Beyond the Multiplex

Nick Cave talks about writing, morality and his tough new movie. Plus: The mockumentary must be stopped!

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published May 4, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

"I really think that morality is kind of an accidental thing," says Nick Cave. "It just depends on your situation; it's not really a matter of choice." Cave, the singer-songwriter and all-around post-punk cult hero, is talking about his first foray into screenwriting, with the big, bloody-minded Australian western "The Proposition." But fans of his music will recognize the currents of fatalism and ambiguity beneath that statement as central principles in his work.

Directed by John Hillcoat ("Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead"), "The Proposition" demands your attention. It's the kind of movie we don't often encounter these days, and actually never did: A dramatically dense and morally complicated work, it's also a highly pictorial wide-screen entertainment with a dynamite cast, channeling the legacy of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah (and maybe Joseph Conrad too). But in fairness, it wouldn't be getting the attention it's getting from people like me -- and would probably never have been made in the first place -- if its writer were someone else.

While the 48-year-old Cave is a long way from being a superstar or a celebrity, to his core cadre of fans (and I'm among them) he's a signature artist, something like the Bob Dylan of the '80s generation. His musical fusion of British-style art-punk, gospel, R&B and country prefigured the "Americana" wave of the '90s, and his opaque, quasi-mythic lyrics about love, violence, God and the devil brought a biting literary sensibility to a generally inane form. Cave has published a novel ("And the Ass Saw the Angel") and two books of poetry, but "The Proposition" is his first screenplay.

You don't have to know or care anything about Cave to appreciate "The Proposition." While the setting may be the Australian outback in the 19th century, the film's themes and concerns are those of almost every western: imposing civilization on a lawless and violent frontier. This conflict is embodied in Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone), an officer recently arrived from England to enforce law and order to a fly-bitten, sun-baked town in the middle of nowhere.

On one hand, Stanley is a devoted husband, seeking to protect his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), from the depravity of their surroundings. On the other, he's a ruthless and often brutal administrator, determined to stop the infamous local outlaw Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) no matter what the cost. Stanley has arrested Burns' two brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson), and strikes an uneasy deal with Charlie: He's to head back out into the distant Queensland hills and kill his brother Arthur. If Charlie succeeds, he and Mike will be pardoned. If he fails, Mike will hang.

This is the proposition of the title, and it's a morally murky affair from the get-go. Stanley is asking the impossible of Charlie: to choose which of his brothers will live and which will die. Furthermore, Stanley knows that executing Mike -- a simple-minded kid who does his brothers' bidding -- is profoundly unfair. As Cave explained during our conversation, the moral poles of "The Proposition" are never fixed. Stanley represents civilization, yet he authorizes the indiscriminate slaughter of aboriginal rebels; and the killer and rapist Arthur Burns, when we finally meet him, turns out to be a sensitive, sentimental man who loves his brothers and the natural world.

The bargain made between Stanley and Charlie will rebound against everyone in the film, from Stanley's vicious, upper-class civilian supervisor (David Wenham) to the drunken and loquacious English bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt). Cave has always been obsessed with biblical themes, and to a large extent "The Proposition" is a story of original sin. In this case that means the violent, genocidal sins that lie at the headwaters of Australian history, but Americans are in no position to claim the moral high ground on this front.

Ultimately, the Burns brothers will be unable to protect their bucolic, murderous utopia, and Stanley will be unable to protect his wife's little piece of England in the Outback. Some will live and some will die (gruesome deaths indeed), but the costs of all this violence will be carried forward into the future, as many generations as you wish to count.

In his younger days Cave himself had something of a fearsome reputation (he battled drug addiction, on and off, for many years), but when I met him, during a New York stopover on his way to the Sundance Film Festival, he seemed a slight and gentlemanly figure, unmistakably wizened by time. Dressed in an understated black suit, he was unfailingly friendly and talked easily about his screenplay, his music and his life.

Cave now lives in Brighton, on the south coast of England, with his wife (the model Susie Bick) and their twin 5-year-old sons. I'm the father of twins myself, and while it's a favorite topic (to the despair and nausea of my friends), it isn't one I ever thought I would find myself discussing with Nick Cave. "Do you ever dress them the same?" he asked me at the end of our interview. I said no, that my wife had been insistent on that point and I agreed. "We do sometimes," he said. "They just look so cute dressed up the same. I think at times you should celebrate that aspect. They're twins, and it's something really special." That quote could destroy the hipster credibility of a lesser man; Nick Cave, I guess, could knit Christmas snowman sweaters for his boys and still be cool.

It seems like this movie takes place in the Nick Cave lyrical universe. It's a world of vengeance and bloodshed, of family and marriage, that will seem familiar to your fans.

I suppose so, yeah. It wasn't intended on my part, but I am me and I just write what I write. Certain things attract me and certain things don't. High drama certainly attracts me. But I did feel that I was embarking on something very new for me, and I really had no idea whether I could do it or not.

How did you end up writing this film?

I was asked by John Hillcoat [who lives near Cave in Brighton], after years of hearing him talk about making an Australian western, and watching in increasing frustration as he never got the thing off the ground. He finally asked me to write it, and I had no idea whether I could actually write a script or not. Certainly I didn't know whether I could deal with dialogue. Once I got going, I found I had a certain knack for it, really. In fact, it's probably the easiest gig I've ever had.

Really? How long did it take you to write?

Three weeks. I'd just go right into the office, where I write each day, bang out 10 pages or so, and just e-mail them to John, who lives up the road from me. Then we'd get on the phone, and he's like, "Oh, cool! What's going to happen next?" And you go, "Wait for tomorrow, you know?" It was just really good fun. I think it was easy to write because I never thought it would get made. I've heard the stories about how many film scripts there are and how many ever get turned into anything. So I was just able to enjoy myself with the writing. I got into that romantic notion about the old-school film writers, who just banged the shit out on their typewriters, page after page. There was no sitting around thinking about it for a year, and doing treatments and synopses and so forth. It was just hammered out.

Similar things have come easily as well. When I was writing music for Wim Wenders' films [including "Wings of Desire" and "Until the End of the World"], he would ring up and say, "Would you write a song for me about time?" I'd go, "Yeah, all right." Then I'd sit down and write it, and there was none of the anguish of original creation. You just sit down and write a song about time. What takes time for me, what can be really frustrating, is thinking about what you're going to write about, and then having the confidence to write it.

Maybe that's a question of form. Anybody who has taken a poetry class knows that it's easier to write formal poetry than free verse.

Right, yeah. I also find it much more enjoyable to read formal poetry as well. As a reader, I understand form. Poetry that rhymes has an immediate attraction for me, whereas I find it very difficult to read poetry that doesn't rhyme.

From the beginning of this film, we know what form we're in. It's Australia rather than the American West, but we've got dust and flies and gunplay and bloodshed, and a story about revenge and sin. And like most westerns, it's about the collision between a violent, lawless environment and the ties of human society. It's not like you invented those themes, but they're evidently things that interest you.

Oh yeah, they are. What particularly interested me in this film was to create characters that were all morally flawed and ambiguous, and to try to write a film where your sympathies for the characters free-floated around as the film unfolded. The acts that they perform may appall you, but they are separate from the people who perform them. One character in particular is Samuel Stoat [Arthur Burns' henchman, played by Tom Budge], who's a little psychopath, just a nasty piece of work. Yet he has this beautiful singing voice, and there are moments where you feel for him. Or at least I do. I don't know if anyone else does. Even with Arthur Burns, I wanted to create an outlaw, an evil character, who you felt for.

Arthur has an appreciation for beauty. For natural beauty, I mean. That's very seductive. We're innately drawn toward any character who seems sophisticated, who appreciates beautiful things. It's like we forget or overlook that that has nothing to do with morality.

Being a moral person doesn't necessarily mean that you have a happier existence. I guess the most morally conflicted character is the Ray Winstone character, Captain Stanley, and his life is a fucking tragedy. Whereas Arthur Burns may be evil, but he seems to be the most comfortable and in tune with the world, in the most positive kind of way.

Captain Stanley and Charlie Burns are similar, aren't they? They're caught between these worlds, between civilization and lawlessness, and they can't find a way to work that out.

What drove the script and moved the characters onward was inventing things for them to do that would pull you back. Whether that meant having them suddenly do something good, when you expect them to do something bad, or the other way around. For example, the Ray Winstone character starts out like a Ray Winstone character, you know? [Winstone is known for playing violent criminals in British films.] But you soon see he's not that character he was forced to be at the start of the film. He's a very tender family man. Then again, in the middle of the film he's quite happy to go wipe out an entirely tribal village of aboriginals without batting an eyelid. I feel that says more about us as human beings than movies where you've got your good guys and your bad guys. That's a reductionist view of humanity.

I couldn't watch this without thinking about John Ford's great film "The Searchers," which is partly about the legacy of genocide and guilt, and also, even more obviously, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Well, "Heart of Darkness" provides a sort of a basic premise that's set up at the start. Then there was, if anything, an attempt to steer it away from "Heart of Darkness" and not have Marlon Brando sitting up there in the hills. Within "The Proposition" there's a myth about the Arthur Burns character that keeps being reiterated: That he's this monster up in the hills. That was exciting for me in the sense that you could set that up, and then the first time you see this character he's crying like a baby. It takes a long time before you see him other than as somebody who cares for people, cares about his family and loves nature. There were certain financiers who didn't think this was the way to introduce the evil guy you've been waiting to see for so long, but I found it pretty attractive.

I know you lived in rural Australia as a child, in the state of Victoria. Do you feel some connection to that period of Australian history?

Not particularly, except that every Australian is aware on some level of our violent heritage and our violent past. And I suspect that in every Australian there's a sense of shame about it, whether they care to admit it or not. Somewhere that's embedded in the Australian psyche. Australians have not come to terms with their history in the same way as, say, Americans have. Americans have simply seen their history as a history of heroes. In the Australian psyche there's a real ambivalence toward what went on, and these wounds are still very active to this day.

I know that the subject of how the aboriginal people were treated during the colonial period, and well afterward, remains a hot topic. How does this movie relate to that debate?

There's a whole active movement to make amends in some way to the indigenous population, and a movement against that. I guess our film will be criticized by certain people as having a "black armband" [i.e., highly critical] view of history. That's a uniquely Australian term. What we wanted to do in the film was to incorporate the situation with the indigenous people into the fabric of the story, not to have an agenda with that. I think that makes some of the stuff that happens [to indigenous people] in the film more affecting.

I hope it comes across that this aptitude for genocide and racial hatred and murder is not just a historical thing. It's a very active thing these days, if not even more active. The more technologically advanced we get, in fact, the more proficient we are at it, you know? To me there are contemporary resonances in this story.

"The Proposition" opens May 5 in New York and Los Angeles, May 19 in Chicago, and May 26 in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, with more cities to follow.

Tribeca roundup: Further hints of apocalypse, one American indie worth seeing (at last) and Just Say No to the mockumentary
As the Tribeca Film Festival heads into its final weekend, and the film industry's sleep-deprived attention span shifts to Cannes in two weeks (I'll be there, and I know, you feel for me), I've formulated a couple of hypotheses.

1) The mockumentary must be stopped. Maybe it was funny the first couple of times; maybe we enjoyed movies like Zak Penn's "Incident at Loch Ness" or Michael Dowse's "It's All Gone Pete Tong" that purported to tell outrageous true stories and launched elaborate Internet-based marketing campaigns to conceal their bogosity. But, listen, we didn't enjoy them that much. Regular people outside the indie-film bubble basically didn't notice, and the fun, such as it was, is over.

I nearly wrote a favorable review last week about the Tribeca film "American Cannibal," which purports to tell the story of a horrible reality show gone wrong. Then I read David Carr's New York Times column, which debunks the flick as partly or largely staged, and realized that in my little way I had been punk'd. Congratulations, guys! But the joke's on you. Nobody's going to distribute your stupid movie, now that the truth is out, and you wasted a lot of time and money making a piece of crap that supposedly comments on our crapulous landscape of crap. Thanks loads.

Furthermore, reliable authorities tell me that "Street Thief," another Tribeca film that supposedly explores the life and work of a high-end Chicago burglar, is also a mockumentary; "Pittsburgh," the movie about Jeff Goldblum's sojourn in his hometown starring in a regional production of "The Music Man," pretty clearly is. Festival audiences have enjoyed "Pittsburgh" (I haven't seen it), but three films in one festival -- with other bogus docus still to be exposed, perhaps -- is an epidemic. Cut the cheapo postmodern B.S., kids. Just make your damn movies, and quit trying to fool us about what kind of damn movies they are.

2) Low-end American narrative filmmaking is in crisis. I know, news flash, right? What I mean is that hardly anyone seems able to tell a well-constructed story anymore. Most younger filmmakers these days have no background in the old-fashioned narrative traditions, like literature or drama, let alone in the Freudian and/or Marxist theories of personality and society that underpinned them for most of the 20th century. Movies today come out of other areas of pop culture, whether that's music videos or photography or advertising or TV or just other movies.

This isn't entirely a bad thing; it may not, in the long haul, be a bad thing at all. But it does result in a lot of lumpy little movies that might offer a visual sensibility, a consistent mood and some kind of philosophical or political message, but totally refuse to give you real characters interacting in some believable, dynamic real-world situation. Earlier this week, I reviewed "Lonely Hearts," a grim and violent neo-noir with John Travolta and James Gandolfini that's exactly that kind of movie.

Another one is "The Architect," a dreary, message-y HDNet production with Anthony LaPaglia as a suburban Chicago architect and Viola Davis as the African-American activist who lives in a horrible housing project he designed many years earlier. Both of their families are falling apart in the usual ways, and they try to connect across the vast social gulf between them, yada-boo. The acting is pretty good, especially given the preachy, stagey dialogue. Writer-director Matt Tauber conveys an impressively glum tone throughout. But nothing really happens, and you feel like the characters and the audience are about to be ejected into outer space, stray atoms wandering forlornly away from each other for all eternity.

Steve Barron's "Choking Man" is the one American indie I've genuinely enjoyed at Tribeca. It too is small and somewhat sinister in tone, but it's so intimately observed and finally so affectionate that I couldn't resist it. The story of Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríos), a painfully shy Ecuadoran immigrant who washes dishes at a diner in Queens, N.Y., it combines downbeat social realism with a whimsical, surrealist sensibility and hints of much darker things as well. The terrific cast of diner co-workers includes Mandy Patinkin as the Greek owner, Eugenia Yuan as the Chinese waitress Jorge falls for, and Aaron Paul as the rakish Irish-American who threatens to steal her. Also features Barron's odd and charming zero-budget animations, and a live-action scene involving a flying carpet.

Meanwhile, the Tribeca crop of documentaries continues to be exceptionally strong. In forthcoming weeks, we'll see national releases of several new Iraq docus, headed by "The War Tapes" and "The Blood of My Brother" (both terrific). We can discuss those in depth later, and also find out whether anybody actually wants to see them. Showtime will air the wrenching, almost unbearable "Three Days in September," about the Russian school siege of 2004. Sundance will show "Follow My Voice," the irresistible tale of the alt-rock "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" tribute album assembled to benefit a New York high school for gay, lesbian and transgender kids.

If you really need more apocalypse, Tribeca's latest stunner is "Jesus Camp," a you-are-there documentary about the growing phenomenon of fundamentalist Christian children's ministries. Essentially, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ("The Boys of Baraka") argue, these evangelicals have long ago crossed from religion into politics; they're educating Christian solders in a crypto-fascist nationalist movement that seeks to fundamentally alter the nature of American government. This flick makes a blood-curdling companion piece to my Salon colleague Michelle Goldberg's new book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism."

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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