The Return of Maurice: An Interview with alter ego Dave Jones

Maurice (Dave Jones) rests his head in Caroline’s (Peggy Cole) lap while holding the rest of the cast at gunpoint.

Yackety Yack is perhaps the most hilarious film ever made in Australia, in large part because of the character of Maurice, played by none other than the film’s writer-director Dave Jones, who shot the film in 1973 while on staff at the Media Centre of La Trobe University.

Maurice is an academic up for a tenured post (as was Jones at the time), but he is also an aspiring radical filmmaker who has brought together a number of his colleagues to film a serious discussion about … well, radical filmmaking. As a kind of film-within-a-film, Yackety Yack can be described as the Marx Brothers meet Jean-Luc Godard, for Maurice’s growing megalomania (or was it that of Jones?) sets in motion a preponderance of outrageous directorial decisions – he edits out any views not to his liking, has the only female character appear naked throughout the entire film in the belief that would help the film’s box office, and in an attempt to commit ritual suicide on-camera he ends up murdering his own film crew instead.

Raffaele Caputo, Anna Dzenis and Rick Thompson conducted the following interview with Dave Jones only a couple of days after his attendance at Radical Beginnings, an oral history symposium held at La Trobe University in November 2009.

Can you describe the difference between the original script you wrote and how it changed to become the film Yackety Yack?

It’s too long ago for me to remember exactly how much was already there but I know that the essential idea of a co-operative venture, and the idea of a political snuff film, was there.

There was also the idea that the leader, Maurice, becomes a dominant tyrannical figure. I remember the absurdity of that in the original script but I probably embellished it quite a bit, partly on the basis of who was going to be in it, like John Flaus [who plays the character Steve]. [1]

So you rewrote it when you had your actors in place?

I probably rewrote it before we even shot it. Then a little bit more once I had the actors so that I could make use of people like John Flaus.

I also came up with new ideas when we got closer to filming. Obviously the ‘man in the street’ interview with Jerzy Toeplitz [2] could not have been thought of back in the United States. That happened only when he was on board at La Trobe University in 1973, the year the film was made.

Some of the other things in the film were based on what was happening at La Trobe, which I thought might be funny. For instance, I don’t know if the original script had Maurice tenured or not, but what struck me as funny for some reason – and I don’t know if it came off – was the idea that Maurice had killed three people and abused Caroline (Peggy Cole), and he thinks those actions might be enough to reopen his tenure case. The fundamental idea being that he believes he can get away with so much.

A guy wrote a book called Tenured Radicals [3] in the early ’90s and it’s all about these radical professors who ended up being tenured. The other side of it is that if you’re tenured you can only pretend to be radical. When I was making Yackety Yack I just thought that aspect of the academic situation had a bit of humour in it.

What about the idea of cutting out or silencing what Caroline says?

I don’t know where that came from. The idea of Maurice being abusive to women probably came to me as I grew into the character. What he would do and how would he react to the fact that he can’t have her. That’s probably where that came from.

By the way I wish I had capitalised on that a bit more and established what I was doing early, rather than just cut away from Caroline as she starts to talk with no explanation at all.

What about the use of the intertitles. Was much of it inspired by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard?

Definitely. I really loved Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966), La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967). Of the three, La Chinoise is probably the one closest to Yackety Yack because of the way people are getting self-enclosed, except Godard does it very differently.

Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto in La Chinoise.

And I like the use of titles in films. They seem to be a way of adding ideas. Of course in Yackety Yack I am making fun of it through what I say and where the titles appear. For example, when Maurice shoots everyone – “Death to camera one, death to camera two” – I was trying to carry it to an extreme, but I was making fun of it too.

Were the titles thought up during post-production?

I don’t remember if I had thought of the titles before shooting started. I probably did think of using them but I wasn’t sure what titles I was going to use. But when I was editing the film I tried titles in different scenes and put them in at different points.

You left Australia soon after you’d finished shooting the film. Was Yackety Yack in any way, a statement on how you felt about being here?

No, it had nothing to do with my feelings about being in Australia. It was complicated. I decided to leave probably before my tenure case came up. I was married to an Indonesian woman and we did have a couple of unhappy experiences, like our daughter had been bullied at school. But that happened about the middle of our stay here and the issue was solved satisfactorily.

I guess things weren’t going well for me at La Trobe. I felt excluded from a lot of things. I wasn’t even involved in getting Jerzy Toeplitz to La Trobe. I only found out about it when I ran into Colin Bennett [4] at a milk bar and he congratulated me on having Toeplitz here. I didn’t think I had much of a future at La Trobe and so I had planned to go back to the States and finish my dissertation. But I actually hated leaving Australia. I really did, yet that seemed like my only alternative. I could have won the tenure case but it didn’t seem like it was going to be a happy future, as I’d never be supported for anything.

What was it like being director and actor on the set?

In between shots I was Dave Jones, although I will say that I have a little bit of Maurice in me.

It’s interesting that when we met you we had to stop and say to ourselves, ‘He’s not Maurice. Maurice is a character.’ Which shows that when you talked at the symposium about trying to cast Maurice you couldn’t have picked anyone else to play that part.

That could be. I wish I could have acted a bit better though. When I saw the film the other night, I cringed
when I’m trying to play angry. I think more of a cool way would have had a better effect.

There are lots of references in the film.

I was influenced by a lot of the people who are referred to in the film and are made fun of. I was really into Norman Mailer at the time. A lot of the paranoia in the filming of Yackety Yack came from Mailer and his book Maidstone.[5] Which is based on a film he made, but I hadn’t seen it at the time. The term ‘psychic barbs’ is from Mailer. It’s not mine.

I loved Godard and he’s referenced. I loved Dostoevsky and he’s referenced with all the talk about a giant two-ton weight hanging over Maurice’s head all the time. Incidentally, I wished I’d written that better. Whenever it’s mentioned I should have had people look up, so when the weight comes down it’s a bit of a shock. Even though we talked about it, it’s not set up as well as it could have been.

What was it like working with Peter Carmody (who plays Zig)?

Peter had some good ideas about his character. He actually started doing ‘psychic barbs’ and they would sometimes work. In the birthday party scene you hear him complaining and I thought it worked okay for the scene.

Were the other actors aware of Maidstone?

I don’t think so. Most of that stuff was all in my head.
John Flaus might have been aware of the film and the book, but I didn’t really talk about to him about it either.

Norman Mailer and Rip Torn (reflected in the hat) in “The Assassination Ball” scene from Maidstone.

It has been suggested that back then you looked like Norman Mailer.

There was a close up of me when I announce my suicide and I expect everyone to be concerned but no-one pays any attention. My eyes look this way and that way and I did that because I knew I looked a bit like Norman Mailer.

I had been told before, when I was at Stanford, that I looked like Norman Mailer. I guess it was because of my hair and fat face and pudgy look. I’d not seen Maidstone but he published a book on it with stills from the film and there was a photographic close-up of Mailer looking out to one side. That’s where I got the idea. I purposely mimicked that still.

There is a touch of Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962) in Yackety Yack, that these characters have come together and they can’t leave, or that they’re not going outside till you let them go outside.

That wasn’t a film that I was thinking about. It is more La Chinoise. There’s also the feeling in La Chinoise that the characters are stuck in a room and they’re not leaving.

The crew of Yackety Yack included Peter Beilby, Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, and Keith Robertson who did the poster. Were they ACME then?

They were ACME, without even me knowing it! They were ACME from when they started to make films at La Trobe, and before I had even arrived there.[6] Rod was at La Trobe, so too was Scott Murray, and Peter and Keith Robertson. I had Keith and Rod as students in my first year of teaching there. I got to know all those guys and I guess we got along, so when I thought about wanting to make the film, I thought of them. They had already made Got At (1969) and a few other films and so I knew that they knew how to make films. And, as I was saying at the symposium, they were film freaks and I learned a lot about film from them. Scott and Rod and Peter would talk about the films showing at the Melbourne film festival and so I got involved in that scene.

It is interesting that there was this group of people making films, who formed a production company, and then came along to collaborate with you on Yackety Yack.

Yes it was certainly a collaboration. They were just amazing. At that time and place there was a sense of ‘let’s do it’, which is something you lose when you get older. Those guys worked really hard and you can see how hard they worked. They were into everything and they didn’t make anything difficult. The tunnel scene is a perfect example. To try and explain to most people what I wanted with the tunnel scene would have been pretty hard, and they probably wouldn’t have understood the purpose of it. But it was no problem with the ACME crew, and it was so much fun they got right into the gist of it.

It was so hard to get that shot in the tunnel, by the way. They were actually banging the pipes, not on purpose, and the cameraman tripped as we were going down the steps. That’s why I say, “Watch the steps Caroline.” That just came spontaneously and no-one ever lost character or was fazed by it. They were a joy to work with them because they were very involved.

I think I mentioned at the symposium that Keith Robertson and his wife Roz made that weight which worked perfectly, and that they also had found the clowns’ heads somewhere.

What was the reason for the clowns’ heads?

I needed something to indicate what the ‘odds’ were of killing Maurice. They were used to make that point and they give an absurd quality to the scene because the odds are infinitesimally small that Maurice is going to get killed. That was the plan.

At the symposium John Flaus mentioned that the film was tightly scripted.

That’s not totally true. The interview was totally scripted and, as I mentioned before, the tunnel was mostly scripted, but some things like ‘watch the steps Caroline’ happened because I saw the cameraman was about to trip over.

With Flaus I just let him go on and on. He was talking about films all the time in the background and that was fine with me. There was a fair bit of improvisation.

Was someone like John Cassavetes an influence?

I didn’t think of Cassavetes at the time. I was just trying to be funny, for the most part. I didn’t think of those heavy filmmakers like Cassavetes.

Who were the comic influences?

Perhaps Woody Allen. I did like Woody Allen’s early movies Bananas (1971). I would like to point out, that my idea of pulling the man in Jerzy Toeplitz, the ‘man in the street’, was before Annie Hall (1977), where Allen pulls out Marshall MacLuhan from the line. I did it before Allen. The idea just came to me and I don’t think I was thinking of any particular film.

It was mentioned at the symposium that you would bring in a range of Australian filmmakers to show their films and talk to the students, people like Bert Deling with his film Pure Shit (1975), for example.

I thought it was important to have students make connections with the films that were being made locally.

If you talk to many Australian filmmakers about that period in the early 1970s, some will say that they did not believe the film industry was going to last. When you applied for funding and were then making the film, what was your idea of Australian film? What was your sense of what was happening in the Australian film industry?

I thought it might go on but I didn’t know that it was going to become big. I did have a feeling that if I stayed, that there would be an opportunity to make my kind of films, low budget Pure Shit kind of films. There was an opportunity back then to make films that didn’t have to meet Hollywood standards or make that kind of money that Hollywood films make. I did have a sense of that. In fact Peter Beilby and I started to write a film called The Doctor’s Delight. It was going to be about an American – guess who was going to play him? – in Melbourne who fooled everyone into thinking he was a Viennese psychiatrist. We even sold shares. I don’t know what happened in the later years of the Australian film industry, but I had the feeling that it was a good place to make unusual films.

And it is interesting that you were looking to make comedies, because there were quite a few comedies in those early years, going back to The Naked Bunyip in 1969, which was a precursor to Alvin Purple (1973), and they were box office successes.

Yes, there were some comedies that I was aware of like Stork (1971) with Bruce Spence.

It would appear that Yackety Yack was made to be shown in alternative cinema venues, like the Melbourne Filmmakers co-op.

Yes, it was meant to be the cinematic equivalent of off-off Broadway. I think Pure Shit was probably the same thing.

You were also making documentaries. Didn’t you work on the lost New Guinea film, Mataungan?

We shot that around the same time. Although I was trying to help, I was not that much involved in it. It was mainly Rod and Peter who were involved. Dr Heinz Schutte [7] did a lot of research in New Guinea and it was really his project.

You know the story about how we went and shot a lot of stuff and the cameraman disappeared on his way back to Australia. I had some of the footage for a while but it wasn’t enough to make a good film. [8]

And you’ve gone onto make documentaries rather than Yackety Yack style films.

Yes, I don’t know why. I just haven’t come up with a Yackety Yack style idea.

Could that be because of working at the National Film Board of Canada?

It might be. I wasn’t attracted to documentaries when I first got into film. When I started doing some work at the Film Board in Canada I came to respect them, especially from seeing films like Mike Rubbo’s films and Donald Brittain’s films.

I’m interested in documentary but I have to say that making a film like Yackety Yack was more fun. If I had an idea for a film where I could have the same kind of fun as I had on Yackety Yack I would do it. To me, the most fun on Yackety Yack was with the cinematic equivalent of word play, like the bit when Peter (Carmody) comes over with the plates and I cut that out. I really enjoyed little stuff like that, editing things out and playing with time.

What do you think about Rod Bishop’s question (at the symposium) that many Australian filmmakers who make a successful first film struggle to make their second?

Maybe, in my case, I didn’t have the drive or the passion. I already had two kids by the time that I made Yackety Yack and I walked away from taking tenure at La Trobe and so it was a period of economic decline. I got to the point where I decided that I wasn’t going to put my family through more of that. When talking about the films like Pure Shit and Yackety Yack, they almost have to be made by academics, as you can’t make a living from them. You have to make a living from something else so you can make those sorts of films.

Have you ever thought of putting Yackety Yack on YouTube?

I don’t think it’s a YouTube movie. Although part of that has to do with my own self-consciousness about the film. I’m embarrassed by some of the stuff that I did in the movie. Aren’t you offended by some of it? Some people take it as sexist, like the things we did to poor Peggy (Cole), and I understand their criticisms.

One of our colleagues said that it’s a film that should be shown to every first year student because it debunks the conventions of Hollywood cinema and questions them in a radical and confronting way.

The film was meant to comment on violence as well as sex, although perhaps I should have talked more about the murders in the film. I’m actually relieved that you’re not offended by the film, particularly given how obnoxious Maurice is. He is a bit like a character in the Greenaway film The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and her Lover (1989). Greenaway has an obnoxious main character who just goes on and on. Maurice is a bit like him, although I play it for humour.

Maybe Maurice is obnoxious for the other characters, but he’s not obnoxious for the audience.

There is a point to that. You’ve heard the phrase. “History is written by the victors” and what I mean is that the reality shown in films is made by the man in charge. I’m thinking of that also in relation to Got At, because you can really see it in documentaries. With Got At, it just so happened that the powers-that-be made the woman talking to the class of girls look pretty ridiculous. Maybe she really was ridiculous and maybe not, but the power to depict her in that way was in the director’s hands.

This is also true of fiction films to some extent. Even with something that’s quasi-historical like JFK (1991), the director has a lot of power. Fifty years from now, the way in which the film has represented the assassination of President Kennedy is how people are going to remember it. I think there’s megalomania in filmmaking. I think that the power you have as a filmmaker to determine what is in there – who’s going to look good, who’s’ going to look bad – is pretty large, and Yackety Yack tries to examine that.

The other special thing about Yackety Yack is that the humour holds up even after repeated viewings over so many years.

I’m flattered that you think so.

A film we’re reminded of when watching Yackety Yack, which you may know, is Putney Swope (1969) directed by Robert Downey Sr. [9]

I think I saw it but I can’t remember a thing about it. Though it’s interesting that you make that comparison.

One of the lines I like in Yackety Yack happens after Maurice is really upset about something and says, “if you don’t stop competing with me, I’ll go back to France.” This is the line that establishes that he thinks of himself as a Frenchman. That strikes me as funny. I blew the Provence line and simply said Oregon. But even that sounds too French in itself. I should have said Oklahoma or Nebraska, something that was clearly American.

Why didn’t you reshoot it? At the symposium you mentioned you weren’t expecting Rod Nicholls [who plays the character Kiriolov] to speak with a Russian accent, so why not do another take?

I thought I told him just to be himself. Instead he came out with a Russian accent, which was a surprise, but I don’t think there was any sense of being able to reshoot anything. We didn’t have time or money to reshoot.

And what was the reason for shooting in black and white?

It was cheaper. The grants from the Experimental Film & Television Fund had a limit, around $5000, so I kept the budget low so I would get the grant.

I also didn’t want to get involved in a lot of complicated lighting and so we used 4X film stock, which was high speed and meant we could use simple lighting and wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time setting up. The lighting wasn’t really important in this film. We just needed enough to see what was happening.

Had you come directly from Stanford University when you took the teaching post at La Trobe University?

No. When I was at Stanford, a director from the Film Board of Canada would come down every year, the directors would rotate every six months and there was one guy who came and, because we had hit it off, he got me to go to Canada to work on a project. It was while I was in Montreal that Patricia Edgar wrote to me and suggested I apply for a position at La Trobe. I had known Patricia from her time at Stanford.

I had chances to come back to Australia but I just didn’t take them up. I was offered a job at Griffith University around the end of 1974 when I was back in Montreal, but I didn’t take it. Then I came out in 1985 for a couple of other job interviews, at Queensland Institute of Technology [10] to be a Head of Department, and at Mitchell College to be a Dean. I was offered both of them, but my son didn’t want to come. It was very difficult turning them down because I love Australia. But I have to acknowledge that Yackety Yack and the ACME group belong to a very particular time and place and wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere.

Because of the symposium you had an opportunity to make a sequel because all of the people involved in Yackety Yack were there together again.

We joked about making a film with Maurice as a senior citizen. I would be in an old age home and terrorize the people. And there would be the same characters and the same crew.


[1] Although the character played by John Flaus is called Steve, it is patently obvious when watching Yackety Yack that John Flaus is playing none other than John Flaus.
[2] Jerzy Toeplitz (1909-1995) was co-founder and director of the Lodz Film School in Poland, renowned for having spawned Roman Polanski. Toeplitz was in Australia in 1973 to take up the post as the first director of the National Film and Television Training School (later renamed the Australian Film and Television School). But his appointment was yet to be made official and so he was temporarily housed at La Trobe University’s Media Centre, at which time Dave Jones cast him as ‘the man in the street’.
[3] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (Ivan R. Dee, Inc., Chicago, 1990).
[4] Colin Bennett was the film critic for The Age at that time.
[5] The full title is Maidstone: A Mystery (Signet Library, New York, 1971), a book about the making of Maidstone, a film written, directed and produced by Norman Mailer. The book includes a complete script, production stills, and essays by Mailer.
[6] Peter Beilby, Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, Scott Murray and Keith Robertson formed the film company ACME after making Beginnings in 1969.
[7] Dr. Heinz Schutte came from the University of Kiel in Germany and joined the Department of Sociology at La Trobe University in 1969. He was a specialist in organisation theory and Third World countries.
[8] See also the essay “Mataungan: The Epic That Almost Was” by Ken Berryman published in this issue.
[9] Putney Swope is an anarchic comedy that pokes fun at white privilege, especially in the corporate world. The title character is a token African-American executive on the board of a top advertising agency. He is unwittingly elected chairman of the agency when, in a secret ballot, each member of the board votes for him assuming no other member will vote for him.
[10] The Institute was renamed Queensland University of Technology in 1989.