Ahead of a Melbourne International Film Festival screening of his 1986 cult classic 'Dogs In Space' and an accompanying documentary, TREVOR BLOCK caught up with director/producer Richard Lowenstein in his St Kilda office to discuss the good old days.
You’ve been working on a restored version of Dogs In Space, which is being readied for imminent DVD release. You must be pleased to be getting it out.
Yes, I am. I’m pleased that I’m finally able to do it, legally and all that stuff. It’s cost me - me, personally, I mean- a hell of a lot of money. It’s not like you can just go to a DVD company and have them say, “Yeah, we’ll do it. We’ll spend 50 grand on restoring this and putting it out.” So I’m glad that I’ve done it myself, I felt it was worth it. Most places would have done it on the cheap, you know, not put it in HD. They just would have done it as economically as possible. But I felt that, considering for the past 20 years it hasn’t been available on anything but bad VHS tapes, it should be done right. Though having said that, we actually used a copy of the VHS version as a colour guide and so on for the work we did. At the time I thought the VHS looked pretty good but then you put it up in a large format and look closely, and it’s like, “Oh, Jesus.”
It was great to be able to put the original negative up and scan it in at high definition. I probably wouldn’t say that about all my films. Like, say, Strikebound, which is now about 30 years old. I don’t think I would have spent so much time and energy on that. But when I saw Dogs in high definition, I did feel that it has a kind of timeless quality, and it really was worth making the effort to fix it up.
There’s some additional footage, but that’s been put into the Dog Food documentary, not into the film. There was a 16mm crew on set while we were filming, and just by luck, pure coincidence, we found their footage 20 years later. There is one scene missing from the film, that I wish I could find a copy of, but there hasn’t been anything added. Actually if I did find that missing scene, I’m not sure I would have put it back in. It was a subplot about Gary Foley’s character, having an affair with the blonde rock-climbing girl. They’re in the film as it is now, but there was a subplot where she was cheating on him and he comes home one day and terrorises her with a knife. The punks are all just sitting there, rigid, as she runs through the house bleeding and screaming and he staggers into the room holding this bloody knife up. To give Gary credit, he did all that, he did it well. It was a good scene, but it seemed to be too long in the initial release and too confrontational.
I watched a crappy VHS bootleg of the film on the weekend, to prepare for this talk, and to me it didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip at all. And, you know, I bought Bowie tickets, and saw the Ears play.
It’s a fantasy, really, a mid-’80s fantasy. Which has kind of become clearer in making the documentary, which has a section in it about the real Bowie queue at the MCG, with all the photographs I could find of it, and another section about the Crystal Ballroom, with all the original footage we could find. I wasn’t in the Bowie queue, but I was very much at the Ballroom. It’s now very obvious that when we made the film, we were recreating that earlier era, through the rose-coloured glasses of both the cinema and of the mid-’80s. As Ollie Olsen says in the documentary, people are dressed a lot better in Dogs In Space than they actually did at the time. We were heading in that direction, but when you see the original footage from the late ’70s, it was a real mixed bag back then. As opposed to the post-punk thing of, you know, looking pretty. In the early days, it was predominantly a very suburban crowd and it was a much more suburban look.
I remember standard Ballroom wear for a lot of people being sneakers, jeans, a band T-shirt and an op-shop suit coat with a few badges on the lapels.
Yes, you can see in the old footage that for some people it was sort of like, “I’m waving the flag for the punk movement, but I’m not going to do anything too extravagant.” And then you had people like Sam [Sejavka] who was trying to be a bit more out there and outrageous. There were a few people who would bleach or dye their hair and give themselves strange haircuts. But, especially in the early days, they were very few and far between. And if you saw someone walking down the street, who looked a bit odd, the chances were that you knew them. And there were a lot of people who went to the Ballroom just for a look at this new place, maybe hoping for a fun night out, you know, the reason anyone goes to a club. It was pretty obvious at the time we made the film that – even though we weren’t thinking consciously about it – we were exaggerating the look and feel of things a bit, both to suit the time we were in by then and also for the needs of cinema. I mean, poor old Primitive Calculators were asked to wear berets onstage for their appearance for some reason. Although to their credit they absolutely refused, so at least they look the same in the film as they did back in the day.
I think the very fact that the film and its soundtrack existed, that they were out there to be found, kept alive the music and the memory of a lot of the bands featured.
Well, I would never have thought that, until I sat down at this very table with the Primitive Calculators to talk to them for the documentary. At the time, in the late ’70s, I kind of idolised them, and that carried through until we made the film. I always thought they and the other bands were going to go down in the record books, in the annals of music history. And so they came in to talk, and initially, Stuart was very abrasive, as he can be, but that’s just him. He was all, “We weren’t one of the ‘Little Bands’, we were a real band”, which is true. When people talk about the “Little Bands” scene they often mention the Primitive Calculators, but they were a bit apart from that, as well as being one of the great punk bands of the era. But, once he calmed down, he was – well, they all were – incredibly effusive about having been in the movie – even though a film like Dogs wasn’t in their mindset at any point in time. It was too mainstream for them. But, that one day of shooting that they came and did, which I think was only half a day actually, has made them some kind of icons in the subculture hall of fame. And they said, you know, that 20 years later they have people emailing them, or approaching them in the street, saying things like, “You people changed our lives.” And when they ask “Well, how did you hear us, hear our two little independent releases?”, the answer is always, “I saw you and heard you in that movie, Dogs In Space, and then I went and chased up everything else I could find: the soundtrack, bootlegs, whatever.” So at the time, they were a bit hesitant about appearing, but I think now they realise it worked out well for them. I haven’t seen them since they reformed, though I watched them playing at All Tomorrow’s Parties on YouTube. They told me they didn’t really like doing that. It was a bit too big and “industry” for them. They’ve always preferred playing in little places, hidden in back streets. Although that ATP show, more people probably saw them play at that one gig then ever saw them when they were around back then.
They were one of your favorites first time round, obviously.
Oh, yeah. But having said that, I probably didn’t see them all that often because they didn’t play live much. They rehearsed a lot though, like Wirlywirld. Wirlywirld only played something like 13 shows, but they became legends too. At the time we thought all the bands were just going to keep on playing – even if they did only play now and again. But, of course, a lot of them disappeared and it was all over before it really began.
“There was a feeling that we were onto something new, that really could get us out of the grey huddled masses of the rest of society in 1979.”
Aside from having to listen to the music while doing the restoration work on the film, do you still listen to it much?
Oh, yes. I’ve always been keen on Whirlywirld. And you know, I wasn’t averse to [The Boys Next Door’s debut LP] Door, Door either. A lot of people knocked it at the time, but it was when they became the Birthday Party that they lost me. But Whirlywirld were always the ones for me. I mean, their music is in the movie itself, over the end credits. And the great thing about Ollie [Olsen], and one of the reasons I asked him to do so much in the movie, is that his songs have always had a feel to them, a kind of mood that fitted in with what we were doing. You’d die to make a video for some of his songs, he uses so many great images, and the rhythms he uses are amazing as well.
I only recently got the Primitive Calculators’ CD, they gave me a copy when they came in. And, you know, you certainly couldn’t just listen to the Ears all the time. They were in the film partly because they were so ridiculous in may ways. And they didn’t ever see themselves as something serious, they were just having fun.
As well as interviewing him for the [Melbourne International Film Festival] documentary [We’re Living on Dog Food], Ollie was one of the people you got in to do a commentary track on the reissue DVD?
Yes, there’s one track that’s me and Ollie, one of me and Andrew De Groot, the cameraman, and one of [original Ears members] Chuck Meo and Tim McLaughlan, who give a bit of insight from the Ears’ perspective as well. Funnily enough, one of the reasons that the documentary happened is that people who had heard about the reissue were ringing me up and saying they wanted to be on the narration. But technically there’s a problem, you can’t have more than three commentary tracks. So the documentary idea came about. Sam was one of the first people we got in to interview for it, and him talking, him and Mick Lewis, really got me thinking that there are were actually a lot of other peoples’ stories out there. And those original stories, that the film was based on, were far more interesting than the film itself. So we thought, well, let’s get Rowland [S Howard] in, and let’s get Ollie in, and let them tell their oral histories, their stories of the time.
What do you think that people who are newcomers to the film, to those stories, will take from the film and the documentary?
Well, to be honest I’m much more interested in the documentary at the moment. But I think that what comes through in Dogs In Space is that it’s about a band that wasn’t necessarily all that great, and that’s the point of putting them in it. You know, I wasn’t making a movie about the Models, or the Boys Next Door or anything. And what also comes across is the spirit of the times, the enthusiasm and the excitement. There was a feeling that we were onto something new, that really could get us out of the grey huddled masses of the rest of society in 1979. I think that feeling comes through in both of them, actually. Hopefully, people will come away from them with a taste of what it feels like when a subculture appears, or ideas go through a renaissance. Like when music and culture gave us the Beats, who were one of the first distinct subcultures of the 20th century, and who were initially underground and out of the mainstream. And then you had the hippies, who very quickly became part of the mainstream. But I’m sure both of them started as small eclectic groups, with the same spirit. And they must have been very exciting, with new music, new art and new ideas. That’s what I think both films have captured, that feeling of excitement that you get when you are on the cutting edge.
I don’t think you can underestimate how conservative Australian society was back at that time. And also, there was a bit of a technological revolution going on, with the introduction of cheap synthesizers. Of course, synthesizers had been around for a while, but they were these huge clunky things and they were hugely expensive – only people like ELO and Yes could afford them. But for the first time, you could buy a Korg for less than 1000 dollars, and pretty much anyone could play one. I think those Korgs did a lot to change Australian pub music. They transformed it, made this strange new wave or post-punk possible.
So you had this anti-conservative feeling and this new technology, and a lot of the members of this very small subculture jumped onto both, and got very excited. And that’s what I’m hoping to show.
Back then it felt like a lot of the world was asleep, or just didn’t notice, and so no one minded when a few kids took over the back room of a little pub to play music. As opposed to now, where things are regulated, and entertainment is a very big business.
I sometimes get the feeling – and I may be talking as an outsider, because I’m no longer in any kind of music scene, unlike someone like say [Tote proprietor] Bruce Milne, who is still very heavily involved – I get the feeling that because there are less and less boundaries on behavior, people just keep pushing further, looking for the limits. Things like the tattoos and the extreme piercings, it’s like how far do you have to go, or can you go, to be an outsider, to be seen as a rebel? Dyeing your hair just doesn’t do it anymore. I’m not against it, I think it’s fine, but it is like there’s some kind of vacuum out there, and that people have run out of ways to rebel, because rebellion has become mainstream. In a way, perhaps you could theorise that a new form of conservatism is the only way to be different. Not necessarily politically, but visually.
I agree with Phillip Brophy, when in his interview for the documentary, he says that he always finds some excitement in music, and it’s when you start to think that there is nothing new any more, that there is nothing exciting any more, it’s a sign that you’ve really lost it. But then again, music has always been interested in regurgitating it’s own past every so often. But I have no idea what the current state of young peoples’ musical culture is like these days.
All I can say is that the times I lived through were great times, take what you want from it, and let’s treat it seriously as a part of our musical history. This stuff never got on Countdown, as you know, and there’s only one book written about it, Clinton Walker’s Inner City Sound, and while Nick Cave recently got inducted to the ARIA Hall of Fame, I was in complete agreement with him when he said all his bandmates should have been inducted too. Any why weren’t they? Why isn’t someone like Ollie Olsen in there? Because they didn’t sign to the big labels, they didn’t play the game, the way that someone like Ross Wilson did. And so they’re not recognised and Ollie has to work in a record store, and has had to fight to get the royalties he’s owed.
I wonder if I can chuck a few phrases at you?
[Laughs] Sure, what sort of thing did you have in mind?
Oh, dear [laughs]. “Show us your snatch!” I can’t claim to have written that, my friend Troy did, the guy who actually does the line in the film.
“Are you from the planet Poofter?”
“Or the planet Stupider?” I can’t take credit for that one either, that was something that Chuck Meo used to say. Chuck and Tim, for all their failings as musicians, are really funny guys. Only he could have come up with that line.
“I wrote a song about you.”
“Oh, yeah? What?”
“It’s called ‘Brick Woman.’” That was actually a real song, which Sam wrote about a friend of someone else in the band. I think it was a fairly accurate comment on her physique, from memory but I can’t say any more. Is this a test? The reason I remember all these is not from them being in the film, but from the time when I first heard them being said. That’s why I put them in the film, because they were common lines or sayings from around then.
“How do you know when you had a good time at a party?”
“When you throw your knickers at the wall, and they stick there.” That really happened, that. I remember the real girl who said this, it was outside the Champion Hotel one night, I think after a Little Bands night. I couldn’t stop laughing at it.
A restored version of Dogs In Space will screen at ACMI as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday, August 1, while We’re Livin’ On Dog Food will be shown on Sunday, August 2. They will be released as a double DVD on August 28. For bookings visit www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au.