There is nothing worse, apparently, than a movie star
cracking a joke and no-one laughing. That's why everyone involved in the making
of Sam Neill's latest film, Death In
Brunswick, to be released nationally in April, insists that it is not a
comedy. Says Neill's co-star John Clarke (Fred Dagg in a former incarnation),
"It is a contemporary urban drama and if people find it funny it is no
fault of ours and we hope appropriate medication is given as quickly as
possible." Adds Neill, "To make a film funny you do everything but
make a comedy. I'm a bit prejudiced against comedy: I can't bear comedic
Despite his protestations, Neill gets quite a lot of laughs
as Karl Fitzgerald, a wimpish nightclub chef who suffers the ignominy of being
blown up, grossly insulted, seduced by a nubile Greek teenager (Zoe Carides)
and covered in food.
For Neill, who usually plays sophisticated and worldly
types, it is a real departure. He admits, however, that playing a coward wasn't
all that hard. "I'm probably the most cowardly man on earth. This bloke
Karl, he's hapless; but he's not a fool. He just hasn't managed his life
particularly well nor has he particularly wanted to. But he's not harming anyone."
As a kind of straight man to a richly assorted and often
malevolent cast of character actors, Neill gives the kind of subtle
non-performance that can only come from a finely judged sense of comic timing.
On the screen he looks as if he is quietly relishing the opportunity to play a
loser. A career risk, surely? "I am more fond of this film than anything I
have ever done," he says. "Often I am cast as a person who is in
charge of things. I am usually a bloke who gives commands and has absolute
certainty about where he is going. But most of us are actually wildly out of
control. It's sort of nice to see a person on the screen who is
muddling along just like everybody else."
In a comedy-of-errors plot, the friendship between Neill's
Karl and Clarke's Dave (a salty, much put-upon gravedigger) becomes an unholy
alliance in a memorable graveyard scene. "It was cold, unpleasant and
creepy filming in a graveyard at night," says Neill, shuddering at the
memory. But if the scene works on screen (and it does), it is partly because of
the transparent pleasure of two old friends enjoying the rare privilege of working
together. "I have known John for 20 years," says Neill, "and I
enjoy his company more than anyone else I can think of." Says Clarke, "We've helped each other out a lot over the
years, but this is the first time we have done it sober."
And in a prediction that sends Clarke into gales of
laughter, Neill announces that his friend will be the embodiment of what women
are looking for in the '90s, a decade, he believes, where substance will
triumph over form. "John will be the sex symbol of the '90s. My time is
gone. He's welcome to it, too." Neill, it seems, will just have to be
content with being a funny guy (oops, who said that?).