The Proposition

You see, Ray Winstone plays Captain Stanley – and delivers an amazing monologue – in The Proposition, but he’s also one of the dwarfs in this Friday’s Snow White and the Huntsman. Yes, that is a stretch, and it’s not the real reason we decided to cover The Proposition in this week’s Commentary Commentary.

It’s the John Hillcoat connection. It’s the fact that the director’s latest, Lawless, played Cannes last week and guess who saw it. We can all torch Simon out of jealousy later. There’s a commentary to get to first.

The Proposition, a Western set against the Australian backdrop and a very realistic depiction of life at that time, was Hillcoat’s first feature film collaboration with Nick Cave, singer, songwriter, screenwriter, rustic harbinger of death. Friends call him Nicky. The film is every bit as somber and depressing as you would expect from the head of the Bad Seeds. The Proposition is so melancholic, you half expect Lars Von Trier to throw a planet in its general direction. You also can’t wait to see what went on with the making of this movie. And that’s where we come in.

So sit back, crack open a Foster’s – which no decent Australian would be caught dead drinking. – and have a gander at all the wonderfully tenebrous and fly-ridden items we learned from listening to Hillcoat and Cave talk about The Proposition.

The Proposition (2006)

commentators: John Hillcoat (director), Nick Cave (writer), lots and lots of flies

  • Hillcoat notes the images that play over the opening credits and how some tribal elders would be and are sensitive to how their ancestors are portrayed in media. The Proposition was always intended to begin this way, showing still images from Australia’s history and what Hillcoat calls “building an empire.” An empire covered in flies. Awesome.
  • “I don’t know if I should give away trade secrets,” says Hillcoat after revealing the monologue Winstone delivers was shot at night, not day as the film suggests. He goes on to say the day they shot the monologue was late in the film’s production and the days in Australia grew incredibly hot. That particular day was 57* Celsius/135* Farenheit causing lights and some of the equipment to melt. The scene was also shot in an iron shed. Hillcoat doesn’t mention whether he has sadistic tendencies, but he does agree with Cave who says the heat is what slowed Winstone down so much in the scene.
  • “There’s a scene where he literally went mad with fury at the flies,” Hillcoat says about Winstone, saying he will point the scene out when it comes up later. And we wait with baited breath.
  • Guy Pearce and Hillcoat shared the belief that most period films get the costumes and sometimes the makeup right, but the teeth were always immaculate and not very true to life of someone living out on the plains. The actor brought his own makeup artist to work on getting everything about his character authentic for the time. “It’s the sort of detail that I think really transports you to another place,” says Hillcoat.
  • The image of the killed man strung up against a building for all to see was taken from a real photo, one that actually appears in the opening credits of the film. The original photo was of one of the Kelly brothers.
  • 19:06 – It’s at this point I realize the commentary is running about 12 seconds behind the image. What’s more, you can hear the film playing as Hillcoat and Cave watch it, so there’s a 12-second echo. It shouldn’t be too distracting to listen to, but definitely a misstep with the DVD package. At least it’s most noticed during a funny part, when Winstone makes his broad comedy – and improvised, as Hillcoat mentions – debut with a run-in with a closed door.
  • “Here’s one of the scenes I had the most fun writing,” says Cave when John Hurt shows up as Jellon Lamb. Hillcoat notes Hurt had a lot of fun playing the part, and the director and writer suggest they had to edit Hurt’s performance down heavily to get the final cut of the scene. “His face is like the landscape here,” Hillcoat says about Hurt.
  • Hillcoat also notes the scene between Hurt and Pearce made the on-set medic very nervous. The actors insisted on keeping their costumes – Hurt’s costume three-layers thick – between takes. The actors also insisted on being on set, and giving full-on performances, for all of the shots of the other actor, primarily in the dialogue sequences. Hillcoat mentions it was this scene that drove the production to night shoots.
  • “That’s my favorite bit,” says Cave at one point. “My favorite line.” Sync issues have a problem with letting us know what line he’s talking about.
  • Upon talking about locations, Hillcoat mentions the art department was the first team at any given locale. He notes they were the ones who had to contend with deadly snakes. He might not have said “deadly”, but you know it’s inferred.
  • While doing research for the film, Hillcoat was amazed to discover the famed, Australian outlaw Ned Kelly‘s biggest fear was Aboriginal trackers, that the natives of the continent were used to help lawmen hunt down fugitives in that time. “That matter-of-fact reality of the Aboriginal exchange at this time effected everything in our story,” Hillcoat says. He and Cave also agree the films about Ned Kelly weren’t interested in showing this aspect of the time. “Especially the last one,” Cave tacks on. The two have a laugh, and somewhere a single tear drops from Gregor Jordan‘s right eye.
  • Hillcoat mentions David Gulpilil, who plays the Aboriginal tracker, kept messing up his lines. The director couldn’t figure out why, knowing Gulpilil’s abilities as an actor. It came out that the other actors Gulpilil was working with were from a different tribe and spoke a completely different language. Hillcoat didn’t discover this until near the end of shooting the scene. “It was more complex than Europe,” says Hillcoat referring to the many differences in the Aboriginal tribes.
  • In the original script, it was a wounded cow stuck with spears that Guy Pearce’s character comes upon, not a dead Aboriginal tracker. They even tried to get the scene filmed the way it was written, but had problems with the cow complying. Neither Hillcoat nor Cave mention this, but you can bet they had steak for dinner the next day.
  • It isn’t long after this that Hillcoat mentions they ate kangaroo regularly. Kangaroo. Australian for “the other white meat.”
  • “What I want to know is why is he sniffing his fucking armpits,” states Cave, who points out this was not in the script. Hillcoat explains this was something the Aboriginal people would do, and the men who lived in the bush with them would pick up this trait. “Okay,” says Cave. “I feel much better now.”
  • The scene between Pearce and Danny Huston where they converse in front of a setting sun was, as Hillcoat says, a “logistical nightmare.” It was a scene they had to keep going back to and picking up bits throughout the production to get all the different angles and all the dialogue just as the sun is setting. Hillcoat points out it was shot over seven different days.
  • Hillcoat and Cave agreed all through the script-writing and pre-production phases that Guy Pearce was the only actor who could play Charlie Burns.
  • Production ran into many issues with the weather. The first town they had set up was washed out from flooding, and a dust storm threatened the scene where Winstone’s Captain Stanley stands up to the townsfolk. Hillcoat, along with the actor’s agreement, of course, decided to shoot the scene dust storm or not. The strong winds captured in the film were real elements the production had to contend with.
  • The clumps of flies on people’s backs during the whipping scene were not planned. Those are real Australian flies who are plotting to take over the planet just as soon as they figure out how to get out of Australia. John Hillcoat just happened to see them amassing one day and got his second unit crew to capture the images. Now the world knows, and we all owe Hillcoat a deep appreciation.
  • To ensure the animals’ performance, Danny Huston created a very real bond with the dog playing his character’s dog in the film. Hillcoat notes the relationship wouldn’t have been nearly as strong or even possible had the actor not done so.
  • One of the historical figures Cave drew on when writing Huston’s character, Arthur Burns, was Grigori Rasputin, the Russian monk. “That scene back there, where he’s looking into the darkness, seems to sum that up well,” the screenwriter says.
  • Hillcoat recollects showing The Proposition at an Irish film festival and asking the audience what they thought of John Hurt’s character’s Irish slurs. They said it was fine, since Hurt was an “honorary Irishman.” Hillcoat also notes the medic on set pointed out how realistic Hurt’s screams in agony when his character is being knifed in the gut. He doesn’t say whether or not Hurt is an “honorary knife wound victim,” but who really wants that?
  • Rodney Boschman, who plays Tobey, came up with the moment where his character takes his shoes off as he’s leaving Captain Stanley’s employment. “For Aboriginals, the contact with the land is very important,” says Hillcoat.
  • 1:22:58 – Nick Cave says, “I’m gonna fuck off and have a fag,” He mentions he doesn’t have anything intelligent to say, but that there’s a cool piece of music coming up. He then does leave Hillcoat to comment for himself.
  • As they shot in the Australian Outback, many of the locations were considered “sensitive areas” by the Aboriginal locals. Hillcoat notes the cast and crew had to go through various rituals to ensure they had concern for the locations safety.
  • It was originally written to have Mike be buried in a desert of red sand, but concerns with the location they had picked out forced them to think of something else. Burying him under a mound of rocks was pulled out on set, but, as Hillcoat mentions, they discovered after the fact that burying someone under rocks is an Irish tradition.
  • Hillcoat mentions a near-fatal car accident he was in during pre-production on The Proposition. Along with his assistant, production designer, and art director, the director was in a car that rolled three times. He very nearly broke his neck in the accident and had to meet the cast – 24 hours after the accident, mind you – with a brace on and a gash on his forehead. Seems a fitting way for the director of The Proposition to meet his cast.
  • Hillcoat and Cave debated on whether or not they should flash back to the Hopkins massacre during the film’s climax when Captain Stanley and his wife are taken captive. “Actually what goes on here is the flashback,” he says.
  • “I had a thousand, different versions of that final line,” says Cave. “And I went back to the original one.”

Best in Commentary

“I wanted to make the violence very real, abrupt and messy and quick. It’s all about how the aftermath, how these wounds can take centuries to heal. How frontiers as nations are built on carnage.” – John Hillcoat

“Our film isn’t violent.” – John Hillcoat

Final Thoughts

As interesting as The Proposition is, this commentary from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave isn’t so much. Hillcoat makes a genuine effort, trying to weed out anecdotes from set and overall thoughts of filming in the Australian Outback. He goes back to mentioning the heat more than a few times and talks about the attempt at authenticity throughout. Cave, on the other hand, is only focused on the music. It would be fine, but much of his contribution is made up of the songwriter saying, “Good music here” or something to that effect.

The sync issue doesn’t end up being all that big of a problem. There are instances where Hillcoat or Cave talk about something specific right when it happens, and you don’t know what they’re referring to. It’s not a big flaw in the commentary, though. Being able to hear the film through their microphones 12 seconds behind where you’re at throws you off here and there.

But all in all, the commentary just isn’t very interesting. Hillcoat commenting with someone else, possibly an actor or production designer on the film, might draw out something far more engaging. Cave, on the other hand, should just steer clear of commentaries altogether. He’s a damn good musician. He’s a fine screenwriter. As a commentator, he’s the opposite of fascinating.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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