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How missing mosquito spray led to a discovery in the fridge which inspired Rolf de Heer to make a silent black and white comedy – just when he needed a quick movie idea, as he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Sitting at a table in the bar of the Chauvel cinema in Sydney’s Paddington, Rolf de Heer is about to autograph 150 posters of Dr Plonk for one of the many promotional activities around the film’s release. Before he starts on that task, I ask him how people responded to the idea of a new, Australian silent black and white comedy. His first response is a telling anecdote about a special screening for schoolchildren at the Brisbane International Film Festival in August. “They loved it, but then one of them asked why no-one talks in the film … children just don’t have silent movies in their terms of reference.” Silent films of the 20s, made by pioneers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or The Keystone Cops, are not screened on mainstream TV.

"a glorious nostalgic haze of physical humour"

If kids have no reference for silent movies, most adults do, and our recollection is a glorious nostalgic haze of physical humour. But the inspiration for making Dr Plonk came to Rolf de Heer from an entirely pragmatic source.

“I was working on the sound mix for Ten Canoes, which for me is the best part of the whole process, but that film had dragged on so long I needed to get something financed pretty quickly or I’d run out of money. I was working with my usual sound mixer, Jim Currie, and was searching around for some mossie repellent in the storage room. I couldn’t find any anywhere, and I finally opened the fridge … I had this flash of inspiration and I suddenly knew what the next film was going to be. Inside the fridge was about 20 thousand feet of old raw stock, some of it damaged, and I somehow saw an old fashioned silent movie with all its scratches and imperfections … some of the stock had expired 10 years ago.

“So I went back to Jim and I said the good news is I know what my next film is going to be, and the bad news is you’re not working on it.”

Within the hour de Heer had cast Nigel Lunghi; “I didn’t know him but I’d seen him perform… he’s a street artist in Adelaide. But then I had to work out how to make the story relevant to a contemporary audience – and still set it in the right period for a silent movie, the 20s. I didn’t think an epic family saga would work, so eventually I thought of having a time machine, which the lead character, a scientist, invents. Why does he invent it? Well, because he thinks the world will end in 100 years and no-one believes him…”

But if you think making a black and white silent movie is easier that a traditional contemporary movie, you’re a sprocket short of a frame. “In fact it was a 12 week shoot over six months,” says de Heer, “and it took a lot of thought and a lot of invention.” For a start, it meant rediscovering the old ways and relearning some aspects of filmmaking. It also meant tremendous, often unexpected technical challenges, with items like the camera. The old hand cranked cameras won’t accommodate the new film stock, so a special camera had to be adapted so it could still be hand cranked to give the film an authentic look.

“We also had to keep telling the lab NOT to clean the stock… I wanted all the imperfections on it… the more the prints get used the better the film will look,” he adds laughing.

The other challenge was creative: “it was really difficult to have no dialogue in the script, and I made it a rule that I wouldn’t write any intertitles until the end, so I wouldn’t rely on them too much. It wasn’t until I turned Paulus into a deaf mute that it forced the characters into non-verbal communication. If they wanted his attention, they’d kick him in the bum….”

"The language of silent movies"

The language of silent movies is also quite different, and de Heer used a proscenium arch frame with a static camera and action within the frame, using what amounts to available light. For music, the initial idea was to use the Wurlitzer organ as accompaniment at the film’s world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival (who helped fund the film) and record the music as well as the auditorium sounds (clapping etc) and make that the film’s score – created on opening night.

“But when we tried the Wurlitzer, it just didn’t work with the film, so then we invited the Stiletto Sisters – and added a piano to their line up … it allowed composer Graham Tardif to write fearlessly!” (The Stiletto Sisters trio features gorgeous 3-part harmonies with Hope Csutoros on violin, Judy Gunson on piano accordion and Jo To on double bass.)

The ‘out there’ concept, coupled with a low budget, plus de Heer’s track record ensured swift financing. The primary intention was to have fun and make an entertaining film, “but I know myself and I can’t help putting in social comment if I have an opportunity without affecting the film…”

Published August 30, 2007

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Rolf de Heer


Written & Directed by Rolf de Heer
Australian release: August 30, 2007
It is the great year 1907 and Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi aka Mr Spin), famous scientist and inventor, calculates that the world will end in 101 years unless immediate action is taken. As befalls visionaries through the ages, Plonk is ridiculed for his beliefs, by politicians, by bureaucrats, by even his faithful manservant, the deaf-mute Paulus (Paul Blackwell). Proof is required and the only acceptable proof lies in the very future that's ending. Being the lateral thinker that he is, Plonk invents a time machine. In quick succession Tiberius the dog (Reg), Plonk and Paulus all visit the future, 100 years hence; even Prime Minister Stalk (Wayne Anthoney) and Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski) make the trip. Not everyone returns, but all find the year 2007 a somewhat different place than they expected...

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