Production company: Picnic Productions. A McElroy and McElroy production in association with Pat Lovell, B.E.F. and the SAFC.
Budget: A$450,000, with investment from B.E.F. Distributors, the Australian Film Development Corporation and the South Australian Film Corporation (conditional on the film being substantially shot in South Australia) (Oxford); $443,000 (David Stratton).
The Oxford is probably the closer figure - in an interview in the March-April 1976 Cinema Papers, Lovell puts the final budget at $445,000, but also notes some overages due to additional travel and accommodation expenses arising from the need to film some scenes in South Australia.
Remarkably at the time the AFDC - a government body - insisted on a net profit split with producers of 75/25 in its favour, and only later would it get to a 50/50 split. This would be understandable where private investors were involved, but there was only $3,000 private sector script development investment involved, with the bulk of funds coming from the SAFC and AFDC.
In an interview in the December 1974 Cinema Papers, Cliff Green put the AFDC contribution at $125,000, with the rest coming from private sources in a budget of $350,000, but it is likely that the AFDC in the end put in substantially more.
Locations: Hanging Rock Victoria; Martindale Hall, Mintaro, near Clare; Strathalbyn; Marbury School in South Australia; SAFC studios SA.
Filmed: a six week shooting schedule, began February 1975
Australian distributor: B.E.F.
Australian release: according to the Oxford, the film had its world premiere 8th August 1975 in new Hindley Cinemas complex Adelaide SA (it travelled to the Cannes marketplace for the May 1976 Festival). It opened in Sydney at the Lyceum on October 24th 1975. The film didn't open in New York until February 1979.
35mm Eastmancolor Panavision
Running time: 115 mins (Oxford)
Roadshow VHS timing original cut: 1'54"16 (excluding distribution logo and archival credit)
UK Second Sight DVD timing original cut: 1'50"58
Criterion US DVD timing director's cut: 1'46"44 (excluding Janus logo)
Australian Umbrella 2 disc edition director's cut: 1'42"27
UK Second Sight DVD timing director's cut: 1'42" 38
The director's cut significantly shortened the film. The substantial trims - some eight minutes - include several major scenes, but there were also some minor trims, as, for example, the shortening of the last step motion pan around the schoolgirls at the rock.
Box office: According to Film Victoria's report on Australian box office, the film made $5,120,000, equivalent to $30,003,200 in A$ 2009.
The Australian Women's Weekly on 23rd June 1976, doing a story about director Peter Weir, claimed the film was the third highest grossing film of the year in the domestic market, coming behind only Jaws and Towering Inferno.
In the July 1984 edition of Cinema Papers, listing the all-time top ten and top twenty-two Australian films, using Variety data, Picnic was placed at number 6, with a gross film rental of A$1,783,000.
Using figures adjusted for inflation according to the Australian Consumer Price Index, the film placed at number five in the all time top twenty-two Australian films, with adjusted gross film rental of A$3,801,154.
By January 2012 the film had naturally slipped down the list, but still clocked in at a respectable 45th position in the all time top 100 Australian box office money-makers.
The reason the AFI Awards have very little historical credibility may be linked to the treatment of this film.
1976 was the first time the awards were decided by industry vote (members of various guilds, societies and Actors' Equity), and despite seven nominations, the film failed to receive a single award, up against The Devil's Playground, Caddie and Pure Shit. Even End Play was preferred for the best editing award, while the jury award went to The Devil's Playground. While The Devil's Playground was a worthy winner, the same can't be said for Caddie, and for the winners in a number of categories.
Picnic received the following nominations:
Best Film, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission and The Bulletin (winner, The Devil's Playground)
Best Direction, sponsored by Village Theatres (winner, The Devil's Playground, Fred Schepisi)
Best Screenplay, sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation (winner, The Devil's Playground, Fred Schepisi)
Best Cinematography, sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (winner, The Devil's Playground, Ian Baker)
Best Actress, sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (Helen Morse) (winner, Helen Morse, Caddie)
Best Supporting Actor, sponsored by Nissan-Datus Australia (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) (winner, Caddie Drew Forsythe)
Best Supporting Actress sponsored by Nissan-Datsun Australia (Ann Lambert (winner, shared Jackie Weaver and Melissa Jaffer for Caddie)
Ironically in 1977, the film was nominated in the BAFTA Awards and at least won one award:
Best Cinematography (Russell Boyd) - winner (nominees included All the President's Men and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Best Costume Design (Judith Dorsman) (winner Moidele Bickel for The Marquise Of O)
Best Sound Track (Greg Bell, Don Connolly) (winner, Les Wiggins, Clive Winter and Ken Barker for Bugsy Malone)
Boyd was also nominated for a Best Cinematography award in the 1976 British Society of Cinematographers awards.
Writer Cliff Green won a 1976 Awgie (Australian Writers' Guild) award for his adaptation of the novel.
Director Peter Weir also won the Golden Charybdis, the Grand Prix at the 1976 Taormina International Film Festival.
A French poster also credits the film with the Prix d'interprétation Féminine au festival International du Film Fantastique de Paris á l'ensemble des jeunes filles de << Picnic à Hanging Rock>>.
IMDB lists the film as winning several Saturns at the Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy & Horror Films, but a check of the Academy's official site here, listing past Saturn awards, reveals no mention of Picnic as a prize winner.
Picnic has been made available on DVD in many editions, including its original release as a director's cut edition on Criterion in region one back in November 1998, which was at one time regarded as the definitive edition.
For this site, the definitive DVD edition is now the three disc UK set (with original full length cut), released by Second Sight, displacing the two disc special edition in region four by Umbrella, though featuring many of the same extras.
It is the best edition for one main reason - it helps out buffs, enthusiasts and completists anxious to see what director Weir got up to in the editing of the director's cut, by offering a compare and contrast copy of the original 1'50" cut on one disc, alongside the director's 1'42" cut on another.
The image for the director's cut is good, and while the visual quality for the original cut is relatively poor, it is better than VHS, and in any case, VHS copies of the original cut are now rare (though it has to be said that there is a richer yellow tinge more in keeping with the yellow tinge of the original print in the region four original cut VHS).
The three disc 'region two' edition includes all of the extras from the Umbrella 2 disc 'region four' edition, including Umbrella's 1'53"16 'making of', A Dream within a Dream, the 25'54" A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900, a 14'59 interview with Joan Lindsay, a 14'51" audio phone interview with actor Karen Robson who played Irma (now being in the industry her views are interesting to hear), a 5'42" piece on Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall then and now, which is visual fluff, Anthony S. Ingram's 1969 curiousity, the amateurish 3'44" stab at adapting the novel under the title The Day of Saint Valentine, 8'23" of scenes deleted for the director's cut which are visually in good shape, though not the full story on trims and deletions, and a stills and poster galley.
The region four Umbrella two disc edition presents only the director's cut and the extras include the 2004 Umbrella Mark "Not Quite Hollywood" Hartley 1'53"16 documentary, A Dream Within A Dream. There probably should be a law against 'making of' films that run longer than the director's cut, but it does contain an abundance of interesting information.
There's also the period 25'54" 'making of' presented by Patricia Lovell, titled A Recollection - Hanging Rock 1900, the 14'59" interview with Joan Lindsay recorded for the Australia Council in 1975, the 'then and now' of the two key locations, various trailers, a stills and poster gallery, and Ingram's curio The Day of Saint Valentine, an amateurish short 3'43" film made in 1969 on the same theme.
In terms of visual quality, no doubt some will prefer more recent Blu-ray editions, which have been issued by Umbrella in region four and by Second Sight in the UK. There are detailed reviews of some of the discs at DVD Beaver here, and at Michael D's DVD, here.
But cultists and Picnic enthusiasts will want the original version somewhere in their library, as presented in the region 2 three disc edition.
It's simply not on for the likes of Weir (complaining that he was forced to release the film in its original form because of pressure from the production company), or Speilberg air-brushing out the guns from E.T. or Lucas doing wholesale make-overs of his Star Wars franchise, to indulge in historical revisionism, without also ensuring the original versions remain available.
It's a kind of cultural and aesthetic vandalism roughly akin to what happened when people began to colourise black and white films, and then destroy the originals so that a new period of copyright could begin on the colourised copies without any competition from the originals. Imagine a sculptor heading off to a gallery to hack off an arm or a leg on a sculpture because he'd decided they no longer worked or suited the shape he now had in mind ...
(a) Acquiring the rights:
The original novel by Joan Lindsay was published in 1967, and Pat Lovell says she first read the book in 1971. At first she thought making a film from the book a completely insurmountable hurdle, but inspired by Phillip Adams, she secured an option on the rights from the publisher Cheshires in 1973.
As Lovell tells it in the 'making of', she saw Weir's contribution Michael to the trilogy Three to Go, as well as his short horror comedy Homesdale and decided he was the one to direct the work. When she gave Weir a copy of the novel, she suspected he was suspicious of her television origins, but on reading the work, Weir said he had a visceral reaction - like electricity running through me.
In early 1973, I was inspired by Philip Adams, who said: "Why the hell don't you go ahead and produce it yourself?" So, I took the book around to Peter, who was in the last stages of writing The Cars That Ate Paris, and though he didn't have enough time, he asked me to leave it with him. I suspect he thought I was slightly crazy. Anyway, two months later he rang me and said: "I've got to direct that film. What can you do about it?" So I rang Cheshires and got the holding option. (Cinema Papers March-April 1976)
Lovell paid a hundred dollars for three months - I literally said to Cheshires: "All I have in the world is a hundred dollars" - which was quite true - "will you accept it?" And they did.
The pair went to Melbourne to see Lady Lindsay, with Weir being briefed by the publisher not to ask Lady Lindsay if the novel was true or not. He asked the question, and Weir says she responded Young man, I hope you do not ask me that question again. Lindsay hinted that the work was based on fact, but when Weir asked her if the fate of the girls was wide open - did they fall down a hole, were they abducted by aliens? - she replied any of the above.
There had been competition for the rights, though Lovell was unaware of it at the time, with another company after the work since 1972.
(b) The script:
... part of the option agreement was that I talk to David Williamson, whom Joan had met and adored. But David became over-committed in 1973 and said that he couldn't do it. However, he suggested Cliff Green, and a meeting was arranged between Cliff and Joan. She then agreed that he could write it. You see, I had to have her permission on that.
Cliff then completed a first draft which was absolutely spot on.
Green said he thought his main job in doing the adaptation was to decide what to leave out. He thought the book very visual which made it very filmic and easy for him, and he took as its theme the natural environment rejecting the foreign interlopers, almost a refinement of the story, the history of Australia.
The book introduces a group of Anglo-Saxons into this utterly alien and timeless environment and makes of the situation a strange combination of horror story, suspense, detective fiction and in some ways even a tender love story. Quite a unique book, and certainly not written to any formula or pattern; it's a novel but at the same time it's a kind of historical-biographical-literary experiment.
Green didn't go beyond the book except to visit locations, and resisted the very strong temptation to research the basic story:
I really did try to write a literate script and in doing so I've attempted to get some echo of the style of the book. But this, of necessity, is confined mainly to the directions. The dialogue has to be sharp and dramatic; it's impossible to use literary dialogue in this sort of situation and it would be very false to try. The audience won't read the direction of course, but I would like to think that retaining something of the original style in the script will influence the people involved in the film to work to some extent in this style.
(c) The work:
Lindsay, who had started out with ambitions as a painter, but then had married a painter and decided to turn to writing, always made much of the mystery of the book and the events, and always proposed that some of it was true and some of it wasn't, that some of it happened, and some of it didn't and that readers had to work out what was true for them. She claimed to have dreamed the contents of her next day's writing the night before ...
In the 'making of' Weir contends that Lindsay was possessed in some way when she wrote it - he told the Australian Women's Weekly the same thing back on June 23rd 1976:
Joan, Peter believes, was "possessed" when she wrote her haunting tale. "And the story gripped me in the same way, possessed me in the same way."
Lindsay herself said that she just sat down and wrote it, seeing it all pass before her eyes. Helen Morse contends she "dreamt" the book over an intense period of four weeks.
Weir maintained the Lindsay line when it came to the truth of the novel. He answered the Weekly's question this way:
"Is the story based on fact? I would say it's not literally true. But it is a truth, because people do disappear. My films are very much concerned with this - that what people think is fantasy is fact and the facts so often fantasies - it's all a matter of points of view."
In the 'making of' interview, he said much the same thing:
It's always been true for me. Perhaps I view things a little differently but the line between truth and fiction is a very blurred line for me. It feels real, it feels true. I know certain aspects are true, quite true, but I've never doubted it for a minute If it didn't happen exactly that way, it might next week
(d) Truth or fiction?
In actual fact, while Weir is entitled to the creative conceit that truth is arbitrary, there is very little evidence that the film is based on actual events.
There was a rumour that developed that Lindsay had attended a private school in the region, and the story was based on events in the school which had been suppressed, but Lindsay disavows this in the DVD extras, noting that Penguin had published a reference to the private school on their cover, and that this was false.
The best the original 'making of' can come up with is a reference to a lost children cairn on the Midland Highway near Daylesford in Victoria, erected in 1967 to mark the disapperance (and death) of three children who went missing 30th June 1867.
This story bears almost no resemblance to the story in Picnic at Hanging Rock (details of the cairn here). If anything, that story bears much more resemblance to another 'lost children' story which in 1972 was turned into a feature film by the Victorian Department of Education titled Lost in the Bush, and telling of the three Duff children who survived for nine days and were eventually found by an Aboriginal black tracker. (Details of the Duff children memorial cairn here).
It suited the film-makers to hint with an opening credit that the story might be true, long before Fargo revived the trick, and to maintain the sense of mystery.
With the publishing of many Australian newspapers of the period by Trove, the search for a real inspiration for the story has been made much easier, but as in the past, the hunt has only produced fool's gold.
A search of The Age, The Argus and the Woodend Star for February 1900 fails to disclose any reference to people disappearing at Hanging Rock, or anywhere else. Subsequent examination of newspapers covering the period 1897 - 1905 report no lost or missing people at or near Hanging Rock. (more here)
But maintaining the mystery worked for the film as it had worked for the book, at least until after Lindsay's death in 1984, when the book's publishers unveiled plans to reveal her 'secret ending' to the novel (a chapter 18).
By 1988, the book was Penguin's top selling Australian paperback, with sales over 356,000 (it had also sold well internationally).
Fortunately for the maintenance of the mystery, the additional chapter revealing The Secret of Hanging Rock did little to destroy the mystique, mainly because little attention was paid to it.
The extra chapter was released on St. Valentine's Day in 1987. It turned out that the solution involved a disappointing and garbled mix of time warp, hole in space and Aboriginal dreamtime (there is a wiki for The Secret of Hanging Rock).
Most readers and viewers of the film would probably prefer to remain back with Lindsay and her mystery and her fascination with clocks, especially ones that stop for no reason at a certain time, and with a story that hints at reality but ultimately is without a solution.
Penguin published a film tie-in edition for the film's release.
Cliff Green's screenplay was published by Cheshire, Melbourne, 1975 as a 112 page large-format book, with large and numerous black and white photographs throughout, provided by David Kynoch, who had been the set photographer for the film. While now rare, it can still be found on the second--hand market. It shouldn't be confused with a later 1987 illustrated edition of the novel which owes nothing to the film.
After optioning and script development, it took several years to gather together the production funding.
Weir proposed to Lovell that Hal and Jim McElroy join the production to assist Lovell in raising the finance (before Cars that Ate Paris they'd tried to get finance for a show called Johnny and the Vampires, starring pop singer Johnny Farnham, with Weir directing, and then had formed a good working relationship with Weir during the making of Cars).
Green had already written two or three drafts by the time the McElroys joined the production. They raised several issues, including the level of sensuality within the film, and the fact that the story didn't have an ending (the lack of an ending had also bedevilled Cars, and some would argue that it remains the chief weakness of Picnic, with a slow mo set of step printed images no substitute for either a dramatic resolution or even a properly developed open ending. Weir recognised that the lack of an ending made it an extremely dangerous commercial enterprise).
In the meantime, Lovell had an early experience of the catch-22 of dealing with film bureaucrats. The film wasn't knocked back when the application with McElroys' budget was sent to the Australian Film Development Corporation, it was deferred, but in the meantime she had a writer who'd done a draft for $1,500 with the rest on deferral, and no money to pay for the $2,000 deferral. She wanted another $2,000 for another draft, but this was held back until she brought the budget down. The budget was $442,000, and the AFDC wanted it taken down to $380,000. The eventual budget was $445,000.
The difficulties led to a brief parting of the ways between Lovell and the McElroys, and Lovell was forced to raise $3,000 to cover another draft of the script (in the form of a private investment).
The McElroys returned, and Picnic Productions was formed in January 1975, with Lovell holding two votes, and the McElroys one each, and Lovell deciding to take an EP credit rather than a producer credit (her solicitor held a non-creative balance of power vote in the company).
With these matters settled, the team went to the SAFC and secured an investment, on the basis that there would be shooting in South Australia, with John Graves (brother of American actor Peter) as the executive producer for the SAFC, with a "watching vote". B.E.F. was confirmed as distributor for Australian and New Zealand theatrical.
Peter Weir and Jim McElroy went to London to interview Dominic Guard and the proposed headmistress, Vivien Merchant, Harold Pinter's wife. She accepted and was in Hong Kong in a play when - within about ten days of joining the shoot - she became ill and withdrew. The creative team immediately decided on Rachel Roberts - Weir thinks she might have been on their original short list but unavailable - and luckily she was now free.
Lovell described the process in her March-April 1976 Cinema Papers interview:
... there ensued an incredible - and it would have been very funny had it not been so deadly serious - business of trying to ring Rachel's agency in New York from Mintaro, in South Australia on a little wind-up phone with sheep walking past the window. It was organized extremely smoothly and that is entirely due to the McElroys.
When she arrived, Roberts immediately refused to wear the wig designed for Merchant - advising that it was considered bad luck in the theatre to wear another actor's wig - and produced her own.
Jim McElroy contends in the 'making of' that she really was the headmistress of Appleyard 24 hours a day, alienating the school girls on and off the screen at the few social events they attended together, and drinking off the screen in the way her character does on it (such that on one occasion she ended up screaming stark naked in the courtyard of an Adelaide motel).
So far as casting the girls for the movie, Weir believed that the girls available in Sydney and Melbourne were too sophisticated and knowing, and that girls from Adelaide, where the production eventually located, were more suitable, giving the impression - whether through interests such as craft and music, or through family and community life - as having more in commmon with an earlier era.
The casting of Anne Lambert was an odd, on and off affair, with Lambert - who had been recommended by Martin Sharp - at first being offered the role, then being told that the creative team believed they'd made a mistake and were withdrawing the offer, only then to offer her the role again. The role was briefly offered to Ingrid Mason, who ended up playing Rosamund, but after several weeks of rehearsals, Weir rang up Lambert and asked her to consider returning to the film. Mason was offered the consolation prize of a lesser role, and Pat Lovell persuaded her to accept it.
In comparison, the casting of Dominic Guard - who had appeared as a younger actor in Losey's The Go-Between, was a more straightforward matter. Jim McElroy had known the actor after working with him on The Hands of Cormack Joyce, a British picture shot in Australia, and it was generally agreed it was important to have an English actor for the tole, and that he was entirely suitable.
DOP Russell Boyd went into David Jones to purchase bridal veil material as a scrim for use in giving the image a soft period feel. The material had something of the grading of a mosquito net. Boyd acknowledges the work of still photographer David Hamilton as an inspiration, and as a way of handling the pubescent soft focus girl stuff.
The look that Boyd devised became at first iconic and then cliched with every second television commercial and stills photographer pinching it for their own purposes.
it was Martin Sharp, who had an intimate knowledge of the book, who assisted Weir with the mystical sub-text, the Botticelli angel theme that runs through the story and the visuals, the swan and so on. Sharp, who was billed as a creative consultant, aided with the preparation of Victorian scrap books, and helped fill the backgrounds with period- and character-evoctive details. He was also active in the casting phase, suggesting Robson audition for her role. Weir went so far as to film Anne Lambert semi-nude in a grotto, but the image didn't make the cut.
According to Karen Robson (Irma) it was Sharp who found the quote from Edgar Allan Poe - which starts the show - on the piano stool at Martindale Hall one evening. He took it to Weir, suggested it be used, and in due course it was incorporated into the cut. This added to the generally superstitious air which seems to have run through the shoot, with every little odd quirky event adding to the sense of atmosphere and mood.
It was Weir's wife Wendy who put the character Irma in a red dress for her almost horror film "Lord of the Flies" scene, her sexually provocative confrontation with the other girls after her return from the rock, played out in the Temple of Callisthenics (where Sara is sadistically tortured by a posture machine).
Robson found doing the scene quite stressful, though the sight of camera operator John Seale donning her clothes to do a roaming POV shot of the other girls released some of the tension. Apparently in rehearsal, the girls recited the nursery rhyme about Oranges and Lemons, the bells of St. Clement's, and forcefully hit the line about "chopping off your head".
In the 'making of', Hal McElroy says that the schedule for the production prioritised scenes into A, B and C.
The team would spend time and money shooting A scenes, less time on money on B scenes, and get through C scenes as quickly as possible.
The picnic scene, for example, was treated as an A scene. Based on the script, it was originally scheduled for only about a day's filming, but in the actual shoot, it took longer because perfect light on rock only fell, according to Boyd, between 12 and 1.30, with filming taking a week, doing an hour a day, and filling in the rest of the day with other scenes on the rock.
Weir used slowed down sound of earthquake rumble to help create eerie atmsophere on the rock. He also used slow motion from the almost imperceptible to the obvious in the visuals to enhance the other worldly mood.
The original ending was of Miss Appleyard leaving school in disarray and climbing up the rock, and then being carried away in a stretcher. This was shot, but Weir decided to end on her dressed in her funeral garb with her bags packed, looking off into a spiritual emptiness, with her fate outlined in voice over, as the last shots return, in slow motion, to the girls in their lazy summer moment beneath the rock.
This decision led to a certain ambivalence as to the meaning of the end. A French film critic, for example, made much of one of the girls making a religious gesture at the end, and it had to be explained to him that no, she was just brushing away the flies.
Composer Bruce Smeaton still thinks the ending is just a bit too emphemeral, and wanted a little bit more meat. Weir himself admits that certainly I've never made another film without an ending. I got lucky once but I don't think I'd push that luck.
Readers will have to chose between claims that actor Christine Schuler's voice was entirely re-voiced by Australian actress Barbara Ann Llewellyn, including the famous scream, a claim made on Llewellyn's website in an article by John Godl, Picnic at Hanging Rock - The Unseen Voices, and Christine Schuler's ongoing insistence, repeated in the 'making of' that it is her voice and that she made the famous scream.
The story of is one of furtive secrecy in post-synching on the part of Peter Weir and hush hush mysterious activity worthy of the rock:
“I must admit to being somewhat dumbfounded to hear that the woman who was the visual part of Edith took full credit for the character,” she (Llewellyn) continued, “but maybe Peter never told her the truth and she has somehow convinced herself that my voice was actually her own. I truly thought that Peter would, at some stage, do the honourable thing and let the world know that he had dubbed certain characters in the film but he has continued to conceal the truth, goodness knows why. Considering the amount of time gone by since that secret was created and that Peter did not give credit to the actresses who helped make his film a success, I believe myself relieved of any need to continue the illusion.”
Without corroboration from a second source - say Weir or someone involved in the alleged post-synch - the claim can only be treated as a claim. Lewellyn claims several other actors were involved in revoicing several other cast members, without being certain of the names of the actors or the cast involved, with the article mentioning only Rosalie Fletcher as one possibility as re-voicer and Margaret Nelson as one possible re-voicee (thereby allegedly explaining her refusal to attend reunions or discuss the film). Again without any evidence beyond an allegation, Llewellyn's claims need to be treated with caution, and it should at least be noted that it is disputed by other parties.
(a) Period v. Ocker:
The film quickly became caught up in what became the great seventies Australian feature film debate, between period films and the need to get real and do gritty urban dramas, the industry at that stage being so small, it seemed necessary to do one or the other, rather than have room for both, and a lot of other styles and genres as well.
It became fashionable, as Weir and others in the 'making of' note, for critics, academics and film-makers to line up on either side and hurl mud, either at Ocker sex fests or at pretty chocolate box period design, costumes and scenery. As Weir notes, the pressure not to do period films was absurd - film-makers should be able to choose whatever colour from the palette they were inclined to - but it's a measure of the immaturity and newness of the Australian revival that the debate took place at all.
Proponents of hearty Ocker sex fare mocked the period shows - the likes of Phillip Adams particularly resented Picnic and its success, even though he moved from the first Bazza McKenzie film to making The Getting of Wisdom - and it's a measure of this silliness that the critics either failed to notice or understand the subtle element of eroticism that ran through Picnic, and which still rewards viewing, since the repressed Victorian approach to sex had lingered in Australia long into the 1950s.
(b) The lack of an ending:
For composer Smeaton, it was the right film at right time, but just as the lack of resolution in the ending didn't work for him, it also posed a serious threat for the film in terms of a release in the United States.
Weir recalls a distribtuor throwing coffee at screen and complaining about having wasted my time sitting here watching a goddam mystery and there's no goddam solution, I'm not going to buy that ... it's half a film.
As noted by Hal McElroy, Americans at the time were generally thought to hate films without closure and their film The Last Wave sold sooner and easier in the United States than Picnic.
One distributor told them, We're going to have to revoice all of this, but after their dismal experience with the revoicing of The Cars That Ate Paris they refused to play this game. The film eventually played the college campus and arthouse circuit very successfully and it was a success d'estime, and the film still lingers in the American imagination as an image of a certain kind of Australia.
(c) The AFI Awards controversy:
Amazingly the film didn't win a single award at the 1976 AFI awards, which were dominated by Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground. While that was a fine film, in previous years, some arrangement had usually been made to provide a sop to other films worthy of note, but this was the first year when voting was passed over to industry guilds and members.
This result generated considerable controversy. Erwin Rado, then director of the Melbourne Film Festival, alleged in a letter to The Age on July 28th 1976 that "Picnic at Hanging Rock … was not given a prize because it was already successfully launched, as one man who should know told me."
(d) The Gary McDonald Factor:
As a piece of trivia, those who recall watching the film at the AFI awards or on its initial release will recall a moment where the audience often burst into unrelated laughter.
In an interview in Cinema Papers, discussing the impact of the film on the way he went about making Mad Max, director George Miller reminded those who saw the original in the cinema in Australia of a curious phenomenon, which didn't harm the film's success but which did make him determined to avoid familiar TV faces on the big screen:
Miller: A classic example of this was in Picnic at Hanging Rock, with Gary McDonald. He was cast before Norman Gunston became known, but by the time the film came out he was Norman Gunston. I will never forget sitting in Picnic with a big audience. Everyone was into the film, but the moment that he came on, they jumped up and down and shouted "Norman!", which took the whole audience out of the film for those few moments. McDonald wasn't on the screen long enough to establish himself as anyone other than Norman Gunston.
In Mad Max, we were dealing with a futuristic film. So, as a conscious principle, if it was a choice between an unknown and one who was known from a television series or a television commercial, the part would go to the unknown.
4. The Director's Cut:
Response to Weir's decision to issue a director's cut which deleted a substantial amount of the original cut has not been uniformly favourable.
Critics such as Roger Ebert weren't particularly fussed, as in Ebert's August 1998 welcoming of the new cut, here, though Ebert seems to think that the reason Weir made the deletions was to discourage notions of a solution to the mystery, when Weir himself said he made the cuts to get more quickly to the climax without distracting side-plots, most notably the distractions involved in the relationship between Dominic Guard's character and Irma (Karen Robson).
In the 'making of' EP Pat Lovell and writer Cliff Green line up to approve Weir's actions, and the resulting cut - Lovell claimed it got her to the ending much more quickly and for the first time watching the film she cried - but several of Weir's collaborators weren't so forgiving.
Composer Bruce Smeaton provided a contrasting view of the Weir exercise, thinking it a bit odd, and he undercut the excuses Weir deployed - that he'd gone along with the production company and the producers in releasing the original cut. According to Smeaton:
Peter did exactly as he pleased (on the original cut) so presumably it wasn't the film that needed changing, it was that Peter had evolved, and I'm not sure whether you should do that or not. Sometimes it's best to say that, well back then I did this for this reason, I wouldn't do it this way now...
... it depends on the mood you're in. You could say the original version was pretty slow but it was slow in a way that we liked.
Anne Lambert - who had her own issues with the way Weir treated her on set, as an actress who needed to be the role rather than act the role - she clearly fancied herself as an actress having been the face of Fanta and appeared in several TV soaps - took an even stronger stand:
I think when you put something out into the world and somebody buys it or watches it or listens to it or whatever, it becomes theirs and particularly when a long, long time has passed and that's happened over and over and over again. Somebody might have watched that film, particularly if they loved it, you know, hundreds of times and every scene or moment they have a response to, and in a funny kind of way it wasn't his any more to fiddle about with and certainly not to take things away from people ...
One of the special moments that I used to love has gone, I loved Irma's run along the shore of that lake. It used to be for me a very releasing moment and I needed it and it's not there any more...
I've spoken to a lot of people who are bitterly upset by the loss of certain moments - the scene where the girls sing Rock of Ages in the chapel and Ingrid in fact cries at the end of the hymn. I think some people needed that, some people wanted that as part of their release from all that kind of turgid building up of stuff, and then they finally get to let down a little in that moment and that's not there. In fact he seems to have taken out two moments of … (exhaling )… release which perhaps has a purpose, I don't know but I just don't know whether it was up to him anymore, you know, it didn't really belong to him anymore.
In a phone interview on the 3 disc DVD, Robson - who went on to a career in the film industry in the United States - proposed that the reasons for the new cut should be taken with a grain of salt, though Weir had phoned her to explain that he had deleted some of her scenes because they were a part of a distracting sub-plot, not because of her performance. She acknowledged she was rather fond of the punt boat scene, which has disappeared completely in the cut-down version.
Weir himself in the 'making of' acknowledges the force of these remarks:
I do think it's wrong for a director to second guess themselves in directors' cuts, it's not fair to those who liked the picture as it was ...
He immediately ignores himself by arguing that the revised cut produced greater emotion and tragedy and clarity without distractions, in the way it should have been and the way I wanted it, and in that sense the result is truly a director's cut.
It's also an act of cultural vandalism and hubris, a desire to make his second thoughts the only remaining version of the film, and cast his first thoughts and first release cut to the wind.
Nor is it just a matter of the big scenes listed as deleted in the Second Sight edition. The final step-printed slow motion shots of the schoolgirls at the rock run a good thirty seconds shorter, achieved by the simple expedient of dropping out the first two pairs of girls in the main step motion shot. Now it's understandable why Weir did this - the shot originally attracted criticism from some for being too slow-moving and ponderous. But what of those who liked it?
If Weir had genuinely been interested in being fair to the film's followers and to his new vision, he would have presented the original cut fully restored, and alongside it his revised cut, as a point of comparison. Instead he attempted to banish the original cut to the wilderness, which is why viewers who remember the original work will be pleased that it is now available on DVD, albeit in a version which lacks visual polish compared to the mastering provided to Weir's revised cut.
5. After the landmark:
Picnic at Hanging Rock was a watershed moment for the industry, to the chagrin of Ocker lovers with a dislike of period films. It's easy to sneer at period chocolate boxes, but what to say when the public enthusiastically pays for the chocolate box?
Once the film's initial impact had faded, the key players in the creative team faced different career paths.
EP Lovell had originally worked as a compere on the children's program Mr. Squiggle, as a reporter on the current affairs show Today for the Seven network, and as an actress in shows such as Skippy and Homicide. She never managed to produce another film of the substance and impact of Picnic, and expressed concern that her role as initiating producer was sometimes over-looked, especially as the film is now usually attributed to Peter Weir, who went on to a very successful career as a director in Australia and the United States.
She would do Break of Day and Summerfield with Cliff Green, but it was another venture with Weir, Gallipoli, that would see a return to form, followed by Monkey Grip in 1982 and the relatively disappointing telemovie The Perfectionist in 1987. She experienced many difficulties, but perhaps none greater than the dissolution of her company with Mel Gibson, Lovell Gibson, in 1988 before a single picture was made. She once wrote: Quite ironic, really, Lovell Gibson began and ended with weapons lethal.
She worked as the head of production at the Australian Film TV and Radio School between 1996 and 2003.
The McElroys went over to television, and eventually a fierce dispute between them would see a parting of the ways.
Writer Cliff Green, who adapted the book, had previously attracted attention for a quartet of plays titled Marion, and broadcast on the ABC in 1974, which featured a young schoolteacher played by Helen Morse working in a small country town. Green had been a staff writer for Crawfords on shows such as Homicide and Matlock Police, and later worked as a freelance writer on many ABC series, such as Rush and the Norman Lindsay Festival, but he never managed to be involved with another substantial feature film, with neither Break of Day nor Summerfield attracting significant critical praise of the kind given to Picnic.