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Australian director Fred Schepisi joins Andrew L. Urban at a Sydney pub for a conversation about Last Orders, his latest film about friends and friendships, life and death, love and sorrow and the whole damn thing. 

In keeping with the opening setting and thematic title of the film, I am to meet Fred Schepisi in a Sydney pub – Last Orders is a film in which old friends in south east London who have drunk together for years gather to farewell one of their mates, now deceased. The pub where Schepisi and I meet is in Sydney’s birthplace, The Rocks, flanked on one side by inner city houses, some going back to the first days of Sydney. On the other side, it’s overlooked by the off ramp from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Yet The Australian has great atmos; a two storey pub on a sloping V corner that connects its upstairs and downstairs with egalitarian ease. You see through and you walk through, and neither up nor down is snobbish.

Arriving early means I have an excuse to have a visual poke around, and even taste the oddly named Scharer Lager on tap, a legacy of the previous owners whose tiny brewery makes the stuff. Delicious. Schepisi arrives before I finish it and sits opposite me at the long trestle table under an open window. Sydney’s winter is milder than London’s spring. His demeanour is distinctly Australian, his smile a wide beam in an open face that hides his rapid intellect and a complex persona. 

"like the characters in Last Order"

Outside the window he notices the pair of sneakers that hang by their tied laces from the power lines over the street. We joke that the story of the shoes may be very dull or very amusing. It’s the sort of conversation we might start if we were old drinking buddies, like the characters in Last Orders. 

The short version of the story is straight forward enough: Long time friends Ray (Bob Hoskins), Lenny (David Hemmings) and Vic (Tom Courtenay) meet at the pub to celebrate the life of Jack (Michael Caine), who has recently died. They drive down to Margate on the south east coast, with Jack's car salesman son Vince (Ray Winstone) to disperse the ashes, while his widow Amy (Helen Mirren) visits her retarded daughter, who she has seen once a week for the past 50 years. As they drive to Margate, the friends remember pivotal and wonderful moments that have affected each of their lives.

The film is not about the death or the ashes or the drive to Margate; it’s about the nature of ordinary people, their friendships, their secrets, their lies and the way they all relate to each other. It’s really about life as we live it day by day. Schepisi read the book, by Graham Swift, five years ago, when producer Elisabeth Robinson gave it to him, “probably because it appeared to be difficult to make into a film and I’d probably like that challenge,” he says. Challenge? You have no idea. . . 

“I loved the book,” he says with feeling. Then came the hard part. 

A sardonic smile plays on Schepisi’s face as he recounts a few of the major challenges, from the adaptation which he approached “with great caution” to the casting. There were only one or two actor options for each character . . . “and then you have to convince Helen Mirren to play 14 years older than she is…not 15,” he adds with a grin, “that’d be too old!”

And as the film dips in and out of the past, each character also had to have a younger version. After casting the leads – and he had no trouble attracting his dream cast – Schepisi had to find the young versions. “That was an incredible search,” he says ruefully. Casting director Patsy Pollock helped scour every drama and theatre school around England. In the end, they even enlisted David Hemmings’ son and Ray Winstone’s daughter Lois.

But before the casting came the problematic work of securing the film rights and writing the screenplay. Neither process was easy. First of all, Swift was reluctant, after a difficult experience with his earlier novel, Waterland, which had been made into a film. “He had had a bad experience and he wanted this to be done properly. Elisabeth and I spent a great deal of time [he says that with emphasis] talking to him about how we’d do it, and also referred him to my earlier works,” says Schepisi. 

But even then, Swift was reluctant, and he insisted on a tough condition: the first option would be for just six months and if certain major milestones were not reached, the option would lapse. “We were crazy to do that,” Schepisi says, “it made things very difficult. But it kept the pressure on…” Swift insisted on that as he didn’t want the project to go into development oblivion. The second option was for 12 months, and that eased the pressure. But not much. All the while, Schepisi was still working on at least four other scripts. 

"huge challenges"

The process of turning a novel into a screenplay is fraught with obstacles and impossible problems. For Schepisi, a book like this presented huge challenges. The novel dealt with each character in chapter form. The film could not. “A friend of mine was talking about production when he said a task like this is like a case of apples – and the analogy holds true. You can’t eat all the apples at once. You have to eat one at a time. Bit by bit you go on. Then it’s back to the book. You just keep on at it. Then you give yourself a couple of months distance from it. That’s essential. You come back to it fresh, with notes from the writer and anyone else. You learn to hate it, learn to love it. And you’ll probably stumble across the biggest answers by accident. It took me more than two and a half years…”

It’s a huge investment in time and emotion and professional kudos. And Schepisi is an outsider, when it comes to stories about the essential Englishness involved in Last Orders, yet he has succeeded in capturing every nuance. “You have to be very careful,” he says, “because you can see the big picture and the big changes in the characters, but to them, the insiders, it’s a slow process of osmosis. As a writer, you have to really know the weave and weft of it all. You rely on research, and the writer, and the cast. They know these people. I chose the costume designer and the production designer for what they know of the place and the people….that world. That all informs you, so you just have to be a big receptacle.” 

Time, gentlemen, please. My lager is gone – and so is Schepisi.

Published July 11, 2002

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Fred Schepisi


Fred Schepisi selected filmography:
The Devil’s Playground (1976)
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1979)
Iceman (1984)
Roxanne (1987)
Evil Angels (1988)
Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Last Orders (2002)-
A Few Good Years (2003) starring three generations of the famous Douglas acting family; Kirk, Michael, Cameron

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