paper for his cigarette. He fidgets for a second and then abandons it – only to receive supplies from the publicity team a little later, so he can light up a beautifully aromatic smoke. Reminds me of my smoking days when my Gauloises used to smell like old fashioned, real tobacco…

The Proposition is a Western, but set in 1880s Australia. Does that make it a Kangaroo Western, we wonder. Hillcoat reminds us that the very first feature film ever made was about the outlaw gang run by Ned Kelly, which pre-dated Westerns. Still, Kangaroo Western doesn’t appeal as a genre label. It’s an iconic story with great big themes.

In a remote dusty community of white settlers surrounded, sparsely, by Aboriginals, yet another gunfight between the police and a gang of outlaws leaves carnage in its wake. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Their psychopathic brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), is hiding somewhere in the bush; all three are wanted for a brutal crime. Stanley makes Charlie a devastating proposition in an attempt to bring an end to the cycle of bloody violence. If Charlie will find and kill his older brother, MIkey, the youngest, will live.

When I ask about the origins of the ideas and themes that are the basis for The Proposition, Cave clicks into story telling mode. “When I started thinking about the story I was mixing a record of mine in the studio [in London]; mixing is a time when you don’t do much, you just have music going on, you listen to it. Johnny [referring to John Hillcoat] was actually filming some doco about the making of this record, so he was there at the same time. And it came up: ‘would you write this script?’ All right, I’ll have a go. We’re sitting together with music going on, so I’m saying ‘how about we get a bushranger and he does this and that,’ and Johnny’s like ‘yeah…’ So we could just [add bits] and come up with ‘why doesn’t he do this and do that’ It was very much like that over a few nights, while he was doing his thing and I was doing my thing.

"to invent characters ... is really exciting"

“Then when that finished I went into my office and wrote it up, basically.” Cave wrote 10 pages a day, sending them off to ‘Johnny’ as he went. “Then I’d go to bed and lie there thinking, now what are they going to do. And I can’t tell you how exciting that actually is, to be able to invent characters … I’d watched millions of films and I always think, why didn’t they do this or that…But to invent characters and allow them to do whatever you wanted them to do is really exciting.”

The film plays as if it was built on extensive research; it was, but not Cave’s. “Johnny’s big on research and he does an enormous amount, so if I write something that was wrong …he’d be very quick to point it out.”

Hillcoat chimes in here, pointing out that they were trying to create something “that had a very big canvas. We wanted it to be mythical, to incorporate the clash with the British Empire and the clash with Aboriginals – and also treat it in a brutally truthful way, very matter of fact. That meant research and discovering there was a lot of black on black violence, there was black on white violence and vice versa…”

Which was the subject that Cave “did read about…I left Australia when I was 19 or so, and I have what I was taught at school about Aboriginals as my basic knowledge of the issues and history. So it was exciting to read those books because [and discover that] there was actually a resistance, which I wasn’t aware of. I had the idea that they were a non-aggressive race that were wiped out and this fact of an active resistance was news to me.”

Hillcoat launches into a detailed summary of the importance of trackers (a crucial support role played by David Gulpilil in The Proposition) in Australian outback history. “It was an extreme society at the time and the British tactics were ruthless, pitting tribes against their enemies and enlisting trackers. One inspiration early on was a book called Blood Meridian by Comet McCarthy; he talks about every level of society at that time, whether the Indians or the Mexicans or the Europeans, they were all savage, and everyone was in extreme conflict. So we wanted to avoid the good guys v bad guys portrayals.”

As for the central dramatic driver of the proposition itself, Cave says it “just came out of my head,” rather like a lyric might. “I don’t know where all that stuff comes from…”

Hillcoat turns to Cave and reminds him that “when you came up with it you still didn’t know the ending.” The only thing they had agreed on early on was that there would be no winners. And no flashbacks. Cave (smoking by now and even more relaxed) offers a word of advice to new writers: “avoid back stories!”

For all the excitement of the creative process, the filmmaking process had its negatives. At one stage, just days before shooting was to start, the finance collapsed and crew were sent home. At a later stage, pressure was exerted (by financiers) to include certain elements and cut others. In the end, the film contains just a few elements that Hillcoat and Cave resisted, but as Cave explains, “it would be counterproductive to tell you what they are.”

"formalised their cinematic relationship "

As we wrap our interview and I ask about the future (having briefly canvassed the past, their first feature film collaboration, Ghosts … Of The Civil Dead in 1988), Hillcoat says he and Cave have just formalised their cinematic relationship by forming a film company. But it’s Cave who hands me one of the brand new business cards for Titan Films. It’s only the second he’s given out and the first was to his mother. I’m chuffed.

Published October 6, 2005


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John Hillcoat

Nick Cave


Nick Cave and John Hillcoat as The Australian’s photographer, Renee Nowytarger, saw them on their media tour.

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