Telepathic Kangaroos: Ted Kotcheff on Wake in Fright and First Blood

Filming a fight scene with a one-eyed kangaroo, the original ending to Rambo, why he turned down the sequel and the origin of Weekend at Bernie's.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Fantastic Fest showed Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 drama Wake in Fright with Kotcheff in person, so that meant I got to interview the director of First Blood. Kotcheff’s career has spanned all genres and five decades. He was happy to talk about all of it and we could have gone on even longer.


CraveOnline: What did you think when Drafthouse contacted you about putting out Wake in Fright?

Ted Kotcheff: I was excited and thrilled, but this film has had kind of a magical life which is extraordinary. It went to the Cannes festival in ’71 and then it got lost and found, almost got incinerated, and then they made a new print of it and it went back to the Cannes festival again in 2000. It was only one of two films that’s ever been screened twice at The Cannes Film Festival. One was L’avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni and my film. And it’s going to be released again. After they found the damaged negative and they restored it to pristine condition it was released in Australia again 38 years after the original release and it did great business. The film refuses to die. [Laughs]


When you make a movie in 1970 and we’re doing an interview now, do you still remember the stories or do you have notes to go back to and prep?

It’s funny, I do remember a lot of the details. It was such a vivid and different experience, Fred, that I remember a lot of the details of the experience of making it, which is not necessarily true of films that I’m more familiar by.


So tell us about shooting the kangaroo sequence.

I don’t like killing of animals. I would never hunt an animal, but to kill one for a film to me is unforgivable.


Illegal also.

Immoral. I didn’t know how I was going to do that sequence. Then one of the Australians on the film crew said, “You know, they kill 100s of kangaroos every night in the outback.” I said, “They do? What for?” “Oh, they hunt them professionally. They have refrigerator trucks and they have trucks they send out in different directions with a couple of hunters in each truck and they shoot kangaroos, they skin them and put them in the refrigerator truck. Then they’re shipped off to the United States for the pet food industry.” I said, “You’re kidding me. The pet food industry? That’s disgusting.” Anyway, he said, “Maybe you could persuade someone to let you stand on the back of the truck with a camera. They shoot them exactly like you’re going to do with the spot. The spotlight freezes the animal and of course it’s easier to shoot a standing target than a moving target.” Isn’t it eerie, the red light of the kangaroo too?


When the actors are with the live kangaroo, was that tough?

That was very tough. What happened was kangaroos are the strangest creatures. I think you probably think I’m crazy but I thought I could communicate with them telepathically. I didn’t say that last night because I thought everybody will think I’m a looney toon. I thought I could communicate with them telepathically because they were around me all the time and I was with them all the time especially during that night that he was going to fight them by hand. It’s very dangerous because what the kangaroo does is it leans back on its prehensile tail and then it holds you, puts its top arms around you and holds you. It raises those incredibly powerful legs inside the embrace and disembowels you. But, they don’t fight if they have the sense you’re not going to kill them. I said, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” Finally, I had zoologists, professional animal trainers, everything else out there and I said, “Send them all home.” I called one of the ranchers who was wrangling the kangaroo. I said, “Hey, go out and find me some more wild kangaroos.”

You know, Fred, when you make a film you need luck. There’s always a moment when you need luck and I lucked out at that moment, because the guy came back with this eight foot kangaroo. First of all, he was monstrously huge. Secondly somebody had shot out one of his eyes and he hated human beings. I described him as the Moby Dick of kangaroos. When Peter Whittle, the actor, came up to fight him with his knife, he just wanted to destroy Peter. I worried about my actor so I said, “Peter, are you sure you want to do this?” Once you lift the tail of the kangaroo off the ground, it’s helpless. I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, don’t worry, Ted. I can look after myself.” We shot, we shot and we shot. What I thought was going to take three days was shot in three hours and I had about four cameras shooting all the time during that sequence. Finally, I said, “You got everything boys?” They said, “I have a great shot of the actor and the kangaroo embracing each other.” They were so exhausted after three hours of fighting each other, they were dripping, holding onto each other. It was a sweet shot and obviously all the antagonism had gone out of Moby Dick. Or I called him Lord Nelson because he was blind in one eye. Then the whole crew applauded Lord Nelson and he looked around like, “What’s going on here?”

Finally, we had a big pen, it was concealed and they opened the gate so I said, “You can go now.” He wasn’t sure I was going to let him go and he took three or four exploratory hops and he looked back at me. I said, “I mean it, Lord Nelson. You did a great job. Now you can go back to your life out in the outback.” And he hopped away. But they are the strangest creatures. They are the most human creatures I’ve ever encountered. It was so anthropomorphic, I said it’s a human being in there with an animal head he’s going to lift and say, “Don’t worry, Ted, it’s only me.” They’re just extraordinary creatures. One of the hunters said to me, a guy who kills 100s of kangaroos, said, “You must never look into the eyes of a kangaroo because if you do, you will never shoot and kill one again.” It’s so human, it’s like me looking into your eyes. You feel it’s a human being in there.


Was your ‘70s sort of style – with zooms and point of view spinning shots – already gone by the time you did First Blood?

I didn’t do First Blood until ’82, 12 years later. I think first of all, everybody has their own personal style but it does evolve too from the films that you make when you go one film to the other. And also you attune your style to the subject matter. I think the style that’s appropriate for Wake in Fright was not entirely, somewhat but not entirely useful or appropriate for First Blood. The character is entirely different so yes, I think, Fred, as you said it’s a combination of one’s personal style and then different subject matter which you have to adjust it for.


Was it Sly’s idea that Rambo lives? I read the book and saw the original ending on the DVD.

Yes. What happened was, he and I worked on the script together, the final draft. What Sly has is a very fine sense of what the audience likes and doesn’t like. He’s got a good popular sense which is not given to everybody. One of the things he did for example, he rewrote the script, or at least the second to last version of the script. This guy is being chased by all these weekend warriors, the local National Guard, and he’s shooting and killing a lot of them. He came to me and he said, “This guy is an expert. He’s a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and he’s fighting these amateur guys and he’s shooting them off, the audience will hate him.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” He said, “Rambo should never kill anybody.” If you look at it, he never kills anybody. That was Sly’s idea.


His traps kill people though.

He traps people, wounds them, immobilizes them but he never kills them.


Doesn’t David Caruso get killed?

No. The only guy who gets killed is that sadistic shooter but that was his own thing. He fell out [of the helicopter]. No, he doesn’t kill anybody. He wounds them, that’s true. He said, “That was what the Vietcong [did].” The Vietcong did not wish to kill American troops. They wanted to wound them. They wanted to paralyze them, they wanted to put them in wheelchairs so that on every street corner they would be advertising: don’t go to Vietnam because you’ll end up like this. They were very smart actually. They’d rather wound you.

Anyway, about the ending. There was an ending where he realized that the commander was there to put him out of his misery and kill him, but the guy couldn’t do it so he committed hara-kiri and blew himself away. Then Sly came up to me and said, “Ted, we put this guy through so much. My God, he’s been chased by dogs, jumping off cliffs, sewing his arm up, now we’re going to kill him? The audience will hate it. I’m telling you, when the film gets distributed, you’ll want to change the ending. Why don’t we just shoot a new ending here while we’re here?” I said, “You’re probably right. I know exactly how to do it. We’ll just cut away from that scene with the colonel and have you coming out of the sheriff’s office, down the stairs and you’ll see the fact that the sheriff didn’t die there.” It’s one long tracking shot. I said I’ll do it in one shot. The producers said, “What the hell are you doing, Ted?” I said, “I want to shoot another ending here.” “This whole thing’s a suicide mission! He should die at the end!” I said, “Maybe you’re right but it gives us an alternative, we have this other ending.”

When the film was tested, I remember we tested at some cineplex in Las Vegas, the audience you could tell loved that film. They were cheering, “Come on, get him!” I’ve never seen people scream at the screen in cineplexes like that. Finally, when he committed hara-kiri and died, you could’ve heard a pin drop. A voice came out of the darkness and said, “If the director of this film is in the theater, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost for killing Rambo.” I said, “Let’s get out of here before they lynch me.” All the cards people fill out at these test screenings said, “Oh, great film, great film, but the ending” underlined. Everybody hated the ending so I looked at the two producers and went, “Well, boys, I just happen to have this other ending.” That’s how the new ending was used.


What did you think of the way the Rambo series went, eventually dropping the First Blood altogether and Stallone’s massive bulking up?

Do you know, I’ve got to tell you, Fred, every director has the automatic right to direct the sequel to his own film. Did you know that? It’s always in the contract under Director’s Guild contract. They have to offer you the sequel. Obviously, you created this thing, you created the characters, you created everything but when I saw what they were going to do, I said, “But boys, my film was against the war. You’re doing a film celebrating the violence of war. I’m sorry, I can’t. I don’t want to make it.” I didn’t want to make it and I had another film I was going to do anyway. So I didn’t want to do the sequel because I thought it was just exploiting the character for money, but it was against the theme of the original picture.


Was the other film you made instead Uncommon Valor?

No, it was another film entirely. That was my film too of course, which I enjoyed making.


Are you aware of this movie called Flooding with Love for the Kid? Someone re-enacted every scene of First Blood himself.

Oh yeah, I’ve seen that. I thought it was hilarious. [Laughs]


Weekend at Bernie’s is legendary too. What did you think about making a dark comedy about a dead body?

Well, it’s funny, the two films of mine that are the most successful and the best known are the one that you mentioned, First Blood, and Weekend at Bernie’s. Everybody I know has seen Weekend at Bernie’s. He’s a good friend of mine, Bob Klane, who wrote it. He wrote the wonderful film Where’s Poppa? with George Segal which is a terrific film. He came to me one day and said, “Ted, I’ve got this idea for a film but I don’t know what to do with it. These two guys go around carrying a dead body pretending it’s alive.” I loved it. I said, “I love that idea. How do they get there?” “I don’t know.” “What happens afterwards?” “I don’t know.” I said, “Great, you and I are going to go up in a hotel up in Santa Barbara,” which we did, “and hole up and write this thing.” We did and we wrote it together and had great times together writing that. I love the idea that nobody cared whether you were alive or dead if they could use you. The girl comes up and takes the drugs out of his jacket, says, “Come on, come on, Bernie.” She pulls out some marijuana or coke out of his pocket. If they can use you, nobody examines the fact whether you’re alive or dead. So it had a lovely satirical quality to it as well. I love dark comedy like that.


I actually saw Folks! also and I liked that because it’s just so wrong. How did that come about?

Well, we wanted to do another film together and Bob has had problems with his parents. They’re old and they manipulated him and they lived forever. [Laughs] Then he was always at their mercy, his mother and father, so he thought it would be a good subject for a film. That film was probably more autobiographical than you’d believe.