Ballad Of The Wild Boys

Film still for Ballad Of The Wild Boys

The Proposition is an intense Australian Western set in the harsh 19th-century outback. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave describe its long gestation to Nick Roddick

John Hillcoat and Nick Cave met in Melbourne some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Neither is very good with dates, but Cave thinks it must have been the former, because he thinks he'd left Melbourne for Europe by the early 1980s. Hillcoat, who was born in Queensland, was a film student; Cave, raised in farming country 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, was playing with his first band, a feral post-punk mob called the Birthday Party, but was already looking beyond the confines of rock 'n' roll.

"We had similar interests in music, literature and, er, drugs," says Cave. "Johnny turned me on to a couple of good things, book-wise."

"Not drugs," insists Hillcoat.

"Not drugs," agrees Cave, who needed little help in that area.

The first time the two worked together was when Hillcoat edited one of the Birthday Party's more infamous videos. A few years later - 1984 would probably be about right - Cave got a call from Evan English, producer of what would eventually become Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988), to work with Hillcoat as director on a script about a maximum-security jail.

"I actually wanted to make a film of a book called In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott, but it didn't work out," says Hillcoat. "So I pursued a kind of fictional version and did all sorts of research. Then Nick got re-involved in terms of doing a cameo in it - and also the music, with Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld."

It was Cave's first score - an ethereal mix of "tin flute and floating female voice" is how he describes it. It was a long way from the Birthday Party but not so different from the work he had been doing in Europe, especially with Bargeld, Germany's post-punk muse and driving force behind Einstürzende Neubauten, one of the 1980s most interesting bands. Cave's music had already featured in a German film called Die Stadt (1985) and Wim Wenders had used one of his songs in Wings of Desire (1987). He also did the music for Hillcoat's next film To Have & to Hold (1996), the story of an obsessive relationship set in the jungles of New Guinea, which I make the mistake of telling them I haven't seen.

"It's a fucking amazing film," chuckles Hillcoat.

"It's flawed, in all aspects," adds Cave.

"It has the distinction of being flawed in every department," agrees Hillcoat.

"Including the music," concludes Cave.

Roundabout here, with their professional lives crossing at regular intervals (Hillcoat did several of the videos for Cave's subsequent band the Bad Seeds - "all the good ones," insists Cave - as well as some for Einstürzende Neubauten) and their friendship almost two decades old, they began to talk about doing a third film together. The first idea was to film a book by one of the writers to whom Hillcoat had turned Cave on over the years: Michael Ondaatje, whose mix of cruel realism and poetry appeals to them both. The book that really interested them was The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a brutally lyrical, prose-and-poetry recreation of the life of the legendary outlaw. But whereas Ondaatje had been a cult writer when Cave and Hillcoat first read the book he had since metamorphosed into the author of The English Patient.

"I tried to get the rights to Billy the Kid," says Hillcoat. "I met Ondaatje in London when he was up for the Booker Prize for The English Patient. But because The English Patient suddenly became enormous, someone bought up all his books."

So, no Billy the Kid film. The idea had taken root, however, and four or five years later The Proposition was born.

Beauty and brutality

The Proposition is an Australian Western with tinges of classical tragedy. Cave claims to have written the script in three weeks, with much of the first week taken up working out how to get the dialogue into the middle of the page. Sparse, evocative and with a highly disturbing balance between beauty and brutality, The Proposition is a fine piece of screenwriting (and Cave, for all his flippant description of the process, knows it). In the merciless heat of North Queensland, it pits the British administration against a family of Irish bushrangers, with the native aboriginal population aligned with and against both.

On the side of law and order is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone in a startlingly subdued performance), a man who is married above his station to the beautiful but frustrated Martha (luminously played by Emily Watson). Determined to bring civilisation to the hell-hole to which he has been assigned, Stanley struggles against blinding headaches, his own sense of failure, the arrogance of his superiors and the incompetence of his juniors. On the bushranger side are the Burns brothers: in order of age, Arthur (Danny Huston), Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson). The Burnses are held responsible for a murderous attack on a local homestead and when Stanley captures Charlie and Mike in a shoot-out he makes the proposition of the title: if Charlie brings in Arthur by Christmas (exactly a week away), Mike's life will be spared.

Stanley's 'proposition' is as deadly a deal as any since Emilio Fernández told Warren Oates to bring him the head of Alfredo Garcia. It is a game in which no one can win, giving it the unmistakable whiff of tragedy. Whatever Charlie does, he brings about the death of a brother. What's more, Stanley gradually comes to realise that he has set in motion a series of events which will prise free his tenuous grip on civilisation, destroying everything he has achieved. And yet, at the end, the script finds a place to take this conflict which is at once astonishing and profoundly moving.

Despite some last-minute tinkering by the UK Film Council in search of "clarification", Cave's screenplay has all the purity of a Western by Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah, free from the deadly homogenisation that script doctors and three-act structures usually bring. And Hillcoat as director has responded with a wonderful combination of grand gestures and minute control of detail, the latter including the plague of flies that descends when Mike is lashed and the aboriginal servant sent home for Christmas, who carefully removes his European shoes as he goes out of the Stanleys' gate.

The Proposition harks back to the first years of the Australian cinema renaissance - what David Stratton called "The Last New Wave" - where the tension between a hostile landscape and a country in search of a civilised identity, between freedom and compromise, forged a new mythic structure. "The Australian Western," says Hillcoat, "has several similarities to the American Western. In fact, the Australian bushranger films predate the American Western: the first feature film ever made in Australia was The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. They have a primeval conflict between good and evil, with human nature pitted against itself as if on a blank slate.

"The bushrangers were outlaws who went into all the remote areas: outback Australia was a final frontier full of people trying to escape their past, very extreme and harsh and brutal. The clash was between the outlaw Irish-convict generation, represented by the brothers, and the British, with the aboriginals in conflict with both of them - three ways, like a triangle. The bushrangers either utilised the aboriginals' knowledge to help them escape from the law or were tracked down and caught by the same trackers. There was a symbiotic relationship, either antagonistic or for mutual gain."

To realise the central conflict Hillcoat places enormous confidence in Guy Pearce in a role not unlike Eastwood's in the Leone trilogy, with many of the key moments similarly played out in the actor's haunted eyes. This, too, was in the script: Cave wrote the role of Charlie for Pearce, he says, personally tracking the actor down in South-East Asia - where he was having a difficult time shooting Jean-Jacques Annaud's Two Brothers - to make sure he read it.

"His character didn't have a lot of dialogue," he explains, "and I realised that a certain kind of actor has to play that. I loved a couple of Guy's roles: there's so much going on in his face."

"We wanted to avoid having American stars," says Hillcoat. "We wanted it to be a real Australian film - Australian talent and English talent - because Australia has such great actors."

"We did think of asking Eddie Murphy to play one of the aboriginals, though," jokes Cave.

Hillcoat rolls his eyes.

Ghost of Peckinpah

But the real theatre on which The Proposition is played out is the Australian landscape, lovingly captured by French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, fresh off the more controlled beauties of Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice. Delhomme, who won the AFI Best Cinematography Award for The Proposition, has responded to the light of the outback - harsh, unfiltered, almost horizontal - like many a northern DOP before him discovering the special properties of the southern hemisphere.

Yet Out of Africa this isn't: The Proposition's aim is not to place its characters against a beautiful backdrop but to link them directly to the land's Darwinian indifference. "These were brutal times," says Hillcoat, "but the land also had a great beauty to it. I think it's a metaphor for the whole thing. In the middle of the day it's so harsh and oppressive yet when the sunsets come it's stunningly beautiful. It goes from one extreme to another."

So, too, do the central characters: Stanley, Charlie and above all Arthur, a brutal bushranger who will kill almost without thinking and who the script makes quite clear was responsible for the grisly massacre that sets the story in motion. But Arthur - played with much the same mood swings as Danny Huston brought to his lead role in ivansxtc. - also travels with a library of books, improbably arranged in his mountain bolt hole, quotes poetry at will and tenderly quizzes Charlie about the girl young Mike has supposedly met. This scene, which takes place on a rock outcrop, the two brothers silhouetted against a blood-red setting sun, is one of the best in the film, not just for its harsh pictorial beauty but for its brilliant marshalling of irony. We know Charlie is lying: Mike is locked up and probably dying in Stanley's jail. But the details he invents for Mike's girl under Arthur's cheerful but relentless questioning - her name, family background, cooking skills - represent a yearning that both brothers find hard to resist. Best of all, there is every possibility that Arthur knows Charlie is lying, that he sniffs the possibility of a set-up, thus preparing us for the film's wonderful ending.

"From my point of view," says Cave, "we weren't putting the film forward as truthful: we were looking for truth more at a poetic level - with, of course, the amount of research Johnny always does to keep things on track."

"There are certain aspects to our history that we wanted to include, but without getting bogged down," says Hillcoat, who spent years researching the complex relationship between the aboriginal population and the two groups of settlers. "Nick brought those alive through the conflict between the environment and the European immigrants, and between the Irish and the British, and the British and the aboriginal community. Basically, it's a panorama of life from that time."

As Hillcoat keeps stressing, the late 19th century in Australia was a violent period - and The Proposition is a violent film, although the violence is less shocking at a second viewing because it fits so snugly into the overall scheme. But at each of the three public question-and-answer sessions I did with Cave and Hillcoat, the topic inevitably came up - and with it, the ghost of Sam Peckinpah. Hillcoat's admiration for Peckinpah is evident throughout, especially in the opening scene, which pays homage to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). But he accepts that when it comes to on-screen violence, it's now difficult to do what Peckinpah did in The Wild Bunch (1969) and get the same reaction.

"I think he was doing something very radical that we have since absorbed and regurgitated to the point where it has become banal," he says. "I think a lot of people confuse violence: content gets muddled with intent. Personally I think Peckinpah's films are very honest, in an uncomfortable way, about heroic male action in extreme conflict."

So what would he say about The Proposition in this respect? Hillcoat chuckles, freed - after the Peckinpah critique and the summation of 19th-century Australian history - from the need to explain and contextualise.

"That it's really fucking violent!" he says. "That it's very much a part of the actual time. The violence is brutal and very real but it's buried in the thrust of the story, which is why a lot of people don't have a problem with it."

"There's no ritualistic violence, there's no fetishistic violence. There's no slow-motion," mutters Cave. "Let's move on."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012