Angus Sampson as Ray Jenkins
"We've got faeces in our film but it's not about faeces," insists Angus Sampson, star, writer and director of The Mule, a new Australian film that examines national identity, class, masculinity and friendship through the prism of a man who won't take a shit because he's in police custody and his insides are playing host to a party of heroin-filled condoms.
Sampson's character, Ray, is a seemingly simple bloke. He's big, he's quiet and he's a mama's boy. At the end-of-season party for his Aussie rules football team, Ray is named Man of the Year. His teammates tease him but he can chug a beer so he's alright really. The club's owner, Pat, a local crook and archetypal big fish in a small pond, is sending his boys on a knees-up to Thailand, with a little heroin smuggling for a couple of them on the side. Gavin, footie star and small town playa, persuades his old buddy Ray to shove a shedload of smack up his arse and bring it back to Oz. Ray is going to be the mule.
John Noble as Pat Shepherd
Except things go wrong. Ray panics on his way through customs, the police nab him, he refuses an X-ray and gets taken to a hotel room where he can be legally detained for seven days until he craps out the gear. What follows is a battle of wills and bowels between Ray and the cops, as our intrepid hero fights to keep the shit from hitting the state fan.
Speaking to Sampson after the film's debut at London Film Festival this October, he told me the project was "born out of frustration" with a feeling he had that people just saw him as a clownish actor. "I wanted to be known as the troubled genius, but I wasn't a genius and I wasn't troubled! So then, what do you do?"
What he did was read something his friend – the scriptwriter Jamie Browne – had sent him about a guy who couldn't go to the toilet and his journey to "troubled genius" began.
This was around the time that David Hicks – a white Australian who had converted to Islam – was in the news because he had been handed over to US Special Forces in Afghanistan on suspicion of terrorist activity and subsequently taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he was detained from 2001 to 2007. Sampson says that, "The media was outraged by what they saw as Hicks' betrayal of the country. It was like Australians were taking it personally and the prime minister at the time, John Howard, just threw Hicks under the bus."
Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie as Det. Tom Croft & Det. Les Paris
He wanted to take Howard's comments about Hicks and apply them to a scenario involving a detained drugs mule, but he realised he might be straying too far into polo neck and beret territory and that the film would turn into "some kind of fucking political exercise" that no one would watch.
The fog cleared when his mate Leigh Whannell, who wrote Saw and who plays Gavin in The Mule, told Sampson that he had to write about something he knew. Sampson pondered it; "I know nothing but I know what it's like to be me. An overweight, middle-class guy from the inner-west of Sydney who's unsatisfied with his collection of stories in life thus far..."
That didn't seem like the basis of a great film, so instead he settled on a theme – the male ego – and wrote a film in which "everyone thought they were smarter than everyone else". Men of vastly varying descriptions jockey for authority, each convinced, as most men are, that they've got the edge on those around them.
Ilya Altman as Ziggy Woytak
The Mule plays out over the span of the America's Cup, a yacht race that took place in the millionaire's backyard of Newport, Rhode Island, and had been won for 132 years on the trot by the New York Yacht Club. In the film, an Australian team, with a new "winged keel" design that was kept hidden from the Americans, claim an unprecedented victory at the event.
Somehow, says Sampson, this pastime of millionaires that no one had cared about before, "turned into an underdog story where we are being told the Australians have arrived on the world stage because of a yacht race". The full-of-shit nationalistic posturing was a perfect backdrop for the story of a man who is, quite literally, full of shit.
That posturing was taken to glorious heights by then prime minister Bob Hawke, who is perhaps still best known globally for setting a world record for drinking a yard glass of beer in 11 seconds. After the Australian yacht had won, Hawke announced that, "Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum." To this day, he says that this was his finest achievement (the beer chug is a close second).
While everyone tunes into the America's Cup, Sampson also made sure that Australia's best selling single, "Australiana", which was number 1 at the time, plays at points in the background, as do the commercials of Alan Morris and Allan Johnson, who changed the Australian advertising landscape in the 1970s and 80s.
"What they did was bring Australian actors onto commercials for the first time," says Sampson. "Instead of having Penelope Keith or someone from The Good Life, they made ads with Australian voices. In our film, we play the Holden cars commercial where they sing 'Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars'. And that was what it meant to be Australian. It was the presumed charm of having not left the 'Lucky Country'."
Angus Sampson as Ray Jenkins
Sampson wanted to skewer that presumption, to play with the beers, blokes and "she'll be right mate" outlook of a country that's often swept its dark history under the table. Set in Sunshine, a western suburb of Melbourne that was once a utopian dream and is now a by-word for neglect, The Mule takes the beloved Australian concept of "mateship" (basically, being a mate) and complicates it with greed, deception and class.
An example of this is the memorable scene where Ewen Leslie's well-spoken detective calls Ray a "westie cunt" (referring to the western suburbs) and goes on a rant about how much he hates the working classes. In Australia, as everywhere else, men like Leslie's detective have been shitting on men like Sampson's Ray for millennia, and in a film where everyone is hiding something, the detective's snarling outburst is a rare moment of honesty. "I love it when cunts say what they're thinking," Sampson tells me.
The Mule is a huge step on for Sampson, a man known primarily as an actor, whose biggest role – as far as an international audience is concerned – was probably in Where the Wild Things Are. "I'm not a great actor like Hugo Weaving or Cate Blanchett," Sampson says. "There are animals that are better actors than me. You watch a David Attenborough documentary and it's edge of your seat stuff."
Sampson's self-effacement makes him an endearing guy to be around, but beneath the jokes there's a serious artist. Ray, the character he plays, seems stupid, but he's stupid like a fox. Sampson, a big bear of a man who can put away the beers and entertain the crowd, had felt like he was being put in a creative straitjacket as an actor. I ask him if making The Mule was his way of overcoming fear and he tells me that we "stop ourselves from doing what it is we would ideally love doing. I just wanted to do something that I thought was an achievement."
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