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Producer Curtis Burch is a big fan of Fred Schepisi’s films so when he read Gerald Di Pego’s screenplay, Words and Pictures, he asked Schepisi to direct it. That was the easy part, Schepisi tells Andrew L. Urban.

Fred Schepisi looks bright in a sky blue shirt against the hotel window, matching Sydney’s brilliant blue sky as we sit down to talk about his latest film, Words and Pictures, starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche.

Owen plays Jack, an English teacher at an upmarket New England prep school, and Binoche plays the new art teacher. He has a broken relationship and drinks; she has rhumatoid arthritis and paints. They start a war over the power of words v pictures, involving the students, and they both change each other. It’s a film on two levels, as Schepisi points out, and both are important: the A level is the story we see, the B level is about the two characters.

How did this casting come about, I ask, because it is as unexpected as it seems natural when you see them together on screen. “I’d known Clive since the wrap party for Gosford Park where we met … and where my wife spent the whole evening dogging Clive. Anyway, we occasionally kept in touch, and when I read Words and Pictures, I thought of him. I knew he was classically trained and that he likes language …”

Schepisi also thought of Binoche straight away, one of those gut feel casting choices, but at first she turned it down. “When she changed her mind, I had already looked at someone else for the role,” he says. And that’s when the easy part ended. 

The irony is that producer Curtis Burch had already secured the money; “it was very frustrating to have the money in place but not the leads,” says Schepisi, who like most filmmakers is used to things being the other way round.

Then came a series of delays: when Owen was available, Binoche was booked, when Binoche finished, Owen would have a new project. “Actors have these shorter work windows,” explains Schepisi, “but in my case every movie is a commitment for year or so…”

"I knew they both wanted to work with each other"

As the project kept sliding, the money started to slide, too. “It took us three years in the end …and then we had a rather short pre-production window before the shoot.”

But at least the casting worked. “I knew they both wanted to work with each other, and when we all got together in New York for the first time, I could see straight away they were on the same wavelength. They laughed easily and just clicked… I thought that was great, half my job was done!”

Owen and Binoche got on so well they laughed on set when someone made a mistake, and sometimes even when they didn’t and it was in the middle of a take. “I’d have to ask ‘what did I miss?’ … we had a great shoot, no dramas.”

As for the screenplay, “Di Pago had written various things, like Message in a Bottle, lots of television…. And he wanted to write something where he could really use language and stretch himself on that score…”

When Burch approached Schepisi, he said yes straight away: “You don’t often get a script in such good a shape as this,” he says. “But I said to him if you don’t treat this like we’re going to shoot it in six months time, we’ll be sitting here in three years time having the same conversation. And we were….”

But, adds Schepisi, “to Burch’s credit, he was on a big learning curve and he had tapped into a whole lot of money out of Dallas. He secured a decent lump of money, which is pretty are.” 

The frustration of having the money and unable to lock down the stars for 18 months was the worst part for Schepisi, but the payoff is a film of which he is proud. 

Published July 17, 2014

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Fred Schepisi

Words and Pictures
- in Australian cinemas July 17, 2014

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