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Production Notes: An Interview with the Producers

Five years ago Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre, attended a television conference in Australia, where she learned that filmmakers down under were just as enthusiastic about Jill Ker Conway's celebrated memoir The Road from Coorain as she was.

The book tells the story of Conway's upbringing on a sheep station in the Australian outback and takes her to the brink of a dazzling career in academia in the United States. "I always had it in the back of my mind that it would make wonderful television," says Eaton.

Back in America, Eaton persuaded Conway to sell the film rights and then teamed up with the former head of drama at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Penny Chapman, now an independent producer in Sydney.

For all of its exotic Australian allure, Conway's book has a complex mixture of qualities that Eaton and Chapman found uniquely challenging to bring to the small screen.

They recently answered questions about these and other creative problems in a transoceanic conference call.

Can you speak to the problem of bringing The Road from Coorain to film?

Eaton: Penny and I recognized from the beginning that it's a story of an intellectual coming of age, about a young woman developing a mind in the Australian bush. That's a very hard thing to film. When you're living your life, you don't tend to live it according to a plot. It's the filmmaker's job to translate events in a life into a plot, and that can be tricky to do. In the process, things are heightened, streamlined, and put into an order, which doesn't necessarily correspond to life. It must be very difficult to accept when you see your life going through that artistic process. And it is an artistic process, which fair-minded people approach very carefully and with great sensitivity. It's a journey, and you don't know the outcome when you start out.

Chapman: Ten years ago I thought it would make a wonderful program, but I must say I was overawed by the difficulties of taking it from the book to the screen. When I read it again five years ago, I realized that there were ways that you could make it work.

Such as?

Chapman: Rebecca mentioned that the problem of filming a memoir is that most people's lives lack a plot, a dramatic arc. But in this case there were two major plot points: the death of Jill's father and the death of her brother.

Eaton: There was also a big universal theme: the story of a mother and a daughter. I thought it had tremendous resonance for mothers and daughters I've known. Part of its universal appeal is that it deals with the difficulties of two women, who love each other as much as they do, being able to exist independently.

Chapman: It's interesting that Jill was in her early 50s when she wrote the book. At this age something happens in your relationship with your mother, whether she's alive or dead, whether you hate or love her, or both. This is one heck of a powerful relationship, and you realize just how important a part of your life this person has been. This comes through in Jill's book very powerfully. Rebecca is right; it's universal.

Eaton: The other thing that resonates with women these days is that Jill's mother was a woman just on the edge of feminism. She preceded the time when she might have had a career of her own.

Chapman: I found this intensely moving, that here was a woman who was extraordinarily bright, but uneducated, and she saw in her daughter a girl of great potential. Her relationship with her daughter was as much about fostering that as anything else. As happened with so many women of that era, she saw her daughter develop, learn, and take the opportunities that she had never had, and grow away from her. This was terribly, terribly painful. That transition between generations is something that I found intriguing.

How is this story different from the traditional story of pioneers coping with hardship?

Chapman: Jill wrote a book called When Memory Speaks in which she looks at the history of autobiographies and deduces that men tell their stories differently from women. Men strive for the heroic, while women have a tendency to say, "It happened in spite of me." Rebecca and I had a conversation with Jill over lunch in which she said, "I don't want you to make this into a story about man against the elements; that is way too simplistic." In The Road from Coorain she does pull back from an assertion of the heroic. But I think it's interesting that the story of her leaving this country is the story of a young woman who finally takes charge of her life -- and there's something of the heroic about that.

Jill Ker Conway has said that she was spurred to write The Road from Coorain partly to serve as a corrective to the Crocodile Dundee image of Australia. Did this affect your approach, Penny?

Chapman: We certainly wanted to avoid that image. When we came to do the film we went and looked at Broken Hill, which is a big silver-mining town with heroic red landscapes in which many Australian films have been shot. George Miller shot his Mad Max films out there. We instantly rejected it as the landscape for The Road from Coorain. First of all, it wasn't like Coorain. But secondly, it's heroic, it's red, it says all the clichéd things about the outback that most films about Australia have said.

Was it possible to film on Coorain itself?

Chapman: We wanted to film there, but we couldn't put up the crew close enough that we'd be able to get in every day if it rained. So we went scouring the rest of the West of the state and found in the Southwest corner of New South Wales flat saltbush country that looked very similar to Coorain -- in fact, almost exactly like it. It shows a landscape that's rarely seen in Australian films. The saltbush comes up to your knees, so when you're standing in this landscape, you feel like you're in it, rather than on it. And it's tough.

How did you get Juliet Stevenson to play Jill's mother?

Eaton: There are lots of actresses who could play Eve, but something about Juliet's huge compassion in her work spoke to Penny and me. Something about the project spoke to Juliet, too, but so did her unborn baby. She was pregnant when we came to her. She loved the project, but she was very clear: She was having the baby first, and she couldn't say how she would feel about going back to work afterward. So we had a choice to keep looking, or to take a chance and wait for Juliet. I think waiting six months was one of the smarter things we did.

Does Juliet use an Australian accent?

Chapman: Jill's mother had actually been born in England, so Juliet didn't want to pick up a very broad Australian accent. Also, in that era in Australia, good elocution was something middle-class people aspired to. Juliet and her dialogue coach worked on an accent that had just a slight flattening of the odd vowel. It was a very subtle thing.

The film is at times lyrical, charming, and bleak. Did you give a lot of thought to the different mix of effects that you wanted to have on the audience?

Chapman: We did think about that a lot, because one of the things we were concerned about from the very beginning was that we wanted the audience to be prepared to ride into the ground with Eve.

You mean see her breakdown?

Chapman: Yes. We wanted the audience to be prepared to go the distance with her. So in character terms one of the things we didn't want the audience to say was, "Get over it, luv!"

Part of the reason why it was important for us that the film look beautiful was that we wanted people to be intrigued and seduced by the look of this place, while what's going on within it is something at times very tough. That was one of our greatest challenges.

Rebecca, did you see connections to our own pioneer stories in America?

Eaton: The settling of the West and the settling of the bush in Australia is one of the great links between our two cultures. The character traits needed to make a home in a hostile land are absolutely universal between us. The biggest difference may be that Australia is even more inhospitable than the West, so the odds were worse for the people trying to settle there. But the pioneering stories are definitely something we share.

Chapman: What's also so true about Australia -- and possibly even truer than about America -- is that we pitted ourselves against the landscape in an attempt to try and bend it to our will. But we didn't realize how fragile it was. We've basically destroyed it in the process. So those terrible dust storms that Jill describes in the book are as much a result of our putting cloven-hoofed creatures into the landscape and having ring-barked every tree within sight to clear the land. What we didn't realize is that we would then render this tough but fragile place incapable of keeping itself together. So when droughts arrived, the dust storms came. The terrifying landscape that resulted was largely of our own making.

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