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Felicity Price is an actress and writer whose involvement with feature film Wish You Were Here is extensive. Not only did she co-write the script with her husband, director Kieran Darcy-Smith, but she stars in the lead role as Alice, a pregnant mother and wife whose carefree getaway to Cambodia goes horribly wrong. It’s a powerful film and a powerful performance, and Felicity is nominated for Best Lead Actress, and Best Original Screenplay (with Darcy-Smith). Join in our live discussion to chat about her creative processes and about the collaborative process of film writing and shooting.
How does it work? First, make sure you’re friends with us on the AACTA Facebook page. Click here to join our Felicity Price event page and when you join it will be added to your Facebook calendar. We’ll post event photo (above) to our FB page just before 12 midday on Tuesday. You can then comment on the image the way you would with any photo, and Felicity will log in to answer. Simple!
For background reading – and to remind you about the film Wish You Were Here, you can read this interview with Felicity and Kieran Darcy-Smith.
The winners of the 2nd AACTA Awards will be announced on 28th and 30th January. The winners of the AACTA Award categories in which Felicity is nominated will be announced on Wednesday 30 January at The Star Event Centre in Sydney, and broadcast on Network Ten at 9.30pm. Be watching on the night to catch all the action.
By Sean Lynch
In this latest edition of our Why I Adore series, comedy writer, performer and presenter Sean Lynch waxes lyrical about his love for the John Edwards/Southern Star universe of Australian dramas – most recently brought to life in AACTA nominated drama series Tangle, starring Justine Clarke, Kat Stewart, Ben Mendelsohn and Matt Day.
If I’m being 100 per cent honest with myself – and it’s rare that I am (as far as I know, I’m a 74 year old Asian woman) — the reason I adore Tangle isn’t so much because of its own stand alone perfection, as it is for its association with sister series Love My Way and, to an extent, the entire John Edwards adult drama universe (from Secret Life Of Us through to Puberty Blues).
It’s very much the same reason I adore Woody Allen films: you can change the title, character names and packaging all you want, but at their core they’re all part of the same story; all searching for the truth at the centre of characters and ideas created by their writers long before the product in question was even considered.
Where Puberty Blues takes us on a journey from the ages of 10 – 20, Secret Life explored the perils of 20 – 30, and Love My Way looked at 30 -40. With Tangle, Edwards and company take us through the complications of being 40 – 50.
Tangle follows Ally (a pitch perfect “woman who has settled” Justine Clarke), who is married to Vince (charming rough-nut Ben Mendelsohn) and their two children, Romeo (Lincoln Younes) and Gigi (Eva Lazzaro).
In the first series of Tangle (aired on subscription television channel Showcase in 2010) Vince’s best friend Gabriel (Matt Day) has secretly been in love with Ally since their high school days, and when faced with the ultimate moral dilemma (love versus loyalty), Gabriel finds that he is unwilling to cover for (one of) Vince’s affairs with a local school mum.
Mixed in with all of this scandal is the fact that this school mum’s daughter Charlotte (Georgia Flood), is involved with Romeo and his cousin, Max (Blake Davis). Did I mention that Max is the result of an affair between Tim (Joel Tobeck) and Ally’s sister, Nat (Kat Stewart)? Tim and his wife Christine (Catherine McClements) are raising Max as their own, but boy, you wouldn’t know it half the time!
What we have are three families colliding, connected via a web of love, sex, money and politics – almost to the point of suffering from soap opera syndrome. The number of “Tangles” in question becomes almost TOO coincidental to really be believable at some points. But with characters this well written, that’s just part of the fun.
Edwards does like his archetypal characters and setups, and Tangle is full of them right from the outset: the uptight passive aggressive woman with control issues (Asher Keddie’s Julia Jackson in Love My Way versus Tangle’s Catherine McClements’ portrayal of Christine Williams); the heroine finding solace with her ex’s brothers (Brendan Cowell’s Tom Jackson in Love My Way versus Tangle’s Kick Gurry as Joe Kovac); a troubled born-out-of-wedlock child dealing with the concept of multiple parental figures and family units (Alex Cook’s Lou Jackson and Sam Parsonson’s Dylan Feingold in Love My Way versus Blake Davis’ Max Williams in Tangle); burgeoning teenage homosexuality (Dylan versus Max); the lingering effects of grief after a sudden death (Love My Way’s tragedy versus Tangle’s own dramatic death)… and that’s hardly the end of the list.
For many, this type of rehashing could be seen as little more than weak writing, a creative lull or even a quick cash-in by producers after the success of a break out hit (which Love My Way certainly was). However, it’s for this exact reason that I adore Tangle.
By “starting from scratch” with Tangle, the writers can continue to explore these deeply flawed, endlessly interesting characters without tainting the legacy of Love My Way. Yes, the stories of the Tangle universe could have VERY easily played out as Seasons 4 – 7 of Love My Way. But this “reboot” meant Love My Way couldn’t ever veer into the territory of “jumping the shark” or, more importantly, having its audience simply grow weary of the characters’ relentless, increasingly unlikely dramas.
It’s very clear the aforementioned situations have unfolded in the real lives of the writers. They pop up far to often in multiple shows for them not to have been based in experience. So, not only are viewers getting a voyeuristic peek at someone else’s’ dirty family laundry… we are also part of these writers’ decade-long cathartic therapy sessions as they try to come to terms with the guilt, pleasure and pain of the events in question. It’s all there on the page. It’s the ultimate fly on the wall experience if you are willing to join the dots and watch several TV shows as if they were one.
Tangle is also an impressive an achievement at the dialogue level. Aussies have quite an ear for our own voice, not simply for the literal sound… but the rhythms, the cadence, the intricacies of how words run together.
What may sound perfectly normal and award winningly insightful on paper almost NEVER translates when performed in an Aussie accent. Audiences subconsciously detect something’s not right between: “I love her” and “I love ‘ah”. On paper, it looks stupid and wrong, but it’s the difference between honest and believable portrayals of Australians onscreen and the kind of stilted, clumsy dialogue that leaves actors struggling (a perfect example of which can be seen in Tomorrow When The War Began. Excellent actors speaking words and rhythmic structures that young Aussies simply DO NOT speak in).
In this regard, producer John Edwards and the writers he employs, have been able to rise above the pack. It is no coincidence that Edwards has been behind the most highly regarded Aussie productions for over a decade, because he and his superb writing teams stick to a simple rule: understand the rhythms, understand the culture.
As usual, in Tangle the dialogue and performances are spot on. Everyone delivers here, their performances are nuanced and genuinely believable. These are people you have met; these are conversations you’ve had.
There’s a great ensemble cast in Tangle, but the real star is Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has long been a staple of Aussie productions (and most recently cracked into the USA with Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises and Killing Them Softly) but never have we been subjected to such a long-lasting dose of his skills as seen in Tangle.
As Vince Kovac, Mendelsohn owns every single scene of the show, even the ones he isn’t in. No matter what the situation, Vince’s sinister, threatening (and oddly charming) vibe exudes throughout every scene, infecting the lives of everyone in both direct and indirect ways.
As a performer, Mendelsohn takes the dialogue into unexpected territory. A fine example of this is towards the end of the last episode of the first season in which Matt Day’s Gabriel finally works up the courage to express his love publicly for Vince’s wife Ally. (Gabriel is everything Vince is not, and vice versa: Romance vs Lust, Brain vs Brawn.)
As Gabriel paces back and forth, spilling his guts melodramatically – Mendelsohn’s Vince sits silently, still, like a lion assessing his prey. He mutters silently, almost as if Gabriel hasn’t earned the respect to hear his words: “You snake in the grass… Me and Ally are bound in ways you can’t even imagine”. In the hands of anyone else a confrontation like this could end up as a fairly stock standard Home & Away level exchange – but Mendelsohn takes it to such a dark, deeply disturbing place. You can see the Tim Burtonesque spooky forest which consumes his mind through his unflinching eyes. It’s raw and gripping and utterly perfect.
Ultimately, why I adore Tangle is simple: it’s only a tiny part of a much bigger puzzle, a picture which will unveil itself in many forms and in many ways in coming years (assuming networks are smart enough to continue commissioning these productions). Tangle is simply a chapter in an ever growing, wonderfully nuanced John Edwards saga that I can only hope and pray continues to expand outwards like this strange old star-littered place we call the Universe. It doesn’t hold all the answers – it doesn’t even answer all the questions it raises – but just like the lives it depicts… not everything can have a neatly tailored beginning middle and end. All we can do is just acknowledge we are on a journey and – as Happy Gilmore teaches us – “play the ball as it lies”.
… Also, I really just want to be cast in a John Edwards show. Is that too much to ask? So make that happen AFI, that’d be swell.
Sean Lynch is a comedy writer/performer, film critic for various publications throughout Australia and Head Editor at WatchOutFor.com.au and WebWombat.com.au. He was one third of the Aria Nominated (Best Comedy Release, 2006) comedy trio The Shambles, a regular presenter on Channel Ten’s The Circle and most recently gave an Academy Award-worthy performance in his gripping portrayal of “Balloon Guy” in Working Dog’s Any Questions For Ben?. You can follow him on twitter @thatlynchyguy but don’t follow him on the tram or at the supermarket, unless you are offering to pay for his groceries or Myki fines.
Note: Tangle Season 3 is one of the four nominees for the AACTA Award for Best Television Drama Series, competing with Puberty Blues, Rake – Season 2 and Redfern Now. The winner will be announced at the 2nd AACTA Awards Ceremony on Wednesday 30 January, and broadcast on Network Ten at 9.30pm.
If you enjoyed this piece, you may like Why I Adore… Love My Way, by AFI | AACTA Editor Rochelle Siemienowicz.
In this ongoing series, we highlight the skills and expertise of publicists within our AACTA membership as part of the Media & PR Chapter.* We invite them to share tips, tricks and insights borne of long experience in our particular industry. You can read our past posts on publicists here and here.
In this instalment, we turn the spotlight onto Teri Calder, Media & Public Affairs Manager at Screen Australia, the key Federal Government direct funding body for the Australian screen production industry. As well as funding film and television, Screen Australia also supports and promotes the industry through various other programs and initiatives.
In this Q&A, Teri Calder talks about her training and experience, and gives us a glimpse into her day to day work. At the time of the interview (in early September), Teri’s work with Screen Australia focused on highlighting the great achievements of Australia’s Indigenous filmmakers – holding a parliamentary screening of The Sapphires, launching an Indigenous screen employment program, and celebrating the news that a new Indigenous film, Satellite Boy, had been accepted into a major festival.
AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us how you arrived at the role of Media & Public Affairs Manager at Screen Australia – your past experience and training?
Teri Calder: I studied journalism and one of my first full-time jobs was at the FFC (Film Finance Corporation), employed as the policy and public relations assistant. That was way back in 1994. I was there for two years and then left the film industry and went to the Non Government Organisation sector working in communications, advocacy, project management and fundraising. During that time I completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Communications and Social Inquiry from UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). I then returned to the film industry about seven years ago and worked on a couple of documentaries in development and as an associate producer. I worked freelance for a couple of distributors across the business in distribution, publicity and marketing. During that time I also worked as a senior communications consultant for a PR agency that serviced the AFC (Australian Film Commission), so I had experience across a few tiers of the industry before arriving at Screen Australia.
What are your key duties and responsibilities? Can you describe what an average week looks like in your job at Screen Australia?
My job is to implement communications that assist the agency in implementing its programs and strategic agenda. It is also to reinforce a shared understanding of the agency’s activities, purpose and functions across our key stakeholder groups. There are no average weeks in this job! For example, [at the time of this interview in October] last week involved working on a press conference in Canberra announcing the Media RING Indigenous Employment strategy, which was followed by a parliamentary screening of The Sapphires with some of the key cast and crew.
We also showcased the extraordinary talent of Indigenous Australians working both in front of and behind the camera and the work of Screen Australia’s Indigenous department to Parliamentarians with this inspiring reel:
On top of that, last week involved writing and issuing several media releases announcing our latest documentary investments and announcing Catriona McKenzie’s wonderful film Satellite Boy had been accepted into Toronto International Film Festival. We’re always thrilled when a film gets into a major A-list festival. This is a huge achievement for the filmmaker and a great launch pad for the film into the North American Market.
Then there’s all the follow up involved with those releases – talking to journalists, lining up interviews, answering emails, etc. I haven’t even mentioned the day to day stuff. Let’s just say I keep very busy in the job.
Who are the key groups you are communicating with?
The most important key group I’m communicating with is the screen industry. It’s crucial that our programs and initiatives are clearly communicated and promoted to Australian screen practitioners. Of course we’re also communicating to government, media and other groups depending on the issue.
Screen Australia is the key Federal Government direct funding body for the Australian screen production industry. How does this affect the kind of PR you do and the sorts of information you share?
As the Federal Government’s key screen agency our job is to implement the policy of the government and part of my job is to ensure that these policies and programs are clearly communicated to all our stakeholders.
What are the most satisfying aspects of your work, and the most challenging or frustrating?
I take great satisfaction from seeing the programs we fund achieve success and being able to promote that widely. The challenge of the job is always to present the human face of the screen agency and to make sure filmmakers understand that we’re open for business and that our business is supporting filmmakers.
One of the services we find most useful about the Screen Australia online media room is its up-to-date coverage of Australian film and television successes abroad (festival wins, awards, etc). Is it a challenge to update these in a timely manner, especially given time and language differences of a lot of the international festivals?
We have very good relationships with the festivals and are in close contact with them around film announcements so it’s relatively easy for us to coordinate issuing these communications quickly, although time differences can be a pain. Everything is so immediate now so you have to be on top of it.
As a member of the new Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts within the Media and PR Chapter, what would you like to see your chapter achieve through AACTA?
Repositioning the discussion around the success of Australian films beyond the local box office share.
Thanks for your time Teri, and we look forward, as always, to receiving your press releases!
Screen Australia’s Media Releases.
*The Media and PR chapter of AACTA is one of the 15 chapters of accredited screen professionals which constitute the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. This Media and PR chapter encompasses A-list agents, film writers, critics, marketing specialists and publicists. It’s this latter group of publicists that we’re showcasing in this new blog series.
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
It’s February 2011 and I’m meeting director Amiel Courtin-Wilson and producer Michael Cody for the first time in a sunny courtyard at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. They’ve just finished the final touches on their feature film Hail, with mere hours to spare before the film’s world premiere. They’re keen to get an early response to the media preview screening I’ve attended, and wonder how the (now infamous and very surreal) ‘falling horse scene’ has gone down with the first viewers. Having shot the extraordinary (and possibly illegal) footage the weekend before, they’d added it into the final edit, with minutes to spare. For the record, the ‘falling horse scene’ is a decidedly bold move – and a flashing red indicator that Hail is a stylistically ambitious art film rather than your average dirty realist Australian drama set in the world of drug addicts and ugly criminals.
When we talk, the pair are still “fully immersed” in the making of the film, according to producer Michael Cody. He’s a former academic turned journalist turned producer of films including Miracle Fish and Wish You Were Here, and has moved into directing, with his 2010 short film Foreign Parts. He’s an intense and reserved counterpart to the sociable and famously communal creature that is Amiel Courtin-Wilson. Along with other creatives, including Joel Anderson (Lake Mungo), they’ve created Flood Projects, a company founded with the intention of making “risk-taking, collaborative and experimental work.”
According to Cody, “from the time we decided to make this film together, it’s been full immersion. We’ve been living and working in the same house, 18 hours a day every day, and we haven’t had a single day off in about four months. We had no finance in place at the start, but we just kept on going making the film, acting as if we were going to get it, plowing ahead. Luckily we did, or we wouldn’t have met the deadlines that came with the money when it came through. It was still a very low budget of about $500,000 – cobbled together from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, and the Adelaide Film Festival’s investment fund.”
Now, more than 18 months later, Hail is finally getting an Australian theatrical release, but the wait has been worth it, especially in terms of building anticipation and accumulating numerous awards, including the Age Critics Award for best Australian feature film at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Critical appreciation has included a recent review by Adrian Martin in The Monthly, which names Hail the standout Australian film of the year, “…a comet that seemed to shoot in from nowhere”. Paolo Bertolin, director of the Venice International Film Festival, called it “one of the top 10 films of 2011.”
A strange, poetic love story that turns into a wrenching tale of revenge and inner turmoil, Hail is distinguished by the extraordinarily naturalistic performances of the two lead actors, Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch. They play rough versions of themselves, improvising dialogue in response to a loosely plotted story arc.
In the film, as in life, Danny and Leanne are a middle-aged couple from the wrong sides of the tracks. They share a birthday, and they’ve been together as a tempestuous but passionate couple for more than a decade. In the film, they’re reunited after Danny gets out of prison. Their blissful reunion – complete with one of the most extraordinary vérité sex scenes you’re ever likely to see – is derailed by drugs, unemployment and shady contacts. Their beautifully ravaged faces – especially Jones’s piercing and hypnotic aqua blue eyes, together with their utterly convincing dialogue and real-life volatile affection burns through the screen, suggesting this may, in fact, be a slightly dramatised documentary rather than a fictional drama. But make no mistake. According to Courtin-Wilson, this is art, and Jones and Letch deserve to be credited, not just for their creative input in the project, providing source material and dialogue, but for their acting, which Courtin-Wilson emphasises is performance.
“Danny and Leanne absolutely created these performances out of the stories and experiences of their own lives,” Courtin-Wilson says. We’ve actually had professional actors come back to us after seeing the film and say that the authenticity of the performances has made them go back to their own craft and question what it is to be an actor, because they’re just so amazed by Danny and Leanne’s performances.”
Courtin-Wilson is particularly keen to point out the craft and skill involved in Jones’s storytelling and his performances – a skill that has seen Jones become one of the founding members of the Plan B Theatre Company for former prison inmates, and has also seen him cast for an upcoming US feature film Young Bodies Heal Quickly, in which he plays an Australian Vietnam veteran battling post traumatic stress.
Before Hail, Jones was previously the subject of Courtin-Wilson’s 2009 award-winning short documentary Cicada, about a shocking murder he witnessed in St Kilda as a child. “In the process of making that short film with Dan, I had hundreds of pages of transcribed interview material with stories and incidents from his life,” explained Courtin-Wilson. “And he just has this amazing turn of phrase. Danny is a kind of autodidact, a kind of jail cell philosopher. He’s equally comfortably quoting Oscar Wilde as he is describing some brutal street brawls going up in the south of St Kilda. In a performance sense, he also brings this extraordinarily honest and immediate way of relating to people. You can’t escape the laser beam of that, and personally I find it really intoxicating. But I don’t want to undermine in any way Danny’s intense preparation for his role in Hail. He spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in rehearsals and discussions, and it was this very rigorous process for him. It’s a strange contradiction, but he actually loves using schematics, diagrams and numbers when he’s planning his performance.”
Based in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a filmmaker, photographer and artist who’s been making films ever since he picked up a Super 8 camera at the age of nine. He won the Longford Nova Award at the 1996 St Kilda Film Festival at the age of 17 and at 19 he wrote, directed and produced his feature debut documentary Chasing Buddha, about a Buddhist nun working with death row inmates in the US. The film premiered at Sundance and was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Direction. Since then, his films have included Bastardy (2008), the astonishing portrait of jailbird, cat-burglar, actor, heroin addict and Aboriginal activist Jack Charles. Shot over a seven year period encompassing the subject’s homelessness, incarceration and rehab, that film required extraordinary commitment from the filmmaker, not least to actually locate Charles in order to film his story.
“Compared to Jack Charles, Dan and Leanne were a breeze to shoot!” says Courtin-Wilson with a laugh. “They live in one place, and they have telephones! Which is not to say it wasn’t challenging in many other ways. Danny and Leanne can lead pretty hectic lifestyles sometimes, and it can be a bit insane, but we could make the film because we had this central location in their apartment, and because a lot of their friends, who are in the film, live in the neighbourhood, and we knew that even if they went AWOL for a day or two, we could shoot other material.”
Asked why he seems to have an affinity for characters who’ve spent time behind bars, Courtin-Wilson answers: “There’s a directness in the way in which guys that have spent time in jail will deal with you, that eschews all kind of social norms. In a sense they’re not interested in what you do but interested in who you are in that very moment in front of them. They’re so absolutely perceptive emotionally and kind of forensic in their ability to read you very quickly, because they’ve had to be, having been in so many situations where the stakes are such that if they read it wrong, they could die. There’s also that storytelling aspect, as Danny has said and Jack Charles too, that when you’re in the dock in front of a judge, there’s a certain kind of role-playing and storytelling involved.”
Courtin-Wilson credits Cody with creating a flexible production schedule that could accommodate the haphazard lifestyles of the key performers. “The way Michael worked out the schedule was that there were a lot of floating scenes. So it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve lost this, but we can get this, this and this and this’. And that was a huge luxury because working with basically no light, and working with real locations, you could just literally steal a really beautiful moment of Leanne doing housework or Shelby the cat, or some of the more impressionistic, more experimental, textural parts of the film. We sort of willingly embraced the chaos and that made the story stay alive throughout the process.”
For all its haphazard elements – and as Cody says with a laugh “the investors may have been appalled if they’d seen how unruly the shoot got at times – a lot of criminals passed through our doors!” – there was nevertheless a very definite methodology at work both in the planning and execution of the project.
“There were key things that we wanted,” said Courtin-Wilson, “like shooting on 16mm and knowing that we wanted a really long editing period of 20 weeks in the edit. We worked with a really small crew of about four or five key crew and we had a 34-day shoot, which is actually pretty roomy for a film of our budget.”
Courtin-Wilson credits the naturalistic Belgian filmmaking duo, the Dardenne brothers, as a key inspiration. “I was fascinated by the way they work in as much as they will shoot 70 to 80 per cent of the film, edit it and get it to a rough cut, and then go back and not just re-shoot, not just doing pickups, but actually shooting another substantial proportion of the movie. So we did a similar thing. We shot for 23 days, got an assembly together and then based on how it was feeling, we then shot another week. It was an ongoing process. It’s always baffled me why you wouldn’t do that. It’s the way in which novels are created, with drafts, redrafts and going back and forth. It doesn’t make sense, this idea that the shooting process should be absolutely separate from the edit.”
Both Cody and Courtin-Wilson are aware that depressing Australian films about criminals and junkies have a very dim reputation among both critics and audiences, and they’re keen to separate their work from this genre. Says Courtin-Wilson, “I was always very conscious of not wanting to make a kitchen sink drama. I really, really love the idea of taking the minutiae of day-to-day everyday lives and setting that against an almost mythical kind of backdrop and I was very conscious of making something a bit more epic and romantic, something grander and more lyrical in terms of the music and the cinematography. That idea of [philosopher] Spinoza’s is interesting – that God is in all things. That was actually my main direction to our cinematographer, Germain McMicking, ‘I just want God to reveal itself through the imagery’. I couldn’t give a fuck about being accused of being pretentious! I’d much rather aim for something grand and have it fail abysmally, than not have tried for something…”. Cody jumps in with the missing word: “Ecstatic!”
Writer-Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Producers: Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Actors: Daniel P. Jones, Leanne Letch
Cinematographer: Germain McMicking
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Music Composer: Steve Benwell
– Great interview with Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch over at Inside Film.
– An interview by Alice Body at The Thousands, talking with Amiel Courtin-Wilson during the making of Hail in July 2010.
John Duigan has a unique place among the Australian New Wave directors who came to prominence during the 1970s. His films weren’t based on national historical events or adapted from Great Australian Novels, nor did they seem at all concerned with issues of national identity. Instead, he preferred to write his own stories and interrogate his own experiences of society, with a strong focus on uncovering great performances by young actors – a gift which was directly recognised when Duigan received the 1991 Byron Kennedy Award.*
Graduating from Melbourne University in 1973 with a degree in philosophy, Duigan wrote novels, worked as an actor, director and writer in Melbourne’s vibrant theatrical eruptions of the 1970s and early 80s – this was, after all, the era of La Mama and the Pram Factory – and then after some experimental films, made his first mainstream work, the AFI Award-winning Mouth to Mouth (1978), a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of the drifting lives of unemployed young people.
Duigan’s films are a diverse collection, but almost without exception they’ve been original in the particular ways they’ve probed and questioned the complexities of interpersonal relationships, gender politics and the hypocrisies of society. There was Winter of our Dreams (1981), starring a young Judy Davis as a Kings Cross prostitute; and the iconic, beautifully observed coming-of-age films The Year My Voice Broke (1987) with its unforgettable teen trio of Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn and Loene Carmen; as well as Flirting (1991) with Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Thandie Newton lighting up the screen as school girls, and Sirens (1994) with its depiction of artist Norman Lindsay and his nymph-like models (famously played by Elle McPherson, Portia de Rossi and Kate Fischer).
Subsequent films made in the UK and the USA include the tender probing of an adult/child friendship in Lawn Dogs (1997), starring Sam Rockwell and Micha Barton; The Leading Man (1996) with an unexpectedly stunning turn by Jon Bon Jovi; and Head in the Clouds (2004) with Charlize Theron and Penélope Cruz as lovers. For all their diversity, in these films Duigan seemed to be on the side of those who pushed against the status quo. Now he’s back with Careless Love, an extremely low budget Australian film that queries societal assumptions about sex, prostitution and even race.
Written and directed by Duigan, Careless Love is set in contemporary Sydney and tells the story of Linh (Nammi Le) a beautiful young Vietnamese-Australian university student who works at night as a prostitute. She sends the money home to her parents, who live in a depressed rural town and are at risk of defaulting on their mortgage. When Linh moves in with her Australian boyfriend (Andrew Hazzard) it becomes increasingly difficult for her to keep her two lives separate. For one thing, there’s her tough but lovable pimp (David Field), and for another, her mysterious American client (Peter O’Brien), who seems to want more than a quick encounter.
In this interview we talk to Duigan about the ideas behind his story, the challenges of returning to work in Australia, and the importance of careful planning and rehearsals. He also discusses his ongoing labour of love – a textbook on secular ethics that takes him full circle – to studying philosophy again.
AFI: What were the seeds of this script and how long ago did you start working on it?
John Duigan: Well, it’s quite a long story. When I was at university in Melbourne many years ago, there was a girl I knew from a country part of Victoria who worked for two years as an escort to pay her way through university, and from time-to-time she would tell me bits and pieces about the work. It struck me always as being an interesting basis for a film subject. And then in recent years, in England and France in particular, there was a lot of coverage in the press about the increasing cost of university education, and a lot of interviews and articles about students who were paying their way through university by working for periods of time in the sex industry. I had the same impression from talking to people when I was back here in Australia – that there was a similar phenomenon, in part triggered by student costs and also the current recession, so I decided to take on that subject.
I was also interested in the general shifts in morality of the culture – the fact that there are these mainstream values that are espoused by all the political parties, [who] put the primacy of family values as being central. The sexual activities of prostitutes can be regarded as being quite contradictory to those mainstream values, and yet it’s interesting that the sex industry in most of its forms is legal here. I was interested in exploring that aspect as well as the sort of attitudes towards people who work in the sex industry, resulting from that contradiction.
AFI: Contrary to expectations, and perhaps contrary to clichés, the central character in your film isn’t a victim. A casual reader of the synopsis – about a Vietnamese student who is working as a prostitute to send money back to her family – might automatically assume she’s a victim of circumstances. That’s not the way you choose to present it, is it?
John Duigan: No, she’s a strong-willed character who, while she doesn’t anticipate all the things that happen to her, goes into it in a clear-headed way, with a strong sense of herself and a conviction that the choice she’s making is valid in terms of her own personal values. It was very important to me that she’s not a victim. Most of the stories about prostitutes in films fall into three different categories: the stories relating to sexual slavery and the way people are trafficked; another one is to do with people who are supporting drug habits; and the third is the more glamorised, up-market stories like the one told in that British TV series recently, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. And I don’t think that’s the experience of the majority of people. People go into the industry for all sorts of reasons, but most of them are, in fact, economic.
AFI: There seems to have been a recent spate of low-budget Australian films centring on the issue of sex workers – The Jammed, Black & White & Sex and John Hewitt’s X. I wonder if you’ve seen any of those films and what you make of this trend?
John Duigan: I saw X and I also saw Sleeping Beauty – that was another one. I think all of them are dealing with different aspects, but the fact that there are a number of films that have sex workers as their protagonists is probably indicative of the fact that it’s significant that Australia has substantially illegalised the sex industry. And you only need to look at papers like the [Daily] Telegraph and you’ll see three to four pages of ads for it. It’s interesting that there’s this contrast between this existence of the sex industry and the mainstream values. So it’s something that all these filmmakers are looking at in one way or another.
AFI: Careless Love is your first film made back in Australia for some time. How did this experience differ from your past films?
John Duigan: Well, it was about twenty years ago when I did Sirens, so it is quite a long time. I think the major difference is the attitude towards independent Australian films. When I was working here continuously – with Winter of our Dreams, Far East, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting and Sirens – all of those films had fairly successful theatrical releases. And now, for whatever reason, a lot of cinemas are much more reluctant to put on smaller Australian films. I think it’s really important for our culture that Australia is represented by a range of films and not just the large-budget films. I think quite a lot of small Australian films probably don’t get any kind of release and sort of disappear between the cracks. That’s tragic, really. And with fewer independent cinemas around, there’s the dominance of the multiplexes, which rather than actually putting on a wide range of films, often simply put on the big Titanics or what have you, on about four or five screens. This means that younger people are coming up who have had very little experience of seeing a range of independent films… It’s going to be much harder to get them in to see Australian films in the first place.
AFI: Was it difficult for you to secure a release for this film?
John Duigan: I would say it was harder than it was twenty years ago. Yes. I mean we have cinemas in all the major cities. So it’s certainly possible, but I think it has been more difficult.
AFI: How did you raise the finance to make the film, and what were the primary sources and approximate budget?
John Duigan: It’s all private money. We choose not to release the actual budget figure, simply because it can affect the way people see the film. I was showing it to a few people overseas… I had one independent of great experience who saw it and thought that the budget was $7 million, and the budget is very, very much lower than that. As far as sources are concerned, it all comes from four individuals. Each one put small amounts in and one person put in rather more. We didn’t have any input from Screen Australia.
AFI: Did you want any input from Screen Australia, or was it always your intention to go down the completely independent route?
John Duigan: At the time I made the film, I was keen to go into production rather than wait for another year, because while I’d been working on my labour of love on the ethics front [the ethics textbook Duigan has been writing] I’d been attached to a Canadian and a French-produced film for about three or four years. And each year it would seem, one or either of the two was going to come together. And then at the last minute it would fall through, usually because we weren’t able to get the key actor that we needed to trigger both projects or because an area of finance that had been promised fell through. In one case a company kind of went bankrupt. So after having that rather frustrating experience, which many other filmmakers have and continue to have, as you would know, I wanted to get into production with this small project fairly quickly. But it would have been good if we’d been able to get some money for the post [-production] from Screen Australia, which we weren’t able to get.
AFI: The look of the film is very beautiful in parts. I wonder if you could talk about the production design and the look you were going for with this project?
John Duigan: Yes, the cinematographer Kathryn Milliss is somebody who had worked on a number of my films years ago as an assistant to Geoff Burton, who is one of the producers on this film, and so it was great to work with her again. Generally speaking, it is a naturalistic look and we tried to use warmer and cooler colours to complement the different strands of the story. At times when Linh is working at night, they’re often cooler colours, but sometimes actually slightly garish, with that yellow hue in some of the night exteriors. In contrast it it’s a warmer, sort of more temperate feel in the world that she has with her boyfriend and family. But it all sort goes off the rails towards the end. The production designer is Colin Gibson, who actually did a marvellous job. Again, he’s somebody who I worked with on films like The Year My Voice Broke and others from a long time ago. He mainly works on extremely big films – he’s the production designer on the new Mad Max film that George Miller is making in Southern Africa. But I think he enjoyed actually working back on something that was shorter and demanded the use of real imagination to compensate for a lack of budget. He’s an incredibly industrious, hard-working character and managed, I think, to give the film a look and a detail which is way above what the budget was.
AFI: How long was the shoot and what were the key locations?
John Duigan: It was a 30-day shoot. We did six five-day weeks. The key locations are all in and around Sydney. A lot of the locations are owned by friends or relatives or by myself. The major location is my flat in Coogee!
AFI: You’ve been making films for nearly 40 years now. Are there any essential ways you’ve changed your working method, or key lessons you’ve learned?
John Duigan: Not really. In many ways, with Careless Love, it felt like I was working in the style that I worked in and with the sort of budgetary restraints of quite a lot of earlier films that I did, like Mouth to Mouth and Winter of Our Dreams. Always, the key thing for me has been to do as much preparation as possible. I like to try to minimise the decisions that one needs to make on the set, based from a logistical point of view and from the point of view of how one is working with the cast. So through rehearsal, you aim to articulate everything that the performance needs to achieve in every scene, and where the scenes occur in terms of the character’s arc and all that sort of thing. It’s good if everybody knows exactly what they are attempting to achieve on each day and in each scene and on each set. This means a lot of detailed conversation and planning in the pre-production stage, and as much rehearsal as you can get with all of the principal actors.
I have generally used that model, whether I’m working on a larger budget or on a small budget, but it’s probably particularly important on a small budget. Obviously there are huge changes that are required from time-to-time, if one is hit by unexpected light changes or weather problems, or if an actor gets sick or something like that, but if you’ve got everything planned out in detail, it’s much easier to react to circumstances and keep the film following the arc that you want it to follow.
AFI: Are you involved in planning the promotional and release strategy with the film’s distributor, Antidote Films?
John Duigan: Yes, I’m working on that with Jenny Day and Geoff Burton, the producers, and with Gil Scrine, the distributor. We are opening at a central cinema in each of the major cities, and hopefully in a couple of the cities we’ll have a couple of other screens as well. Perhaps, if the film manages to deliver, it can expand and pick up some other screens in the suburbs. We think in general that it’s good to have a key cinema in each of the cities that you can focus on, rather than sharing out the audience to a number of locations. If you can actually get the film to perform in one main cinema, then that is going to help the film’s longevity, and also give it the opportunity of spreading out later.
AFI: You live between Sydney and England?
John Duigan: Yes, at the moment I’m spending a little bit more time over here than over there – seven, eight months of the year here, and four or five months over there. I enjoy going backwards and forwards.
AFI: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been interspersing your filmmaking activities with writing a book on ethics and philosophy over the last few years. Can you tell us more about that?
John Duigan: My main area of study at university was philosophy and I contemplated the idea of actually going to Cambridge and doing a doctorate there, but ended up choosing to work in the film industry instead. I think that interest in ethics has always been an abiding one for me and, to an extent, has some sort of resonance in many of the films that I make, though not all of them.
I’d always intended, at some point in my life, to try and write a book on secular ethics. I think that ethics is a subject that should be taught in schools. I’ve thought that for a great many years. And now, increasingly – in New South Wales in particular – people are talking about that, and in fact, there’s a strong impulse, which is nurtured by places like the St James Ethics Centre, for ethics to be taught in schools, and it seems to me that it should be a secular ethics. I mean, our whole legal and governmental system is essentially a secular one and with the complexities of different moral positions that come from our increasingly multicultural society, to me a secular ethics could help potentially ameliorate some of the conflict between differing moralities coming from very different religious traditions.
AFI: Is your book on secular ethics being published soon?
John Duigan: I’m still working on it. I’m getting feedback from a number of sources now and we’ll do some more work on it and I would hope to get it published next year or in the next couple of years. Of course there’s no guarantee. It’s a complex subject, and the kind of thing that one could work on indefinitely!
AFI: Do you find it helpful to have such strong interests outside of filmmaking?
John Duigan: I think it’s really important and I always tell actors that it’s great to have other areas of interest. In part this is because you draw from those interests to enrich your work in acting or filmmaking or any of the arts. I think that people who come from purely filmic backgrounds, who draw most of their inspiration from other films, could certainly benefit from drawing from more expanded areas of interest.
AFI: Thanks for speaking with us, and best wishes with Careless Love.
John Duigan: It’s been a pleasure, thanks.
Official trailer below:
CARELESS LOVE – FAST FACTS
Writer/Director: John Duigan
Producers: Jenny Day and Geoff Burton
Presented by: Spirited Films & Luminous Pictures
Key Cast & Crew: Nammi Le, Peter O’Brien, Andrew Hazzard, Penny McNamee, Ivy Mak, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, David Field
Director of Photography: Kathryn Milliss
Editor: Mark Warner
Production Designer: Colin Gibson
Costume Designer: Loretta Egan
*JOHN DUIGAN AT THE AFI AWARDS