It’s strange to think that one of the year’s very best films was actually released in 1971. “Wake in Fright,” a gonzo descent into madness set against the bleak backdrop of the Australian outback, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and, after a brief theatrical run, was more or less lost to the sands of time. Thankfully, a worldwide search turned up the original negatives and in 2009 it was screened at Cannes again, this time in a painstakingly restored version. That restoration is now making its way across the country, courtesy of Drafthouse Films, premiering in Los Angeles today and expanding to 35 major markets before being released on a new high-def Blu-ray in January. We got the chance to talk to the film’s director, Ted Kotcheff, and while some scheduling conflicts cut our conversation short, we were still able to talk about what it was like for a Canadian to make a definitively Australian film, how a film gets lost, and what it’s like having Martin Scorsese as a high-profile booster.
At the time of production of “Wake in Fright," Kotcheff was a Canadian filmmaker known for his austere British dramas, things like the civil rights drama “Two Gentlemen Sharing” and the “Room at the Top” sequel “Life at the Top.” Critics of “Wake in Fright” often cite the film as a 'phony' Australian exploitation film because it wasn’t made by an Australian and yet serves as a harsh critique of the country’s landscape and people (a sentiment echoed in Oz doc “Not Quite Hollywood”). And Kotcheff says at, at least initially, he was worried about tackling the foreign land. “Being a Canadian I was a bit trepidatious about directing a movie about a country I knew nothing about,” Kotcheff said. “But then I found that the outback wasn't that different from the Canadian north. It was the same vast empty spaces that paradoxically were not liberating but were claustrophobic and imprisoning. And they also had the same hyper-masculine societies.” Kotcheff added: “In fact, I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks.”
And while the criticism of the film not being a “true” Australian film still lingers, it has largely faded away. Kotcheff, to his credit, sternly defends the film, too. “There are three directors who disagree with that – Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir,” Kotcheff said proudly. “They're all Australian directors and they all came to me and said, 'Your film is a seminal film.' They felt that, when they saw it, they were very inspired by it. They never thought that it was possible to make a good film in Australia, they thought you had to go to Hollywood.” In the years since, of course, Australia has developed a booming film industry, and now Kotcheff says that his otherness aided the film. “It was funny, a producer came to me and said, 'That film's got a tremendous wallop. No Australian could have made that film,'” Kotcheff explained. “It needed that kind of detachment.”
We were curious how any film gets 'lost.' For decades you would never hear anything about the film, and it was never released commercially on home video, the format which ensures cinematic immortality. Kotcheff ran down the film’s sordid release history for us. He says, at least initially, the film was something of a hit, at least in France, where it premiered following its gala debut at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was in competition). “The film was a success in France because they like films about men under existential stress. That was the only place that it was a success. It ran in Paris for nine months,” Kotcheff said. The American roll out was considerably rougher. “It came to America in 1972 or 1973 but United Artists [the domestic distributor, which has a history of financial crises] never believed in it. They told me, 'No American is going to come and see this.' So they opened it in a small cinema on the east side of New York on a Sunday night during a blizzard. Of course they were right – nobody came! They yanked the film and nobody saw it.” In America, too, it was saddled with the much-less-evocative, more explicitly Australian title “Outback.”