Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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During the period that you were involved with Scott's Farm and that sort of work and making the documentaries, you were also continuing to some extent with your career as an actress, weren't you? What were you doing at that time?

Well that was the time I was doing ... well I did a couple of films, maybe three or four. And then I did ... Joan Littlewood asked me to go down and do The Streets Of London by Dion Busico in her wonderful place in the East End. So I did and I loved it. We had a very good cast, and then it transferred into the West End. It wasn't a success in the West End, because it didn't have all those wonderfully funny cockney kids in it, whom I couldn't take. They were sort of huge people. And also it was because really it wasn't quite ... I mean it's a melodrama, and it wasn't quite into the ... It was a musical too, but it had a huge success in the East End, which was lovely. So I was very, very busy all the time. And I was running back and forth to Australia.

Why was that?

Well, because I had ... By the time I'd sort of come here in 1975 to see my dad, and accepted to do Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Queensland Theatre Company, and come up here afterwards and then got this land. And then of course what happened in England was that Mrs. Thatcher came in and there were a huge amount of problems with money being able to be brought back and forth and people weren't allowed, and I was arrested for bringing money out of this country in Perth once. I mean it was nothing, it was just that I couldn't change my travellers' cheques in time - write them all out and do it, I was off on the plane. So, anyway, that happened, and then I had to make a choice as to whether I kept Scott's Farm or here, because I couldn't cope with the financial strain of trying to keep both of them going. And so what I did, I went back to Turkey actually with Bulent, to do another film, our sequel to this turning - two films in fact. And I had a whole crew there and I had a disaster because there was a revolution, and they dropped the camera, and I could not get another one into that country that I could use. So I had to go around doing all the places that I would have been on, but without the camera crew, and I had David Lezares - everyone was sitting in the bus and we couldn't shoot it. It was really desperate. So I thought I think this is trying to tell me something. So I ...

What did you think it was trying to tell you?

Get out of Europe. That's what I felt. I felt I had to, I felt that every time I tried to do something, some sort of hugely ... again, I suppose coincidental thing[s] happened that thwarted me. And I just felt that that was the choice I had to make. I'd choose here. Well after all I am from here: Queensland. And I came back here and began to throw all my energy into here.

Could you tell me about finding here, about what happened?

Well I was shooting a documentary here. And it was ... it was called Individuals, and my theme in it was that individuals went to the furthest away place to get to live in a very extraordinary place, and that they fetched up there, which is true actually. There are ... there were some absolutely extraordinary people living in Port Douglas at that time, one of whom was an actor in the play with me, who was also the chef of the Nautilus. He never wrote much, but he was the chef, and he had ... and so I picked three people. I picked a man called Arnie Peterson, who had made about 200 million pounds in the 1960s with Carmen Curlers - you know, those hot rollers that ... and he had got into terrible tax troubles all over the world and had ended up here, and had owned a vast sum of things. He's the person who tried to make oil palm plantations in the Daintree, and that's the ones that you see outside Port Douglas today. But I chose him and then I chose a wonderful little magician called Bamboozleron, who was eighty-two, who used to do a show every Saturday night in the Exchange Hotel in Port Douglas. And I got him to choose them out of the audience as his assistants. And then I told their lives as they did funny tricks. And then I'd freeze frame on them sort of holding a big ball up, or eating a piece of razor blade or being a thing... Anyway, that then hit the bottom of the harbour. It was being made by a filmmaker in Brisbane who ... And also, the whole thing happened with Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Arnie Peterson who ... that's the reason why that road went through. And I was on the opposite side and everything went into a great thing. The man who was his agent here actually said on film, 'Well you know, for six days we bought and on the seventh day we rested', and they bought the whole of the Daintree for a dollar an acre. So he then started selling that off at 25,000 every five acres, and that's how there's a lot of mess going on up there now because of all that. But he ... they withdrew the film, because it was very hot stuff by that time. And again, I'd been in this weird position of having made something that was a little bit too risky to show. So that's how I came up here, and being, as you well know ... as soon as you're looking at the land to film it: I looked at this land and I thought, I think this is the most extraordinary, pristine land I've ever seen in the world, and I've been to lots of places. So I thought, I think this might be where I have to be. And when I came up here it was raining like the clappers, and I was taken to this water hole which I have here, which the owner didn't know was there. And I just knew: I went and put a down payment on the land that day. Took me a while to pay it off, but I did. And I didn't quite know why, but I just had an immediate sort of knowledge that this was it, as a place, for me.

And so every time you tried to do a documentary film, and to work as a documentary film making, you were baulked, but in the process of doing that, you discovered other things.

Yes. And I mean, I would bite my nails with fury when these things happened. I mean, I can remember getting tremendously drunk on Turkish vodka, which can really do it to you. But I was at the same time extraordinarily angry that these things had just sort of phut away. I couldn't do what I was wanting to do. But I think all of that is there to sort of ... the thwarting that happens to you is there for a very special reason, especially if you're an impatient creature like me. I mean: born impatient.

When you bought this land, did you have, what was part of the attraction, the dream of what you were going to create here?

No. It wasn't, not really. It was just the sheer energy of the [place] and I mean configuration-wise, it fitted exactly. It has its own water. It has incredible energy, it's sort of lay lined up, it's fabulously potent, this piece of land. Even though it was a failed cane farm and had impacted soil and everything else, I knew it was, the way it is, the way you come to it: between two waterfalls, two rivers, passing through that meet at the bottom when you pass over a bridge to get here ... Everything about it felt exactly right for what ... I didn't really know what I was going to do. I don't think anybody ever does know exactly what they're going to do. But I knew that I would take the little tiny house and build great big verandahs around, which is the first thing we did, when we came here. And we - three of us - came here and worked and worked and worked to get those things done by the first course. People joined us, of course, and helped.

When did you work out that you were going to turn it into a - at that stage - a school?

I went and talked about my decision in London to Bulent and a few people, and I did have a sort of image of what ... that that was the model. Because at that time anyway, if you remember, there were many places where people wanted to get knowledge. Most of them fell apart, the communities that were made, because they didn't have any real knowledge behind them. They were very much into personalities. And that was really what I was trying to avoid. I was trying to go by the teaching as it were, rather than being the personality, but of course it always follows that people will follow a personality. And when I gave the lectures here in Australia, which I did in various capital cities and places, people came with me I think, perhaps at first because of [me] being a personality, but afterwards not - because they met something else. And the ones who did come just for personality probably left after a little while because the work was too hard, and they really weren't sitting in some hazy dream of smokos and sort of dropping out. They were having to work very hard, building houses and slashing and building gardens and all that. And it wasn't ... I mean the whole thing wasn't like a community where people just went and dropped, sort of flaked out.

Were people surprised to discover that you were there working like that: I mean the movie star, there slashing and building?

Oh yes. There were bets on me here that ... I mean I know someone who made a lot of money out of me. Because some people bet that I'd ... it was the six months and if I got ... and if I was here longer than six months then they had to pay the other people. And I knew ... That that was a big thing in the pubs here, I know. And don't forget it was very different from now. It wasn't a destination. It wasn't Port Douglas, destination of the Barrier Reef. It was nothing, nobody. I was the only person in this valley except a tin rocker up the road called Mr. Materlin. And there was nobody here. I did things all the time to earn money, like I did For The Term Of His Natural Life. I went to Adelaide and I talked about here to some people and when I came back they'd bought a piece of land up the road in this valley. But you see I think you can't go by anything about what people think personally, because there is always underlying that a big movement towards something. And at that time there was a movement towards really beginning to look deeper than ... and I think we've gone a long way in these last twenty, twenty-five, thirty ... I'm not talking personally, I'm talking about people have actually become much more sensitised to what is the underlying - the subtext or whatever you want to call it. We began to think of it as a cliché, but, you know, once it's your own vision, once it's your own vision, then it is different from other people's, it doesn't matter how much bidding goes on in the newspapers about it. Of course you always read things about yourself that ... I think the Murdoch press wrote that I'd started a nudist colony. And what can you say? Okay, sometimes we go into the rivers or the waterfall or the things without clothes on, but it's not a nudist colony. But nobody wants to know that. They only want to know what fits into their pigeon hole.

No, you said that there were three of you who worked to get it started. Who were the three?

One was a boy from Austria who'd come with me out on my lecture thing, called Michael Pohl, and one was a boy who had been in Taming Of The Shrew with me. And he was a dancer who'd come here.

And they were committed to the philosophy?

Yes. Well you see, it's hard to say words like that: committed to the philosophy. They loved what they were doing and felt very fulfilled by doing what they were doing, and we did have to work extraordinarily hard. Then I was joined by my niece, and then lots of people started coming, because energy attracts energy. And where there is a lot of energy flying around, as well as propagating it, it attracts it. That was ... It was a very hard time. I mean, when we came here that house was filled with bats. They all flew out. I thought wah! The night we got here, we got here at about nine, and they thought it was their house, not ours! And it was filled with frogs as well. I mean they used to sit on all these little windows. You'd wake up and there'd be hundreds of little frogs' bottoms above your head. And ... but once we got going, slowly it ... not slowly - it got going very fast. And ...

How did it work out financially?

Oh, that's always been the great bugbears, trying to shovel money together to keep it going. And I mean it doesn't ... We did grow all our own stuff and we did have all sorts of animals and bees and things. We were virtually self sufficient. We ground our own grain and made our own bread. And everyone learnt that as a thing, because making bread is a sort of seven stages exercise that sort of is part of ... it's almost a mirror of what you do when you go on your own journey. And you do have to face the fire at some time and go into the oven. But it has a catalyst too - that is what you put in to make the dough rise. And it's sort of an analogy. So that's why they learnt it too. Sounds a bit vague, but it isn't. It's practical, believe me: you get muscles doing it.

It sounds as if what you were creating here was not so much a school of philosophy but a whole experience for a total way of life.

Hmm, well that's what philosophy really is meant to be. So that you have ... I mean everybody, when they're doing anything, gets the idea first. They can't just start building a house without a plan. So philosophy really is the plan of what you want to live, isn't it, really? And if you have to live it ... and I don't think philosophy works unless you do live it, you've got to put it into practice.

So when did the idea of the theatre happen?

Ah, well. [laughs] By that time ... then I got married here. That's another jump, because Tony joined me here.

Okay, before we get to the theatre then, let's talk about that. Tell me about your third marriage.

Ah, well. Antony Shaffer is a twin, twin of Peter Shaffer, and both of them are frighteningly clever. I mean Tony wrote Sleuth, Peter wrote Amadeus, Equus, Royal Hunt Of The Sun. Peter's written ... I mean Tony's written <>Death On The Nile, Evil Under The Sun, Frenzy, all sorts of films with Hitchcock and other people, so they both have an incredibly vibrant twist of mind. They never bore you in an instant, either of them. And I was doing this picture called The Wicker Man, that Tony had written. And he and I and Edward Woodward used to go out and have a bit of a drink after the filming, and we ... I mean he seemed to me, Tony, to be one of the most depressed ... as far as his idea of the world went, so I thought, because he kept saying he'd never met anyone who could ever impart anything to him except rubbish. I mean he was very sort of ... I thought ... I said, 'Well I know someone who can give you a bit of lift about your life', so I introduced him to John Godolphin Bennett, whom he found absolutely rivetting and fascinating. And then he started coming to Scott's Farm all the time. And he started being there more and more, and then we sort of formed a relationship and then I thought, well I can't go on like this: he was married and everything, and when I came to Australia, I sort of said goodbye forever and all that. And then one day I was coming out of the theatre, it was boiling hot, it was a matinee, and I still had my makeup on [for] this Taming Of The Shrew, and this bizarre figure got out of a taxi with a full overcoat and a suitcase and a hat pulled down like that, and as I came down the stairs I thought ... We were all walking out and this voice came across and said, 'Not so fast'. [laughs] And there he was! He'd come all the way out there, and he, he was sort of determined to ... to, I guess, be here. And he did, he helped in the beginning, and did lots of things. And then he found himself to be rather ill. He had a tumour. And he went back to England and he came out here to ... and that was it. He was here and we got married here.

So he had a tumour on the brain?

Yeah.

And what happened with it?

It was operated on and it was completely cleared. But I suppose I thought after that, that as he had ... [laughs] I was casting, or trying to cast, Rudolph Valentino for a film then, another one that fell through. But he sent me from the hospital, a picture of himself with a completely shaven head with this awful scar, and about ... He weighed about sort of nothing. And he said, 'This is ... my name is so and so, Joe Bloggs. I'm going for the part of Valentino. Would you consider me?' And I mean, anybody that does that in the height of their awful illness has got to be a terrific person, verbally funny, and he really is, and he's got ... he's got just the sort of right temperament for me. Actually, if the truth be known, he doesn't take any nonsense from me either. So, we got married here. My mother was here, in a wheelchair, and all my family came up. My brother gave me away. I got married in the garden up there, under a Bauhinia tree, and a lot of butterflies came down, and a woman said to Tony, 'Did you have these butterflies trained for this?' He said, 'Of course, madam', and you know, pretended. So it was a very good time, and that's when this house was built. And that's when really ... as we were spending a lot of time here, I had built a stage - we had built a stage for people to do their movements and things on, and people started loving it so much. That's when Kristin Williamson and David came up here. And we just had planks out in front that people could watch from, but it was very nice, a sort of natural amphitheatre. So I thought that I would actually put in a ... People kept saying to me, 'Where can we get something to eat and something to drink? We can't come all the way out here and just sit and watch things and sit on the earth and not have anything', and I couldn't keep carting them off to different houses. So I thought this'll be for everyone, and I'll build a thing that would have a bar and a restaurant and everything else. So quite unadvisedly, because you're out in the middle of ... I mean it is ... it was a very ... it is a very potent idea. And I think it will catch up. I mean the public will catch up with this different view of entertainment and ecology and being in a place that is very special, rather than ... I mean the world is getting so small now. This place then did take off, and we do have a lot of people coming in here. It is a destination. So it wasn't such a silly idea. Although a lot of people would argue with that and say it was a very silly idea.

I expect the reason they'd argue with it is that it's so hard to get people to go to the theatre in areas of intense population, to do it here, where there aren't so many people, must make it difficult to fill the seats.

Well, sometimes it's not. I mean, if I have David Helfgott here it's bursting at the seams, and it is a wonderful experience that no one will ever forget. And everyone ... and the same thing with the laser show. There is a great difficulty in that everyone is fighting for their tourists here. I mean Port Douglas is, you know, 'Don't let the tourists out of here', you know. We've got to keep them here, because obviously that's money, and everybody is fighting for the dollar now. I mean it's become much more ... I think probably people are much more concentrated on trying to keep their money working for them and making ... there is so much more ability to have money working for you, because there's so much more information about how to do it. And I think people have also become fascinated by the Internet and other things, but they'll get back to real people in the end. It has never been that the theatre ... Okay, troughs and peaks: this is a trough. Finally people are, you know, sort of like really flesh and blood, and when there's one sitting in front of you, it's different from a shadow. Or a little tiny screen. Maybe we'll be able to move people three dimensionally into different spaces, but there's still the fascination of a flesh and blood person doing it for you.

Theatres require a lot of financial backing. How did you organise that?

[laughs] Well, actually the Queensland government gave me some. They gave me a hundred thousand dollars. And there was a huge amount put in by other people, like Peter Shaffer and Tony Shaffer and my mother. I'd been left some money. My mother had said to me ... That's actually the reason basically behind the whole thing, was that when my mum died she said (sic), 'I'm ...' and she did have everything sorted out, even with all those children and grandchildren and everything, that we were all left a certain amount of money. She said, 'Don't buy a car dear, or something like that. Do something with it that's worthwhile'. So that was the first money that went into it. And then it's been a sort of [laughs] gaping mouth ever since. But I mean the last two years it's sort of paid for itself, but that was with a huge effort and a great deal of work by very few people: volunteers, people that helped me. There are people who've become besotted by making something like this work. I'm sort of one of them but there are others. And people do volunteer and love being here. And I think really ... I mean, one can be a dreamer and an idiot, and I don't think that I care about whether people think I'm that.

When you look back through your life, and all the different enterprises that you've been involved in, what part of your personality do you think is involved in that desire to gather together a small group of people to do something different?

Oh, look, I've never thought of it like that, but you may be right. Um, I suppose it could be that that's what my childhood was like, with my mother and father and all those children. I mean my mother had all sorts of children living with us as well as her children, and helped them, and gave them lots of stuff. And I suppose it's ... I don't know. I really never actually examined it properly. I don't really feel that I need people round me. I'm perfectly happy by myself and I look forward to a time when I don't have to do all this. I wonder if I will have withdrawal symptoms. I don't know. But I have lots of other things I love doing. I mean I like writing and I like painting. And I never feel lonely. And I have all sorts of dogs that won't leave me alone, and sit on me and I don't really feel lonely ever. So I don't think it's to do with me wanting people around me. I know it's not that. I don't know.

You have a strong idea here of hospitality. Where does...

... that comes from everything, I suppose: from my family, and also that's part of the whole tradition of what I have, of my philosophical tradition, that everybody should have the best you can give, as well as you can make it, because after all, that's right, isn't it? I mean if you start being mingy (sic) about people who are sitting at the same table as you, you'd be a pretty paltry, little person. I don't think that's ... It's silly. I mean if it's there - it's better, it's nice. Why not?

[end of tape]

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