Profile

On the eve of the release of his directorial debut, Acute Misfortune, adapted from Erik Jensen’s book about artist Adam Cullen, Thomas M. Wright talks about how his reaction to Cullen turned from revulsion to deciding he was the perfect subject. “Adam seemed to stand for so many things that I just can’t. And I think, particularly, cloaking that behaviour and those attitudes behind a veil of art is just fucked.” By Emily Bitto.

Director Thomas M. Wright and ‘Acute Misfortune’

Thomas M. Wright
Credit: LEAH JING

The story I gather from Thomas M. Wright, about how he got to where he is today, contains elements of both myth and anti-myth, and could easily be framed either way. To frame as myth would go something like this: in 2011, Wright was acting in a production of Baal for the Sydney Theatre Company, playing the title role. Jane Campion happened to be in the audience. Afterwards, she contacted Wright and asked him to come to New Zealand to star in Top of the Lake, the show that would open the doors to international success for the actor. Incidentally, and contributing an extra sense of inevitability to the story, Wright met his partner in the same production of Baal. She fell pregnant six weeks later. Their son is now six.

This story of instant, predestined success is easy and seductive in narrative terms. But what it glosses over are the years and years of optimism, ambition and ceaseless hard work. The anti-myth, or perhaps the counter-myth, then, reads more like this: Wright finished high school and, in his own words, “basically had a nervous breakdown”. He successfully applied to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, “as a sort of last-ditch attempt to not die”. Although he describes it as a “profound time,” he dropped out of VCA after a year-and-a-half because he fundamentally disagreed with the method of acting being taught. Instead, he and close friend Thomas Henning founded Black Lung, an independent theatre company that soon included a handful of other theatre-makers.

“Black Lung is still, for me, really me in my element, without compromise,” Wright tells me. “It was just six or seven of us. Closest friends. All living together. No one with any money. No other concerns, except to get up every day and make work. And it was a brutal time, because we were 22 years old and, you know, we were so tough on one another, and so tough on the culture that we were in. We were unforgiving of anyone who wasn’t as focused as we were.”

It was after years of writing, directing and acting in their productions that Campion asked Wright to meet with her about Top of the Lake. Subsequently, Wright and his young family moved overseas, living between Europe and the United States, where he has spent the past five years working intensely, acting in “film after film after film and series after series”. All that time, he has also been writing. “I would write every day,” he says. “Every day I would finish work and I would go home and write. Often, my little boy would fall asleep and I would just sit up until two o’clock in the morning and just work.”

This period has culminated in Wright’s directorial debut, Acute Misfortune, a film based on Erik Jensen’s book of the same name, the story of the journalistic relationship between a then 19-year-old Jensen and the celebrated Australian artist Adam Cullen. Wright co-wrote the film with Jensen, who is the editor-in-chief of this newspaper, and it is due to premiere at Melbourne International Film Festival next week.

The public desire to mythologise creative success and those who achieve it is central to the film. If ever there were a figure who could be, and indeed has been, framed according to any number of competing myths and anti-myths, Cullen is that figure.

 

I meet Wright on a freezing Melbourne afternoon. In the short time I have been waiting for him, he has politely sent me two messages to let me know he is almost here. When he arrives, he orders an espresso and suggests we sit outside. He’s wearing a zippered blue jacket, the kind worn by security guards made of waterproof parka fabric with woollen cuffs. His beard is bushranger-length, mahogany brown, with just a trim of grey at the edges. He wears a grey-green felt Stetson hat with two small feathers in the band. The effect is part hipster, part sweet country boy, and also, perhaps, partly an attempt for the actor to remain incognito.

Wright has come from picking his son up from school, and I have come from an advance screening of Acute Misfortune. I am excited to speak to him about it. The first thing he tells me, with a smile, is that he has been dreading our conversation, just “a little bit”. “I only finished the film two-and-a-half weeks ago,” he explains. “So, it’s still very raw.”

Wright has been working on Acute Misfortune for nearly four years, and has been consumed by the project. “To talk about this as a difficult learning curve…,” he says. “It doesn’t even begin…”

When I ask Wright what first drew him to the story, he describes his initial response as that of revulsion. “I read an excerpt from the book,” he tells me. “I think it was in the Good Weekend. And I had a really violent reaction to it. My first thought was, why would anybody bother to read about this fucking arsehole?”

It was the strength of his response that led Wright to buy Acute Misfortune, and after reading it, he realised it was the perfect project for him. “There was just so much in it to unearth, and kind of unpick,” he explains. He wrote a long letter to Jensen, and, after optioning the book, the two of them spent the next three years writing the screenplay. It would turn out to be a challenging process, for many reasons. “There are so many places to trip and fall in the making of a film like this,” Wright reflects. One of the central challenges was to avoid romanticising Cullen – the infamous, gun-toting, variously addicted, Archibald Prize-winning artist, the youngest Australian to be given a solo show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who died of alcohol-related illnesses at the age of 46.

“Adam seemed to stand for so many things that I just can’t,” Wright says. “And I think, particularly, cloaking that behaviour and those attitudes behind a veil of art is just fucked.” Wright strokes his beard, a gesture he returns to often during our conversation. “There’s obviously easy ways to frame this stuff,” he continues. “I mean, why does Adam have swastika tattoos on his arms, and [yet] his paintings hang in Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull’s house? It’s a really strange exceptionalism that’s given to artists.”

Equally important, though, was to avoid simplifying, or simply demonising, Cullen. “It’s very easy to take the position that I did on Adam, on reading the article,” Wright says. “But actually that is a conservative thought process, and there is something deeper to be taken from what Adam stood for as an artist, as a painter, as a cultural figure, as a man of that generation, as a victim of his own persona, as an idea.”

Wright is passionate and eloquent when speaking about Acute Misfortune, planting his fingertips on the table, making emphatic spider shapes with his hands. In the end, he says, what drew him most to the story was what he describes as “the shifting ground of the dynamics of control” between Cullen and Jensen. The film’s subtle consideration of the relationship between these two equally invested and compromised individuals allows it to go beyond being a simple biopic or adaptation. “I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that biographical cinema is about the lowest form of art there is,” Wright says with a chuckle, noting that his intention was “to try to keep a question mark firmly placed over the entire thing”.

The result is a complex, metacritical narrative that reflects not only on the inevitably vexed nature of the journalistic impulse but also on the process of storytelling itself. According to Wright, he and Jensen “couldn’t have been closer, as collaborators”. Still, he says, “I wanted Erik’s character in the film to have equal potential to be perceived as a villain.”

 

Over the course of our conversation, the twin poles around which Wright’s thoughts seem to loop, butterfly-shaped, are community and isolation. He describes both Cullen and Jensen as lonely figures looking for connection. He views the self-destructive persona that often appears a prerequisite for success in the art world as, ultimately, incredibly alienating. Towards the end, Cullen had cut himself off from most of the people in his life. “I’m sure there were moments when he wanted to back-pedal out of it,” says Wright. “But he couldn’t.”

Wright can identify with Cullen on this score. He describes his recent years in the US as “extraordinarily isolating”, and he is clearly thrilled to be back in his hometown, to have his first feature premiering at MIFF alongside work by a number of friends and contemporaries. “I think one of the extraordinary things about MIFF this year is to be, again, part of a community of people, which is all I’ve ever wanted.”

He reels off a list of his friends – Thomas Henning, Alena Lodkina and Kate Laurie, Sari Braithwaite, Jessica Leski, Niamh Peren, Miranda Nation, Dylan River and Shelly Lauman – all of whom have work screening at this year’s festival. “It’s this community of people who, purely by being persistent enough and obsessive enough, have managed to get their work made,” Wright says. “And mostly through indirect channels.”

As if on cue, two friends of Wright’s walk past the cafe we’re sitting at – Jonathan auf der Heide, who directed Wright in Van Diemen’s Land, and seconds later, Lodkina, whose film Strange Colours Wright has just mentioned. “What a perfect moment,” Wright says, beaming.

 

In making Acute Misfortune Wright says he felt a heavy burden of responsibility towards Jensen and Cullen, as well as their families and communities. That the project remained collaborative was vitally important. “The Cullen estate supported the film so extraordinarily,” he tells me. Some of the materials used in the film, including clothing and paintbrushes, belonged to Cullen. “The guy who plays the art dealer, Gareth Jones, is Henry Beckett, who was Adam’s personal painting assistant for six years,” Wright explains. “And [in the film] Adam goes into the Art Gallery of NSW and he shakes a workman’s hand. That’s Les Rice, who did Adam’s tattoos, and was Adam’s close friend. I mean, the film is just full of those sorts of gestures.”

Following the film’s premiere, Wright will have to leave Australia once more. “I’ll be back in the States and England, taking meetings about basically working as an actor.” There’s a quiet moment, perhaps a little wistful, before Wright’s characteristic optimism kicks in again. “I’ll just continue to write,” he says, energised, “which is what I’ve always done … And what I can’t wait for now is to watch those directors, with an eye that actually knows what they’re dealing with. And I just can’t wait to make another one.”

Until the premiere, though, Wright is in a kind of limbo. The film is complete and out of his hands, but no one has seen it and he is left waiting, wondering what the public response will be. After a few hours with the intense and intensely productive Wright, I can see that the waiting game would be excruciating. “I’m tired of the film being like a clock that’s ticking around in my head and I want it to be with other people now,” he tells me. Then he laughs. “MIFF requested a tiny little excerpt from the film, which we just pulled directly – 90 seconds out of the film – and put up on the website. And it got a thumbs down, and I went, ‘Yes! All right… Here we go.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "The misfortune of others". Subscribe here.

Emily Bitto
is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize.