ADVENTURE: How did you get involved in writing the Australia script?
Richard Flanagan: My weak character. I kept getting messages from Baz through my agent in London but didn’t take them seriously until he literally came to Hobart himself to find me. I can’t say no to adventurous invitations, and this one was absurdly ambitious: Baz wanted to make an epic melodrama that would pay homage to the great Hollywood movies of the 1940s and ’50s made by Australians about Australia. It would be a film about that alternative Australia so often hidden and denied, of our kaleidoscopic society and often terrible history. But it also had to be entertaining and commercial. At the beginning, it included 2,000 shorthorn cattle and Russell Crowe. And then we got Hugh. I could hardly say no.
A: You were born and raised in Tasmania. How familiar were you with the film’s location, in the northern outback, before you wrote the script?
RF: That part of the country has always enchanted me. There’s a river in the far northwest called the Fitzroy, which very few people have ever descended during the monsoon season, when it’s flooded with rapids the size of the Grand Canyon’s. A couple years ago, I got the chance. You have to get permission to access it through Aboriginal country. We took five Bunaba tribesmen with us, and it was extraordinary to be out there for three weeks with local Aborigines. I learned so much about their idea of the country’s cosmology—that myth and story and spirits and land are all one, molten and alive. These ideas are what I took away from my experience, and I hope that notion is strongly present in the movie.
A: Novel writing is such a solitary endeavor. What were the challenges of working with a collaborator?
RF: I had no idea how to work with Baz, and I don’t think he had any idea how to work with me. He first came to see me in Tasmania, at my shack on Burnby Island, where it’s so quiet I can identify the birds by the sound of their wings. My home’s surrounded by kangaroos and penguins. We drank, told stories, made up new stories, and eventually a third creative force arose that was neither me nor him but that we both liked. And we discovered, rather improbably, that we liked each other too.
A: In the ’80s and ’90s you worked as a rafting guide on the Franklin River, which also served as the germ of your first book, 1994’s Death of a River Guide. How did those years influence you?
RF: I found the beginnings of my world on that river. A quarter of Tasmania is uninhabited, and I was in the first wave of people to go kayaking where no one had been before. It was enormously liberating.