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Australian director Russell Mulcahy finds himself in new territory with Swimming Upstream: it’s a deep, character driven biography, a long way from the fantasy adventures and style driven films of his earlier career, he admits to Andrew L. Urban.

Russell Mulcahy’s Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles is starting to get frenetic. He only arrived from Sydney on Saturday, and now he’s taking media calls for interviews to promote the Australian release of one of the most unlikely films he’s ever directed – Swimming Upstream – while bouncing around his hotel room gathering notes and thoughts for Monday morning, the first day of shooting on a huge network tv pilot for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, called Skin. It’s a sexy, character driven love drama series about a rich girl whose dad is a pornographer and her poorer Hispanic boyfriend, whose dad is the D.A. of L.A. from the East Side.

His mind is boggled. It defies his recent project trends, which include On The Beach, Queer As Folk, Lost Battalion and Swimming Upstream, “I’ve been dealing with boys in trenches, boys in bed, and boys in pools. With Skin, it’s about a boy and a girl. This is going to be all new to me,” he laughs. 

"his modesty is a professional shield"

Mulcahy has come a long way from his much acclaimed sci-fi adventure, Highlander (and Highlander II, Blue Ice, Razorback, etc), and his modesty is a professional shield. He is now in character driven territory. There is a genuine talent that drives this Australian, and Swimming Upstream is perhaps his first really serious, character driven work that shows that off. Mulcahy’s direction makes the film interesting as well as moving, and he gets the best out of all his cast. 

And what a cast: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer, Tim Draxl, David Hoflin, Craig Horner and Brittany Byrnes. “Both Geoffrey and Judy related to the script,” he says, walking closer to the hotel window with his mobile phone for better reception. “Geoffrey definitely related to the character. He did a lot of research – and we didn’t want to paint him as drunken a monster. He’s not a bad man, he just has many demons hidden in his psyche. And it’s not until 14 years later that the demon raises its head again. He reverts to alcohol to numb that…”

The film is based on a biography. Set in 1950s Brisbane, Tony Fingleton (Jesse Spencer) beats the odds to become a champion swimmer in spite of an overbearing alcoholic father Harold (Geoffrey Rush), and his long-suffering but quietly heroic wife Dora (Judy Davis). Overshadowed in his father’s eyes by his brothers Harold Jnr and John (David Hoflin and Tim Draxl), it is only when Tony displays an extraordinary swimming talent that he feels he has a shot at winning his father’s heart and maybe even the Olympic gold.

Why Rush? “A wonderful actor, number one. Two, he just fit the role. Even physically he’s so right. I’d wanted to work with him for a long time and when he expressed interest there was no other choice. And Judy the same. When that happens, you thank God.”

"The challenge...  was to not let style overcome substance"

The challenge in Swimming Upstream was to not let style overcome substance. This, for a man who, in the late 1970s, became involved in the emerging music video industry directing the first video to ever air on MTV: Video Killed the Radio Star. He went on to work with Fleetwood Mac, Billy Idol, Elton John and many others. 

“I tried to create nearly two worlds in Swimming Upstream. There was the home, which was shot hand-held, and it’s visceral and a little dowdy and threatening sometimes, harsh lighting… And contrasting that with the excitement, and adrenaline of the swimming – and the spirituality of the water. Tony even brings that back to the house…” Mulcahy refers to the fantasy scene when Tony floats through his lounge room as if it were a pool. (FX thanks Animal Logic.) “That’s a young man trying to escape what is fast becoming a horror zone…”

Filmmaking has always started with the written word, he says, “and the written word in this is very good, but it’s also definitely story telling with pictures. And visuals can say a lot, yet not get in the way of the story. That’s my pleasure and pride in doing movies, that you have that ability….”

Considering his enthusiasm for the subject, it’s a little surprising to learn that Mulcahy was not too keen on the project when the producers first showed it to him. Howard and Karen Baldwin, the principals of Los Angeles based Crusader Entertainment, had worked with Mulcahy before and they liked working together. (The Beverly Hills based production company claims its goal is to create inspirational, historical, sports and adventure films that offer compelling and positive messages.) 

"an important piece"

“At first I was a bit nonplussed. But then I met with Tony Fingleton, the writer, and after three hours of talking, I was really swayed into wanting to do it. I thought it was an important piece.”

Release note: October 31, 2002 for AFI Awards qualifying limited release: Sydney, Melbourne Perth). Full commercial release February 27, 2003.

Published February 20, 2003

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