Sooner or later, in talking with Fred Schepisi, the subject has to come up: The director made several well-regarded films in his native Australia, notably 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and then helmed such prestige Hollywood projects as Plenty, The Russia House, and Six Degrees of Separation. Before his new Last Orders, however, Schepisi hadn’t had a solo directing credit since 1994.

“You noticed that, did you?” responds the director with a laugh. “How unkind.”

This turns out to be a subject that the filmmaker, a rumpled 62-year-old who’s receiving visitors in a basement conference room of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, has given some thought. “My area of filmmaking has disappeared. The studios don’t make what I do anymore. Pictures like Six Degrees or Russia House, they don’t make that price range or that style. So I have to go down to the pits of independents and get no money, which is what I did. Or you’ve got to go up to the high-concept, megabudget whoopee stuff. I’ve just got to find a new way of doing it.

“I had quite a number of projects,” he notes, and then explains what went wrong with each of them: “Don Quixote with John Cleese and Robin Williams I worked on for a year. I was 14 weeks into preproduction. It got pulled because of money.

“I had Barnes, about the Barnes [Foundation] collection in Philadelphia. Wonderful story. I had it at a very low budget with Kevin Kline. They wanted to do it for $5 million less than we had budgeted. Pulled the plug.

“I had I Was Amelia Earhart, with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. Originally expected to be a $35 million picture. I think we got somewhere around the $27-and-a-half-million mark. I had figured out how to do it, and suddenly they wanted to rewrite it so they could do it for 20. We did it as African Queen in the air, but contemporary. Spiky and feisty and fantastic, and feminist and everything. But Hollywood’s not convinced it’s commercial.

“I was doing The Shipping News—getting tired yet?—and we had John Travolta and his wife [Kelly Preston], but with them it cost a lot of money. And because it cost a lot of money, then they wanted to make a different kind of film. They wanted to make what they thought was a more commercial, conventional film. So we parted company.

“I’ve got Jack Maggs, Peter Carey’s novel, which is a fantastic story. I’m just having difficulty getting the amount of money I need to do it. I’m going to be doing Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin’s play, as a film. I’ve just recently done a draft of that. I’ve got a thriller set in a New York apartment building that I can’t get anyone to understand.” He chuckles. “I haven’t been able to get the money for that.”

And those are just the Hollywood projects. Schepisi—who lives, he says, “between Australia and, I guess, New York”—has also written several scripts for films set in his homeland. In the ’70s, when he and peers such as Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford were the hot young Australian directors, the country was funding movies. But several government film-financing programs later, Schepisi says, “there’s a marketing scheme, a government system that’s supposed to judge on market desirability. But they’ve put a limited amount of money into it, and what’s happened with the companies that buy Australian films, everybody’s colluded to make things cheaper and cheaper. And the more you do that, then the more you get a specific kind of film, and you don’t get to see the other kinds of films that you should be seeing.”

Schepisi hails such “fantastic” recent Australian films as The Dish, Lantana, and Moulin Rouge!, but when he finally got to direct again—not counting his rescue job on 1997’s Fierce Creatures—it was in Britain. Specifically, South London, the locus of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a tale of four longtime friends, one of whom is now ashes in an urn. Veteran actors Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, and Michael Caine play central characters Ray, Vic, Lenny, and Jack (the dead man, who’s seen in flashbacks). Helen Mirren is the deceased’s wife, Amy, and Ray Winstone is his son, Vince, who drives his dad’s cronies to the coastal resort of Margate to scatter the ashes.

Schepisi is credited as the film’s director, screenwriter, and producer, as he was on such early efforts as Jimmie Blacksmith. It’s a deliberate return to his original approach, he says: “This way I get to do films the best way I can do them. Frequently it’s diluted if you do it otherwise. It can get diluted by star power, the Hollywood approach, Hollywood-executive interference, all those things.”

The filmmaker did ask Swift if he wanted to write the script, but he wasn’t disappointed when the novelist declined. “I really wanted to do it, anyway,” Schepisi says, “because I like doing it, and it puts me more inside the material.” Still, he found the adaptation difficult, thanks to the book’s flashbacks, interior life, highly specific dialect, and multiple points

of view.

“The story was particularly local, very individual in detail,” says Schepisi. “But I think the more you concentrate on the smaller world, the more it resonates with the larger world. People get an experience of seeing a world they know nothing about, and inhabiting that for a while, and discovering themselves while they’re there.”

The director emphasized the story’s regional identity by shooting on the locations described in the book. “That was very much a part of it,” he says. “The east of London, to Margate, and Kent and all that, that’s their world. If it’s there, why not use it?” A few places had been altered to an extent that rendered them unusable, he concedes, “but I’m not telling which ones they were.”

Schepisi also allowed the actors to slip into the working-class London accents of their youth. “That’s who they are. A couple of them in particular have lockjaw,” he chortles. “So you can’t understand anything. I had to keep reminding them that people have to have some idea what you’re saying. I did a lot of extra work in the dubbing phase, just to get ar-tic-u-la-tion a little clearer than they might normally talk. And to clean up a lot of the noise. Even if you didn’t have a problem with accents, there is a hell of a lot of ambient noise in London. You just have to get rid of that. Even with American accents, you wouldn’t understand.”

The film opens with a shot of a map, a personal touch. “I added the map of Australia,” Schepisi admits with a chuckle. “But as the story unfolds, that’s where Ray’s daughter has gone, and that’s where Ray would like to go, and Amy would probably like to go. So it has a relevance anyway. And every English person would really secretly like to be Australian.” He laughs. “Because we’re so great. We’re so unrepressed.”

Nearly everything fell into place for Last Orders, which attracted what Schepisi calls “the absolute cream of English film actors. To my surprise—and this rarely happens—I ended up with more actors than I had parts. They all read the script within a couple of days and just jumped at it. For all of them, it’s something that’s in their bones and from their soul. It’s how they grew up, and they’re rarely depicted on screen in a realistic way.”

The one problem was with the director’s nemesis, funding. Schepisi, producer Elisabeth Robinson, and executive producer Nik Powell did the fundraising themselves, but one of their sources dried up at an inopportune time. “The second week in the picture, our money stopped coming. Ho, ho, we weren’t getting paid. We had to force the people who were putting the money in to go and borrow the money.”

At the time, Robert Altman was in Britain shooting Gosford Park, and Schepisi recalls telling him, “‘Seventeen years after I did Plenty, I’m doing a more complicated picture, I’m doing more jobs on that picture, I’ve got less money, and I’m getting paid less.’ And he said, ‘Welcome to the club.’ None of us knows how to deal with it.

“Imagine Doctor Zhivago if you did it on sixpence! It’s the sweep of that thing that draws you in. You don’t get that on $10. You’ve got to pay for it.

“You can tell I haven’t sorted this out yet,” he concludes. “Anyway, enough complaining. Last Orders is a wonderful film.”

And this time, at least, Schepisi isn’t headed for another long layoff. “I start shooting in two weeks,” he announces. “I’m doing Smack in the Kisser, with Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, and Cameron Douglas. And it’s about three generations of a family. Slice-of-life comedy. Should be good.

“Same budget as Six Degrees,” he sighs, “nine years later.”

—Mark Jenkins