I first saw John Flaus when I was at La Trobe University majoring in Latin American History. I thought he looked like he had just auditioned for Bad Santa. I was told he hadn’t shaved for 18 years. Wow! That’s a forgetful mind I thought, and a lot of facial hair.When I saw him again, I was told he knew everything about film there was to know. Wow! That’s someone I would like to meet.
A couple of years rolled by. I was at Swinburne in Melbourne in ’73 doing first year at the Film School. That was the time the train line ran directly next to the TV studio there, which always made the sound department’s life interesting. John, by now, was sharing a house with Tom Ryan, yet to become the noted film critic for The Age and one other bearded fellow whose name escapes me, but who was a film nut as well. We had to photograph someone of note or memorable appearance. What about Flausie I thought. Someone knew where John, “Bad Santa”, was living, so off we went. I clicked away on my Pentax SLR as John and Co. talked of the importance of a Western with John Wayne in it called The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). What was going on here? These blokes were having a heated argument over a cowboy movie? What’s this all about? I thought the only films to be taken seriously and talked about, all had subtitles. I knew that because all the films screening at the Union Theatre and at the Melbourne Film Festival had subtitles. Maybe this chap hadn’t or couldn’t read, so was forced to view only Westerns? And Westerns that had Randolph Scott in them. What’s going on here? This bloke could talk the leg off a chair. He never seemed to draw breath. And he never repeated a line of thought concerning film and its meaning. He was passionate to the point where I thought he might be unhinged. “By crikey, don’t upset me!” he kept saying. Who talked like that? By crikey? Where did that come from? What kind of person used that refrain?
John’s name and the movies seemed to be in the air – forever bound together. He was on the panel of the Experimental Film Fund, administered by the Australian Film Institute and taken over by the Australian Film Commission in 1976. It was 1974 and Ellery Ryan, yet to become a noted DOP, and I had written a script called Queensland set in Northcote about a couple of no-hopers trying to go north. It was a love story of sorts and a tale of mateship. We fronted the panel and Brian Robinson, who ran Swinburne, didn’t like the script. The other panellist, Ross Dimsey, was undecided and there was John who was quite passionate in his defence for the project. We got $7,000. Outside the interview room John asked me who was going to play the lead role of “Doug”. I told him I had no idea. “What about me?” he said. “You? You’re not an actor”, I said. “By crikey, give me a chance”. “OK, come and audition”, I told him.
In the hall across the road from Swinburne John read the lines. He was good. Surprisingly so. A large, lumbering, gentle giant of a “Doug”. “I hope ya don’t feel any pressure to cast me ’cause I got ya the money”, he said. “I wouldn’t want ya to feel any pressure.” “No, I didn’t”, I told him. But, “You’ll have to shave that beard off though”. Those words cut deep. I could see that. It kind of took his breath away, which was something I thought wasn’t possible. “Me beard?” The gears of ANGER AND FRUSTRATION were CRANKING AWAY IN HIS BRAIN. He shook his head. It was like I told him all the prints of The Searchers had suddenly been burnt or lost. He seemed to stumble but then his resolution returned anew. “OK, I’ll do it, by crikey. I’ll do it!” He kept a Zapata type mo though. It suited him. And with that, he became “Doug”. I had no idea what an actor did or how they did it. I sensed John knew this character; had known men like “Doug” and as the shoot progressed his grip on the character strengthened.
Making the film, I was influenced by John’s passion for wide shots and few if any close-ups. I think it’s his best performance. He gave “Doug”, this broken man of lost dreams, a quiet dignity. He carried the picture, was its anchor. I was blessed in having actors who matched and who were perhaps influenced by his naturalistic approach. At the time, a lot of Australian actors’ voices were trained to reach the back row of the Melbourne Theatre Company. John spoke quietly. His words measured. He became “Doug”. I think that role opened a door inside John. Acting became a passion and compulsion for him.
Over the years I called in on him when he was living in that little weatherboard in Richmond crammed with newspapers and plastic containers. Piled high and getting higher. I had a script that needed feedback. “Don’t upset me! Turned down for funding? By crikey, what would those donkeys know.” He was then, and always has been, an inspiration. Over the years he’s been notable in many roles and of late has even acknowledged his Afghani background and turned to teaching people how to ride camels in John Curran’s Tracks (2013). But if Knighthoods were given out for services to films and, in particular, student films, John would be doubling if not tripling up at the head of the cue. How many times has he been there? Unpaid. Long, ridiculous hours. Unimaginable weather, terrible food, unorganised but budding directors and there’s John, always patient, always reassuring, always willing to help. Who among us hasn’t he helped over the years? By crikey… it must be those mysterious waters of Tasmania where, playing away on his guitar, or was it a banjo, I can’t recall, he was instilled with all that knowledge and wisdom. I’m just glad he has it. And I’m glad he’s still dispensing it, by crikey.