How The Death and Life of Otto Bloom lured Rachel Ward back to the big screen

Karl Quinn
It was always going to take something special to drag Rachel Ward back in front of the camera, and in The Death and Life of Otto Bloom she found it.

It wasn’t just the fact she had 35 pages of dialogue, when “typically, you’d get five pages at most”, she says. It was because first-time writer-director Cris Jones was looking for two women to play the female lead, a neuropsychologist named Ada, at different stages of her life.

“It was a package deal,” says Matilda Brown, Ward’s daughter with actor Bryan Brown. “They were really looking for a mother-daughter. That narrows the field a lot.”

“Neither of us gets hired for anything else,” says Ward. “There’s huge competition among the mother-daughter possibilities.”

Well, there’s you two. And …

“There’s Greta Scacchi and her daughter,” offers Brown (actor Leila George is the daughter of Scacchi and American actor Vincent d’Onofrio​).

“That’s good, because she’s always got the roles over me,” says Ward. “Finally!”

Otto Bloom is the debut feature from Sydney-raised, Melbourne-based, 36-year-old Jones. A story about a man who is living his life backwards in time, it’s what Hollywood likes to term a “high-concept” feature, though Ward prefers to describe it as “a big mindbender that’s also an old-fashioned love story”.

Ada first encounters Otto (Xavier Samuel) when she’s in her 20s, but it’s as if he’s known her forever. Because, in effect, he has.

“Their relationship evolves as she’s treating him for what she thinks is amnesia,” Brown explains. “When he first meets her he knows everything about her, because he’s already experienced their entire relationship, but she knows nothing about him. But as time goes on he learns less about her, and she learns more about him.

“There’s this little bubble of time when they’re in this blissful relationship, about the halfway point. But it’s a doomed relationship.”

The low-budget ($1.37 million) feature, which opened the Melbourne International Film Festival last July, is framed as a documentary about Bloom. Talking heads piece together his remarkable story, principal among them Ward’s Ada.

“There’s a lot of dialogue,” she says. “I thought I’d do it using autocue, but then I realised I couldn’t give a performance – living it – if I was reading it, so I was actually going to have to learn 35 pages of dialogue. My brain is gruyere cheese these days, so I thought no way. But I did it. So I know I’m not getting Alzheimer’s any time soon.”

Ward last acted in the 2007 mini-series Rain Shadow. “I’d really put my acting hat away and didn’t think I would ever be tempted to go back,” she says.

 She made the move to film director in 2000 when she was 43.

“Of course, it was about taking control,” she says.  “I wanted to stay in the business, I really enjoy the business, but I just wasn’t getting enough work.” 

When her daughter announced she wanted to join the family business, Ward told her to go to film school and learn a few other skills. “Don’t limit your options by just being in front of the camera. It’s a small industry here, so you’ve got to have more strings to your bow.”

Heeding that advice, Brown has a dual career as an actor and director. Her most recent project, the 10-part second season of Let’s Talk About, is now screening on Foxtel.

Mother has directed daughter in the past – in a 2010 episode of Rake, in the TV series My Place (2009) and in the not-quite-feature Martha’s New Coat (2003). Could daughter imagine ever directing mother?

“I don’t know if you would act again,” says Brown.

“The role of an old tramp?” wonders Ward.

“I would love to,” Brown says. “It would be so much fun. I’ll write you a part.”

“Of course I would,” says Ward, claiming the mother’s prerogative to have the last word. “But I’m much happier being behind the camera.”

The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is now showing at Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Dendy Newtown, Dendy Canberra and Mount Vic Flicks, Mt Victoria. On April 3 and 5 it screens at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Details: ottobloom.com

Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

 

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