Troubled Mothers, Gold Coast Garishness and The Sound of Music: P.J. Hogan on the making of MENTAL

Writer-director P.J. Hogan (centre) with cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine on the set of MENTAL.

By Rochelle Siemienowicz |

When writer-director P.J. Hogan burst into public consciousness in 1994 with his first feature film, Muriel’s Wedding, he not only launched two newly minted Australian stars (Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths) but, along with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, helped to fuel a fervent ABBA revival.

With an unflinching eye and keen ear for the Australian grotesque, Hogan managed to blend garish colours, iconic music and hilarious black humour with genuine pathos and moral complexity. It was a successful recipe that took the film to Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, and won Muriel’s Wedding four AFI Awards, a BAFTA nomination and an American Writers’ Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Proving that his talents could travel outside a Gold Coast location, Hogan’s first American film, the zany and unconventional My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), starring Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett, went on to become one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time and was nominated for three Golden Globes. His other American films have included Peter Pan (2003) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) and telemovies Dark Shadows (2005 ) and Nurses (2007 ). But now Hogan returns to his roots with an Australian film that looks like the Muriel’s cousin, complete with Toni Collette in a starring role.

Set in the Gold Coast town of Dolphin Heads this time (rather than ‘Porpoise Spit’!) Mental tells the story of the Moochmore family which consists of five loopy teenage girls, their depressed and ‘mental’ mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), and their shady local politician father Barry (Anthony LaPaglia). Into their rather sad and frazzled lives comes Shaz (Collette), the demented babysitter, picked up from the side of the road as a hitchhiker, she’s both brilliant and terrifying. The soundtrack this time is laden with tunes from the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score for The Sound of Music.

Muriel’s Cousin?

Hogan is matter of fact about the similarities between this latest film and his breakout hit all those years ago. “Like Muriel’s Wedding, Mental is based on events from my past,” he says. “It’s not surprising that they seem related. I always say that they share DNA. While not being the same story, they’re definitely from the same person.”

As far as the lurid Gold Coast location goes, this is where Hogan grew up. “We used a lot of the places that I remembered from my childhood that were still there. And if they weren’t still there, they were replaced by edifices even more garish, so there you go!” he enthuses.

Hogan, who turns 50 this year, is wiry and intense with bright brown eyes. He’s likable and funny and he laughs a lot, often at his own expense. But it’s clear he’s driven by his own demons and visions, many of them stemming from his personal family-of-origin story. He’s the first to admit he comes from a dysfunctional family, and that Mental is based on his own tragedies.

“The beginning of the film is almost as it happened,” he explains. When I was 12, my mother had a nervous breakdown. My dad, who was a local politician and running for re-election at the time, just said, ‘Nobody is going to vote for a bloke whose wife has gone crazy,’ so we had to keep it quiet. And he picked up a hitchhiker off the side of the road. He trusted her because she had a dog. And I remember we returned from school one day and there was this strange woman on the couch rolling a cigarette, with her dog by her side and a knife sticking out of her boot. She said, ‘Bit of a mess in here innit?’ As a writer, I didn’t feel the need to improve on that!”

Vulgar, fearless and unconventional, Collette’s Shaz is the twisted heroine of the film. Did her real life counterpart turn out to be such a positive influence on Hogan and his siblings? “She really did sort us out,” he answers. “We were a bunch of ratbags. My mother really did have a nervous breakdown for a reason, and we were a part of that! Shaz was very inspiring. To this day she remains one of the most original and inspiring people of my life. But she was crazy. And I mean, certifiably crazy, and we discovered that later. Like a lot of people who are crazy, she walked that line between crazy and genius. She thought about things in an original way. She’s probably still out there, living with another family, changing their lives right now!”

It’s hard to find a completely ‘normal’ person in Mental. There’s depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders, obsessive compulsion and a plethora of other unlabeled dysfunctions. In fact, one of the film’s themes is the idea that nobody is perfectly normal. Hogan agrees. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ means. My mother tried to be normal all her life and went mad in the process. Because what’s normal? It changes all the time. Normal is having a clean house. Normal is getting your kids into the right school, or even having a vegan diet. It’s a big issue for me because not only my mother had issues with depression, but my sister is schizophrenic, my brother is bipolar, so my family bats in the big leagues! It was very important for me that it not only be funny, but that it be compassionate.”

Troubled Mothers: from Betty Heslop to Shirley Moochmore

Certainly one of the most memorable characters in Muriel’s Wedding turned out to be the long-suffering people-pleasing mother of Muriel, Betty Heslop, played so beautifully by Jeanie Drynan. Despite having only a few scenes in the film, she was the tragic heart of the story, and in Mental, the troubled mother figure, played by Rebecca Gibney has echoes of Betty, but with a happier story arc, and a singing role.

The hills are alive, with the sound of…madness! Shirley Moochmore celebrates a manic shopping spree in MENTAL.

“I traveled the world with Muriel’s Wedding and the character that affected people most profoundly was Jeanie Drynan’s,” says Hogan. So many people asked me ‘Why did you have to make her die? Why did her ending have to be so sad?’ They all told me she reminded them of their own mother. I even met with people in India whose own mothers reminded them of Jeanie Drynan! Jeanie Drynan’s character was based on my own mother – and she didn’t have a very happy ending. So when I came to do Mental I decided to give my mother a happy ending.  I thought: ‘what if this time the Shirley character wins?’. And that’s what happens. She comes out on top and she gets some brass and I think Rebecca Gibney is marvelous in the role.”

The casting of the central roles is certainly notable. Toni Collette seems a natural fit for Shaz, especially with her history in Hogan’s first hit, and he admits that “this is one of the few times that I’ve written a role with an actor in mind because when I was working on the story I started to hear Toni’s voice saying Shaz’s lines.”

‘I couldn’t give that role away with a toaster! But Liev Schreiber saw what it could be.’

P.J. Hogan on set of MENTAL with actor Liev Schreiber.

But what about the casting of respected heavyweight American actor Liev Schreiber as the comedically menacing Trevor the shark hunter? It must be admitted that Schreiber’s pitch perfect Australian accent and macho presence in the film almost steal the show, but what led Hogan to think of him as a possibility? “I couldn’t give that role away with a free toaster! Nobody wanted to do it,” says Hogan, “because on the page Trev does not have much screen time. And actors, I don’t care who they are, they’re page-counters. They’ll finish reading the script and ask, ‘am I furniture, or am I a part?’ And often that becomes mathematical – if I’m not in it for more than 10 pages, then I’m furniture.’  But somehow the screenplay ended up in the hands of Liev and he saw what the role could be. I had never thought of going offshore for that role but Liev understood this guy. He contacted me through friends, and he wanted the part. And I said, ‘we have no money’, and he said, ‘I’ll do it for whatever you’ve got’. Of course we discussed the accent. I’m not a big believer in Americans coming in and trying to do the Australian accent, because it doesn’t usually work. It’s a very difficult accent to do. But I knew that Liev – having seen him on stage – is a master of accents. And of course he’s married to an Australian, and he felt that he could do it. I don’t think he would’ve done the part if he wasn’t convinced he could pull it off, and he did spectacularly.”

The Don behind the camera

MENTAL is cinematographer Don McAlpine’s first foray into digital cinematography – and he’s not turning back.

Mental is shot by legendary (and Raymond Longford Award-winning) cinematographer Don McAlpine, who also shot Peter Pan for Hogan nearly a decade ago. This new film boasts the honour of being McAlpine’s first experience with digital cinematography. “I didn’t want to do it digital,” admits Hogan, “because I’m a film guy, which makes me spiritually older than Don is. I’ve never really liked the look of digital film. But I left it to Don, and I thought after so many decades of shooting film, if Don wants to go digital, then he knows how to do it! And if you talk to Don, then you’ll know that he will never go back. He has now become digital’s biggest champion. He loves it. And this is the guy who did My Brilliant Career and Moulin Rouge – one of the greatest Australian DPs – and he’s not going to go back to film.”

A Mental nod to the Von Trapp Family

Asked what the most difficult aspect of making the film was, Hogan answers, “just making the thing, and making it on a low budget. I never really like talking about budgets because whether it’s low or high, I don’t like that to be the focal point – but I will say that Mental cost more than Muriel’s Wedding but only because with that film (Muriel) ABBA gave us the rights for free to use their music. A lot of the money here went towards getting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music. Luckily as a filmmaker I’m known for having a very good reason for using particular music in my films. Rodgers and Hammerstein are understandably very protective of what they own. They read the script and I had a talk to them and they agreed to allow me to use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a charity, so we did have to pay.”

Still, it was essential to Hogan that this particular music formed the backdrop to the film – and the scene involving Anthony LaPaglia’s rendition of ‘Eidelweiss’ has to be seen to be believed. “I just love the movie The Sound of Music,” says Hogan. I was introduced to it in re-release by my mother, who adored it. I couldn’t understand why she always cried when the father sang ‘Eidelweiss’ – it wasn’t until later that I realised why, and that to me was very important realisation: the sound of music is a very entertaining movie but it is a burden as well, to try to compare your family to the Von Trapps!”

Filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (centre), one of the producers of MENTAL, on set with husband and long time collaborator P.J. Hogan.

Mental  is now in general release in Australia.

Mental – Key Cast & Crew

Writer/Director: P.J. Hogan
Producers: Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Todd Fellman and Jocelyn Moorhouse
Executive Producers: Gary Hamilton, Bryce Menzies and Lee Soon Kie
Key Cast: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Sam Clark, Lily Sullivan, Malorie O’Neill, Nicole Freeman, Chelsea Bennett, Bethany Whitmore.
Director of Photography: Don McAlpine, ASC
Production Designer: Graham Walker
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Music: Michael Yezerski
Visual Effects Supervisor: Ben West
Costume Designer: Tim Chappel
Casting: Christine King

Timing and Talent: The Secrets Behind The Sapphires’ Success, with Director Wayne Blair

Wayne Blair, director of THE SAPPHIRES

Wayne Blair, director of  The Sapphires, is buzzing with excitement the morning after the film’s Australian premiere at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

We meet in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, which is swarming with friends, relatives and crew from the film. Screenwriter Tony Briggs (whose own family history forms the basis of the story of an Aboriginal singing group who toured Vietnam in 1968) strolls past smiling, and there are wives carrying babies and kids milling in the the lounge area. It’s enough to make you want to be part of the family, which in a way, is a key to the film’s special charm.

An opening night to remember…

“It was such a special night, wasn’t it?” says Blair, who is now cheerfully battling a cold. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was also a bit like a reunion! We had  the four lead actresses here – Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – the two writers [Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs]; Warwick Thornton, the cinematographer; Tess Schofield, the costume designer; the producers; and the four aunties whose story inspired the film.”

It certainly was a great night. As the festival’s opening night film, The Sapphires screened simultaneously in six packed cinemas. The feel-good story, with its spine-tingling Soul Music soundtrack, was followed by a huge party, with one of the film’s lead actresses, the golden voiced Jessica Mauboy, taking to the stage for an energetic live performance. The vibe in the room was ebullient, the general consensus being that The Sapphires is that magical much-longed-for creature: the quality Australian film with mass audience appeal.

“I was watching the film last night,” says Blair, “and I walked around between the six cinemas to see the audience reaction. It was great to be there and think, ‘yeah, it’s working!'”

A long journey, a tight budget and steep learning curve

It’s been a long journey for Blair, who is already an established stage and screen actor, writer and award-winning director of television and short films, including The Djarn Djarns, winner of the prestigious Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. (He was also nominated for an AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short Film for that project.) The Sapphires, however, is his feature film directorial debut.

“Tony [Briggs] approached me in about 2006 and said he was looking to make the stage musical into a film and wanted me to direct it,” says Blair. “But it was in the last three years that it really gained momentum. Three years ago, in Cannes, we got the money to make it, but then twelve months after that we lost the money from around the world. Then we got the money again in the space of about a week, and there was some real interest, and people were available to do it. We shot the film this time last year [2011] with a really tight budget of about AU$9.3 million. We had to shoot it in about six weeks. We had the money, we had the schedule, and the time was right.”

Partly shot in Vietnam (as well in Sydney and in Albury in country NSW), and with the added expense of recreating period costume and sets, meant that the budget and the schedule were very tight indeed. “We had to be very detailed and prepared to complete the film in those dates,” says Blair. “Of course every filmmaker wishes they had more time, but that was was we had to work with, and Warwick [Thornton] and myself and our first Assistant Director, Thomas Read, developed a kind of rhythm in terms of what we completed each day.”

Other challenges for the filmmaker included getting the sound right, particularly for a story with a musical focus. “Our Sound Designer Ben Osmo was unbelievable with the tight schedule. When you have five actors every day that you have to shoot and mic up, and have their voices as well as a piano thrown in, it’s all very complicated. Not just the playing and singing, but having the songs start and stop. It’s all those little nuances. We had Bry Jones as Music Producer and Cezary Skubiszewski doing the score. I feel very lucky to have had those three men available.”

Blair admits the learning curve while making The Sapphires was steep. “It was a huge task! Making a period film, with choreography, soul music, five actors every day – and three of the girls had very little acting experience – that was challenging. But now I  feel like I could walk on to a film set now with so much more confidence. I have learnt so much. Retained it as well. I just joke about how we fluked the film, but it was actually hard work and a lot of planning and good management.”

Cinematography – the quest for ‘a gorgeous feel’

There’s no doubt that having Warwick Thornton on board as Director of Photography was a boon for The Sapphires. The multi AFI Award-winning Indigenous director and cinematographer of Samson & Delilah (2009) had valuable experience to share and was a key contributor to the look and feel of the film.

“We wanted The Sapphires to look cinematic and we shot on 35mm,” says Blair. “It’s funny, people last night were saying to me: ‘That’s the last time you’re going to shoot on film’. And I asked Warwick about it – because we’re talking about a couple of other projects we want to do – and he said: ‘Ah, no, we’ll still shoot on film!'”

Director Wayne Blair (left) and cinematographer Warwick Thornton on the set of THE SAPPHIRES

“We wanted to make the film beautiful,” adds Blair. “We wanted to make Cummeraganja – the place which is the girls’ home – look like a home that you would love to go to. That’s how Cummeraganja was, and is today. Our resonating films were films like The Colour Purple, which has this farm on the outskirts of a plantation of the deep south, with colours that are just so rich – the reds and the purples and the oranges. Also, we wanted to show Vietnam. You’ve seen Vietnam through the eyes of American movies all the time, but you haven’t seen Vietnam through the eyes of these four Koori girls from country Victoria, in their reds and their oranges and their greens. We didn’t just want to make it pretty, but we wanted the colours to pop, to give the whole thing a gorgeous feel.”

L-R: Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy & Shari Sebbens in THE SAPPHIRES.

The Irish Ingredient

Another coup for the film was the casting of roguish Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) in the role of Dave Lovelace, the failed musician who discovers the girls in a country town pub talent contest and becomes their manager.

“In the stage show Dave Lovelace was an Australian, but for the film we made him Irish,” says Blair. “And seeing how well it works, with all those Irish sensibilities coming into play, you just think, ‘Ah, he should have always been Irish!'”

As the only internationally recognised star in the film, O’Dowd was a key drawcard for The Sapphires in Cannes, when it had its world premiere to a standing ovation in May, boosted by the news that Harvey Weinstein had picked it up for international distribution. Blair remembers O’Dowd’s comments on the red carpet. “He said, Wayne, I’ve done work with many directors and many big films and I never thought this small Australian film I did in country Victoria would be at the Cannes Film Festival.’ He sort of jokes about how he only came to do it because he wanted to come and visit his sister, who lives in Melbourne, but he was great. While he was here, he had to go to L.A. a couple of time to shoot other things, so we only had him for three or four weeks of the shoot. We definitely worked him while we had him!”

Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, left) and Gail (Deborah Mailman) in a scene from THE SAPPHIRES.

Some joy and some love, and a chance to feel human again…

The Sapphires touches lightly on a number of issues surrounding the history and treatment of Indigenous Australians. There is reference to the Stolen Generation’ and to the problems of being ‘half-caste’ and the inherent racism of 1960s Australia. But the fact that the story is predominantly a happy one – featuring a loving and intact family, beautiful music and an upbeat ending, has brought it in for criticisms of ‘glossing over reality’.

Such quibbles are mildly annoying to Blair. “It’s weird. You can’t please everybody. There has been that kind of feedback, and that’s OK. But this is the film we wanted to make.” He continues. “There are films like Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, but why not this kind of film too? Look at the world today, the war in Syria and everything else that’s happening. Aboriginal people in Australia need some joy and some love and the chance to feel human again. With my people, comedy is the best form of healing. We wanted to make some positive role models, positive change, rather than negative stereotypes we see all the time. There are lots of different representations – like Warwick’s, and Ivan’s and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. With a film like this we can’t change the world in the way governments and laws can, but we can make a difference.”

According to Blair, the intention right from the outset was to make a film that was entertaining and sent people out of the cinema feeling happy. “We wanted to make a film like other films that make you shed a little tear, or make you want to fall in love, or want to ring your mum and say ‘I love you’, or go home and put some music on and dance. We didn’t want to make a film that made you feel like going into a dark house to have a cry and be by yourself for three weeks.”

Blair’s ambitions for the film see it reaching far beyond the inner-suburban arthouse cinemas. “The people that say ‘oh it glosses over this or that’ – they’re the half a per cent of people who watch film for a living, I suppose. But I want a packed cinema in Port Hedland, or a packed cinema in Gawler, South Australia, or Renmark, or Mt Isa. The people who watch the Olympics, or one-day cricket matches. I want people to go to the cinema again on a regular basis. Hopefully The Sapphires will be not only a continuation for Indigenous filmmakers, but also open it up for Australian filmmakers as a whole, because a film like this, out of 110 territories in the world, it’s going to go to 110. For a small Australian film with Indigenous content, we’re representing you, me, the people that are sitting over there. That feels quite nice!”

Does Blair feel he is part of a group, a movement, a family of Indigenous filmmakers who are making work together and creating a new reality? “Absolutely!” He exclaims. “United we stand, divided we fall. There’s this platform now, and more Indigenous stories are being told like Mabo and Richard Frankland’s Stone Bros., and the ABC series that I’ve been working on, Redfern Now.”

At the same time, Blair is careful not to get too excited, especially about the lack of Indigenous faces in mainstream media. “I think we’re a little bit stuck. It’s progressing, ever so slowly, but it’s nothing to celebrate just yet. Everyone goes ‘it’s a Renaissance!’ but we’re kind of doing it ourselves, and you need that support from people who have money.”

If he could fantasise about an ideal Australian film industry five years into the future, what would it look like? Blair laughs and says he’d love to see “something like getting Jess Mauboy and Shari Sebbens in a David Michôd film, or a film directed by Joel Edgerton. More black faces on the screen!”

He’d also like to see the dream run at Cannes continue. “The last three years we’ve had Samson & Delilah, Toomelah and The Sapphires at Cannes. It would be great to get another Australian film at Cannes with an Indigenous flavour.”

And then there are the budgets. A man can dream. “Sometimes you feel like people set you up to fail with the budgets,” he says. “I think it would be great to have an Indigenous film that had something like 30 million dollars or 40 million. Mao’s Last Dancer had 20 million… It would be great for non Indigenous filmmakers to cast Aboriginal actors in key roles, and also for Indigenous filmmakers to have budgets of 20 or 30 million a year, and a couple of those kind of films a year. Yeah, that’s what I’d like!”

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Fast Facts – The Sapphires

Key Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director: Wayne Blair
Producers: Rosemary Blight & Kylie Du Fresne | Goalpost Pictures
Screenplay: Keith Thompson & Tony Briggs
Director of Photography: Warwick Thornton
Editor: Dany Cooper
Production Designer: Melinda Doring
Costume Designer: Tess Schofield
Hair & Makeup Designer: Nikki Gooley
Music Producer: Bry Jones
Composer: Cezary Skubiszewski
Choreographer: Stephen Page
Australian Distributor: Hopscotch Films
International Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Budget: Approx AU$9.3 million
Facebook page
Twitter: @SapphiresFilm

Last Dance – an interview with producer Antony I. Ginnane

A grey-haired Jewish widow, Ullah (Julia Blake), buys her bread in one of Melbourne’s Kosher delis. Suddenly there are sirens ringing out and the shops are quickly emptied. Ullah hurries home, only to be accosted on her doorstep by a fleeing man, a Palestinian radical, Mohammed (Firass Dirani), who takes her hostage in her own home as he hides out from the police after the bombing of a nearby synagogue. So begins a tense hostage drama where politics is personal. Looking each other directly in the eye, the elderly holocaust survivor and the young dispossessed Palestinian begin to see their own struggles and sorrows reflected.

Firass Dirani as ‘Mohammed’ in LAST DANCE.

Directed by David Pulbrook, who co-wrote the script with Terence Hammond, Last Dance is an elegant piece of filmmaking. Nicely shot within its confined spaces, tightly scripted and beautifully acted by its two leads, who appear in almost every scene, it’s a classic example of how to make a low-budget set-up of ‘two people in a room’ work as a visually interesting and dramatically exciting film. Last Dance is premiering at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival to  fast-selling screenings, and a cinema release is scheduled for late September.

Some may find it surprising to see Antony I. Ginnane’s name in the credits as producer of Last Dance. Thanks perhaps to Mark Hartley’s documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Ginnane is better known for his work in the ‘Ozploitation’ genre – films like Patrick (1977), Turkey Shoot (1982) Arctic Blast (2010) and a host of telemovies. But a look through Ginnane’s packed CV also reveals titles like Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987), The Lighthorsemen (1987 ) and Grievous Bodily Harm (1988).

Antony I. Ginnane

A controversial and colourful industry veteran, Ginnane is hard to categorise. He has produced more than 60 feature films, ‘movies of the week’ and miniseries over his 40-year career, and distributed numerous others through his distribution company, IFM World Releasing. Having spent many years living and working in the U.S., many of Ginnane’s projects sport a decidedly international B-movie flavour. As President of SPAA (the Screen Producers Association of Australia) from 2008 to 2011, Ginnane was well known for his outspoken views on Australian films and the need for more hits at the box office. At the same time, he championed funding mechanisms for low-budget filmmakers and talked about the the need for Screen Australia to fund films justifiable purely on their cultural merit.

Antony I. Ginnane is now an Honorary Councillor in the producers chapter of  the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). Here he answers our questions about Last Dance, revealing why such a stylish and humanistic thriller actually fits perfectly within his body of work. Ginane also gives advice for new producers, as well as talking about his hopes for the new Australian Academy. And in a special treat for horror fans, he gives us the latest on the much-anticipated horror remake of Patrick.

AFI | AACTA: When did you become involved as producer of  Last Dance, and what attracted you to it as a project?

Antony I. Ginnane: David Pulbrook, whom I have known for many years, showed me the script about two and a half years ago.  I met with co-writer Terence Hammond.  I was instantly attracted to the script and its potential.

AFI | AACTA:  Is this film significantly different or unique to any of the other projects you’ve been involved with in your 40 years in the industry?

Antony Ginnane: Many of the films I have produced over the years have been thrillers and I very much enjoy the genre.  The director and screenwriter are first timers and I have worked with many [first timers] over the years, including Simon Wincer, Rod Hardy, Bill Condon, Andrew Prowse and Colin Eggleston.  It was a low budget project in Australian commercial film industry terms [less than $2 million] – but I have worked in low budget many times, so probably no, [not significantly different] – other than [the fact] that every film is a unique and special experience.

AFI | AACTA: As a producer, were you involved in the creative aspects of the film like script and casting, or primarily in the financing?

Antony I. Ginnane: On Last Dance I was very involved in the casting and creative aspects in pre and post production but I had a huge level of confidence in David and his preparation and a belief (well founded, as it turned out) that things would go smoothly on the set, and so I was not on set all that much, although David and I talked of course about the dailies.

AFI | AACTA: Can you talk about putting together the financing of the film – the involvement of the MIFF Premiere Fund, Screen Australia, Film Victoria? Was it a challenge to raise this?

Antony I. Ginnane: I only get involved with films where I can see how they can be potentially financed from the outset.  Not that they will be financed necessarily, because luck and serendipity always play a role.  On Last Dance it was clear that with a commitment from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, MIFF Premiere Fund, the Australian distributors (Becker Film Group) and the international distributors (Highpoint Media Group), plus some private investment and the offset, we could make the finance happen.

Nothing is ever easy – but this one was comparatively easy to close – although we had a hair-raising week when the MEAA [Media Entertainment Arts Alliance] refused to approve an original casting choice and we had to recast.  At that point the continued support of the agencies and our investors was key. [High profile American actress Gena Rowlands was originally cast to play the role eventually filled by the respected and AFI Award-winning Australian film and theatre actress Julia Blake. You can read more about the MEAA dispute here at Screenhub.]

Julia Blake as ‘Ullah’ in LAST DANCE.

AFI | AACTA: Last Dance could be seen as a fine example of the classic ‘two people in a room’ low budget drama – with the capacity to entertain and thrill but with little need for expensive production elements. What are the risks and challenges of this kind of filmmaking?

Antony I. Ginnane: It’s well known I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock.  So the ‘two in a room’ reminded me of Lifeboat and Rope and the technical challenges that Hitchcock worked through.  David Pulbrook’s career as an editor made me confident he could handle that challenge and he did.  His camera work reminds me of Preminger or Eastwood and brings a real sense of tension to every moment.  That combined with Michael Allen’s score and the cutting style keep you riveted.

AFI | AACTA: What are you plans for releasing the film here in Australia and also abroad? Do you have cinemas and dates to announce yet? Are there any particular strategies in place for promoting awareness of the film?

Antony I. Ginnane: Becker Film Group will release the film in late September just after the Jewish holidays on a platform release initially in Melbourne and Sydney.  Internationally, Highpoint are targeting other film festivals (to follow MIFF) and are waiting till the Australian reviews and box office are in to push further into foreign [markets]. It’s set in Melbourne – but the themes are universal.

AFI | AACTA: As an Honorary Councillor in the producers chapter of AACTA, what are your hopes for the new Australian Academy?

Antony I. Ginnane: I hope the new Academy forms part of a necessary refocus and rejuvenation of Australian feature filmmaker’s engagement with the audience and vice versa so that our share of the theatrical Australian box office can get closer to 10 per cent, as it should be.  Upcoming titles like The Sapphires, Bait, Mental and The Great Gatsby give some level of optimism.

AFI | AACTA: As a producer who has been nominated for AFI Awards, and been involved with many wins, what is the key significance and benefit of the Awards process – and indeed of winning an AFI or AACTA Award?

Antony I. Ginnane: Some films are helped by awards critical recognition more than others.  Smaller titles going out through Palace, Nova, Dendy etc. benefit particularly if there is a relevant time connection between the theatrical or DVD release date.  In addition the Awards validate and focus attention on the filmmakers and their work and that is important.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to give one piece of advice to a young up-and-coming Australian producer, what would it be?

Antony I. Ginnane: You need to be able to handle rejection; believe in yourself and yet be realistic about financing and market realities.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to sum up one aspect of your career that you’re most proud of, what would it be?

Antony I. Ginnane: There is no one moment. Forty years and 62 films have meant every single day I have been engaged with an art form and business that gives me emotional and intellectual stimulation, satisfaction and joy.

AFI | AACTA: Finally, can you tell us how things are progressing with the Patrick remake? There is certainly a lot of interest in this project from the horror fans!

Antony I. Ginnane: Patrick starts shooting in Melbourne on November 12, 2012, with Rachel Griffiths, Sharni Vinson and Charles Dance starring and Mark Hartley directing from a screenplay by Justin King.  It world premieres at MIFF 2013 and opens in Australia October 20, 2013 – just in time for Halloween.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time and best wishes with the release of Last Dance.

Tickets to sessions of Last Dance at the Melboourne International Film Festival can be booked here.

Last Dance – Fast Facts

Director: David Pulbrook
Writers: Terence Hammond and David Pulbrook
Producer: Antony I. Ginnane
Executive Producers: William Fayman, Ann Lyons, Peter deRauch
Associate Producer: Margot McDonald
Australian Distributor: Becker Film Group Pty. Ltd.
Key Cast: Julia Blake, Firass Dirani, Alan Hopgood
Director of Photography: Lee Pulbrook
Composer: Michael Allen
Editor: Phil Reid
Production Design: Les Binns
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Budget: Less than AU$2 million

The King is Dead! Long Live the King. An interview with Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer. Photo by Matt Nettheim.

There’s no doubt that Rolf de Heer is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Australia today, and one of our few true auteurs. As the writer, director and producer of 13-odd feature films, he’s also one of the most prolific, working predominantly with low budgets, loyal crew and genre-defying storytelling. You may not like everything he makes, but you have to admire his audacity. From the unforgettable opening scenes of incest, cockroach eating and cat-killing in the surprisingly uplifting cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) through to a love triangle involving an actress with a severe disability in Dance Me To My Song (1998), to the brutal and beautiful South Australian musical The Tracker (2002), starring the iconic David Gulpilil, right through to the ground-breaking Arnhem Land collaboration of Ten Canoes (1996), de Heer never repeats himself.

This originality has been rewarded often, both at home and abroad. Bad Boy Bubby was  selected for competition at the Venice Film Festival and won both the Special Jury Prize and the Critics’ Award – before going on to win four AFI Awards in 1994. The Quiet Room (1996) – a film about the interior landscape of a child whose parents are divorcing, and Dance Me To My Song were selected for competition at Cannes. Alexandra’s Project (a 2003 thriller starring Gary Sweet as a bad husband receiving his comeuppance) was selected for competition at Berlin. Most recently, Ten Canoes was selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2006 and won the Special Jury Prize, before going on to win three AFI Awards. That same year (2006), de Heer was honoured with the Byron Kennedy Award.

Now de Heer is reluctantly but dutifully back in the spotlight, to help promote The King is Dead!, a suburban comic drama that taps into a very common frustration: living next door to the neighbours from hell. Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic play an attractive middle class couple who buy their dream home in a nice Adelaide suburb, only to discover that on one side of the fence, the scuzzy ‘King’ (Gary Waddell) is playing host to every hoon, drug dealer, addict and petty criminal in the neighbourhood. The noise is bad, the theft is worse, and slowly the aimiable couple (he’s a science teacher; she’s a tax accountant) are driven to extreme measures. Here’s the trailer:

De Heer’s low-budget working methods are notoriously pragmatic. Necessity often proves to be the mother of brilliant invention. (You can read elsewhere about the now-famous innovations and compromises that made Bad Boy Bubby so unique, or the way that his 2007 silent film Dr Plonk emerged from finding 20,000 feet of unexposed film sitting in the fridge.) In the case of The King is Dead! de Heer was planning to sell his Adelaide house in order to move to a rural property in Tasmania.  He realised that the empty house could be used for a number of weeks, making it a convenient set for the story he’d long ago scripted. Luckily his own neighbours were amenable, with the house on one side turned into the ‘King’s’ trashed lair, complete with overgrown lawn, upturned shopping trolley’s and a crumbling false front. Meanwhile, the neighbour on the other side, a chef, set up his garage as a catering space for the production.

This interview was conducted with de Heer last week when he visited the AFI | AACTA offices – de Heer is one of the Honorary Councillors of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. We talked about his shift to rural Tasmania (no, he’s not retiring); his views on the intractable problems of bad neighbours, and his first foray into the world of digital cinematography.

AFI | AACTA: Congratulations on the film, which is a lovely mix of humour, drama and a few dark and scary moments. It’s billed as a ‘suburban western’ but it’s hard to put it into a particular genre. Is this the kind of genre-crossing film you were intending to make?

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, it crosses the genres a bit. But intending…? Well, when I wrote the script my intention was simply to write the script and let it go where it wanted to go. Now, that’s a simple way of explaining something complex – “stuff that was going on in my head.” But I did want to do something light – not that this film is entirely light – but I wanted to do something a bit lighter than what I’d been working on, which was a really heavy script on commission.

AFI | AACTA: Was the making of this film significantly different to anything you’d done before?

Rolf de Heer:  Every time I do a film, it feels significantly different to what’s come before, and I don’t think this is an exception. I mean, Dr Plonk felt significantly different from anything I’d done before, and so did Ten Canoes, and… you know, back down the line. Filmmaking’s far too difficult to turn it into a 9-to-5 repetitive job. You know, it’s seven days a week, 12 or 14 hours a day. So to turn that into a job would be most unpleasant!

AFI | AACTA: Like many of your films, this one emerged out of the practical opportunity of having a house empty to shoot in. Can you tell us about that?

Rolf de Heer:  The script was written and, as is often enough the case when I write a script, I put it down and it sits there for a while. It did sit there for a couple of years. And then I knew I was going to move in a year or so – that was one of the preconditions, in the sense, that existed. In one respect, we were sorry to be leaving, because we had these great neighbours and we enjoyed them very much. I needed to do something – it had been a while since I had done a film and I felt I needed to do something. And it all went click-click-click – this is what we do. Let’s do this film and let’s do it here, which will allow us to do it for a much lower budget, and without the difficulty of finding somewhere else, and without the compromise of trying to find three houses together, and the cost that would involve. I mean,  where do you find three houses together like that?

AFI | AACTA: And the neighbours did the catering as well? [laughs]

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, yeah, that sort of stuff. I mean, everybody was involved. It was a great thing to do together before we left. And you know, there were other savings to the budget in the sense in that we had to get the house ready eventually for sale anyway, and so we got it ready before, because then it’s ready for the film. You just do a bit of a clean up afterwards and it’s fine. And so we were able to make a film that was meaningful to us, because it’s often the case, when you make a film, that it takes on a secondary meaning that has something to do with the making it. In a way, the making of this one was a celebration of neighbours, whereas the film itself is really about the neighbour from hell.

AFI | AACTA: One of the things the film really does well is showing how powerless you really are if your neighbours are bad. The police are hamstrung, the legal system’s useless, there’s very little you can do. It can also be read as a kind of metaphor for international relations, that kind of thinking that there’s no ‘big brother’ who can solve the problem for you.

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, amongst people, the bullies have it over the decent people. And it’s a real problem. How do you deal with it? Because society’s getting so complex, and one size [of law] doesn’t fit all, but that’s the only way that society works. You have a law that covers everything. And because it does, it has all these unintended consequences and so, because it has unintended consequences, authorities become much more careful with what sort of laws they pass. And it becomes this sort of gridlock that humanity is not able to climb out of.  I don’t think you can legislate for every eventuality. Sometimes I think about this extraordinary thing I read about local councils, where something like 65% of all complaints to councils are about dogs. I mean councils are responsible for all kinds of things, infrastructure, but dogs are the thing that actually takes up most of their time. And you think: “Oh, God…”

AFI | AACTA: It is very easy for a reasonable person to get to the point where they want to kill someone’s dog!

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, that’s true. But what I’m saying is: how do you deal with that? How do you legislate for that? You can’t. You can’t legislate people not to have dogs. Well, you can, but then you’re not going to be in office for very long. And so you’re going to get problems, and the police are powerless to deal with a situation like that. They turn up, they can shut them up temporarily. And yes, there is a process you can go through, but as the character says in the film, it’s long and it’s expensive, and at the end of it, you’re probably no better off.  It’s a real problem.

Some neighbours drive you to extreme measures…THE KING IS DEAD. L-R: Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell.

AFI | AACTA: The married couple in this story, Therese and Max, they’re very normal and sensible people, calm and quite open-minded. You know, they don’t easily resort to extreme positions…

Rolf de Heer: No, it’s just the weight of the situation. I quite like the moral dilemmas that they have to deal with. They’re sort of… interesting.

AFI | AACTA: The interactions and banter between this couple, played by Dany Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic, are very convincing and humourous as they weigh up their options. 

Rolf de Heer: Yes, one of the things that pleases me most about the film is the cast and how the cast works together.

On one side of the fence the neighbours are lovely…. (L-R: Bojana Novakovic, Michaela Cantwell, Lily Adey, Roman Vaculik & Dan Wyllie).

AFI | AACTA: The cinematography was by Ian Jones, who you’ve worked with a lot before. And according to the press notes this is the first digital fim you’ve done together?

Rolf de Heer: It was the first digital film I’ve done. Everything else I’ve ever done has been on film. So that’s a departure for me. And we did it because both Ian and I came to the same conclusion, quite independently, that this project should be shot on a Canon stills camera. In this case, a Canon EOS 7D was what we arrived at being the best for this particular film. It’s a whole thing that has happened in capturing the moving image, particularly at the mid- to lower-end. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 7D. I mean, they had a bit of a movie capture function and it actually turned out to be quite extraordinarily good, and people adapted these cameras and added things to them and so on… and many, many, many productions now are shot with the same cameras as you would take overseas to take happy snaps.

Cinematographer Ian Jones on the shoot for THE KING IS DEAD

AFI | AACTA: Michael Rymer’s  Face To Face, released last year, used this kind of camera. Has Ian worked with this sort of camera before? Are you happy with how it worked for you?

Rolf de Heer: Ian hadn’t used it before so it was an exploration for both of us and that’s one of the things that’s interesting, you explore something new. Yeah, I’m happy. It looks great, and it did make a huge impact on the budget. It was actually cheaper, because not all digital processes are much cheaper. But in this case, with the workflow in post-production, it all worked and it did manage to save us money. I think now, it’s going to be very difficult to shoot film. I think there’s one lab left…

AFI | AACTA: Let’s talk about the sound. James Currie was your sound designer, and has been on pretty much all your films. Were there particular challenges on this project, or was it very straightforward from a sound perspective?

Rolf de Heer: Jim and I never allow anything to do with sound to be very straightforward! But in as far as between us things can be straightforward, this one was. There’s so many things you try… and so no, it wasn’t straightforward, but it’s not meant to be ‘out there’ in not being straightforward. It works and it’s subtle and you know, we tried a whole thing with sync atmos… you know, sticking microphones out in the backyard of suburbia, pointing away from what’s happening inside. We were trying to organically create the suburban soundscape. So yeah, a bit complex, but compared to some things we’ve done, it’s relatively straightforward.

AFI | AACTA: Can you talk about this move to Tasmania? Is that about slowing down or wanting a different way of working?

Rolf de Heer: I like to do things, and when it’s hot, it’s hard to do things. That’s one thing. Another thing is, I spend the majority of my working life at home. Well, it may as well be that home is somewhere fantastic. And so, on a number of levels, Tasmania fits the bill, and where we are fits the bill even more.

AFI | AACTA: And your partner [Molly Reynolds ]is a filmmaker too, so you can both work from home?

Rolf de Heer: Well, she’s more of a broad screen practitioner. She’s into web design and also documentaries. But yeah, we both work from home a lot.

AFI | AACTA: And the kids are kind of grown up now and you are free to move where you want?

Rolf de Heer: They’re gone. Goodbye, yeah.

AFI | AACTA: So you definitely want to keep making films at a similar pace?

Rolf de Heer: Ah, I’m trying… Look, I’ve just made one. No, there’s no pace, there’s not pattern. I mean, it was five years between Dr Plonk and The King Is Dead. I don’t know when the next one will be. I’m trying to finance something at the moment. We’ll see. If it comes easily, then hopefully next year I’ll be shooting something. If it doesn’t, then I don’t know when the next one is. No, I haven’t retired.

AFI | AACTA: Well, some people might think that. Lots of people do go to Tasmania to retire.

Rolf de Heer: There was a rumor around for quite a while that I had retired, but no.

AFI | AACTA: You do realise it’s a bit of a coup for the Tasmanians to have you living there and they’ll probably come after you to be involved in their screen culture –  which actually looks quite exciting at the moment.

Rolf de Heer:  Yes, I would have to be there for them to be able to do that and I’m a long way south of Hobart, and it’s not so easy. But inevitably I will have some involvement in some way at some time with some aspect of the Tasmania screen industry, I suppose, because I’m there.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve been doing publicity for films for a long time now. Is that one of your least favorite parts of the process?

Rolf de Heer: Yeah, it is, it is. It’s not unpleasant on this one, for example. Well, on most of them, it’s not unpleasant. I don’t like it conceptually. I wish I could be at home, working or something like that. I’m not good at selling and I have to work hard at that. But on the whole, it’s not been that hard for me, because people generally like the films. And in this particular case, I’m quite surprised about the extent to which the journalists that I’ve spoken to have liked the film [The King is Dead!]. And that of course makes it much, much easier. There’s no prickly investigation into what’s wrong with this and what’s wrong with that. If you’ve made a real clunker and you’re out there trying to promote it, or you thought you made some really good work and then it turns out that other people don’t like it all, which is a different thing to it being a clunker, that’s difficult.

‘It’s a convenience if the reviews are good…’ Rolf de Heer

AFI | AACTA: Has the reception to any of your films kind of broken your heart?

Rolf de Heer: No, no. Enough people have heard this from me, but I’ll say it again. I became sort of critic-proof as a consequence of the second film that I made, which was Encounter at Raven’s Gate. It was released in England and they did a whole heap of reviews, and so I got this fat bundle of reviews from the English distributor. I sit down to read them, and I remember the first paragraph of the first one said: “Australians make some very bad films. This is the worst of them.” I was like “Oh my God.” And then it proceeded to justify that position all the way through the rest of the review, and it was damning, it was just destroying. And I went to the next one, it was hardly any better. It was just a shocking, shocking, shocking review. I thought: “God, no, no!” However, there was a whole bunch of them. And it gradually, gradually, gradually got better, and so whoever sent them to me put the worst on top and I remember the last paragraph of the last review, and it said: “This film is a work of genius. Tarkovsky with pace!” Now, you take those two paragraphs, that first one and that last one… and I realised, not a frame of the film was any different. It’s exactly the same film, but they saw two profoundly different films, those two films. There’s nothing I can do about that, okay? And so, it’s more about the viewer than it is about the film itself. So, on that level, that personal level I can’t be offended, you know. If somebody doesn’t like The King Is Dead, that’s fine. It’s a convenience if the reviews are good, it can be an inconvenience if the reviews are bad, but it’s nothing personal. But that’s all it is, it’s a convenience or an inconvenience.

AFI | AACTA: Have you ever learned anything from someone’s writing about your work? Has it ever instructed you in terms of how you make your next film?

Rolf de Heer: No, because the next film is not related to the previous film for me. And that’s not being dismissive, but when you get different responses to the extent of those reviews, and you get everything in between, you think: “Well, what do I listen to?”

AFI | AACTA: Yes, but there must be people whose opinions you really value and care about, who aren’t necessarily critics or reviewers. The people you collaborate with?

Rolf de Heer with actor Gary Waddell. Photo by Matt Nettheim

Rolf de Heer: I’m interested in opinion to a certain extent at certain stages, and I will listen to it. If it resonates in some way, it’s probably worth exploring. And I do think I’m collaborative. I’m told that I am very collaborative, for instance with the actors…An actor knows much more about that character than I ever will, because they’re concentrating just on that character, and I’m looking at all the characters plus sound, camera, continuity, costume, everything. And so I can’t be as specialist as they are. But, I don’t, you know… I’m not interested in making films according to a formula and a lot of what masquerades as opinion about something is to do with formula. The classic writing formula is the three acts structure, all that stuff. I don’t subscribe to it. I do in the sense that it’s fine for other people to do that, but I don’t do that. And so you can tell me that there’s something structurally wrong with [my films] but I don’t care. That’s the way it’s meant to be, that’s the way it feels right to me. And if I start to listen too much to outside opinion about that sort of thing, then I become a second-rate filmmaker. There are other people who do that better than I ever can. And so, if I’m going to start listening and go in that direction, I shouldn’t be making films, because I won’t make very good films, compared to those that are following those sort of formulas, in a way. I mean, Hollywood does it extraordinarily well. I can’t do that. And so, all I can do is make my sorts of films and hopefully enough people like them for me to be able to make another one. And that’s generally what is the case.

AFI | AACTA: From what you’ve been saying, I imagine that winning awards isn’t that important to you, personally?

Rolf de Heer: No. But they can help the film. Look, as long as you are careful with it, they can be a blessing. Again, I was very lucky. Before I’d really won any awards, in fact, days before I won lots of awards, I was approached in a hotel lobby, me and the lead actor of Bad Boy Bubby, Nicholas Hope, by a camera crew: “Excuse me, are you famous?” And we laughed, we said no, we’re not, and they walked away. And then they stopped and came back. And they said: “Well, what are you doing here?” – which was the Venice Film Festival, “What are you doing here if you’re not famous?” And we laughed again. And in the end, they interviewed us, just in case. Then three or four days later, we were the most famous people in the Venice Film Festival – just for a little bit until Robert de Niro turned up – but we were. And to have had that experience was a wonderful thing to guard against getting seduced by things that aren’t so. But when Ten Canoes won all those AFI Awards, it was a wondrous time for a profound reason, okay? And I’m deeply grateful that we did that, because it was so, so important to the mob, to the Indigenous mob that we made it with, because it validated their culture. It was just profoundly important.

AFI | AACTA: And winning at Cannes must have been very meaningful to them too?

Rolf de Heer: To them, Australia’s the most important thing, you know. Cannes was overseas people. But that doesn’t solve the problem here. But here, when the film won AFI Awards, then it meant something. “Ah, people here in Australia value their culture, not just overseas people.”

AFI | AACTA: Speaking of AFI Awards, and now the AACTA Awards, you’re an Honorary Councillor in the new Academy. What would you hope that the Academy might become or be able do for the industry?

Rolf de Heer:  [the idea of the Academy] has been on the edge of things for a very long time, because I remember going to meetings in Sydney at the Grape Escape Wine Bar. There was a real attempt to launch an Academy and that would have had to been … how long ago? Twenty-five years? It was serious. People wanted something that they could trust, in a way, and I think that’s the area that becomes important. Integrity to the awards process. Okay, there was a time when the AFI Awards were very rigid and there was no doubting their integrity. You couldn’t doubt it, because it was so rigid and that came with its own problems, because you couldn’t vote, unless you had been marked off and physically seen to have seen at least half an hour of every film that was involved. Now, that had its problems – sometimes only a few people voted in certain categories, but at the same time, it was completely transparent and a wonderful thing. But it was unsustainable. I think there will be an evolution in the way that the AACTA Awards are structured, but there is at least the possibility of total integrity….with pre-selection, and with having an Academy and having members who are associated with their relevant guilds.

AFI| AACTA: It will be interesting to see how it evolves.

Rolf de Heer: It will, it will. It has a chance. It’s a good footing that it’s on.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time, and best wishes with The King is Dead!

The King is Dead! Fast Facts

Key Cast: Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes, Lani John Tupu
Location: Adelaide
Budget: $1.2 million
Writer/director/producer: Rolf de Heer
Producer: Nils Erik Nielson
Cinematographer: Ian Jones ACS
Production Designer: Beverley Freeman
Sound Designer: James Currie
Sound Designer: Tom Heuzenroeder
Film Editor: Tania Nehme
Composer: Graham Tardif
Musical Director: Timothy Sexton
Distributor: Pinnacle Films
Website | Facebook

Rolf de Heer’s Production Notes for The King is Dead make for entertaining and enlightening reading. You can find them at the Vertigo Films website: here.

Sass and Suitability: Sarah Snook

When Sarah Snook walked onto the stage in January to collect the AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama, there was a flurry of whispers along the lines of: “Who’s that girl?” The young flame-haired actress in the spectacular red Lisa Ho gown certainly looked the part, taking to the podium of the Sydney Opera House with grace and humour; but many in the audience had missed her standout performance in the ABC telemovie Sisters of War where she played a spunky Australian nurse caught up in the World War II invasion of New Guinea by the Japanese. (Here’s our video interview with Snook in the media room just moments after she accepted the award.)

Careful observers might have recognised Snook from her work on Australian television (Blood BrothersSpirited Season 2, Packed to the Rafters, All Saints) and from some brief scenes in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (she played Emily Browning’s disgruntled flatmate). Insiders also knew that Sarah Snook was the Australian actress who attracted international headlines when she was shortlisted for David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Nicknamed ‘the Australian Emma Stone’, the Adelaide-raised Snook ultimately lost out to Rooney Mara for the role, but the buzz around the protracted casting process put her name on the casting map. She’s just finished shooting her first lead role in a US feature, the horror/thriller Jessabelle directed by Kevin Greutert (Saw 3D).

Here in Australia, you can see Sarah Snook right now at a cinema near you, where she stars in the new biological clock comedy Not Suitable for Children. Snook plays ‘Stevie’, the friend and flatmate to Ryan Kwanten’s irresponsible party boy, ‘Jonah’. When Jonah discovers he’s about to become infertile due to testicular cancer treatment, he embarks on a mad quest to fulfil his dream of fatherhood. Written by Michael Lucas (Offspring) and directed by Peter Templeman (The Saviour), it’s sweet and funny, with genuine chemistry between the leads and a great soundtrack offsetting the youthful energy of an inner-city share-house in Sydney’s Newtown.

“The thing I most liked about this character was her sass,” says Snook on the phone from Sunset Boulevard, where she’s having a short holiday with her musician boyfriend, after shooting Jessabelle. “Stevie totally holds her own against the boys and I really responded to the feistiness in the material. There is that mix of sweetness and sexiness, which is very hard to play, actually – the light and dark of that.”

Party animals: Ryan Corr, Sarah Snook and Ryan Kwanten in NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN.

As Stevie, Snook plays a woman who’s adamant she doesn’t want children, while Ryan Kwanten plays a man who’s biological clock is ticking like a time bomb – an inversion of the stereotype where it’s the woman who’s desperate to reproduce, and the man who’s reluctant and commitment-phobic. Does Snook think this might be reflecting a cultural shift?

“I’m not sure it’s necessarily typical, or that it’s a trend,” she says, “but there’s definitely a male biological clock. We tend to focus on the female biological clock because it’s such a physical thing with physical limits. But I think it is definitely a concern for men to find a partner who is of the right age that they can start a family with.”

She agrees that it’s also true that there are ‘normal’ women who don’t want children. “I have a number of female friends who are not interested in having children. They’re happy to have a long term relationship with a partner, and to play a part in the lives of children within their circle, but they’re just not interested in having children themselves. For me, I want children myself. But for some women, they’re just not interested in that. Sometimes it’s an ethical choice, and sometimes it’s a personal one.”

The candid sex scenes in Not Suitable for Children are beautifully handled, but perhaps they were a little awkward to shoot. How did Snook cope with the filming of these? “Ah yeah….” She says with a laugh. “You know it’s an unusual situation to put yourself into and definitely there are insecurities. But Ryan Kwanten is probably one of the best people to do them with given that he’s done so many sex scenes with True Blood! His advice was to remember that it’s just a film and you’ve got to look after yourself and be comfortable with what you do.”

“Ryan Kwanten is probably one of the best people to do them with given that he’s done so many sex scenes with TRUE BLOOD!” – Sarah Snook

For a 24-year-old who’s only been out of NIDA for four years (she graduated in 2008) Snook seems remarkably grounded. She’s confident but not cocky; friendly and approachable, but careful with what she reveals. Asked about the Dragon Tattoo casting process she’s philosophical about the way it worked out.

“That was a whirlwind experience and at the time I didn’t realise what a big deal it was,” says Snook. “My name was thrown into a mix of relatively unknown actresses for the role. I did five auditions back in Australia and then got flown over to the States twice and did two screen tests for the director and the producers, including a chemistry test with Daniel Craig. When I got back to Australia I got the call to tell me I didn’t have the part, but I think I won really! There was definitely a lucky star involved in all of that in terms of getting my name out there.”

Sarah Snook holding her AACTA Award for SISTERS OF WAR. January 2012.

Also handy in getting her name ‘out there’ was the AACTA Award win. “I think winning an AACTA Award definitely does open doors, ” she says. “I really noticed the difference when I came over here in February after the Awards. It was not just a talking point, but it was really respected by the American casting agents.”

Asked whether it’s a daunting process auditioning in the US compared with Australia, Snook is again understated. “It’s slightly different. There’s the sheer volume of casting agents over here, so it’s harder to feel like you develop a  personal rapport with someone. Also, there’s the fact that as an Australian, you’re an outsider and there’s always the question of whether the producers are willing to go that extra mile to get you a visa to work on their film.”

Obviously the producers of Jessabelle were keen enough to go that extra mile to have Snook on board for the two months it took to shoot the film, a shoot which she describes as “super fun”.

“It’s the funniest contradiction with horror films and tragedies,” she says. “They’re often the most fun to shoot because everything is so heightened and dramatic and scary that the best way to lighten things up is to just have a laugh. The set can be a very funny place to be. You get to fight ghosts and ghouls and get covered in slime and blood! I play a character who has been in a a pretty horrific crash and has lost the use of her legs, so she’s in a wheelchair for most of the film – which results in some very interesting blocking choices for many of the scenes. I think it will be out in April next year.”

Did she always want to be an actress? Snook laughs and says, “I’d like to say no, but I think to be honest, yes. I started doing it as a kid and had to decide if I wanted to do it as a hobby or a career, and I chose career.” The training at NIDA proved invaluable not just on a professional but on a personal level. “One of the most important things you learn in the first semester there is that even if you don’t end up becoming an actor, you’ll definitely end up becoming a better person. It’s true. You become a better human. You learn about the history of humans and how they express themselves. And even if you don’t use that in terms of a career or in a theatrical way, that’s a good education to have.”

As for what’s next, Snook is not sure, but doesn’t sound particularly concerned, either. “When you’re an actor it’s never as regular as 9 to 5 every day. When you are employed, you know that in just a few months’ time you’ll be unemployed again. It’s a very strange thing, but luckily I’ve had fairly steady work.”

Would she like to extend her reach beyond acting to other areas of filmmaking? “I’ve never really thought to explore directing, but if I had a director I could work with as a producer in a director/producer partnership, I’d consider that. In a lot of the work I’ve done, the producer has had more of a creative role, rather than just being about the money side, and I quite like that.”

And as for working in Australia or the US? She’s wisely keeping her options open. “We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of great stuff going on at home in Australia, and I want to be a part of that.”

Not Suitable for Children released in Australia on 12 July, 2012.

You may also be in interested in our our interview with Peter Templeman, director of Not Suitable for Children.

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AACTA Member Spotlight: Mandy Walker – Cinematographer

Mandy Walker on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker knew she wanted to be a cinematographer from the tender age of 13. It was the only profession that united her deep loves of photography and the cinema so completely. As a child, Walker’s mother nourished her artistic tendencies with trips to the art gallery while her father whetted her appetite for foreign films with regular outings to the State Film Theatre in Melbourne.

Walker now lives and works predominantly in Los Angeles, but over the years she has shot a wide suite of Australian and international content, ranging from feature films to television shows and commercials. Her work includes: Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass and advertisements for big name brands like: Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi and BMW. Walker is enthralled by the collaborative process and loves working alongside talented and inspired directors who push her outside of her comfort zone.

Walker has been nominated and has won multiple awards for her craft both locally and internationally. In 1996, she won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands and in 1997 was nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well.

Still a strong believer in the qualities of film as a capture medium, Walker has also embraced the digital revolution with open arms. When asked what advice she’d give up-and-coming cinematographers, her answer is simple: never stop learning, and be brave. Her favourite period of Australian filmmaking is perhaps indicative of this advice; she cites such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. These films had a unique cinematic style that went on to redefine Australian cinema internationally.

Read on for more insight into Walker’s early career moves, her working methods and her inspirations. It’s clear she’s been an incredibly self-motivated professional who’s kept extending her skills. Her answers also give great insight into the way each project can lead on to other opportunities.

Mandy Walker is one of our highly regarded AACTA members. 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: Whereabouts did you grow up and what impact (if any) do you think this has had on the style of your work?

Mandy Walker: I grew up in Melbourne but I don’t think that it has affected the style of my work. I feel like I’ve been more influenced by photography, art and cinema from all over the world. My mother had taken me to galleries from the age of two, and my father to foreign film screenings at the State Film Theatre, when I was at High School. I do think that growing up in Melbourne has influenced my approach to my work. In general, I find most Australians have a great work ethic. They are quite confident yet humble in their attitude towards work, and working relationships.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you predominantly live and work now?

Mandy Walker: I now live in Los Angeles. Most of the commercial work I do is here in town, with some projects overseas. The movies I have shot have been in Australia, and Canada. However, I did recently shoot a telemovie in Boston.

AFI | AACTA: What is your most vivid childhood memory?

Mandy Walker: The most vivid childhood memories I have are of holidays at Australian beaches with my family.

AFI | AACTA: When did you know that you wanted to be a cinematographer and what training did you undergo?

Mandy Walker: I knew from the age of about 13 that I wanted to become a cinematographer. I had always loved photography and the cinema. So for me it was an obvious choice to combine the two. I had a small black and white darkroom that my father set up for me in the back shed and I made a few Super 8 films at High School. In my final year at Preston Technical College, I studied Cinema Studies.

Eventually, by ringing Film Victoria, and a number of producers shooting films in Melbourne, I got a job as a runner on a feature film. I made everyone on that project aware that all I wanted was to get into the camera department. Through these contacts and working for free as a camera assistant on a couple of documentaries and music videos, I got promoted to being a clapper loader and then focus puller on dramas and documentaries. In about five years, I was shooting small projects myself. Looking back, I’m really glad I moved up this way, as I was able to learn from the cinematographers I was working for and develop my own skills alongside them.

AFI | AACTA: You worked as a camera assistant for seven years before gaining the opportunity to shoot docos and short films. How did you get your first big break as a cinematographer and what was the first major project you cut your teeth on?

Mandy Walker: During my time as a camera assistant, I also shot small music videos and student films for students at Swinburne. This was how I really learnt my craft, by actually lighting and exposing film, trying out different ideas, making mistakes, and discovering what worked and what didn’t. Ray Argall offered me my first big break. At that time, he was a cinematographer on features and a cinematographer/director on music videos and documentaries. I had been working on some of his bigger multi camera set-ups for music videos and live concerts as his focus puller and camera operator. When he was to direct his first feature film Return Home (1990) he asked me to be his Cinematographer. I was only 25 years old at the time. I had learnt a lot from him over the years, and it was a great experience to finally step up to the position to collaborate with him as a director.

Mandy and Baz on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: What is it about the art of cinematography that particularly excites you? What do you enjoy most about your work? What are the worst or most challenging/tedious aspects of the job?

Mandy Walker: I think what excites me most about my job is that it is full of many varied experiences and challenges. I am constantly having to think of new ways to approach ideas or situations and combine them with a certain style, or invent a new one. The worst part of my job is that I am away a lot from home and family. My parents and my sister and her kids, all my relatives, reside in Melbourne. My husband’s family is in Wollongong.

AFI | AACTA: You have worked on a number of critically acclaimed Australian and international films, among them Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass. How do you go about choosing your projects?

Mandy Walker: I definitely have directors that I really want to work with, and that combined with reading a really great script is how I decide. I also never want to pigeonhole myself with a certain genre so I try to read a lot of different ones.

AFI | AACTA: How much input do you typically have in determining the right “look” of a film and how would you describe the communication process between director and DOP?

Mandy Walker: It really varies depending on the relationship I have with a director. I feel I have to be open and adaptive to this. I would never go into a project and dictate to a director: “this is how the movie should look”. Some directors come to me with a very clear idea of their references or vision, which I then interpret into a visual language. It is my job to figure out how I can achieve the director’s vision cinematically, in collaboration with the director then the art department and costume department.

Mandy on the set of a NIKE commercial

Then there are those directors who come to you with a clear idea of what they want to say in the film, but not a very strong cinematic vision. This process involves searching for and trying out different ideas and reference materials that might appeal to their style of story telling. I will glean [from] art galleries, photography and art books, and other movies to find influential images or scenes that I feel resonate with the story, emotions, and journey of the characters in our film. Depending on the project, this collection of references will vary from one or two key elements to a comprehensive list.

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

For other directors it’s about how we approach shooting the locations we’ve chosen. For example, with Lantana Ray Lawrence wanted to use natural available light as much as possible to capture the atmosphere of particular locations. He did not want the actors to feel restricted so we used the minimum amount of equipment and lighting. In some interior scenes, it was just the actors and a camera in the room. For a cinematographer, this wasn’t easy as I couldn’t control the light. I always shoot tests before we start a main shoot just to make sure that our ideas work.

AFI | AACTA: Australia was a big budget Australian epic and Baz Luhrmann is renowned for captivating audiences with visually spectacular films. Was this film especially difficult to shoot? What were the most important elements for you in choosing how you caught the action on camera?

Mandy Walker: Baz is a very inspiring director, and one who has a clear vision of his movies before he goes into pre-production. He and Catherine Martin are extremely thorough with their visual presentations of ideas early on. Their historic locations, costume and character references are always very well researched. The visual language of their project starts there. Baz then brings on myself and other key crew to collaborate. Australia was sometimes logistically difficult to shoot but with careful planning and execution we ensured that we were well rehearsed and properly crewed. Overall, it was an exciting project for me to be involved in, and a very positive creative experience.

Mandy and Baz Lurhmann on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: You’ve won and been nominated for multiple cinematography awards both locally and internationally. For example, you won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands in 1996 and were nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well in 1997, as well as being awarded a number of ACS Awards and the Hollywood DOP of the year in 2008. How does it feel to be regarded so highly by your peers for your craftsmanship?

Mandy Walker: I am very proud and appreciative of this acknowledgement and forever grateful to the people who have given me all my opportunities over the years.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve filmed commercials for a number of big name brands (Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi, BMW etc.) and won numerous awards for your work in advertising, including a Bronze Lion at Cannes Advertising Festival and a Clio Silver Cinematography Award. How does filming a commercial differ to a film?

Mandy Walker: I really enjoy commercials as well as films. Commercials are shorter, more intense than a movie, but always varied. I get to work with many different directors and can often try out new gear, film stock, shooting styles and cameras depending on what the job requires. I also enjoy working regularly with a couple of particular directors, who are very talented and inspiring. Steve Rogers is one Australian director that I try to work with regularly, both in Australia and overseas. I have shot most of my best commercial work with him.

Mandy on the set of a MERCEDES commercial

AFI | AACTA: Do you find that you have a greater level of creative freedom to experiment with shooting styles in advertising? Or are you more restricted by branding and/or commercial interests?

Mandy Walker: Again, it really depends on the director and their vision. A director who is talented will be on a project because of their talent. Most agency’s and clients trust them in their execution, and their choice of cinematographer.

AFI | AACTA: What do you think is the greatest challenge or problem facing cinematographers working within the new digital landscape?

Mandy Walker: I think new digital cameras with extra capabilities and an ever increasing workflow is rapidly changing the digital landscape. Cinematographers have to be up to date. We need to consistently be using and testing new technologies to see what the real advantages and disadvantages are.

AFI | AACTA: Do you have a preferred capture medium?

Mandy Walker: It depends on what the project requires. You need to consider what the main objectives and obstacles are; for example, [the need to be] fast and mobile, or shooting in 3D, or the types of lighting required. Basically, I prefer whatever medium best serves the particular “look” that we are trying to achieve. However, I do think that, at this point in time, film is still the most flexible when it comes to creating different looks in-camera. It still has the highest definition, contrast and colour range available, although some HD cameras are now much more sensitive to low light, and are better for night shooting and/or shooting in 3D.

AFI | AACTA: What has been the highlight of your career so far? And is there some other part of filmmaking that you’d still like to try your hand at?

Mandy Walker: The highlights of my career so far would be: being recognised by my peers; being invited into the Cinematographers guild of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; being accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society and the American Society of Cinematographers; and most recently becoming a member of the Cinematographers Chapter of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

On the set of RED RIDING HOOD

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us what you’ve been working on most recently?

Mandy Walker: The last feature I shot was Red Riding Hood. Earlier this year, I also shot a TV movie for ABC America, and since then I have been working on commercials full time.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three mentors or sources of inspiration, who would they be?

Mandy Walker: The first would have to be my Cinema Studies teacher at Preston Technical College, Brian Simpson. He introduced to us a whole world of wonderful films, and taught us about the concept of genre, how a director’s cinematic vision can influence the story and create an atmosphere that affects the audience’s experience of the overall film. I still use the movies he showed me when I was 18 as a point of reference for my own ideas.

The second would be Ray Argall for training me in the camera department and giving me the opportunity to shoot his feature length directorial debut. He gave me a strong understanding and appreciation for the collaboration required between a cinematographer and director.

The third would be Jan Chapman. I was orginally involved in working on an episode of her TV series Naked which was directed by Geoffrey Wright. Jan also introduced me to Shirley Barrett and Ray Lawrence whose films I subsequently went on to shoot. She has always been an amazingly positive and collaborative producer and has greatly influenced my career.

AFI | AACTA: Are you often asked to describe what it is like to be a woman and a mother working in the intense and male dominated craft of cinematography? And if so, how do you respond to such a question? Do you resent it?

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker: I have never looked at this as an issue in my life or career. I have worked as hard as anybody else in my field and between my husband Stuart and I, we have made sure our daughter Ruby is a big part of our lives and is well looked after. As far as being a woman cinematographer, I see no reason why there are not more of us!

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming cinematographers wanting to break into the industry?

Mandy Walker: I think the most important things are to be dedicated, collaborative, amiable, and willing to try new techniques and equipment. Shoot, try and test the ideas you have, discover what works and what doesn’t. Learn from all of this and be brave. You have to grasp each opportunity and never behave like you know everything because no matter how long you have been shooting there is always something new to learn and discover. At the end of the day, you are there with all the other departments to help tell the film’s story.

AFI | AACTA: What are your all time favourite Australian films or television series?

Mandy Walker: My favourite Australian films are Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, mainly because I love that particular era of Australian filmmaking. For me they are the original representations of an era of Australian cinematic storytelling.

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

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