November 2017

Vox

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.

From the front page

Image of fans taking a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

‘Health and good order’

If Novak Djokovic is “a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, what does that make George Christensen?

Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Image of sculpture by Jane Bamford

The artist making sculpture for penguins

How creating sculpture for animals is transforming wildlife conservation and the art world

In This Issue

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador; $32.99

Illustration

The Great Southern Reef

What is killing off the kelp forests along Australia’s coast?

Still from The Deuce

‘The Deuce’ (HBO / Foxtel)

David Simon’s new series shines amid the sleaze of the New York porn industry

A bad case of the flu

Notes from the flu-season frontline


Online exclusives

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announcing the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

Family’s grief compounded by WA’s hard border

The awful predicament of a Melbourne family unable to bring home their son’s body shows the callousness of WA’s border policy

Image of Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

The best of 2021 on screen

This year may have been difficult to live through, but it produced an extraordinary crop of films

Image of Rob Collins as Tyson in ‘Firebite’. Image supplied

Raising the stakes: ‘Firebite’

Warwick Thornton’s magnificently pulpy Indigenous vampire-hunter drama leads the pack of December streaming highlights