Possibly one of the best things to tick off my list of “Things to Do in 2007”.
I interviewed Andrew Denton for a uni assignment for Creative Non-Fiction during my last semester at UTS. I really miss those days where we’d all come in and workshop our drafts, giving each other pointers as to what sounded good, what didn’t, what sentences sounded wanky.. etc.
When our lecturer first announced this assignment, I ran through my list of people I was dying to interview at the time (and still do): Cate Blanchett, Sam Worthington, Abbie Cornish (yeah, I went through an intense Somersault phase), Luke Davies, Andrew Denton.. amongst many unobtainable others like John Mayer, Ian McEwan, Benjamin Law..
I remember shooting off a quietly hopeful email to the folks at Enough Rope, not expecting a reply in less than four days. I spent days agonising over what questions to ask him, emailing back and forth between his publicist and trying to rearrange my whole uni timetable just to get about 15 minutes with him face-to-face. That didn’t eventuate, but I did manage a phone call which took place at 2SER‘s recording studio where I’d managed to sneak in whilst I was volunteering there. It was surreal hearing his voice on the other line, and I kind of broke out in invisible spasms.
By the time I finished it, I remember anxiously sending it off to various magazines and well-known publications only to be thrown tumbleweed in return. As a result, this only ended up being published in the UTS zine Vertigo last year.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written it, and I guess the reason why I’ve only just put it up now is because it’s a very important part of me as a writer. In a way, it’s kind of like a reminder that I’m capable to doing things that, if I try hard enough or simply make the call, then I can achieve it.
Anyhoo, below is it..
The meaning of life, according to Andrew Denton
There is an intriguing air about Andrew Denton when I finally see him walking down the inauspicious red carpet. Amidst the buzz and excitement at the annual Tropfest Short Film Festival, he walks leisurely, unimpeded and I sense, with a sort of calm determination to avoid the lights pooling onto the carpet. Bespectacled with a hat drawn low on his head, it does little to hide his gentle though firm presence. He reminds me of a high school science teacher, brimming with a quiet enthusiasm and equal seriousness, his shorts and socks up to his knees in his leather sandals. It is a stark contrast beside his tall and glamourous wife, Jennifer Byrne, resplendent in her purple silk dress and requisite heels.
Minders push him towards more well known members of the media scrum, Angela Bishop, Richard Wilkins, the usual suspects. He is patient as he calmly answers their questions, moving along the barrier as other reporters hurriedly try to finish their other red carpet vox pops to perhaps grab a word or syllable with him. Andrew is moving closer toward my part of the barrier and my heart beats faster, anxious and a realisation that I have a most profound urge to pee.
The words spill rapidly from my mouth like water from the walls of a weak dam. Andrew looks at me, a smile forming on his mouth and in his eyes.
“Hello Margaret. How are you?”
I am immediately taken aback by how short he is. It is ironically intimidating despite the extra seven centimetres I appear to have on him with my thongs. We engage seamlessly in conversation as I rattle out my three short questions. Camera crews from other networks and the event itself surround me, their lens pushed carelessly toward him. We are interrupted suddenly by two of the Chaser boys and I find myself completely gob smacked as Andrew Denton begins scolding them.
“Craig Reucassel, you can’t just jump in. This is 2SER’s interview. Excuse me…”
He turns his back to the Chaser boys, facing me.
“I’m not going to talk to the high profile media while I’m talking to you,”
Andrew Denton is defending me.
“Yes I’m sure, absolutely. I’ve worked with these men and they’re disgraceful, and quite frankly they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Much like that afternoon, I am still filled with a similar trepidation and excitement before our scheduled conversation. Despite having spoken to him before, I am still plagued by the thought of interviewing a man who has made a living out of interviewing others.
When he answers the phone, I imagine him sitting in his office at the ABC, or something of the like, riffling through some research for the program that some would say has come to define him.
“Well, you know, you can’t really control what other people think of you as. I’m just a guy going through life and in my career.”
I sense that he seems a little irked by this idea of him becoming a brand. Everything else he has done previous to Enough Rope, he has only done for a few years. He comes off as one of those personalities who appear every now and then, experimenting in the different genres of entertainment. With his unquestionable talent in interviewing, you can’t help but get the sense that it is because of Andrew’s almost zealous dedication to the conceptual aspect of Enough Rope that has audiences defining him as such.
“I think in people’s minds, it’s become a fixed point and that might lead to the perception of being a brand. I don’t think of myself as being a brand. I just think of myself as who I am.”
“I just think that it’s a mistake to be fixed on what other people think of you.”
Born on May 4 in 1960 to a “lapsed Catholic” mother Le and an atheist father, the writer Kit Denton, Andrew’s childhood was littered with somewhat conflicted teachings. He attended a Jewish kindergarten, a Catholic primary school, and a Church of England high school. In fact, he won divinity prizes and more or less had a thoroughly religious education. Ultimately, it seems none of this has had any effect on his current outlook, his response a firm ‘No’ when I ask whether he is religious man.
“I guess you’d say a political level, I’m deeply suspicious of and in many cases, angered by the way in which organised religion is used for political ends.”
It is a curious self-assessment. Considering his directorial work with the documentary ‘God On My Side’, where Andrew went on a pilgrimage to understand the semiotics behind the recent movement of ‘evangelical Christians’ and religious bigotry, it is fairly easy to understand where he is coming from.
“I simply don’t feel a sense of a presence in the universe that could be construed as God. I don’t necessarily think that’s the right answer but that’s the truth for me.”
This mentality, however, won’t be affecting the way he raises his son. Andrew is a believer in the enlightenment that reading offers, and it appears it was due to this belief which spurred his son to question the meaning of life at the convenient hour of 8AM.
“My instinct was to say ‘Ask your mother’ but then I thought, ‘Nope’ and so I said, ‘You know what, that’s a really good question and people have spent all their lives searching for the answer and for some people the meaning of life is God and for other people that’s not a good enough answer. And I don’t know what the answer is, but if you ever find out, please let me know. But keep looking, it’s a great question.’”
After obtaining his communications degree from Charles Sturt University (formerly Mitchell College) in three years instead of the recommended four, Andrew took the path of writing, a direct influence it seems from his father. He attended an Australian Writers’ Guild workshop in Katoomba, before discovering his love and natural talent for Theatresports. From here, the only way seemed to be up as he began writing for 2MMM as Andrew the Boy Genius, before being launched into the television limelight on a new freeform ABC program Blah, Blah, Blah in 1988. Those who work with him and all those who know him describe him as quite the perfectionist.
“Well I’ll paraphrase Tom Gleisner from Working Dog, who was accused in an interview as being a control freak, and his response which I think is a great one, was ‘In what way is that an insult?’”
He laughs. “I think everyone should be striving for the best that they can do, isn’t that logical?”
I feel prompted to justify my question. I feel most uneasy by the challenge, but ask him whether he would also agree to the idea that people can also learn from their mistakes and that sometimes the best things that people realise about themselves stem from such errors.
“Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m a great believer in taking risks for that very reason. Yes, I couldn’t agree with that preposition more.”
There is thoughtful silence before Andrew speaks again.
“What I’ve always found in my career is that almost inevitably when you think you’re on top of something, that’s usually when you fall flat on your face and it’s funny how often you have to relearn those lessons.”
I know that we are nearing the end of our interview so I ask him what sort of mark he hoped to leave on the world. He doesn’t hesitate.
“A small oil stain.”
There is a trace of bitterness and almost self-deprecating tone in his voice, despite its surety. I start to wonder at what stage he began to understand his place in the world.
“You know I always find this concept of a ‘mid-life crisis’ to be as though it’s something that’s really bad. It’s a bit peculiar. If you haven’t gotten halfway through your life and had a bit of crisis about it, I think you’re missing the point.”
There is the thoughtful silence once again, and I begin to understand why some of his peers describe him on taping days tending ‘to disappear inside himself, focusing his energies on the task ahead’. He is a formidable character despite his calm and measured appearance.
“You know, life’s a tricky thing. It’s turbulent. It changes while it’s difficult, and it should be embraced, and I really admire anyone that changes.”
It seems that this is what makes Andrew the person that he is, one who is startling observant and philosophical in his approach in the world. Interestingly enough however, it was research about a ‘living library’ in Malmö, Sweden, where “you don’t just borrow books, you borrow human beings for an hour and talk to them about their lives”, which provided him with one his favourite insights in the world.
“One of the people was a transvestite who all his life had felt a need to dress in women’s clothing and he said a beautiful thing which has become one of the sayings in our household. Just this pretty little piece of wisdom and that was ‘Be yourself, because everybody else is taken’.”