Australian director Bill Bennett suffered at the hands of corporate Hollywood, but recovered to make the innovative `Kiss or Kill'.
One day, a few years ago, the Australian film-maker Bill Bennett was on location, sitting in a shed, somewhere deep in the New South Wales outback. He had only his assistant-director for company. The rest of the cast and crew were away at a nearby town, picking up supplies.

Bennett's companion was assiduously sharpening the blade of a long-handled hunting knife on a stone. He looked up, caught Bennett's eye, held the knife in the air, and, "as deadpan as you like, he told me that he was going to kill me and bury me under the floorboards, and that nobody would know".

Bennett, clearly used to recounting this particular campfire yarn, pauses for effect. "I couldn't tell if he was joking! For a moment, I just couldn't tell. I made a rapid reassessment of what I knew about this man and why I considered him a friend. I came to the conclusion that I didn't know him at all."

This macabre little incident inspired Bennett's new film, Kiss or Kill. The moral, as Bennett sees it, is that regardless of how well you think you understand somebody, there always remains a slight doubt about what makes that person tick. "Everybody has their secrets and there are some things they will never tell you." He winks theatrically.

Kiss or Kill might best be described as an Aussie road movie in the tradition of Godard's Breathless or Terrence Malick's Badlands. It comes complete with girl, guy, gun and long, long stretches of open highway. Nikki and Al are lovers and small-time hustlers. When a routine "sting" goes wrong, they flee. Everywhere they go, they leave corpses behind them. She might be the killer, he might be the killer - Bennett doesn't let us know.

Neither character is at all likable. They don't feel any compunction about drugging people, robbing them, and making off in their cars. They are delinquents, but on screen, the casting can't help but make them seem sympathetic. Nick and Al are played by Frances O'Connor and Matt Day, both ingenuous, fresh-faced youngsters who look as if they have just stepped out of the supporting cast of Home and Away.

Bennett is true to the spirit of Godard. He fills the film with jump- cuts and does everything he can to ensure a reckless pace. "I wanted to make something low-budget, fast and passionate, and have fun with the camera," he explains.

Perhaps his most radical decision was to dispense with soundtrack music. "I thought I could create a greater sense of place and greater tension without it."

Bennett refused to have conventional auditions ("that establishes a master/servant relationship between director and actor which I find offensive"). Nor did he write much down: the dialogue was largely improvised. Like Britain's Mike Leigh, he believes in lengthy rehearsals during which "the actors develop such an intimate idea of the characters they are playing that the words will come naturally". Bennett produced Kiss or Kill himself. He even put up his own home as collateral to get it made. Despite the financial constraints, he found the experience liberating after what befell him during his recent, unhappy stint in Hollywood. "At least I wasn't dealing with a phalanx of producers and studio people."

There is a long tradition of Australian film-makers decamping to Hollywood after establishing their reputations on home soil. Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and, most recently, Baz Luhrmann have all made movies for the big American studios in recent years. Bennett seemed to be following in their wake.

One might have thought that a film-maker whose previous features include Mortgage, a study in home-owner angst, and Malpractice would have been alert to the corporate wiles of Hollywood. Bennett, however, was hoodwinked. "I realised too late that they didn't want a director at all. They wanted somebody who could get the shots so they could market and package Sandra Bullock. I'm still angry at myself for being stupid enough to have done the dance."

The film in question was Two if by Sea (rechristened Stolen Hearts for its British release), a romantic fable scripted by the stand-up comedian Denis Leary. Bennett was offered the director's job by the legendary producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who had been impressed by his 1994 comedy, Spider and Rose.

He describes Simpson, who died not long after the meeting from a drugs overdose, as "erudite but profane", while he classes Bruckheimer as the most professional producer he has worked with. Bennett realised immediately that there were problems with Leary's screenplay, but he warmed to the material. "I thought I could do something with it." Sadly, matters soon turned pear-shaped. Simpson and Bruckheimer pulled out, and Bennett was left to make the film for new producers on a much smaller budget. "It was the most god-awful experience for me. I came back to Australia feeling like I had been gang-raped. For a long time, I thought I would never make another film." Eventually, he emerged to make Kiss or Kill. The film was an immediate critical and commercial success, garnering 11 nominations for the Aussie Oscars and recouping its costs within a week.

Buoyed up by its reception, Bennett is about to embark on a new, much more ambitious feature, In a Savage Land, which will be shot on remote islands off the coast of New Guinea. The main protagonists are anthropologists who turn up in the South Pacific just before the outbreak of the Second World War to study the sexual mores of the local tribe, but, of course, Bennett's camera is trained equally closely on them. It's his chance to prove that he can make an epic romance ... with no help from Hollywood.

The 4th Australian Film Festival at the Barbican Screen opens tonight with a gala screening of `Kiss or Kill' and then tours to the Manchester Cornerhouse and the Edinburgh Filmhouse. The film will get a UK release this summer.

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