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Alex Proyas’ long awaited film-noir-come sci-fi thriller is finally hitting Australian screens (Aug. 6, 1998), after its midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May.  ANDREW L. URBAN visited Proyas both on set and in his offices for this interview.

From the outside it is perfectly obvious that the building was once a typical suburban Sydney pub, but inside, up in the rooms that were once bedrooms, the polished timber floor and sparse, modern furniture is evidence of the new occupants. A blue two-seater lounge faces a large desk, with two piles of scripts at one end and a box of Joyitas cigars from Havana at the other. Three windows and a door to a small balcony let the summer sunlight fill the room, while the pub’s ghosts are amused by movie posters, like the huge one that recalls the 1940’s French film, Le Loup Carou, which it describes as "Un film explosif!"

These are the offices of film director Alex Proyas and his Mystery Clock Cinema, based in Paddington - but its collective imagination lives in a universe far, far away.

"I want the audiences to get involved and interact"

Proyas and producer Andrew Mason are the springs that drive Mystery Clock Cinema, whose latest film, Dark City, was invited to screen at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival in May.

"Everyone asks me for the story," says Proyas, "but I don’t want to reveal it; I want the audiences to get involved and interact. . . it’s a classic film noir," is all he’ll say. "A guy wakes up with his memory lost, with a dead girl in his room, and he’s accused of the murder, but he doesn’t remember anything. It’s not really futuristic, and at first you think it could even be one of the 1940s detective stories, like The Maltese Falcon."

Rufus Sewell plays the forgetful chap, and he is joined by Keifer Sutherland, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien, and Jennifer Connelly.

Like his previous film, the much acclaimed The Crow (1994), which starred Brandon Lee (accidentally killed during the filming), Dark City is strong on fantasy, a whole world of nightmarish creatures, The Strangers, and sets that are hauntingly, eerily yet beautifully menacing.

"Fantasy... allows you as an artist to delve into your own psyche and explain very personal things"

Visiting the set during production was like walking out of a sunny world into a darkly brooding universe of black robed figures by the dozens. They were milling around a huge set whose central feature was a wall that splits open to reveal a huge clock. This was inside what looked like a six storey chamber with walls made of strange, rustic, rusted sheeting with irregular edges. Everything was irregular – twisted, even. A mass of buildings hung together as if twisted by a giant.

"I like fantasy," says Proyas. "What attracts me to it is that it allows you as an artist to delve into your own psyche and explain very personal things - but they remain disguised for the audience." But there is a price to pay for this: "Films that inspire me have some element of illusion; you have to concentrate on detail, which I hate. I prefer to go with the flow. But you can’t."

Proyas, the filmmaker of his generation who is perhaps least recognised as an Australian, is consciously not making ‘Australian’ films in Australia, with the exception of his very first feature, Spirits (1989). "I made that when I was very young, and it didn’t have a proper distributor so it got kind of lost; but that, too, was a fantasy," he says.

"Boasts of the biggest digital effects design contract in Australia"

A graduate of the Australian Film Television and Radio School in the late 80s, Proyas has what may be seen as a controversial view for a young Australian filmmaker: he believes that the conscious or deliberate pushing of an Australian cultural remit is "bullshit – that will naturally come out of the film making process. Films must have broad appeal, and many Australian films don’t work very well. There can still be Australian films with a commercial overview. If The Full Monty and Trainspotting can work around the world, we can keep making films that do that – we HAVE done it."

Both The Crow and Dark City were bankrolled by American companies, the latter by New Line, who rescued what might have been a dying project because they had faith in Proyas as a director. It was an expensive gamble, with 100 speaking parts, 200 extras at times, 130 crew (plus construction crew of 100) and 40 casual make up artists. Shot largely inside the Commemorative Pavilion at the Sydney Showground, it also boasts of the biggest digital effects design contract in Australia, which was won by Sydney based Dfilm.

"Part of the reason for shooting the film here in Sydney," Proyas explains, "was the economic equation. And Dfilm’s approach is simpler, cleaner, cheaper, partly because of the lower overheads we have, compared to Los Angeles."

"Filmmaking should be a commercial enterprise"

Having worked with Hollywood studios, Proyas is pragmatic: "You can say good and bad things about the Hollywood system. For Hollywood, films are a business proposition and you know where they are coming from. I don’t necessarily agree with that view at all times, but to me filmmaking should be a commercial enterprise. I would like to see a studio here in Australia making movies – we’ll see what happens with the Fox Studio at the old Showground now that it's open for business."

Proyas, with Mason, is in a position to produce and raise finance for his projects, a situation that is no doubt envied by some other Australian filmmakers. He is currently working on several scripts (and reading some of the ones on his desk) and has yet to decide what he will tackle next, and whether it might be something not as fantastic and not as large as Dark City. "Well, for personal peace of mind," he says smiling, "I’d like to do a small comedy. It’s set in the world that people will recognise, around the rock scene in Sydney in the early 80s – which was pretty absurd anyway."

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See Andrew L. Urban's feature on Dark City's

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