John Flaus was a mentor and inspiration for a number of Swinburne Film School students in the ’70s, many of whom went on to have successful careers in the film and television industry. Because of “Flausy”, Ellery Ryan wanted to be an anarchist, John Ruane wanted to be a raconteur, while I wanted to be Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967).
For their graduation film, John and Ellery cast him in their 52-minute drama Queensland (John Ruane, 1976) – the only feature film he had been in before that was Yackety Yack (Dave Jones, 1974) where he basically played himself as a wild-eyed, bushy-bearded, long-haired film critic constantly questioning the director’s approach to the making of the film. In Queensland he was to play Doug, a clean-shaven working-class man who tires of living in Melbourne and tries to convince his girlfriend, Marge (Alison Bird), and best friend, Aub (Bob Karl), to head north with him to a new life. It turned out to be a brilliant bit of casting because as soon as John had a haircut and removed the beard (while keeping a moustache) and got into character, he went from having the persona of Walter Brennan in Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) to John Wayne in the same film. Actually, in the poster for Queensland hanging on my wall, he looked more like Sean Connery post-James Bond. The final shot of the film, with Doug single-handedly pushing his old broken-down Holden down a bleak Northcote street toward an uncertain future while the camera rises slowly on a cherry picker hired from the local council, is pure cinema.
After Queensland, John, Ellery and I wrote Blood Money (Yours Truly, 1980) for him to play the role of a professional criminal who is dying of cancer and returns to Melbourne to settle a few old scores. Before we shot the film I would go around to his place in Richmond where he had multiple bursting bookshelves, piles of learned journals, articles and newspaper clippings, and one television on top of another so he could record and watch two movies at once. Here he would guide me to films such as Le Samouraï (hence the above Alain Delon fantasy) and countless films noir. We prided ourselves on making a low budget B-grade genre film but with John in the lead, and Bryan Brown playing his younger brother – it evolved into something else. During one of these pre-production “meetings”, John came up with what I think is the best moment in the film. His character and Bryan’s are having an argument and he is asked: “How old are you?” “44” was his reply (this was John’s age at the time we were shooting the scene). “And what have you got to show for it?” asks Bryan’s character, implying the answer is “nothing”. But John looks at him defiantly and says: “It’s my life”.
John taught us so much about so many things, usually while we were waiting for the next shot to be set up. He was truly an expert on all topics, and our conversations always started on the subject of film, but then went on to sports of all codes (not many people know this but John was a wily hard-to-play bowler and dashing-but-occasionally-reckless batsman), politics (“Don’t get me started!” was his favourite opening line here), and a myriad other subjects. But the great thing about John, and I still marvel at how he did this, was that after travelling down a number of these tangential tangents, he ALWAYS returned to the original topic as if the many diversions we went on were mere subplots in the central story of film. I even enrolled in a “film appreciation” class he was teaching at the Council of Adult Education in Flinders Street, just to hear more. But there was no better place to listen to him talk about film than on the radio, and on Saturday mornings in wintery Melbourne I used to close the lounge room door behind me, turn on Film Buff’s Forecast, then sit down near the heater and listen to him and Paul Harris quietly disagree, then agree, then disagree again. I can’t remember how long the show went on for – two, maybe three hours? – but I was always left with a smile on my face and wanting more.
Finally, John promised me that he would one day write a book called “The 20,000 Films I Have Seen”. He must be up to that number by now, so I can’t wait to read it…