Published: November 2008
Richard Flanagan: The Man Who Invented Australia
Why Hollywood’s next great visionary is loath to leave the outback.
Text by Laurel Berger

Don’t expect to see screenwriter Richard Flanagan anywhere near the red carpet when Australia hits theaters this month. The Tasmanian novelist and leading conservationist spent nearly two years penning the script for director Baz Luhrmann’s $100 million outback epic starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, but he’s far more at ease paddling the remote waters near his home in Hobart than navigating the channels of big-budget Hollywood. A Rhodes scholar who left school at 16, Flanagan is a former river guide and bush laborer who has earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most celebrated novelists. He spoke to ADVENTURE after filming had wrapped about the imperfect nature of moviemaking, his attraction to no-man’s-lands, and why, after four successful, critically acclaimed novels, he decided to try his hand at Hollywood.

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.

A: You and your old kayaking partner were known as the "Suicide Twins." Tell us about the time you two tried to kayak across the Bass Strait.

RF: We had a friend getting married in Sydney but had no money to get there. So we thought we’d just kayak from Tasmania, even though we had never been sea kayaking before. We built these two kayaks really cheap and set out at four o’clock in the morning, in only shorts and T-shirts. By 11 a.m. we were caught in a force 9 gale. Luckily, we were picked up at dusk. But I’m not such a wild man anymore.

A: One might say your novels swim against the current too. Your narratives meander across oceans, centuries, and generations. How did you adapt that winding structure to a more linear medium like film?

RF: It was certainly a technical challenge. A novel is a cosmos. I grew up in a great big extended family, one of six kids, with 51 first cousins. They all told stories, marvelous stories that digressed and never really began and never really ended; time wasn’t something you measured. So I’ve adopted that idea in my novels, but films are short stories. They have a handful of characters and a very simple plot. I had to realize that you can’t admit much beyond that or the film’s structure will collapse.

A: You’ve given well-publicized speeches to stop clear-cutting in Tasmania. What’s happening with your campaign?

RF: The deforestation continues with gusto. It’s madness. The loggers clear-cut forests that are unique to the planet, destroying thousand-year-old trees to make a few men richer. It seems to be due to political corruption. Hobart was swathed in smoke for a whole month this year from the burn-offs. I am an activist only because I do not think I could sleep at night if I wasn’t.

A: Now that Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Productions has bought the rights to your 2006 novel, The Unknown Terrorist, will you be spending more time in Hollywood?

RF: I doubt it. There are so many beautiful places on this Earth I still have yet to see, and that interests me far more than a big career in Hollywood. Baz wants me to write another film with him, though, and that’s a different matter. People I like, I like working with, but I’ll do it my way: at my shack, around people and places I love.