John Duigan is one of a handful of Australian filmmakers who have been able to achieve both national and international success: He is probably best known as the writer/director of the critical and commercial hit Sirens, as well as the similarly well-received semi-autobiographical films The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Duigan's latest film, Lawn Dogs, is the intense, surreal story of the friendship that develops between an imaginative little girl (Mischa Barton) and the socially ostracized outsider (Sam Rockwell) who mows the lawns of her gated community. The Onion recently spoke to Duigan about Lawn Dogs, why Australians make better movies about teenagers, and why he didn't direct Little Women.
The Onion: What attracted you to the script for Lawn Dogs?
John Duigan: I think it said some very interesting things about developments in the culture, about the phenomenon of the gated community that in a sense builds a wall around itself to keep the rest of the world out, and about the implications of a very imaginative child who feels and is stilted by the forces of conformity around her. But maybe even more so, I found the usage of the fairy-tale story very unusual, the way she adapts an old fairy tale to her own reality and completely re-interprets it, but with just as much force subverting the expectations of the original story. The cautionary tale about the dark stranger living in the woods is changed, so that the dark stranger actually lives within her own community, or maybe even in her own family.
O: What sort of preparation did you do for the film in terms of researching your suburban setting?
JD: I spent quite a lot of time in the gated community during the pre-production period. I got to know a few people who were living there, and I basically spent all times of the day there seeing how it works visually. I was impressed by the fact that in the morning, you see all the cars coming out of their garages and leaving, and then the only people you would see for the rest of the day until people returned home were the people tending the lawns. I was working with details written by [screenwriter] Naomi Wallace, who lives very close to the area we filmed. So she, as a Kentucky native, is responsible for a lot of the authenticity of the story.
O: How difficult was it making a film with a 10-year-old protagonist?
JD: Well, I'd thought it would be the single hardest task to find a girl who could do justice to what is such a complex and multi-layered role, and initially we thought that maybe we'd have to get an older girl. But when we auditioned older girls, it was clear that the scenes played differently. The film is not by any means a "Lolita" story, and if we'd cast a 13- or 14-year-old who was going through adolescence, some of the scenes would have had a very different feel. We wanted someone who was highly intelligent, who knew about sex in the way that contemporary children at that age do, but not someone who was going through the physical pangs of early adolescence. We were able to find someone who was actually 10 [Barton], and she was a marvelous person to work with; she had a very strong ability to concentrate on the task at hand, and whenever the cameras were switched off, she went back to being a little girl, and we'd play hide and seek, and she'd have me give her piggy-back rides, and we'd go down to the creek to look for turtles and that sort of thing. She was very good. I worked with her in the same way I would work with an adult. I worked with her and Sam Rockwell for two weeks beforehand, and she would take notes on her script and talk about the part in the third person. She loves acting, which is a great help, and she'd actually gone into acting herself: She persuaded her parents to send her to a camp where they did drama, and got completely wrapped up in that. She has a very mature attitude toward it.
O: You mentioned Lolita earlier, and though it's a far different film, Lawn Dogs also deals with certain aspects of the burgeoning sexuality of children. Were you concerned that your film might have a difficult time finding an audience, given the problems that the new version of Lolita has had getting released?
JD: It was a concern, yes. We felt that the story really doesn't enter into much common ground with that film, although inevitably there will be people who will tend to or want to read it more from that direction. But the film is multi-layered, and it deals more with issues of class and alienation as well as friendship across generations. What it is saying is that if there can't be friendships between adults and children, we're all the poorer for it. It's in this climate where there is so much attention paid to child abuse, it sometimes reaches a level where adults themselves begin to feel uncomfortable demonstrating affection toward children because of the way it might be perceived. And I think that's really sad, for both adults and children alike. Obviously, the film doesn't attempt to deny the real dangers that exist; in fact, one of the other characters actually almost interferes with Devon [the 10-year-old protagonist] within the context of the fact that her parents are so self-absorbed that they are completely unaware of it.
O: Australian films in general have a reputation for dealing with teenagers and adolescents in a way that is less formulaic and more honest than American films of the same sort. Why do you think that is?
JD: It's hard to say. I think it has to do with the Puritan tradition in American culture. If you're brought up in Australia, you go to the beach, and all the women are lying around topless, and nobody thinks twice about it. People speak frankly about sexual issues, and it's no big deal. Here, if you take your top off on the beach, you're likely to be fined by somebody patrolling along the beach. I think that because of the Puritan tradition in America, there is a very strange bias against the depiction of sexuality: You can have the most lurid scenes of violence and mayhem in films, but if you have anything more than a relatively tame depiction of sexuality, you run the risk of arousing the wrath of the censors. It's peculiar, I think, to Europeans or Australians, that aspect of the society: It actually succeeds in driving a lot of activities underground. There's probably just as much activity, but it's all under a cloud of pervertedness and guilt.
O: After the success of Sirens, were you offered the chance to direct a lot of big Hollywood films?
JD: Yes, I was offered quite a few. Little Women, for example. Free Willy I was offered either just before or just after Sirens. There were a few other ones I chose not to do for a variety of different reasons. With a film like Little Women, I felt that since the book was much-loved, it would be difficult to really reinvent it in an interesting way, to the extent I would have liked. I've always been open to doing a larger-budget film if I felt the material was interesting enough, and if I felt that I would be able to make the film I want to make. But friends of mine like George Miller, who was one of my regular producers in Australia, have had very negative experiences with studios here, and he's decided he probably won't risk it again.