November 2017


Notes from the studio

By Robert Drewe
Robyn Davidson’s ‘Tracks’ vs Harvey Weinstein

It was 1993 and the filmmaker Ray Lawrence, director of Bliss and Lantana, and I were busy writing unsuccessful screenplays together in a one-room office in Glebe, Sydney.

Our first two scripts had come that close to being made, in the second case only falling over at the last hurdle when the lead actress, the wife of the film’s wealthy businessman guarantor, began a Lady Chatterley affair with their young gardener. The husband cancelled the gardener’s employment, the marriage, and the cheque for $1 million in seed money that he’d promised for our film.

And then out of the blue came an offer from Hollywood: to breathe new life into a film of Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s bestselling account of her personal journey by camel across Australia.

The Tracks project had already been on the drawing board five times since the book’s publication in 1980, passed from studio to studio, director to director, star to star, writer to writer, ever since Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton were ingénues. Both had been proposed as Robyn the young Camel Woman; now, in 1993, it was to be Julia Roberts’ turn, Miramax’s to produce, and Ray’s to direct. He and I began work on the script.

There was a heap of earlier scripts on hand, but we went back to Robyn’s book, which we much admired. And, given the usual limitations of the differing art forms, we were determined to be as faithful to it, and to the author’s original intentions, as possible.

We came across one limitation immediately. In the early chapters, Robyn describes living and working as a barmaid in Alice Springs while learning about camels, and being regularly confronted in her room at night by disgusting yobbos hoping for drunken sex. She’s forced to turn them away with a shotgun. One outback charmer then leaves a turd on her bed.

We left the shit in the script.

Miramax screamed immediately that American audiences would abandon the film if it stayed. Fair enough, this was no crisis of artistic integrity for Ray and me. In a trice we changed the offending item to a dead rat. All right then, grumbled Miramax.

In her book, Robyn the feminist heroine is periodically shadowed throughout her journey by a young photographer from National Geographic, Rick Smolan. It was Rick who’d suggested that the magazine sponsor her trip. She has mixed feelings about having sold out and the trip no longer being totally her own.

But there’s a spark, and Rick keeps dropping in during the journey to photograph her, and eventually the two young, single heterosexuals, alone in the desert, have sex.

Ah, the sex scene. As the whole point of this very ’70s story was female fortitude, Ray and I thought it totally correct to place the intrepid female character, who after all had just trekked with camels across the bloody continent, in the dominant sexual position. So we wrote it that way.

As strange as this seems nowadays, Miramax refused outright to have a sex scene where the man was not on top. We stuck to our guns. And they pulled the plug then and there. An adaptation of Tracks was finally released in 2013 by a British-Australian company, with Mia Wasikowska as Robyn, directed by John Curran. Our version never got over the hump.

As the livid Miramax chief executive frothed at us, “What do you think you’re doing? I’m not having you Aussie sons of bitches saying that American men are pussy-whipped!”

Yep, that was Harvey Weinstein.

Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe writes novels, short stories, memoir and essays. His latest novel is Whipbird.

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