It’s December 2014, and I’m researching a book on the 1976 bushranger film Mad Dog Morgan – one of the best Australian films of the 1970s, a far-out antipodean Western directed by the much underrated pop surrealist Philippe Mora and starring Dennis Hopper in his glory days of alcoholic excess. For a few months, I’ve been trying to track down surviving members of the cast and crew; high on my wish list is David Gulpilil, who played the key role of Billy, Morgan’s young Aboriginal partner in crime. But the hope of reaching him seems a forlorn one: Gulpilil does not give many interviews, and even journalists in the Northern Territory, where he lives most of the time, have had trouble pinning him down.
At the last moment, I hear that Gulpilil is coming down to Brisbane to attend the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, where he’s been nominated as Best Actor for his role in the acclaimed Charlie’s Country (2014), which he co-wrote with director Rolf de Heer. After some negotiation with his agent, he agrees to share his memories of the Mad Dog shoot. We meet at his hotel in the middle of the city, on a rainy afternoon a few hours before the APSA ceremony; at the suggestion of the astute publicist Cathy Gallagher, I bring along a DVD of Mad Dog for us to watch together.
Talking to Gulpilil is not the usual kind of interview. His answers are often indirect and fragmentary, sometimes hard to follow. When a question doesn’t interest him, he’ll give a cursory “Yeah, yeah” and move onto a different train of thought. Yet it doesn’t take long to realise that the unfussed manner masks great alertness and intelligence: he’s constantly making surprising connections, and at any moment may say something startlingly lucid. Ironically, this is even the case when he talks about how he’s been affected by substance abuse: beer, he says, is like putting his brain in a freezer, marijuana like an early morning fog.
In person as on film, Gulpilil communicates as much through intonation and gesture as through language: set down in print, his words inevitably lack much of their original meaning. For this reason, this piece combines direct quotes with my own efforts – inadequate as these may be – to sum up other parts of what was said.
Jake Wilson: Well, we’ll watch some of it and then if you want we can, I dunno, fast-forward to the part with you.
David Gulpilil: Yeah. So, question to you. We’re talking about, uh, that Mad Dog Morgan?
DG: Ah, lovely. Ah.
JW: I’ll turn up the volume just a little bit.
DG (examining image on screen): I’ve still got that, mate.
JW: You’ve still got what?
DG: Dancing costume. Yeah.
JW: OK, so what was the question?
DG: About… no, not a question but, uh, you want to tell me about Mad Dog Morgan?
JW: Well, you’re going to tell me about it, I hope. I mean, what you remember about it.
DG: Yeah. Yeah, I remember all.
Most of the time Gulpilil speaks gently and quietly, but his mood shifts: as we watch Mad Dog together he occasionally bursts into infectious laughter – especially at the more shocking scenes, such as when Morgan is gang-raped in prison. Sometimes he’ll call out cheerfully when he spots an old friend like Jack Thompson onscreen (“Hey, Jacky!”). At other times he’ll simply note the identity of an actor, adding “He’s dead now.” In a couple of shots he recognises other Indigenous performers who, he says, were flown down from the Territory to appear as extras. “I don’t know where they are now. Some of them, probably, alcohol destroyed them.”
It seems that everybody’s in this film, I say. Gulpilil agrees: “Yeah, the best actors, all of them.”
More than anything, I’m keen to get his take on the famously volatile Hopper, his acting partner in virtually all his Mad Dog scenes. Various accounts suggest that the pair did not always get along (1) but Gulpilil remembers the encounter fondly: “Good, great,” is his immediate response when asked for his impressions, adding that he caught up later with Hopper in the US – Los Angeles or perhaps Santa Fe (2).
I try to probe a little further, asking about Hopper’s famous Method technique: was he really in character as Morgan for the whole duration of the shoot? Suddenly, Gulpilil the actor is fully engaged: jumping to his feet, he transforms himself into Hopper as Morgan, barking in fury as he crouches with mad eyes and a mimed gun in each hand. Just as I’m wondering if I’ve said the wrong thing, Gulpilil turns himself into a wired but more relaxed off-screen version of Hopper, inhaling deeply from an imaginary joint as he adopts an American drawl:“Yeah, man!”
DG: In real life, he’s a mad fuckin’ bastard, Dennis Hopper. He’s a good mate, good man. In New South Wales there all day, they couldn’t believe all them coppers.
JW: What about the coppers? The coppers got involved?
DG: The real policemen.
JW: The real police got involved?
DG: We was enjoying it, we was just like enjoying it.
JW: So the police sort of turned a blind eye because it was Dennis Hopper?
DG (impersonates Hopper):“Hey man, you want to come and have a smoke? Got a cigarette? You want a smoke? Yeah.” He’ll have it, roll it. But we didn’t see this, we didn’t see it in the film.
“Him and me was a bastard,” Gulpilil says of his relationship with Hopper; there’s amusement in the tone, but admiration and nostalgia as well. Later, he returns to the theme, spelling out that Hopper was far from the only party animal on the Mad Dog shoot: “We was all bastards. ’Cause, you know, there was beer there, marijuana there, everything there. We was fuckin’ bastards, you know. And we was all young fellas, too.”
Without trying to gloss over Hopper’s alcoholism and drug addiction, his “mad “ behaviour can be seen as originating in a desire to fuse life and art – the ultimate Romantic dream of the 1960s counterculture, explored in different ways in Hopper’s first two features as director, Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971). Watching Mad Dog, Gulpilil is preoccupied by a more mundane kind of overlap between reality and fiction: repeatedly he draws my attention to elements of the shoot that went beyond the director’s control, such as the use of locally supplied horses that proved difficult to wrangle. Watching a scene where Morgan chops down a tree, he points out that logistically there could only be one take, giving Hopper free rein to improvise: “He can do anything he like.”
In some sense, Gulpilil indicates, he and Hopper were their characters – or at least, were typecast as versions of themselves. “He’s a mad dog, you know,” he says of Hopper. “He’s the only one can do that. And someone to play blackfella, it’s only me.” Just as Hopper really was “mad” to a degree, all of the traditional skills which Billy displays in the film – his dancing and didgeridoo playing, his use of a woomera and boomerang, his killing and cooking of a snake – belonged, in reality, to Gulpilil himself. Mora has said that Hopper and Gulpilil are “not acting” in the scenes where Morgan and Billy meet in the wilderness and join forces, and Gulpilil seems to endorse this view: “I became Billy, and Morgan became my friend.”
DG: They came to me because I was the only one who could dance – sing and dance, play the clap sticks and throw spears. The spear was the same one I use in Morgan, and I made my own spear. And that was real, see?
JW: That was real.
DG: But every other film was different.
JW: It wasn’t so real?
“There’s a big difference from any other movie from this one,” Gulpilil says of Mad Dog, which he describes as filling in “the missing links of our history.” The “our” in this sentence seems to be an umbrella term, uniting black and white Australians: Gulpilil refers in the same breath to Morgan, Ned Kelly, and Jimmy Blacksmith – the fictional name given by the novelist Thomas Keneally to the real-life Indigenous outlaw Jimmy Governor – as three comparable figures who operated in approximately the same region (3). Describing Morgan as “the strangest fella to ever come to Australia,” he surprisingly speculates that the character might be descended from Afghan cameleers, perhaps as a way of accounting for his opposition to the colonial establishment. “Did Morgan have a family?” he asks me, a question I can only tentatively answer.
“Morgan wants to make his own history,” Gulpilil says. Why, though, does Billy help Morgan? “Because Billy see him alone.” Beyond this, Gulpilil isn’t inclined to speculate on Billy’s motives, emphasising Morgan’s need for Billy rather than the other way round:
DG: Morgan need Billy – more he know the country, and more he know about tracking. And Billy know more about information of the land and people. See?
DG: Because those are people over there. See that horse over there? That’s a fuckin’ racehorse. And try to break him in. See? Good, good.
JW: And there’s [John] Hargreaves.
DG: Yeah, he’s dead now.
JW: You don’t say anything in this scene, but you’re looking on very intently.
DG: Yeah, I like it because I’m his secret. Secret agent, see?
“Information” is one term which Gulpilil uses frequently. Another is “point of view.” The two go together, since point of view arises from the type and extent of information available in a given situation. Billy knows more about the country than Morgan, and thus sees things differently. In any given film, it seems, Gulpilil’s responsibility is to the point of view of his character – which may differ significantly from the point of view of the director.
As Gulpilil indicates, some sections of Mad Dog are purely Morgan’s point of view. For instance, the dream which Morgan has shortly before his death, where a mysterious burning figure (stuntman Grant Page) appears to rise out of a lake. While many who worked on Mad Dog remain unsure about what the dream actually means, Gulpilil unequivocally sees it as Morgan’s vision of his future punishment: “They’re going to shoot him and kill him or burn him or whatever… because he’s done a lot of bad things.”
Intriguingly, Gulpilil also uses the word “dream” to describe part of the sequence where Morgan first meets Billy, though it’s unclear if he means this literally or simply as a way of saying that this encounter too is seen solely from Morgan’s perspective. In any case, what he seems to find frustrating about the film – increasingly as we continue watching – is its failure to answer certain basic questions about Billy.
DG: In Morgan, we can’t see the Aboriginal reserve. Where Billy come from then?
JW: Well, we don’t know, except he says they killed his tribe.
DG: Well, the director, he forgot about the blackfellas, to put in a movie. He only had bits and pieces. See, he should’ve went back, the director should have went back, and said Billy, this is where you come from. And then you see the village. See, Mora just got it to halfway, the history halfway.
JW: Do you think any films have gone all the way?
DG: Well, it’s good, but some missing.
Prior to meeting Gulpilil, I’ve been told that he’s in the habit of proposing sequels to all the films he’s appeared in, and the longer I talk to him the more sense this makes. Like many film actors, he feels an ongoing responsibility for the characters he’s brought to life, developing his own “back stories” in addition to whatever information is given in the script.
In the case of Mad Dog, the idea of a sequel doesn’t seem so unreasonable: after Morgan meets his fate at the hands of the authorities, Billy reappears in the bush, holding a shotgun, his future unknown. “What happened to Billy?” is the question Gulpilil keeps circling back to as he watches Mad Dog, both a real inquiry and a rhetorical one: he truly wants to know, but he’s aware that the film isn’t going to give an answer.
DG: The sound was good, the editing was good, the camera was good.
DG: But what was the story? That’s what I want to know. What was the story of Morgan and Billy? What tribe he was?
JW: You don’t find out that much about Billy.
DG: No, that’s it. I’m asking questions to directors and writers.
JW: Did you ask at the time? Did you say, what tribe is Billy?
DG: No, no. Because Philippe Mora didn’t know nothing about the background of the blackfellas stories. He know Morgan’s story. He just wrote it, and all these things, he do that, but he forgot about the blackfellas story.
The conversation about Mad Dog has been amicable, but before heading off I take the risk of asking Gulpilil about Charlie’s Country, which he has acknowledged elsewhere as inspired partly by his own struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction (4). Politely but firmly, he refuses to comment. “I can’t say it,” he explains, sounding genuinely pained. “There’s got to be a reason if I say so.”
Perhaps he feels the subject is better saved for later on: accepting a runner-up prize at the APSA ceremony that night, he speaks frankly about the film and its significance for him, to enthusiastic applause (5). During our interview, however, he plays down the idea that awards have any great value for him: “To me, it’s just a souvenir.”
Despite his protests, Gulpilil goes on to discuss how all his collaborations with de Heer serve to fill in gaps in cultural understanding.
DG: When these urban people was born, they have no language and culture, and no ceremony. Because somebody went and touched that woman, and baby was born, no father and mother. We didn’t do that, blackfellas, we would just make love in there, and the children were born, and start to teach ’em our own university.
JW: How much of what you’re talking about do you think you can show in a film? How much can you put into a film?
DG: Well, there’s more, because in The Tracker , I put information in there, more information.
JW: And in Charlie’s Country, you were involved in writing the story.
DG: In Charlie’s Country, it come from the true story of point of view – black and white. That’s in the middle.
From here we come back yet again to Mad Dog, and the question of what point of view the film can be said to represent.
DG: I like Philippe Mora, he’s a good director, but it’s only one thing I’d say. When I played part, blackfella part, me, but in the end, I just disappeared, nothing there. You know what I mean? Oh well, anyway.
Seemingly changing tack, Gulpilil asks if I’ve seen Walkabout, the 1970 Nicolas Roeg film which gave him his first screen role while he was still in his teens. He played a tragic character, a hunter who commits suicide after failing to win the heart of the British schoolgirl heroine (Jenny Agutter). Describing the scene, Gulpilil bursts out in laughter one more time: “And the next minute the director said, ‘You’ve gotta hang yourself on a mango!’” Forty years on, he seems as baffled as ever by this ending – or perhaps he’s the only one who entirely sees the joke.
As for Billy:
DG: Billy went back to his people.
JW: He went back to his people?
DG: To his people. Because Billy was only hanging round with Morgan… so when they shot him, well, too bad. And Billy just went back.
JW: So you think that Billy does have a family somewhere?
DG (surprised): Yeah – yes, of course! Blackfellas, they’re here in Australia!
Portions of this piece appeared in different form in The Age, July 19, 2015. Thanks to Cathy Gallagher, Nathan Morris and David Gulpilil.
Jake Wilson’s Mad Dog Morgan was recently published in Currency Press’ Australian Screen Classics series: www.currency.com.au/product_detail.aspx?productid=3052&ReturnUrl=/australian-screen-classics.aspx
Mad Dog Morgan will screen at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival as part of the David Gulpilil retrospective. http://miff.com.au/program/streams/david-gulpilil
1. Interviews with Philippe Mora and Richard Brennan, October-November 2014.
2. This was corroborated by Hopper’s assistant Satya de la Manitou in an interview conducted in October 2014.
3. Governor’s story was told in Keneally’s 1972 novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the basis for Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film of the same title.
4. See Charlie’s Country press kit, Vertigo Productions, 2014, accessed online 14 July 2015 at http://www.vertigoproductions.com.au/downloads/charlies_country_australian_press_kit.pdf
5. See Jake Wilson, “David Gulpilil Steals the Show at Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards,” The Age, December 12, 2014.