'It’s December 2014, and I’m researching a book on the 1976 bushranger film Mad Dog Morgan – one of the best Australian films of the 1970s, a far-out antipodean Western directed by the much underrated pop surrealist Philippe Mora and starring Dennis Hopper in his glory days of alcoholic excess. For a few months, I’ve been trying to track down surviving members of the cast and crew; high on my wish list is David Gulpilil, who played the key role of Billy, Morgan’s young Aboriginal partner in crime. But the hope of reaching him seems a forlorn one: Gulpilil does not give many interviews, and even journalists in the Northern Territory, where he lives most of the time, have had trouble pinning him down.
'At the last moment, I hear that Gulpilil is coming down to Brisbane to attend the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, where he’s been nominated as Best Actor for his role in the acclaimed Charlie’s Country (2014), which he co-wrote with director Rolf de Heer. After some negotiation with his agent, he agrees to share his memories of the Mad Dog shoot. We meet at his hotel in the middle of the city, on a rainy afternoon a few hours before the APSA ceremony; at the suggestion of the astute publicist Cathy Gallagher, I bring along a DVD of Mad Dog for us to watch together.
'Talking to Gulpilil is not the usual kind of interview. His answers are often indirect and fragmentary, sometimes hard to follow. When a question doesn’t interest him, he’ll give a cursory “Yeah, yeah” and move onto a different train of thought. Yet it doesn’t take long to realise that the unfussed manner masks great alertness and intelligence: he’s constantly making surprising connections, and at any moment may say something startlingly lucid. Ironically, this is even the case when he talks about how he’s been affected by substance abuse: beer, he says, is like putting his brain in a freezer, marijuana like an early morning fog.
'In person as on film, Gulpilil communicates as much through intonation and gesture as through language: set down in print, his words inevitably lack much of their original meaning. For this reason, this piece combines direct quotes with my own efforts – inadequate as these may be – to sum up other parts of what was said.' (Author's introduction)