Nationality: Australian. Born: Frederic Alan Schepisi in Melbourne, Victoria, 26 December 1939. Education: Briefly attended seminary school. Family: Married 1) Joan Ford, 1960, four children; 2) casting director Rhonda Finlayson, 1973, two children; 3) Mary Rubin, 1984, one child. Career: Director, producer, and writer at Carden Advertising, Melbourne, from 1955; television production manager, Paton Advertising Service, Melbourne, 1961–64; Victorian manager of Cinesound Productions, Melbourne, 1964–65; managing director of The Film House, Melbourne, making advertising shorts and documentaries, 1965–79 (chairman from 1979); first feature, The Devil's Playground, won six Australian Film Institute awards, 1976; moved to United States, 1979; returned to Australia to make A Cry in the Dark, 1988; Governor of the Australian Film Institute. Awards: Best Director, Australian Film Awards, for The Devil's Playground, 1976. Address: P.O. Box 317, South Melbourne VIC 3205, Australia. Agent: c/o Sam Cohn, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
The Party (short)
"The Priest" episode of Libido
The Devil's Playground (+ sc, pr)
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (+ sc, pr)
A Cry in the Dark (Guilty by Suspicion; Evil Angels)
The Russia House (+ pr)
Mr. Baseball (+ co-pr)
Six Degrees of Separation (+ co-pr)
I.Q. (+ co-pr)
By SCHEPISI: articles—
Interview in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1978.
"Le sauvage qui n'avait pas été enfant," an interview with V. Amiel and others, in Positif (Paris), February 1983.
Interview with M. Magill in Films in Review (New York), January 1984.
Interview with B. Lewis in Films and Filming (London), December 1985.
Interview in Screen International (London), 4 January 1986.
"Dialogue on Film: Fred Schepisi," in American Film (Washington D.C.), July/August 1987.
"The Making of Evil Angels," interview with P. Hawker in CinemaPapers (Melbourne), November 1988.
"Fred Schepisi," interview with S. Murray in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), August 1990.
On SCHEPISI: books—
Tulloch, John, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative, and Meaning, Sydney and London, 1982.
Hall, Sandra, The New Australian Cinema in Review, Adelaide, 1985.
Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan, editors, An Australian FilmReader, Sydney, 1985.
Mathews, Sue, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directorsabout the Australian Film Revival, Ringwood, Australia, 1987.
McFarlane, Brian, Australian Cinema 1970–85, London, 1987.
On SCHEPISI: articles—
Bromby, Robin, "Test for Australia," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1979.
Stratton, D., "Man of Plenty," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March 1986.
Taitz, N., "Fred Schepisi Puts Gossip on Trial," in New York Times, 6 November 1988.
Lewis, B., article in Films & Filming (London), May 1989.
Matthews, T., article in Box Office (Hollywood), November 1990.
Powers, P.R.W., "A Conversation with Bruce Smeaton," in Soundtrack!, September 1991.
Koch, N., "No Tea, No Sympathy," in New York Times, 23 August 1992.
Schiff, Stephen, "A Cinematic Gallant," in New Yorker, 20 December 1993.
Kelleher, E., "Schepisi Expands Varied Career via Six Degrees," in Film Journal (New York), January/February 1994.
Segnocinema (Vicenza), July/August 1995.
* * *
More than any other director of the Australian new wave, Fred Schepisi reflects, in his deal-making expertise, his emphasis on production values, even in his choice of New York as an adoptive base, the values of his home city, Melbourne, traditionally Australia's capital of political conservatism, old money, the church, and the law.
Schepisi's first two features assaulted Australia's endemic provincialism. The Devil's Playground, a story of sexual repression and dead belief set in a Catholic seminary, is based on Schepisi's 18 adolescent months in a monastery. (The theme was rehearsed in The Priest, his episode of the sketch film Libido, written by lapsed Catholic novelist Thomas Keneally.) The film's gloomy, sensual elegance is typical of Schepisi's later work, but his adolescent hero's moral and religious doubts are dealt with sketchily. Schepisi prefers to emphasize the celibate staff's problems with sex and drink, especially in a memorable scene in which priest Arthur Dignam spies on naked girls at a public swimming pool.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, again based on Thomas Keneally's work, is a period drama concerning the true story of nineteenth-century renegade aboriginal Jimmie Governor, who revolted against the dehumanization of his race at the hands of whites. Schepisi's use of landscape echoes the westerns of Anthony Mann, underlining the similarities between his film and Hollywood's pro-Indian dramas like Broken Arrow and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. In a film that, like Schepisi's later A Cry in the Dark, mixes, sometimes uneasily, social protest with wide screen melodrama, an inexperienced Tommy Lewis rampages bloodily but unconvincingly across rural Australia as the ill-used part-aboriginal driven to massacre by corruption in law, religion, and the state.
A highly successful producer of TV commercials and documentaries, the pragmatic Schepisi conformed more comfortably than most Australian directors to Hollywood. Though his first American production, the revenge western Barbarosa, has all the earmarks of a test piece, he extracted good performances from an aging Gilbert Roland and the project's co-producers, Willie Nelson and a famously aggressive Gary Busey. ("I am the first director he hasn't destroyed," Schepisi said proudly.) Schepisi proved equally decisive in Ice Man, a piece of Green science-fiction in which John Lone's defrosted Neanderthal beguiles technocrat Tim Hutton with earth magic and Ice Age mythology.
Schepisi's first hit was an adaptation of David Hare's play Plenty. As the ex-Resistance heroine who finds only disillusionment in Britain's post-war affluence, Meryl Streep replaced Kate Nelligan, who created the role on stage. The casting turned Plenty into a star vehicle, winning international success at the cost of Hare's more precise political arguments, though Schepisi, as impatient as only an Australian can be with the British, manipulates Sir John Gielgud, Charles Dance, and especially Ian McKellen in waspish parodies of imperial privilege.
Confirmed now as a technician able to tame any project or performer, Schepisi made Roxanne, a comedy version of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, reset in the Pacific Northwest as a vehicle for comic Steve Martin. In the wake of its enormous success, he returned to Australia to film A Cry in the Dark (Evil Angels), the sensational true story of a young mother's trial and imprisonment for infanticide. Lindy Chamberlain insisted a wild dog had stolen her baby Azaria from Ayers Rock, one of Australia's most famous desert tourist sites. But the lack of a body, combined with Lindy's own unusual religious affiliations—she was a Seventh Day Adventist—fueled rumors that the child had been sacrificed in some arcane rite. She was freed only after investigators decisively discredited the forensic evidence.
In a typical calculated risk, Schepisi cast Meryl Streep as Lindy and used the film to reprise The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Australia itself becomes the villain, and Chamberlain was portrayed as another victim—like Blacksmith and the boy of The Devil's Playground—of national bigotry and ignorance. A Cry in the Dark depicts Australia's press as vulgar and meretricious, and its police as malicious and bumbling. Far from resenting either the imported star or the national slur, Australians greeted the film with enthusiasm, and the Streep name guaranteed a modest international success.
Schepisi debated further Australian-based projects, but with the local industry's financial base crumbling in the financial freeze of the late 1980s, he returned to New York (though much of the film was shot on location in Moscow) to direct another in his growing string of high-budget international projects, John le Carré's The Russia House. Schepisi has evolved into a proficient director whose recent films, while made on big budgets with international stars, are for the most part not nearly as interesting as his early-career work in Australia. The Russia House, which starred Sean Connery and Michele Pfeiffer, is an uneven spy drama; conversely, I.Q., with Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, and Walter Matthau, is a lightly likable fantasy-romance in which a fictionalized Albert Einstein plays cupid for his brainy niece.
Mr. Baseball features Tom Selleck as a spoiled, aging American baseball star who goes to play in Japan. The film's production was controversial in that it originally was intended strictly as a comedy. But when the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company acquired MCA, Inc., the owner of Universal Pictures (the film's releasing company), Mr. Baseball became a more serious, complex film about an American hero who must become humbled and learn to accept Japanese customs before he is allowed success. Schepisi's involvement with Mr. Baseball seems incidental; it is a well-directed film, to be sure, but then again it would be no matter what its ultimate storyline or point of view.
The theme of relations between peoples of different cultures is continued in Six Degrees of Separation, among Schepisi's better post-Australian films. It is a provocative version of John Guare's play, in which a well-off Manhattan couple is taken in by a gracious young con artist who eases himself into their household by pawning himself off as the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Schepisi does an especially fine job of capturing the setting's upper-class urban ambiance and various New York City vistas.
—John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman