Panel Three: Film ferment: Yackety Yack With Dave Jones, John Flaus, Rod Bishop, Peter Carmody and Peggy Cole, chaired by Anna Dzenis
Anna Dzenis: Welcome to ‘Film Ferment’, our third panel in our Radical Beginnings: The Birth of Media and Cinema Studies at La Trobe University symposium. This panel focuses on the feature film Yackety Yack (1974), a film that was made here at La Trobe in the media studio, and this is a moment of great historical significance as we have the creative team and also the actors of this film all present here today. Dave Jones, all the way from Drexel University where he is Professor of Film and Dean of the Honorary Program, has come to be with us today to talk about the film. Dave is the writer and director of Yackety Yack and he also plays Maurice, the film’s central character. We have Peggy Cole, who plays Maurice’s love interest in the film, Peter Carmody, who people will know from the Carlton films and Carlton theatre work, and John Flaus, whom Patricia (Edgar) earlier called the ‘Father of Australian Cinema’. And of course we have Rod Bishop whose role was as assistant director, and Gordon Glenn who was the film’s cinematographer. It’s a pretty special occasion to have the whole creative team of Yackety Yack back here at La Trobe.
Let us start with Dave, followed by the others, telling us a little bit about themselves, how they came to La Trobe University and how they came to be involved in making the film Yackety Yack.
Dave Jones: Well, as Patricia mentioned this morning, we’d met at Stanford and I expressed an interest in seeing Australia. I then went up to Montreal and worked at the National Film Board (of Canada) where I had a screenwriting job. It was a freelance job and I knew it was going to end. But I got a letter from Patricia one day in which she explained that she was the Head of something called the Media Centre and invited me to apply for a job. I don’t remember exactly what it had said, but she did ask, “Do you want to apply?” And so I did. My wife was also very adventurous and so we left for Australia. The three years in Australia were really terrific for me and I owe it to Patricia inviting me to apply for the job.
As I’d mentioned last night, Yackety Yack was a script I’d written in the States that never got made. It was intended as a script that could be shot in basically one location in a week. When there was an opportunity here in Australia to apply for grants, I dusted it off and updated it, edited a few things, and sent it in for funding. That’s how the film came about.
Anna Dzenis: Thank you, Dave. John, would you like to tell us how you came to be at Latrobe and how you came to play Steve in Yackety Yack?
John Flaus: What was I doing here? How did I get to this place given that I grew up in inner city Sydney and was a blue-collar boy? I think I still hold the record at Sydney University for the longest time anybody has been in one faculty. It was 18 years before I got my degree. I wouldn’t have got it if Patricia hadn’t put pressure on that great scholar, Bill Maidment, who did lock me up in his house for six weeks so that I would get my thesis finished in the second year. Patricia had heard me sounding off at one of those conferences, a UNESCO Conference perhaps, about education and the arts, or something pointless like that, and whatever I had said must’ve impressed her.
What was my background? I looked at movies but had no idea at all I’d ever be able to participate in any kind of production. I left school in 1950. But in those years through the 1950s and into the 1960s, I entered into a very rich sub-culture, part of Australian cultural history that’s still underappreciated, which was the Film Society Movement – there were hundreds of different local film societies in many homes in this country. I put a lot of energy into that apart from working at various blue collar jobs and having four kids. And I published reviews. Someone did a count of them once and there were over 20 different publications I’d written film reviews for, and occasionally critiques. For me that brought an important distinction: you wrote the review for people who hadn’t seen the movie and you wrote the critique for people who had seen it. So, I’m doing that kind of thing and getting published from time to time, and having seen the ‘underbelly’ of academic life for 18 years, I suddenly got an offer from Patricia, “Maybe you could be on the teaching staff at a university?” Struth, well, that’s how I left Sydney. You’re looking at a real city boy. I didn’t have any friends, relatives, or anybody else who lived outside the inner city. I never spent a night outside the metropolitan area of Sydney until I was over 30 years of age, so to come to Melbourne was a cultural, geographical, and everything else shock. To work at a university above the line, not below it, wow, was that a shock! You’d think I would’ve lost all of my illusions about academic life but no. My ideas about scholarship came from Bill Maidment, the man who had imprisoned me so I’d get my thesis written – he was a true scholar. Yes, he was a man who would not lecture on anything until he had read everything that had been published on it, and then would go and deliver a lecture that was entirely original. Even though he never published and had no higher degree, he did rise to be a Professor at the University of Sydney, and staff with higher degrees and who were from overseas, would come and listen to his lectures because they knew they’d learn something. He was a model for me. I never achieved what Bill was able to do, but I knew some things about film. I was very keen about film and I had, during the late 1960s in Sydney, got to know some of the filmmakers who may or may not have wanted to be in an industry, if one had existed. There was already a screen drama industry and it was called television, but it was nobody’s dream, it seemed to me. It just seemed to be a situation where some people went into television because it was a job. Maybe I’m wrong about that.
Yes, I am an anarchist. What does that mean? It means that I respect organisation, but not authority and so I was in for a massive set of disillusionments when I came to this town, to this institution. But I still say, even with a working life that is pretty much over, the best boss I’ve ever had was Patricia Edgar because she’d question you first, “Well, what is it that you think you want to do?” And there would be a couple of other tough questions there. If you satisfied them, she’d say, “Right, go ahead”, and then she would cover you from the raft of the obfuscations at the university. Patricia would be the protection between you and those obfuscations. Of course, if you didn’t deliver what you promised, you got your arse kicked good and proper from her. But you deserved it. That was the kind of boss an anarchist can work for.
Now I had done one performance in front of a camera while in Sydney, and that was with Michael Thornhill who persuaded me to make an appearance as myself in his short film The American Poet’s Visit (1969). I remember saying to him, “Look, I never learn lines. I mean, I don’t act, except I play up in front of people. But I’m not an actor; I never learn lines.” And Michael said to me, “You’re not getting any lines. Just talk your usual sort of bullshit, and that’ll do”. That’s what we did for the American Poet’s Visit, which is a lovely little picture, whatever you think of my part in it. But I didn’t think I’d ever do any other acting and I didn’t think I would ever participate in the production of any other films.
But then Dave says to me that he wants to make this film and he thinks that I could be useful to him in it. Well, he had the technical people on staff and I thought, “Oh no, he wants me to act in it. I’ve got to learn lines!” Did he make us learn lines? Of course he will deny this, but I testify this to be true: we stuck to the script, so much so that when we get to the point where my character, Steve, disgustedly says to Maurice, “So, up yours!” Well, that was what the script said, and because we did more than one take – didn’t we Dave? – I said, “Up yours, Yank!” Dave says it’s not in the script. We had to do it again. That was a real education and I was learning madly from the beginning, but not about technical things. Scott terrified me with his discussion about choice of lenses. No, I didn’t get that far, but I learned some things and one of the things I learned was the psychological cross-currents that go on in a production. I realise now that can be true for a non-dramatic film as well. I was just learning so madly all the time that I was pretty well behaved, wasn’t I? I did what I was told nearly all of the time. I did one ad-lib and got caned for it, but other than that I was back to being this bright little kid at school, and every hour, every few minutes, there was something new that I didn’t know before. I loved it even though I didn’t know what it was going to look like. And I’ll tell you something else: looking at it again today would be about the seventh or eighth time I’ve seen this film and it gets better every time for me. So I’ve got to thank Dave because he started me on a career as an actor and I’ve come a long way from the time that I played Steve in Yackety Yack. This year I’m playing Vladimir in Waiting for Godot and I feel like there is a spiritual bond. There’s an umbilical cord between the two, between Dave Jones and Samuel Beckett.
Anna Dzenis: Peter Carmody played Zig in Yackety Yack. Can you tell us about how you came to be in this film.
Peter Carmody: I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this film. I’ve had a charmed life in a way, although I’ve had two lives. I was a boiler-maker for 11 years. In fact, I am the only boiler-maker I know with an Honours Degree in Arts. There maybe others given that David Williamson wrote Petersen(1974), a film in which Jack Thompson plays an electrician who goes to university. I once said to Williamson, “I think you based that on me”. He said, “You are the 24th person to claim that”. Maybe there are lots of other tradies that have made it through.
Anyway, I smashed my leg up in the Territory in 1963 and I was a mess for a while. I spent 12 months in hospital, and I noticed when I was reading biographies of artists that many of them tended to spend a lot of time in a hospital or in a sick bed at home. That sort of made me, in a way. I always read. When I was younger I had been a lifesaver with the Albert Park Life Saving Club. There were about 11 of us and we read everything. We’d go to parties with Toorak College boys and we’d out read them on whatever books they wanted to talk about. The thing was I couldn’t write. I couldn’t write an essay to save my soul. When I got out of hospital I was given a rehabilitation scholarship to go to Taylors Business College. Barry Humphries went there. Then I got two scholarships to Melbourne University from Taylors Business College, and I took a studentship which meant I would have to teach for three years.
My old man was the President of the Boiler Makers Union, so there were always communists in our kitchen. An old communist dragged me onto his knee one day and said, “Peter, the true measure of society is the degree of care by which it looks after its weaker members.” I’ve never heard anything better than that. So when I went to uni, because of my political background, I immediately joined every political club on campus. But because I’d worked as a boiler maker in the real world for 11 years, a lot of stuff that they were going on about just seemed to me to be sort of puerile. Then I noticed a bunch of guys in the Melbourne University café talking excitedly about John Wayne and John Ford. Now, the bunch of guys I used to hang around with at the Albert Park Life Saving Club, because we were all well read, we also used to go to Savoy in Russell Street, and it showed only foreign movies. We’d go and watch every Ingmar Bergman film they screened and we’d earnestly discuss them on the tram on our way home. I still love Ingmar Bergman.
But I couldn’t believe this bunch of guys at Melbourne University, arguing and laughing about films. They were just different from anybody else around, and I got sucked right into their group and the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS). Pretty soon I was sort of like a fascist for cinema, buying Cahiers du cinéma and rabbiting on about the auteur theory. We used to buy Cahiers du cinéma, translate articles into English and hand them out to students. We produced annotation on film three times a year. We put on a Carl Dreyer season, we put on a Japanese Film season, and it was the first Japanese Film season that had ever been presented in Australia. When we put that on, Collin Bennett was The Age film critic, and because nobody was coming to the Japanese season, I rang him up and I asked him to write about it. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll put an article in the paper”. We sold out the whole season the day that paper came out. Colin Bennett was very influential and MUFS ended up with 3000 members.
I was President of the Film Society at one point, I ended up as chairman of the Melbourne Film Festival’s Selection Committee. I’d come screaming in from St Auburns High School where I’d been teaching English all day and say, “Roll it Harry”. Harry would roll some movie and I had the job of saying, “This film belongs to the Blue Season and this film belongs to the Red Season. If you had a Truffaut film and a Godard film, you had to put the Truffaut in one season and the Godard in another season otherwise you would have had a riot on your hands …
Anna Dzenis: And how did you get to Yackety Yack?
Peter Carmody: It’s so hard for me to get my head around all of this. I am definitely working my way there …
Dave Jones: Betty Burstall had to be born first.
Peter Carmody: There should be a statue of Betty Burstall in a park somewhere; and I haven’t mentioned Brian Davies and there should be a statue of Brian Davies too, because Brian made sense of everything. If you asked him about comedy, he’d still be talking an hour later. He died of cancer. I get emotional talking about those days. Anyway, the acting in those films we made were so terrible that we all invaded Betty Burstall’s La Mama Theatre, which was basically a poetry joint, and then we started acting and we hoped that the acting would transfer from live performances into the cinema. That happened by and large and some really good films were made. Where I picked up Dave (Jones) in Queensberry Street today, just across the street was the site of Hey Al Baby (1969), a Dave Minter film, which is a pretty good one from the old Carlton days. Anyway, one night Kiffy Rubbo, who ran the Ewing Gallery at Melbourne University, Sue McKinnon, and my wife Anna, who was the Activities Officer, brought Dave to our place in Carlton. Anna cooked him a big meal – she’s a good cook – and we just had the best night. He doesn’t even remember it, or coming over with Kiffy and Sue. Anyway, it was that night that he asked me to be in the film. I really liked the cut of his jib, and still do, and that’s how I came out here to La Trobe. One thing I have to say about coming out here and working on Yackety Yack was that the friendliness of the whole project was just great.
Anna Dzenis: Peggy, how did you get to play Caroline in Yackety Yack? What are your memories of the film?
Peggy Cole: Well, I suppose after having played Caroline, I won’t speak for too long because I’m scared any minute someone is just going to turn off the microphone.
How I came to Yackety Yack was because at the time I was enrolled in a Diploma of Education here at La Trobe. I’d already been teaching science but realised I needed to get a DipEd if I wanted to continue doing that for much longer. I asked around a bit and heard that Doug White was running a fairly wonderful education program out here. But I have to tell you that the closest I came to holding a piece of chalk and being in front of a blackboard was when I was in Yackety Yack and had to write bleak Russian Attic, which didn’t really come in handy for my future teaching days. In fact, I avoided chalk and blackboards forever from that time onwards. Anyway, whilst doing this DipEd I chose as one of my options to do the film subject with Dave because I was very fascinated by film. It was a great film subject and from there Dave offered me the role of Caroline in Yackety Yack, possibly after he’d been through quite a few other people who I’m sure had rejected it. It was an adventure, and it also seemed to me a real chance to learn from really being involved in film production, rather than attending the odd seminar. It proved to be just that. I learnt an enormous amount. For that short period of time I felt I was in a very intense situation, learning so much from everybody who was involved in the film. It was really a most wonderful experience because I got to know these intellects and the knowledge they all had was pretty enormous. I really learned more about filmmaking and about film theory from just those couple of weeks working on the film than from the whole year in any other situation.
Over the years, a lot of people have asked me about the film and have said that it was a bit of a brave thing to do. I felt, just as other people here have mentioned, that there was enormous warmth on the set. It was like a family and I had to trust these people. I can assure you that taking my clothes off and going around naked in public was not a normal thing I did. The fact that Dave had assured me I would be treated with respect, and if at any time I felt I was having a problem, I’d just have to say the word, meant I really did trust all those chappies I was working with. They were really very respectful.
But, as I said, the most important thing was that I learnt so much and when I went on to eventually teach in schools – I taught at Brinsley Road Alternative School – I felt I had an interesting dual pathway through my teaching career. I finished up as a Palaeontologist somewhere along the way but I was teaching students film, drama and science, and at times I somehow brought those subjects together. This is probably the first time I’ve ever been able to say anything in public about Yackety Yack, and so I’d really like to thank Dave and all the other people involved in that film for giving me a fabulous opportunity to learn and to continue to use a lot of those skills.
Dave Jones: I just want to say that the reason Peggy was cast, besides the fact that she is beautiful and cool and courageous, was because she had actually made a very good film in my Super 8 film course, which is hard to do when you’re taking one three-hour course among several. She was a real film person interested in film. Peggy also mentioned the crew and Gordon Glenn and Rod Bishop are here and if we had enough space we could have them up here as well. But in mentioning the crew I what to say Peter Beilby was very important on the film, and I want to mention Keith Robertson also. One of the earlier panels mentioned Keith as having done a lot of graphic design work for Cinema Papers and other things. Well, he also designed the poster for Yackety Yack. He was a great graphic designer.
Anna Dzenis: Dave, I’m interested in the cinematic influences on Yackety Yack, the kinds of films you were referencing or thinking about while you were making the film because it really is a film about the cinema.
Dave Jones: Well, I think it’s kind of evident in the film that Godard was an influence. I was quite enchanted by the Godard of Masculin féminin (1966), La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967). After that, no. But it seemed to me that the way he was making films at the time was very liberating. I also wanted to parody it a little bit, but with respect. I was not trying to make fun of him because I really liked his work.
But I think the main influence was the group, like John Flaus. We would be talking about film all the time and a lot of the stuff in the film emerged from discussions with John, sometimes Scott Murray and Rod Bishop, and people like that. They also were quite involved in the Melbourne Film Festival, and so they dragged me into that. One thing I do remember well about being here at La Trobe in those days was a real intellectual excitement about film. There was Godard, but I was putting other stuff in and it really emanated mainly from the people around me at La Trobe at the time.
Anna Dzenis: You were teaching and also making this film, I’m interested to know if there was any overlap? Were people seeing bits of Yackety Yack in your classes?
Dave Jones: I’d never show it in a class.
Anna Dzenis: Not even out-takes, or for audience testing?
Dave Jones: Nope, that didn’t figure at all.
Anna Dzenis: So the teaching and the making of the film were quite separate, and what was it that Ian (Armet) said, that you would start at six o’clock at night …
Dave Jones: Well, we started at 6pm because Peter worked and he had to get here, and Ian worked full-time, and so we started at 6pm and would finish around 2am or 3am, and come back.
Anna Dzenis: Do we have questions? We have a very special opportunity here, so I’m going to field questions from the audience. Yes, Angie?
Angie Black: Mine is just a quick one, just how long was the production process?
Dave Jones: By my memory I think it was a week of shooting and then there was some pick-up shooting. But we shot a lot because when you shoot eight-minute scenes, once you get them done you’ve got a big of chunk of your film done. There were a lot of segments like that. The self-criticism session was one set-up and it didn’t take a lot of days to shoot, as I remember, but somebody else’s memory might be better …
Peter Carmody: All I remember is that when we used all the film on the table, that was the end of the movie. That’s right, isn’t Dave?
Dave Jones: Well, Gordon says he had a couple of rolls of 4X Positive film stock hanging around that we never used. He had it for years because who wants to use that anyway? We didn’t use it all. There was a little bit left.
Peter Carmody: So the film is too short then?
Dave Jones: Yeah, we could’ve made another five minutes.
Anna Dzenis: You mentioned to me that some of the post-production – the fingerprints over Caroline for example – was done by Gordon.
Dave Jones: He did it at my direction.
Anna Dzenis: At your direction? Does that mean you weren’t here when the film was released locally?
Dave Jones: No, I wasn’t. I edited the film but I just barely got it done.
Anna Dzenis: Who was responsible then for distributing the film?
Dave Jones: Well, maybe Gordon can answer that better than me. But I think Gordon cut the A and B rolls and then I talked to him about the fingerprints, and he put the fingerprints on the original. Then they just arranged for a screening. They did that and they sent me a copy of the print, but I don’t know if you can see the creases in it. And they sent the poster to me in the mail too. I’ve had that poster ever since 1974. It is hanging in my office at Drexel. I love the poster.
Anna Dzenis: So, Dave, when was the first time you saw the finished the film?
Dave Jones: They sent me a print that I showed to a bunch of people at the (National) Film Board. I remember doing that. So I had seen the fine cut and knew what was in the film. The only thing I hadn’t seen were the effects, like the fingerprints.
Gordon Glenn: There wasn’t very much to do. It was mostly just technical at the end, apart from the fingerprints, which were fairly easily done. Dave had left with just basic lab work to finish, really.
Dave Jones: Although I just thought of a question now. You know in North by Northwest (1959) when Cary Grant is standing out in the middle of the cornfield, at the crossroad, and there is this airplane going around dusting crops, and this farmer says, “That’s funny, that airplane is dusting crops where there ain’t no crops”. Well, I noticed at the screening last night that there are fingerprints at a moment where there is no Peggy. Did anybody notice that? It is near the end. All of a sudden fingerprints appear over clown heads or something. Did you just get tired, or what?
Gordon Glenn: Well, it is true that the people at the laboratory were intrigued by this film! But, on a more serious note, to go back to the question of distribution, Yackety Yack was not only shown at the Filmmakers Co-op, it was also on at the Play Box in the city. The Australian Film Institute (AFI) had some connection with that cinema and so the film got a mainstream release in its own way. I think it played for a couple of weeks there and got quite a lot of notice at the time. I remember it was reviewed in The Age and other mainstream papers. I don’t know where all of that material is now, or if anyone’s got it. But my role in the distribution was really just overseeing the screenings in a minor way.
Dave Jones: I think I did make $600 from the film eventually. You would send me money now and then.
Gordon Glenn: Well, the AFI took on the distribution and they had a print that would go out every now and again to a film school or somewhere and a trickle of money would come in to be converted into US dollars.
Peter Carmody: I recently read a review of the film from a 1981 publication in Sydney which said it was a classic of Australian underground cinema, and that the performances were engaging, especially the guy with all of the hair (Maurice).
Anna Dzenis: Dave, you have talked about a finished script, but you also talk about cooperative involvement of the others. How much of the script changed in that week of filming?
Dave Jones: While we did follow the script, I really did want the cast’s input and I tried to use what I knew about them. I knew that John could talk forever about film, and so I would use that where I could and I made Maurice somebody who didn’t like film freaks. Then, based on what would happen during one night’s shooting, it might change something for the next day’s shooting. Rod explained last night that, near the end, after some of the murders, when Maurice is looking at one piece of something, someone is trying to see the same thing but on a different plane. I don’t know where that came from, but it was probably Rod’s idea. It’s the scene where you can see the hands come in the frame as I chop somebody’s head off and blood comes out. I think the hands are throwing the blood and so, in the film, we then referred to the hands as a possible exculpatory piece of evidence. That would be an example of changing things each night, but they were usually fairly little things.
Anna Dzenis: How much shooting was involved in the tunnel scene?
Dave Jones: I’m pretty sure we got the tunnel scene in one take, is that correct?
Gordon Glenn: I think we did one rehearsal.
Dave Jones: One rehearsal, so we knew about how much time it would take. Did we re-shoot anything, Gordon? Can you remember?
Gordon Glenn: I don’t think so. If they were long scenes, we’d do a rehearsal so everybody knew what was happening and the camera knew what to do and then we’d just do it. How many of those did we do a night? That’s what I can’t remember. Did we do more than one?
Dave Jones: One, in some cases. I think we did do more if they were shorter. We might’ve done all of the suicides in one night. I’m not sure.
Peter Carmody: I don’t think enough has been said about those suicides. I thought the performance, the acting, of all those guys you brought in, was just terrific. It’s a surprising film really given the fact they had no experience.
Dave Jones: They really weren’t supposed to act.
Peter Carmody: I probably had the most acting experience but I didn’t feel that I was a dominating acting force. There is a nice evenness about the performances, even down to those guys who we bumped off.
Dave Jones: Yeah, but I actually didn’t want them to act. I think Andrew Miller (as Mishima) was one of them, then Doug White (as Socrates), and I was actually taken aback when Rod Nicholls (as Kiriolov) came in and did his Russian accent. I really felt like shooting him! But what I mean is that I didn’t feel like I knew how to really make a film. I didn’t learn anything at Stanford, frankly. I learned a lot more about film from this group here. I had never directed actors and I didn’t quite know how to get continuity. My point is that I wanted to approach the film in a way that I didn’t have to know all of that stuff. That it would be okay if the acting wasn’t great, or people screwed up their lines. Maybe the way Doug and Andrew have come off is appropriate for the film, but I don’t know if they were really acting. You could tell Doug was obviously thinking, “What am I doing here?”
Peter Carmody: Maybe it has something to do with you being an American and having a different rhythm. I tend to have a very fast rhythm. If there’s nothing happening I feel like I have to jump in to fill the space. Whereas you’re amazing Dave – some of your pauses in that film are just exactly right. They seem to go on forever, but it never gets boring and you never think that you’ve lost your way. I’m quite knocked out by that. Maybe that pausing is an American thing.
Dave Jones: Yeah, maybe.
Robert Newton: I have a question for Dave. Peter (Carmody) mentioned David Williamson’s film Petersen that 24 people thought they were ‘It’. How many people have approached you and said, “That film is about me?”
Dave Jones: I don’t think they’d dare. Because if it was about me, then I’m not somebody you’d want to talk to. Right? Or did I misunderstand your question?
Robert Newton: Yeah, but they might’ve been annoyed that there was a film about them, rather than proud that there was a film about them. Were there any people who thought you were setting them up in any way?
Dave Jones: I don’t think people feel I’m like that, do they? I don’t know? But of course there is a little bit of you in anything you do. You draw on things you know about yourself, or feel about yourself and so, in a way, there are some things of me in Maurice. Let’s say narcissism, neuroticism, greed, selfishness, I have some of all of that, but I see Maurice as somebody I really wouldn’t want to be like.
Peter Carmody: Or even near.
Dave Jones: Or even near. But it’s not just me, I think lots of people draw on the things they have. We all have these dark sides.
Anna Dzenis: How many people did you audition for Maurice before you settled on using yourself to play the role?
Dave Jones: There was at least one I remember. He was a good actor. I may have seen him in Measures Taken. I’m not sure where I’d seen this guy, but I sent him the script and he said he didn’t understand that it was meant to be funny. I felt this wouldn’t work. I think it really wouldn’t have worked as a serious film. It could work only if you felt it was kind of hopefully funny and so I just figured I had to do it. I was very nervous about it and I am not an actor and I’m not that type.
John Benson: I’d like to ask about the scene with Jerzy Toeplitz and what were his comments or thoughts about the film when it was done?
Dave Jones: I really wouldn’t know. I never heard, but I don’t think he would’ve liked it.
John Benson: How did you con him into appearing in it?
Dave Jones: I didn’t have to con him. I share Ina’s feeling about Jerzy Toeplitz. I think Ina Bertrand and I were the only La Trobe people who actually went to his lectures. I went faithfully for week after week, taking notes and wanting to learn, and then I suddenly realised, “I’m not learning anything. He’s a drone”. I probably learned stuff from him that helped me as a teacher later and I had to be careful about. Don’t assume that kids love the films you grew up with; you have to figure out how to reach out and get to them. But Jerzy agreed to do the film and I really respect him for his willingness to put up with it. I didn’t tell him much about what I was going to do, just that there was going to be an unscripted scene where I was to ask him questions. He was very good about it and I liked him very much for that. If you noticed, he really did get the better of me in that scene. That’s why I put in those sound effects, partly to drown it out a little bit because otherwise the character of Maurice would’ve looked too wimpy. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think he understood the film, or would’ve liked it.
Anna Dzenis: Ian Armet is here and I think would like to tell us something about his experience of working on Yackety Yack.
Ian Armet: Dave would give me a lift home because he lived in the same direction as I lived. I remember one night he dropped me off in Grimshaw Street at three o’clock in the morning and I had a couple of blocks walk down the street to my place. The police pulled up soon after – they were the night patrol – and they asked, “And where are you off to?” I said, “I’m just heading home; I’ve been working”. They asked, “Where do you work?” and I said, “At La Trobe Uni”. It took quite a lot of convincing to convince them that I actually had been working and was on my way home at three o’clock in the morning. It didn’t seem to go down well when I tried to explain to them the film that I was working on.
Another thing I remember are the chickens that Dave organised with the local fruit shop owner to bring in for the film. When he heard that they were for Dave’s film, he brought his best chickens and he was pretty upset by the end of the night.
Dave Jones: That’s the one thing I really regret. I was so ignorant. This guy was a Maltese immigrant, a really nice guy who ran a milk bar out at Diamond Creek where I lived. I knew he had a little farm there with some chickens and so I hired him to bring in a crate of chickens. I didn’t have the intelligence to know that chickens have feelings too. But I also didn’t explain what I needed the chickens for. I didn’t know that there were different kinds of chicken, like good chickens and bad chickens, and so he brought his good chickens, his best chickens, his prettiest chickens, because they were going to be in a movie. Anyway, he was there with his chickens and we put them in the studio and the chickens started to get really upset. They were shitting all over the place and I don’t know what else. It was really sad and he was in tears a little bit. I feel extremely guilty and irresponsible for that happening. I bought him new chickens and he forgave me and we remained friends. But it was an unfortunate thing because of my ignorance. I didn’t know that chickens would get upset being in a movie. Everybody wants to be in movies, why don’t chickens?
Peggy Cole: We should make it clear that one of the chickens was already dead.
Dave Jones: Yes, the chicken that John thrashes me with was already a dead chicken. We didn’t kill a chicken on purpose.
Peter Carmody: It made it on to the poster!
Dave Jones: Yeah, I guess it has an immortal life.
Anna Dzenis: At what point did you know that there were going to be chickens in your film?
Dave Jones: I don’t know, really. I just felt the film needed something at a certain point, and maybe the egg cartons (lining the studio) gave me the idea. If there are egg cartons; we might as well have chickens. The egg cartons were there because we were trying to keep the sound and the echo down. They weren’t always in that studio. Somebody mentioned this morning that they had the impression they’re always there, but we put up all the egg cartons to soften the bounce of the sound to make it easier on us, or freer, so we wouldn’t have to have the microphones right up to our faces all the time.
Peter Carmody: I had actually been watching some cinema vérité just before we made this movie. Who is the famous director who got cinema verité going?
John Flaus: Jean Rouch, you mean?
Peter Carmody: Yeah, Jean Rouch. He came out to Melbourne University and showed his film (Chronique d’un été). There’s a scene in it of these American sailors talking to a Jewish girl, and Rouch says to them, “What do you think that number is on her wrist?” One of the sailors says, “Maybe it’s her telephone number,” and Rouch says to the girl, “Tell him what it is.” She says, “It’s my concentration camp number,” and then the camera goes zing, straight onto the faces of the American sailors. I really didn’t like that because it’s like setting people up for a Candid Camera type of thing. But Keats said, ‘Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.’ There’s no doubt that the camera catches the truth of the sailors’ feelings about this girl having been a prisoner of the Nazis. I have never forgotten that scene and I suppose it was in my head a lot when we were making Yackety Yack. It might be an absurd premise, but it was in my head a lot as an actor performing in the film and why my character is so grim all the time. That grimace is part of my attempting to get that truth factor in the performance.
Dave Jones: Well, you just reminded me of something. I mentioned that I wanted John Flaus to capitalise on his prolixity, if that’s the right word, and his knowledge of film, and with Peter I could tell he was frustrated, and so we worked in a couple of scenes like the one where Peter attacks the wall and starts clawing up, trying to get out of the film, because he had that kind of energy. It was a nice contrast to me. John has energy too, but he is more placid, while Peter is more wound up. I tried to use that contrast, and now I wish I’d used it more.
Peter Caromdy: Yeah, I would have been the guy on the lifeboat saying, “I’ve got to get out of here”.
Anna Dzenis: Was the film shot in sequence?
Dave Jones: No, it wasn’t shot in sequence.
Anna Dzenis: You mentioned that all the murders took place in one night.
Dave Jones: I think it would’ve made sense to just bring in one after another.
John Flaus: But I’ve got a memory of Rod Nicholls going crook about the chooks. He exhibited some concern about the welfare of the chooks.
Dave Jones: For the chickens?
John Flaus: Yeah.
Dave Jones: He wasn’t there when we had chickens, was he?
John Flaus: He wasn’t then. Well, this could be something I have dreamed since.
Dave Jones: It could be. I have dreams and nightmares about the film actually.
Peter Carmody: What was that nightmare you were telling us about last night?
Dave Jones: I have a recurring nightmare about this film every seven or eight years. In this nightmare, I am showing the film to everybody I know, everybody who works with me, my family, my kids, everyone, and in the dream I actually go around naked and then really kill people. Then when the film is over everybody just stares at me. That’s the Yackety Yack nightmare. I don’t know if it makes any sense to you, but it’s just horrible.
Anna Dzenis: Have you screened the film to your students?
Dave Jones: No, I haven’t. I feel there are 10,000 things I don’t like and could’ve done better, and some things are embarrassing. I admit that.
Peter Carmody: One of my ex-students, Tyler Cotton is his name, came up to me in George Street one day and said, “Hey, I just saw you in this weird film called Yackety Yack. It was on at the Bondi Pavilion”. He’s the American by the way and he had been a student of mine at night, and I asked, “What did you think Tyler?” And he said, “It was really hard to tell because the projector blew up halfway through it.”
Anna Dzenis: Something follows this film around! John, did you ever show or teach Yackety Yack to your students?
John Flaus: No, I didn’t use it, but after that time I didn’t have too many opportunities to use it. I wasn’t teaching film analysis or anything on a regular basis after I left La Trobe. In 1974 we had all of these other things going on in preparation for the first year of Cinema Studies in 1975. But I didn’t ever teach fulltime in a course anywhere after that. However, I started to become an actor. Look what the film’s done to me! I want to ask Gordon something about the exhibition history of Yackety Yack. Didn’t that have a few nights at the Bug House (Carlton Movie House) in Carlton at a late show in the late 1980s?
Gordon Glenn: I think it did. It was at a special late show and, as Rod just told me, it was a special screening connected with Film Buffs’ Forecast.
John Flaus: Yes, we talked about it on the radio show, but as far as I know there wasn’t any organising agreement with the Bug House. Maybe Paul set something up and didn’t tell me – that could’ve happened.
Dave Jones: I can remember one show and the only reason I remember it is because I happened to be in Australia for a couple of job interviews in another state. But since I was coming to Australia I thought I would come down to Melbourne and see some of my old friends. Just by chance, it so happened Yackety Yack was showing at the Carlton Movie House, one of their midnight screenings, and I so wished I had a camera because the marquee had Apollo 13(1970), followed by Annie Hall (1977) and then Yackety Yack. Man! It wouldn’t have been bad to have a shot of that. It was a midnight screening and there were a bunch of people there. I think John was there, and other people and we had a Q&A session afterwards. It was just probably one of a very few screenings the film ever got.
Robert Newton: John, since we’re looking at the history of the centre and all that was going on here, when Cinema Studies started, somehow that was the end of you and your academic teaching. Have you any comments on that changeover?
John Flaus: I would’ve liked to stay. Ian Mills shared the lectures with me in the inaugural year and I designed the course. I would’ve stayed on, except the National Film and Television School was opening up the following year, 1976, and I, being greatly na•ve, expected there was a new age for film culture about to begin in this country. I applied for the job as Education Officer at the National Film and Television School and so I left La Trobe. I left reluctantly because I loved to have stayed and nursed the course for a while. But then there were all these formidable people, like Sam Rohdie, coming in and so I wasn’t needed. As it turned out, I wasn’t needed in Sydney either. My job up there was not to teach. In fact, Jerzy made sure that I didn’t have contact with the students, and that I was to organise educational activities around the country. I didn’t last long at that and my career as an academic pretty much came to an end soon after. Apart from occasional lectures, which I still do, I haven’t worked in a film course in 30 years.
Anna Dzenis: Dave, Ina mentioned this morning a film screening program for which you were very active in bringing Australian filmmakers to La Trobe. Was that a public screening program?
Dave Jones: No, what Ina mentioned this morning was the Australian film course, which, because of another one of those grants we got for having Jerzy Toeplitz here, we were about to do a course in Australian film based on bringing filmmakers to La Trobe. I had organised that and we invited Gill Brealey, Peter Weir, Tim Burstall, Bert Deling and Nigel Buesst, a range of different types of filmmakers. We only had so much money and we put together a mix of local filmmakers and people we’d fly in from Sydney.
Anna Dzenis: And was that open to the public as well?
Dave Jones: We did make it public alongside having people who were taking course. We advertised and we got pretty good crowds.
John Flaus: I can remember having a stand up row with Tim Burstall. I said to him, “Why don’t you use two shots?” And he said, “There are a lot of two shots in my film.” We ran a bit of it again, it must’ve been Stork (1971), and they were all over the shoulder shots. So, I’m saying, “Look, in a two shot both of your characters have to be in focus so they can be seen and assessed by an audience.” He didn’t have any, but Tim kept screaming, “There’s a two shot! There’s a two shot!” And it’d be over the shoulder, you know, there was only one person you could see. I can remember… so that disrupted one of those activities Dave, but it followed the film. It didn’t come before it.
Peter Carmody: Do you know Nigel thought he’d killed Tim? He died during the screening of the first reel of The Kid. He was up at Eltham with his wife Betty and he just sort of had this massive heart attack and died. I heard about it on the radio and as soon as I found out, I rang Nigel and said, “Burstall’s dead”, and Nigel said, “Yeah, I know. I think it’s my fault”. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, he was here last night and at midnight says, “Crack another bottle of red, Buesst”. Nigel thinks he done Tim in with bottle of red he gave him.
John Flaus: There was a film made in the early 1970s at the old Swinburne College when it was in Hawthorn years ago, 11 minutes long, by Greg Dee called George and Needles (1972), a title some here will recognise. I can remember screening it here at La Trobe when Jerzy Toeplitz was on staff and I asked him to come in and have a look at it. He sat through it, but he couldn’t take it and said after, “It is not a film. It is not a film.” I was trying to say, “Hey, here is one of the most important events on film in this country”. Am I the only person in this room who believes that? You must have seen George and Needles? Well, there’s a recommendation for people who haven’t. But I don’t know where it is these days.
Rod Bishop: Recently there have been a couple of films from this period re-released on DVD. Pure Shit (1975) was released as a fabulous three-disc set, and the same company and the same person, Neil Foley, has just released Journey Among Women (1977). This is a question really to John. Apart, from Yackety Yack, what other feature films from this particular period do you think would warrant that kind of treatment and would stand up well under a DVD or Blu-Ray release?
John Flaus: Going Down (1982), but that’s a few years later. That’s eight years after Pure Shit.
Scott Murray: That’s out on DVD already.
John Flaus: It’s out, is it? Oh, good-o.
Rod Bishop: He is doing Palm Beach now.
John Flaus: Is he indeed? A very important film, maybe the only feature film in the history of cinema, realistic in style, in which every scene is shot as a sequenced take and all the dialogue improvised by the actors.
Rod Bishop: With an extremely good lead actor in it.
John Flaus: Though they did cut up the party scene subsequently, but it was all shot that way. I can remember talking to Andrew Sarris and asking him if he knew of any film that met such a description. He said, “No such film exists”, and I said, “We did it here in Australia in 1980”. He kind of walked away and didn’t believe me because no one in Australia told him about it. But that is 1980. Rod, you are asking about the early 1970s really, aren’t you?
Rod Bishop: Yeah, and I guess I’m also wondering about whether there is a PhD in career-ending features. Pure Shit in a way qualifies as a sort of career-ending film.
John Flaus: Yeah, But he did make another one, Dead Easy (1982).
Rod Bishop: Yes, he did make Dead Easy. But Dave has not made another feature and Albie Thoms has not made another feature, and yet films like Yackety Yack and others have been so good. Why has this industry and country not been able to support such talent?
John Flaus: Do you want a long answer from me? Because we’ve only got until darkness falls.
Rod Bishop: I think the long answer.
John Flaus: Because film culture in this country increasing slides into decadences and there is no respect for the past. Admittedly, some of those films were made without respect for their past but once they became the past for others, then without a tradition we are the prey to fashion. I think our feature film industry has been lurking around and leaping from one fashion to another, and that increasingly those outlets in the media, the practitioners, which have an influence on the public, are increasingly ignorant of this subject. That’s actually the short answer.
Rod Bishop: And you wouldn’t put any blame on the film funding agencies?
John Flaus: Oh, struth, what are we going to say about this? About where we were at the beginning of the 1970s with the Experimental Film Fund, just after Whitlam came to power. I’m not referring to the official statement of what the Experimental Film Fund intended to do, which is pretty close to a policy statement, whereas what it used to really do was have the provision of resources so that creative individuals could make whatever it was they felt they needed to make, to find within themselves whatever they had, or to find in the society around them something of interest to others. It was changed. It became a showcase of talent for the industry and that was the end of it, and that was the end of the Whitlam years as well. We know what happened then. The various government agencies authorised to put money into production or into development for production were increasingly dominated by career bureaucrats, or by people whose mindset and training was in television, not in movies.
Rod Bishop: I want to continue along this line a bit because I found that when I was at the Film School, there was all this gnashing of teeth about what’s happened to the national industry and that people were attacking the film schools, amongst other targets, for what was wrong with the industry. But reflecting on what we’ve been talking about today, which is the provision of a Media Centre within this university that allowed talent to come in and use the gear and actually get things done, a bit like an academic film co-operative, my feeling as I’ve watched filmmakers go through the AFTRS is that they make a first feature and then they are gone, and even at RMIT where we had a couple of students, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, whose first feature was Saw (2004) and they made $50 million, but they left the country and they hardly made a film here. I’ve watched other talent do the same thing. Part of me gets the feeling that the people who are in charge of making the decisions about initial funding – which is very important because once you’ve got initial government support for a feature you’re able to attract other money – is that they do not follow up. Despite what people say about why our films should not be funded, that we’re making films nobody wants to see, somebody still has to put in the initial investment to get the rest of the money going, and with the size of the population in our country, to me that should be the agencies. But as in the case of Bert, Albie and Dave, although Dave is an exception because he went back to America, why when talent is produced that it’s never followed-up on? Instead of being a country of second chances, as Tim Burstall once said, it seems to be a country of first features, and once you’ve made your first feature, whether it’s good or bad, the agencies don’t seem to know you anymore.
Peter Carmody: Can I say something? Hollywood has the chequebook, doesn’t it? So, just speaking theatrically for a moment, if someone is a knockout on Broadway, they’re not going to be there in a couple of months. Hollywood will swallow them up. Hollywood is always going to have a bigger chequebook than producers in Australia. When we get a real talent in Australia, whether it’s an actor, cameraman or a director, pretty soon they’re going to be drawn away.
Dave Jones: Yeah, some of the filmmakers we brought to the film screenings and seminars that we had here at La Trobe, people like Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi, are also examples of very talented filmmakers who then went to Hollywood too. Part of the problem would be that they go to a more lucrative market.
John Flaus: What’s lucrative? Your budgets are bigger, so you’ve got more opportunity, but is that what it’s about, or something else? There are two policy statements from our National Film and Television School, prior to the time that Rod was there, in which Jerzy Toeplitz said that what he expected to find from the years he was to spend there was a Roman Polanski in the Southern Hemisphere. Now that wasn’t questioned by senior bureaucrats in Canberra, certainly not by the Treasurer, and the staff at the Film and Television School, both academic and administrative, were always looking over their shoulder at Canberra. I don’t know whether you were able to change that Rod, but that’s what it was like in the early years. They didn’t challenge the notion that maybe in four years we could find another Polanski. But when Jerzy left and someone else took his place, and there was a new Board and so on, I remember putting to the Board an article Barrett Hodsdon wrote for Cinema Papers in the early 1970s, asking what are we to expect from the feature film industry in Australia if we get one? Here’s our choice: we either aim at something like being the next little Hollywood, or maybe we should follow the Swedish film industry where any film made by Ingmar Bergman will circulate the world and every city that is large enough to have one art house cinema is going to show it. The investors in that type of film are going to get their money back within two years. That is what Barrett Hodsdon had written in that article and it was tabled for the Board or Council at Film and Television School. It was declined. They wouldn’t read it. But what are they after? What has happened from Jerzy’s time to the next change of regime is that the powers that be want to get their money back quickly and they want to sell a film industry to an Australian public whose taste has been determined by American filmmakers. I don’t want to attack the Americans, because in this country our bigger battle, both in literature and the dramatic arts from 1950 up to 1970, was against the Brits, and we had all of these wanna-be Brits crawling around this country strangling the ABC and various other organisations. We had to shake those off our clothes, and then by the time we did, the wanna-be Yanks were in. Between the two, our search for an Australian identity usually turned out to be sentimental and shallow.
Ina Bertrand: In AFI Awards this year there were 26 Australian films and the one I really wanted to vote for wasn’t even in the awards and that was Four of a Kind (2008). While people are making films like Four of a Kind or Samson and Delilah (2009) for quite different reasons, for film reasons rather than social reasons I think we’re doing very well and I think people who continually knock the industry are contributing to its problems.
John Flaus: Ina, if I’m knocking the present industry it’s in order to hopefully shake it up so that films like Four of a Kind get made. I thought the four principal players in that film should all have been nominated in the awards. I am no supporter of awards, but I thought all four deserved a nomination at least. They were great. But what I want is a shake up because the present system doesn’t even admit Four of a Kind into the award system.
Ina Bertrand: So why didn’t you write something for The Age, instead of letting Jim Schembri have the field to himself?
John Flaus: Because those bustards know who I am and they’re not going to give me a job writing for them. I thought everybody would know that, actually.
Peter Carmody: But Ina’s right, there have been some really good films this year, like Blessed (2009), a marvellous movie by Ana Kokkinos.
Anna Dzenis: Do you see Yackety Yack as an Australian film?
Dave Jones: Yeah, it is Australian. I’m the only Yank involved. I couldn’t have made it without all the Australians and I could only have made it here.
Anna Dzenis: I mentioned to you that Bill Mousoulis’s wonderful independent filmmakers database <http://www.innersense.com.au/mif/> has you, Dave Jones, listed as an Australian independent filmmaker.
Dave Jones: I feel honoured to be called an Australian filmmaker.
Anna Dzenis: I’d like to thank you very much for an amazing film and all of you for coming together for this particular event.
Dave Jones: Thanks for bringing us.