Throughout a career that’s lasted almost four decades, Australian director Fred Schepisi has faced two problems: No one knows how to pronounce his name (it’s SKEP-see), and very few people outside of Australia know who he is, even if they’re familiar with his work. Schepisi has steered Meryl Streep to an Oscar nomination for “A Cry in the Dark,” did the same for Stockard Channing in “Six Degrees of Separation,” and nabbed a Golden Globe (best motion picture made for TV) for “Empire Falls.” Among the dozen and a half films he’s directed are “Roxanne,” “Last Orders,” and “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.”
Schepisi, 74, a dapper gent with a twinkle in his eye, a big smile, and a gentle laugh, was in Boston earlier this month to introduce his new film, “Words and Pictures” (opening here Friday), at AARP’s Movies for Grownups Festival. It’s a witty character study focusing on the rocky relationship between two head-butting prep school faculty members: the loquacious and often drunk English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and the usually silent, arthritis-inflicted art instructor Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). The story looks at their debate over which is more important, words (him) or pictures (her).
Sitting in a green room at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center shortly before taking part in a Q&A session, Schepisi pointed out that although most of his films had to do with people facing personal crises, they were also all quite different.
“I’m always looking for something that kind of gets your juices going,” he said of choosing different projects. “I like to learn something while I’m doing it, and not go down the same road all the time.”
Q. How did “Words and Pictures” come to you?
A. Out of the blue. Curtis Burch, a first-time producer, liked the script. He was a real fan of my films, and he showed it to me. I liked it. I thought there were pitfalls to be avoided, and possibilities to be explored, and said, “Yeah, let’s go for it.”
Q. That was more than five years ago. Why did it take so long?
“I like to learn something while I’m doing it, and not go down the same road all the time,” said Fred Schepisi, on his choice of film projects
A. It’s exceptionally difficult to get money together. The money was dependent on two good names. We got Clive Owen early on. We were after Juliette, but she sidestepped us, so we got somebody else — I won’t reveal that name. Unfortunately for 18 months we couldn’t get Clive and the other person’s schedule to synch up. In the end I said one of you has to go. And by then Juliette had changed her mind, so I went back to her.
Q. You’ve written some scripts on your own. This time you’re working with one by Gerald Di Pego. What’s the first thing you do with someone else’s script?
A. You ask yourself, “Are there any clichés here?” Then you sit down and sort of get inside the script. You’ve gotta like it and then you’ve gotta eviscerate it, and then you put it back together. You ask a lot of questions on your own. Often what’s on the surface doesn’t matter. It’s what’s underneath it all that matters. So you get ideas and you both work together and fire up one another. When it’s a writer as good as Gerald, it’s gotta go back to him so he can put it in his voice, and the film stays in the one voice. That’s important.
Q. You’ve said before that when you make a film, you first have discussions with your actors, then put them together to see how they interact, go through a table reading, then have a couple of weeks of rehearsals. What happens when you all arrive on the set?
A. I try never to be visible to the actors, but a lot of them kind of treat me as their audience; they play to the camera, but they’re aware of me. I’ve always got things I can say to them after a scene to refresh it for them, if they need it — twisting them around a little bit here and there, making them project a little, making sure they’re not repeating what they’ve done before. But I try to put my preconceptions aside, and just receive it as what I’m seeing right there.
Q. You’ve worked in genres from drama to comedy to sports (“Mr. Baseball”) to westerns (“Barbarosa”). Any others you’d like to tackle?
A. I’m going to do a musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” It was on Broadway and is a fabulous musical that sort of takes the Mickey out of musicals, while enjoying being a musical. You’re led through it by this lonely bugger who can’t quite deal with the world, so he escapes into ’20s musicals. He listens to them and they come to life for him. We’ve got Geoffrey Rush in it, and Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway interested, and possibly Barbra Streisand. We’ll see.