Mark Leonard Winter Opens Up About the Making and Meaning of The Rooster

Mark Leonard Winter is a somewhat ubiquitous Australian film and television presence. An excellent character actor who believes firmly in his craft. Taking on a new role as the writer and director of The Rooster Winter delivers an important film that discusses loneliness, guilt, redemption and dignity. Starring Australian icon Hugo Weaving as Mit and Phoenix Raei as Dan, The Rooster imagines what happens when two very different men meet and help each other to heal.

Nadine Whitney had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Mark about his directorial debut.

Nadine Whitney: The Rooster is such an important meditation on mental health, regret, guilt. It’s a stunning film.

Mark Leonard Winter: I really appreciate that. I’ve been a bit nervous with the film and its journey into the world. It’s really lovely to hear that.

NW: Was working with Hugo Weaving as an actor — you worked with him on Measure for Measure and The Dressmaker — an inroad to directing him?

MLW: This is the fourth time we worked together. We did a movie together called Healing many years ago which was set in a low security prison and we were living together on the same property, so I began to get to know him a little there.

He’s a very inspiring figure for me, aside from his talent as an extraordinary actor. I’m so drawn to his philosophy as to how he approaches his career and his extreme dedication to Australian work and art. His belief in the Australian voice. I love the guy as someone who I look up to.

When I was nervously noodling around with the initial ideas for The Rooster, I got a draft together and we were actually in London together before COVID hit, and we went out to dinner and I spoke to him about it. I said, “I’m trying to make this thing, and I’ve written a part for you.” That must happen to him a lot, but he was very gracious and said “Well, send it and I’ll have a read.” He’s been so encouraging in every stage of the journey. When you’re trying to get a first film happening it’s vulnerable and fragile. To have him say “Keep going, and I really like the world you’re building,” just gave me a bit of confidence to pursuing it and to keep writing and developing the film. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been available to do it. It was written for him and I couldn’t picture anyone else in that role.

Separate from his extraordinary artistry, the gift he gave was that he legitimised the film. In him saying “I’m going to show up and I’ll be there,” for an independent Australian drama it meant that when we were talking to people and trying to get Phoenix Raei on board and our crew together being able to say Hugo is going to be there suddenly the project is real.

That’s just an incredible gift that he gave us, and The Rooster and I will be eternally grateful to him for it.

In terms of what was it like working with him from switching from acting alongside of him to directing him, he’s so generous, and so fearless, and so lacking in ego that what he brings to a production is invaluable.

Due to scheduling it meant that we had to shoot all of his stuff first and I was quite nervous about that because I was hoping to find my sea legs with directing and how the production would feel as we were going, and I’d hoped we’d all hit the ground running when Hugo arrived, and we’d all be in a good place. But it didn’t work out like that and in actual fact that was such a blessing because of his artistry he basically set the level high and all of us had to come up to meet him at that level. He didn’t do it by talking about it, he did it just by giving one of the most insane and brilliant performances I’ve ever seen.

It was just a tremendous gift and we were all so excited. Watching him develop that relationship and friendship with Phoenix was so special to see. He soared like an eagle over it.

We were having lunch every day in my garage. That’s how we made the film. There were no trailers or luxuries. He’d sneak off and go into his hermit’s cabin for a nap. It was just really beautiful. I think he’s someone I look up to on so many levels.

NW: As an actor you like to live your roles to an extent. One of your preparation techniques is to live partially as your character, such as your work on Michael Bentham’s Disclosure and Aaron Wilson’s Little Tornadoes. As a director and writer did you apply some of that same logic?

MLW: Well, I think it was inbuilt in a way because it was written around my surrounding area, my home, and the forest that is at the end of my street. So, it was a personally built artistic proposition. I was trying to be in a playful and creative space when making the film instead of an intense zone. They’re such different jobs. Acting you have one responsibility which is to take care of that character. To make sure that you’re in that person’s journey and you’re trying to bring that alive in whatever way that you can. Whereas as directing you’re trying to facilitate an environment that’s open and exploratory, and creative. They’re different parts of the brain despite having similarities.

It was interesting when I finished the shooting. It made me realise what I love about my life as an actor and director in Australia. What I love is the experience of creating things with people and working deeply with them. It’s such an exciting and rewarding journey. What happens to the film and how it’s received in general is different to the process of making things with a group of people. It’s a wonderful thing to do even though sometimes you can get lost in the business and prestige of things, but when you come back to it it’s just such a great thing to do. To get a bunch of really skilled and interesting people together to create a work.

NW: Speaking of prestige, you’ve been in a Baz Luhrmann film (Elvis) and a Jocelyn Moorhouse film (The Dressmaker), but you’ve also been in more independent works. Is there anything you’ve learned with different “tiered” directors?

MLW: All of the directors are extraordinary. For me it’s what propels creativity and what allows to find creative freedom.

With something like Elvis, walking on to that set… we were trying to get enough money together to shoot The Rooster and I was looking at this created city and thinking our entire budget is probably going out every hour on this movie. But what that affords Baz Luhrmann is creative freedom so he’s able to find his way working in that model. Whereas working with Michael Bentham on Disclosure it’s actually the restrictions that are the catalyst for creativity. Michael is looking at his proposition which is that he has fourteen days and a crew made up of a lot of VCA graduates so where that led him was locked off shots and the like. I think it worked really well. You try to find freedom in the parameters that are set for you. Both small and large productions look at maximising what you can do and how that impact the aesthetics and feel of the film.

For me the small budget experience was similar when I was writing the film. I knew that it had to be achievable. That the chances funding and scheduling were difficult. I’m a first-time filmmaker, it’s a drama. This is not a slight against the funding agencies, but I think I’d still be waiting. In some ways that was a blessing. I felt that if we could get the film shot that would open other avenues and once they could see what we were trying to do people would help us complete us in stages and that’s what ended up happening. And it was wonderful.

It was very clear to me that I had to write within my means and write for locations that were available to me and were easy to get to. That became the catalyst for my creativity. Putting the available elements together to craft what I wanted to talk about and explore. It’s all about what opens your path forward. The restrictions can be so great in opening up your expression the same way compete financial freedom can do that. They’re different ways of working but heading to the same place which is making something compelling and you hope is interesting and something that people will take out of the experience of watching.

NW: Speaking of locations, Daylesford (where The Rooster was shot) is beautiful. I don’t think people, especially people overseas, understand how magical and eerie our winter forests are in Australia.

MLW: I really wanted to capture that. It’s not necessarily a landscape we see that much of in Australian work. Interestingly it’s having a kind of moment in Australian productions. There’s lots of stuff happening in Tasmania and Robert Connolly’s Force of Nature. We’re good at desert and that sort of thing. I was trying to capture the beauty of the landscape, but it was also a part of the psychological makeup of the film. The density of fog where you can’t see more than a metre in front of you and this endless cold and damp. How true it feels when somebody is stuck in a mental health struggle. The world is kind of soft. You’re not seeing things as they are anymore, there’s a cloud over everything. I think the location supported the characters’ emotions.

It is a very special part of the world and I’ve been blessed by this forest at the end of our road. These trees are just watching, and they’ve been there for such a long time. Your struggles seem so small to the expansive natural world. I was trying to bring a few of those elements into the film. To watch the characters make peace with themselves and where they sit in the natural world. They aren’t the centre of things, there is a bigger world there.

NW: I felt that very strongly when I was watching the film, especially when Mit says you can be a tree, you can in some way be a part of the world forever.

MLW: It’s an amazing thing he holds on to, this idea that you can be a part of something and live that way. It’s such a great piece of philosophy from someone who is anything but a philosophical character. He’s always saying, “I don’t want to hear about your fucking poems,” but he has his own pathway to finding meaning.

NW: Music is such an important part of the film. You have Dan consistently listening to classical music and opera and you have Mit listening to crazy Miles Davis riffs. Is this something you were doing to balance their different energies?

MLW: I guess it’s a reflection of their energies, but I was really interested in the creation of Dan and trying to explore a softer and gentler kind of masculinity particularly in the trope of a small-town cop. It felt that it it’s an interesting place to be. Like he’s not the chief rooster at his house.

NW: [laughs] No, that rooster is terrifying!

MLW: [laughing] Yeah, he’s a really nasty fella, and he’s the boss. It felt interesting to me to look a different version of Australian masculinity. The classical music is a nod to his inner world, complexity and loneliness, and a deepness that is in him that is not expressed verbally by him. And then with the jazz with Mit and the terrific chaos that character brings, and the film jumps gears when he’s brought into it. It just felt like him. You’re looking at order and chaos colliding and that’s essentially what happens between the two characters and they find a kind of middle ground and found each other.

I love the incongruity of jazz and strangeness of it being in the Australian bush.

NW: What was it like working with Geraldine Hakewill, also your life partner, as a producer?

MLW: The movie wouldn’t exist without her. She kept encouraging me to keep writing and keep going. She read draft after draft. And she said, “I’ll produce it, we’ll make it together.” It was wonderful and I’m so proud that we made something as a family. We were both stepping into an area of work we weren’t as experienced in and being brave together. She’s such an amazing person and I’m so grateful to her.

It’s really hard to make a film. Geraldine kept pushing when things seemed like things were too difficult to do. She joked about things we couldn’t afford and having to negotiate her position as a producer and my job as a director. I loved working with her. It will always feel amazing to me that we did that together, we have this creation. It just adds to the specialness of the film.

NW: You have two special creations together, a film and a child.

MLW: That’s the thing, we just started shooting and we found out that we were pregnant, and Geraldine had terrible morning sickness. We didn’t have a unit manager or anything like that so out of the corner of my eye I was watching Geraldine pulling big marquees out of utes and thinking “Oh this can’t be good.” My Mum and Dad came to help with the production, and I’d say to my Mum “Just keep getting dry crackers to Gerri, just ward off the morning sickness.” It was in that early stage of pregnancy where you’re not sure it’s going to take so it’s a vulnerable phase so we couldn’t talk to too many people about it. So, all of that was in the mix.

She had about six jobs on the film: she was locations manager, she was reaching out to all the amazing local community, she was unit manager and runner. It was pretty amazing to watch her work separate to her role as producer. We just had a great team. Mahveen Shahraki.M and her partner David were staying at our house. We really were making this all together.

NW: How important to you as an Australian to tell Australian stories?

MLW: Oh, it’s so important. It’s so tough for Australian stories to cut through and resonate. A lot of the financial imperatives seem to be steering away from creating Australian talent. Bringing in American and British talent for leads. I understand it to an extent because it’s about numbers on a piece of paper to convince investors that things can be viable.

I was really buoyed by Bryan Brown recently saying that we have to champion Australian film. To keep saying “This has value, this is us, these are our stories,” and keeping that alive. We need to reflect that as an industry. It really is important to me. We need to keep making interesting films. Looking at upcoming works there are all these really exciting Australian films. Festivals like MIFF, CineFest Oz, AIFF are bring such great talent.

Hugo has said we need to believe in our culture. He said “Without Priscilla, Queen of the Desert I don’t have the same kind of career. So, if you’re bringing in an import for a role that changes the whole landscape of my life.”

We need to champion Australian art. There was recently a theatre piece at MTC about Sunday Reed. We need to stop looking overseas for our stories, they’re here. We can make some of the most exciting art here. We had such an amazing renaissance of Australian film, we’re still making great movies, but you want that to cut through with the public and films finding their way into the light, which is not easy. Particularly with a small independent Australian drama like The Rooster. You need a lot of luck and a few champions to emerge at the right time for that to find its way into the culture. All we can do is keep making things that are exciting and interesting… and hopefully… if you build it, they will come.

Note: The Rooster played MIFF, CineFest Oz, and has Australian distribution.

NW: What would you like an audience to get out of The Rooster? Why should they come and see it?

MLW: To have genuinely moving time. I hope that they can connect to the humanity of the film. I hope they can enjoy the strangeness of the film. I think too, to see an expression of what it’s like to be in a mental health crisis and being trapped in your own mind. I hope that can start a conversation about their own journey with that. I know a lot of people battle it, a lot of people struggle and it’s to talk about especially for men.

That kind of kept me going in the process of making The Rooster because you’re always try to ask yourself the question of “Does this step beyond vanity? Or just wanting to put your voice in the world somehow? Is this anything, really?”

I talked to people about as we were putting it together, people beyond my family and friendship group, and they’d ask me “What’s the film about?” I’d respond, “It’s about the strangeness of being in a mental health crisis.” And they’d ask if I’d had some experience of that and I’d respond “Yeah, it’s hard.” I’d talk a little bit about what I’d been through and they’d talk they’d been through and so many people seem to have battled it. Yet it’s so hard to discuss. I hope the film can lead to a feeling of “Yeah, I want to talk about what I’ve been through and open up.” It’s interesting, because even talking to you now because I feel a bit nervous saying that the film is about the challenges being lost in that battle because it makes me feel like an audience wouldn’t want to see that. But I really tried to find a way to bring a lot of humour, life, and energy to the story so it’s not a dour cinematic experience. If anything it’s an affirming film that people are still here, or they’ve made it though, or they might still be in the fog but there is hope.

Something that is important to me is reassessing what we think of as courage in a film. We’re very used to our heroes saving the girl, stopping the criminal, but I was trying to look at a gentler courage. That sometimes just making it through another day is an extraordinary act of courage and I hope that audiences can connect with that and take something for, that sentiment.

I think they will. I think they will see the warmth and humour in the film. Mit does give Dan a Joie de vivre that he was definitely needing. There is a lovely manic energy to the work that’s wonderful and affirming.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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