Words: Luke Buckmaster
The year is 1975 and writer/director Bert Deling is on the set of his second feature film, Pure Shit, a racy Melbourne-based drama that will go on to form an infamous cachet in the canon of almost, but not quite forgotten Australian classics. The film focuses on a group of heroin addicts who traverse the city in desperate pursuit of their next hit. They bust pharmacies, plead with friends, evade the fuzz and generally cause havoc. Pure Shit was controversial back in the 70’s and still makes hard-hitting viewing today. Even for the people who made it.
During a screening at Melbourne’s ACMI cinemas in 2009, the film’s producer, Bob Weis, left mid way through because – according to his own account at a Q&A session afterwards – he couldn’t stomach watching Pure Shit’s graphic shooting-up scenes. A large portion of the cast and crew were addicts. Deling maintains they were nevertheless a dream team: loyal, devoted, hard-working, driven by a shared vision. They were “fucking faultless,” he tells SPOOK, 34 years after the film was made.
But he also tells us one story about a night in ’75 when things didn’t exactly go to plan. Deling is on set and he’s starting to panic. The previous evening the crew filmed one half of a scene set in a pharmacy. Two of the main characters – Lou (Gary Waddell) and John (John Laurie) – are in the process of busting in through the roof when another pair of addicts confronts them, determined to join the raid for pharmaceutical loot. They’ve filmed the outside part of the scene and the next bit, yet to be shot, takes place inside. An actor crucial to the scene – he played one of the gatecrashers — hadn’t turned up and the night was running late. Deling fretted and paced, sweated and swore. He was on a tight timeline. The scene had to be shot. Ultimately he decided to continue without the missing actor and invent an impromptu solution to kill off his character. It was slightly dodgy, but it worked.
It wasn’t until the next day that the crew discovered what had happened to the AWOL actor. After the previous evening’s shoot the young man in question had driven out to a country town. He kitted up in full Gene Simmons makeup and garb – including the signature Kiss mask and protruding tongue – and stormed into a pharmacy wielding a butcher’s knife. He yelled “gimme all ya drugs!” and the elderly man behind the counter promptly dropped dead. “We figured that was as good as a note from your mum saying you couldn’t come,” says Deling.
The now 60-year-old filmmaker stresses that aside from this one incident the cast and crew didn’t miss a beat. “When I first said I was going to do this people said to me ‘you’re going to make a film and you’re going to have junkies behind the camera, in the office and in front of the camera. Are you insane?”
The story of how Pure Shit was received is almost worthy of a film itself. There are heroes and allies, like Deling, our courageous protagonist and author Bob Ellis, described by the director as “a champion of the film from day one.” Then there are villains, such as a one-armed man from the censorship board (no, seriously) and Melbourne Herald critic Andrew Mckay, whose review famously described Pure Shit as “the most evil film I’ve ever seen.”
There are moments of action and intensity, such as the film’s first screening in Melbourne, which drew somewhat unexpected guests: none other than the Vice Squad, which arrived and ripped down all the posters from the foyer. And there are twists and turns. The film was initially banned, then quickly un-banned, then released with a softer title (Pure S…). It was damn near forgotten about – no VHS release, no TV airplay, very few screenings and only two (dirty) 16mm prints in existence. But ultimately there is a happy ending, of a kind. Three a half decades later Pure Shit is released on DVD, finally available to anyone who wishes to see it, though the film doesn’t have the marketing weight of a major distributor behind it.
Regardless, those who discover Pure Shit will probably agree with that well-used line ‘well ahead of its time.’ “We were sort of ploughing new territory,” Deling says. “At the time young people were being told that if you smoke a joint your legs would drop off, so they smoked a joint and they’re legs didn’t drop off. After that they were kind of unreachable because whatever warning they were gonna get about anything would be regarded in the same kind of way. “What we were trying to do was say listen guys, we actually understand this shit and we’re not making stupid comments. At the beginning you get a buzz (from heroin) and you join the community and all the rest of it, but look what happens to you by the end.”
Pure Shit’s mixture of comedy and drama was also, Deling believes, a major reason it generated so much attention for the Powers That Be. “They just couldn’t get their head around how you could mix that stuff. They thought you either made a comedy or you made a drama,” he says. “What we were trying to do was use comedy as a demonstration that we actually knew about stuff. The ‘drama’ – in inverted commas – was the heavy shit. We thought that was the way to say to young people listen, we know what we’re talking about.”
On the question of whether real heroin was ever used in front of the camera, Deling cites two scenes, in which he “would defy anybody to act.” The first depicts a drug deal that takes place at night in a remote car park, during which Sandy (Anne Hetherington) samples some of the gear nearby while a stranger gets off on watching her. After her boyfriend yells out “are you alright Sandy?” she replies with “it’s really good shit.” According to Deling, Hetherington could “barely get that out. That’s for real.”
The second scene is an infamous moment depicting Lou (Gary Waddell) attempting to shoot-up but failing badly. It’s a squeamish moment that was originally intended simple to provide an up-close depiction of how heroin is injected into the bloodstream. But under the hot set lights Waddell’s blood coagulated, meaning he couldn’t easily draw blood into the syringe. “I was kind of just standing there watching this, and it went on for quite a while,” says Deling. “I wasn’t sure that I was supposed to do. I was thinking, do I cut here? Am I exploiting the situation? I was really confused and very emotional. Meanwhile, he’s still digging and digging and digging into his veins.”
For the regularly beleaguered and always controversial Australian film industry, uncovering a lost gem like Pure Shit is both hopeful and discouraging. It’s hopeful in the sense that other classics may lie buried under the dust and detritus of previous decades, and discouraging that it could ever have been lost in the first place. “There were a whole bunch of people right across the process who were prepared to destroy Pure Shit rather than let anybody see it,” Deling says.