The Good Men Project, a foundation whose mission is to spark a national conversation about manhood and help at-risk boys, hosted a Boston premier of The Boys are Back. I held a question and answer session about fatherhood afterwards. I caught up with director Scott Hicks by phone to compare notes on manhood. Hicks was twice nominated for the Academy Awards, for writing and directing the movie Shine.
TM: At the Good Men Project we have ten questions we ask men--authors, athletes, scientists, and so forth--about manhood. I want to pose those questions to Joe, Clive Owens' character in the movie.
So the first question is, how do you imagine Joe learned about manhood? Who in his life taught him about manhood?
SH: I have no idea how to answer that in relation to Simon Carr, who wrote the book, whose memoir the film is based on. And it's intriguing to me that Clive Owen responded so strongly to the material. Partly because of his own deep engagement as a father with his daughters but also because Clive grew up without his father.
TM: The second question we ask is, how has romantic love shaped you as a man? How did romantic love shape Joe as a man?
SH: I'd say it's been a very strong force. He describes how the relationship with Harry's mother, his older son's mother, was great to begin with. But they obviously battled a great deal as well. In the end, he says, he was no match for her in combat.
TM But then he meets someone else?
SH: Yes, he then forms a romantic attachment to this woman that he meets in the course of his work. She becomes pregnant, and he follows her back to Australia, leaving behind his son and his now former wife. So his direction has been hugely shaped by romantic love and to the detriment of his relationship with his son, who appears very wounded and obviously filled with abandonment issues.
TM: What's your sense of him as a man?
SH: It's interesting to speculate on Joe as a character. You might wonder was he, in some way, abandoned as a child? The only clue you get is when he's at the school with his eldest son near the end, and he says, "God, I hated this place." And his son says, "I never knew. Your name's on every board." Joe says, "It was awful here then." Then Harry says, "Well, it's awful here now." And Joe asks, "Is it?" He's completely disconnected from Harry's experience, but he obviously has a profoundly separated or negative experience growing up as a boy at that school himself.
TM: Is any of this ring true to your life?
SH: The English way of bringing up boys has always been a mystery to me. And this is personal now.
My father was born in Burma. At the age of three he was sent away, for his own good, up into the hills to live with nannies. At the age of seven, he was sent to England for seven years to go to school. And he boarded with his sisters with some distant relatives. So my father never saw his mother again until just before she died, when he was doing his final exams as an engineer.
TM: That's crazy.
SH: I was born in Uganda. At the age of six, when we were living in Kenya, I was sent to boarding school. The boarding school was right next door to my house, but I still never got to see my parents--even though, I think, my father had deep-seated issues about his own childhood, about understanding it was all for his "own good." I look back on my childhood, and I just wonder about the choices that were made.
TM: In your film and in our Project, one of the things that we're all about is conversation between fathers and sons. There's this alienation; there's this silence. For me, the turning point in the movie was when Harry took Joe on and just said flat out, "You don't know me."
SH: That's a critical moment.
TM: That was the moment where everything changed, and it was really based on the courage of the son.
SH: Yes. It stopped Joe in his tracks. In the next scene, Joe is staring in the mirror at himself. In other words, Harry forces Joe to look at himself. And Joe looks in the mirror and says, "I must have been awful to live with sometimes." That's the first time he really comes to grips with the fact that he has handled everything shockingly badly.
TM: In our book and in our film, we have collections of stories, first-person, real stories. The idea is that by allowing men to hear other men's stories, you get them to look in the mirror. It's that simple.
Let me try a couple more of questions about Joe. We have one other kind of trick question: How do you think the women in Joe's life would describe him, and is it accurate?
SH: That's a really good one.
TM: We think that women and men sometimes see things differently.
SH: Well, yeah. Laura, the girl he gets to know, finally cracks and says, "You drink too much and you live like a pig. And..."
TM: By the way, I've heard that before.
SH: Joe is, in fact, a little proud of that. When his boy arrives at the house for the first time, and he says, "I run a pretty loose ship," he's not apologizing. He's kind of proud of it. It's pretty unruly around here, he's saying, with a boastful sort of edge.
So, when Laura says, "You live like a pig," well, that's the reading. And objectively, you have to say it was true.
The grandmother says, "You're not fit to be his father." And I think that's untrue. But, in fairness to her, that comes from another place. It comes from her own grief and loss of her daughter.
And then his wife, Katie. The first time she appears in his mind after her death, she says, "Pick him up. Give him a cuddle when the kid is having a fit." And Joe says, "You don't cuddle people when they're having a fit, do you?" She says, "You're vile." And he says, "True."
Joe accepts that women are going to see him like this. And he's quite proud of that image in a way.
TM: What advice do you think Joe would give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
SH: Joe is not frightened to say sorry for his behavior or how he's acted. The film has had some wonderful reviews; it's had some excoriating ones as well. In the paper this morning it said, if you want to watch a grand man saying sorry to a couple of brats for a couple of hours, you should go and see this movie.
I think, wow, is this someone who has not raised kids? I've been a father since I was 18, and I've found being a father is a succession of mistakes you make. You try to do good; you try to do the right thing, but you blunder. And then you learn, and you try to get better.
I think Joe is never afraid to say sorry. It doesn't undermine your authority or your position. If anything, I think, it increases it. It validates it some way.
That review sort of shocked me, because I think there are men--many, many men out there--who have no idea about how a relationship should be with a child.
TM: I agree.
SH: The writer of this review makes specific reference to Harry's explosion, when he throws the dishes on the floor, because he's so frustrated by Joe's bullying sort of behavior. And then the reviewer goes on to comment incredulously about how Joe apologizes to Harry.
TM: I think that was a very well-done scene.
SH: Joe should apologize, shouldn't he? Because he set it in motion. And Harry's response is completely inappropriate, but it's the only way he knows how to lash out.
TM: When was the last time you, Scott, cried?
SH: I have to credit my wife with teaching me how to cry. My boarding school years, from six to thirteen, taught me I was on my own and never to reveal my emotions to other people, because they would only take advantage of it. When I started living with my wife, I was 17, going on 18, and she really had to teach me how to open up emotionally. I haven't had any trouble really since then. Butno, there's no specific event that made me cry. Usually it comes as an accumulation of several stresses, or the frustration of existence sometimes.
TM: What is your most cherished guy ritual?
SH My youngest son is 26. He's a musician, so he has this whole own world. But I love that he will share with me things that are really important to him in the way of music or the things he's reading. He reads a lot, and he loves to unload, sort of download, all this stuff that he's processing in his own mind. Sometimes it'll come at an inopportune time, like when I think I'm busy. So I have to stop myself and think, what's more important: this stuff that I'm doing, or stopping and listening to him, talking with him for half an hour? Talking with him always is going to be more rewarding, I've found out.
TM= Tom Matlack, co-founder of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT
SH = Scott Hicks, twice Oscar-nominated director of THE BOYS ARE BACK