Bert Deling

2009 shall henceforth be known as the year in which forgotten Australian classics were resurrected from the brink of obscurity. In ’09 Ted Kotcheff’s dusty outback thriller Wake in Fright finally gets a cinema and DVD release along with director Bert Deling’s slighter but nonetheless notable Pure Shit, a racy drug drama about heroin addicts in Melbourne who traverse the city in reckless pursuit of their next hit, bustin’ pharmacies, evadin’ the cops, meetin’ shady dealers. Made in 1975, the film has lingered on the precipice of existence for 34 years. Pure Shit never aired on television, was never released on VHS and screened at cinemas briefly. In 1975 it was banned, then quickly un-banned and then released with a subdued title (Pure S…). It is now widely accessible for the first time, available on DVD in a swanky three disc box set.

Author and Crikey! contributor Bob Ellis, described by Deling as “a champion of the film from day one” (more on that later) implored audiences to “crawl over 5 miles of dirty heroin syringes to see it.” This was in stark contrast to the 1975 film review from the Melbourne Herald’s Andrew Mckay, who called Pure Shit “the most evil film I’ve ever seen” (more on that later too). Like it or loathe it, Pure Shit now at last has a real chance at finding an audience. To mark its DVD release, the loquacious and fascinating Bert Deling (now 60) sat down for a yak with Cinetology.

Bert DelingBold, exciting and progressive Australian films are pretty rare. Pure Shit was one of them. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what other forgotten or never discovered films lie buried under the rubble?

It opens up a couple of interesting questions. It opens up the question of how it is that we have had a film funding organisation in Australia that for last 25 years has continued to make films no one wants to see.

They are the same 12 or so people who made all this crap in the past that no one wants to see. They get hold of a hundred percent of all the governments’ money. In any other country, that would be considered to be a scandal! And you can see what the aim is – these f***ers who may have made two or three features, bland sort of things which get two weeks at some art house cinema here and never sell overseas, they want a big kill. They want to get a big budget film, and they’ll make that and then they’ll disappear, leaving the Australian film industry in a smoking ruin. I just don’t get it. They are going to smash it to pieces. They’re going to take all the money and make a couple of really disastrous films and so therefore people will say ‘well we couldn’t make low budget films and here we are trying to make big budget films and they don’t work either.’

If you were making Pure Shit nowadays, I assume you’d be shooting it on a digital camera. Is that right?

For me, if the penny will drop, I wish I was like 40 years younger because the digital technology just opens the whole thing up. You don’t need the government anymore! If you can look at Pure Shit and say shit that’s pretty good and they made it using all that old fashioned and expense stuff called film, and you can do it digitally now, then the question is why isn’t it happening? When I first sort of tweaked to it a few years ago I thought wacko, here we go.

I was talking to this bloke who owns this extraordinary video store in Brisbane and talking about some of the better brains around the place. Young, smart people who want to get a t least a career where you can make your films with a budget – some kind of budget, not stupid budgets but a budget – the only way they can see their way in is to make splatter films.

When I was 23 or 24 I considered any kind of film was available to me and if I wanted to write as well as direct, which I did, I could make a film about anything. But we’re getting a generation of our best and brightest who see one very narrow path through the whole thing and – I think this is a perfectly rational assessment since they’ve probably tried the straight away and tried to go through the government funded things and been knocked back – that it’s an extraordinary distortion of a whole generation’s best minds. But this all opens it up now and there’ll be something soon. There’s gotta be something soon, like Pure Shit, where somebody wants to go out and make a film and doesn’t give a flying f*** what the middle class say. And they can do it. You could almost do it on a halfway decent credit card.

You’ve described Bob Ellis as ‘a champion of the film from day one.’

When I was in Melbourne on the circus the other week I did this ABC radio program which was their highest rating program. I turned up for that and as it turns out Ellis was on a similar circus because he’s got a new book out. So Bob and I are the two subjects for this hour. Now the normal person – a chap called Jon Faine, whose brilliant at what he does – he must have been sick or something and this was this young bloke who was sitting in his seat and it was obviously a giant step forward for him in terms of moving up in his career and he hadn’t done it very often. Ellis and I walk in and sit down. He’s sort of doing the intro and Ellis reaches into his bag and pulls out a bottle of scotch and puts it down on the table. I looked at him and he looked and me and we went oh well, f*** it – and we started slugging scotch whiskey out of this bottle while the conversation is proceeding! This poor bastard sitting behind the desk was getting more and more wild eyed and desperate for the hour to finish.

It’s terrific that Pure Shit has finally been released on DVD, in a swanky three disc box set. Can you tell me a little about how this process evolved?

Beyond’s (Beyond Entertainment) theory about the whole thing is to preach to the choir, basically. The existing group of people who will like the film. They’ve produced posters that no self-respecting video store will put in their window. Neil Foley, who works for Beyond, this has been his holy crusade. He went to his bosses and said ‘I want to put some energy behind this film’ and Christ only knows what they thought of it when he showed it to them. When he rang me up and said we want to distribute the film I thought that’s terrific, you know, because they’ll make a nice clean disc of it in a nice plastic box and within a month anybody who’s interested can pick it up in the $10 remainder bins. That’s not me being cynical or anything, that’s sort of where I was at. I wanted the film to be available in a nice clean print, which it hasn’t been for yonks. And then it all sort of kind of expanded into this whole thing driven by him.

Regardless of what people think of the film, it was enormously progressive. Is it correct that Pure Shit was interpreted back in the 70s as a pro-drug movie?

In those days, at least in our minds, there were good drugs and bad drugs. Smoking dope and acid were good drugs and heroin was a bad drug and we were just trying to make that distinction, you know. We’re not preaching about acid, we’re not preaching about smoking dope or any of that stuff. But this is a very special question here. And so there was that. They kept calling it a pro-drug movie because it wasn’t a stupid anti-drug movie. So therefore we were seen as pro-drug.

When I first watched Pure Shit at ACMI in May it struck me as a fast and edgy film. Some old flms feel like investments when you watch them nowadays, but this one is still very entertaining and fast-paced. Why do you think the film has dated so well?

There’s two reasons. In my opinion, the two directors who have spoken to me most directly over the years are Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks. None of the films they made have dated. Why has Pure Shit not dated? Two reasons. First, before we began the film, I sat everybody who was going to work on it down and showed then Hawks’s His Girl Friday, which to me is still one of the fastest films ever made. I said look guys – when we’re on location I’ll ask you to speak faster and to cut all the gaps out of what’s being said.

You know this is the crazy thing about it: people say the dialogue (in Pure Shit) is improvised. Any filmmaker who looks at that film knows that it cannot be improvised because improvised dialogue has heaps of gaps. There are no gaps. It’s quick. I have this theory that you when you’re shooting everybody – no matter if it’s a slow scene or a fast scene – everybody must speak about 10 percent faster. It feels unnatural when you’re on the set but when it’s blown up big it slows everything down to natural. And that’s why it feels naturalistic – it feels like you’ve just got caught in the madness of these people’s lives. That’s just a simple technical trick that heaps of Australian directors don’t even know about!

Especially when they come from the theatre, know shit about what they’re doing and make a film like Candy, that’s supposed to be about narcotics. So you get a theatre director who comes on and directs people so that they look good, the way they do in the theatre, and it’s slow. The other thing, why Pure Shit has not dated, is they talk Australian. They talk like we talk. Because if you look at the kind of speech that’s done in the theatre over the years it goes through fazes and stages and fashions and all the rest of it. It’s not the way people talk! In Pure Shit they talk like we’re talking now. So on one hand it sounds like real people and on the other hand it moves fast. It’s no great mystery. It’s just simple directing know-how.

There’s a scene where Helen Garner’s character is on speed, and it looks pretty real!

Helen had just arrived (on set) and she was standing outside the house, and she’s looking at the script and she realises there’s three pages of continuous dialogue which she’d never seen before. She’s got this look on her face, going ‘oh my god.’ Well, Garry (Waddell) slipped her a vast quantity of speed prior to her beginning and her confidence rose magnificently! She was shit faced when she did it! And she did it beautifully and ended up with a nomination for best supporting actress for ten minutes of screen time! (Deling starts guffawing)

Audiences are much more liberal in many ways nowadays, but when you’re watching the sort of footage in Pure Shit of people injecting, it’s still very hard hitting, no doubt about that. I wonder how bloody hard hitting it must have been for people watching it in the 70s.

I think that’s a fair question. It’s hard hitting in all sorts of ways, and back then it (street heroin) was just starting. The coppers hadn’t made their arrangement with the crims so that eventually it gets to be like Coles and you can get it anywhere. The main way they were getting their drugs was busting into chemist shops because there wasn’t an organised system.

This guy had been sitting there very quietly as the censor for many years. He was a one-armed person, I presume a war person. In other countries they give blokes like that the job of driving lifts. Well this guy got to be the censor. He’d just be quietly working away in his little cave, you know.

It (the film) was banned out of hand. We figured that the only way to deal with this was to actually shine a light into this organised cave and have him come blinking into the light. So we did. And the minute he had to come out to defend what he’d done, he un-banned it! Now let’s think about that for a second. He banned a film that was supposedly so damaging to the whole human cosmos that no one should see it, but then when he had to stand up and defend it he immediately went ‘ok you can have it.’ It was done on a whim because one way or another it makes no sense.

Andrew Mckay from the Melbourne Herald called the film ‘the most evil film I’ve ever seen.’ How did you react to that review?

We got hit with this review that everyone in Melbourne read. It wasn’t a review really, it was on page 5 of a broadsheet and it took up half of a broadsheet page.

If you actually read his review, what you come to understand is he got his rocks off watching it!… I did a little research on that guy, as you might imagine. Turns out he had his own drug problem. He was an alcoholic, youngish like many journalists are – 30 something  – whose partner had said to him ‘it’s either me or the booze.’ So he stopped drinking before he wanted to. He had his own demons inside him that were just kicked into high drive while he watched Pure Shit.

Right across the board we were confronted with the iron fist of middle class taste, and they’re the men and women who’ve been running the film industry. That’s why we get the sorts of films that we do – because they know what they’re gonna get. They’ve read the script, they know the director, they know the actors who’ve been cast. The film that they get is the film they wanted. And so they and their friends get to see a film they think is perfect, but nobody else does and no one wants to go!

The title is very provocative. Would you have considered giving it a much tamer title?

Yeah. We were stirring. That was the whole point – the free publicity. Ultimately what he (the censor) said to us was ‘call it Pure S and we’ll give it an R.’ We went ‘fine.’ We thought we might have to change the title completely. We had no money. We couldn’t get publicity. We couldn’t pay for ads and stuff, so we thought we’ve have a little stir.

Watch the trailer