Most film-makers adapting a book they consider “a cryptic jigsaw puzzle” would try to simplify it. But when Australian writer, director and producer Robert Connolly embarked on a big-screen version of Tim Winton’s best-selling short-story collection The Turning (2004), he chose an approach that would make it more cryptic still.
Even Winton thought Connolly’s idea “daft” – but “so daft it might actually work. Anyone mad enough to try it deserved a crack.”
Most of the 17 stories that make up The Turning are interconnected, dipping back and forth in time, with characters recurring at different points in their lives.
Rather than restructuring the stories into a single narrative viewed in chronological order, Connolly (whose credits include Balibo and The Bank) decided to keep them as the discrete entities they are in the book and then to go two steps further: assigning a different director and creative team to make of each story what they would; and having the recurring characters played by different actors in each of the short films.
With an extra, 18th short film for the book’s epigram from TS Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, The Turning has a running time of three hours, necessitating an interval and its presentation as “a special cinema event”, with limited screenings and a higher-than-usual ticket price.
Nonetheless – with directors including Connolly, as well as Warwick Thornton and animator Marieka Walsh, and a cast that features Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving – it was a success at the box office and with critics in Australia, and is now opening in New Zealand.
For their $25, viewers not only get to see the film but also receive a companion book about the making of it. The book includes a pictorial guide to the actors playing the recurring characters and a timeline of the events depicted. Thus those who read the companion book before the film will be able to follow what’s happening more clearly even than readers of Winton’s original short stories. But one can’t help but think they will lose something of the experience of surrendering to the film as Connolly intended it to be enjoyed.
“I think audiences love to work things out for themselves,” he says. “I’m kind of with Billy Wilder, who said, ‘If you let the audience work out one plus one equals two, they’ll love you forever.’ I think [film-makers] just assume we have to add it all up for the audience and audiences will be frustrated if they have to do any work. But we go to see opera, we go to see theatre, a whole range, and look at the sophistication of television drama now, so I just felt it was true to the spirit of the book to go for something that was actually a bit more like the book.”
Connolly admits he needed “a Zen-like headspace” to handle the logistics and there were moments when he wondered whether Winton was right about the idea being daft. “It wasn’t until I watched it all that I went, ‘Arghhh, it holds together.’”
In fact, unexpected correlations between the short films emerged. “In Long, Clear View, there’s Vic Lang as a young boy who’s got a rifle at the window and then in the last film, Defender, you’ve got the same character as an adult reflecting on that moment. I wasn’t asking everyone to do the whole story, just the bits they were interested in, so I was happy there were little moments that illuminated [things] in that way.”
Miraculously, there was no fighting about who filmed which stories, with directors gravitating naturally to the ones they ended up making.
Connolly strove to ensure they had a personal relationship to the story being told. “I didn’t want to let people off the hook and have just a lightweight reason for why they wanted to do them.”
The directors included ones with an established cinema background alongside others from theatre, dance and art, and first-timers such as actors Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham.
“I often think film-making is not rocket science,” says Connolly. “If you take creative minds and let them tell something on the screen, it will inevitably be strong. They will find a way to do it in a very powerful way. I’ve not been in a film school for many years. It’s probably heresy to say that.”
A central casting director was on hand to ensure no double-ups. “There were a few times when people would say, ‘What about this actor?’ and we’d go, ‘Oh, they’re already playing a role in another one.’”
Byrne loved the title story (in which she plays a battered trailer-park wife becoming drawn to born-again Christianity) so much she flew back from Los Angeles at her own cost. “And that was amid the crazy successful life she’s leading at the moment.”
Getting Blanchett on board early on gave “a real status” to the film. “What was interesting was the calibre of actor willing to be involved. I think it’s also Tim Winton. He’s such an iconic writer.”
Connolly can think of another appeal as well. “I think we’re at a time when doing things innovatively and differently is engaging audiences and I think that’s what happened with the actors, too. We’re at a point when people know the status quo in independent art-house cinema is broken. So people are going, ‘Let’s experiment.’ And that’s a fun place to be. Just trying to experiment with new ideas to try and find a way to improve the cinema-going experience.”
THE TURNING opens on November 7 at Rialto Newmarket, Auckland; Light House Cuba, Wellington; Alice Cinematheque, Christchurch.