“Often, I talk to young filmmaking students,” says 59-year-old Australian director, Bill Bennett, on the line to FilmInk. “They say, ‘I really want to make a movie!’ And I say, ‘How much do you really want to make it? Are you prepared to put everything you own on the line to make a movie?’ You’ve really got to dig deep within yourself to ask that question.”
In the mid-nineties, Bill Bennett asked himself that very question in no uncertain terms. And he found the answers. At the time, the director was – to put it succinctly and accurately – fucked. After making a series of tough, gritty, documentary-style dramas (including the likes of A Street To Die, Malpractice, Mortgage and Backlash) throughout the eighties, Bennett’s sunny but emotionally raw 1994 comedy-drama, Spider & Rose (about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a young ambulance driver and his elderly patient), got the filmmaker noticed in Hollywood. Bennett was lured stateside by Warner Bros., and put in charge of the romantic comedy, Two If Sea, starring Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary.
The experience, in short, nearly broke Bennett in half. Bullied by the film’s producers, and creatively marginalised, Bennett – up until that point a filmmaker always wholly in control of his work – had received a body-blow of the most crunching kind. “It wasn’t a fun experience for me,” the director says. “I came back disillusioned with the whole filmmaking process. I’d been so excited about doing a studio film with Warner Bros. Unfortunately, I came back realising that a director is only one part of the manufacturing process for a studio.”
Back in Australia – and with his Hollywood stings and bruises still quietly aching – Bill Bennett burned with a quiet desperation to get his head back in the game. “I really wanted to rediscover the joy of filmmaking,” he says. To get his creative juices flowing, Bennett turned to Kiss Or Kill, a project that had been boiling away for a number of years. “I’d always been intrigued with the notion of two lovers travelling across the country, and each suspecting that the other was a serial killer,” the director says. “The difficulty was about choosing whose point of view to tell the story from. Because in telling the story from one particular point of view, by the nature of doing that, you then reveal who the killer is. That was a really tough technical issue that I had to overcome with the script. I must have written thirty different drafts.”
Bennett had, in fact, almost made the film several years previous, when “a big film company” had responded to the lurid possibilities of the project, and had offered to pony up the finances to get it made. Bennett, however, wasn’t satisfied with where the script for Kiss Or Kill was at that point, and feared that the resultant film would end up a B-grade bottom feeder headed straight to the (then) video store shelf. “I had the very real option of making the film,” the director says. “But I just felt in my bones that if I made that script at that point, it would end up being junk.”
But with the plotting issues of Kiss Or Kill resolved, and the horrors of Two If By Sea behind him, Bennett felt that this Aussie noir had just the right kind of salacious energy to provide the filmmaking spark that he so desperately needed. Kiss Or Kill is the dark, snaking tale of Nikki Davies and Al Fletcher, lovers and small time grifters. When a seemingly by-the-book scam goes bloodily tits-up, leaving a man dead in a hotel room, Nikki and Al hit the road, and head west along the desolate Nullarbor Plain. After spending their first night in a motel, they wake to find that the owner has been murdered. Fleeing further into the desert, they are given shelter by an eccentric couple in an isolated shack…and they soon wind up dead too. With the cops – and an angry ex-footy hero who Nikki and Al’s scam has revealed to be a paedophile – in hot pursuit, these two grifters start to realise that the greatest threat might be the person right next to them.
Bennett knew that Kiss Or Kill was the right project, so much so that he was willing to bet his house on it…literally. Prior to heading stateside for Two If By Sea, Bennett and his wife – film producer, Jennifer Bennett – had sold their family home, open to the possibility that the film might have inspired more work in Hollywood. With the money still in the bank after Bennett’s US tenure was cut abruptly short, the director made the big decision to use the cash to finance Kiss Or Kill. “We had two kids,” Bennett says. “But, at the time, we just felt like we had no choice. If that was the way that we needed to make the film, then that’s what we would do. It was the last of our savings. The house wasn’t worth $2.5 million though, I can assure you that,” Bennett laughs. “It was a very humble little abode, but we figured that it would be enough to work with a reduced crew, and to get the film happening.”
But with the dice in his fist, Bill Bennett was saved from rolling it. When Catriona Hughes, who was the head of The Film Finance Corporation at the time, heard that a highly accomplished filmmaker of Bennett’s standing was about to take such a massive gamble, she took on the metaphorical role of pit boss, and stepped in to call that all bets were off. Explains Bennett: “She called me and said, ‘What’s happening with the movie?’ I said, ‘We’re going to use the money from our house…we’re gonna make this bloody film because I really want to make it.’ And she said – and I remember her exact words – ‘You’re fucking crazy!’”
Hughes suggested that Bennett get in contact with Frank Cox, who was then the head of now long defunct Australian production and distribution company, Newvision Films. Cox loved the project, and stumped up the cash to get it made. “I certainly appreciated Catriona’s support, because she very much believed in the project and very much believed in me,” Bennett says. “It was that belief more than the financial support that I appreciated, because I was determined to make the film, no matter what.”
The budget wasn’t exactly huge, but that was ironically just how Bennett wanted it. “I really wanted to have a very small crew,” the director says. “I basically wanted to shoot the film in a way that would make me rediscover the excitement and thrill of filmmaking. I’d done a big budget Hollywood studio movie, and it hadn’t worked in the way that I wanted it to work. I thought, ‘I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. How can I lose anything more than what I lost on Two If By Sea?’ So I just approached Kiss Or Kill with absolute abandon.”
To play canny con man, Al Fletcher, Bennett tapped young veteran, Matt Day, who had found fame on the popular TV series, A Country Practice, before booking eye catching roles in the successful films, Muriel’s Wedding and Love And Other Catastrophes. Adept at playing the engaging, relatable nice guy, the role of Al marked a major departure for Matt Day. “Clearly, Bill was casting against type by offering me the part, and I didn’t want to let him, or myself, down,” the actor tells FilmInk. “Not many directors are that brave when it comes to casting. I was excited about the role because it was a challenge, particularly as Bill gave us a lot of freedom and input into who these people were going to be. I wouldn’t say that Al was amoral though – he had a moral code, he was devoted to Nikki, and the violence was never unmotivated…violence for violence sake doesn’t interest me. On a psychological level, Al was a believable and sympathetic character.”
For the role of the sexy, tempestuous Nikki Davies, Bennett cast current international star, and then talent-on-the-rise, Frances O’Connor, who was hot off Love And Other Catastrophes (in which she also appeared with Matt Day) and buzzing from the just-wrapped romantic comedy-drama, Thank God He Met Lizzie, in which she starred with Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett. “She’s a very dark character,” O’Connor told FilmInk in 1997 of Kiss Or Kill’s Nikki. “That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment…to really stretch myself, and to be as many things as I can. I’m trying not to get pigeon-holed. It was only after we shot Kiss Or Kill that I went, ‘That’s a big deal’, in terms of the location, the character, and how much input we had into the film through improvisation. We were helping to co-write it in a way. That was a big strain.”
Improvisation. That was a key word on Kiss Or Kill. Rather than a script, Bennett had an extensive story treatment, and he then collaborated with the actors to flesh out their characters, and stir up the film’s dialogue. The director (who has also done training as an actor in order to give him a greater understanding of the processes of his performers) had worked this way on previous films like Backlash and Malpractice, and thought that the energy and immediacy that it inspires would be perfect for Kiss Or Kill. But rather than just flying blindly with no script, Bennett sees improvised film work as an extraordinarily disciplined process.
“What I’ve been trying to do with my improvised films is find a way of blending the spontaneity of documentary with the control of drama,” the director explains. “It’s not like you just move the camera around, and hope that someone will hit the mark. The rehearsal process is not about enacting scenes or trying to lock down dialogue or anything like that; it’s all very fine-brush-stroke character work. You get the actors to a point where there is such an intimate connection with the characters that any choice that they make as that character ceases to be arbitrary. To me, improvisation breaks down when you see the actors searching for choices. In other words, you see the wheels moving, and then you know that it’s improvised. In real life, we don’t do that. My job as a writer/director is, in situations like that, to work with the actors to build the characters so that they understand every single thing that is going through that person’s mind at that point. It’s not like they’ve got a dozen choices; they’ve only got one choice, and that choice is based on who they are, and what’s happening at that moment. That work is very complex, and it’s very detailed. When actors get into a rehearsal for an improvised film, they want to get up and play out scenes. I say, ‘Well, how can you play out scenes if you don’t know who you are?’”
For Matt Day, a veteran of the high turnover world of commercial television, the improvised approach on Kiss Or Kill was nothing short of a thrill. “I wish that I could do it more often,” he says. “Many films would benefit from that kind of improvisational approach. I love doing it, but it never happens. The film industry is very conservative when it comes to the process. Everything has to happen a certain way, right through from story development to post production. Maybe it’s because there’s just so much money at stake these days, or maybe it’s because we have a fairly conservative artistic scene. Also, there aren’t that many directors who would be comfortable involving the actors in the creative process to that extent. It won’t surprise me if I go through the rest of my acting career not working on something as experimental as Kiss Or Kill again, which is a shame.”
Though Day and O’Connor embraced the improvisational approach, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the actors. After having worked in this style before, Bill Bennett let them know about the potential problems right from the get-go. “I said to Matt and Frances, ‘There’s going to be a point in this film when you’re going to be really fucked up and very confused. You’re gonna feel as though you’re driving the ship, but in fact, I’m driving the ship. You’re gonna feel as though you own the characters, but you don’t; I own the characters. This is going to happen, and it’s gonna be painful, because there are going to be times when I take ownership away from you, and you’re gonna become very confused about that.’ That’s exactly what happened, and it happens every time that I do a film like this. The actors feel as though they’re jumping off a tall building, and there is no safety net. But I understood the process enough, and I felt confident enough to know that there would always be a safety net there for them. This was obviously a different way of working for them. Frances got a bit neurotic, and that’s understandable. If anything, her character is meant to be neurotic, so that helps. She’s a very clever performer, and Matt was as well.”
Day found Frances O’Connor to be a tough but always fascinating proposition. “Fran never let a moment slip by unexamined,” he says. “If we disagreed over something, she would argue her point passionately. It was hard work, but of the best kind. Maybe I was coasting a bit at first – which can happen when you’re a young actor with a bit of success – but I certainly wasn’t after a couple of days on set working with her. I couldn’t afford to. We also had a lot of laughs. She has a wicked sense of humour. Fran is one of the best actors to come out of this country, and we’re still close friends. I count myself lucky to have worked with her, and would do so again in a second.”
The shoot itself turned out to be a rough-and-tumble one. Though the cast (which also included the brilliant Chris Haywood and Andrew S. Gilbert as the cops chasing Al and Nikki, as well as Barry Otto, Max Cullen and Barry Langrishe in supporting roles) was game for the challenge, the crew was small and somewhat inexperienced, leading to an occasionally bumpy ride. The remote desert locations added to the hectic vibe. “The shoot was a little chaotic,” says Matt Day. “We were in the desert with a tiny crew with various levels of experience – some had never been on a set before – and Bill was fairly contemptuous of convention. He wasn’t too interested in schedules, or continuity, or pages per day, and other things that can get in the way of what he wanted to achieve. It was refreshing…mostly. We stayed in a hotel that was like the set of a seventies porno – paisley wallpaper, red lampshades, water beds. On days off, we’d pile into a four-wheel-drive and go for an hour or so until we’d find some pristine, deserted beach. Chris Haywood blagged a few crates of free beer from a South Australian brewery, and would be waiting for us at the end of most shoot-days by the hotel pool, manning the BBQ in a Hawaiian shirt, always with a cold beer on hand. It was fast and sometimes a little dangerous, but in the best possible way…again, mostly. I was also excited to be working with legends like Chris, Barry Otto and Max Cullen.”
Though he was under the pump courtesy of the film’s bond company (who feared that he would go over budget because he was lensing on The Nullarbor Plain), Bennett enjoyed the shoot. “I look back on it with a great amount of fondness, probably because I didn’t have the corrosive atmosphere that I had on Two If By Sea,” he laughs. “I hired mountain bikes for me and my family, and sometimes after work, we’d go cycling out into the bush. From that point of view, I remember it being really lovely. I’m very much fed by the geography of a place.”
While Bennett used improvisation to drive the creation and collaboration of Kiss Or Kill, he’d ironically planned out how the film would be cut together in advance, meaning that his eventual splicing of the movie with ace editor, Henry Dangar (Stir, The Crossing, Dead Heart, Spider & Rose), flowed together with relative ease. Though Kiss Or Kill is unconventionally edited – complete with jump cuts and other against-the-grain techniques – it was all mapped out right from the beginning. What wasn’t planned right from the beginning, however, was the film’s unconventional approach to sound. Once the shoot was finished, and Bennett was bunkered down in post-production, the first cut of the film gave the director pause. In a bold and rare-as-hen’s-teeth move, he decided that Kiss Or Kill would work better without a musical score. “There’s not one beat of music in the film,” Bennett says. “I realised that the sound from the desert was more interesting than any soundtrack.”
What this meant, however, was that Bennett and his team had to throw out all of the sound recordings that they’d made during the actual shoot, and then reconstitute the sound from scratch. This involved sending sound recordists back into the desert to collect various ambient noises, which were then stitched together to create the film’s rich, vivid soundscapes. It also involved something else: recreating the entire film through Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR), meaning that all of the actors had to re-tape all of their dialogue in a sound booth, months after they’d performed it on location.
“That was incredibly hard,” says Bennett. “I was always worried that the performances would be compromised. In all my previous work, I’d been absolutely against doing ADR, unless it was technically impossible to use location sound. But what I learned is that ADR is not about trying to recreate the performance; it’s ultimately about mimicry. You can never recreate a performance that comes as a result of a confluence of a whole bunch of other different factors. You can’t do that four months later in a sound suite. But you can mimic what you’ve done. If you’re prepared to put in the work, you can actually enhance a performance. But it was very hard. We would do 100 takes sometimes. There were times when Frances stormed out of the suite saying, ‘I can’t do this’, and we’d have to coax her back in. The whole process was like sticking six-inch needles in your eyeballs.”
Matt Day practically still flinches at the memory. “I’m not a fan of ADR,” he says. “It was very difficult, and I’m still not sure that it was the best thing to do for the film. But Bill was there to direct us, and it was a great learning process, so I’m glad for that.”
Once locked off, Bill Bennett got ready to take Kiss Or Kill into the world. In what initially seemed to be a major coup that then quickly morphed into what mistakenly looked like a big, bad, dark omen, the film was booked to play in a prestigious spot at The Cannes Film Festival, but was bumped at the last minute to make way for Stephan Elliot’s Welcome To Woop Woop. The bad luck, however, seemed to latch onto that apparently cursed film instead.
Kiss Or Kill, meanwhile, screened in the Cannes marketplace instead, where it was quickly snapped up for many territories. “There was no major territory unsold after four days,” says Bennett. In an odd twist, it turned out that if Bennett had actually used his own life savings to bankroll the film, he would have gotten rich very quick off the instant international sales that Kiss Or Kill generated. “Financially, it did very well for Frank Cox and his company, and it did well for Film Australia, the people who backed it,” the director says with no trace of bitterness or regret whatsoever.
Kiss Or Kill was picked up for distribution in the US by the savvy October Films, who brought Bennett, Matt Day and Frances O’Connor to America for a publicity tour. “Fran and I spent two weeks crisscrossing the US promoting the film,” says Matt Day. “I have a box somewhere with a photo of every waiter who brought me room service.” Adds Bennett: “The whole thing was a whirlwind.” That whirlwind continued in Australia, where Kiss Or Kill was a major success at the box office, and also at the AFI Awards, where it picked up five gongs: Best Film, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor, for Andrew S. Gilbert. Matt Day, Frances O’Connor and Chris Haywood all received nominations, as did Bennett’s screenplay. “I thought that it was some really sick joke,” the director laughs. “How did this little movie get so many AFIs? It was a complete surprise. It was gratifying for all the people who had really taken a chance on me, and for the people who had worked so hard for no money. That’s what was really gratifying. I’m only sorry that Frances didn’t pick up an award, because I really felt that her performance deserved it.” Says Matt Day of the AFIs: “It was a mostly enjoyable night. Enough said.”
For all involved, Kiss Or Kill remains a touchstone career moment. When FilmInk spoke to Frances O’Connor upon the 2011 release of her film, The Hunter, we asked the actress to name any particular projects that really stood out as important for her. “Early on, Love And Other Catastrophes and Kiss Or Kill were really important for me,” she replied. “On Kiss Or Kill, we improvised a lot, and I wrote bits that ended up in the film, so that felt very instrumental and creative. The process of that was great, but it was difficult too. Kiss Or Kill really helped me to get overseas as well.”
The actress’ blistering screen presence and combustible sex appeal in Kiss Or Kill saw her quickly catch the eye of international directors and casting agents. “Frances is going to be our next internationally recognised actress alongside Cate Blanchett,” Bennett told FilmInk back in 1997. He wasn’t too far off, with O’Connor eventually starring in acclaimed international films like Mansfield Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Importance Of Being Earnest, and TV’s Mr. Selfridge, The Missing, and Cashmere Mafia.
For Matt Day, Kiss Or Kill showcased the actor’s diversity and impressive range. It proved that he could play a darker character with a harder edge, and his inventive co-creation of grifter, Al Fletcher, was miles away from his other, far sunnier, roles. “It didn’t really change the kind of roles that I was being offered in Australia, which was partially why I felt that I had to move overseas,” Day says. “It certainly opened doors in London, being in a film that had gained international attention.” Day went on to appear in a number of British television projects, as well as local flicks such as Doing Time For Patsy Cline, The Sugar Factory, Muggers and My Year Without Sex. Kiss Or Kill, however, remains one of Matt Day’s finest performances. “It was a great working and learning experience, and I’m very proud of the film,” the actor says. “It’s brave and unconventional…words for any filmmaker to live by!”
On Kiss Or Kill – a strange, daring Australian crime thriller of the first order – Bill Bennett certainly lived by those words, and the whole experience succeeded in breathing dazzling new life into what had previously been a shattered, half-broken man. “I just wanted to make a film that really excited me,” the director says. “Kiss Or Kill brought back my belief in the filmmaking process.”
Many thanks to Bill Bennett and Matt Day for their invaluable assistance in making this feature story possible.