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Interview: 'Wake In Fright' Director Ted Kotcheff Talks Martin Scorsese, His Lost Film, And What A Canadian Was Doing Directing An Australian Classic

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist October 13, 2012 at 12:02PM

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.
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Wake In Fright

For a while that seemed to be the end of “Wake in Fright.” “When films don't succeed, they were just discarded,” Kotcheff lamented. The filmmaker would go on to have a hugely successful and singularly strange career, including everything from “Fun With Dick and Jane” to “North Dallas Forty” to “Uncommon Valor” to “First Blood” to “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Thankfully, UA wasn’t the only financier of “Wake in Fright,” and the movie still held a certain amount of mystique in Australia. “Half the money put up for the movie was Australian and 25 years later, Australian directors, Australian film schools, would say, 'Hey we would like to see this film. But we can't find it.' They looked in Sydney, they looked in London, and they couldn't find it,” Kotcheff said. “Then the editor, a wonderful man named Tony Buckley, made it his job to try and find this negative. He took two years on to try and find it and he finally found it in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, in two big boxes with inter-negatives, sound reels, everything.” Buckley’s timing couldn’t have been better. In a turn of events worthy of “Wake in Fright,” Buckley saved the film in the knick of time. “On the outside of the box it was marked 'For Destruction,'” Kotcheff said with a nervous giggle. “Had he arrived one week later, they were going to make room in the warehouse and 'Wake In Fright' would have been lost forever.”

One of the most vocal advocates for the film is Martin Scorsese, whose quote appears on the re-release poster and who, you can tell, borrowed some tonal elements for his own what-else-could-go-wrong epic “After Hours.” We wondered how this started. Happily, Kotcheff told us. “In 1971 at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it was a four o'clock screening, and there was an American voice behind me, which was unusual because it was in France and you would hear either French or Italian voices. And the voice kept saying 'Wow! Wow!' and he kept making all of these noises,” the filmmaker explained with a laugh. At the time, of course, Scorsese was an unknown film freak. “Finally the film finished and I looked back and saw this 25-year-old kid in a striped shirt and spectacles and I didn't know who he was. Outside I went to the PR guys and the PR guys said, 'Oh yeah he's a young American director and he only did one film and it flopped.' They were right: I had never heard of him.” Of course, Scorsese would go on to become one of the godfathers of American cinema, and the two filmmakers’ paths would cross again.

Wake In Fright

“Of course, the film disappeared and 38 years later, this new print was struck and the Cannes Classics department asked to see it and it was deemed a Cannes Classic and was screened again, at the festival again,” Kotcheff said proudly. “Only two films have had the honor of being screened twice at the Cannes Film Festival – 'L'avventura' and 'Wake In Fright.' And you know who is head of the Cannes Classics selection department? Martin Scorsese.” While Kotcheff was playful about telling the story, he sounded deeply affected that Scorsese had singled him out. “It's touched my heart that he would still remember the film,” Kotcheff said. “I'm absolutely knocked out.”   

You’ll be knocked out, too, if you go see “Wake in Fright.” The film is playing in New York now and opening in Los Angeles today, before expanding around the country in the next few weeks. 

This article is related to: Wake In Fright, Ted Kotcheff


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