Get behind the scenes of Last Cab to Darwin - in cinemas this week
06 Aug, 2015
As one of the years most hotly anticipated films hits the big screen, Screen NSW catches up with screen writer Reg Cribb to talk about adapting a script from stage to screen, euthanasia and Jacki Weaver.
How did the film come about, when did you start talking about adapting the stage play for screen?
Jeremy Sims and I were fresh from the success of my first play The Return (Last Train To Freo). He wanted another story from me. I had been paying some interest in a newspaper article about a Broken Hill taxi driver, dying from stomach cancer, who had driven to Darwin in his cab to hopefully make use of the NT euthanasia legislation that was being debated in local parliament. Both Jeremy and myself did a research trip from Broken Hill to Darwin and then I wrote the stage play. This play toured all over Australia, starred Barry Otto and Jacki Weaver and won most playwrighting awards in 2003. In 2007, Jeremy and I started to adapt the play into a screenplay. It has been a labour of love for the better part of eight years. It was finally given production funding in 2013.
What were the challenges adapting the stage play for screen, where did you begin and how long did it take you?
This is the third play I have adapted to screen (Bran Nue Dae, Last Train To Freo) and to be honest it was the easiest. For a number of reasons. It should have been a film before it was a play as it was already essentially a road movie. The play came first because essentially Pork Chop Prod was a theatre company and we didn’t know how to make a film at that stage. Once we started to adapt it the challenges were many. Jeremy and I really wanted to detail it and fine tune it until it was almost ‘note perfect’. So I also worked harder on this script than any other to get it right. The play version had a lot of indulgent and mad theatricality that we obviously had to cut back on. I began the process of adaptation by removing the plethora of monologues from the play version that explained the road trip of our protagonist to the audience. These had to be converted in to visual renderings of his journey. It was almost an 8 year journey from stage to screen but the day the curtain came down on the play for the last time in 2004, we were already thinking about how to adapt it.
When you wrote the stage play euthanasia was still a front of mind topic and the topic of much debate federally. Did this have implications on writing for screen 10 years on?
It is still a hot topic on the international stage. People will always be seeking to die with dignity no matter what time in history we are at. The fact that it was such a fascinating little window in our national history gave it a strong zeitgeist but it is still very relevant. It makes me realise also how conservative and timid our politics have become over the years. We have regressed in many ways. And it was around this time that the timidity in our politics began. We have set the film in no particular time in history but it is a contemporary story. It is not set in the mid 90’s.
The play is a big-hearted sprawling drama that evokes the vast landscape between Broken Hill and Darwin - when you considered the script for screen how much did you take inspiration from the physical settings that would be available?
A great deal of inspiration was had from the setting. The landscape between Broken Hill and Darwin is almost another character in the film. We didn’t want to deal with the country in a clichéd way. ie: lots of gratuitous shots of Aussie fauna and desert settings for the international market. This part of the world has a brutal beauty to it and the people that live there are just clinging on to their economic survival by their fingertips. It is a part of the world that is probably as foreign to most Aussies as it is to overseas visitors. The world that Rex sees on the road outside his windscreen evokes the internal decay that he is going through himself. I also want Australian audiences to feel a sense of loss when they see the landscape. A feeling that there is an authenticity and honesty to this part of the world that we have lost in our urban obsessed country.
In the stage play Broken Hill is just a theatre stage, how did this affect the film script?
It was wonderful to really open out Broken Hill as the backdrop to Rex’s life and realise it visually in its most complete sense. It is a town full of wonderful spirit and an amazing history. The play script still had many references to the local landmarks and identities but in the film we can actually show these places. Broken Hill, for better or for worse, has made Rex the stubborn, stick in the mud character that he is. In the film we got to highlight visually why that has come to pass.
When you were writing the script did you already have any actors in mind?
We were always hoping Jacki Weaver would follow on from the faith she showed in us all those years ago as a fledgling theatre company by being in the film as well. At first we weren’t sure which role suited her best but then we decided to subvert the Doctor role and have it played by a woman. The only other actor that was on our radar was Ningali Lawford-Wolf as Polly. The role of Rex was offered to a number of senior actors before we settled on Michael who screen tested beautifully.
Max’s story is the energy and spirit of the story but Polly and Rex’s relationship is very important and touching. How did this play out differently in both scripts?
In the play script they still had the tough love, irascible friendship that we see in the film but there was no romantic involvement. Their relationship was played out much more to really highlight the reconciliation themes in the piece. Rex as the dying white man struggling with a harsh, unforgiving landscape really intensified the metaphor of the death of an old, white outmoded way of interacting in this country. However, the final scene is pretty much as written in both scripts. Rex was always going to see out his final sunset in Polly’s arms.
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