Last week I went up to Brisbane to speak to the young students who are about to start their film courses at the Queensland University of Technology.
When I was their age, I told them, there were no film schools at all. In 1970 in Brisbane, where I did my schooling, the thought of being a film director was as remote a possibility as being an astronaut.
Now of course there are film schools everywhere. Film is even taught in primary schools. And there are very real career paths for those wishing to join the industry.
This doesn’t make it any easier. Because ultimately, whether you have a career in film doesn’t come down to your education, it comes down to your passion.
How much do you want it?
What are you prepared to sacrifice?
How hard are you prepared to work?
How much rejection can you withstand?
I was asked to address a large group of students first off, and tell them how I got into the industry. And so this is what I told them…
I matriculated from high school and was admitted into Medical School. Medicine. I didn’t particularly want to be a doctor, but both my parents were dentists and so it seemed like the logical thing to do.
From a very early age though I’d been taking photographs and writing stories. Along with my brother Bob, who was a wonderful photographer, we contributed stories to various magazines, even while we were still in high school.
Separately, I was a mad keen surfer. Our parents had a beach house on the Gold Coast, and from my early teenage years my brother and I had surfed. Seriously surfed.
We also became very accomplished surf photographers, and I would write stories and we would get them published in Surfing World magazine, which in the early 70s was the premiere colour surf mag in the country. We became the magazine’s Queensland contributors.
I didn’t like studying medicine. I wasn’t a particularly good student – especially given that I was spending most of my time either taking photos, writing stories, or surfing. My heart wasn’t in being a doctor. I was doing Medicine because it was what I thought my parents wanted me to do.
Of all the difficult subjects, including anatomy, the subject I hated most was biochemistry. I just couldn’t make sense of it. And when the results of the end of year exams came out, I found that I had passed all the subjects except biochemistry. I hadn’t failed, I had got what’s called a “supp,” or a supplementary pass.
What that meant was that I had to re-sit the exam in about 6 weeks time, in mid January.
In Australia, our major holiday time is in our summer, from just before Christmas through to the end of January. So in getting a supp, that meant I would have to study biochemistry through most of my holidays.
But if I wanted to pass the year, that’s what I had to do.
And so that’s what I did.
This was complicated by the fact that some weeks earlier, I had picked up a new surfboard the day my exams finished. This was a board that I had designed specifically for the waves that I surfed in my home break. The design of the board was the culmination of many years of surfing and refinement – of knowing the waves I surfed, knowing how I surfed, and knowing what i needed from my board.
I’d been really excited when I picked up my board, because I thought I would have the whole summer to surf with this new design – with a board that would fit me, my waves, and my style perfectly. But it was not to be, because I had to study for this damn biochemistry supp.
So all through Christmas, and into the New Year I studied, and I didn’t go surfing, because I wanted to pass the exam so I could pass the year and continue with my med studies.
And in mid January I felt I had got on top of my studies enough for me to hit the surf. So I went surfing, and the board was a disaster. It wasn’t anything like I’d been expecting. It was unresponsive, it was clunky, it was all wrong.
I couldn’t get it working like my previous board. And this new board was meant to be custom made just for the way I liked to surf. But it was a plank.
The day came for the exam, for me to sit for the supp. I was down at the beach, and I woke up, and it was one of those perfect days of sunshine and blue skies. Slight off-shore breeze, the water clear as crystal, and the surf 3-4ft and just magic.
I took the board out and after a couple of waves, the board just clicked into place. I can’t really describe what happened, but it was as though a veil had been lifted, and the board suddenly had ceased to be a surfboard, and was now an extension of my thought.
Wherever I wanted to be on the wave, the board took me there. All I had to do was think a manoeuvre, and the board would take me there, would do what I wanted.
It was everything I had wanted from the board, and more. It was the most perfect board on the most perfect day in the most perfect waves.
And I had to get out of the water and drive back to Brisbane to sit for this damn exam.
The exam started at 2pm. I had to be out of the water by 12pm to get back in time. At five minutes to twelve I caught my last wave in. For some reason, and I don’t know why, all the other board riders had gone in and I was the only one out in the water. And the waves were unbelievable.
But I paddled in, and walked up the beach, and put my board on the car’s board racks. I still remember this very clearly. I had to be careful tying the board down, because the fibreglass was still soft, it being a brand new board.
I tied the board to the racks, and as I did so, I looked out at the surf. There was a set coming in – several waves, one after the other – and there was no-one out. There was a gentle offshore breeze that was feathering the surface, and holding up the waves as they peeled off mechanically left and right. And there was no-one out.
I remember this moment very clearly, because this is the moment my life changed forever.
I remember looking at this set come through – each wave more perfect than the one before. I remember looking at my board, still glistening with seawater tied to the roof of my car, and then I looked down at my biochemistry text book on the ledge of the back seat.
I looked at the textbook, I looked at the board, and I looked at the waves.
And I said to myself: Fuckit.
That was the moment I decided that I didn’t want to be a doctor.
I took the board off the car, I raced down the beach and I surfed until sundown.
I missed the exam and I failed the year.
And then I had to face my parents, and more importantly I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life. I figured I now had to make a decision based on what I really loved doing, rather than what others might expect me to do.
And so I decided to shift across to an Arts/Law course, majoring in journalism. And so I became a journalist, and from there I started making documentaries, and I realised that here was a way I could combine my love of writing and photography.
And eventually I made my way to making feature films.
I told this story to the assembled students last week – and by the looks on their faces some were enthralled, some were amused, some were aghast.
I told them that I would never have gone on to make films if I hadn’t made that decision that day to throw in Med and go surfing. And now when I think back on that series of events, I realised that I had simply followed my inner voice – my PGS.
And that’s why I’m now doing what I’m doing, and loving every day of it.