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Interview: Neil Armfield

Interview by Clint Morris

Interview with Neil Armfield
Director of the Australian film Candy.

Neil Armfield
Neil Armfield

Will Candy be the last film that Heath Ledger makes back home? Quite possibly, it seems, with the Perth-native having a rather mordant experience on his latest film – and one he’d never, perceptibly, want to repeat.

“A couple of paparazzi [here in Australia] have sort-of realised that they can get a bit of a rise out of him”, explains the film’s director, Neil Armfield, on a recent promo tour in Melbourne. “He’s a boy…. and they attacked him.”

One night, whilst shooting a scene, Armfield says a photographer went out of his way to ruin not only the take, but to calculatedly make a new adversary out of the Australian actor.

“We were in the middle of the third take [during the scene], and this guy jumps out of the crowd – we had a big crowd in the street, all well-behaved and just watching what we were doing, maybe we had them too close, I don’t know – and he gets out his camera, and yells out ‘flash!’. It was the middle of the take, so therefore, he ruined the take…but then he adds ‘Gotcha Ledger!’ and he takes off up the street.

“Heath chased him and the guy tripped over, so he [the photographer] ends up going to the police and telling them that it was physical abuse, which it wasn’t. Anyway, he is the same guy that [later] turns up at the Brokeback Mountain premiere.

We all know what happened that night. Walking down the red carpet with his partner and co-star Michelle Williams, the couple were squirted with water pistols by the paparazzi on the sideline. Apparently the abovesaid main culprit was simply “trying to get Heath to turn around and smack him in the face”.

It didn’t end there though, says Armfield. “The next day, he turns up at their [Heath and Michelle’s] house. He’s ringing the doorbell all day – they have a new baby, remember – and he gets a news crew there, and they were just camped outside the house. He had a bunch of flowers, and said he wants to apologize to Michelle, but that he wants to teach Heath a lesson. You know, who the fuck does he think he is?!’”

At the end of the day, Ledger and Williams felt they could no longer live in Sydney, and returned to Los Angeles.  “He just felt that it was too soon to come back to Australia”, says Armfield. “It’s very sad”.

At least one good thing has come out of the experience though, and that’s the film itself. Based on the best-selling book by Luke Davies, Candy – a semi-autobiographical piece about two lovestruck teens who are swallowed whole by drugs - is an expressive journey that packs a Mundine-size punch in its pragmatic storytelling, and offers both Ledger and co-star Abbie Cornish a chance to illustrate why they’re two of our most popular exports at the moment.

“I think they’re fantastic [in it]”, says Armfield, “I think Heath has this incredible ability to maintain a sort of guileless charm, despite the fact this character is ultimately selfish and makes so many mistakes. He just has this beautifully focused concentration. He is a miracle that guy.

Cornish, who hit the big time in 2004’s Somersault, is equally as immerse in the movie. “She just opens herself and takes the audience into these places. She’s quite extraordinary”.

“They’re both film stars. They have something going on behind the eyes. You’re always interested in where they are”, says Armfield, Currently Artistic Director of Sydney's Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre.

Granted, in the beginning, Ledger and Cornish weren’t even being considered for the film.

“We took a lot at every actor, in the age group, around the country. I thought that because Geoffrey [Rush] was in it, and that we were looking at getting a couple of recognizable actors to play the parents, that we should have Dan and Candy be sort of more anonymous…or unknowns”, he says. “Abbie had tested for it, originally, but she was just too young. We took a look at her again later though, and she was perfect. When Heath was suggested, I immediately thought he was too heroic. Then, I saw Monster’s Ball. I got on the phone and offered Heath the part, straight away. He made an immediate commitment to it.”

The main question audiences ask themselves after watching the film – and this writer can attest to it, having heard it from many theatre-goers exiting the screening I went to – is ‘Why?’ ‘Why, do people get themselves into these inescapable situations with drugs’?

It’s a question Armfield can’t, clearly, precisely answer, but he believes it’s because people love to escape their problems, and experience, if even fleetingly, sheer pleasure.

“What I think the film tries to do, is to cinematically create the lift-off [of taking drugs], if you like, and the intensity of it all – it’s almost like a spiritual kind of communion.

“There are some personalties that have the ability to make the pain of the past disappear, and at the same time, make the future kind of dissolve into this eternal present, too…. I think all of culture, in different ways, is addicted to that notion.

“The film closed the Hong Kong festival, a couple of weeks back, and I was coming through the airport and was passing this new Chanel line - I think - called Addiction. There’s this beautiful, waif-like, girl lost in the photo”, he says, “Tell me that this thing hasn’t been cannibalised…it’s crazy”.

CANDY opens May 25th, 2006.

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