An Interview with James Currie, Sound Designer for Rolf de Heer
By D. Bruno Starrs.
What do you think is Rolf de Heer’s ideological stance in his films?
you’re going to examine Rolf de Heer’s ideological stance, and you can
only do it in bits, the first bit you wish to examine is crew selection.
That’s a fundamental base. It’s almost important as, from my perspective,
almost important as the casting of his work. Because the two form the
building blocks that enable him to have the realization of his script,
of his idea, of his dream. He’s a dreamer. He dreams wonderful things.
When we did Bad Boy Bubby  for example, I never questioned
that it was a creative work that somebody had come out of their head
and then put it all down. However, when we went to
I just thought I’d toss that in.
Talking about particular films of Rolf’s, with Dr. Plonk  he’s made a silent film. Do you think that Rolf de Heer doesn’t care about sound?
Absolutely not. No, Rolf de Heer’s care for sound is possibly the highest that you could imagine. And he involves himself in all levels of the sound work as well. Apart from Dr. Plonk, which he brought through as a musical score, I mean it’s a silent film in the sense that it was shot as a silent film, but it has a musical score that accompanies the work. We discussed how the audience would receive the music. What intention should we have in trying to create the idea of an old time musical? So, for example, we used various combinations of reverb. So although we only had these conversations right at the end of the film, in a short space of time, well, having worked with Rolf for 20 years, it was quite possible because we’re both maneuvering and moving in the same plane.
Another example: the jumping off point for Rolf and I into a different creative world was Bad Boy Bubby. The first third of the film were recorded by Rolf himself. He knew what he needed, so he went off with a recorder and a mike, by himself, into the factory area and found the sound that he wanted and came back and said to me “Here, work with this.” I can’t think of many directors that first of all have that level of involvement or have the skills to pick up the recording gear and say, “Yep, I’ll be back”, and off he went and found stuff and said, “Look, here, work with this”.
Before that there was [Incident at] Raven’s Gate . Rolf came into the edit suite just mucking around, and he looks - in those days there were dubbing charts with the tracks all laid out, streamers on them - and he said, “Good, very good.”
He said, “What are these tracks?”
He said, “There’s only two of them.”
And I said, “Yeah, that’s right, everything else is in line. The other hundred and so tracks in line.”
And he said, “I thought this was Dolby Stereo. Why are there only two tracks in Stereo?”
So, already, at Raven’s Gate, at that early stage of his career, he was beginning to question the medium and the method, and incorporating it into his thinking.
“Why are there only two tracks if this is called Dolby Stereo?” “Where is the . . .”
So then we began a discussion and I guess we learnt from each other over 20 years.
So when it comes to things like The Tracker , we knew pretty well what we were going to do beforehand and the basis of everything that we’d learnt and put together resolved itself in Ten Canoes .
Back to Bad Boy Bubby, he used 32 cinematographers but only one sound designer, yourself, and one composer, Graham Tardif. Why do you think he was prepared to experiment with the vision and not the sound?
Oh, we were experimenting with the sound. Oh yeah.
The lead actor, Nick Hope, had two microphones ala the binaural
setup, and that was Rolf’s idea. People gave me the credit for it. And
I said “No, it’s not my idea. It’s Rolf’s.” Rolf road-tested the microphones.
We put it on the hat that he wears. And we went off and went into traffic,
we went into shops, we went around the factory area, in and out of buildings,
with me trailing behind with a recorder. So, oh yeah, Bad Boy Bubby
was a big experiment in sound right from the start. And then we read
in a magazine that there was this new MS microphone from Neumann in
Academics, Anna Hickey-Moody and Melissa Iocco, suggested in Metro Magazine that the label ‘aurator’ be used for a person who goes to one of Rolf de Heer’s films. Aurator. What do you think of that term?
What does ‘aurator’ mean?
Oh, okay. Rolf was also a bit dumbfounded with that term. Well, they suggested that for the person in the audience of a Rolf de Heer film, sound is more important than vision. Rather than being a spectator, they are an ‘aurator’.
Cinema overall is 70% sound. Because your ears are far more developed than your eyes. You cannot stop yourself hearing, even if you put your finger in your ears, you still hear. Because it goes through the cheek bones and everything. But eyes are . . . you can shut your eyes and that’s it.
See, the interplay of music with an audience is so special because no matter what the picture does, the music can take them to a new way of considering the image. It’s a transporter. And I regard atmospheres as being on the same continuum. They transport people. They fix the audience. Whether it’s done intellectually or whether it’s sub-conscious, I don’t know. It takes them and puts them in a special spot.
Do you think Rolf de Heer’s films give a voice to marginalized people? People who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice - women, children, Aboriginal people, for example?
If you’d said to me ‘Does Rolf de Heer show great concern with the environment and the damage done to the environment by the human race?’, I would have said definitely, ‘Yes’. Does he give a voice to marginalized people? Yeah, you could argue that. Well there was the lass with cerebral palsy in the wheelchair [in Dance Me To My Song (1997)]. I mean, yeah. That’s Heather Rose. There’s the Aboriginal people from Ramingining [in Ten Canoes]. But what it did for the people from Ramingining is it gave them a memory. It projects: ‘Yes, they are humorous, they are intellectual, they are an embodiment of their 40,000 years of culture’. Yeah. They’re very proud. They thanked us for assisting them to have a memory for their Aboriginal youth. So that’s how I view Ten Canoes. I mean Ten Canoes was a huge responsibility, because if it wasn’t accepted by the white society, then we would have made something only for ourselves and the Aboriginal community, but its aim was to rest as a document with the Aboriginal community and also go out to the wider world to inform, to entertain. We weren’t sure of that bit because it’s in Ganalbingu and [laughing] there’s not a white person in it!
You know even the ‘Making Of’ documentary [The Balanda and the Bark Canoes (dir. Molly Reynolds, Tania Nehme and Rolf de Heer 2006] was careful that there were only flashes of white people, the rest was focused by Molly Reynolds on the craftsmanship of the canoe making and how Ten Canoes evolved.
But, you only underestimate Rolf de Heer at your peril. I can tell you. And don’t try and second-guess him. Because who would have thought, 15 minutes after we’d finished the last bit of Ten Canoes, the Dolby guy had just left, Rolf said “I’ve got a bit of an apology to make to you, mate.”
I said, “Oh. What’s that?”
He said, “My next film is going to be a silent film.”
Well, I thought it was one of his Dutch jokes. He’s a very good jokester. He keeps a straight face. But it was true! [laughing]. So you wouldn’t have suspected that, would you? Then, during the making of Dr Plonk,, I said to him “So the next one is going to be a musical? A cowboy musical with horsemen singing in the desert?”
It’s not: “I’m going to do something totally out of left field.” Since Bad Boy Bubby, Rolf has never taken a backward step. He’s always gone to something new, something that challenges him. So it’s not a “I’m going to do something right off the wall this time, I’m going to do something unexpected like Alexandra’s Project .” We went from The Tracker, Alexandra’s Project, Ten Canoes, to Dr Plonk.” I mean, it’s, it’s just who he is.
Do you think Rolf de Heer is a particularly macho sort of director?
No, definitely not. No. No. In fact, because he came
At the gym that I train at, there are young guys who go to the movies a lot. They like films with action and car chases and explosions and blood and guts, and not many of them have seen a Rolf de Heer film. Why do you think Rolf doesn’t make films for that demographic?
I can only answer for why Rolf doesn’t make violent, or a different type of genre film, those car chases and smash and grab things. Years ago he was offered a large amount of money, that would have set him up for life, to do one of the Chainsaw Massacre films.
And me included said to him, “Well, why are you not doing this? You’d get a million US or whatever they pay these directors …”
And he said, “Because I can’t show it to my children.”
Now that was that and we’ve never discussed it again. And he knows that I don’t like violence in films, I don’t like mistreatment of children in film. I back off that. I’ve not done some films because, whether it makes any difference to the filmmaker or not, because they have … in the script there is denigration of children. Not interested. “Oh well, this is a demonstration …” No. You can do those demonstrations in real-world documentaries. It’s not in my lexicon, or Rolf’s, to do so.
What do you think an auteur is? And is Rolf de Heer an auteur?
Oh yeah, is Rolf de Heer an auteur? Yes, he is. Absolutely.
And there are only two of them in
It is a very loaded term.
Well used, isn’t it?
It’s well used. And often misused. And sort of misunderstood. The people who coined it, the French critics in the 1950s, were primarily interested in the visual signature of a filmmaker.
Perhaps because after WWII, when they’d been denied
most of the Hollywood films, they were suddenly swamped with
Do you think that Rolf de Heer is an ‘aural’ auteur?
Yeah. Because, let me give you an example of Rolf de Heer’s measure of the integration of sound. So if he’s an aural auteur . . . this is when we were in South America, with The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, we were having a meeting, a multi-national crew, there are Dutch, there are Belgiums, there are French, there are Australians. And at that meeting, Rolf stood up and says “One more thing, in a lot of this film, the sound is actually more important than the picture.”
I heard the DOP fall off his chair.
And that would have been a stunning revelation to everybody else for Rolf to say publicly what he and I discuss, and of course the Australian sound crew suddenly were walking on air, because the director had stood up in front of the whole 60 or 70 people and said that.
So how does that make him an aural auteur? An auteur of sound?
He’d already heard the jungle. He’d understood its
interrelationships. He understood its interrelationship with the principal
character, which was the old man [Richard Dreyfuss]. He knew how the
jungle affected the old man and the jaguar, and their relationship.
So he was already building those things in his head before we’d even
started. He and I had been to all the locations in
We built up this expectation between us that I’ll
bring back from these locations a catalogue of sounds available. From
The Tracker we came back with about 8 hours of different sounds
of Arkaroola [in
Part of Bruno Starrs PhD: "Aural Auteur: Sound in the Films of Rolf de Heer"
See Bruno Starrs academic publications
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