Oliver Berry: Swimming Upstream travels from your humble beginnings as a working-class Australian kid in the suburbs of Brisbane, and the difficult relationship you had with your alcoholic father, to your career as a world-class swimmer and later a Harvard graduate. So you started out as a swimmer and you’ve ended up being a Hollywood screenwriter. How did that come about?
Tony Fingleton: It really started when my sister visited me here in New York from Australia some years ago. We were talking about growing up and how difficult our early life had been with my father – obviously I had my own issues with him, as shown in the film, but it had been especially difficult for my sister as she was the only daughter in a family of boys and a very masculine, working-class world. We decided to just sit down and write about it, and once we started it just tumbled out of us – page after page after page – and before we knew it we had what looked like a book. I had never really intended to write a book, or revisit that part of my life – but sometimes these things just happen, you know? Anyway, for a while it kicked around as a script for a mini-series, but it never really took off for a variety of reasons – but when I decided to rewrite it as a feature film it just seemed to take off. Within a week of finishing the script, it had been sold and the film went into production.
It must have been quite difficult to use such a personal story as the basis for a film script.
It was difficult in some ways, but it was also tremendously liberating. It really became an opportunity for me to explore a part of my life that had really been forgotten about, but which I thought could have tremendous relevance for a lot of people.
It seems to be one of those stories that strikes a chord with audiences – everyone finds something in it that has some bearing on their own lives, though the circumstances are obviously very different.
Well, we all have families, don’t we? There’s a peculiar kind of chemistry that exists within a family unit that we all share – and I think people relate to that in the film, although the precise circumstances may be different. We all have something that we’ve struggled through as we’ve grown up. For me, obviously, it was the combative, competitive relationship I had with my father, and there are many people who’ve identified directly with that in the film. When you’re a kid, you think that you’re the only one who’s going through that situation, and everyone else lives nice, normal lives – but they don’t. That’s really something I wanted to achieve with the film – to use my own story to reflect on a much larger set of issues. I’ve had so many people come up to me and thank me for telling this story – and that’s really the greatest compliment any writer can expect from his audience.
The film paints a fairly unflattering picture of 1950s Brisbane. It’s a grim, gritty place – so it’s easy to see why swimming became such an important outlet in your life.
Well I was just lucky to find that talent as a way out. I really didn’t know where it would lead. All I really thought was that if I could become Australian champion, something might come of it – I really had no clue what, though. And somehow I ended up at Harvard! That was just a chance that came my way and I grabbed it with both hands. Swimming gave me a focus and a confidence that really shaped my life – and if this story helps one young guy to do the same, I’ll really be very happy.
The film boasts a lot of well-known Australian actors – most notably Geoffrey Rush, who plays your alcoholic father. How important was it for you to see the right actors in the pivotal roles?
Hugely important. It was especially strange for me to watch Geoffrey Rush basically becoming my father. He knew this character already, really – it was as if we’d both grown up in the same household. We both grew up at a similar time in Australia, and in fact Geoffrey grew up in Brisbane too – so we already had a kind of shorthand. Though Geoffrey has very few dialogue scenes, his presence defines the entire film – you feel him in every scene. He really has turned in a phenomenal performance – he’s a great actor and he’s become a very great friend. I spent the whole production bumping into ghosts. Sometimes I would turn and catch Geoffrey out of the corner of my eye and I would really have to pinch myself – it was as though my father was back in the room. It was an extraordinary experience to be on the set, watching these scenes from my own past coming back to life.
How do you feel about Australia now? You’ve lived almost exclusively in America since graduating from Harvard. Was it a conscious decision not to go back?
Well, I have been back home quite a lot – most recently for the production of the film. What’s strange is how much the country has changed from the one I remember – when I was growing up, Brisbane was like Sleepy Hollow – it was definitely not somewhere you wanted to be from. It was a dreary place. But now it’s the go-ahead city of Australia – it’s a very liveable, pleasant city, a world away from the place I remember. My home is here in New York, now – but Australia is a wonderful place to go back to.
And how are your relationships with your brothers and sister now? Have they all seen the film? What do they make of seeing themselves on the big screen?
Well obviously my sister was involved throughout the production, as she was so closely tied up with it. My older brother Harold has had his own problems – in fact, he became a worse alcolholic than my father ever was, and much more violent – but he’s seen the film and seems to love it. He’s actually become a kind of minor celebrity in Australia actually. But my other brother John is a different story. Sadly we haven’t ever managed to mend the rift that opened up between us, and in fact we really don’t communicate at all now. The film is all about the gulf that grew between us when we stopped being brothers and became competitors – and in many ways that’s the most painful and powerful thing about the whole story.