PR Profile: Teri Calder, Media & Public Affairs Manager at Screen Australia

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

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.

Jessica Mauboy, Simon Crean, Deborah Mailman, Julie Collins and Wayne Blair, at the parliamentary screening of THE SAPPHIRES.

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? 

SATELLITE BOY, written and directed by Catriona McKenzie, and produced by David Jowsey and Julie Ryan, had its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, in the Discovery program of works by Directors to Watch.

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!

You may also be interested in:

Screen Australia’s Media Releases.

What I wish you knew… Australian publicists give their top tips: Sarah Finney

What I wish you knew… Australian publicists give their top tips: Louise Helseltine

*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.

Here I Am: In conversation with Beck Cole, Kath Shelper & Marcia Langton

Beck Cole, Marcia Langton & Kath Shelper

Director Beck Cole, actor Marcia Langton and producer Kath Shelper on the set of 'Here I Am'.

– By Rochelle Siemienowicz

As an interviewer, I love the intimacy and focus of the one-on-one chat. The more people you add to the group, the harder it is to maintain the thread. But when I met these three impressive women the day after the premiere of their film Here I Am  at the Adelaide Film Festival in February 2011, it was a pleasure to join in their conversation, and witness their easy humour and obvious affection for one other.

Beck Cole is the film’s writer and director. The story of a beautiful young Aboriginal woman remaking her life after jail, Here I Am may be Cole’s first feature, but she’s long been an Indigenous filmmaker to watch. Cole directed the AFI Award

Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole on set 'Here I Am'

Partners in life and work - cinematographer Warwick Thornton and director Beck Cole on set of 'Here I Am'.

winning SBS documentary series First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia, and has made a number of remarkable short films like Wirriya: Small Boy and Plains Empty. She also directed and produced the documentary Making Samson & Delilah, tracing the progress of that groundbreaking film, alongside her partner (in life, work and parenting) Warwick Thornton. It’s a partnership that continues to be productive, with Thornton taking direction from his wife this time, bringing his considerable talent as cinematographer to Here I Am.

Samson & Delilah producer Kath Shelper continues her long association with the couple: she produced Cole’s short film Plains Empty, Thornton’s short films Green Bush and Nana as well as various other projects, including Sally Riley’s sly AFI Award winning short film Confessions of a Headhunter.
Lead actress Shai Pittman and producer Kath Shelper - 'Here I Am'.

Lead actress Shai Pittman and producer Kath Shelper - 'Here I Am'.

Marcia Langton completes the trio. Appearing on screen in the film, she plays the tough and terrifying mother of the central character Karen (Shai Pittman). To be honest, it’s not much of a stretch for Professor Marcia Langton, who is surely one of the most formidable women in Australia. An anthropologist, geographer and long time advocate of Aboriginal rights, she was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1993, and since 2000 has been the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. With her fiery stare and luminous white hair, she has natural screen presence – and in fact this isn’t her first appearance on film. Langton previously acted in Tracey Moffatt’s short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, which screened in competition at Cannes in 1990.
Marcia Langton on set "Here I Am'.

Don't mess with Marcia! Langton plays one tough mother in ''Here I Am'.

The three woman are actually a little bit frazzled when we meet. They’ve just been over the road being interviewed on camera for the ABC’s At The Movies. And as Shelper jokes, ‘to quote Samson & Delilah’s star Rowan McNamara, “Wow, this is serious!”‘ Nevertheless, they settle in for a very relaxed coffee and a laugh. Read on for a window into that conversation.

AFI: Congratulations to you all. It was such a warm audience reception last night.

Kath Shelper:  Yes it was wonderful. Sometimes at festival screenings it’s all just industry people and invited guests, but the festival said they actually sold more than 350 tickets, so the fact that it was a mixed audience made it even more gratifying.

I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.
– Kath Shelper

Beck Cole: We actually had our cast and crew screening the night before, and it was all extended family of those involved in the film – cousins three times removed, including my own! It was a warm and lovely screening, with everyone laughing and getting the humour, and I think the premiere had that vibe too.

AFI: Here I Am is a very hotly anticipated film, and it’s wonderful that films from Indigenous filmmakers and with Indigenous subjects are actually becoming the films people want to see, and not just because it’s political or a fashion statement.

Kath Shelper: I think over the last couple of years, Indigenous films have definitely become a good brand [laughs]. There’s such a variety of filmmakers and so many different styles of films being made in different genres, and so many different voices. I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.

Marcia Langton: The films that have come out over the last few years have people all over the world talking about them in animated terms. I went to Paris, London, Cambridge and other parts of Europe after the release of Samson & Delilah and people were so excited by it. And I’m still getting emails about that film. And then when Bran Nue Dae came out, people said, ‘There, you see! They can no longer say that Indigenous films are just sort of exotic, minor, marginal. It’s not possible to say that any more.’

Beck Cole & Shai Pittman on set for 'Here I Am'.

Director Beck Cole with lead actress Shai Pittman on set of 'Here I Am'.

AFI: Beck, you’ve said before that you wanted to make this film to celebrate the strength and beauty of Indigenous women. Something I like about this film is that it’s an Australian film with women at the very centre of it, with men peripheral. That’s not something we see too often.

Beck Cole: Yeah, it was really fun to do that and to create these characters. I know each of these women from my own life, it was great to create them on the page and then bring them to life on the screen. But I did also want to create the beautiful men, who actually say these kind and heartfelt things. I wanted to have these two lovely kind Indigenous men in the film. Even though they’re small parts, they’re important.

Kath Shelper: And we did make sure they were very handsome men. They had to be hot! [laughs] There was this funny thing with the casting, where Beck had written this casual description about the character of Jeff  that was quite blunt and explicit, and just supposed to be an internal memo….

Bruce Carter plays 'Jeff' in 'Here I Am'.

Bruce Carter plays 'Jeff' in 'Here I Am'.

Beck Cole: Yeah, I said that he was charming and needed to wear thongs and be a rough diamond, maybe a few acne scars, but he had to ‘fuckable’! And this description accidentally got printed and given to all the men auditioning. And when I realised and asked Bruce Carter, the actor who eventually got the role, I was like, ‘Oh my lord!’ How embarrassing.

Kath Shelper: I think I’m going to put those notes on our website!

AFI: You have a reasonably large cast with some fairly inexperienced actors. Was that a challenge?

I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.

– Marcia Langton

Beck Cole: Yeah, there’s a real mix of experienced actors  and newcomers. Pauline Whyman, who plays ‘Skinny’ does loads of acting and has great comic timing, and our lead Shai Pittman has had a little bit of experience with things like All Saints, but this is her first big role. Then there’s Marcia, who is no stranger to the camera, though I did have to try very hard to convince her to do the part. But everyone was very supportive of each other and it was a matter of getting them all comfortable and confident in front of the camera, you know when it’s right in your face. Getting rid of that shame factor and gigglyness and shyness. Everyone was really brave.

AFI: Marcia, you were reluctant to take on the part of this tough and disgruntled mother?

Marcia Langton: Well, as I said to Beck, there are plenty of good professional actors around who could do the job better than I could. I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.

Kath Shelper: And now Marcia’s happy to be typecast as the grumpy woman so she can get more roles. She wants to play the matriarch of a big drug family [laughs] and maybe win an Oscar!

AFI: Marcia, what was the way into the character for you?

Marcia Langton & Quinaiha Scott

Four-year-old Quinaiha Scott and her on-screen granny Marcia Langton in 'Here I Am'.

Marcia Langton: I think when I got to the set of the women’s shelter I thought, ‘Right, I know what this is all about,’ from having visited women’s shelters throughout my life for various reasons – visiting friends, taking people there, that sort of thing. Also, there’s a particular tension between mothers and daughters where drugs are involved, and I have a lot of friends who’ve been through that. It’s the worst thing a mother can go through, trying to get kids off drugs. It drives women crazy, because drugs are stronger than people, stronger than their willpower, stronger than love. I reminded myself of how difficult that was, and that helped me build up the hardness of the character. And also, thinking about those terrible tweeny years when young girls can be so monstrous. It wasn’t that hard to tap into really!

AFI: How long was the shoot, and was it always going to be in Port Adelaide?

Kath Shelper: It was a six week shoot, and yes it was always going to be in Adelaide.

Beck Cole: I always wanted it set in Port Adelaide, right from the start.

Kath Shelper: It was always written as being set in Adelaide, which made it very easy for my financing through the Adelaide Film Festival. They like films to be made here and set here – even though they do support films which aren’t. Also, there are a lot of films shot in South Australia that aren’t necessarily set here – it’s an anonymous location, or they’re shot for somewhere else, taking advantage of the diverse landscape. Whereas this project is set here, and it’s about the community here, and the people here. So that’s very special.

Key art Here I AmMarcia Langton: Actually, that’s one of the things that impressed me when I went to the Temple House location [the setting of the women’s shelter featured in the film]. I thought, ‘This is great, this is really about this particular place.’

AFI: How much did the festival invest in the film, and what was the total budget?

Kath Shelper: I think it was about $180,000 – a significant amount of the $2.4 million budget. It certainly completed the financing, and the other great thing about the film festival fund is that it gives you a date to premiere. You know what you’re working towards. Sometimes when you make a film it’s all unknown, and you’re working in a vacuum, whereas here it was wonderful to be able to say to the girls in the cast that this film is going to be in the Adelaide Film Festival next February and that’s a solid date look forward to.

AFI: The budget on Here I Am is a bit more than you were working with on with Samson & Delilah [$1.6 million]. What were the differences in that regard?

Kath Shelper: We made the film in a similiar way but just upsized it a bit. There were so many more cast and locations. We had grips and gaffers this time too, for instance, because there was so much more to be done. But we still worked in a very simple, fast and economical way.

AFI: Kath and Beck, you two have worked together for many years, along with Warwick. You’re all friends, you hang out together. Does each project get easier as you know each other better?

Beck Cole: Every film is a battle. It’s always hard work. But we do support each other tremendously.

Kath Shelper: Warwick and Beck and I have been working together for about seven years, and we do have a really good foundation that we’re working off. But each project is completely different and brings a whole new set of challenges. It doesn’t get any easier – to write the script, or find the money or shoot it and put it together. We’re really lucky though that we do have a strong bond, and that we like each other.

A cold night shoot in Port Adelaide with Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole.

A cold night shoot in Port Adelaide with Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole.

AFI: Beck, you’re a mum and a stepmum of young kids. What are the challenges of directing and being on set with kids and how do you manage that?

Beck Cole: Nannas! Nannas. Did you see the list of Nannas in the credits? Look, Warwick and I have been so blessed with our families helping us. My family take months off at a time just to some and support us in what we do.

Kath Shelper: But at the same time, Beck’s on set directing and then she comes running down to me and says ‘Shit, I’ve forgotten to pick up Luca [Beck and Warwick’s daughter] from school!’ So I have to jump in the car and drive down there.

Beck Cole: Yeah, poor thing. Having to get up and be with us on set in the freezing cold at 5am, and doing a whole term at a new school while we shot the film. It’s not easy on her. She’s great though. She doesn’t know anything else but this way of life. But yeah, Nannas are essential.

AFI: Marcia and Kath, can you describe what Beck is like as a director?

Marcia Langton: She has a real vision, and it’s her vision, and sometimes we don’t exactly know what it is. She’s a very nice person and we’re all trying to please her and give her what she wants, but sometimes it’s a mystery!

Kath Shelper: Beck’s latest favourite expression is ‘honest to a fault – but not my fault!’ She’s a very funny person and she has a great sense of humour. She’s also an acute observer of people and how they tick. She’s made a lot of documentaries and I think perhaps that’s something that she’s learnt from them, or maybe it’s why she was drawn to them in the first place – the observational side of things. She also has a great sense of character and drama, and how to bring that to the screen.

AFI: Beck, did you always know that this would be an uplifting kind of story rather than a grim and depressing one?

Here I Am releases nationally on 2 June 2011.

Beck Cole: There were many different versions of the story over the years, but it was always going to follow this woman in the weeks following her release from prison as she tries to reconnect with her family, and her young daughter, and it was always going to be about her gaining insight and vision. I think it is important that you come away from it and feel hope and joy, and that you feel like she’s going to be okay.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release and thanks for speaking with us.

Production Note: Many of the team behind Samson & Delilah can be found again in the credits of Here I Am, including Director of Photography Warwick Thornton, Editor Roland Gallois, Sound Recordist David Tranter, Sound Designer Liam Egan, Costume Designer Heather Wallace, Make-up Artist Carol Cameron, and Associate Producer Fiona Pakes.

You might also be interested in this interview with Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper from 2009, when they spoke to the AFI about Samson & Delilah.