A diamond in the rough

An interview with "Shine" director Scott Hicks.

Published December 16, 1996 5:44PM (EST)

david Helfgott was a brilliant Australian child prodigy poised to embark
on a career as a concert pianist when he suffered a debilitating mental breakdown
in his early 20s during a performance of Rachmaninoff's notoriously
difficult Concerto #3. Institutionalized for years and forbidden to
play the piano for fear it would upset him, David nonetheless overcame his
devastating setbacks, and finally returned to the stage nearly 20
years later.

When Australian documentary filmmaker Scott Hicks read about David's story,
he was intrigued; when he went to see him perform, he knew he had found a fascinating subject for his next film. "Shine," Hicks' drama about the pianist, was a hit with audiences at the Sundance Film Festival and is now being released by Fine Line films in theaters nationwide.

Hicks recently spoke with Salon from his home in Australia about the decade-long process of making the film, the relationship between genius and madness, and the light at the end of the tunnel.

What was it about David's story that initially fascinated you?

A little bit of David's speech pattern was quoted [in a newspaper article]. He was
riffing, really, on the journalist's name, and there was almost a musical
element in his speech. There was an oddity about it that was
interesting. When I saw the concert, he's so eccentric, and so
extraordinary, that it was just an amazing evening. After the concert, I
went up to him and his wife Gillian and introduced myself, and asked them
if they'd ever considered a film before. I had no idea what the story was
at that point.

Did you ever consider making "Shine" as a documentary?

It's funny, I didn't, even though I've made a lot of documentaries. It
always struck me as being a bigger, emotional story  it felt inherently
cinematic. I also felt that the impact and influence of the father was of
great importance, and since he's long dead, a documentary wouldn't be able
to portray that relationship as well.

You go to great lengths to present David's father  who was in some ways very
tyrannical  as a real person who was capable of warmth, and not as some
monster. How does David see him?

Apart from feeling fairly terrified of his father at times, he knew
there was a powerful love that was being exerted. An overpowering love,
really. My portrayal of his father was very much from David's perception,
and also pieced together from other family members' recollections. But
interestingly, his elder sister has a quite different image of her father,
and says he was a saint and never did anything wrong. Families have
always got this diversity of experience, and its always complicated to deal
with the different points of view.

What were people's experiences of David?

David has this extraordinary effect on people; he's a very magnetic and
endearing person. At first, it can be a bit disconcerting because he's so
unusual, and he hugs everybody and kisses everybody, and some people don't
take well to that. But he's fascinating, and you quickly realize that he's
not any kind of threat  he's just a charming and eccentric and somewhat
damaged person, who has a tremendous warmth about him.

In the film, you remain very vague as to what David's exact condition
is, or what sort of diagnosis the doctors in the mental hospital make.

When we put labels on people we think that we're explaining everything,
but in fact a label can hide as much as it reveals. We're so used to
throwing around complicated medical terms, without a lot of understanding
of what's behind them. I didn't want to look at the story in a scientific
or medical way, I wanted to look at this character, and the complex of
things that have come to bring it into the state that it is. Things are always so ambiguous, and science seems so cut and dried.

The conversations we had [with David's doctors] gave me this image of David as a boy who was really never allowed to grow up, and as a result he remains this 40-year-old child prodigy. He has a relationship with a father who simply can't
let go, because he's lost one family in the past  he lost his parents
through the Holocaust  and he's not going to lose this family. He's
created this wonderful little genius, but he's not going to let him go, he's
not going to share him.

I used this idea when working with the actors, and
trying to get ahold of the feelings that were happening, as opposed to a
more literal approach. Also, it's not a film about getting better.
David's triumph is being accepted for who he is, with all his flaws, and
all his genius. The wonderful thing that has happened with Shine is that
life is imitating art, and David's career has taken a huge boost with the
release of Shine. Suddenly he's got a whole new audience that he lost
through illness. He's making up for lost time.

After spending 10 years getting to know David and learning more about him,
did you conclude that there is some relationship between genius and madness?

It's a generality, you know, that genius and madness are always
interlinked. There are plenty of brilliant people who have no problem
holding on to their view of reality. There are a few people, like David,
where the lines get blurred, and the struggle is so great to express these
amazing, complicated ideas, that they get damaged along the way. Even as
David climbs his highest mountain, and plays the Rachmaninoff, he falls off
the other side of the cliff. And that fragments him, and he's never quite
the same. I feel it's more an individual story than a general view of
genius and madness.

Does David object to anything in the film?

Nothing specific, but there were things he didn't want to revisit. Like
the time in the mental institution, when he saw the film he turned his eyes
away at those scenes. But he thinks the film is wonderful. I'm staring
at a poster I've got up here on my kitchen wall, and in the middle of this
poster, I asked him if he would sign it, and he's written across the middle
"Brilliantissimo!" which is typical David, it's a completely invented word
but it sums up a musical and emotional reaction to the film.

Is it important to you that people know this film is about an actual

I don't think so, because it also has an archetypal feel to it; it's
about more than just one person. David's life has elements to it which
apply to all of us, by which I mean our own struggle to express ourselves
and be who we are, his life touches on those themes in an extraordinary
way. It's something we can all relate to, and that's the power of cinema.

In the film you use a few motifs repeatedly  like water, which is frequently
associated with David's character. One of my favorite shots is one of
sheet music floating on top of a pool.

That's interesting that you mention that scene of the music floating on
the water, because that was always a key image. Originally I had planned
it to be repeated image where you gradually got closer to the surface and
then realized it was music, and then burst through; but then it came down
to just that one shot. In a sense that shot encapsulates the whole
film, which is David's point of view of rising up through the water to
something on the surface, "oh, look, it's music!," It's about rising to the
surface through music , into the air, into the light. The water motif was
something that came out of all the material I gathered on David, who has an
obsession with water. It seems to me partly related to musical ideas, and
it just became a sort of emblem of David.

The film itself unfolds very much like a piece of music.

In working with Jan Sardi, the screenwriter, it was an element we kept
in our minds. Not as a slavish device, but given particularly that we had
three actors playing the one person, they became like musical themes that
we'd revisit, and embellish, and rework. It sort of informed our thinking,
but we didn't try to do an exact parallel structure. I didn't want to tell
the story in a linear or chronological fashion, and that immediately opened
up this opportunity of dipping into the story at different points, and it
started to have a reflection to it that was similar to musical

The story could have been told in a much darker, more pessimistic way.
Why was it so important for you to have such a positive message?

The starting point for me was that perception of what I felt was
miracle. Here was this man, alive and well, playing music for people, in
love and married  the mere fact of it was an extraordinary kind of uplift.
That always was the message  that it is possible to come through great
difficulties and still have a love of life, which David does. It was never
about anything else for me, it was always about that light at the end of
the tunnel. Life can deal you some tough cards, and at the same time, it
can suddenly give you a full deck, and David's seen both sides of that.

How much did you know about music before you began this project?

I studied a little bit as a child. I tried to play the piano, but I was
too lazy. This was a very ambitious film for me to make, because here was
the very unlikely hero at the heart of it, who nonetheless is a
hero. In musical terms, I had to come to some sort of understanding of
what it means to be an artist and interpret a very difficult piece of
music, and then communicate that to an audience who might not have any idea
what it means, either.

The conceptual leap I had to make before I was able to figure out how to
do the piano sequences was to understand just how someone feels in the
middle of a performance like that. I read a lot of things different
pianists wrote about the process, and one of them wrote this astonishing
thing saying that in the middle of a performance, the music can
sometimes just disappear. It's happening out there somewhere but you don't
hear it. Instead you hear your heartbeat and the sound of your fingers on
the keys. And I thought, "That's scary." I had never known piano playing
was that scary. I thought if I could show it that way, maybe people could
understand just how demanding it is. It's not a dainty thing, it requires
every scrap of mental and physical effort.

So are you going to take up the piano again after this experience?

Never! Now I know why I stopped playing. It's scary! It's dangerous!
People get hurt! Don't try Rachmaninoff at home!

By Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Jennie Yabroff

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