Last Orders: An Interview with Director Fred Schepisi

At first glance, Fred Schepisi looks like a quiet fellow. But he turns quite effusive when he starts talking: sharply observant and possessed of a dry sense of humor, he’s comfortable expressing himself. At 62, Schepisi’s been around the movie block more than once. From his early work in Australia — The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), or even the First Big U.S. Movie, starring Meryl Streep but set in Australia, A Cry in the Dark (1988) — to his bigger budgeted, U.S. and U.K. projects — Plenty (1985), The Russia House (1990), his greatest critical success, Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and 1997’s Fierce Creatures — the writer-director has established a varied and mostly impressive resume.

And yet, Schepisi still struggles to get pictures made. To his mind, this is a function of economics: he’s not keen to make huge action pictures, but neither is he looking to make a tiny picture that won’t be seen or pay the rent. All this makes him especially happy with his new movie, Last Orders, despite the fact that he made it under less than ideal circumstances: lousy British weather, allotted money that didn’t come through, a tight schedule. No matter. The result, based on Graham Swift’s novel, traces the complicated shared history of four East Londoners: Jack (Michael Caine), Vic (Tom Courtenay), Ray (Bob Hoskins), and Lenny (David Hemmings). Their multi-decades story unfolds in flashbacks, following Jack’s death, as the remaining three spend a day driving to the beach where they will fulfill his “last orders,” to scatter his over the water. At the same time, Jack’s widow, Amy (Helen Mirren) takes her own journey, to the institution where her 50-year-old retarded daughter lives, to say goodbye one last time, before Amy starts another life, apart from her family.

PopMatters: How did you come to make an accessible layering of voices and points of view, from Graham Swift’s novel?

Fred Schepisi: The novel has a structure that’s broken up, not in the same way, but with the same effect — each chapter was headed by the name of a character. Within those chapters, while they were advancing the story, they were reflecting on the past, and expressing their hopes for the future, pretty much in monologues. The way I chose to interpret that, was similar to what I’ve done in other films, and used to do it in documentaries; [it’s] kind of like a mosaic technique, if you like. Say, in The Russia House, there’s a point where Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer meet in the tower, and all those beautiful Russian churches are outside. And you think you’re just watching them, but actually you’re watching five different time zones in the story: you’re watching them and the tensions they’re going through; you’re watching a spy watching them; you’re watching the spy’s report back to his bosses in the form of a tape, a number of days after the event; and then you’re watching two sections of the past, as Michelle Pfeiffer tells a story.

I think that’s how we tell stories. It’s how memory operates, how our thoughts operate, because we go on memory, we go on apprehension of the present, and we go on hopes or expectations for the future. When you tell a story, you’re throwing other lights on it, which makes the story richer and more interesting. We can’t stop saying, “Yeah, but don’t forget the time you did such and such…” To that end, I did not try to pick up ever on the time periods [in Last Orders]. By that, I don’t mean that the time periods aren’t accurate; they are incredibly accurate. But I don’t come into them and waste time going, “This is where we are,” because, why is that of interest? What’s of interest is you, or your story of what’s happening, and it’s all about your emotion and your understanding. So I’ve got to follow you, and then it’s the pleasure of the audience to pick up on all that other stuff that’s going on in the background, if they want to. If you do it accurately enough, they accept it without thinking about it. So that allows you to move from 1935 to 1979 to 1950-something, to 1989, which is our actual present tense. I didn’t do all that conventional stuff, where you go to the old-fashioned poster or the lady with the pram to tell you what time period it is, and didn’t play songs or music from the period to set you up.

PM: That’s a common device now, to use the compiled soundtrack, that you can then sell as a cd.

FS: Well, yes, but then you get pulled by that. You go, “Oh I remember that song,” and your mind starts to go to details evoked by your memory. But in a picture like this, that makes you lose track of where you are. There is some source music from within the eras, but it’s more background, to help you accept where you are without having to think about it. The score of the movie is done now, kind of a pop-jazz-classical structure, that’s got three themes going through it. The role of the music corresponds with a particular belief I have, which is that characters have themes, and when they come together, you’re hearing both those themes at the same time. The theme helps, because even as I change its presentation or blend it with something else, you’re feeling an emotion, and you’re not even aware you’re feeling, because I’ve trained you to feel it throughout the picture. Of course, when I say “I,” I mean the composer [Paul Grabowsky], the editor [Kate Williams], and all of that.

This helps you understand the characters’ inner life, what they’re feeling, even if it’s not exactly what they’re saying. It gives you pause for thought, other information. Probably the boldest move in the film is the love theme, as it becomes that, the theme of Ray and Amy, when you find out that they’ve been unfaithful — him to his best mate, her to her husband — and within 30 seconds, I’m playing the love theme of Amy and Jack, her husband, because she says, “He loved me, and he always did.”

PM: The music does help to bridge the many storylines.

FS: Yes, there are sort of three journeys going on at once — two are going on in our present time: Amy visiting her daughter [June (Laura Morelli)], and the men’s car journey. And the third, which is Amy and Ray, is actually taking place a week before the other two.

PM: Many films deliver characters in a present moment, and the story is about their movement from that point. Your films tend to be more about how character might be shaped, by past experiences.

FS: Yeah, and this film kind of takes that to the Nth degree. Everybody thinks that action is what it’s all about, but the real action for me is the way characters interact with one another. Somebody said that this is a film about ordinary lives that proves there are no ordinary lives. When I was casting the young people, they would read the script and say, “Oh my god! Is this what we’re going to have to go through?” It’s so complex, what a struggle.

PM: The sections of the film showing the characters as their younger selves almost become another movie, though you know they’re headed somewhere specific.

FS: Exactly, I like the way you’re drawn into that past part of the story and almost forget the other one for a minute. You throw a whole other color on the emotion that you’re experiencing — from both the older person remembering and the younger one experiencing.

PM: The pub culture is central here, with so many of the characters’ memories tied to it. But those memories seem to be mostly the men’s, though Amy and other women do appear in the scenes.

FS: I think the way it works in most of those pubs — though it certainly didn’t work that way in Australia — is that the guys go over there and the women go over here. So, the guys stand around the bar and do guy stuff and the women sit at tables. It’s very family-oriented too: kids go too. I don’t think the U.S. or Australia has an equivalent. In Australia, women weren’t allowed in the men’s bars until 1976, when I think two women actually chained themselves to the foot rail.

PM: How do you see class working in the film?

FS: Well, the characters are all from East London, they’re of a lower class. Though the distinctions are sort of changing. It even happened in acting. Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, and Tom Courtenay were probably the first to be allowed to use their actual accent. All the actors there are taught what’s called received English, the proper way of talking, and that’s how all English films were, before them. That’s made it possible for a whole generation of actors to act in films and plays about their own lives. Margate, for example, or Southgate, another resort, is where the working class go; the rich go to Brighton. The people who retire to Margate seem to go there quite young, at 62 or something, though they look like they’re 75. They’re out to get the sea air and you see them, dressed in woolen clothing, sitting in their deck chairs. And that’s part of what the film’s about: that’s where they go for their Sunday outings, if they’re lucky enough to have a car. That whole business of picking hops, that’s something they all did, but it’s their holiday. Not the picking, but it got them out in the country, and kind of camping. So, for him to want to go to Margate is pretty creepy.

PM: To do anything other than work, they have to travel.

FS: Yes, well, their life is contained in that one area, but to go to places like Margate, or to the home [where June lives], that’s definitely a schlep.

PM: The journey back in time takes us to WWII. How were you thinking about the war as backdrop?

FS: Oh, that memorial! That’s one thing I didn’t actually do in the film, show the difficulty of finding that memorial, it’s so perverse. There’s no beautiful sweep up to it; you have to go through 20 suburban streets, and then, you’re lucky if you can find it because there’s no signs. In the book there’s this whole thing that they can keep seeing it but can’t get to it: in the sweep of the film, that was like one frustration too many. That generation was defined by that war, having fought in it, and having friendships bonded and friendships lost, only going through Plenty — I made a film called Plenty! — in 1953. It took that long before England started going through good times again.

PM: How has your understanding of the process of filmmaking changed over the years?

FS: If I do an autobiography, it’ll be called “The Films I Didn’t Get to Make.” And that could be more interesting than the ones I did. For a while I was able to make films that are not seemingly commercial, in the mainstream. And over the last 9 or 10 years, that’s not possible anymore. That’s because of the general attitude of the studios, and specific individuals no longer being there, leading to corporatization. And now the costs of marketing have become more expensive than the film in some cases. Therefore, that’s almost negated a whole area of filmmaking. So it’s gone to $80 million and up (international, high action, not hard to follow dialogue) or, each of the companies has formed what they now call “classics” divisions, where they make films for $12 million or less. The more they can make them for less, the more they’re actually doing that.

So, any time that you’re in a middling budget picture, with interesting subject matter, they’re not doing those pictures anymore. If you’re making a $25 or $30 million picture, you’re still going to have to spend $50 million or whatever the figure is, to release it. That’s one of the factors that has sort of made those pictures disappear, and me with it! If I was making Six Degrees of Separation today — which I made for $16 million [in 1993] — I would not get $16 million. I would get $8 million, if I was lucky. And so I wouldn’t be able to make the picture. So I have to go straddle two worlds, go back into independent filmmaking. I’ve found one or two mainstream films lately, but they almost always come crashing down. I was going to do Don Quixote with John Cleese and Robin Williams, but it was $16 million, and so, though we got money from foreign sources, but couldn’t get any out of American, because, they said, it was “episodic.”

PM: Um, most U.S. movies are episodic.

FS: Shhh! Don’t tell them that! In fact, I was doing Shipping News for a while, but I was doing it with John Travolta, and with his expenses, it was up around $55 million. But they didn’t want to do that book for that money; they wanted to make a more conventional story if they were going to spend so much. Or, I was doing I Was Amelia Earhart, a script I had done, a beautiful piece. Even working very cleverly, it would have cost about $30 million. It needs a romantic sweep, to show her joy of flying. You don’t pull that out of a hat: you’ve gotta wait for the light and the conditions [to shoot]. But they wanted to rewrite the script for $20 million. No, then it’s not that script; it’s this script. Then that went away. The trouble is, if you don’t hook them in on a certain scale, they can dispense with a picture too easily. They put it out there and put a minimum amount of advertising into it. And if the public picks it up, as you’re witnessing with In the Bedroom, suddenly, it’s terrific. But for an In the Bedroom, how many pictures did Miramax dump? They put all their eggs in one basket. That breaks your heart: if you get to make the picture, then it gets killed in theaters.

The world I want to go back to is one much like the one I had [for Last Orders]. I had complete control. Yes, the money didn’t turn up when I was shooting, and yes, I only had $9 million, and yes, I only had 42 days to shoot it. But I had great actors who came and wanted to act: they were playing parts that were in their very souls and they were excited to act with one another. Even the young people: they’re going to be the Michael Caines and Helen Mirrens of the future. They came so full of energy. It was raining and cold, and when a bit of sun peeped out, there they were in their thin summer shirts and dresses, and they’d plop down in the mud and pretend it was hot out.

And I was able to give what I can give. When I did commercials, I was quite arrogant, probably, though I didn’t think of it as arrogance. I thought of it as: when you came to me, I always knew that I was able to take you to the best place you could go, and you wanted to go there, you just didn’t know it existed. As I know there are plenty of places that I don’t know exist, that are beyond my ability or knowledge. I’m always sort of scratching to get up there. But I know that, and a lot of people don’t know that. And they’re so scared of it that they try to pull it down to their level. And though they hire you, they don’t let you do what you do. I kind of vowed never to do that again, and to that end I’ve written a number of projects, two originals, two from novels, and one from a play, all of which I’m trying to get made.

PM: It sounds like you have a lot in the pipeline.

FS: Well, the other thing is, you’ve got to live. In the last 9 years, since Six Degrees, I only did two [films] for which I really got paid, and then you go and do a project like Last Orders, which you love, but you don’t really get paid much for that. If the opportunity comes along to get a bit of money and it’s a good thing, then you sort of take that chance, because that’s going to buy you the time to do the other stuff. The stupid thing to do is someone else’s passion project, where you don’t get the money or the power, but that’s another story. The joy of doing something like Last Orders, it’s fantastic. You can feel it on the set every day.