Bad Boy Bubby, one of Australia’s greatest cult movies, makes a welcome return to the Blu-ray format this month. STACK caught up with writer-director Rolf de Heer to discuss his provocative, hilarious and truly unique masterpiece.  

Those who’ve experienced 14 days of interminable COVID quarantine should spare a thought for Bad Boy Bubby.

Confined to a squalid bedsit for 35 years with his slovenly mother – who has convinced him that the air outside is toxic – Bubby’s insular existence consists of tormenting a feral cat and snacking on cockroaches. But then his absent ‘Pop’ shows up, triggering a chain of events that sees the innocent man-child venture into the outside world for the very first time…

It’s perhaps fitting that one of Australia’s greatest cult movies has resurfaced at a time when isolation has become a social norm, returning to Blu-ray in a new 2K restoration under Umbrella Entertainment’s ‘Beyond Genres’ banner – a worthy addition to the label given it’s a film that virtually defies classification.

“Beyond Genres is very good,” laughs writer-director Rolf de Heer. “I think they’ve found its niche.”

So, how would he classify the film?

“I don’t think I would try,” he offers. “I think it’s one of a kind and I don’t know why we have to classify it. Some people see it as a comedy, some as a tragedy, some as this, that and the other. It is what it is.”

“Be still.”

De Heer realised he had created something unique following a screening at the Venice Film Festival in 1993, where it won the Grand Special Jury Prize.

“I had days of media afterwards and dealing with that media allowed me to understand that there was something about the film that I was probably never going to get again with anything I ever did. These hardened journalists were gushing about it, or unable to interview me because thoughts of the film were coming back to them and they were practically starting to weep. That sort of stuff. And you think, ‘This is unbelievable!'”

In the decades since its release in 1994, Bad Boy Bubby has garnered a devoted cult following, although newcomers to the film might (understandably) be left wondering what was going on in de Heer’s head when he wrote the script.

“I remember when it first came out, a lot of the questions were, ‘How’s your relationship with your mother?’,” he laughs. “And I’d say, ‘She’s a perfectly good mother and I had a happy childhood.’

“There were so many factors that made the film into what it is; it’s a really great example of one of the ways that I make films. At the outset I set parameters, which in a sense limit the work in a certain way, but in another sense they free the work to be everything that it wants to be, but within those parameters.

“When I first began to work on Bubby, it was going to be shot on weekends. And then you realise you’re not going to get the same cinematographer all the time; never would you choose to change cinematographers during a shoot.

“It’s why I locked [Bubby] up and took away any reference to the outside world, so everywhere he went, he went for the first time, and it could look like anything.

Star Nicholas Hope and writer-director Rolf de Heer

“You wouldn’t know that 32 different cinematographers worked on the film. They had complete freedom to do what they wanted to do. The only thing I said to them was, ‘You’re not allowed to look at anybody else’s stuff. You can create the shots or just light, however you want to do it, but if I don’t think it’s going to work, I’ll step in.’ But I never had to.

“The creative processes were many and varied,” he continues. “The script was written over a period of ten or eleven years – other films came along and by the time I made it, it was my fourth film. I think one of the reasons some of the ideas are quite strong is because I was trying to make cinema. I had a little card that I used to check everything, and it said, ‘Is this scene cinema?’ – as opposed to television like Neighbours, or whatever.

“There were scenes that went in and I’d come back to them two years later and the ideas within those scenes were good and fine, but they’d sat in my head for two years and I’d got used to them, and they weren’t sort of special anymore. So, I’d think, ‘We need to turn this up a bit somehow.’ That was another part of the process that influenced it enormously.”

“Me be Pop now.”

Is he surprised that the film is still just as popular today, almost 30 years later?

“Not so much surprised, because it didn’t go away and suddenly come back. If it suddenly came back, I would be surprised. It never went away, and it’s been a constant presence in my life ever since. Particularly through the internet, which wasn’t functional at the time I made it – I don’t think a week goes by where I’m not dealing with an email that’s come through about the film. I’ve had photographs from the internet sent to me of big tattoos with mum, a gas mask, Bubby…” he laughs.

“The depth of passion people still have for it is pretty remarkable, and sort of a wondrous thing in a way, but I understand where it comes from. The film can affect some people in this viscerally emotional way they can’t articulate; they’re almost speechless by it. Some people feel a connection to it through their own childhood and the difficulties they had, and what hits some people viscerally is the way that they dealt with their children.

“I like the film very much.”

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