TONY BUCKLEY AND EDITING A CLASSIC
by Peter Galvin
About a month ago Alison at the ASE wrote and asked whether I could share some of the things I’ve discovered while researching my forthcoming book 'A Long Way from Anywhere, The Story of 'Wake in Fright' and the Australian Feature Film Revival, 1968-1972'. Of course, I was happy to. Tony has been friend and mentor to me, as he has so many.
So what follows is a bit of ramble, informal, but I hope informative.
One of the many gems I discovered while working on my book was an article originally published in 'Lumiere', in August 1970.** The magazine like most little mags was short-lived, and today only those with long memories or well-stocked home libraries would know it.
The article is a heavily edited record of an event hosted in July that year by the NSW Australian Cinematographer Society at the Commonwealth Film Unit, Lindfield (like so much of our cinematic past that site has been bulldozed). On stage that cold winter's night were MC Don McAlpine, and guests: director Jack Lee, cinematographer John McLean and Editor Tony Buckley.
What's notable about the chat (as published) are the strong opinions, especially and unsurprisingly from Tony.
Still only in his early thirties Tony sounds like a veteran, as well he might. By this time, he had nearly twenty years in the movie business. He had cut Michael Powell’s 'Age of Consent' (1969) and made (in his spare time) 'Forgotten Cinema' (1967) which became a rallying cry for government intervention in support of a feature film industry, moribund since 1945.
Those who know Bucky (as many of his friends call him) understand his personal style; public or private, there’s never ever any waffle. Like Buckley's editing, there's no dead wood. "Producers? They lack taste," Tony said that night in 1970. "I'd lock the doors and keep them out. It's the director's film – and I wish more directors would recognise this."
Tony had only recently finished working on 'Wake in Fright' when he said this, and no doubt he was still reeling from the tensions endured during its four months of post-production. The biggest issue as Tony remembered it, was the attitude the producers had toward the picture they were making. I remember him telling me yarns about penny-pinching, unfair demands and a general air of hostility. To an individual of Buckley’s temperament this sort of thing was indefensible. Work. That was paramount. Anything that got between making the best picture possible was to be stamped out. And fast.
What rankled Tony the most was that director Ted Kotcheff was not "being supported". It was clear to Tony from the moment shooting began in January of 1970 that the movie was special. "I think Ted was very nervous," Tony told me, "it was only his fourth picture." Kotcheff was impressed that Buckley had seen 'Two Gentlemen Sharing' (1969). Director and Editor struck an immediate rapport.
In the 'Lumiere' piece Buckley talks about what he admires most in a director: "One who works the material. Who’ll sit at the Moviola and work the celluloid, that’s important and it’s important to have a close relationship with the director."
This was true of his partnership with Kotcheff on 'Fright'. Still, Buckley found the limits of patience when tolerating Kotcheff's eccentricities. The director installed a hi fi system in Ajax’s editing rooms and 'conducted' along to his favourite Arias…
"Must we have this?” Buckley said, looking over his hornrims at his director, in part-plea, part demand. "Of course, why, it's giving me inspiration!"
“It’s giving me the shits.”
Like all polished crafts people Buckley had certain guidelines he found useful to his own process. He stayed away from the set and liked to find the film in the footage, "it's not a good idea to have any preconceived ideas or opinions before commencing the edit," he said [in 'Lumiere'.]
I once asked Tony about how he and Kotcheff selected the material; who chose to cut certain moments or begin a scene a certain way. Modest to a fault, Buckley insisted that "it was all in Evan Jones screenplay", but a close analysis reveals that this is only partly true of course. Like most edits, cutting 'Wake in Fright' was a case of exploration, experimentation, problem-solving and discovery. "It was a good effort," Tony remembered to me in 2008. "One idea bounced off the other."
Buckley was praised for the film's set pieces, particularly the action sequences, but for him the biggest challenge was the 2-UP sequences (since the activity was the same, the fear was it could become repetitious, or confusing.) "Ted shared notes as thoughts, not instructions, as how one might interpret a scene."
Tony’s inventiveness was apparent in one of the film's best moments. John Grant (Gary Bond) is on the train, daydreaming about his girl, beach, surf. He awakes on the train. Disturbed. That whole sequence, Buckley told me, came about because he could not 'link' Grant's subconscious with his lived experience. He found the solution when running the footage through, taken on the beach. Tony had noticed that at the end of a take, camera operator John McLean had kept rolling. The camera had "swished" violently and abruptly away from Grant’s girlfriend, Robyn, skyward, creating a blur effect. Buckley matches the swish pan to Grant's head rocking back of forth on the train. The effect is powerful and introduces the idea that the film's style would not be 'documentary' at all, but something more poetic, and expressive.
As he notes in his book and elsewhere 'Wake in Fright' was no 'B' movie. Buckley was not at all certain that those 'higher up the food chain' felt the same way! "I was cutting an Eastman colour film in black and white, because it was cheaper!”, Tony told me once. “And that’s never a good idea."
'Wake in Fright's nominal producer was George Willoughby. Decades later he was remembered as English. In fact, he was a Norwegian national who had started his career in the silent days, emigrated to the UK post-WWII and for the next few decades worked on a series of undistinguished pictures. Gentlemanly, soft spoken, always impeccably dressed to suit the moment, Willoughby was also aloof, autocratic and had a tendency to use the inter-departmental memo as a way to create 'discipline' and exert authority.
A dip into the 'Wake in Fright’s production files reveals that Willoughby expressed his opinions in print in a severe tone; 'spanking' the offending crew member or dept. head in terse, patronising language. This to put it mildly, pissed off all involved. Buckley was no exception. Willoughby complained that the edit was taking too long and getting too expensive. Buckley knew the film was supposed to be finished in the UK (where Kotcheff was based.) "I did not think I would finish it," Tony told me in 2008.
Buckley suspected Willoughby was a 'yes' man for 'Wake in Fright's American partners at Group W Films, a subsidiary of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Corp. His job, it seemed to Tony, and everyone else on the picture, was to say ‘no’, and watch the bottom line. "Willoughby was a dandy, and he seemed very old," Thom Noble remembered to me. A Kotcheff friend, editor and Group W Films associate in London, Noble told Willoughby, "don’t touch a frame" after seeing Buckley's cut once the production had returned to England.
There’s evidence to suggest that Willoughby antagonised the executive producers at NLT, 'Wake in Fright's Aussie producers. (NLT had brought the project to Group W Films in 1968; the Americans absorbed half the budget, guaranteed a Nth. American rel. and demanded director, script and star approval and brought in Willoughby who had made a couple of pics with GWF.)
Buckley was offended by the attitude of Group W Films and NLT. "I'll never forgive them." What was not clear, was exactly why NLT's Bill Harmon had in Tony's words 'disappeared' during post-production. Harmon was Fright's champion inside NLT but he was struggling to stand up to Willoughby, and he had no feature film experience other than NLT-Group W's other co-venture, 'Squeeze a Flower' (1970). The truth was NLT was a company coming apart. Overextended, somewhat chaotically organised, Harmon and the other NLT executives were, in the autumn of 1970, trying to stem the financial haemorrhaging with new deals and schemes. NLT ceased trading by the beginning of 1972.
Tony was, by the end of 1970, already thinking about a career move. "There were better Editors around, and only so much work." His experience on 'Wake in Fright', surrounded by 'inept' producers, actually inspired him. While cutting the 'Roo hunt, he bought a cheap paperback. It was a true story about a Sydney barmaid struggling to survive in the Depression. Buckley thought it might make a good movie.*
As for 'Wake in Fright', Buckley is enormously proud of it, and much of its cinematic power lies within his brilliant edit, a contribution he typically sums up as 'good teamwork'.
*This was 'Caddie', 1976. Produced by Anthony Buckley, Directed by Don Crombie, written by Joan Long.
** ‘Jack Lee, John McLean Tony Buckley on Filmmaking' by Max Taylor in 'Lumiere', August, 1970
This piece is based on author interviews and drawers upon the business files of NLT held at the Mitchell, Library Sydney.
PETER GALVIN is a writer and filmmaker. He has written about cinema and filmmaking for over thirty years. In 2004 he was one of a small team who established the original Sydney Film School where he taught screen writing and was Head of Screen Studies (2004-2017). He was Program Director at Popcorn Taxi 2004-2006. He has worked in a number of roles for Screentime, Fox, and Film Australia.
(eNews 106 - October 2021)