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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Despite the loss of a crucial dead sloth on the last day of shooting, and a brittle relationship with the film’s French producer, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories has turned out to be the film that resonates most personally for Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The US$10,000 animatronic dead sloth that was to be used on the final day of shooting had been packed into the containers on the orders of the film’s French producer, one day earlier. “It was always scheduled for the last day of shooting, but the French producer had it packed up, just for her convenience,” recalls director Rolf de Heer, for whom making The Old Man Who Read Love Stories was the hardest film he has ever completed.

"The dead sloth"

The dead sloth (a native mammal of South America) was needed for a little scene in which Nushino (Victor Bottenbley), the local Indian leader who befriends the central character, Antonio (Richard Dreyfuss), shoots the sloth with a blowpipe. In the scheme of things, the intimate scene between the two men over this sloth justified the cost. But it was still a lot of money. “The French producer,” says de Heer, “wanted the container ready that day, even though it wasn’t leaving for a few days, but it was more convenient for her. She had pulled the special effects guys off the set on the previous day, one of the days when we most needed them, and ordered them to pack up the container with stuff we still needed and were using.”

By sheer good fortune, Bob McCarron, the Australian prosthetics make up man, had found a dead sloth – a real one – by the side of the road. But the poor animal stank so badly de Heer had to change the scene to make it work. “There was no way I could ask Richard Dreyfuss to pick it up … it almost made you dry retch to be near it.”

The dead sloth incident is symbolic of the conflicting styles of ‘the French producer’ as de Heer refers to her, and the Australian filmmaker, who never thought the film would get made when he agreed to do it. Michelle de Broca, (the French producer) had the rights to Luis Sepulvada’s novel and approached de Heer to direct. He wanted to consider the script that had already written, and to read the book. “I read the script and said I’d do it if I could rewrite the script and have final cut, thinking it’d never get made. A film in the Amazon? Final cut? But the answer was yes.”

Dogged by casting difficulties (three years of them) and other hurdles, the film finally got under way in the jungles of South America as a French/Australian co-production. The script he discarded was “verging on being nasty and exploitative. Yet the book is warm and beautiful … it’s about humanity, love, passion. So I wrote my own adaptation, but when the film was finally financed, they went back to thinking it was going to be the original script. She even said I could do it in Australia, and change the jaguar (a key element in the book) to a crocodile.”

"the essence of the book"

Needless to say, de Heer resisted that temptation and went with his own adaptation, trying to capture the essence of the book.

Antonio Bolivar (Richard Dreyfuss) lives in the village of El Idilio, a widower of many years, whose wife died shortly after their arrival in the Amazon, where the Government encouraged young families to colonise the jungle. Now 60-ish, the natives have accepted him, and his one friend is a bohemian, rustic dentist, Rubicondo (Hugo Weaving). When Bolivar expresses an interest in books, Rubicondo persuades him read the pulpy romantic novels read by his mistress Josefina (Cathy Tyson), rather than the Bible. Reclusive, but happy and familiar with the jungle, Bolivar is coerced by the venal village Mayor (Timothy Spall) into tracking down a jaguar which has killed a poacher, a task that makes him reflect on his life and its relationships.

The film, despite his relationship with the French producer ending badly, turned out to be de Heer’s most personal film. “It’s the most reflective of me as a human being. If you saw Bad Boy Bubby you might think I’m some sort of a madman. But this film most accurately reflects my sensibilities as a human being.” And perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its sinewy ability to keep us involved in the character and avoiding the trap of turning the story into a jaguar hunt.

Filled out by details and anecdotes from the rich imagination of the writer, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a character study that takes us into the exotica of the Amazon and the proximity of a man who begins to reflect on the truths and beauties of life almost absent mindedly. This largely internal element – the all important use of memories - challenged de Heer, but two films he had previously made provided some sort of rehearsal for it.

In Epsilon, de Heer mastered the use of motion control camera work in a way never before seen on film. “I wanted to create the effect of Antonio drifting in and out of memories seamlessly. We managed that with motion control; for example, as they are walking into the jungle in one scene, he sees himself in the jungle with Nushino, years before.”

And in The Quiet Room, he had managed to externalise the internal, while focusing on a single character. He wanted to find a way to have Antonio talk to himself, a device not often successful on film, and the Quiet Room experience helped. So did his 82 year old father, who lives alone on an isolated farm and has developed a way of talking to himself – or even to his watch when it announces each hour with an electronic beep. 

"I know how I can make safe"

Working with an ‘old school’ French producer conflicted with de Heer’s holistic style of filmmaking. “But she was a very gracious lady in other respects,” he adds. “It’s just that I work in an integrated way, as writer, producer and director, as one. So I’m exceptional value for money as the three of them don’t argue with each other. If I go out on a limb in one way, it may look risky but it isn’t because I know how I can make safe.”

He would have slashed a third of the budget and used a smaller crew – not to mention a cheaper dead sloth.

Note: The film was completed in 2001, but has been dogged by further distribution related delays. It is released in Australia on March 11, 2004.

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