Genre Benders

How Down Under’s unsung king of the action genre, his number one fan Quentin Tarantino, and a passionate local director turned an era of maverick filmmaking into the most explosive Australian documentary of the year…

Sydney, 2003. When Quentin Tarantino publicly dedicated Kill Bill Vol. 1 to Brian Trenchard-Smith’s lurid exploitation movie Turkey Shoot — traditionally reviled as one of the most sadistic and violent Australian films ever made — he raised the highbrows of more than a few critics who’d rather see that era of the country’s cinema dead and buried. For these moldy cultural arbiters, one of modern film’s most respected directors lavishing praise on a shoddy exploitation piece was a sour reminder of how low Australian filmmaking had once sunk. For those of us too young to remember or care, however, it was an instant point of curiosity: Who was this guy and why hadn’t we seen any of his films?

“I like to stick a lighted weed up the ass of the snob,” Tarantino would later say of the incident. “It’s a hobby of mine too,” laughs Trenchard-Smith. Along with Turkey Shoot, the career genre director has made a string of cult Australian action pictures, like the kinetic kung fu classic The Man From Hong Kong (1975) and the killer car flick Dead-End Drive In (1986) — both films that Tarantino numbers among his favourites. Little wonder the two have great admiration for each other’s work. When Trenchard-Smith first met Tarantino back in the mid-’90s, the veteran Australian director introduced himself with the qualification, “You don’t know me”, to which Tarantino immediately exclaimed: “Yes I do. You made Turkey Shoot!”

That 1982 film, a futuristic prison thriller that remains an outlandish guilty pleasure, was part of a neglected strand of Australian genre filmmaking that co-existed alongside the revered “Golden Age” in the ’70s and early ’80s. The so-called “Ozploitation” movies were crafted by renegades who lived genre fare, and they struck a chord with international audiences — while earning the derision of Australia’s cultural elite.

But things change. Tarantino’s shout-out was emblematic of a reappraisal by a new generation of fans oblivious to the cultural hang-ups of the old guard. Retrospect shows these films for what they are: out-there originals that dared to trade in the universal currency of genre while remaining as idiosyncratic and Australian as any of the more lauded industry touchstones.

One such fan was Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley, who had seen and loved The Man From Hong Kong on TV as a kid and was now discovering other genre films lost to collective memory. Hartley became something of an exploitation archivist — and wondered why these films weren’t mentioned in cinema textbooks. “I don’t think they’re exploitation films and that’s certainly not what attracted me to them,” he says. “I think it was because in Australia at the time we were making arthouse films and what attracted me to them is that they weren’t arthouse.”

While working on a DVD edition of Turkey Shoot, Hartley met Trenchard-Smith, and the young director’s enthusiasm led to the genesis of the documentary that would become this month’s Not Quite Hollywood. He pitched it initially as a TV series in the ’90s, but struggled with a reluctance, he says, on the part of some to acknowledge these films. Then fortune stepped in. Hartley learned of Tarantino’s love for Australian exploitation cinema and sent him a treatment for his idea. “Whatever you need to get this doco up, I will help you with,” was Tarantino’s response.

Several years later, Hartley’s documentary delivers a bloody valentine to the cinema he and Tarantino loved, and it plays like a wake-up call to the nation — see these films however you can. Not Quite Hollywood showcases a period when directors scoffed in the face of the “legitimate” art that would define, and in many ways caricature, the nature of Australian cinema.

“Well, we didn’t hear about that stuff,” says Hartley. “We did hear about the success of our worthy films. What we didn’t realise was that while they were getting standing ovations these other films were playing in 30 cinemas, but they weren’t perceived as being Australian films — they were perceived as being a car-chase film, or a horror film, or a thriller film. So when you read about these films — if you can read about them at all: it’s more just a case of, ‘We made these shit films, and we shouldn’t have.’”

Trenchard-Smith responds with brevity: “Some critics at the time did not understand that my films both celebrate and satirise genre forms,” he remarks. “I would say, to quote John Cleese in The Holy Grail: ‘I fart in your general direction.’”

The director was instrumental in creating the Australian action genre; a spectacle that would reach its zenith in George Miller’s ingenious Mad Max. His breakout hit, The Man From Hong Kong, concerned a Dirty Harry-style Chinese cop who comes to Australia and, well, tears the place apart in the process.

“I was young and proud of my particular vision,” Trenchard-Smith continues. “Films are thought to be only ‘important’ and operate on an ‘artistic’ level; and I think they can do both. A lot of the subtext of The Man From Hong Kong was lost on the ruling arts elite.”

“I think it’s because it just plays so dumb that [critics] didn’t get it,” concurs Hartley. “I think they just couldn’t understand the comic book sensibility of it.”

Among the highlights of the film is the stuntwork of Grant Page — a gym and science teacher-turned commando and a bona fide icon of the profession. His meeting Trenchard-Smith led to a stunt documentary that Page says “was basically Brian taking me to Hong Kong and getting me to be beaten up by every martial artist he could find.”

“In those days we flew by the seat of our pants,” adds Roger Ward, the towering actor who worked with Trenchard-Smith on several occasions — and would later appear memorably in Mad Max. “Trenchard was very ruthless with his stuntmen… We were knocking ’em down left right and centre.”

An Ozploitation immortal if ever there was one, Ward is most famous (and notorious) for his brutal beatdown in Turkey Shoot, a movie Trenchard-Smith describes as “1984 meets The Camp On Blood Island where they play The Most Dangerous Game.” A budget fiasco forced him to not so much cut as to obliterate corners (they used the crew’s lunch as entrails), resulting in a film that is crude yet incredibly inventive; impossible to either resist or forget.

“Critics did not share my sense of humour,” admits Trenchard-Smith. “And to be honest, the film is far from perfect. But it allowed me to push some genre clichés to their outrageous extreme. There are too many self-vaunting critics who behave like eunuchs at the orgy; they can’t do it, so they bitch about people who can.”

Despite the mauling, Trenchard-Smith had an unlikely mainstream hit with 1983’s BMX Bandits — before helming what many, including Tarantino, regard as an underrated gem — Dead-End Drive In, a wild auto-apocalypse in which car theatres have been turned into prisons for the socially undesirable. In some ways it was a farewell to an era, a “socio-political-retro-future-action-exploitation flick,” according to Trenchard-Smith.

As Not Quite Hollywood demonstrates, these were films that could compete against any similar American fare. Yet while Miller’s Mad Max was the springboard to a Hollywood career, other pioneering action men were left in the slipstream of critical hatred and industry stereotyping.

Trenchard-Smith has gone on to carve out a B-movie action career (including the awesome, we joke not, Leprechaun 3 and 4), and he’s philosophical in looking back: “One of the problems of the ruling arts elite of the time was that they couldn’t see that filmmaking skill in one genre could translate to another. It was easy to be pigeonholed in those days.”

Today, with films like Tarantino’s Death Proof, there’s a sense of delayed vindication for Trenchard-Smith and his contemporaries. Death Proof’s car crashing through a sign and Kill Bill Vol. 2’s dunking of Daryl Hannah are both homages to The Man From Hong Kong, and Trenchard-Smith couldn’t be more flattered by his friend. “I’m delighted for him to borrow anything he wishes,” he says of Tarantino.

Just as the Ozploitation directors created films outside the prevailing atmosphere, recently we’ve seen a resurgence in action and horror filmmaking from younger directors who’ve taken the game into their own hands. “The interesting thing about the Saw guys and Greg Mclean [Wolf Creek] is that they saw all these films and were inspired by them,” says Hartley. “I think for subsequent generations that discovered them, these films slowly worked their way into influencing young filmmakers — possibly more so than the films that were acclaimed back then.”

“It is gratifying to meet young people, not born in 1975, who get the jokes,” says Trenchard-Smith.

Hartley, who’s eyeing a remake of Richard Franklin’s thriller Patrick, is optimistic there may one day be a return to this kind of filmmaking in Australia. “We have the stars now,” he says, “who can get a film up, and maybe it comes from one of these actors wanting to do one of those films. Maybe it might come from Eric Bana, who’s a huge Mad Max fan.”

“I learned a lot about the disciplines of low budget genre filmmaking for the world market,” Trenchard-Smith considers. “I thought, This could be done in Australia. It still can.”

August 2008

Originally published in Empire

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