It would be difficult to name a filmmaker who has had a hand in as many genres, industries, and national cinemas as Ted Kotcheff, yet somehow his isn’t quite a household name. But you would also be hard-pressed to find someone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard of some of his remarkable film or television work. He got his start in Canadian and British television in the ‘50s and went on to direct notable mainstream and arthouse films like Australian cult classic Wake in Fright (1971) or Canadian drama The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974); comedies like Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989); and action staples such as First Blood (1982) and Uncommon Valor (1983). And if that wasn’t enough, he served for more than a decade as executive producer and occasional director of the wonderfully addictive crime drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Australian film festival Monster Fest has invited him over this year for something of a mini-career retrospective — he’s far too prolific for a complete retrospective without it stretching out over weeks — and he’ll be on hand to present a number of his films, including Wake in Fright, First Blood, and Weekend at Bernie’s. The icing on the cake is a lengthy masterclass, where he’ll discuss his multifaceted career with moderator Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood). On the eve of that, he was kind enough to speak with Diabolique about his early years, greatest hits, and future projects.
Diabolique: Here at Diabolique we celebrate a really wide range of genres and I think you’re one of the few directors who has just covered an astounding range over the years. How did this come about and do you have a favorite to work in?
Ted Kotcheff: I like all genres. It all started because I began directing in live television way back in 1955. It was an hour anthology drama series and every three weeks I did a different play. So, say on a Sunday night, I would do a drama. And then three weeks later, I’d be given another script and it would be a comedy, and so on. I did all genres, so when it came to do films it was very natural. People would always ask me, “Ted, how come you do all these different genres?” But it all started when I first started to direct.
Diabolique: It seems like throughout your career, regardless of genre, you’ve returned again and again to themes of masculinity and violence. I was wondering if that was intentional?
Kotcheff: I think it was probably half and half. I think I’m drawn to characters who don’t know themselves. Like the school teacher in the Australian outback film, Wake in Fright. Duddy Kravitz [of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz] of doesn’t know himself. And so my films are more interested in that process of discovery. I guess it must be in my own makeup that I really don’t know what drives me sometimes, what makes me do things. I think “why did you say that? Why did you do that?” I think life is a continual voyage of discovery, or of analysis. Sometimes I don’t come to a conclusion, but I think it’s an interesting voyage from that point of view.
And you asked me about violence. My whole family were involved in violence. My father’s brother came to Canada and was sent back to Bulgaria, because of things he said when the Communists ruled Bulgaria. They put him in a concentration camp for seven years. It was awful. I could tell you so many stories.
One of my mother’s cousins, whom I adored, was the head of a Macedonian rebel group against Turkish rule in Macedonia. He was a captain. They lived up in the mountains and shot and killed Turkish soldiers, so violence was in his daily life. There was an uprising in Macedonia and the rebellion leaders on the mountain were surrounded by Turkish soldiers. They wanted to capture them, because they wanted to torture them and find out who their families were — because they would kill their families — and find out who the other officers were in the rebellion.
So they decided to commit suicide, but my cousin put a gun to his head, but he couldn’t kill himself. He asked his friend to do, but he was hit right in the chest by a Turkish sniper, which knocked him off the edge of the mountain. He fell down the whole side of the mountain, ripped his flesh to shreds, but somehow he survived it. The Turks were thrilled to have him and they took him to Istanbul. They were going to torture him to find out who the other members of the rebellion were, but it happened to be Ramadan and he got away with other Muslim prisoners. He fled through Turkey, down through Syria, got on a boat to Italy, and then he worked on a boat from Italy to Montreal, Canada, and that’s where he ended up.
Diabolique: That’s amazing. When was this?
Kotcheff: 1905. What I’m really trying to say is that all my family were surrounded by violence: rebellion against the Turks, or they were being tortured by the Turks, or the Communists were torturing them. And so I grew up hating violence — all kinds of violence — and that’s why the character of Rambo in First Blood doesn’t want to kill anyone when he comes back from Vietnam. He hates violence. He’s not going to come back to America to perpetrate violence. He’s just so tired of seeing his friends killed and Vietnamese women killed accidentally, so that detestation of violence permeates the whole of First Blood, because of me.
Diabolique: Which makes it so different from the other Rambo films.
Kotcheff: Yes, because of what they turned him into. They wanted me to do the second, obviously, because I wrote and directed the first one, but I said, “You’ve turned him into an agent of violence.” I said, “I think I counted seventy-four people he kills. This is not the character that I created. You’ve perverted him into something else.”
Diabolique: Backing up a little, I wanted to ask about something I read in an interview, where you said you wanted to make a film about the King of Bulgaria during WWII. Whatever happened with that project?
Kotcheff: As a matter of fact, I’m just now writing the final draft of the script. I have some financing already, but once I get that done, I’m going to get the rest of the financing and then I hope to do the film next spring in Bulgaria. It’s about King Boris of Bulgaria. Ironically, he was on the German side. After about a year and a half of neutrality, the Germans were on his border; why he wound up on the German side is a part of the picture. But Bulgaria was a very small country, it only had about seven to eight million people, but it was very, very polyglot. It had Slavs, Jews, Armenians, it had all sorts of religions, and so on. So there was never any kind of anti-semitism in Bulgaria, it just didn’t exist.
King Boris III was kind of an unusual man. He felt that his people were his people and he had to look after them. The Germans wanted him to hand over the Jews and he said, “No, they’re my people and I’m not handing them over to you. I don’t know what you want to do with them, but I suspect the worst.” They told him that they were going to work in factories in Poland, but he was too smart. The film is about the story of how King Boris pulled the wool over Hitler’s eyes and not one Bulgarian Jew in the 50,000 died during WWII.
Diabolique: Which is really amazing when you compare it to the Holocaust in the rest of Europe.
Kotcheff: It is amazing. It’s the only country in Europe where the community of Jews actually increased in number during WWII, whereas they were wiped out in most European countries. So the way he did it — he was a real cunning fox — was he would always have an excuse like, “I need the Jews to build some roads for me, because my armored cars can’t get down some of these roads.” He always had some reason to delay it, of course. And Hitler really loved him, because Boris was an Austrian aristocrat and he was a member of a very old family. He was a cousin of King George VI of England and he was a nephew of Queen Victoria. So he was a real aristocrat and Hitler was white trash, so Hitler was very excited to have this guy as his friend, this great Austrian. He was so glad to have this great, upper class guy be his friend and of course Boris manipulated that as well.
There’s a great scene at the end, a true scene, between the two of them. And we know something about this because there were two German generals outside the door. It was held at the Wolf’s Lair. It’s a fantastic scene where Hitler says to him, “OK, hand over the Jews.” And he said no. No one ever said no to Hitler. He said, “No, I’m not going to hand them over. They’re my people and I’m their king. I’m not going to hand them over to you to kill.” Hitler said, “If you don’t hand them over to kill, I’m going to send a division of the SS into Bulgaria to take them and put them all in Auschwitz and gas every one of them.” But Boris said, “No, you won’t.”
Hitler went crazy, because by this time, the Russians were on the border and they were advancing. They were coming into Poland and they were going to be in Germany soon. Boris said, “The Russians are kicking your ass and you’re going to send a division of SS to Bulgaria to get the Jews? You haven’t got a spare corporal.” Hitler went crazy, because he didn’t like anyone to tell him that the Russians were going to defeat him in the end. And he wanted to attack him with a poker — this was an actual event. The generals rushed in and grabbed the poker from him, because word couldn’t get around that Hitler tried to attack an ally. Anyway, I won’t tell you the full ending, but he saved the Bulgarian Jews. It’s a great story that I’ve wanted to tell for fifty years. It’s the story of moral courage. If more people had had moral courage, Hitler never would have gotten anywhere. That’s why it’s always been attractive to me and I hope I’m going to do that next year.
Diabolique: WWII films are a particular passion of mine, so I can’t wait to see it! I’ve gotten the impression that it’s difficult for directors to move back and forth between mainstream/commercially viable films to something that’s more cult friendly or arthouse. You seem to be one of the few directors who’s managed to go back and forth between the two often throughout your career. Was that intentional or did it just sort of work out that way over the years?
Kotcheff: First of all, I think it was a lucky time. You can’t do that now. Back then, there was always a market for personal films or films that were not necessarily populist. And being the person I am, that’s always something that interested me. Of course you always want your films to make money, otherwise you’re never going to get the next film made; that’s always been the rule. But I always wanted to make films that were about something and not just empty entertainment. When I look back at my films, even the comedies I did were all social comedies; my very first film was a social comedy. I lived in England — I left Canada because there was no film industry there — so I either had to go to Hollywood or to London. I was, in fact, a student of European filmmaking rather than Hollywood at the time, so my very first film was a social comedy with James Mason and John Mills, which you probably didn’t see because it was made before you were born.
Diabolique: Not yet, but I love James Mason!
Kotcheff: He was a great guy — a great actor and a terrific man. We did two films together and I loved him. But all my films were about something. My second film was Life at the Top [from 1965, starring Laurence Harvey as a man trying to escape his working class background], a sequel to Room at the Top. My third film was called Two Gentlemen Sharing [from 1969], which was about the racial situation in England. So those themes always attracted me. And the Australian film was my fourth film, made in 1971. And I love that film.
Diabolique: Wake in Fright is incredible. I’m so glad it’s been rediscovered. When I first saw it, I only had access to a poor quality bootleg, which was the only way most people could see it for awhile. And then a couple years later, it was restored and released on Blu-ray. What’s that like? Having something that was so important to you be lost for so long and then not only rediscovered, but so widely celebrated?
Kotcheff: Oh, it’s great. First of all, it had great accolades from the very beginning and it got invited to the Cannes Film Festival in ‘71. It played there and then it got lost. Do you know that story?
Diabolique: The actual print got lost, right? Nobody could find it?
Kotcheff: The negative was lost for fifteen years. And finally, it was only through the efforts of my editor, Tony Buckley. He just loved that film and thought it was an Australian masterpiece. With his own money and his own time, he went to Great Britain because it was processed at Pinewood Studio in London and then he went to Dublin because he heard a copy of the film was there. Then finally he heard the film had been sent back to the creditors, because the original financing company went bankrupt, so the creditors had this film and they thought it was worthless so they just dumped it in the warehouse. The editor finally found it in a warehouse in Pittsburgh.
Diabolique: How did it get to Pittsburgh!?
Kotcheff: Nobody knows. He suspects that the creditors, when they didn’t know what to do with it, just dumped it in a warehouse.
Diabolique: Better than the trash!
Kotcheff: Yeah, that’s right, but they didn’t pay the fees for the storage, so when Tony arrived and found it, he couldn’t believe it. He found it in two huge boxes full of the negatives, interpositives, internegatives, soundtrack, music tracks — everything was there in the two boxes. On the outside of the two boxes, in big red letters, it said: “for destruction.” Had he arrived one week later, the two boxes would have been incinerated and the film lost forever.
Anyway, the Cannes Film Festival heard about it and declared it a Cannes Classic. They brought a brand new print and it was screened again. Only two films at that time had ever been screened twice: one was my great hero Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and my film.
Diabolique: Wasn’t Duddy Kravitz also named a Cannes Classic?
Kotcheff: Yes, that was also declared a classic, so I have two films that are Cannes Classics!
Diabolique: And even though those two films are so different on a surface level, they both have that search for discovery that you were talking about, but also a subversive element. And I think all your mainstream films, all your television work that I’ve seen, all includes that. Even something like Weekend at Bernie’s — which I grew up watching, that was the first film of yours that I saw — I think is viewed as a cult comedy, but it even reminds me of something like The Trouble with Harry through its subversive elements. What attracts you to that?
Kotcheff: Well, first of all, the first two films you mentioned — and I said this earlier in our discussion — both have characters that don’t know themselves. One of the gangsters says to Duddy, “Why do you always run around like you’ve got a red hot poker up your ass?” But Duddy doesn’t know why. I’m always attracted to these characters who don’t know themselves.
Weekend at Bernie’s was very interesting. I like dark comedies. Bob Klane wrote a great dark comedy called Where’s Poppa [from 1970], which has some wonderful stuff. We worked on a script together and became friends and he came to me one day and he said, “I’ve got this damn idea in my head and I can’t get it out.” He said, I’ve got these two young guys, who are dragging a dead body around, pretending it’s alive.” I thought that was fascinating and asked how they got there and what happens afterwards. He said, “I don’t know! That’s why I’m coming to you! Can we write it together?”
I thought it was a really appealing idea and I love the idea that people don’t give a damn whether you’re dead or alive if they can get something from you. There’s this great moment, which I created and I love, when he’s sitting on the sofa and there’s this big party going on and a girl comes up behind him and says, “Hi Bernie. Mind if I get something out of your pocket?” And she reaches over and gets her hand inside his jacket pocket and pulls out a bag of coke and goes, “Thanks Bernie!” To me that epitomizes the whole dark comedy theme.
Diabolique: Speaking of dead bodies, but in a totally different vein, Law & Order: SVU. It’s interesting to know that you’re someone who got their start working in what was essentially the very beginning of television and continued to shape it as it transformed over the years. I’m a huge SVU fan and I think the show portrayed a lot of themes like victimization, violence, and sexual violence, in a way that was really radical for television. How did that come about?
Kotcheff: When I first started working in television, people would ask me, “Why are you working television? What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m working in television, because I want to be a director.” And they would say, “Don’t waste your time with television, it’s a novelty and it will never last. People don’t want to stay home and see a show, they want to go to the theater, they want to see a hockey game, a play, an opera. They don’t want to stay home, they want to get away from the kids and the pile of bills in their desk.” I said, “I don’t agree with you, I think you’re wrong and I think this is going to be big.”
Of course, I started working for the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] when there were only 200 people and within a year, there were a thousand. And of course, when you’re in at the very beginning, you rise to the top. I was allowed to direct when I was only 25. So anyway, Dick Wolf came to me because he liked my films and he especially like Duddy Kravitz. Why liking Duddy Kravitz would lead you to think I’d be good for sex crimes, I don’t know. Anyway he said, “I’d love you to be the executive producer and direct some of this series.” I could create it, produce it, cast it, etc. And what attracted me were some of the things that you just said. First of all, no television program had ever dealt with this dark side of human nature and particularly sexual crimes. I said to myself, “If you’re going to do television, at least do something no one has ever done before.” And that’s what really attracted me. Also, an interesting aside, firstly, I got women writers and secondly, I wanted women directors.
Diabolique: Which nobody was doing at the time and is still something of a struggle.
Kotcheff: First of all, sex crimes at predominantly committed against women, such as rape. And secondly, in child molestation, women are involved again as mothers. So it seemed to me to be natural to want to have women directors. But I phoned up the director’s guild in New York and I said, “I want a list of all the women directors you’ve got — for New York, LA, or anywhere.” And they said, “It’s pathetic, there are so few women directors, especially in television.” In film there were a few more, but hardly any in television. They told me that only eight percent of directors were female. I said, “This is crazy.” They said, “You’re right, it’s disgraceful.” I said, “How come there are so few women?” Because I knew quite a few women directors. And the word was that the male crews don’t want to be told what to do by a woman. I said, “That’s the biggest pile of horse shit I’ve ever heard.” I mean, women are great — think of the nineteenth century novel. Who are the two greatest? Jane Austen and George Eliot. So I wound up hiring more women directors — especially Canadians — to come work with me and they did some terrific work.
Anyway, you were asking about how we approached the themes for SVU. I don’t pull punches in my films, as you know, so I didn’t want to tiptoe around anything in the show. I said, “This has got to be hard hitting.” It started, first of all, with research. The New York police department allowed me to go to the SVU, or Special Victims Unit, as it’s called, although when you ring them on the phone they answer it with “Sex Crimes.” We were going to call the show that, but NBC thought it was too lurid, so we used the actual name.
I spent a week or two there all day long, just watching what was happening. The second or third day, two Hispanic women came in, crying and sobbing, and they were holding a little girl’s hand. And her hand was wrapped in bandages. So I asked the sergeant what was going on and he said, “You won’t believe this, but the two women are sisters and that woman on the left is the mother. The little girl came down while her father was frying bacon on the stove and the little girl started to sing and dance around. Her father told her to shut up and when she didn’t, he grabbed her hand and plunged it into the red hot frying pan, burning all her fingers.” One thing I cannot stand is a child abuse. I said to him, “Didn’t you want to pull your gun out and shoot the son of a bitch?” He said, “You know Ted, it did cross my mind.”
And that’s why, he said, the detective in the SVU department don’t last more than two or three years — no one can deal with the child victims. That’s what I wanted the audience to feel with the show. I wanted to open up an area that had never been shown on television. And Mariska Hargitay [one of the show’s stars, if you live under a rock] started to hear from hundreds of women who wrote to her and said they’d been raped or molested. She started this organization called Joyful Heart, based in Hawaii, so that was another benefit of the show for a lot of women. The social benefits of a show is one of the great rewards for a director or a producer.
Diabolique: Speaking of those benefits — and I know we’ve already discussed quite a lot of them — do you have a personal career highlight?
Kotcheff: Any time one of your pieces of work gets recognized, it’s always very heartwarming. One film that I didn’t mention is Edna, the Inebriate Woman . A woman at the BBC called me after I made my name in television and won the best director award. She said, “We’d love for you to make a film for our show on Wednesday night, A Play for Today.” She asked if I had any material, which I didn’t, but as we were talking, I looked outside. It was raining and we were on the fifth floor of the BBC building and I saw a derelict woman with three overcoats on and two shopping bags filled with all her worldly possessions. She had nowhere to go, she didn’t know where she was going to get her next meal, and she didn’t know where she was going to sleep that night. She was getting wet, she was in the middle of nowhere, and no one would help — people were just passing her by.
I said I wanted to make a film about a woman like that. So I made this film and it won awards at the British version of the Emmy’s — Best Play, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Script, everything. And then, and this is the ultimate thing, in the year 2000, they picked twenty great professors of television and film to pick out the hundred greatest shows ever seen on television in the 20th century and Edna, the Inebriate Woman was one of them. But really what moves me is that the depiction of the characters in Edna horrified people and charities were created because of that film.
And like Wake in Fright, with the slaughter of the kangaroos. I wouldn’t kill any animals for that film, but I went out with kangaroo hunters. What I didn’t know was that every night, hundreds of kangaroos would get killed for American dog food, which I thought was disgraceful and disgusting. I went out with real hunters and some of the footage I could use for the film, but some of it was too horrific. The woman from the Royal Australian Society for the Protection of Animals wanted me to use it all in the film, but the footage I did use was bad enough. If I showed the rest, people would have been running out of the cinema. I gave her the other footage that I didn’t use and I got a call ten years after that. She said, “I’ve got to tell you that I screened that footage and they’ve passed a law forbidding the killing of kangaroos for American pet food.” So my films that have had a social impact and led to certain changes, those things register largely with me now in my later life.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a long and noteworthy career. Catch more from the man himself at Monster Fest later this November.