It sounds like madness. Adapting a Tim Winton short story for the screen is nothing new. But 17 stories? Each with a different director? And many of them first-timers, people from other disciplines, who had never directed? Surely that's asking for trouble. The sheer effrontery of the notion, according to Winton, was a positive for him. ''It was so crazy brave, so odd, that I was attracted right from the start.''
The movie adaptation of The Turning was set in train and overseen by producer-director Robert Connolly. Connolly, who loved Winton's work and its atmosphere of ''cryptic originality'', had the idea of acting as a curator for a project ''in which each chapter was interpreted by a creative person, in their own voice''.
Making it happen was a complex logistical exercise. Connolly and producer Maggie Miles oversaw the whole; Connolly (The Bank, Balibo) directed one segment himself. Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) were among the more-experienced filmmakers on the project. Among the newcomers, actor Mia Wasikowska wrote and directed her first film. So did fellow actor David Wenham. Oscar-nominated animator Anthony Lucas took on his first live-action work, while visual artist Shaun Gladwell worked with narrative for the first time. Bangarra Dance Theatre's artistic director Stephen Page made his directorial debut. At one point, Cate Blanchett was due to direct, but decided instead to take a role in her story, and theatre director Simon Stone stepped in.
Winton's book consists of 17 interlinked stories set in a small coastal community in Western Australia. Characters recur, most of all Vic Lang, who turns up in eight stories, as a child, a teenager, and an older man. Incidents reappear in different contexts and experiences echo and play off each other.
Wasikowska - a rising star who played the title roles in Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, and whose new film, Tracks, recently premiered in Venice - was one of the first on board. Directing, she says, was something she had always wanted to do.
She found her story, and wrote a first draft almost immediately. Then, when the finance was in place and it was time to lock in arrangements, decided to do something completely different, less complicated, different in tone. The second time around, she homed in on the image of the boy at the centre of her story, Long, Clear View. It features the recurring figure of Vic Lang, here a youngster on the cusp of adolescence.
Vic, Wasikowska says, is caught up in ''that weird time growing up when your parents decide what they will tell you about certain things - what they think you can handle. And because information is withheld, you then imagine things so much worse, or differently. But it's also this vivid time when you understand a lot more than you are given credit for.'' It was a liberating experience, Wasikowska says, to be told she could make whatever she wanted. ''I would love to do more. It's a privilege to be able to direct.''
For Wenham, another actor making his debut behind the camera, the adaptation had to be faithful. His story, Commission, is the tale of the adult Vic (Josh McConville) going on a journey to visit his father, Bob (Hugo Weaving), whom he has not seen for years.
He immediately saw Weaving as Bob. They had worked together 20 years earlier, in a stage adaptation of Winton's That Eye, the Sky and Weaving embodied exactly the qualities Wenham needed. ''If he had said no, I don't know what I would have done… You can see the stories on his face. And he has a dignity to him - and certainly Bob has that. Bob is a man with a history who has found himself.''
Being behind a camera was perfectly familiar to video artist Gladwell; what was new for him in The Turning was narrative. He doesn't tell stories, he says, he works with ideas, with simple images that can be open to multiple interpretations. ''So taking on psychological, emotional and social complexities was a challenge, for sure,'' he says.
His story, Family, concerns a pair of brothers and the history between them; he was tempted to tell it in a more abstract way, ''but I fell in love with the text too much''. He chose indigenous actors. As Frank, the footballer who walks away at a key moment of his career, he cast theatre actor Meyne Wyatt (who reminds him of the Swans' Lewis Jetta); Frank's brother, Max, is played by Wayne Blair (director of The Sapphires).
The freedom other directors spoke of did not have the same significance for Gladwell. Instead, he embraced constraints that, as a video artist, he would never deal with. Otherwise there would have been no point, he says: he would have been wasting the opportunity he had been given.
Three indigenous directors took part in The Turning, and several indigenous actors play roles that weren't specifically written for indigenous characters. Stephen Page's Sand, which screens earlier in the sequence, also concerns Gladwell's characters, Frank and Max - much younger this time, but with a gulf already between them. Page decided he wanted a pair of brothers to play the two boys. He chose Jakory and Jarli-Russell Blanco, cousins of one of Bangarra's senior dancers, Waangenga Blanco, who plays their father in the story. Some scenes - those that convey the boys' consciousness - were created in a rehearsal studio at Bangarra's Sydney headquarters.
''We were able to shape the creative world they lived in,'' Page says. ''A place without dialogue, a space where the drama could unfold. More like a playground than anything else, really. I was looking for sparseness, and the image to tell the story.''
Theatre director Simon Stone directs Cate Blanchett, Robin Nevin and Richard Roxburgh in Reunion, a tale about the awkward relationship between Vic's wife and his mother, and the circumstances that transform it. Winton's story, adapted by Blanchett's husband Andrew Upton, is about the intervention of fate, Stone says. ''I suppose the philosophy of story is one I agree with very strongly. You can't control when fate will give you a helping hand. It's kind of like surfing - there's nothing you can do about when the wave will come, but you have to be ready to catch it.''
He and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie ''choreographed it on the day. I had specifically chosen the locations for their ability to achieve what I had in mind. It was a little bit like making theatre - we couldn't remake the film in the edit.''
Like many of the directors, Stone is keen to talk about other people's work. Justin Kurzel's contribution, Boner McPharlin's Moll, blew him away. Kurzel has taken a long, intricate narrative and distilled it into an evocation of a single character. ''That really humbled me,'' Stone says. ''It was so advanced, such a sophisticated and integrated way of thinking about how cinema uses pre-existing material. It's been a source of my new way of thinking about the film I'm making now.''
Individual Winton stories have been adapted for the screen before. Films have also drawn on several works of short fiction - notably Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories - but The Turning is different. Gladwell compares it to the exquisite corpse, a surrealist exercise like the parlour game of consequences, a collective collage of words and images, in which contributors are unaware of what precedes or follows them.
''Early on, we decided not to link the stories in overt ways,'' Connolly says. ''We wanted to maintain the experience of reading the book, of a cryptic narrative that you unlock. We could have had the same actors playing the same roles, but to lock the casting in was something that inhibited that.'' The plan was to embrace differences - ''we had the idea that there would be an energy between them, and that there would be a pleasure in that.''
No director saw anyone else's work, although many of them were curious. More than a dozen attended last month's premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which was the first time they saw the whole film.
Winton, who was at the screening, was happy to keep his distance during the production process. ''I try to practise a form of distance, partly to protect myself, to be honest, but also out of respect for those people who would like to make an adaptation. They need the freedom to find their way with the work.''
He was involved in a few ways, however: he helped Wenham find a remote location to shoot in, and provided a voiceover for the first story in the series, Thornton's adaptation.
Connolly matched directors with a mix of experienced and emerging producers. Some directors wrote their screenplays, others collaborated with writers. There was a document of about 80 pages that explained certain aspects of the project; participants weren't even required to look at it, but it was there if they needed it. There are, in fact, 18 individual elements: Connolly decided to ask animator Marieka Walsh to work on a segment for the epigraph to the book, lines from T.S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday. Her animations are made using sand, a process that seemed to fit perfectly with the themes of Winton's world.
They thought long and hard about how to present the final version before deciding to put the films in the same order as the book. Each film is introduced by title only, without the filmmaker's name attached. ''We wanted people to think of them as chapters of a bigger work, rather than a compendium,'' Connolly says.
Another part of The Turning's singularity is the way it is being presented. Connolly wants to highlight the cinema experience, to make it into a special occasion. It opens for a limited season, a fortnight only, in 15 cinemas around Australia - once a day, mostly at night, but with a few matinees. It screens with an interval. With the ticket comes a glossy 36-page booklet that introduces each story and provides timelines and character guides. He thinks of it as being like a theatre production, or a band performance: a live experience. Actors and directors will be there to introduce the film and take part in Q&As. Eventually, it will be on television and DVD.
Speaking after the premiere, Winton described his reaction as ''a kind of familial pride'' in the work. ''People we know are great consented to be in the film. And there are people we've never heard of but know are going to be great, and they're terrific in the film.'' He calls it ''an act of creative insurgency, of defiance of the trends''.
The Turning opens in cinemas on September 26. See theturningmovie.com.au.