With the release of "Shine" back in 1996, Scott Hicks suddenly found himself basking in the light with a Best Director nomination and a spot on Hollywood’s A-list. Starring Geoffrey Rush as real-life pianist David Helfgott, the film launched the Australian actor’s career, earning him an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actor. He followed that with "Snow Falling on Cedars," an adaptation of the bestselling novel by David Guterson, "Hearts in Atlantis" and, more recently, "No Reservations," all of which sputtered at the box office. Now he’s back with one of the most talked-about films of the season, "The Boys Are Back," starring Clive Owen as a widower trying to piece together a life for himself and his two sons. Here, Hicks talks about working with actors, his own strengths and shortcomings as a father, and the fate of character-driven drama.
"Shine" was over a decade ago. Is it getting harder to make character-driven dramas?
It is more difficult. But as long as there are directors and actors who are willing to commit themselves to doing these things, it can happen.
The problem is tere’s always an opportunity with a smaller film to make a bigger profit — it’s just not on the scale that people want. It’s billions they’re after, not the old $100 million. When you make a film like "Shine," which was made for $4 million and grossed over a hundred, it’s the equivalent of a billion-dollar movie.
So why does everything today have to be so big?
Piracy makes everything so vulnerable that the bigger scale you can make it — the bigger 3D and the bigger theatrical movie experience you can make it — you make it harder for the pirates to catch up. I think that’s what 3D is about. I think 3D is about making it desirable to still go to the theater. Then pirates will figure out how to make 3D DVDs, and the studios will have tol find something else.
In "The Boys Are Back," you’ve got Clive playing a widower trying to raise two sons. How essential was it for the actor in this role to be a parent?
Though it isn’t essential, it definitely informs it on another level. Clive brought things from his personal life. He’d say to me, "There’s this thing that my daughter does — would that be interesting?" So it was infused with his own experience and some of mine as well.
How did your own experience affect it?
When you’re off for six months on a film, and you’ve got a 5-year-old at home gazing out the window saying, "I want to die cause daddy’s gone away" — that sort of thing is very hard to accommodate. Then you come back and you step in the role of parenting, it’s resented a bit, you know, cause, "Where have you been? How come you can come back now and tell me what to do?" So you have to re-earn your position of authority.
Of course, it’s better than in the old days, the ’80s, before cell phones and Ichat and e-mails and such. Then, if I was away in China, for instance, five months shooting a documentary series, you make a 15-minute phone call from your hotel room, it’s $500. Clearly, communication’s going to be really sporadic.
What about working with the kids? How do you even get a kid to clean his room, let alone deliver a performance like that?
It’s definitely a challenge. I talked with Clive about this a lot beforehand, too. I said, “Look, there are going to be days when it’s just not going to be there — he’ll be tired and we don’t want that, so we’re going to have to find something else to do.” And Clive was so prepared to embrace that. So he had a lot of patience as well. He’s an unusual person in that he’s very – he wears it well. Y’know, he’s very comfortable in his own skin.
You could easily have slipped into mawkishness with this movie…
Part of it was keeping the character’s rough edges, those unsympathetic moments where he yells at the kid, "You want go? Fine, go! Pack your bag and you can get out now!" … to a 6-year-old who’s grieving. That was very important to both Clive and me, and not every actor could pull it off. But when he came to the set, he already knew what the collective idea was for this scene, and sometimes I’d say, "Look, just push it a little bit more." You grow to trust each other.
You seem to put a lot of emphasis on communication …
I don’t sit and look in the monitor because you’re robbed of a huge percentage of the emotion in people’s eyes. I also want to be the first person they look to when I say, "Cut." If I’m over there buried behind monitors, everyone moves in, makeup artists, and everybody’s doing their business. I want them to get the first feedback from me.
So, this film has gotten a lot of buzz. How do you know when people congratulate you that it’s not just Hollywood bulls—?
When you meet the Hollywood Foreign Press, and they come and shake your hand and say, "I loved ‘Shine‘!" you know they’re just being very sweet because they don’t really like the new film.
Or "I love the music in your movie!"
Exactly! But when they go, "I love this movie!" — they don’t have to say that.
Well, it’s a terrific movie.