James Bogle is a Perth director. His film Whiteley, a docu-drama based on the life and art of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, was released this year. To start with a confession, I hadn’t heard of Whiteley before seeing the film, and subsequently the profound, and at times, disruptive effect he had on the Australian art scene. Born in 1939, Whiteley went on to lead a life of artistic success and renown, but also of destructive obsession. His unraveling talent took him at a young age to study classical art in Europe, settling in London for a time in the 60s. From 1967, he was immersed in the experimental frenzy of New York art, and was constantly at pains to make sense of America’s war in Vietnam. After a long and strenuous battle with alcohol and drug addiction, he was found dead in a motel room in Thirroul, NSW. Bogle’s film visually captures the artist’s sensibility, and his chaotic, roaming life with wife Wendy, an artist herself. The film is ambitious in form and scope – traversing Whiteley’s life and works with an archivist’s thoroughness and an artist’s passion. When I sat down James Bogle, I guiltily knew little to nothing of one of Australia’s most revolutionary artists, but left with the clear urge to see and learn more.
How did you first get involved in filmmaking and what has your work consisted of so far?
I won the Young Filmmakers Festival Award in 1981. Then went off to Sydney and lived there for 20 years, working for some time with Michael Willesee (Four Corners, This Is Your Life) on documentaries. I’ve made four feature films; the best well know is an adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel In the Winter Dark. I’m drama based and I’ve done a lot of children’s drama, over 50 episodes – including Lockie Leonard, Sleepover Club, Foreign Exchange, and Canine. I recently directed a four hour docu-drama for the ABC called The War that Changed Us which screened in 2015. This [Whiteley] is a foray into a new docu-drama style. It’s the first film I’ve made like this, in that I wanted to make it first-person present tense to try and make a film from Whiteley’s point of view. People are aware of him as a sort of rock-star artist, but a lot of people aren’t more intimately aware of him. I was surprised when I started out – my estimates were that eight out of ten people hadn’t heard of him. It is one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. Also, his art – it’s the sort of art that doesn’t age, it still excites people to this day.
Why this particular docu-drama format and style?
I suppose I’ve been influenced by how people are making documentaries now. The rules have loosened up a bit. In Whiteley, we used actors and written material to give the film a specific point of view, rather than a more general telling. With Brett, I really wanted to find out what made him tick, what made him into the person he was underneath that big front. He was very good when he was on show and had a public persona, but I wanted to have a closer look at him. The way to do that was to go through all his notebooks and letters, and find the key ingredients that tell you about his character, his personality, and his behaviour. The idea was to find everything he’d ever said – audio, video, print etc. and collate it. We set a two-hour timeline and got together everything he’d said in chronological order to see how that felt, and then we started building the film around that. I was really interested in using all sorts of textures and styles, because that’s what his art is like. So I felt there was poetic license there. Now you can see art in a completely different way in film, in its absolute pristine state, digitally. I knew it was going to be a kaleidoscopic experience.
How did you go about crafting the style and texture of the film?
If you look at his art he’s a real revisionist, with layer upon layer, and detail upon detail. When you look at his art close up there’s all sorts of things going on, and it’s incongruent, and that was very much his style. He was very much about dualism in life – love and hate, life and death. A kind of extremist dramatic style. He’d make something beautiful and then rip it apart. Always out to find the tension in the frame. He was so game, and so incredibly prolific, so it’s didn’t matter if he destroyed his work because he would constantly rebuild. So I thought the film should be like that, in a way. I got a very good editor who could handle my madness and my approach, and harness it really. And it’s really an editor’s film. It’s as much Lawrie’s (Lawrie Silvestrin) film as it is mine, because he had to pull me in with all the ideas I was bringing to the table. He needed to shape it and hold me back.
How did you manage the pacing and pitch of this quite grand and encompassing project?
I love playing with pace, pitch, tone and the style of things. With my drama background I’m very aware of that. I always had this idea that after the explosion of New York with The American Dream when Brett went to Fiji, there’s a sigh of relief, and then suddenly it’s almost like watching a meditation film. It involved lurching around, and pitching to and fro, which is a reflection of Brett’s life. If he got energy over something he’d be very full on, and then he’d wait for the next thing to hit. Drawing to him was like breathing, if he couldn’t draw it would send him mad. So there’s a sense of therapy in the film, about art and how important art is in all our lives, and how incredibly healthy it is to involve yourself in some kind of art. The thing about Brett is that he had a gift and he didn’t know what to do with it, and it sort of fucked him up. With people like that it’s very hard to manage. Most of them go a bit mad, and his idea was to just paint his way through it, until his body stopped and he literally dropped dead.
But you could argue that at times his art was a destructive manifestation in his life?
It was sort of like a curse as well as a gift. If the world starts opening up to you in that way it must be crazy because you know in your heart that it’s the right thing to do, but there is constantly a response to it and further stimulation. That’s got to be a good thing if you experience the world as vibes and electricity, connectivity and energy, as Brett did. He was very confident in public but in letters to his mother, even as a forty-something, he was still crying out in a lot of ways for recognition and acknowledgement from her. She was a really controlling and powerful woman, and he married someone like that [Wendy Julius].
How did you approach his very ambivalent relationship to Australia and ‘home’?
He had a love hate relationship with Australia, the beach, and the carelessness of the Australian psyche. I suppose we all have a sense of that when we go to other places and see how difficult life is elsewhere, and you come back and everyone’s cruising around. I think he was conflicted in that way. The thing about Brett is that he would celebrate his conflictions visually. He was obsessed with sex and the carnal, and he got annoyed at how everyone would skirt around and only talk tentatively about these things. He was quite the provocateur, with a lot of erotic material. I mean he was as much of a salesman as a painter. He knew what would sell. An interesting tension in Brett was between his art genius and awareness of making a sales pitch. He had a substantial effect on the local art scene, which brought back a sense of internationality to Australia. The culturati were pissed off about that in some ways because he was so audacious and precocious, but in other ways they were absolutely delighted by it, because he reinvigorated the whole scene.
Were you not tempted to make a more conventional biopic out of Brett’s life?
I think eventually there will be a biopic about Brett and Wendy, but in my mind, this was the first step that needed to be taken in the currency of today. There hasn’t been a film made about him in 25 years. In my mind it’s a first step where you can offer up so much of his art in 90 minutes as opposed to it being a biopic and an actors’ world. There’s a lot of his original art in the film, over a hundred pieces. I thought that was an important first step.
Interview by Ryan Suckling
This interview first appeared in print volume 88 edition 5 HOME.