The first time ComingSoon.net interviewed Australian director Scott Hicks, it was for his Warner Bros. romantic comedy No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, then we sat down again with him last year for his documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts. At the time, he told us about his new movie The Boys are Back and with its release on Friday, that’s three movies in three years for the filmmaker who seemingly disappeared off the map after 2001’s Hearts in Atlantis, which itself was only Hicks’ second movie after being nominated for an Oscar for directing and writing Shine.
In the movie baesd on the memoirs of journalist Simon Carr, Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, a British sportswriter who moved to Australia to be with his new wife Katy (Laura Fraser). When she suddenly dies of cancer, Joe is forced to care for their young, inquisitive son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), the duo soon being joined by Joe’s estranged teen son from another marriage, Harry (George MacKay), who comes to Australia hoping to connect with his father. The results are a powerful and moving film that deals with grief and parenthood in a tasteful, artistic and unmelodramatic way, yet it’s likely to have you laughing and tearing up even if you’ve never been a father yourself.
For our third interview in three years, we got to speak to Mr. Hicks alongside his star Clive Owen, an actor we’ve also interviewed many times over the past few years, but never in such an intimate setting.
ComingSoon.net: By the way, your Philip Glass documentary made my Top 10 last year.
Scott Hicks: Fantastic.
CS: Congratulations. Top 10 out of 400 movies.
Hicks: Whoo! I love that, thank you. Here we have another film about someone trying to balance their life.
CS: I’ve never read the book, so what drew the both of you to this material and how did the two of you come together?
Hicks: It was a script. It was sent to me as a screenplay and I hadn’t read the book either. For me, it was actually this combination of emotion and humor if you like. So when I went to Clive with it – I don’t know what drew Clive into the material, but it was just a feeling that here was someone who could capture both those elements if you like. He was the obvious first choice, but you don’t usually get them. (Laughs) You know what I mean? So I was actually thrilled when he said “yes” and it’d obviously caught him.
Clive Owen: Yes, it resonated very strongly with me. I was very, very taken with the script; I found it very, very moving, very beautifully written and I was a big fan of Scott’s. We actually took a long time to come together. It was a good few years where our schedules weren’t quite meeting and we were trying to do it. It was one of those that every time it came up, it was like, “Don’t let that go. There’s something about this project,” and thankfully, it all came together eventually.
CS: Was Simon involved with the screenwriter while he was writing that script?
Hicks: Yeah, Simon was involved with Al Cubitt, not on the script as such, but Al knew Simon well and had spent a lot of time with him, but it was entirely Al’s creation. The interesting thing is that the memoir is a collection of anecdotes and reflections and philosophies and ideas, but what Al did was create a narrative through which that voice could be heard. I mean, when you read the book, you won’t necessarily read all the incident that you see in the film, but what you will hear is the same voice, very much the voice of Simon Carr that comes through Clive’s character. I think that was Al’s great contribution was to create a narrative that threaded together all of this incident in the memoir.
CS: Did you want to meet Simon or have any kind of connection to his book?
Owen: No, I mean, I read the book. Yes, as soon as I read the script I got and read the book, but I didn’t really want to meet him, no. I felt a strong instinct when I read it, and I felt I wanted to come to this and interpret it very cleanly and it would’ve thrown me to actually meet him I think.
CS: Now what about playing a father? I think obviously you’ve had kids in movies before, but this is really all about being a father.
Owen: That was a huge attraction to me because, you know, I am a parent. I’ve got two girls and I’ve always seen parenting as a separate thing from my work really. I go off and I make movies and then I go home and I hang with my girls and I bring my girls up. It was the first time, it gave me the opportunity to explore that whole world which is a big part of my life, and I thought the script was a very beautiful examination of the ups and downs of parenting from a guy’s perspective. I was also attracted, both nervous and attracted, to working with kids. I felt it was a challenge, and I’ve done a bit of it and I’d enjoyed it when I’ve done it, and I felt it was something exciting about trying to make a very sort of poignant film that was largely me working with younger boys.
CS: You’ve had experienced finding and working with new young talent, so talk about Nicholas and how you got him into this? Because first of all, this is very intense material.
Hicks: Look, Clive and I had a pact really, which was we had to find the right kid or there really wasn’t a movie to be made. I have to tell you, it was sleepless nights. It’s basically a numbers game. You have to see hundreds and hundreds of boys to find that one, so I had the casting people doing that for me and honestly it takes months and all along you’re thinking, “My God, are we ever going to see?” There are lots of kids who are cute and sweet, lovely and would be great, but what I was looking for was someone who had attitude and he had that almost defiance that could take it up to Clive. That was the point. These two were gonna spend most of the movie together, and there had to be a sense of two very present people, sometimes facing off against each other. For a six year old, that’s kind of tough. In the event when I saw Nicholas and I showed his audition to Clive, I just remember Clive just going, “He’s great.” I think I’ve still kept that text message actually because it was a very important moment.
Owen: There was something so alive about him. He was unpredictable. He was volatile and unpredictable. Even in the very first meetings, the first time he was captured on film you knew the heart of the film would be alive with him in it.
CS: When he was cast and you first met him, did you want to spend as much time together as possible to build that bond?
Owen: Yeah, I got out to Australia early and I ended up taking him on days out without his Mum and without people from the film there – took him to the parks and took him to the fairgrounds. It was hugely important that he trusted me and was relaxed with me. We knew that part of the film would be capturing the magic of him and the relationship. He needed to feel safe with me. If there was any sense of wariness or of not trusting, you would smell that in a movie I think, and I felt that it was very important he was relaxed with me.
CS: The actor who played the elder son also had a lot of intense scenes. I’m not a parent myself, but I feel this is a movie every father needs to see because it is something that would probably connect even more with them than it did to me. Did Simon originally have an older son from another marriage that was used as the basis for that part of the movie?
Hicks: Yes, yes, absolutely. No, again, I wanted the sense of realness in this film and central to that was the casting of these two boys with Clive. The thing that George MacKay brought when he read for me was, it completely knocked me out because it was so authentic. He presented someone who is a sense of hurt if you like from this abandonment that he feels with his father. Again, showing him to Clive, I could sense in Clive an excitement (that) this was someone that he could definitely play with.
Owen: Yes, and he was hugely impressive. He was different… To put the two of them together is wrong in a way, because Nicholas is raw. Nicholas is just immediate, raw, it’s about capturing real, magical moments. With George, he’s a proper actor. He’s the full deal already. He’s got an impeccable attitude, it’s already a craft, and he’s one of the finest young actors I’ve ever come across.
Hicks: I’d second that.
CS: How did you guys prepare for those intense scenes together? Did he do a lot of his own work on his own before you two came together?
Hicks: We never rehearsed that did we?
Owen: We didn’t rehearse that, but there was something very telling. I can remember on films in the past like if I’ve got a very emotional scene to do, it’s very important. It’s about concentration when you’ve got those scenes. You’ve gotta be in the place and you need to get concentrated. I found myself in some very funny situations like standing behind… like I need to get away from people and just concentrate. Some of those scenes that George had, he did the same thing. I noticed. I looked across and he was finding himself a little hole somewhere like, “Keep away, leave him alone, give him his space.” That’s when I was like, “This guy is already taking the work very seriously” which is obviously a very good thing.
CS: How is it doing a really dramatic movie like this again? It’s been a while since you’ve done something like this, maybe “Closer” was the most intensely dramatic movie, where there wasn’t going to be shootout scene or an action scene or something to lighten it up.
Owen: (Laughs) We did do a full blown shootout, we just cut it.
Hicks: The image of Clive with a plastic water pistol shooting this little boy, I think is kind of emblematic of the film.
CS: “Closer” was just so much about the acting and it was so dramatic, but then you drifted away from that a bit, so did you deliberately want to get back to that?
Owen: No, whenever I choose a film, I wasn’t searching for a film like this. It was just about the responding to the material. I felt it was a very sort of beautifully-written script. There’s never a career plan with me; it’s just about following my instincts and responding to the material.
Hicks: Do you know what the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “career” is, by the way? It’s an “uncontrolled lurch downhill.” Okay, so who would want that?
CS: That’s a good one.
Owen: I feel like I’ve been going there for a while.
Hicks: My brilliant career. (laughs)
CS: This is your third movie in three years, is that right? I was curious how you managed that.
Hicks: I got sick of people saying, “Why do you take so long between movies?” (Laughs) No, look, it’s been very energizing. “No Reservations” actually came about because it was one of those elements when Clive and I, we were on the verge of doing this film and suddenly, that changed. I took “No Reservations” as something that I wanted to do because I really had a year stretching ahead of me that I’d kept for “The Boys Are Back.” Then “Glass” sort of happened in sync with that. Doing “Glass” completely re-energized me in a way, then both of us were available, and it was obviously the time to do this film. So I found it really refreshing to suddenly do a quick cycle of films, and I’m ready for the next.
CS: It’s very fortuitous that this movie caps off a really strong year of movies for you. Do you know what you’re doing next, either something you shot or will shoot soon?
Owen: There’s nothing definite. No, there’s a few things floating around, but I’m not quite sure.
CS: Are you doing “Inside Man 2?” Is that even a possibility?
Owen: They’re trying to get a script together, they are. Yeah, definitely. They’re commissioned to get a script and it’s all about trying to get a good script.
CS: Are you still looking at scripts now to see what to do next?
Hicks: Yes, there’s one or two, but it’s all about trying to find the right cast and all those important things. So yeah.
CS: Have you guys seen the movie with an audience yet or is that tonight?
Owen: Oh, I haven’t.
Hicks: I’ve seen it with preview audiences in New York and that’s been terrific. There’s been a really, really good response and the interesting thing is, it gets to men. I mean, on the face of it you think, well, women will come to see this film. Men might come along because, “Oh, Clive Owen’s in it, it can’t be too bad.” They’re gonna get the shock because it gets men in a kind of an emotional solar plexus kind of way. I’ve had the strongest reactions from men because I think there’s a whole generation of men out there who’ve lost touch with their children through marital breakup or whatever it might be. You know, this particular story of fatherhood–a single father bringing up two sons alone–I don’t remember the last time I saw a story like that.
CS: I was joking with Miramax that I might get a side job selling tissues at the premiere.
Hicks: Here’s some tissues buddy. (Laughs)
CS: Have you had a chance to talk to any of the people who’ve seen the movie?
Owen: I haven’t really, no, because I haven’t been privy to those preview audiences. All I’ve heard is that we’ve been getting fantastically strong responses. When I saw it, I found it moving. I thought Scott put it together absolutely beautifully and it’s very touching and not in the obvious ways either, it’s just the details that I find. Everyone’s moved by different things in the film. People who have gone out and seen it will say, “Oh, that really killed me when…” and they’re always different.
CS: Interesting. As an actor I’m sure you hate getting asked this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway…
Owen: That’s not a good start… (Laughs)
CS: If you happen to get awards attention for this and people start saying, “He should get awards attention,” are you ready to go through that process again?
Owen: All I hope is that I’m very, very proud of the movie and I just want people to go see the movie. We’re about to launch the film, and it’s about wanting to get as big of an audience as possible for the film. I would love it if people go to the movie. That’s the most important thing.
Hicks: I’ll second that. (Laughs)
And with that diplomatic response, the interview was finished.
The Boys are Back opens in select cities on Friday, September 25.