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The Eye of the Storm brings Fred Schepisi to RiverRun Film Festival

by Mark Burger

It’s been too long — six years, to be precise — since filmmaker Fred Schepisi’s last project, and he’s not arguing. “Absolutely,” he said, “I agree with that!” He’s hardly been inactive during that time, but it was the screen version of Patrick White’s 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm that saw him return to the director’s chair.

Charlotte Rampling stars as Elizabeth Hunter, an ailing matriarch determined to die on her own terms and in her own time. Her grown children (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) have rushed to her bedside, but are too consumed in their own personal problems to be of much comfort. It’s also clear that they have inherited many of their neuroses directly from their mother, who often put her own interests (and whims) ahead of theirs when they were young.

The film has been a major success in its homeland, earning 11 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award nominations, including Best Film, Best Actor (Rush), Best Actress (Davis and Rampling both), Best Supporting Actor (John Gaden), Best Supporting Actress (Helen Morse) and Best Director.

The End of the Storm will be screened Saturday at 7 p.m. as the closing-night film for the 14th annual RiverRun International Film Festival in the Main Theatre at the School of Filmmaking’s ACE Exhibition Complex on the UNCSA campus (1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem).

“I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he said. “The last time I made a film in Australia was 22 years ago, and the crew was exhilarated to work on something of substance and quality, and contributed so much. Never underestimate the impact of a positive crew.”

As for the cast, “They’re all supreme actors,” he said. “They’re the cream of the stage, especially in Australia.”

The Eye of the Storm marks the first film based on any of the 12 novels penned by White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Schepisi was an admirer even before the film came his way. “He has written some pretty amazing novels,” he said, adding that his writing style tended to frustrate screenwriters. “They’re written almost as stream of consciousness, with meditative tangents that take the story up another stream and in another direction before returning.”

Schepisi admitted that translating White’s style to the screen is “not easy, but the intent comes through.”

Many of Schepisi’s films have been based on novels, books or plays.

Some were adapted by other authors (Tom Stoppard for John le Carre’s The Russia House, Judy Morris for The Eye of the Storm), the original author (John Guare for Six Degrees of Separation) and some by Schepisi himself (A Cry in the Dark, Last Orders).

His films tend to be popualed by distinctive, well-realized characters and tend to balance multiple story elements. The Eye of the Storm balances humor with pathos throughout, with both the story and the characters unfolding.

“I’ve gravitated to that,” he said, “but it’s always about the humanity to me. I like [my films] to be like life, and life is never simple.”

Along with Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce, Roger Donaldson, Bruce Beresford and George Miller, Schepisi emerged during Australia’s filmmaking renaissance in the 1970s. His first two features, The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), both of which he scripted and directed, were internationally acclaimed and enjoyed healthy arthouse runs in the United States.

His first studio film was the 1982 Western Barbarosa, which starred Willie Nelson and Gary Busey. Not unlike some of his subsequent films, it was better received critically than financially. The science-fiction drama Iceman was released in 1984, followed by the sleeper hit Roxanne (1987), a contemporary romantic comedy adapted from Cyrano de Bergerac by star Steve Martin. (Daryl Hannah played Roxanne.)

The true-crime drama A Cry in the Dark (1988) earned Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance as Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman tried for the death of her infant daughter, whom she claimed was taken from their tent by voracious dingos while on a camping holiday. The case is arguably the most notorious of 20th-century Australia, and continues to be hotly debated there.

The Eye of the Storm marks Schepisi’s first film since the star-studded 2005 HBO mini-series “Empire Falls,” adapted by Richard Russo’s from his novel, which earned six Emmy nominations (including one for Schepisi’s direction), with a win for Paul Newman, in his final on-camera role, as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie.

“That was a pleasure,” Schepisi said, “and it’s always helps to have Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward involved because other people tend to fall into place.”

Those people included Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Theresa Russell, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright Penn, Estelle Parsons and Dennis Farina. Schepisi has always been praised as an actor’s director, and The Eye of the Storm gave him the opportunity to work with his daughter Alexandra, who plays Elizabeth’s maid Cherry Cheeseman. “She’s fantastic,” he praised, “and we were very aware of the pitfalls.”

Not wanting to be accused of nepotism, he recused himself from casting the role and allowed the other producers to do so. “At first, she wanted to call me ‘Mr. Schepisi’ instead of Dad, but that lasted two days,” he chuckled.

Schepisi divides his time between New York and his native Melbourne, and including Alexandra he’s the proud father of seven children.

At present, however, no grandchildren. “My children are hard-hearted,” he joked. “Thus far, they’ve denied me that privilege, but we’ll see.”

Tickets are $10 and reservations are strongly suggested. Schepisi is scheduled to attend the screening in person. For more information about the festival, call 336.724.1502 or visit the official website: 2012.riverrunfilm.com/. The official Fred Schepisi website is: www.fredschepisi.com/

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