Showpiece of an Oz film festival held in London a couple of weeks ago. Spawning, amongst other things, a FB page for those who love nothing more than reciting bits of the movie at each other. “She say cat be dead. Is cat dead?” posts fan. Thirteen other fans respond in like manner.
You can understand why. This 1994 movie Bad Boy Bubby is astonishing. This statement for a UK film festival by the director, Rolf de Heer is revealing. (The original source is a defunct website.)
I wanted to make a film about childhood, about the importance of being loved as a child. Previous research for an aborted project about serial killers had taught me that almost without exception serial killers had had some form of deprived childhood. Is this then an indication that perhaps the single most important thing we can do is to love our children without abuse? The film became for me, a plea for childhood.
It also became for me a film about the way we judge people…usually by superficial appearances, almost always arbitrary societal or ethnocentric standards. Often wrongly or unfairly… Bubby has only met one other person in his life, on whom he is completely dependent. He has a very narrow value system, but one that is uncorrupted by TV, radio, books, pictures. He is uncorrupted by the pressure to conform, by aspiration. He has no real basis for comparison, therefore no real basis for making judgments about people. In that sense he is a complete innocent.
Using Bubby’s non judgmental view of the world I was then able to begin to explore parts of it. The film is a mere perambulation through random aspects of people and society and in so doing begins to form some pictures of the whole.
The world is funny and tragic, ugly and beautiful, spiteful and forgiving, loving and hateful, honest and hypocritical. That’s also how Bubby finds it, and how it deals with him. The world or rather the people within it teach Bubby how to be…he learns from them how to behave. It is much the same in the real world…how each of us deal with another helps determine how that other will be.
It became a film about appearances, What is beautiful? What is ugly? To whom? In what circumstances? What is Innocence? What is Guilt?
It also became a film about belief systems…spiritual, religious, scientific, interpersonal…and how by clinging to them in order to try to make sense of the world, we are actually prevented from making sense of it.
But mostly it became a film about questions rather than answers. It is a film that asks questions about the way we perceive the world and those in it, and how we lead the viewer to ask those same questions themselves.
Much of the preceding may sound somewhat serious and of high purpose. Perhaps it is, but forgiveness is sought in the form of entertainment. In a mass medium such as cinema high mindedness can be unforgiveable if it is not also entertaining. That’s what I attempted to do with ‘Bad Boy Bubby’… ask some questions that ought to be asked occasionally but ask them in a way that might give real pleasure to at least some in the audience. In that I think I’ve succeeded……….
Bad Boy Bubby is the first feature film in the world to be recorded in binaural sound. A pair of minituarised radio microphones and transmitters were built into the wig worn by Nicholas Hope. This way each scene was recorded in stereo, all from the perspective of the main character.
On set this forced a completely different approach to sound. Instead of trying to eradicate the usual exterior – to – the – scene sound we encouraged them, even supplemented them by doing things such as opening doors and turning machines on. The result is a beautiful, true stereo soundtrack, which sounding unlike any conventional soundtrack serves the film well.
Another innovation on Bad Boy Bubby was the use of different directors of photography to shoot different scenes. Once the character of Bubby reaches ‘outside’ we had a different DOP for every location until the last third of the film – allowing a fresh slant on everything Bubby sees for the first time.
The final result is surprisingly coherent (no DOP was able to refer to the work of the other DOP’s) and speaks volumes for both the expressiveness of the script and the abilities of the 31 DOP’s.
Rolf de Heer is the only director I know of working now, who does exactly has he pleases in his movies. He gets the funding he wants – partly because he never wants much – and is in no way obliged to that money. Coincidentally we are watching a Cassavetes retrospective in Geneva at the moment and Cassavetes is another who did exactly as he pleased as a director. He funded his movies himself and was beholden to nobody financially.
Cinema Papers’ October 1994 edition pp.74-5 had interviews with both de Heer and the movie’s star, Nicholas Hope. Interviewer is Andrew L. Urban.
The power and veracity of Bad Boy Bubby may incline audiences to imagine its creator, Rolf De Heer to be a weedy, bitter, introverted misfit with a hideous childhood. This is not so. He is a tall, good looking, long haired and bearded young man with a happy family background and a childhood in Indonesia that he describes as “revolutions and tigers in the jungle”: …”My childhood was interesting and varied”, he says. “It was a supportive family”…
Neither autobiographical nor born out of observing a particular person, Bad Boy Bubby is all the more surprising for its searing vision. Where did it come from? What were the influences that shaped it?.
There were lots of little influences that made the film what it is. One influence was an actor I saw in his 30’s playing a man in his 70’s at NIDA. We decided to make a film together-but it didn’t happen so I think he’d rather remain anonymous. Anyway the idea of him playing an old man in a room occasionally venturing out appealed. But it wasn’t cinematic, which is why I abandoned it, and moved beyond it…to me observing and feeling things
How did it progress?
The idea was to make a very low budget film, in which I could say and do anything: complete creative freedom, really trying to be bold and brave. I toyed with that for a few years, and it became the sort of script I never thought I’d make. But it was very liberating to do. I built a set of cards on which I’d write the ideas. Then I got to the point where I needed some money, so I needed to do a script quickly. By then I was in South Australia and I thought I’d apply to what was then Film South to develop the script.
How much of the central elements were in your head at that stage?
Well I had a beginning well formed and the rest was less so. But the ideas had been with me for ten years, so when I sat down to write it it was quick, easy and the most pleasureable writing experience I’ve ever had.
What sort of film were you aiming to make?
I still wanted to make a film about music and perceptions and judging people too easily. Hypocrisy goes hand in hand with judging people too easily. The central character was well formed and I drove IT, more than it drove me. Also my views on television are not complimentary, so the film intends to be subversive about television.
Through Bubby’s eyes we can see how ridiculous television can be.
The way we’re getting visually educated by the 30 second grab is unfortunate. Something goes out of our culture.
There are tough things in the film, ’cause it’s a film, not television……OK, a few people will walk out in the first half hour. It was a question of how far we could go without alienating the audience.
Yes it’s tough at times and there are things you don’t want to see, but that gives way to something special. How would you describe Bad Boy Bubby as a film to someone who knew nothing about it, who hadn’t seen it?
What I wanted to come out of it was compassion, to move people in every possible way, with humour, shock, appreciation of beauty.
There is certainly compassion in the scenes between Bubby and Rachel, the girl suffering from cerebral palsy, when they are falling in love. It’s quite an extraordinary part of the film.
I wanted to show that he has no references to the world; his view of what is beautiful is different, so he can find someone beautiful who we would not normally call beautiful.
You know there are cycles of abuse which generate more abuse… abused children, for example, often become abusive parents. I wanted to say that with enough love and attention the cycles can be broken. He loves her for what she is, not what she looks like.
Certainly what Bubby endured for 35 years was abuse of a unique kind. what sort of childhood did you have?
My parents are Dutch, and they have a great love of children in different ways. I have strong memories of my father, who is not very sociable, yet spending hours winning over the confidence of a small child. So I have a deep appreciation of children and childhood – that’s one of the reasons why Bubby was made. It’s about letting people have a childhood.
Where do you think this film fits into Australian cinema?
It’s neither consciously or unconsciously Australian. It began to come to me when I was living in places like Pyrmont and Ultimo in Sydney – and several of the scenes were conceived for Sydney locations. So it grew like that. But you have to remember, the process was distilled for ten years and then was very intense for eight weeks while I actually wrote the script.
It is certainly unlike any other Australian film, and it is a film that I imagine would lose something if viewed on the small screen of television
Well, the words “IS IT CINEMA?” were written on one of the main cards that I stuck to the wall.
And what is cinema? What is your answer to the card?
My answer to it is: partly instinct, and it goes into art and circus. Circus is about passion and larger ideas and philosophy and exploring society in a direct way. In fact, it’s as commercial as a film with a bigger budget. I insisted on a low budget to make it more commercial.
And here is Nicholas Hope, talking about, amongst other things, a scene I had my eyes closed for.
Like De Heer, Hope was seven when his family migrated to a new land, in Hopes case from Manchester, England to Whyalla, South Australia. The youngest of four children Hope “had a wonderful time” growing up in a working class family that eschewed the sports field for the library every weekend. “We were limited to half an hour of TV a day”, he says, “and I remember getting into trouble at school for reading too much. It was considered a sign of weakness”. He had read Dostoyevsky by the age of twelve, but it was not until he became an adult that he recognised the benefits of “having a literary base”.
Ironically Hope was on the dole by the time we met to talk about the film…
The first thing I have to ask is what does a cockroach taste like?
I actually had my mouth full of chocolate…a slight peanuty taste, though. Rolf ate one to convince me to do it.
Is that what convinced you?
Um, probably not, actually. But it showed me he wasn’t asking me to do something he wouldn’t do himself… When we got to do it, it was under controlled circumstances. First, there would be only one take. Second the cockroach came from a lab of some kind so it was clean and healthy. Third, it made sense in the context of the film, so I suffered a minor discomfort though it was more mental than physical.
What about Bubby? How did you create his character?
First, I read the script a lot of times. Then for me physicality is a key thing. That starts to inform the character, while he’s not autistic, I felt that elements of autism would help create him, so I watched videos and read about autism. It’s a way of walking mostly.
I also read case histories of a couple of children who were brought up in the wild – wolf children, as it were, with no experience of civilisation. There are similarities, but they are more animalistic. I also decided that the cat was new in his life, and, as he tends to mimic everything, he’d be influenced by that. So I went to Claire’s (co star-Claire Benito) and watched her cats – she has about 20 of them. I also discovered that people left to themselves tend to become introspective.Then I worked out what his function is – he’s a conduit for the audience – and that really informs how you play each scene. To build and sustain that proved intense and exhausting, but less difficult than I anticipated.
What were your first reactions to the script?
The script was fantastic: non-compromising, passionate and compassionate, I was really scared and really excited. But I accepted the idea that I was another risk in a low budget movie. Then it grew more scary when we got the money to do it ‘for real’.
How did De Heer find you ?
I did a 20 minute short called Confessor Caressor by Tim Nicholls, which Rolf saw.
Now this! It’s a bit of a worry. Where do I go from here? I’ve already had my Nirvana!!
How would you describe Bad Boy Bubby in shorthand?
I’d say it’s a modern Frankenstein. Bubby is the outsider. But it’s also a celebration of humanity.
Was the process of making it strenuous?
It was the most supportive environment I’ve ever worked in – like a curtain of air. It allowed us all to make choices, and it allowed us all to fail – safely.
You work mostly in theatre. Has working on this film turned you on to cinema?
I love working in theatre immensely, but film is an incredibly exciting medium. Part of it is that as an actor there is a point where you have to just let go and trust the director. This has been a good experience for me. I trusted Rolf implicitly – and it was exhilarating.
I’m surprised this has an ‘R’ rating. There is far more explicit sex and violence on TV now, let alone the cinema. Maybe you have to be an adult to see it in order to understand the lines that are, and aren’t, drawn. What was okay to do and what wasn’t. That’s not so easy, maybe, when the main character is so engaging.
“Bubby been left to die, me Pop now.” I don’t think so, Bubby. Hard to see you ever dying.
PS: Anybody wondering why Hope does such a good job of being in a band, take note that he was in The Accountants, an early punk rock band in Adelaide. You can still find the odd clip around on youtube.