Today we are very pleased to welcome Neil Armfield to the site in order to talk about his latest feature Holding the Man. We can wholeheartedly recommend that you go and see this ‘vital contribution to Australian queer cinema’ film¹ as soon as you can, but if our word isn’t enough to convince you, then take a pew and get to know a little about Neil and his film in the interview below…
Hi, Neil. First, would you like to summarise Holding the Man for our readers?
It’s about a very sensitive boy, who’s very into theatre, who, at 16, falls in love with the school football captain, and they spend the rest of their lives together. And, later, they both discover that they are HIV-positive, and at that point it’s like the world is trying to deny their love. But the energy of that love overcomes.
What first brought you to Tim Conigrave’s book?
After John [Caleo, played by Craig Stott] died, Tim [Conigrave, played by Ryan Corr] stayed alive for another 12 months to finish Holding the Man. And then he died like a week after that. A friend of mine, Stuart, gave me the book soon after it was published. That was in 1995, so it wasn’t until 20 years later that I made the film.
The memoir has already been adapted to stage. What were you looking to achieve in filming the story that is different from its iterations in other media?
What you really get with a film is the opportunity to take the audience on a journey, over two hours. Actually one thing we were able to get on film that you can’t do anywhere else, is the scenes of the boys having sex, which are really important. That passion is really important. There’s a scene, shortly after John comes out of hospital, in which they have sex. Rufus Wainwright told me he loved that scene, and he wrote a song for it.
There’s so much chemistry between Ryan Corr and Craig Stott. Is that something you tested for during the auditioning process?
Yes. You always approach a new project looking at what you think is going to be the most difficult to achieve, and I thought that it would be almost impossible to find two actors who had the kind of chemistry that you see in the book. We screen-tested hundreds of guys, and when we brought in Ryan Corr we realised that he had the wit, the clowning but also the intelligence to embody Tim. There were so many things about him that just sat well with Ryan – a sense of excoriating honesty about himself, an irony and a self-knowledge. But then we still searched for months and months for someone to play John. I was in LA, looking at Australian actors, when someone sent me a test of an actor, and that was Craig. I had actually seen him already, and not shortlisted him, but then looking at it again, I saw something there that I hadn’t seen the first time. Craig came in, and I still wasn’t sure, but I could see that he had real possibility. Then we realised the only way to be sure was to audition them together, and we tried them out with actors, too. Ryan, at that time, was in Manchester, Craig was in LA, and another boy was in Amsterdam…we brought everyone together in London, and I flew out there for a gruelling but very rewarding day of auditioning various combinations of actors. And the energy and the chemistry was definitely with Craig and Ryan.
Was there anything in either actor’s filmography that drew you to them?
I hadn’t seen Craig in anything. I was aware that Ryan had been in Wolf Creek 2, but I hadn’t seen it at that time. I checked out some other things that both actors had done after shortlisting them.
At mrrumsey.com, we were really impressed by Ryan’s performance in Wolf Creek 2.
He’s an amazing actor. I did a film ten years ago called Candy, which starred Heath Ledger, and working with Ryan I saw a similar sense of someone whose instinct is almost always right.
So many big Australian actors show up in the film. Was that something that was planned, or did it just fall together that way?
It just fell together. Geoffrey Rush is someone that I’ve always worked with, we kind of grew up together. Geoffrey’s always up for an interesting part, no matter what size, in something I’m doing, so we kind of created that drama teacher character for Geoffrey, who was very interested in what particular shade of crimson or burgundy that his turtleneck jumper was going to be. Guy Pearce I’d never worked with, but always loved, and he was very interested in taking that on. With Anthony LaPaglia, his character, Bob, was always designed to be the third point of the triangle. It’s a kind of love triangle with Bob, John’s father, and Tim both competing for the love of John. He was actually the first actor that we offered the rôle to, and he accepted it straight away, so that really got us rolling. There’s a very different atmosphere of the life in each of the two households, the Conigraves and the Caleos. Kerry Fox, as well, she was considered for both mother rôles but now it’s very hard to imagine her as anything other than Mary Gert [Conigrave, Tim’s mother]. But I’ve been working for thirty years, so I’ve worked with most Australian actors [laughs].
Having lived through the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, would you say that the experiences faced by the characters of Holding the Man reflect your own experience?
I was four years older than Tim Conigrave, and I knew him a little. We were living in the same city when he graduated from drama school, and growing up in Sydney as a young gay man with an interest in theatre, I threw myself into many of the same things that he did, that whole backstage experience. The film’s story is told partly in the sex scenes, but also in the nature of theatre production, all the stuff that Tim is involved in. Those scenes are like explorations of the things, at the time, that I was either directing or acting in. My relationship with my parents, too, was not dissimilar to what Tim has. But, in particular, there was this thing in the 80s of seeing your friends get sick and die, that shocking time spent in hospices and AIDS wards. All of that stuff is just shattering.
There’s an idea of the decadent 70s as the peak of gay culture, followed by a very rapid decline from the ravages of AIDS. The film reflects that, with the first half offering almost unalloyed joy, in contrast to the second half. Was that always part of the way you saw the story?
Well yes – I’m not sure I’d say “unalloyed”. There was an experience for people in the 70s and early 80s, an idea in universities especially that there was a moral compulsion to experiment beyond monogamy. That’s a source of tension, because John is much more interested in a settled, family-style relationship with Tim, but Tim is constantly searching. But it’s certainly a great pain that gets introduced halfway through, like a hastening of mortality. We all have short lives, but this is a story in which the speed of mortality is, of course, accelerated. Mind you, it’s been my experience from seeing the film at screenings that the humour of the film remains maintained right through to the end, and that comes from the characters, their moral courage and their lightness keeps the laughter going.
One of my favourite things in the film was the use of anachronic order, which is a hard thing to get right. Did the screenplay always look like that?
When we were writing it, we thought we would need to have different actors playing the teenaged John and Tim, so the idea was that, at the end of the school years, we would leap forward eight years to the end of university, and by doing that, it would allow us to introduce the new actors, and then we could go back and see them through the university years; we’d never return to the young actors. But when we saw the chemistry between Ryan and Craig, there was no longer any need for those younger actors. Nonetheless, there seemed to me something very helpful in that structure. In a film dealing with AIDS, you know that audiences are going to be waiting for that diagnosis. By having it come unexpectedly early, you’ve advanced the audience’s expectations by bringing it in before they thought it was going to be, and that sort of frees you up. During the editing, we did try doing it chronologically and it wasn’t nearly as coherent, or as interesting rhythmically, because of that problem of waiting for the hammer to fall. It has the effect of lessening the importance of all the other experiences, particularly those at university. So we went back to that non-chronological structure. At the point of greatest liberation, when they get on their bikes and ride off into their futures, to bring in the diagnosis straight after that, I think has a certain power.
Your career’s seen very large gaps of stage work between film projects. Can we expect to see a follow-up to Holding the Man any time soon?
I’d love to do another film, and I’d love to do one before ten years’ time. But I take jobs wherever they come up, and I’ve got stage work already coming up, so it’s unlikely that that’ll be any time soon.
Holding the Man is currently in cinemas and on demand, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!