Aussie Icon Brian Trenchard-Smith Discusses Cult Classic DEAD END DRIVE-IN!
Brian Trenchard-Smith, a veteran of Australian genre cinema rose to prominence with the 1975 action/adventure classic THE MAN FROM HONG KONG and has gone on to direct over twenty films both locally and aboard. Never one to forget his roots, Trenchard-Smith has returned to Australia on a number of occasions to shoot international productions including his most recent feature, 2014’s DRIVE HARD, an action comedy starring John Cusack & Thomas Jane, shot on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Last year, Trenchard-Smith released his first novel, THE HEADSMAN’S DAUGHTER, an action-packed, time-travelling thriller that sits perfectly with his cinematic oeuvre.
CULT OF MONSTER contributor Paul William was fortunate enough to catch up with Trenchard-Smith to discuss everything from the socio-political climate of DEAD END DRIVE-IN to taking over directorial duties on FROG DREAMING while the film was already in production.
CULT OF MONSTER: DEAD END DRIVE-IN could be seen as the spiritual successor to TURKEY SHOOT. It’s not hard to imagine they take place within the same world. TURKEY SHOOT had a notoriously tumultuous production, with the end product quite removed from the original screenplay. Was this film a chance for you to attack socio-political issues head-on in ways that were only hinted at in TURKEY SHOOT?
BRIAN TRENCHARD-SMITH: Social issues were already embedded in the Peter Carey short story “Crabs”. I amped up junk culture, sexism, racism and law enforcement complicity in drug distribution.
COM: You’ve mentioned the Reagan Era as influencing the messages conveyed in DEAD END DRIVE-IN and TURKEY SHOOT. Having a villain named “Thatcher” is also very telling. Was there a socio-political climate at home in Australia that had an influence on these films?
BTS: The Vietnam war spurred political activism in the post WW2 generation which was coming of age at that time. A lot of Australians saw Reagan as bellicose and Thatcher as authoritarian.
COM: There’s a level of irony in the film in attacking what you’ve referred to as the “junk culture of the 80s”, whilst engaging in some of those tropes yourself; it’s your films up there on those screens! Can you comment on this?
BTS: Guilty as charged. I enjoy making exuberant genre cocktails that both celebrate and dryly satirize the standard tropes of the material. I used my own films ( + a Grant Page fire stunt from Simon Wincer’s SNAPSHOT) on the drive in screen because I acknowledge my complicity in Cinema junk food. But I have made some films where I have played the material totally straight. DC 911: Time of Crisis, Happy Face Murders, to name two.
COM: Do you think this junk culture still exists? It’s easy to imagine a similar film today, only with smartphones and unlimited wifi in place of a drive-in screen.
BTS: Screens hypnotize us, be it a wristwatch screen offering Ben Hur for download, or an electronic billboard distracting drivers on the freeway. We are addicted to data. And a lot of data’s getting dumber. Schadenfreude sugar highs at your fingertips 24/7. Celebrity gossip, Reality TV, internet troll memes, animal videos ( I succumb to those) would keep the Dead End Drive In residents happy today. You wouldn’t need a drive in, just a Starbucks.
COM: The drive-in seems appealing in certain regards.
BTS: It was meant to be appealing to desperate hungry homeless kids who believed the rumors, stole a car, and gained entry to a world of no work, free food, alcohol, drugs, graffiti, movies, music, and above all a society solely of their own generation. Hard to resist.
COM: The film seems eerily prescient and scarily (and consistently) relevant to Australian culture today. Australia has had a long and complicated history with racism. Some of the themes and dialogue recall Pauline Hanson, the Cronulla riots and even our treatment of refugees from the Howard era until today. What is it about the film that gives it its staying power?
BTS: Short answer – still relevant. In context – Fear of “the other” is eternal and universal, sadly, particularly in times of trouble, as we are seeing in the demonization of Moslems by US Presidential candidates currently. It’s easy to identify the roots of the racist attitudes depicted in Dead End Drive In. At the beginning of the 20th century, Australia’s concern was with culturally different numerically superior Asia providing cheap labour causing unemployment for Australian citizens. Hence the “White Australia” policy, hailed by Prime Minister Hughes in 1919 as ‘the greatest thing we have achieved’. In 1941, as war with Japan began, Prime Minister Curtin said ‘ this country shall remain forever …. an outpost of the British race’. The residual cultural effect of such policies lingered long after those policies were reversed. Children tend to inherit the racial attitudes of their parents. When I was 20, in the mid sixties, there were lads I knew who thought it was cool to run out of a Chinese restaurant without paying. Perhaps subconsciously they conflated all Asians with Japanese war crimes. Luckily Australia embraced multi culturalism, which has been a great benefit. But there was still a streak of racism I heard in public bars of the early 80’s, hence the anti Asian rants in the cafeteria, played for comedy to sugar the pill. Great job by Wibur Wilde and Dave Gibson. It’s always been an issue that interested me. In THE MAN FROM HONG KONG a decade earlier, I wrote racial stereotypes into the dialogue of the two cops played by Roger Ward and Hugh Keays Byrne to reflect attitudes I heard in the workplace in the late sixties. I think if you can shine a light on racism and do it with uncomfortable humor, then perhaps its power will diminish through ridicule.
COM: We see very little of the world outside the drive-in, but enough to see that it is not a very nice place. In fact, the world inside the drive-in seems to represent the larger society on a smaller scale.
BTS: Yes, that was the allegorical intention. Something for everyone, there’s even a Club Med.
COM: Is it true you had plans for a sequel? Where might this have taken us?
BTS: One of the ideas at the directors draft stage was to compress the story you see into two acts, at the end of which Crabs escapes, then add a third act in which he is recaptured and sent back to the drive in. But his example inspires the inmates to change their values so Crabs becomes Moses and leads his people out, past powerless police to face an uncertain future in a less than promised land. To carry that out to a high standard would have added way too much to the budget so I dropped it. But it stayed in my mind for a potential sequel. However our prime location soon became a block of flats. End of story.
COM: Would the film have followed Crabs or completely new characters? Considering some of the long-time sequels coming out such as Ghostbusters, for example, is a sequel still a possibility?
COM: You hadn’t read the original Peter Carey short story when you worked on this film. Have you since?
BTS: Did I say that in some interview. I cannot honestly remember when I read it. Long time ago. It seems strange that I wouldn’t read it.
COM: FROG DREAMING you were bought in to replace another director. Was this chance or was there something about your reputation that made you the go-to man for swooping in to save the day?
BTS: I have taken over 4 movies shortly before or during shooting, and 5 others in post, shooting new material and re-editing. I almost took over RACE FOR THE YANKEE ZEPHYR. The task requires analytical skills and the ability to make quick decisions, normal director stuff really, but with a quicker pulse.
COM: Might this have had anything to do with your handling of TURKEY SHOOT?
BTS: TURKEY SHOOT required a lot of thinking on my feet. But then every film does to a degree.
COM: Is there any animosity or anxiousness involved in coming in behind another director?
BTS: I’ve felt sympathy for those I replaced. Politics is often in play. The inherited cast and crew just want leadership, so each time it’s been a fun experience for me.
COM: DEAD END DRIVE-IN & FROG DREAMING are vastly different films, one filled with despair and ruin, the other with hope and wonder. Yet there is a similarity. There is a streak of rebellion in both protagonists: the recalcitrant hero. Is there something in this sort of character that appeals to you? Is there something in your own philosophy reflected in these individuals?
BTS: When analyzing a script, I look for any aspect of the hero’s motivation that would also motivate me. It strengthens my connection to the story I am to be telling. Perhaps my films display both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies. I like to be in charge but I am suspicious of authority… It’s a paradox. I think I am as goal oriented as Crabs, as adventurous as Cody.
COM: Werner Herzog has spoken about the “voodoo of location”? You had a great location in the quarry, which exists today as a national park. How important was location to Frog Dreaming?
BTS: It was the cornerstone location.
COM: You worked with young actors in Frog Dreaming and BMX Bandits. What’s the key to getting such good performances out of them?
BTS: Knowing when to leave them alone. All actors have to find their inner child to be in – rather than play – the moment. Making it comfortable for them to do so is the key. 90% of good direction of actors is good casting.
COM: You’ve said you kept about 3 minutes of footage from the previous director of Frog Dreaming. Can you give any indication of which footage is not yours?
BTS: Some of the country dance scene. Scattered moments from the early pond scenes. I cannot remember precisely. I kept scenes or shots that worked fine.
COM: The sight of Donkegin rearing up out of the water is really quite spectacular. How did you achieve this effect?
BTS: Mechanical effect – you should ask designer Jon Dowding about it.
COM: You collaborated with genre-legend (and something of a personal idol) Everett De Roche on this film, whom I believe helped to produce it as well. What was your relationship with Mr De Roche?
BTS: He was the co-producer and supported my appointment. We worked well together. I loved the script. It was brilliant and ahead of its time in the kids/family film arena.
COM: What do you feel his unique voice gave this film?
BTS: His empathy towards indigenous peoples. His sense of childhood wonder at the environment.
COM: These films, I believe, were made under the 10BA production incentive. You recently filmed Drive Hard in Australia. How has industry changed between now and when you were making these other films?
BTS: It has changed, It’s much more market driven, many more hurdles in financing, more of a money business than it was in those heady early days of I can’t believe I get paid to do this. But my Australian shoots always show me the idealism and enthusiasm of cast and crew is still there.
Brian Trenchard-Smith’s debut novel, THE HEADSMAN’S DAUGHTER is out now and you grab it here!