– By Rochelle Siemienowicz
As an interviewer, I love the intimacy and focus of the one-on-one chat. The more people you add to the group, the harder it is to maintain the thread. But when I met these three impressive women the day after the premiere of their film Here I Am at the Adelaide Film Festival in February 2011, it was a pleasure to join in their conversation, and witness their easy humour and obvious affection for one other.
Beck Cole is the film’s writer and director. The story of a beautiful young Aboriginal woman remaking her life after jail, Here I Am may be Cole’s first feature, but she’s long been an Indigenous filmmaker to watch. Cole directed the AFI Award
winning SBS documentary series First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia, and has made a number of remarkable short films like Wirriya: Small Boy and Plains Empty. She also directed and produced the documentary Making Samson & Delilah, tracing the progress of that groundbreaking film, alongside her partner (in life, work and parenting) Warwick Thornton. It’s a partnership that continues to be productive, with Thornton taking direction from his wife this time, bringing his considerable talent as cinematographer to Here I Am.
The three woman are actually a little bit frazzled when we meet. They’ve just been over the road being interviewed on camera for the ABC’s At The Movies. And as Shelper jokes, ‘to quote Samson & Delilah’s star Rowan McNamara, “Wow, this is serious!”‘ Nevertheless, they settle in for a very relaxed coffee and a laugh. Read on for a window into that conversation.
AFI: Congratulations to you all. It was such a warm audience reception last night.
Kath Shelper: Yes it was wonderful. Sometimes at festival screenings it’s all just industry people and invited guests, but the festival said they actually sold more than 350 tickets, so the fact that it was a mixed audience made it even more gratifying.
I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.
– Kath Shelper
Beck Cole: We actually had our cast and crew screening the night before, and it was all extended family of those involved in the film – cousins three times removed, including my own! It was a warm and lovely screening, with everyone laughing and getting the humour, and I think the premiere had that vibe too.
AFI: Here I Am is a very hotly anticipated film, and it’s wonderful that films from Indigenous filmmakers and with Indigenous subjects are actually becoming the films people want to see, and not just because it’s political or a fashion statement.
Kath Shelper: I think over the last couple of years, Indigenous films have definitely become a good brand [laughs]. There’s such a variety of filmmakers and so many different styles of films being made in different genres, and so many different voices. I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.
Marcia Langton: The films that have come out over the last few years have people all over the world talking about them in animated terms. I went to Paris, London, Cambridge and other parts of Europe after the release of Samson & Delilah and people were so excited by it. And I’m still getting emails about that film. And then when Bran Nue Dae came out, people said, ‘There, you see! They can no longer say that Indigenous films are just sort of exotic, minor, marginal. It’s not possible to say that any more.’
AFI: Beck, you’ve said before that you wanted to make this film to celebrate the strength and beauty of Indigenous women. Something I like about this film is that it’s an Australian film with women at the very centre of it, with men peripheral. That’s not something we see too often.
Beck Cole: Yeah, it was really fun to do that and to create these characters. I know each of these women from my own life, it was great to create them on the page and then bring them to life on the screen. But I did also want to create the beautiful men, who actually say these kind and heartfelt things. I wanted to have these two lovely kind Indigenous men in the film. Even though they’re small parts, they’re important.
Kath Shelper: And we did make sure they were very handsome men. They had to be hot! [laughs] There was this funny thing with the casting, where Beck had written this casual description about the character of Jeff that was quite blunt and explicit, and just supposed to be an internal memo….
Beck Cole: Yeah, I said that he was charming and needed to wear thongs and be a rough diamond, maybe a few acne scars, but he had to ‘fuckable’! And this description accidentally got printed and given to all the men auditioning. And when I realised and asked Bruce Carter, the actor who eventually got the role, I was like, ‘Oh my lord!’ How embarrassing.
Kath Shelper: I think I’m going to put those notes on our website!
AFI: You have a reasonably large cast with some fairly inexperienced actors. Was that a challenge?
I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.
– Marcia Langton
Beck Cole: Yeah, there’s a real mix of experienced actors and newcomers. Pauline Whyman, who plays ‘Skinny’ does loads of acting and has great comic timing, and our lead Shai Pittman has had a little bit of experience with things like All Saints, but this is her first big role. Then there’s Marcia, who is no stranger to the camera, though I did have to try very hard to convince her to do the part. But everyone was very supportive of each other and it was a matter of getting them all comfortable and confident in front of the camera, you know when it’s right in your face. Getting rid of that shame factor and gigglyness and shyness. Everyone was really brave.
AFI: Marcia, you were reluctant to take on the part of this tough and disgruntled mother?
Marcia Langton: Well, as I said to Beck, there are plenty of good professional actors around who could do the job better than I could. I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.
Kath Shelper: And now Marcia’s happy to be typecast as the grumpy woman so she can get more roles. She wants to play the matriarch of a big drug family [laughs] and maybe win an Oscar!
AFI: Marcia, what was the way into the character for you?
Marcia Langton: I think when I got to the set of the women’s shelter I thought, ‘Right, I know what this is all about,’ from having visited women’s shelters throughout my life for various reasons – visiting friends, taking people there, that sort of thing. Also, there’s a particular tension between mothers and daughters where drugs are involved, and I have a lot of friends who’ve been through that. It’s the worst thing a mother can go through, trying to get kids off drugs. It drives women crazy, because drugs are stronger than people, stronger than their willpower, stronger than love. I reminded myself of how difficult that was, and that helped me build up the hardness of the character. And also, thinking about those terrible tweeny years when young girls can be so monstrous. It wasn’t that hard to tap into really!
AFI: How long was the shoot, and was it always going to be in Port Adelaide?
Kath Shelper: It was a six week shoot, and yes it was always going to be in Adelaide.
Beck Cole: I always wanted it set in Port Adelaide, right from the start.
Kath Shelper: It was always written as being set in Adelaide, which made it very easy for my financing through the Adelaide Film Festival. They like films to be made here and set here – even though they do support films which aren’t. Also, there are a lot of films shot in South Australia that aren’t necessarily set here – it’s an anonymous location, or they’re shot for somewhere else, taking advantage of the diverse landscape. Whereas this project is set here, and it’s about the community here, and the people here. So that’s very special.
Marcia Langton: Actually, that’s one of the things that impressed me when I went to the Temple House location [the setting of the women’s shelter featured in the film]. I thought, ‘This is great, this is really about this particular place.’
AFI: How much did the festival invest in the film, and what was the total budget?
Kath Shelper: I think it was about $180,000 – a significant amount of the $2.4 million budget. It certainly completed the financing, and the other great thing about the film festival fund is that it gives you a date to premiere. You know what you’re working towards. Sometimes when you make a film it’s all unknown, and you’re working in a vacuum, whereas here it was wonderful to be able to say to the girls in the cast that this film is going to be in the Adelaide Film Festival next February and that’s a solid date look forward to.
AFI: The budget on Here I Am is a bit more than you were working with on with Samson & Delilah [$1.6 million]. What were the differences in that regard?
Kath Shelper: We made the film in a similiar way but just upsized it a bit. There were so many more cast and locations. We had grips and gaffers this time too, for instance, because there was so much more to be done. But we still worked in a very simple, fast and economical way.
AFI: Kath and Beck, you two have worked together for many years, along with Warwick. You’re all friends, you hang out together. Does each project get easier as you know each other better?
Beck Cole: Every film is a battle. It’s always hard work. But we do support each other tremendously.
Kath Shelper: Warwick and Beck and I have been working together for about seven years, and we do have a really good foundation that we’re working off. But each project is completely different and brings a whole new set of challenges. It doesn’t get any easier – to write the script, or find the money or shoot it and put it together. We’re really lucky though that we do have a strong bond, and that we like each other.
AFI: Beck, you’re a mum and a stepmum of young kids. What are the challenges of directing and being on set with kids and how do you manage that?
Beck Cole: Nannas! Nannas. Did you see the list of Nannas in the credits? Look, Warwick and I have been so blessed with our families helping us. My family take months off at a time just to some and support us in what we do.
Kath Shelper: But at the same time, Beck’s on set directing and then she comes running down to me and says ‘Shit, I’ve forgotten to pick up Luca [Beck and Warwick’s daughter] from school!’ So I have to jump in the car and drive down there.
Beck Cole: Yeah, poor thing. Having to get up and be with us on set in the freezing cold at 5am, and doing a whole term at a new school while we shot the film. It’s not easy on her. She’s great though. She doesn’t know anything else but this way of life. But yeah, Nannas are essential.
AFI: Marcia and Kath, can you describe what Beck is like as a director?
Marcia Langton: She has a real vision, and it’s her vision, and sometimes we don’t exactly know what it is. She’s a very nice person and we’re all trying to please her and give her what she wants, but sometimes it’s a mystery!
Kath Shelper: Beck’s latest favourite expression is ‘honest to a fault – but not my fault!’ She’s a very funny person and she has a great sense of humour. She’s also an acute observer of people and how they tick. She’s made a lot of documentaries and I think perhaps that’s something that she’s learnt from them, or maybe it’s why she was drawn to them in the first place – the observational side of things. She also has a great sense of character and drama, and how to bring that to the screen.
AFI: Beck, did you always know that this would be an uplifting kind of story rather than a grim and depressing one?
Here I Am releases nationally on 2 June 2011.
Beck Cole: There were many different versions of the story over the years, but it was always going to follow this woman in the weeks following her release from prison as she tries to reconnect with her family, and her young daughter, and it was always going to be about her gaining insight and vision. I think it is important that you come away from it and feel hope and joy, and that you feel like she’s going to be okay.
AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release and thanks for speaking with us.
Production Note: Many of the team behind Samson & Delilah can be found again in the credits of Here I Am, including Director of Photography Warwick Thornton, Editor Roland Gallois, Sound Recordist David Tranter, Sound Designer Liam Egan, Costume Designer Heather Wallace, Make-up Artist Carol Cameron, and Associate Producer Fiona Pakes.
You might also be interested in this interview with Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper from 2009, when they spoke to the AFI about Samson & Delilah.