AACTA Member Spotlight: Jessica Hobbs – Director

Jessica Hobs on set

Jessica Hobbs on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jessica Hobbs is the director of many hours of groundbreaking, heart-stopping Australian television dramas, and though she grew up in New Zealand, we’re very happy to claim her as one of our own.

First inspired to work in drama, at age fourteen, when she saw Zeffirelli’s interpretation of the great tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Hobbs has gone on to perfect the art of empathetic, honest and affecting direction: from her early work on Heartbreak High through to THAT episode of Love My Way and her most recent outings on Curtin, Spirited, Tangle, My Place and the incredibly popular and AACTA Award-winning television adaptation of The Slap.

Over the years, Jessica Hobbs has won numerous AFI | AACTA Awards for Best Direction in Television and Short Film.* The Slap has also recently been nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best International Television Series. She is currently working on a two part telemovie Devil’s Dust for ABC TV. Spanning the 1970’s to the 2000’s, Devils Dust is a political thriller that deals with asbestos victim Bernie Banton and his courageous fight against James Hardie Industries.

Despite her wonderful credit list and ever-growing stash of nominations and awards, Hobbs still confesses to the odd moment of self-doubt, but believes the key to getting through is to retain your sense of humour, particularly when things don’t go according to plan.

In this interview, Jessica Hobbs talks about the particular challenges and advantages of working in the television medium. She shares her insight into eliciting the best performances from actors, and talks about the importance of a great script. Hobbs is generous with her praise for those who gave her a start and mentored her early steps in the industry and, in turn, she offers some advice for young directors just starting out.

Jessica Hobbs is one of our newly anointed Honorary Councillors for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) within the Direction Chapter. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad.

AFI | AACTA: You grew up in New Zealand. What was your educational path towards directing as a career – and directing in Australia?

Jessica Hobbs: I always had a strong interest in theatre and film but I didn’t know that directing was an actual career when I was younger. I do remember being shown Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at school when I was 14 and wondering who it was that got to create that world. But the idea of it as a proper job, as a career, that only occurred to me a few years later.

AFI | AACTA: Was directing something you always wanted to do, or a career which you fell into?

Jessica Hobbs: I decided when I was about 19 that I’d like to direct but it was a long time before I felt brave enough to tell people that that was my dream. I started working in the film industry in New Zealand at 21 as an assistant director and then a year or so later, I started making short films.  I spent many years working as an AD (Assistant Director) while trying to develop my directing skills. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started directing full time when Ben Gannon gave me my first big break, directing Heartbreak High. I spent two years directing on the show and it became a bit like a mini film school for me. Every six weeks, I’d get another two hours of story to work on. I loved the directorial process they had on that show. For television at that time, they gave the directors a huge amount of creative freedom.

Jess Hobbs onset DEVIL'S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jess on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

AFI | AACTA: You’ve directed numerous television dramas – from Heartbreak High, Love My Way, Tangle and Spirited, to My Place and The Slap. What is it about directing television dramas that particularly appeals to you? What do enjoy least about it?

Jessica Hobbs: I love directing television and I feel that we’ve been very privileged over the last few years to see a big renaissance in the way that television is made. Television allows you the freedom to explore character development and story structure in greater depth over a longer period of time.

The less positive side of working in television is that it is always a race against time and budget constraints. But, I also see friends who are filmmakers having very similar struggles so perhaps the tyranny of trying to balance creativity and economic realities is across both mediums.

AFI | AACTA: In many of the aforementioned series, the characters and storylines are layered, complex and complicated. They often deal sensitively with fraught emotions or the personal intricacies of life’s ups and downs. I can imagine that this sort of subject matter could be quite difficult to direct. How do you go about getting such honest performances out of your actors?

Jessica Hobbs: I spend as much time as possible talking with them about the story and what we are trying to convey to the audience. Then, we break that down into what they feel it is that their characters want and how they are going to go about getting that.

Every actor uses a different methodology to perform. It’s important that I try to understand their way of working so that we can make the most of our time together. Ultimately, it is the actor who is up there on the screen, not the director, so it’s a big process of trust and giving them the freedom and space to try different things.

AFI | AACTA: In my opinion, you were responsible for directing one of the most moving pieces of Australian television history – that heartbreaking, earth shattering moment in Love My Way [spoiler alert!] when Frankie and Charlie’s world is turned upside down with the death of their only daughter. This moment in the series still resonates with its audience to this day. What for you were the most important elements in being able to do justice to such grief onscreen?

Jessica Hobbs: That was a beautifully developed moment by the writers before I even started the directing process. They had the guts to tell the story in that way and to stick with their idea that Lou’s death was just something that happened out of the blue. There would be no accident, no one to blame. In many ways, that spontaneity freed up my directing and made me conscious that I had to try and keep it very simple and real. It needed to feel like it was a real time experience and I think that’s why it made such an impact for the viewers.

Jess with Essie Davis onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess with Essie Davis (Anouk) onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: You recently directed two episodes (‘Anouk’ and ‘Hector’) of the popular Australian mini-series, adapted from the book of the same name, The Slap.  Did you choose to direct these particular episodes/character profiles? If so, why?

Jessica Hobbs: I can be honest now and say yes, I definitely chose Anouk but I initially tried to avoid the Hector episode – [producer] Tony Ayres corralled me into it so I blame him! It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Hector episode just that quite frankly it terrified me.  It was the opening episode of the series and it involved introducing all of the characters and the drama surrounding the slap, itself. I kept trying to off load the episode onto other directors but to no avail. In hindsight, I’m glad Tony pushed me towards it. The project was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a brilliant team of directors: Matt Saville, Rob Connolly and Tony Ayres.

AFI | AACTA: You were nominated for your first AFI Award in 2004 (Best Short Fiction Film – So Close to Home) and since then, have twice won the AFI Award for Best Direction in Television – in 2005 for Love My Way, and in 2006 for the two-part drama series about the invasion of East Timor, Answered by Fire. Last year, you were nominated again for the newly named AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television for The Slap. How does it feel and what has it done for your career to be nominated and win these Awards for your craft?

Jessica Hobbs: It was a great sensation to win those AFI awards. It does give you a wonderful feeling of peer recognition. I was immensely proud of both those projects so it was delightful to get the awards. Winning an AFI, or an AACTA as they are now known gave me confidence in my directing style and encouraged me to take more risks in choosing future projects.

Jess with her 2006 AFI Award for Best Direction in Television for ANSWERED BY FIRE

AFI | AACTA: The Slap has just been nominated for a BAFTA Award. Does international recognition feel especially gratifying?

Jessica Hobbs: Well, yes! I think for all of us on The Slap team, it’s been amazing seeing the program being so well received internationally. It has also begun to open up work opportunities for us in the UK.

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?

Jessica Hobbs: Trying to keep my sense of humour and not become crippled by self-doubt. I guess it is all part of the normal creative process but it can be very hard to cope with at times. Some things work brilliantly and others just don’t. I am finding that managing my emotional responses to all of that is a life long learning process, a bit of an emotional roller coaster.

AFI | AACTA: Is it difficult to maintain a work/life balance as a television director?

Jessica Hobbs: Yes, but I love the work and feel privileged to be able to do it. My children have a more mixed reaction to it but I’m trying to find a better balance for them.

Jess onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess on set of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: Which part of your job gives you the most joy?

Jessica Hobbs: The creative collaboration with writers, producers, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors – creative collaboration is the best part of the job for me. I adore working with people who push you to produce better work and open you up to all sorts of creative possibilities.

AFI | AACTA: Are there still particular challenges for women in the directing profession? Is there any advice you would give young women trying to get started?

Jessica Hobbs: I think the industry is very open to female directors now. My advice would be the same for anyone, both women and men, look at work that you like and try to work with the teams of people who have made the shows/films that you admire and keep doing your own work.

AFI | AACTA: Are you able to name three mentors who have significantly helped you or influenced you?

Jessica Hobbs: Ben Gannon gave me my first big break and a great piece of advice when I was starting out. He said that if I told the story well then he’d give me more episodes to direct. If it looked great but I didn’t tell the story well then that would be the end of it.

Meeting John Edwards, Claudia Karvan and Jacqueline Perske who all gave me the opportunity to direct Love My Way was momentous for my career. Those three people have had a significant and very positive affect on my directing work.

And Scott Meek [producer and former ABC Head of Drama] is a wonderful mentor to me and has been for many years.

AFI | AACTA: What is your all time favourite Australian film or television program? Why?

Jessica Hobbs: Oh god – picking one?!
Blue Murder for the effect it had on me when I first watched it. I had only just moved to Australia and was mesmerised by it. In terms of features, I still think it would be the experience of watching Samson and Delilah. I sat in the dark and watched in awe.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your sharing your time with us.

* AFI |AACTA Award Nominations and Wins:

2004 AFI Award for Best Short Fiction Film – Nomination
So Close To Home
2005 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Love My Way, Series 1 – Episode 8, ‘A Different Planet’ (Foxtel)
2006 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Answered By Fire (ABC)
2011 AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television – Nomination
The Slap – Episode 1, ‘Hector’ (ABC1)
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