The Australian Journal
of Media & Culture
vol. 1 no 1 (1987)
Edited by Tom O'Regan
King of the Coral Sea:
Lee Robinson in interview with
If Charles Chauvel is the King Vidor of Australian cinema, then Lee Robinson is the Howard Hawkes. Robinson's forte whether in feature film, documentary or in TV drama, has been the narrative action-adventure. His is a masculine world; his heroes are professional men whose work involves grappling with the physical and animal environment as much as it involves dealing with other men. The locations and settings are out of the way, beyond the edges of civilisation. He has an eye and a taste for the exotic. His various projects have led him into the Australian outback of the Northern Territory, to the jungles of New Guinea, to the Pacific and to South-East Asia. In an age of creeping corporatism, his films reconfirm the myth of the rugged, self-reliant individual. His heroes are variously detectives, rangers, pilots, crocodile hunters, divers, soldiers.
Robinson shot his first film footage in 1944/5 and 42 years later he is still going strong. It has been a remarkable career in terms of both the consistency and extent of his output. His work spans a variety of production contexts - from the early work in government documentary in the Film Division of the Department of Information (forerunner to Film Australia); to the feature films made in conjunction with Chips Rafferty; from the TV series of the 1960s and 1970s made in conjunction with John MacCallum; to the shift back into feature films, again with MacCallum, in the context of the expanding Australian film industry of the 1970s. The remarkable consistency of his career, now in its fifth decade, is eloquent testimony to Robinson's energy and professionalism. (Albert Moran)
Moran: How did you come to join the government documentary film unit?
Robinson: I had a job lined up with the ABC as a radio script writer by way of a fellow I knew very well, John McCloud, the senior script writer. He and Alexander McDonald were the only two official writers at the ABC. I was still in the army. And McCloud said: "Would you be interested to have a go at film." I said "Yes". He said: "I've been approached to go on loan from the ABC to the newly formed National Film Board as a writer. But I'm too old to be getting into a new area. Would you like to have a go?" I said I would. I went to see Ralph Foster who had only just started as the Film Commissioner. Ralph said: "You're the sort of fellow we're after. Can you start next week?" I said sure. I was actually on long service leave from the army. I started the next week with the Film Division. And I was actually being paid twice by the Commonwealth Government for about four weeks as I was still being paid as an army bloke.
Moran: What was your first assignment?
Robinson: I started in January 1946. The first thing I was put onto was doing some research and writing a script on the Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira. I did that through February/March. Foster got involved and did some work on the script. He was a writer too - a former newspaper editor. Then he said: "I think you'd better direct the picture." And I said: "Christ I've got no idea how to direct a picture." And he said "There's nobody around here that does." The only person who had any idea was John Heyer. Foster said: "We've got to start somewhere." So I went and saw Harry Watt who I think was planning to do Eureka Stockade (1949). And I said to Harry: "What's this all about, this directing." And he said: "Well the best thing to do is to talk to a film editor, they know more about it than anyone." But he sat down and told me what overlapping action was, how you watched your left to rights, and general continuity. Harry was very helpful
Moran: What about shooting?
Robinson: I went off to the Northern Territory with Axel Poignant in April or May and we spent quite a lot of time up there. We went out and lived with Namatjira as he toured the country painting. We came back about August and cut the picture in Ralph's flat. It was one of the very first colour films. We couldn't do fades or anything properly. There was some guy who had got a system where you put the original film in and then you took it out. And the speed you took it out gave you a fade. But you couldn't do opticals. We were in King Street originally, in King and York at the ACI building. We didn't have any cutting rooms. The only ones in use were at Supreme Sound in Pitt Street - Merv Murphy's original establishment. But it was geared for 35 mm and the film had been shot on 16 mm. That's why we cut the picture in Ralph's flat. We had a little editing gear so we could do it in the kitchen.
Lots of material that Axel was getting on Kodak Colour was unique. The corroboree sequence in Namatjira the Painter (1947) was put on as a series of corroborees. The Aboriginal people weren't terribly aware of what we were doing as the camera meant nothing to them at all. They did a number of corroborees which we photographed. We couldn't use them because they were too risque at that time. We shot a number of very restricted corroborees which we knew were sacred. There was an amateur anthropologist with us - C. P. Mountford. He made the decision as to which corroboree went into the film. It was only a short segment showing the background of Namatjira and his people. The one that we had intended to put into the film - and we'd arranged it with the Aboriginal people - was an Emu dance. But we ended up with a Wild Dog corroboree - which was very sacred.
Alexander McDonald, the film critic on Smith's Weekly, saw the film - but I am not sure where or how. He wrote a long review, extolling the picture, and saying something had to be done to put it into general commercial release. They did do it. They sent a 16mm print over to the USA and produced a 35 colour negative from it. The film was the very first post-war documentary to go out into theatrical release. When it played in Alice Springs in the old theatre there, there was all hell to play because a lot of Aborigines were in the audience. As soon as the sequence with the Wild Dog corroboree came on, the fellows were belting the women, knocking them unconscious with anything they could pick up. All because it was sacred material. It created a hell of a fuss in Alice Springs for years after. They got terribly cranky about their sacred corroborees being seen by the women who weren't supposed to see them.
I think Namatjira opened at the State Theatre with Howard Hughes' The Outlaw (1943) with Jane Russell. And that had a tremendous publicity campaign attached to it. It had a long run and consequently so did Namatjira the Painter. It played as a support all over the place.
Moran: What else did you do at that time?
Robinson: Well, Stanley Hawes, the Producer-in-Chief, was doing School in the Mailbox (1946) and most units in the field did something for it. I think we did material where the mail was delivered to the outback station by camel and the kid does his education thing. The flying doctor comes in because a stockman is hurt or something. It gives him the opportunity to send back the kid's stuff to the correspondence school. So we did all those sequences.
In fact Axel and I had a pretty nasty experience whilst we were at Annenberg Mission - the outbase for Namatjira. We had to go down to Henbury to shoot the material of the boy sending the stuff out by the plane. Axel and I took off from Hermannsburg to go down to Henbury. And the plane got up about 200 feet when something went drastically wrong. The thing crashed to pieces. We got a ride on a wool truck going to the other side of Annenburg into Alice Springs. By that time the news hit the papers in Sydney. And I rang Ralph Foster. The first thing Ralph said: "Is the camera all right?" I said: "Yes, and Axel and I are all right as well."
But it was a problem as the aircraft wasn't yet licensed for carrying passengers. I told Ralph that Eddie Canelli who ran the airline could be in a bit of strife about it. Ralph said: "We want a one-reeler done in Darwin. So why don't you and Axel go up to Darwin. Get right out of the way. Do this one-reeler in Darwin." So we went up, had a look around and scripted Darwin Gateway to Australia (1946). We stayed there two or three weeks shooting that. We thought everything would have calmed down and flew back down to Alice Springs. As we got off the plane the track detective was there to talk to us. So we got nabbed anyway. But it all ended all right.
Moran: You made several films in the Northern Territory?
Robinson: I was fascinated by the Northern Territory. And from then on I worked almost exclusively there. We did three or four pictures there. There was a policy that we should be trying to do things in the Territory. There was also a policy that we should be getting theatrical release. And films like The Pearlers (1949) and The Crocodile Hunters (1949) were regarded as interesting and unusual so having a chance of theatrical release. We had shown with Namatjira that we could put the picture together well enough to get theatrical release. So we continued to do that.
Moran: What was it like making films inside the public service?
Robinson: Well. I'll tell you a story. When we were first in King Street we had two or three offices there. And we had a camera room. We had a few lights and stuff. And one day it was pouring with rain. Norman McCraig, the accountant(who later went to San Francisco as an Australian government representative) came up doing some sort of inspection. He came into the camera room. And all the cameramen were sitting there, having a cup of tea. And McCraig said: "Why aren't you men out working?" They said: "Norman, look at the bloody weather." And he said: "But you've got lights." He looked up his thing and said: "You've got 16 lights. Can't you go out and work using them." That was the sort of mentality you had to contend with. When I did Crocodile Hunters, I bought two or three packets of one hundred .303 bullets in Darwin to give to the crocodile hunters to use in the scenes where we wanted them shooting crocodiles. Bullets were worth 9 shillings each and you know these blokes were doing this for nothing. I didn't want them using their own bullets. When I got back I got a long screed about why should I require the purchase of bullets. I wrote back to Norman McCraig and explained that I had to buy them for the hunters to use in the film. He wrote back and said: "How many bullets were actually used?" I wrote back. I think I bought two boxes. I said all but 6 of them were used because I found 6 in the bottom of my case. So I sent him back the six bullets. You would think that that would be the end of that. But no, when the picture was finished and Norman saw it, he counted the number of shots fired by the hunters. He wrote back that he noticed in the film that there were only 13 or 18 shots. What happened to the other bullets? And this was a standard joke - the letter. What could you do? Canberra was the end.
Moran: One of your films at that time was made in a studio with actors?
Robinson: Yes. It was a little picture called Double Trouble (1951). It was a xenophobic picture. We had actors playing Australians in a foreign country. And all these things happened to them. Previously you had seen New Australians having these problems in Sydney. The message was: have a thought about the problems of people who have a language barrier. Be more prepared to help. It had Frank Waters and Rosemary Miller in it. We used a set on a stage at Burwood (the Unit's headquarters) which had been a sausage shop or something. The Producer-in-Chief, Stanley Hawes, was not too keen on using drama so he wasn't keen on this project. It was very rare to use actors. Dick Mason was assistant director. Later he did From the Tropics to the Snow (1964) in which he used actors, he even had one play Stanley.
Moran: Can we turn now to your feature work. When did you first connect with Chips Rafferty?
Robinson: While I was in the Film Unit, I wrote a radio serial called Chips: a Story of the Outback, starring Chips Rafferty. I wrote that for a year. While I was earning £9.80 ($19 approximately) as a film director, I was earning up to £300 ($600) a week writing for radio. Sometimes I wrote up to 10 or 12 scripts a day. I got that efficient that I could write these scripts in less time than it took to record them. I could write a 15 minute radio show in, say, two hours. I must have been able to do it in less because I remember once doing 12 in a day. I wrote about 150 episodes of the Chips series so that's how I met him.
Chips was then under contract to Ealing. He sat down at Church Point for a year, being paid a salary with no pictures coming up. The leading lighting cameraman at this time was George Heath who shot Eureka Stockade, Bitter Springs (1950), Bush Christmas (1947) - all those things. George wasn't getting any work because Ealing were dropping out a bit. Chips decided that the only way to keep himself engaged as an actor was to form his own company and to promote and make his own films.
I'm not sure how I became involved. Maybe I'd done something that Chips was aware of in relation to directing. Anyway, he approached me and said "Would you like to go into features?" I said "I intend to eventually". He told me what they were planning to do and asked me to have a think about it. I had to sell my house. We all had to take £15 a week out of the company. Then he and I wrote a picture called The Tribesman in which he was a character called the Sundowner. He lived with the Aborigines and was a mythical kind of a guru. We just went on from there. At the time there were only three directors in Australia. One of them was Ken Hall. But after Smithy (1946) he never did another picture. And there was Charles Chauvel. Neither of them would work for somebody - both were their own thing. So Chips had to find a young director with whom he could work: me. It was a big step to take. It could have come good or it might not have. Raising money was a big problem then. There was the Capital Issues Law that restricted you from raising more than £10,000 ($20,000) in a new company. So you had to be prepared to make a picture for £10,000 or less.
Moran: Can you tell me something about this first film, The Phantom Stockman (1953)?
Robinson: Chips wanted to work well into the outback, to use the outback as locales and I had had those three years in the Territory. I had one experience with drama production at that time when an American director, Peter Lyon, came here and did a pilot for a television series. I took leave from the Film Unit and worked as his assistant director and so I knew the procedures and the technique. Also I had directed that short CFU picture called Double Trouble which used actors. As I said earlier, the Capital Issues Law restricted any company and any newly formed company from having a capital base in excess of £10,000. Just why it was implemented I don't know. It probably was a carry over from the war and was designed to keep some sort of level on company development. We looked at the figure and said, it must be possible to make a picture for £10,000? Given that Chips wanted to work in Central Australia, we had to design a picture that you could cover the cost of travel and accommodation for a crew and cast and still come in under £10,000.
Moran: The Phantom Stockman has a strong feeling for the outback.
Robinson: I think it was inevitable. I had six years in documentary. A number of us in the Film Unit were thinking in terms of drama I got involved because I wanted to work with actors. My experience with actors was limited. Chips on the other hand had by now made quite a number of films and he was an impeccable technical actor. The Americans would take their hat off to him. He helped a good deal, there were people in the picture of course who had never made a picture before. There weren't the opportunities here for them to do so. He helped them a good deal by walking through scenes with them on his own and getting things sorted out, timing their dialogue and so on. The other thing was that we were working in actual locations. We decided right from the beginning we would never, ever build sets. We were working to a large extent in situations that were fairly genuine. The Aboriginal involvement, the themes were genuine themes. I suppose, given my documentary background and the fact that you are on actual locations and in many cases using actual people, it was inevitable that that would come through.
Moran: The film is also an Australian western, isn't it?
Robinson: Westerns were very popular then. And the reason Ealing became interested in Australia was because they saw this as a place where they could make their own westerns. But we were all well aware of the fact that there was no money in Australia theatrically and Chips at this point had travelled fairly extensively, the Rank people had taken him to England to do a picture, they had sent him around the world on a PR caper on The Overlanders (1946), he had been to Hollywood, Universal had feted him. He had met people there and was starting to realise what the world was all about. We said, "Let's forget what the Australian public thinks about, what they might take to, because if you put an Australian tag on a film it was the worst possible thing you could do." You see we were on a third-rate level as far as the public was concerned in comparison to imported films from anywhere. The thing was to try and go for different locales and different lines, new material but fairly standard in the international approach. I remember a motto that we used to remind ourselves of. It was something that Les Norman (the producer of Eureka Stockade) said to us. "If you are working in a known background like London or New York you can go for very different story lines, but if you are working in a new background that is unfamiliar to your audience you have to be a bit conventional in your story line because audiences find it difficult to accept a totally new background and a really new story line at the same time." So I think there was a bit of that inherent in all of those early films with Chips. We always went for the unusual background and therefore didn't try to get terribly tricky with the story lines.
Moran: How was distribution arranged?
Robinson: Through Herc McIntyre of universal. I knew Herc vaguely but I knew of his support for Charlie Chauvel. Chips, of course, knew Herc because, as a Rank actor, he was Universal property. (Universal was the distributor in America for an Rank pictures). I got to know him very well. He was the godfather of my youngest boy. We became very close family friends in the 1970s and 1980s. Herc released the film as a support. Whereas he was supposed to take, say, 85% for the main picture and 15% for the support, he changed it and gave something like 22.5% to us and took a bit off the American picture.
The picture was in profit within three months of being finished. Chips was in Hollywood then. He'd gone there immediately after shooting The Stockman to do the Desert Rats (1953) with Richard Burton. The producer of that film was Robert Jack who was, I think, Daryl Zanuck's son-in-law. So Chips knew him from being on the picture. I sent a print over for Jack to look at. He said "It is no good for us. But I'll put you onto the distributor in New York who handles small pictures." And it was sold for just about what it cost to make. We went on from there to England and we again sold it for just about what it cost to make. Here I think Herc got us just about what it cost to make. So it very quickly paid a dividend to the investors. Immediately we got the sales we went straight into another film. We were shooting within four or five months. The Capital Issues Law had been lifted so we had a budget of £25,000 ($50,000) this time.
Moran: When did you write a script for the second one?
Robinson: As soon as Chips got back from London we went straight down to Church Point for two or three weeks and wrote a script. We then went to Thursday Island and did a reconnaissance there. The film was King of the Coral Sea (1954). It was more successful than our first film. I sold the American rights to the film in the Marble Bar to Lee Gordon who wrote a cheque out on the bar. I'll never forget that day. We took about £34,000 out of England. And we made about £26,000 here. So again that tripled its costs in about three months. Then we went into co-production with the French. A French producer came here looking for a partnership. Of course Chips and I were the only people operative here. Nobody else was making anything.
Moran: How did you go directing actors after working with documentary?
Robinson: Good. I was regarded in the business as a good director of action. While there was action going on I was alright. I simply had no background in drama. Also I was relatively young in relation to what other directors were at that time. I was 23 when I did Namatjira. I was 29 when I did Phantom Stockman. That would be unheard of overseas. You simply did not get the opportunity to direct pictures at 29 and it might have been better in the long term if you hadn't either!
Moran: What were the co-productions you did with the French?
Robinson: We did Walk into Paradise (1956) which until Mad Max 2 was probably the highest earning Australian film ever. A lot of people don't realise that, at the time, it was one of the 100 top grossing films in America It was the first Australian picture to go into competition at Cannes, one of the very first multiple releases in Australia We took about £90,000 out of England with it. I forget how much it made there. Then we did The Stowaway (1958) in Tahiti, with the French. We also did Dust in the Sun (1958) somewhere in there based on Jon Cleary's book. It was not a co-production but one of the ones we had set up. The arrangement with the French was that we would put a subject forward, then they would, and then we would, and so on.
Moran: On Walk into Paradise you collaborated with a French director Marcel Pagliero. How did that work?
Robinson: By making sure that he had enough people down at the pub in Goroga to talk to. He was one of the most delightful guys you would ever meet in your life. I had seen him, of course, as an actor. He worked with Rossellini after the war in a couple of pictures and he came on the set for the first two or three days and then after that he said I think the best technique is that I go through the lines with the French actors in the morning and where the Australians have to speak in French I will get all the dialogue done out on idiot boards for them. Then he would go into town and talk to all the locals, all the planters and coffee growers. He loved to do that. Whenever he was needed he was always there, but he stood back from the film and worked with his actors a bit, helped the Australian actors with the French dialogue. Every scene was shot twice, once in English and once in French: two separate versions.
I think Marcel might have contributed a lot more than I was aware of because I became very fond of him. Later I stayed with him at his home in Paris and we became very good friends. I think the mere fact that I had such tremendous respect for him, both as an actor and as a director, is shown by the fact that I would sit at night in the pub and drink with him and talk about scenes. I probably got a great deal more. But he very quickly realised that you can only have one boss on the floor of the set. We tangled early on over a very, very minor incident which was purely a matter of timing. I was doing a shot where I was tilting down from the Australian flag being lowered at the end of the day which was the procedure with the patrol camps in the bush, they stand to attention and they play whatever they play, all their procedures and I tilted down from the flag and the guys were all at attention and finished the bugle and then get on with the actors moving and doing. He wanted to find the actors already on the move which is the way you should have tried to do it in any event and we argued over simply the fact that the Australian flag can't be coming down and people doing what he wanted them to do. It was a national argument rather than a film argument. But he was terribly aware of the fact that confusion would arise if the two of us were trying to run the set.
Moran: Tell me about Dust in the Sun.
Robinson: On that film we were aiming to do very well in the English market, because we had always done well there. For instance King of the Coral Sea earned much more than its production cost out of England whilst it earned its production cost in Australia. Walk into Paradise had also gone terribly well in England. England was a very strong market for us at that time. In fact it was probably a better market for us than the United States. It wasn't a very good script if I remember. I don't think it was a good script and I don't think that we had a very strong supporting cast and it was the first picture that we had done in which Chips didn't play the lead. Chips produced the picture but didn't play the lead. Chips played a relatively minor role in the picture. I think our mistake there was to make a picture not geared for Chips.
Moran: The Stowaway was a co directorial job. Can you tell me about that? If Habib was your co-director on that. Was it something more of a collaboration than it had been with Pagliero?
Robinson: It was an entirely different working relationship. I never became friendly with Ralph Habib at any stage and I didn't like his style of directing at all. He had directed a couple of pictures that had achieved some notoriety but I simply couldn't accept his lack of professionalism as a director. He was a mad home movies crank and would stand by the camera or even ten feet away from it and be shooting the scene that was his first take. I used to wonder how the hell does he know what is going on there. Often he was on an entirely different angle to the camera. He often seemed more concerned about getting a good scene on his little 16 mm camera.
Right from the beginning I found I was in a marvellous position as the second follow-up director because I could see everything that was being done and then rack my brains for some little thing that might spice the scene up a bit. I religiously directed every English version scene. In fact it got to the stage eventually that Serge Reggiani, the Italian actor, had to do a fairly long dialogue scene in French. He came over and was sitting down twiddling a coin thinking. I said "A penny for your thoughts" and he said "What does that mean? I said, "I don't know what it means, it is a thing we say, I suppose it means what are you thinking about? I'll buy your thoughts." And then he said, "I am trying to think what you are going to tell me to say in English after I do the French version. I am doing in the English what I would want to have done in the French." I had that luxury of just being able to change a little bit here and there after watching the rehearsals and the French takes.
Moran: What was the third one?
Robinson: It was called The Restless and the Damned (1959). It didn't go well. That was the period when films were hit by TV. There used to be big page advertisements: "Pictures are better than ever. Anamorphic lenses were brought in, Cinemascope, anything to try to get students into the cinema. The whole business was going bad. Stowaway didn't do too bad, but after that nothing at all worked. But at that time, of course, we were starting to get pretty heavily into TV ourselves. Chips and I were doing episodes of the High Adventure documentary series for American TV for Lowell Thomas. We could have done as many of them as we could handle if we had not been contracted for features. The crazy thing was I was taking £15 a week, $30 a week, as a feature film director and for High Adventure I was being paid $1,500 (US) a week as a director. By then we had bought the old Cinesound studio. We were sound-proofing that and setting the place up as a studio again. So the money flowed straight into the studio. Moran: What happened with that series?
Robinson: There were seven shows. The series these shows were part of was the highest rating show to be made for American TV. I think its budget was $15 million for seven shows. The series' producers had seen Walk into Paradise in America. They came here and said we want you people to do the pilot in New Guinea - to kick it off with a New Guinea background. Each episode was located somewhere. So the first was shot in New Guinea and was called "Uncontrolled Territory". Then they wanted us to go to Venezuela and do one there. But we were committed to The Stowaway. Then I got involved for a while with one called "Dewline", at the North Pole. And then they wanted us to do one in Samoa but we couldn't do it. Then they wanted us to do one in Nepal and we couldn't do it either. A pity. They were a bonanza. We would get a 1/4 million dollar budget to do them. After that first seven, they were so successful that they did another six. Wes did one called "Beyond the Outback", which was the story of Lassiter. How they found the body and bought it in for burial. It was the most highly regarded of the whole of the series.
Lee Robinson's partnership with Chips Rafferty ended in 1964. Rafferty continued to appear in films such as The Sundowners (1960), Wackiest Ship in the Army (US 1961), Mutiny on the Bounty (US 1962), They're a Weird Mob (1966), Kona Coast (US 1968), Skulduggery (US 1969) and Wake in Fright (1971). Robinson's subsequent work in producing Australian TV dramas such as Skippy (first screened 1968), Barrier Reef (scr. 1971), Boney, (scr. 1972) and Shannon's Mob (scr. 1975) are perhaps better remembered than his producer role in features such as They're a Weird Mob (1966), and the revival films Nickel Queen (1971) and Attack Force Z (1980).
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