After a few lean years, actor ERIC BANA has an astounding five films out this year including big Hollywood blockbuster Star Trek, his return to comedy with Funny People, and his own directorial debut Love the Beast. He tells Simon de Bruyn what keeps him invigorated.
At the Star Trek world premiere JJ Abrams said he always wanted to work with you. How does a role like this come up? Did you always want to do a villain, or was it just a matter of him approaching you?
It was a combination. I’m a big fan of JJ and I always wanted a chance to work with him; I just think he’s got incredible taste and amazing skill and eye as a director. He originally wasn’t going to direct the film, he was going to produce and read the script and just fell in love with it, and realised it would just be a monster if he wasn’t directing it himself, he had such a strong reaction to it.
And I was similar, my agent told me about it, and I was like, “Mate, I really don’t think that’s going to be for me” and he said, “Trust me, just read it”. And I read it and immediately fell in love with it – 30 pages in I knew I was going to see the film regardless. I knew that whoever would play Kirk and Spock would have two of the greatest introductory roles of all time, and then Nero appeared and I saw that it was going to be a hell of a lot of fun.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to play a villain, I just thought it was a great supporting character in a great film and had that sense of fun on the page that was there when I saw the film for the first time.
Are you a fan of the Star Trek series at all?
When I was a kid the TV show was pretty popular but I didn’t really get into the movies. I’d say I read it as someone who is not a huge sci-fi person, but just likes a good film. If it was not called Star Trek I would probably have still done it, on its own as a piece of work I really liked it.
How do you prepare for a role like this, not just with the geek pressure of doing a Star Trek film, but for a character like this who is so hell bent on revenge – is there any real preparation?
I barrack for St Kilda so we haven’t won a flag since 1966, so I can relate to Nero in some ways…
There’s a fine line between research and preparation and this wasn’t a role that required a lot of research, it was just a role you prepared for. I had a lot of conversations with JJ in the pre production period, and obviously using the script as a guide, and you try to come up with something that feels true and feels right and is somewhat interesting to you and hopefully the audience.
It was a rare case of playing a character where you really have to invent most of it. We haven’t seen him before, its not like you’re playing an historical figure, there’s a freedom which comes with that which I love.
Now you’ve got this major film like Star Trek and at the same time you’ve got this highly personal doco Love the Beast, second highest grossing Australian doco ever.
I love that statistic.
You made yourself very vulnerable in that film. You can chew up the scenery in these Hollywood films like Star Trek, but in this film you had friends and family on screen, and peeled back the veneer of celebrity a bit. Was it cathartic for you and are you still comfortable that you put so much of yourself in public view?
I didn’t actually find it that personal. I mean the guiding principle behind every scene in the documentary was how it connects to the car. So the extent that you share your life as it relates to your relationship with the car and the same for everybody else, I was very comfortable.
You never came into my house, you never met my family really, my wife talks for a couple of minutes about the danger and how it relates to her but, it’s weird, in some way as a director and editor I distanced myself a bit and treated myself just like another character I guess.
Obviously it’s a lot more personal than my other films, but I never felt like it was some huge expose or anything like that, and like I said the guiding principle behind everyone that spoke on camera or who was involved was that they were sharing their life as it relates to their relationship with the car. So that’s what made it easy in a way.
Did you ever hope it could connect this way with audiences? That’s always the aim, isn’t it?
Yeah you hope don’t you? What I underestimated was the emotional response to it. It ended up being a film more about the audience than about me which was really satisfying.
Especially in my age group I think they really identified really strongly with the subtext of this is as much about how we pass through our lives from one period to another – in my case it was 15 to 38 on screen – and how much our lives move along, and how friendships move and you evolve and you get older, get married, have kids, people get divorced, all these things happen.
So with that subtext I kind of underestimated how strong the emotional response would be to that with people, and they tended to make the film more about them and their lives, so that was a huge thrill.
Some of that is a result of decisions you made in the editing room as well. I read somewhere that there was a whole Ford vs. Holden rivalry digression which you ended up leaving out to focus on the core story.
Yeah there was a lot of stuff we left out.
Did you learn anything from that editing process which you could then reapply to something else you might do?
I think I learnt so much making the film and working with a fantastic guy like Conor O’Neill on the edit, he was just great. We had probably the most perfect post production relationship you can have, and we’re close friends now.
It was really special, and we edited for a long time and we went through periods where we’d just shut the edit down and I’d go off to do something like Star Trek and I’d be able to do paper edits while I was away and just keep thinking, and I think the film benefited from being shelved occasionally.
So we’d get a good run of editing and then we’d stop for three months, and then come back and you would have in your head explored a dozen other ideas that were fresh and you wanted to go back in and develop. It’s hard because you’ve got 160 hours of footage and you’ve got a basic structure in your head but so many different ways to explore that.
In the end I just tried to remind myself that it wasn’t a film about the history of cars and I was trying to get to the emotional core and stay on track with that, so that became the guiding principle through the editing process.
Do you want to direct again?
I’d love to for sure. I’d definitely love to do something else, whether it’s a doco or a film I don’t know, but more likely to be a narrative. It would probably be self generated; it would probably be something I’d write or co-write; I don’t tend to read scripts with an eye to direct.
I really love the post production period and I love the shooting and I obviously would have loved to have got even more fanciful from a cinematographer point of view but I wanted to stay true to the film. If we had just busted out 10 minutes of incredible 35mm footage it wouldn’t have sat with the rest.
It was a big challenge that a lot of archival stuff and different elements came together and the film just had to hold as a film. Being able to shoot HD video was a huge advantage in that. But it definitely gives you a taste and it was such a positive experience that I’d love to do something again. No rush though, I’ve got to recharge the batteries.
Mary and Max is another film you’re involved in this year. Was there a reason you really wanted to do that, beyond stepping out your door in Melbourne and do a day’s read somewhere?
It was just Adam. I’m a huge fan of Adam’s work and I just think he’s a very unique voice, and very unique talent and claymation is a very rare thing.
It was just a very fortunate opportunity to get involved with people of such high calibre, Barry Humphries and Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman and stuff, so it was a very easy yes. I think at the end of the day you’re always looking for great filmmakers and great talent to work with; that’s how you learn, that’s how you get the best out of yourself.
I found it interesting that you were playing up your ethnicity in that film, which isn’t something you haven’t really done too much since your Australian comedy days.
That’s something more like a caricature which you wouldn’t do anymore. Is that something you’d like to do again?
Well I guess I get sort of close to that in Funny People, which is the Judd Apatow comedy coming out later this year.
It seems you’re playing a guy from Melbourne who likes footy!
And there the comparisons end, trust me.
I guess you’re always trying to find ways of staying fresh and being different, ways to invigorate yourself as a performer and try to constantly find things that are different and challenging. Eventually you’re going to start repeating yourself somewhat, there are only so many things you can do and it gets harder every project.
But I’ve had a ball thus far and been very lucky to even get the chance to play around as much as I have because it’s an industry that loves to pigeonhole and loves to dictate terms, so it’s been challenging trying to keep that want to follow your own path, I guess.
You’ve been able to fluidly work in Hollywood and Australia; you’ve done big and small stuff. Are there any clear lessons you’ve learnt from the US system that could be transported here?
Not easily transportable. I think the pure basis of most of our issues stems from the size of the industry itself. I think what problems we do have stem from that single fact, and it’s so hard to fundamentally change. The industry is tiny, it’s always going to be reliant on funding, it’s always going to be very difficult for local films to turn profit for anyone involved in them, particularly theatrically, and we’re always on an uneven playing field when it comes to release space.
I think the fundamental fact is that the size of the industry is so small – it’s a whole separate interview and article I guess. There are some things about the American system that I do like and one of them is the lengths to which scripts and scrutinized and developed and I see that as a very positive thing.
I think that we tend to be a bit more lax in that area. Things tend to get up and going and made a lot easier in some ways than they do in the American system, where they’re probably exposed to more scrutiny before the cameras roll. Not in every case obviously, but a vast majority of cases, things that are ripped to shreds, then rewritten and other writers are put on.
I had some quotes that were gravely taken out of context earlier in the year when someone asked me this question when I was on the red carpet at G’Day LA, and all I said was the industry always needs help. And there was some stupid piece that ran in the newspapers saying I had the nerve in the middle of a recession to be rattling a tin can to Kevin Rudd, and I was like “whoa”.
I was in a way saying the opposite – that our industry needs to look in on itself with a vast amount of scrutiny to make sure that we’re constantly getting the most out of each other.
When I took on Love the Beast I took that extremely seriously from a fiscal point of view, in terms of what is the end use of the film and who is it for and how are we going to market it, and how do I get it out there. None of those were afterthoughts and I don’t think it’s enough to try and make something good here and hope that it finds its audience, we’re just not in that position. Again it comes back to the economies of scale, how the industry is so tiny. But I think the level of scrutiny on script development is, to me, the one thing that could vastly, overall, lift the general quality.
It is difficult without a studio system here though, surely. Studios can have all these scripts being developed with no one attached; here it seems to be more director-driven.
Yeah. Well maybe its time to rethink that a little bit. There are a lot of independent arms of the studios, and it’s always good to reassess the way the system works.
There seems to be a lot for you on the horizon, you’ve got Funny People coming out after Star Trek, and the fan conventions you’ve got to go to…
And Love the Beast conventions!
Then I’ve got Time Traveller’s Wife which comes out in the middle of August in the US, which is only a couple of weeks after Funny People, so I’m busy.
Do you get any offers from Aussie directors or US productions coming here, wanting to cast big name locals to get some sort of qualifying expenditure. Is there any interest there, from either you or your agent?
I tend not to pile up the scripts in that fashion. They all occupy the same space on the desk and live or die by how good they are when you read them. No, that isn’t something that’s been very obvious to me, in that sense no.
Are you ever tempted to go back to stand up?
Definitely, but I’m a realist. I remember when I was shooting Funny People it got very tempting because a lot of the guys were going off and doing little pieces on the weekend and I reckon if I was shooting for two more weeks I would have been stupid enough to get lured into it.
It’s interesting that you haven’t done a lot of comedy in the last ten years.
Yeah. It doesn’t go anywhere, your observations are still the same, you still have the skill set I guess but you just don’t have the material to apply it and you’re just unfit and rusty. When I saw the Jerry Seinfeld documentary, Comedian, that was a good reality check for me. I can see how hard it is for him to get back out there and write new material, I’d be kidding myself.
I think the thing I miss about it, which I got to dabble in a bit in Love the Beast, is you’ve got an idea, you see it through, it doesn’t get molested, and it gets out there. Stand up is one of the most pure creative processes for any art form when you think about it: you’re sitting by yourself, you have an idea, you jump on stage and you try it out and see if it works. There’s no censorship, no editing, no one standing in the back of the room afterwards saying, you really need to lose the piece about the skateboarders or whatever, so its very free form of art really and I miss that side of it most definitely.
I don’t miss being in a Tarago van driving around the country and there is something that definitely sucks the life out of you when you’re doing stand up, each night takes a little piece of you for sure. But yeah it is something I miss a little bit.