VISUALISING AN AUSTRALIAN WESTERN - THE PROPOSITION
When preparing to make The Proposition, director John Hillcoat
‘previsualised’ on paper how the film would look, feel and impact on the
audience, in these Notes on Style. It’s a fascinating insight into the creative
process of a filmmaker, evoking the gritty power of the Western in a uniquely
For many years, I have wanted to make an Australian Western. In 1994, after an
extensive trip encompassing four states, travelling throughout Central Australia
with my Production Designer Chris Kennedy, I was convinced by the dynamic power
of the rugged landscape and its brutal history that the Australian Western, a
drama set within the isolated frontiers in the late 1800s with the "true grit"
of the genre, had yet to be achieved.
Many Australian productions evolved from actual events that covered history in a
purely factual way, without effectively conjuring the potential mythic potency
of this period.
The American Western genre was until recently considered to be burnt-out, washed
up and swept under the rug, trapped in cinematic purgatory. Nick Cave’s
narrative in The Proposition contains some time-honoured ingredients of the
"Wild West", and offers up a classic morality tale of outlawed brothers on the
edge of a harsh frontier, flamboyant characters fighting against the odds. Like
the archetypal laconic Western Hero, many of Cave's central characters repress
their internal pain, unable to verbalize emotions, proposing other solutions to
conflict but being drawn inevitably towards violence.
The legendary power of the genre could be reinvented but in a specifically
Australian context. In the necessity to reinvent genre, established myths are
demolished, only to reform new ones. History and genre have always needed a new
angle in order to be revitalised. The elements of colonial imperialism and its
raging class war, the confrontations of the remote settlers with outlawed
bushrangers, the ruthless conflict with the indigenous people, the do-or-die
instinct - all of these themes can only add to the originality of the piece. The
Proposition utilises the enormous potential of the unique Australian landscape
and history while formulating characters and relationships that could
dynamically engage any audience. The characters are not just good or bad people,
they are full of ambiguities and conflicting qualities, just like real people
(even the monstrous Arthur, a horrifying Kurtz like figure, has flashes of deep
loyalty, humour, and warmth). At the same time there are mythic undertones to
the story as it draws on, and works with, the traditions of the genre.
"The Australian frontier, as depicted in The
Proposition, is even more extreme and dangerous than that of the American Wild
There was a clear brutality in all struggles to ‘civilise’ the new frontiers
of the 19th Century. The grubby ruthlessness highlighted in many of Peckinpah
and Leone’s characters made their Westerns more believable, more visceral and
engaging as they were potent revisions of a sanitised past. This raw ferocity
from the era helps create a ‘heightened realism,’ intensifying reality by
highlighting all those messy truths that are glossed over and sentimentalized -
the appalling evidence of our base human nature right down to the unshaven,
sweaty, fly ridden surface details. The Australian frontier, as depicted in The
Proposition, is even more extreme and dangerous than that of the American Wild
West. The land was even more inhospitable and the outlawed bushrangers even more
dangerous and desperate, after all there was no Mexico to flee to and not a
single Bushranger avoided capture or premature death. The British regime was all
encompassing as represented by Stanley and in particular Eden Fletcher, utterly
ruthless when dealing with the aboriginal people.
Photographs of the time and place show us the Victorians' stubborn refusal to
yield up to the truth. They transported their Empire, their England to the most
unrelenting unsuitable terrains: the homesteads with their neat patch of green
lawn and picket fence, surrounded by the vast barren desert that continually
threatens to encroach. The harshness of their new environments was literally
etched upon their faces, their bodies. It is this kind of detail that will be
brought to life within our characters.
There will be a conscientious and penetrative approach to violence within The
Proposition. It runs thematically through the narrative, the central characters,
and the very nature of frontier life. The majority of specific incidents take
place off screen and often focus upon the aftermath, the actual consequences of
violent actions. The few incidents that do take place on screen will be
unglamorous and like in real life, abrupt, messy, and quick.
The nature of the characters and the material within the film calls for a bold
sparse style. Specific stylistic devices will help create an invigorated
realism. I believe that part of the magic of great period films comes about when
one's expectations are challenged by special attention paid to certain
historical details. These crucial principles ground in reality the broader
artistic license of the narrative, making it all the more immediate and
credible. They help transport the audience into another time and place.
For example, in period films guns always seem to go off with a weak, dull flabby
‘Pop’, with very little recoil. In reality when those black powder guns were
fired, they give an intensely violent ‘crack’, very powerful, much more so than
modern firearms. The much stronger recoil made the barrel kick a foot into the
air and the rifleman almost take a step backwards as the bullet leaves the
muzzle. After a battle the right arm of the rifleman was actually black and blue
from shoulder to elbow.
It is by concentrating and distilling details in behaviour, production design,
lighting and sound, that the whole piece will come to life. Through meticulous
research, we will create the illusion of ultra reality, which will add credence
to the other deliberately stylised elements – the creation of our own dramatic
world. Our bushrangers will not resemble the typical bushy-bearded,
floppy-hatted image so often portrayed, but will rather have more stylish
outfits from the times: well worn striped pants, vest with streamlined jacket
and firm angular hat with unshaven face and/or side burns or moustache keeping
the face visible to give a full range of expressions.
"the dynamic use of contrasts"
The key to the style of the film will lie in the dynamic use of contrasts.
This will be fully utilised throughout the movie. It is already thematically in
place within the script with the tensions between the brothers, between love and
hate; the underlying class war between the poor Irish outlaws and the wealthy
English ruling class; between ‘Civilisation’ and the Wild; between dark,
claustrophobic interiors and vast barren exteriors. These oppositions will be
carried right through within the visual style.
Real locations will be carefully designed with a polar contrast between the
darkened interiors – Arthur’s cave and the oppressive Victorian interiors
cluttered with ornate furniture, china, pictures, patterned wallpaper, and rugs
- and the blinding epic exteriors under a limitless sky. Facescapes will be
juxtaposed with landscapes, close ups with panoramic wides.
The cinematography will utilise natural light as far as possible. Fire, candles,
or kerosene lamps will light the night. The subdued darkened interiors in the
day will have windows blown out with intense white sunlight. The burnt out hot
white light will add to the heat as will the constant sheen of sweat that will
cover the actors' flesh. The buzzing flies and the sound of arid hot wind will
also intensify the harsh and impenetrable land, building up the atmospheric
pressure as the thematic tension between our key characters threatens to
explode. The pace will juxtapose frenetic bursts of action, sudden eruptions of
violence with abrupt stillness: opening within the middle of a raging gun battle
inside the Chinese prostitute shack, and then cutting to the aftermath, still
and silent as Stanley and Charlie examine each other.
The movie will be shot in widescreen super-35mm for a full epic sweep. The
camera will concentrate the action, often simple and distilled like the stoic
photographs of the time. There will also be starkness to the landscape, its
natural grandeur only ever seen from horse height or mountain peaks,
deliberately avoiding helicopter shots or other such contemporary devices. This
intensification of reality will add to the vivid sensation of being firmly
within the portrayed era and bring a real weight to the drama.
At key moments we will see the world subjectively as the characters themselves
view it, creating a further dramatic tension. In the climax within Stanley’s
homestead, we will be drawn increasingly to Charlie by cutting from a
dispassionate view of the harrowing action into Charlie’s point of view. The
horror of the situation forces him to make his grim moral choice.
There will also be an important counterpoint between our stylised version of
reality, and a more Romantic lyrical quality. Again as a deliberate contrast,
this lyricism will add a sombre beauty and a more epic scope to the overall
picture, giving the sense of a mournful elegy, of things coming to an end (the
fate of the Burn brothers gang, the brothers themselves, and Stanley’s and
Martha’s frontier life); in the loss of the pioneer age, a time forever past;
and implicitly, in the systematic elimination of the indigenous peoples to which
the film bears witness. There will be a sense of the inevitability of change
with the advent of unstoppable progress. The opening photographic montage begins
with a wider picture of the times -the railway under construction – which
gradually pares down into the specific world of our story (reconstructed
photographs of our characters in context - Stanley and Martha at Eliza Hopkins'
funeral). There is an underlying cyclical structure to the drama, beginning with
an event which we do not see and building to its inevitable repetition at the
end, which will be echoed visually in the many scripted sunsets, dramatic
apocalyptic visions (blood-red explosive sunsets underlining the cycles of
violence theme): the annihilation of one day in order to create another.
"This lyrical quality"
This lyrical quality will be underscored by repeated references to the mythic
dog/man status of Arthur; by creating room for the cast to be still, to breathe;
through carefully designed sound, finely tuned rhythmic and spatial
sensibilities where natural sounds act like music and the space of the picture
is opened right up, enormous and wide; through the elegiac score specifically
written and recorded for the film by Nick Cave. The landscape will at times be
full of innate awe and mystery – surreal and as though belonging to another
world as opposed to another country. A large orange full moon rises over the
horizon, silent, still, and breathtaking. A flock of pink cockatoos bursts from
a ghost gum. A vast expanse of stars, several
shooting stars burn and die out across the multitude.
Note: The Proposition opened in Australia on October 6, 2005.
Published October 13, 2005
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GUY PEARCE INTERVIEW
JOHN HILLCOAT & NICK CAVE
Emily Watson on set with John Hillcoat