Production company: Feature Film House Pty. Ltd.
Budget: A$300,000, financed by the federal government investment body the Australian Film Commission and director Fred Schepisi's own company, The Film House, a producer of commercials and supplier of facilities (Oxford Australian Film). The AFC is reported to have put in some $100,000. Schepisi himself suggests the bulk of the money came from himself, relatives, company clients, and the occasional 'poor rich bugger I spotted in the newspapers'.
Locations: Chirnside, Werribee Park, near Melbourne, the Melbourne City Baths at the end of Swanston street, and other Melbourne locations.
Filmed: 1975, listed as shooting May-June, in the July August 1975 Cinema Papers production survey; final editing, Cinema Papers Nov-Dec 1975; and awaiting release Cinema Papers March-April 1976. Shot over six and a half weeks on five day weeks (Schepisi, DVD commentary)
Australian distributor: self-distributed by Schepisi and his company - mainstream distributors were made nervous by the subject matter - and Schepisi raised the money to do it himself by shooting more television commercials.
Australian release: Screened at Director's Fortnight, Cannes Film Festival May 1976, screened Sydney and Melbourne Festivals June 1976, then premiered commercially12th August 1976 Bryson Cinema, Melbourne. Screened on Sunday night 14th Feburary 1982 on the Seven network in the 8.30 pm slot.
Rating: M (television AO)
35mm Eastmancolor Panavision
Running time: 107 mins (Oxford Australian Film) According to Helen Frizell in the Sydney Morning Herald and Colin Bennett in The Age, director Schepisi cut some nine minutes from the film between its original screenings in Australia and its commercial release; also timed at 107 minutes by The New York Times for the film's US release.
Bootleg DVD version: 1'38"27, from an Allied Artists/Columbia print
Umbrella DVD time: 1'34"57
Box office: The Film Victoria report on Australian box office lists a gross of $334,000, equivalent to $1,726,780 in A$ 2009. The film did only respectable arthouse business, and struggled to get to the point of net profit, but it did serve as a calling card and help set up director Schepisi's next feature.
The film did not travel well internationally in a commercial sense, but it did sell into a number of territories as a cult arthouse item, and was given a release in the United States in larger cities after The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith drew more attention to Schepisi's work.
Schepisi, in his DVD commentary, notes with surprise and wry amusement, that the film broke box office records in an east side theatre in New York, which he later learned was also the main gay theatre in the neighbourhood.
The film swept the pool at the 1976 Australian Film Institute Awards:
Winner, Best Film sponsored by the Australian Film Commission and The Bulletin (Fred Schepisi)
Winner, Best Direction sponsored by Village Theatres (Fred Schepisi)
Winner, Best Screenplay sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation (this category then included original and adapted) (Fred Schepisi)
Winner, Best Cinematography sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Ian Baker)
Winner, Best Actor sponsored by Hoyts Theatres - this was a joint award, shared by Simon Burke and Nick Tate
Nominated, Best Editing sponsored by the Directors of the Dendy Cinema Group and Filmways Distributors (Brian Kavanagh) (Edward McQueen-Mason won for End Play)
Nominated, Best Supporting Actor sponsored by Nissan-Datsun Australia (Thomas Keneally and Jonathan Hardy were both nominated) (won by Drew Forsythe for Caddie)
The film was nominated in every category, except best and supporting actress, hardly surprising for a film set in a Catholic boys' boarding school, and won in all but two, one of the first examples of the awards' tendency in some years to celebrate one film above all others.
The film also won the AFI Jury Prize for producer/director Fred Schepisi.
Selected, Director's Fortnight, 1976 Cannes Film Festival
The film also did a tour of many film festivals, starting with the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals in 1976. It was a late entry at the Sydney Film Festival and was voted by the audience as the most popular film.
The film had enjoyed life on VHS as a cult item, though perhaps enjoyed isn't the right word, because Ian Baker's bold, very dark 'night' photography turned to complete coal mine mush on VHS.
After that, the film was very hard to find, except in poor quality DVD bootleg versions.
It was finally released on DVD by Umbrella in a handsome package, with appropriate widescreen image, a 43'07" featurette on the 'making of, an extended 39'11" interview with Fred Schepisi, an audio commentary by Fred Schepisi, a stills gallery and theatrical trailer.
The image quality shows the age of the film in places, but is generally more than acceptable and shows off DOP Ian Jones' work well and the sound is in relatively good condition - and at last his night work is again visible.
Oz movie cultists have been happy to catch up on a film which, whatever its minor flaws, remains one of the early masterpieces of the 1970s Australian film revival (especially to anyone who has memories of the Catholic education system).
The 'making of', put together in 2008 by Industrial Entertainment, has a good range of interviews, including Schepisi, actors Arthur Dignam and Nick Tate, DOP Ian Jones and editor Brian Kavanagh. (Tate in particular has a couple of amusing anecdotes about being invited to work on the film).
The other "extended interview", also put together by Industrial Entertainment in 2008, is more like a master class with Fred Schepisi on the art of directing.
Schepisi doesn't mention The Devil's Playground much at all, but instead ranges over his long career, to discuss supportive environments, the need for conflict and challenge within a supportive environment, his shooting style and his philosophy of shooting in the United States, the usefulness of shot lists, the role of crew in polishing the faceted diamond that is a script, working with Will Smith on Six Degrees of Separation, how to deal with cast, how to discuss a script with brilliant people who might be cleverer than you, how to use stomach and hair on the back of the neck as a guide to whether a scene is working, and how the three stages of filming - writing, directing and editing - should each be an end unto themselves.
It might not be that useful or meaningful to a general viewer, but if you've seen a skilled feature film director in action, it's hard to disagree with anything Schepisi says about the art and the craft and it's handy advice for any aspirational director starting out in the game.
Schepisi's commentary track, which accompanies the film is also much concerned with craft, and will be interesting to anyone wanting to discover his intentions in relation to coverage and why he deliberately stays wide in certain scenes - in one, he stays wide on the brothers as a way of emphasising their collective guilt, and he argues that if you cut into close up, that is a form of emphasis, and there has to be an emotional and story reason for that emphasis.
Schepisi also discusses why he prefers to show faces and reactions, rather than sometimes showing the things on which the characters are concentrating on, and points out the tortured framings of some shots designed, via paintings or tree branches, to reflect the tortured characters. He also discusses the difficulties directors face when they shot list the entire movie, as Schepisi did in the case of The Devil's Playground.
At one point, Schepisi discusses why he dislikes conventional "three act" script analysis, and proposes that it can be more effective to think of films in musical terms - perhaps as a symphony progressing through various movements, like a young boy moving from innocence to different sorts of awareness (Schepisi is routinely scathing about Hollywood executives), or perhaps in the manner of David Hare, as scenes being pegs which need to hang together to serve the theme, which might be thought of as a kind of clothesline.
In short, a good, useful package.
For those who prefer to watch a few short clips rather than sit through a feature, the ASO has three of them here, but serious Ozmovie cultists will head straight to the confessional and confess their many sins.
Producer/director/writer Fred Schepisi was born into and brought up in a fruit shop, and by the age of thirteen he was attending a juniorate of the kind featured in The Devil's Playground.
He stayed in the monastery until half way through his fourteenth year, and then:
...I started in advertising. I left the monastery, the juniorate, and I finished about six months at Marcellin College. That took me through to 14. I had done Leaving and so I decided to go to work and went into the dispatch department at an advertising agency - sort of learnt all that filing, running messages to the various places which are all part of learning what goes on at the printers and the blockmakers, all that stuff. Then I went into physical production, press, did layout, typesetting and then organising all the physical requirements for magazines and press and folders.
Television came in around about that time and I got moved into the television and radio department and I was doing writing and production on radio and television commercials. In fact, for a while there, I was the only one in the department, which was pretty strange because I was only about 17. Then they put another guy in over me, because they couldn't exactly take me out to clients. But in those days there were a lot of writers in the agency, quite a little hotbed, actually. Geoff Underhill, who used to write plays and worked for IMT and stuff, and Philip Adams was there and Geoff Taylor, a little haven for people who wanted to be writers, playwrights or whatever and couldn't make a living out of it here in those days. (Interview, 22nd December 1998, at Peter Malone's invaluable site here).
According to Schepisi, his co-workers derived pleasure from taking this good little Catholic boy, just turned 15, up to the pub, and getting him to struggle to prove the existence of God.
Schepisi worked there until the 1962-63 recession hit and Schepisi was given a golden handshake, heading off to work for Cinesound:
I was only 23 at the time, so I lied like hell and got a job running the place and found out that practically everyone there was only an assistant, so I had some pretty fast on-the-job learning to do. We turned it around and in seven months it made its first profit ever. In 18 months we were making more than the Sydney head office, and it was round about then I found out you weren't supposed to be making money - at least I don't think so. Anyway, two other guys and myself bought the company. So, in February 1966 we became The Film House, and that ran for about 31 years. I closed it about a year and a half ago. (Peter Malone interview, ibid)
While attempting to deal with running a commercials and industrial docs business, Schepisi wrote the screenplay:
I wrote The Devil's Playground over five years before I did it. I was meeting a lot of actors, doing a lot of commercials and a lot of documentaries. So I joined the Producers and Directors Guild to try and meet people working in theatre and television, to see other disciplines, as it were, because I wanted to go along and watch them direct plays and see what they did in that side of television (Malone interview, as above).
According to Schepisi, he first wrote down a series of notes and thoughts, on the basis that his story of being in a monastery from age 13 to half way through 14 would be an interesting world for people to visit, a world full of divergent personalities - optimists, pessimists - to rub up against.
He sought advice from a number of people and used his episode The Priest in the 1973 portmanteau feature film Libido as a trial run for his first feature film.
Libido also starred Arthur Dignam in a tortured study of Catholic service, and in an unresolved relationship yearning for a nun played by Robyn Nevin, and it was written by former seminarian and novelist Thomas Keneally.
Tom's script had come in and I just jumped on it. I just muscled my way into that because I wanted Tom to read Devil's Playground. He did and was incredibly kind about it. When he got involved acting in it was when I heard about Jimmie Blacksmith. I liked the idea of the story and I got inspired by a couple of the images from it, so a lot started from there.The Priest tapped into the crises in the Catholic church at the time. In a sense it was prophetic of what has happened in the last 25 years in issues of priesthood, faith and celibacy. In that case it's the writer - it's always the writer that makes the material, and that came deeply from Tom's experiences, although it wasn't autobiographical. One of Tom's best books by far is Three Cheers for the Paraclete. It's those things that are formed by personal experiences, not necessarily being them, that probably produce the truest work. His wife was a theatre sister and a nun and Tom went right through almost to the end of the seminary course, so I think they were his deeply personal observations. And they happened to dovetail with my experiences and the questions that one comes up with. (Peter Malone interview, as above)
At the same time, Schepisi from an early age had formed a desire to make feature films, beginning with his time at Assumption College:
... you had Saturday night, that was the best night of the week in a way. You had to go to a movie, although they were pretty bloody awful movies. Every kid's going to get interested in those movies. But my main stuff happened probably when I was 15 or 16, when I was working and going to night school and then I was sneaking into the Savoy or the Australia Cinema. I was hoping to see naked women. I remember going to see One Summer of Happiness. I remember it was on the list and, in those days, if it was on the list you weren't allowed to see it under pain of some kind of sin. I sat through the whole thing and obviously I was going for a bit of a perve. The girl took her clothes off and lay down and her breasts disappeared - that was a big surprise to me - and that was about two seconds and then she was seen in the distance in the water. That was it. And I loved the film, a fantastic film. I thought, why is this film on the list? Why am I getting into trouble for this? Of course I found out later that they were taking the mickey out of the priest. That was entirely lost on me.
I saw Wages of Fear, Rocco and His Brothers, The Bicycle Thieves. That was a golden era of European cinema and highly charged. I found every one of them absolutely spellbinding, albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons! (Peter Malone interview, as above)
So a number of strands came together, the hothouse of "continental films" attended by 15 year old "lusty" Schepisi, which also saw him join film societies to watch European films, mixed with his memories of the people in the repressed atmosphere of the monastery:
...it was part of my life. I don't have cinema precedents, I just don't. I'm not stupid enough to believe that they're not absorbed, but I don't follow one style of film-maker. The material dictates its needs. The thing I would say about The Devil's Playground is I watered it down because, in fact, it took me five years to get the money together and over half the money was mine, and I had to put in that much money again to get it out. I had to hire the cinema. Nobody liked the film until I got it out there, which I find rather remarkable. But in remembering that I wrote it five years before, I knew if I went as far as I should go, everyone would go, "Oh, come on, that's not on, that's not possible." Nobody would believe it. So I deliberately pulled back in all sorts of things, so the impression was shocking enough or jangling enough without going the whole hog.
...they're all real men, and combinations of two or three. If you take the main boy, what I did was this: every one of those brothers is the possibility of what he might become, depending on which side of his personality gets most influenced, whether his sexuality gets so repressed that he goes down the Francine road or whether he's able to overcome that and be more joyful like, say, Brother Arnold, who's quite content in the spiritual life, or whether he's the middle guy who's more realistic, split the difference. So every one of them is a variation, they're all what's inside that guy. But they're also based on real people.
But you can come across a great teacher here or there, I certainly did. There were a couple in fact, and one very much in particular, Brother Osmond, who was very, very inspiring in every way, like music and Latin and geography and English, he made them great subjects for everybody. That can help. (Peter Malone interview, as above. The character modelled on this teacher is played in the film by Jonathan Hardy)
As Schepisi notes, this was a time for particular cultural ferment amongt Catholics, led by the likes of ex-seminarian novelist Thomas Keneally (who did some six years in a seminary and was almost ready for ordination before having a break down, leaving, and later marrying a former nun).
Schepisi includes himself and playwright Ron Blair in this ferment:
I met Ron Blair who wrote the play, The Christian Brother. He said he heard I was doing Devil's Playground, so he wrote like hell to get his play finished. I think it's rather significant, by the way - I don't think this is true now, but it was true then - that many of the people doing things, writing books, plays, getting into film, were Catholics or ex-Catholics or traumatised Catholics, and it was all strictly railing against that Irish Catholic severity and obsessiveness that I think most of us saw was counterproductive to what religion really should be doing. And I don't think it's any accident. As Phillip Adams and various people have written, while not a lot of great cinema, or anything, was coming out of Australia, it was a fairly complacent society and there was not a lot to rail against.
That, of course, always brings up to me what is the point! If you have a pretty damned good lifestyle, do you need it? I know you do; please don't get me wrong. You need it in a different way. But since there is little to rail against other than, say, mental torpidity or spiritual barrenness, then there's not a lot of great work happening. Great work, unfortunately, seems to come out of oppression or deprivation. So I think at that time that area, oddly enough, was religion. (Malone interview, as above).
In passing, Schepisi notes that Jonathan Hardy, who plays one of the brothers, also had experience of a monastery, and thinks it might have been in New Zealand.
Schepisi saw an advantage in being able to use his own life experiences as a basis for the screenplay and feature film, as he explained in the DVD interview:
... a lot of this, because it comes from your own life, it's all a lot easier to land correctly on the emotions, to know exactly what to focus on, and you know what world you're being true to, and the more you do that in a peculiar world, the more you take people on a journey that is a new experience to them, a world that they'd probably never see or experience …
...it's a good lesson when you do any film is to somehow get yourself deeply immersed and find yourself in it and when you create the world to be constantly true to the world, don't break the disciplines that you've set yourself …
Schepisi lists the gardening scene as being very close to his own life experience, and cites in particular a family picnic on a river bank with parents as being very close to his own experience at the age of 8, such that it remains difficult for him to watch without it affecting him.
Schepisi was 36 when the film was released.
2. Financing, Casting and Production:
In the DVD commentary, Schepisi says that he got most of his money out of mates, clients, parents, cousins, uncles and clients on the commercial side of things, and a few rich people, along with him putting in a considerable amount of his own and his company's money.
He says that producer Richard Brennan told him that he wasn't political enough. Despite having won all sorts of awards for commercials and industrial documentaries, he needed to make a noise.
So Schepisi started to make a noise, writing to newspapers and writing to people in power wondering how good you had to be to be given a chance, and that did the trick. Even so he met a stonewall at the AFDC, and so turned to harassing rich people as well as his relatives.
In the 'making of', Schepisi tells how he and his then wife Rhonda, settled on Karel Reisz's Morgan A Suitable Case for Treatment as an example of the sort of film they could expect to make for the $300,000 budget they had allowed for their film.
He and his then wife Rhonda screened the film a number of times, worked out how many set ups had been shot, broke it down, and worked out how to schedule and budget their own project from it (the schedule they devised was left in a briefcase in the street by Schepisi, and when it was stolen, they had to repeat the exercise).
Schepisi proposes in the DVD package that 50% of a director's job is in the casting.
At the the time he made Libido, he really only had the experience of working with the two professional actors in it - Arthur Dignam and Robyn Nevin - and he says that they gave him a masterclass in acting during the shoot, and he was determined to assemble a cast which would form a solid ensemble for his feature.
He also deliberately sought out, in other work his company did, directing experiences that would equip him to deal with young people who might not have acted before.
While shooting commercials and industrial docs, he developed techniques for working with amateurs - such as engineers, accountants, entrepreneurs. He put them in their world and gave them a kind of a thread to hold on to you, such that if he wanted them to talk on screen, they were able to do it quite naturally. He made them comfortable, praised the good bits, didn't mention the bad bits, while being aware that if he asked them do something false within their world, they would be incapable of doing it.
He then applied this technique to actors, making them comfortable directing in a relaxing and encouraging way, not being negative talking quietly, and never yelling across the room.
This helps explain how Schepisi obtained such natural performances from his large cast of boys, even when asking them to do things involving matters of sex and sexuality, such as masturbation or encountering mutual masturbation.
Schepisi's then wife Rhonda, did the casting, and the DVD contains a number of amusing anecdotes about how the business was done in the days before casting agents had really got going.
Nick Tate tells a yarn of how Rhonda Schepisi got on the phone and asked him to come back from England - fortunately his commitment to the first series of Space 1999 was just winding down - only ten days before the shoot started, pleading with him to do the job, and not to worry about reading the script, he should just come back and do it because he and Fred were mates.
Tate insisted on reading the script, but then sent Schepisi a telegram saying that if he was half the director that he was a writer, he'd swim the Pacific ocean to play the role.
This was just as well because Tate was expected to pay his own airfare, be paid only for the days he worked, and sleep on the sofa when not asked to sleep on location in the seminary in a tiny little room like a cell.
The Schepisis found Simon Burke at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, standing in the foyer, going to the theatre a lot and hoping to get into the acting game.
Fred Schepisi said they acted as de facto parents during the shoot - Burke stayed with them on the weekends - while explaining that Burke had the unfortunate experience of receiving a letter from his parents half way through the shoot, telling him that they intended to divorce.
Schepisi also attracted the support of another former seminarian, novelist Thomas Keneally, who plays a key role in the film as a cheerful friendly priest who is equally happy preaching hellfire and damnation.
Schepisi understood it would be risky to use a non-actor in the role, and critics were divided on the effectiveness of Keneally's performance, but Schepisi decided that the risk was worth it, because he wanted to make use of Keneally's gentle happy demeanour, as a way of selling the hellfire sermon that followed. As a former seminarian himself, Keneally knew exactly what was required.
Schepisi got hold of a small video camera - rare in those days - and the cast workshopped and rehearsed for ten days before embarking on the shoot.
According to Nick Tate, another key part of the ensemble was the ritual of the cast having their hair shaved to 1950s period style (Tate claims he had long blonde Robert Redford locks), and the realism was also aided by the entire cast and crew sleeping in "tiny little rooms" on location during the week, like seminarians.
The film was shot on location at Werribee Park. The lake featured in the film was recreated for the film, and was in reality extremely shallow and inclined to leak.
As the film was shot in mid-winter, it was an extremely cold location - in his DVD interview, Arthur Dignam also complains about his nude scene in the pool because the water wasn't heated, and the pool was extremely cold.
Jokingly he suggests most of the budget went on special lenses from the United States so DOP Ian Jones could film in extremely low light.
The closing scene of the movie, in which Tom (Simon Burke) escapes the monastery and attempts to hitch-hike his way to freedom, was shot on the first day's of filming (as Schepisi notes, this was a bold strategy, with a teenager who had never acted before, though he also suggests that jumping in the deep end, or at least starting a third of the way in to a film script, can be an effective strategy in terms of getting up to speed).
Schepisi is an able guide in his DVD commentary and interview, discussing his attempts to shoot a billiard scene in one shot, and then abandoning the attempt when he discovered he couldn't make it work, but instead was forcing it; or using "Sistine Chapel" images to evoke the state of mind of the characters; or working with DOP Ian Baker, who preferred a natural lighting approach, picking a direction where the light is coming from them, and then lighting to sustain that one directional source of light as the key light for the scene.
Alex Stitt, an animator (and feature filmmaker) who was a partner with Schepisi in The Film House, designed the film's titles
In his DVD commentary, Schepisi says he was forced to make a couple of commercials a day to raise the money to allow him to four wall the film's theatrical release.
The film was only moderately successful in a commercial sense, but it did work as an arthouse piece, backed by solid reviews and a major set of AFI awards.
At the time, the film aroused controversy, at least within Catholic circles, for its portrait of the dilemmas of the religious in embracing a life of chastity.
The film didn't encounter the censorship difficulties of other films in the 1970s, but partly that was because Schepisi at the time cut back on what was actually happening.
He says he toned down the reality of many scenes because he didn't think people could accept what really happened in the church in the 1950s.
He pared back on the whipping scene, and notes that some practices - like the wearing of barbed wire belts - have only gained currency and awareness in popular culture thanks to shows such as the The Da Vinci Code. (Believe me, this is nothing as compared to some of it, he says of his own work).
Schepisi thinks that if hadn't been restrained, he would have lost the audience and not achieved what he wanted to achieve, which was to reach the audience, and let them identify with a boy growing up, wanting them go on a journey with characters, and discover shared feelings - even within a world that might be far apart from theirs.
Even so, Schepisi suggests that, in the heated discussions of pedophilia and adolescent sexuality later current within the Catholic church, he would now be unlikely to get away with some of the scenes today.
He also suggests that such realities remain, and that if it's there, it's better to face up to it rather than running away from it - for example the wanking scenes and the talk of masturbation:
...over forty years later and with the uncovering of repression as well as the exposure of abuse, we probably should look at it again in that light. However, even in ordinary Catholic schools, students were far more prudish in the early '50s, much less explicit in language than the characters in the film.
... I held back, believe me. Believe me, I held back. See, I went to Assumption and I was there for so long before I went to that school that I was kind of horrified by what they were doing, what was happening in that school. And at a particular time I went to one of the brothers who had been at Assumption, I went to see him and I said, "You know, I have to tell you this because I know you'd understand," all this bizarre behaviour, this, this and this. He was pretty shocked and quite a number of people got called out, sent away. I had decided to leave at that point, and pretty soon afterwards the juniorate was stopped, the students put into an ordinary college. I don't think they really did know the extent of what was going on. I was doing it from a real belief that this is how it should be, and it doesn't need to be this weird. This is something like the Middle Ages.
There were some good people around, some very good people around, good brothers too, and they were there with the sick buggers, and the rest of it was just like misguided religious zeal.
You've got to remember that the majority of those kids were going through puberty but it's all been covered up, so that just makes it twenty times as bad. I remember I sat in a theatre in Brisbane with Terry Jackman and there were nuns and brothers who had all come along to the opening night, so you can imagine what that was like. The brothers were all holding their breath and absolutely silent, and the nuns thought it was great.
I had to change my phone number. I was somehow becoming a counsellor. I know a few brothers decided to leave the order pretty soon after that. You know, the success rate of the juniorate turned out - at one point only 50 per cent of them kept going. (Peter Malone interview, at his essential site here).
That said, Schepisi is careful not to judge individuals.
He maintains the point of the film was not to be against religion, but to be against the authoritarian impositions of religion that become politicised and perverted along the way by some of its people. (DVD)
The score by Bruce Smeaton is perhaps one of his best early lyrical works, and relatively discreet, with director Schepisi keen to keep the amount of underscore under control.
He suggests directors can be suckered into using too much music, and prefers to use it sparingly and only where appropriate. He argues it shouldn't be used to tell an audience that this is a love scene or that someone is feeling sad, but rather, it should tell you something about the interior life going on in the characters, something not able to be expressed in dialogue, sound effects or image composition - an extra dimension not expressible otherwise (along with offering here and there certain energies to help the film in its forward movement).
It was Bruce Smeaton who suggested that the Arthur Dignam character play one of Eric Satie's Gymnopédies.
Dignam was struggling with his character, and wanted to put some humanity into it. After they'd started shooting, he suggested to Schepisi that they have a scene with the character doing something that an audience could understand or sympathise with, as a way of rounding out the character's relentless and tortured sexuality. It was initially suggested that the character be playing the organ in the chapel, and this eventually turned into the scene where Dignam plays the piano.
Dignam could actually play the piano to the level required to play the Satie, but he was irritated to discover that they were unable to use the recording in post-production and another version was recorded and laid over his performance.
Dignam thinks it might have been composer Bruce Smeaton who played the work, but in any case Smeaton used the idea of the Satie piece as a thematic element in the underscore he composed for the film.
According to Schepisi, Satie was slightly mad, and the madness could be felt in his music, and that madness perfectly matched the way Dignam's character in the drama was struggling mentally to survive.
6. Thomas Keneally's speech:
Novelist Thomas Keneally would later go on to become an internationally recognised writer with works such as Schindler's List, but he was still early in his career when he appeared in the film.
He was no actor, but he was a former seminarian and intricately aware of Catholicism, and in the film he delivers a cheerfully gloomy sermon as a special guest of the school leading a retreat.
According to director Schepisi, this is the sort of sermon that would have been delivered in the 25th week after Pentecost, a hellfire and brimstone effort. Schepisi credits Keneally with writing this part of the scipt.
It isn't perhaps up to the standard of a similar rant evoked by James Joyce and delivered by the lip-smacking Father Arnall in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but it has its charms, and is one more reason the film appeals to anyone who grew up within the Australian Catholic education system, and experienced one of these apocalyptic evocations of doom:
Without exception, death will come to each and everyone of us. The clod of earth will rattle on each of our coffins. The body we pamper will become a city of corruption, a horror under the earth, our own mothers could not bear to look upon it.
If we are saved, our bodies will rise again free and glorious when Christ comes, but if we lose our battle with temptation, we know what our agony will be. For ever more we shall be awash in the burning rivers of the dead, for ever more the stench of hell, of the rotting flesh of the damned, will fill our nostrils, for ever more our ears will resound with the screams of the tormented, for ever more our pain will be like the pain of a man tied down, unable to move, while one fiery worm eats at his vitals.
The man screams for unconsciousness, but there is no unconsciousness in hell. The worm eats and eats and its work will never finish, but continues for ever more. And what does that for ever more mean?
Imagine a sphere of metal vast as the sun. Imagine that once every ten thousand years a sparrow should visit it and brush it with its wings. When that ball had been worn to nothing, we would still be in hell, we would still be the howling damned who do not see God's face.
Those with a literary bent might like to compare and contrast this with Joyce evoking a similar retreat in his Portrait, remembering that Joyce had the luxriousness of space afforded a writer:
The preacher's voice sank. He paused, joined his palms for an instant, parted them. Then he resumed:
- Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.
- They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharoahs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?
- The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all of the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quality fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multipiied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
- But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.
- Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent; but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. It is on record that the devil himself, when asked the question by a certain soldier, was obliged to confess that if a whole mountain were thrown into the burning ocean of hell it would be burned up in an instant like a piece of wax. And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls ...
And even then, the good Father is only just beginning to get wound up, and spends another couple of pages on torments and lewd, impure, vilthy, vile, disgusting, defiling habits ...
If nothing else, The Devil's Playground captures the mood of the Catholic education system in Australia in the 1950s, dominated as it was by a kind of Irish Catholic mafia worthy of James Joyce.