Bored with the status quo, Robert Connolly invited a sizable party to join him in bringing Tim Winton’s collection of short stories, The Turning, to our screens. The director and writer of Balibo, Three Dollars and The Bank charmingly hosted Melbourne’s preview, and later chatted with me over the phone from his hotel in Brisbane. “I don’t know where I am!” Rob laughs. “I go where they tell me.” Go figure, a director that takes direction. “I think that’s the great thing about where the film industry has got to,” he says. “You can speak to your audience more directly.”
Rob holds his viewers in high regard, believing that cinema-goers need to come away with more than they would by watching television or hitting download. “I think there’s a whole movement afoot to do things quite differently and reward the audience,” he says.
And rewarded we were, with each of the seventeen chapters from Australia’s bestselling book of short stories, lovingly interpreted in isolation by its own director, cast and crew. So why this book? I ask. “I thought it was amazing,” he replies. “It intrigued me and I kept going back to it.” He invited various people whose work he admires to interpret a chapter each. “Then of course we had to try and convince Tim Winton to let us do it,” he laughs. Tim thought the idea was so daft it might actually work. “He gave us complete creative freedom,” says Rob. “It was really fantastic!”
One of four to direct ABC’s The Slap in 2011, The Turning is not Rob’s first collaborative effort. “I loved the process of liberating filmmakers from feeling obliged creatively to any master,” he explains, and offered this same freedom to his fellow directors. “I allowed them to do their own thing. Take it, run with it and make it whatever they wanted.” Incredibly, there were no squabbles over who got which chapter. “People found their stories and their points of difference quite well,” says Rob. “I think that’s a credit to Tim.”
It must help when the material is literary gold. So memorable is this book that when Rose Byrne heard of the project she contacted Rob’s team, her heart set on the role of Rae. Rose sweats out this troubled character in a dodgy caravan park, lusting over a religiously themed snow globe with an unfaltering ocker drawl. “Look at his six-pack!” She exclaims with yellow-toothed glee. “Jesus is ripped!”
Not the only star of her stature to be drawn in, the cast boasts Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh, alongside numerous up-and-coming Australian talents. Their performances are sublime, but it’s the stories themselves that really steal the spotlight. “Everyone subsumed their own ego to the whole, to Tim’s work,” Rob explains, “which is amazing when you think of the scale of those actors.”
“It’s not showy, people aren’t showing off, they’re just working together within the drama, asserting it really well in a humble way.”
With recurring themes of violence, alcoholism and death, drama is abundant in this cinematic experience, which I likened to riding an emotional rollercoaster seventeen times in a row. Audiences have disembarked this ride riled up about what they’ve endured, as was Rob’s intention. “People fight about the chapters,” he says. “I’ve heard them getting really passionate, personally defending the one that they love.”
The quality of the works is incredible – even the interpretive dance chapter didn’t irk me. As is no doubt the case with Tim’s book, (which I must get out from under my rock and read), the dialogue and imagery throughout is irresistibly familiar, from the pinky-gold sunsets to that pesky piece of cat poo that won’t budge from the bottom of the litter-tray. There is sea, sand, pee down the leg of a wetsuit… it is all so true blue.
Perhaps the ‘Aussiness’ is what binds the chapters and makes them flow so well. Or did Rob have to tinker for continuity? “There’s a lot of things that I’d like to take credit for that are probably just a nice convergence of creative people,” he modestly replies. “We embraced the madness of it. I really enjoyed the way the filmmakers surprised me, in a way that I hope surprises the audience too.” Mission accomplished Rob. This is a surprising and fresh experience that will have viewers hooked at every twist… and turn.
The Turning was released nationally on September 26th; get along for the ride.