“They call me the Wild Rose… But my name was Eliza Day…” Eliza Day’s lover goes on to smash her head with a rock, typically demonstrating songwriter Nick Cave’s penchant for carving out a macabre story in a song. His screenplay for John Hillcoat’s THE PROPOSITION is an equally richly crafted western of beauty, savagery and redemption…
How did you come to make a western set in the 19th century outback?
Johnny [Hillcoat] is a very good friend of mine. He came to me and said, “would you write a movie about bushrangers in Australia, a fictional story?” It’s not something I'd do under my own steam, but it’s something I'd do for him. And three weeks later I sent it off. It took three weeks to write. For Johnny, Australia had its western story as well. It had its wild west, and that hadn’t been exploited cinematically at all. There weren’t genre films being made about that period unless they were biopics of famous Australians - the Ned Kelly story, the Mad Dog Morgan story or whatever. So this was a rich mine to plumb.
Your intention was to make The Proposition a distinctly Australian story. What elements make it particularly Australian for you?
We didn’t want it to sound like an American western that had been dumped in Australia. There’s a certain incompetence that exists in the Australian character today, a real savagery and cruelty behind that kind of attitude. And the humour, which is as dry as the desert. That comes out of people being where they probably shouldn’t be. And certainly this film is about an isolated community, people struggling in a place where they really have no right to be. To me the major point was that it was so far out in inhospitable countryside. So Captain Stanley and his wife can’t go anywhere, they just had to stay there. The answer to Stanley’s problems, really, is to quit his job and go somewhere where he and his wife should be. He’d probably have quite a nice life. And the same goes for the other characters as well.
As well as writing the script to The Proposition you also composed the soundtrack with Warren Ellis. How was that different to writing and recording together in the Bad Seeds?
There is an enormous freedom when you have the themes given to you, so the writing of it is faster than a Bad Seeds record. What slows down the whole process of making a record is writing of songs, but if you’ve got the themes in front of you it’s just a matter of making some music that energises the film or adds a lyrical quality or whatever. Having said that, Warren had a massive input into the soundtrack, he played most of the stiff on it. A lot of the music came from ideas he did in his bedroom.
There is extreme violence in The Proposition, but only in brief bursts. Was it a conscious decision to keep these incidents short, sharp and shocking?
There was certainly an attempt, from the start, to say this is going to be a violent film. You are to expect some violence. And I guess part of the exciting thing about writing this script, for me, was delaying those inevitable acts of violence for as long as we could get away with. I actually have a problem with violence on the screen. A lot of it I find tiring and boring, almost as boring as sex on the screen. But an attempt was made here not to exhaust the audience through having to sit through some sort of horror show, blood and guts, for two hours. So the violent episodes are very necessary for the thrust of the story. They were really just punctuation points between a fairly meditative, slow kind of film.
Queensland looks almost like another planet in The Proposition. Does that landscape have a different character to other parts of Australia?
There’s an extra bleakness to it in a way, but it’s very beautiful too. That was the real surprise to me, from seeing the thing on paper and then actually seeing the film. It is very faithful to the script on one level, but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful the film actually looks. The way the landscape is described on paper was much more brutal and hard.
This is your third screen collaboration together after Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead and To Have And Have Not. Is there any connection between the three films?
I guess in all these films there is a sense that morality is a luxury that we can afford in less fraught times. In extreme situations and extreme environments, morality becomes a very grey issue.