AFI | AACTA staff go to MIFF: Part 2

We love our films here at AFI | AACTA, and for those in our Melbourne office the culmination of this cinephilia comes during the Melbourne International Film Festival – a three-week feast of film from around the globe taking place tantalizingly close to our South Melbourne office.

Attempting to weave as many film sessions as possible in amongst our regular work is a challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that we embrace with open arms and bleary eyes. In this second of a two-part blog mini-series, three of AFI | AACTA’s staff and one of our treasured volunteers recount their experiences at MIFF 2012. [You can read Part 1 here.]

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – a standout favourite at MIFF this year.

Rochelle Siemienowicz – AFI | AACTA Editor

Reading, writing, thinking and talking about Australian film and television, I’m editor at the AFI | AACTA, a role I’ve had for the past four years. I write the fortnightly e-News, manage this blog, update our social media, and on the ‘night of nights’ when the Award winners come off stage, I have the privilege of interviewing them while they hold their newly minted statuettes. One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet and write about the achievements of the many talented behind-the-scenes professionals involved in our screen industry, as well as helping to spread the word about new Australian screen productions . I also love films of all kinds from around the world, and for the last 12 years I’ve been the Film Editor at The Big Issue magazine – a role I’ve just passed on in order to make a little more time to actually go the cinema, without a pen and paper in hand! 

MIFF is always an incredibly exciting time, but also quite stressful and conflicted, as I’m intensely aware of what I’m missing out on, and how little I’ll actually be able to fit in. It’s a bonus, however, to follow friends and fellow film lovers through their blogs and social media, creating a wonderful sense of community around the festival.

My highlights this year included opening night film The Sapphires, a visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying story that made me feel like dancing out of the cinema and into the the afterparty. A real thrill of the night was seeing Jessica Mauboy take to the stage for a live performance at the Plaza Ballroom of the Regent Theatre. The energy and love in the room was palpable, and that voice sent shivers down my spine! Interviewing the film’s director Wayne Blair the morning after was also a buzz. You can read the interview over here.

The trials and tribulations of beautiful young dancers. The ultimate ballet documentary, FIRST POSITION.

Another standout this year was ballet documentary First Position. Directed by first time filmmaker and former dancer Bess Kargman, the film follows the journey of six talented young dancers of different nationalities, competing in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest and most prestigious ballet competition for dancers aged nine to 19. Prizes include scholarships and positions in the world’s best ballet companies. These are especially sought in the present tough times of unemployment for many dancers. Beautifully shot and perfectly paced, First Position manages to convey both the small and large moments in the dancer’s extraordinarily tough lives – often with great humour and pathos. It’s been a while since I’ve been quite so emotionally moved by a film’s finale – even as it was almost inevitably and predictably upflifting. Winner of the 2011 DOCNYC Audience Award and San Francisco Documentary Festival Jury Prize, First Position deserves every bit of positive buzz it’s generated so far. Look out for it in release down the track through Hopscotch.

This year I was lucky enough to write program notes for several of the documentaries in the festival. These proved to be highlights and you can click through to my personal blog if you’re interested in thoughts on:

  • Lasseter’s Bones: Documentary filmmaker Luke Walker (Beyond Our Ken) spent three years sifting through the facts to uncover what really happened to the legendary explorer Harold Bell Lasseter, a man who claimed to have sited a 7-mile gold reef in central Australia and died in the desert trying to find it again. Was he deluded, a liar or a genius? A fascinating portrait of obsession, packed with uniquely Aussie ‘characters’.
  • The AmbassadorOutrageous, gutsy and potentially offensive, it’s no surprise that Danish documentary The Ambassador is produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Films. Journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger won the 2010 Sundance World Cinema jury prize with The Red Chapel, in which he posed as a communist theatre director visiting, and covertly filming, in North Korea. With The Ambassador, Brügger again risks imprisonment, or more likely assassination, by putting himself squarely at the centre of a project that’s jaw-droppingly funny but deadly serious in its intent – posing as a corrupt diplomat in the Central African Republic.

Mads Brugger’s THE AMBASSADOR

  • We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists Is it cyber terrorism, vandalism or legitimate political protest when a loosely organised bunch of computer geeks brings down an official website in order to make a point? Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion is a fascinating glimpse behind the handsome, leering Guy Fawkes mask that has become the Anonymous movement’s logo. Who are these people? What do they want, and how do they think? Are they cowardly bullies working from their bedrooms or courageous activists who are the last bastion of freedom of speech in an age of almost total Internet surveillance?
  • Golden Slumbers: As a passionate believer in the importance of national film industries – and the sacredness of all kinds of film archives – the idea that a country’s entire cinematic output could be wilfully destroyed seems horrific. Unthinkable, even. Yet as Davy Chou’s intensely personal and poetic documentary Golden Slumbers recounts, that’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

Vanessa McKeddie – AFI |AACTA Awards Coordinator

Vanessa McKeddie

I’m the Awards Coordinator at the AFI | AACTA.Remove the word ‘Holly’ and replace it with ‘Aussie’ to form the word ‘Aussiewood’…a name I like to refer to as the AFI | AACTA office. [Editor’s note: Our name for Vanessa is ‘little ray of sunshine’ as she’s always quick with a smile and a joke despite her enormous workload and the rather sobering job of compiling the annual In Memoriam section of the Awards each year!]

This year I attended eight MIFF screenings, with two stand outs.

The term ‘Side By Side’ is generally used by my husband, when referring to his beloved Collingwood Football Club, although this time, Side By Side represented the film by documentarian Chris Kenneally.

I was completely captivated by Side by Side’s engaging debate regarding 35mm film production versus digital technology and the interviews with renowned directors and cinematographers.  On-screen interviewer Keanu Reeves poignant summing up statement of the new situation, “Immediatelies versus Dailies”, rang true to me, having previously worked in a post production company (in London) managing the movement of dailies, compared to the current ease of arranging digital film movements. Australian cinematographers Don McAlpine and Dion Beebe’s contributions to this topical discussion, proved to be the icing on the cake!

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in SIDE BY SIDE

CRAZY HORSE

Having visited Moulin Rouge a decade ago, I have always been intrigued by Paris’s legendary Crazy Horse cabaret show.  Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Crazy Horse explored choreographer Phillipe Decoufle’s vision to produce a cabaret show that would “impress the intellectuals” and in doing so, exposes all the frustrations he experiences along the way.  The stage routines were elaborate, technically refined, titillating (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist) and left me wanting to visit the 61-year-old establishment!

Jane Carracher – AFI | AACTA Finance Manager

Jane Carracher

I have been Finance Manager at the AFI for almost 7 years. I’ve always loved watching movies, and although I have not studied film (apart from the odd film for English in High School!), I’ve learnt a lot about the filmmaking process whilst working at the AFI. This has given me a greater understanding of film as a whole, and has only intensified my passion for sitting in a dark room watching stories unfold on the big screen.

My MIFF wrap-up will be brief, as I (like many) have suffered MIFF-fatigue and am currently under the weather. I saw 35 films, of which three stood way above the rest of the pack.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Despite its shaky-cam-style cinematography, I was completely engrossed by the story of the little girl, Hushpuppy, and her father, living in a shanty-like Bayou town in Louisiana. The film looks incredible, with amazing performances from the cast, especially Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is surely up for awards come Oscar season.  Even more amazing is the fact that all the actors are in their first ever role, and many actually lived through Hurricane Katrina, as told in the fascinating Q&A session with the writer/director, Benh Zeitlin.

Undefeated: This documentary of a southern US football team, who had been struggling for years to get some wins on the board, is one of the most moving films I have seen in quite some time. It follows the coach and three players with extraordinary stories, which we watch unfold in a season where the team finally finds it feet and starts having some success. A film that reduced me to tears many times, this is one not to be missed.

UNDEFEATED

Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present: More crying!! Performance art isn’t really my ‘thing’, but this fascinating documentary on the life of artist and filmmaker Marina Abramovic, and her retrospective season at MOMA in 2010, was a great insight into the art world for the uninitiated. The film traces her early beginnings in performance art, and the relationships that blossomed out of her collaborations. The second half of the film focuses on her MOMA piece, where she sat in silence for 3 months (736.5 hours) and patrons visiting the gallery could sit with her, also in silence.

Other films I enjoyed immensely and highly recommend you see: Holy Motors, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Save Your Legs, The Sound of My Voice, Damsels in Distress, Sightseers, First Position and Charles Bradley: Soul of America.

 Suzanne Steinbruckner – Volunteer

Suzanne Steinbruckner

I volunteer at the AFI | AACTA’s South Melbourne office and usually share my time between Communications and Membership. This could see me researching upcoming titles, uploading and checking blog or website content, or helping with membership overflow and posting out Giveaways. Away from the AFI, I’ve returned to study this year which I’m loving, paying some bills by working in a record store, and fulfilling the remainder of my volunteering bug by hanging out at radio station 3RRR.

MIFF is the start of my favourite time of year in Melbourne and I love the fact that as a city we come out en masse, line up in the wet and cold to see films in the middle of winter, every two and a half hours for two and a half weeks! That said this is my first MIFF in over a decade where my ‘real-life’ timetable has dictated my MIFF schedule, resulting in a lowly 13 sessions. I was still able to squeeze in MIFF volunteering again this year – something I highly encourage as it’s lots of fun!

The middle weekend saw two of my highlights; Holy Motors and Paranorman. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors was already praised by Bradley Dixon in the Part 1 of this piece. The wondrous absurdity of this film still has me questioning my interpretation of each or any of Monsieur Oscar’s (Denis Lavant) “appointments” – a good week and a half after seeing this film. Brilliant.

Paranorman is a new stop-motion animation comedy thriller for kids. It centres on Norman Babcock (voiced by Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is the town freak because he communicates with the dead. I absolutely loved this film. Not only were there fantastic animated zombies, but it recalled the kids’ adventure films of my childhood like The Goonies, except this time in awesome animation.

ParaNorman

Another highlight was Michael Haneke’s Amour – one of the most devastating yet compassionate films I experienced during the festival. With real-time shots, long takes, silent opening credits and the limited music being diegetic, the viewer is left with little room but to feel the emotional struggle and suffocation that the on- screen characters are experiencing. A remarkable and affecting film.

And that’s it for another MIFF. We’ll be back next year with staff wraps. Feel free to comment below and tell us about your festival picks.

AFI | AACTA staff go to MIFF: Part 1

It may come as no surprise that there are more than a few cineastes among the staff here at AFI | AACTA, and for those in our Melbourne office the culmination of this cinephilia comes during the Melbourne International Film Festival – a three-week feast of film from around the globe taking place tantalizingly close to our South Melbourne office.

Attempting to weave as many film sessions as possible in amongst our regular work is a challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that we embrace with open arms and bleary eyes. In this first of a two-part blog mini-series, three of AFI | AACTA’s staff recount their experiences at MIFF 2012.

Lia McCrae-Moore

AFI | AACTA Membership Coordinator Lia McCrae-Moore.

I am an avid cinema-goer and Australian film enthusiast. I completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Cinema Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2009 and have been working as the Membership Co-ordinator at AFI | AACTA for just over two years. I love voicing my own opinion and engaging in vigorous debates about life, cinema and politics.

What I love most about MIFF is its energy. You can see the dynamism spilling out onto the street as cinephiles and black-clad hipsters queue in groups out the front of Greater Union and The Forum. Unlike some of my committed colleagues, who have attended over 20 screenings, I have seen just nine films in total. Of these nine, two have been outstanding, five good-to-great, and two mediocre.

Not including MIFF’s opening night film The Sapphires, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the documentary Chasing Ice and the Chilean feature NO have been my two highlights of the festival. Chasing Ice is a stunningly beautiful but bone-chilling account of the retreating glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska. It charts the rapid degradation of these extraordinary ice fields through time-lapse photography and real time footage. Director Jeff Orlowski follows National Geographic photographer James Bolag and his team as they conquer unforgiving weather conditions to implement Bolag’s Extreme Ice Survey, which is the first of its kind and provides constant visual documentation of these changing landscapes over an extended period of time. Bolag claims that these exquisite photographs are physical proof of climate change in action. He uses his images to create a tangible pictorial presentation of how quickly global warming is transforming our natural world. It is utterly fascinating and horrifying. I left the cinema feeling bereft but also inspired. I must see these freezing expansive horizons before they disappear completely.

Chasing Ice

NO recreates the successful “NO” campaign against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1988. Renee Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hip young advertising man, decides to join the NO campaign to the chagrin of his conservative boss. Saavedra and his socialist compatriots cleverly counteract Pinochet’s YES campaign with catchy jingles, bright colours, intelligent slogans, warmth and humour. After weeks of dodging death threats, surveillance and impending violence, the NO team wins the vote with 55 per cent, and Pinochet is removed from power. NO is filmed on two rebuilt U-matic cameras giving it a grainy, washed out effect. Initially I felt a little assaulted by the images’ lack of clarity, but as I got sucked into the film’s intriguing storyline, the more I appreciated its unrefined aesthetic. Interwoven into the film is actual footage from the period. This matching of aesthetic styles means that the integration of footage and film is practically seamless. NO is a rousing film that is filled with hope, ingenuity and passion.

As usual though, the festival has come and gone with a whirl. I have barely stopped for breath and already it is over. Now, I must eagerly await what next year has to offer.

Bradley J. Dixon

AFI | AACTA Web Coordinator Bradley Dixon.

One of the newest additions to the AFI | AACTA clan, I am a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of my film writings at my seldom updated blog Cinema Quest or follow me on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.

My festival got off to a great start with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, a film belonging to the “mumblecore” school of new American cinema and the first of 33 sessions I managed to catch. As a person with a big family, it was refreshing to see a film explore sibling relationships that actually felt real – in all their depth and contradictions – and test those relationships with an irreverent sense of humour but with a grounding in truth. Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass each play their character with a relaxed naturalism which at times makes the dialogue feel entirely improvised. Before MIFF I hadn’t even heard of Mark Duplass, but between Your Sister’s Sister and his turn in the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed he’s shot directly into my “people to watch” list – which, curiously, seems to grow longer every year around MIFF time.

Other highlights included the devastating and lyrical Amour, the Swedish comedy Flicker (a quirky blend of Falling Down and Office Space featuring the only sex scene I can recall taking place under the very real threat of static shock), and the Romanian drama Beyond the Hills, which at first glance seems like a hard slog – 150 minutes of Romanian-language drama set in a convent, anyone? … Anyone? – but has one of the most comically disarming and entirely unexpected finales of any film I’ve seen in years.

On the home front, I was pleasantly surprised by The Sapphires – which is a crowd pleaser if ever there was one – and the Age Critics Award-winning Hail, an ambitious collaboration between Amiel Courtin-Wilson and ex-criminal Daniel P. Jones which threads Brakhage-esque abstraction into an intensely realist rumination on love and death.

Holy Motors

But by far the best film I saw was the weird and wonderful Holy Motors from French veteran Leos Carax, his first feature in 13 years. A must-see for any student of cinematic form, Holy Motors is a sublime pronouncement of the vitality of cinema as we steamroll ever closer to a future where artistic creation is as much a product of technology as it is of the spirit. Probably not for the casual viewer, but film buffs and those with open minds will love its demented genius – in particular, an incongruous but delightful interval featuring a lavish piano accordion musical number.

Simon Elchlepp

AFI | AACTA Office and Project Coordinator Simon Elchlepp.

I am the AFI’s Office and Project Coordinator, a role that sees me researching the AFI’s history, processing AACTA Awards entries, writing about upcoming TV and DVD highlights, and many other things.

There are some things that you look forward to every year. There are the usual suspects: Christmas, Easter, and so on. And then there’s the cinematic equivalent of all these joyous occasions wrapped into one, at least if you’re a Melbourne cinephile: MIFF’s program launch. Anticipation over what treasures the festival program will unearth leads into intense study of the program upon release in mid-July. Highlighter in hand, everything that looks interesting / curious / unmisseable is noted down, ordered, and in a complex process of torturous decision-making, finally whittled down to a Mini Pass-compatible list of ten films. After comparing film choices with colleagues (“No one else is going to watch five-and-a-half hours of Bollywood gangster cinema? Fair enough.”), it’s off into the festival’s two weeks.

Even before the launch of the MIFF program, I had already picked my first movie to watch: Takeshi Miike’s adaptation of video game Ace Attorney (yes, I hereby confess to having spent way too much of my youth on video games, so this was pretty exciting news). Since Miike has proven that he can pretty much direct any genre and infuse it with his trademark off-the-wall sensibilities, he seemed like the perfect choice to capture the game’s Anime aesthetic… and maybe even create the best video game adaptation to date! Small praise for a genre that’s given us several Uwe Boll movies and Wing Commander, but Ace Attorney actually does end up a very entertaining film that happily embraces its game and Anime roots and has tons of fun transplanting them the real life setting of a wacky court room/crime thriller movie. Ace Attorney doesn’t have enough madcap energy to turn all of its 130+mins into the wild rollercoaster ride you’d hope for – given the source material and Miike’s pedigree – but I’m happy to pronounce it the new king of the video game movie sub-genre.

Ace Attorney

Just as wild – only even longer – is Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 & 2, each one running at a whopping 160 minutes. Screening back-to-back at MIFF, it makes for a slightly butt-numbing Bollywood bonanza, but once I leave the cinema after a whole Sunday afternoon has passed, I’m actually glad I watched the whole thing in one go. Gangs of Wasseypur is a gangster film that paints its story on a huge canvas, charting a crime war between several warring factions in the coal mining city of Wasseypur over the course of more than 70 years. There are several dozen characters to keep track of, and the amount of double-crossing and backstabbing (well, shooting) everybody is involved with is head-spinning. Miraculously enough though, it all comes together as one coherent narrative that effortlessly juggles enough storylines for five regular-sized gangster movies, all shot with a keen sense of style that takes inspiration from spaghetti westerns, Peckinpah, and Tarantino-style theatrics. It’s dazzling, ambitious and exhausting.

A different kind of headiness awaits in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), part of a retrospective of French surrealist Jean Epstein’s oeuvre and my personal “wow” moment at this year’s MIFF. Epstein’s brand of surrealism is a subtle undermining of reality to create an eerie, spectral demi-world that is the perfect visual equation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. It’s a silent film with only a handful of intertitles to tell the skeletal story of Roderick Usher and his dying wife (or is she?), so it’s up to the visuals to fill in the space between the lines. And Epstein proves a master, building a dream-like, otherworldly mood by making full use of the young medium’s range of possibilities. His combined use of slow-motion, superimpositions and deliberate use of improper focus is mesmerising and leaves an indelible mark – one of the many things to take away from MIFF 2012.

Look out for Part 2 of AFI | AACTA Staff go to MIFF, coming shortly.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Nikki Gooley – Hair & Make-Up Artist

Hair and Make-up Artist, Nikki Gooley

Nikki Gooley is a Sydney-sider from way back. She was first inspired to experiment with elaborate hair and make-up designs when, as a teenager, she attended Dawn Swane’s theatrical make-up workshop for City Road Youth. Despite dousing her Red Setter in talcum powder and removing the eyelashes of her favourite doll, Gooley’s flair and finesse shone through, and now she transforms the faces of many a famous actor in such productions as: Spider and Rose, Dance Academy, The Matrix, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men and most recently, The Sapphires.

Gooley was nominated for an Academy Award for Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith in 2006 and in the same year won a BAFTA for her outstanding work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Gooley is an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Honorary Councillor for our Hair & Make-Up Design Chapter. She is a strong advocate for her craft and is currently campaigning to have a Hair & Make-Up Award introduced into the AACTA Awards, to formally recognise the high level of skill and talent involved.

Gooley is also a firm believer in the medium of film and its unique ability to capture the subtleties of skin texture, shadow and light.  She describes herself as an artist who likes to build up a “look” by embellishing what is already there rather than having to scale back prosthesis. When asked what advice she’d give emerging artists she adamantly states: “Look at the big picture. It’s not just about applying a bit of lippy!”

Read on for more insight into Gooley’s career choices, her working style and inspirations. It is evident that she’s exceptionally hardworking and never afraid of accepting a challenge. Her answers also provide great insight into the highs and lows or the less salubrious side of working in Hair and Make-Up Design.

Nikki Gooley 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. (You can check out our previous AACTA Member Profiles here.)

AFI | AACTA: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Nikki Gooley:
I was born in Sydney and grew up in the inner west.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you live now?
Nikki Gooley:
I’m in Sydney now but I’ve also spent a number of years living in London.

AFI | AACTA: What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Nikki Gooley:
Vivid childhood memory? There are so many, argh where do I begin? Covering my dog – a Red Setter in talcum powder from head to toe so he was white not red. Pulling out my doll’s eyelashes and crying because they wouldn’t grow back!

AFI | AACTA: At what point did you know that you wanted to be a hair & make-up artist and how did you go about realising it?
Nikki Gooley:
While I was in high school I was a part of a youth theatre group called City Road Youth Theatre. During the school holidays, we attended workshops in everything from lighting to costume design. One of them was a theatrical makeup class and a student from Dawn Swane’s Theatrical Make-Up Workshop came and did some demos. I was hooked from that moment on.

I went to school with the actress Joy Smithers, and I think I got inspired by our conversations and dreams about working with the fashion make-up artist Smilka, who we both admired. I left school and did a fine arts diploma. I then went onto Dawn Swane’s Three Arts Makeup School.

AFI | AACTA: What was your first major project?
Nikki Gooley:
My first film was a low budget film called Unfinished Business, directed by Bob Ellis and shot by Andrew Lesnie. It was so much fun! Another great creative job was P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan.

AFI | AACTA: As an established hair and make-up supervisor, do you still perform hands on work or is it more high-concept work and overseeing a team of artists?
Nikki Gooley:
Yes, I am very hands on, as hands on as I can be. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible, but if I am given the time, I like to be as practically involved as possible.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? Can you describe your creative process?
Nikki Gooley:
Inspiration is everywhere. I usually draw on things from other design areas, for example production design, colours, magazines, art galleries and landscapes. If time allows, I put a style book together, or mood boards to add textures, colours and hair shapes, etc.

Nikki on the set of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

AFI | AACTA: What does a typical working day on set, for instance on a high concept project like Narnia, entail for you?

Nikki Gooley: A typical day starts very early and I begin working on the lead actor, applying their make-up, wigs, facial hair or picking the crust out of their sleepy eyes! It is all very glamorous! I have breakfast and then it’s onto the set. On really busy jobs you can sometimes be in the make-up bus for hours. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of de-rigging, cleaning and plotting the next day. It can be a very late finish. The Make-Up Department relies heavily on the strength and co-ordination of the Art Direction Department.

AFI | AACTA: What was the brief you were given for the hair and make-up on The Sapphires?
Nikki Gooley: The Sapphires
was an extraordinary film to be a part of. Director Wayne Blair wanted the girls (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) to stay true to who they were in terms of realising their characters’ personas. They wouldn’t be living on a mission looking like Beyonce so I used very little make-up on them to begin with. Not even mascara, I had to keep them looking youthful and fresh. I increased their performance make-up and threw on some hair pieces as they matured and went to Melbourne for their audition. The fashion of the time was varied so not everyone would have had the latest Vogue look – much the same as today. We added extra hair pieces to Cynthia’s character (Miranda Tapsell) because she was the one who thought she would be famous! At the end when the girls perform for their family, I kept it fresh again, even though their lives had changed forever.

‘Staying true to the characters’ personas’ – the hair and make-up for the four leading ladies of THE SAPPHIRES evolved as they did.

Nikki on the set of THE SAPPHIRES

AFI | AACTA: I can imagine that you are often called upon by friends and family to assist in creating the perfect costume for dress up parties?
Nikki Gooley:
Yes, family and friends love having their hair and make-up done … Kid’s fancy dress etc.  It’s a big pressure – sometimes they can be your biggest critics!

AFI | AACTA: What are some of the ways you have refined your skills and changed your working methods over the course of your career?
Nikki Gooley:
I don’t like fuss and I try and let looks grow, build things up rather than dismantling a look.  I learn something new on every job. There are always new products to experiment with, and because technology has changed – less being shot on film now and more on HD – it’s a constant trial, finding what products work and how they behave under lights and on the skin. I try to work with the skin and not cover it up too much.

AFI | AACTA: What aspects do you enjoy most about your work? What are the challenges?
Nikki Gooley:
The Sapphires was shot on film which was so beautiful. I think no matter how good the technology is, nothing will replace the layers of texture and lighting or the subtlety of hair and make-up that you get on film. There’s a richness that I just don’t see on HD.

There are always challenges, so many actually. All the little things that are needed to help an actor prepare and bring their character to life. It can be anything from ensuring that a nose hair stays in the same spot every day, or that hair colours are maintained or repaired, to continuity challenges like wind, rain and humidity. Then there’s dealing with make-up that won’t sit on the skin properly, or insecure wigs, kids with missing teeth, people with hangovers and directors who don’t know what they want, or simply a lot of people having a solution to a hair issue when they know nothing about hair! These are just some of the things that you come up against as a hair and make-up artist.


AFI | AACTA:
You’ve worked on everything from Spider and Rose and Dance Academy to The Matrix, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men and The Sapphires. How do you go about choosing a project to work on? What are the most important elements for you?
Nikki Gooley:
I look for projects that have an obvious design challenge – for example completely changing someone’s look  to tell a really fabulous story or negotiating new cultural challenges. I also like to know who the director, producer, cast and crew of a film are when I am contemplating accepting a job. I would love to be able to say that I only look at film’s story, director, cast and the types of make-up challenges offered but I also have a young family to consider, so they play a significant role as well.

AFI | AACTA: Are there particular directors, producers and make-up people that you like to work with?
Nikki Gooley:
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the finest people in the industry both here, in Australia, and overseas.

Once I read the script of The Sapphires, I HAD to do it! Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson had written one of the best scripts I’ve read in years.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a significant difference to the way that you work when you are working on local Australian productions in comparison to those bigger budget Hollywood blockbusters?
Nikki Gooley:
The difference between small budget projects and Hollywood blockbusters is the intimacy on set. There are usually so many more people involved in a big budget feature that the creative process can be a little more complicated.

Small budgets make you far more resourceful because you don’t have the same amount of cash to spend. Sometimes this works in your favour because it simplifies a look, but it can also be detrimental because you can’t give a look the same polish.

Nikki Gooley with her BAFTA Award for Best Hair & Make-Up

AFI | AACTA: You were nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 (Best Achievement in Make-Up) for Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and in the same year won the BAFTA Best Hair and Make-Up Award for your work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. How does it feel to receive such international recognition for your craft?
Nikki Gooley:
Receiving recognition at an international level is really exciting. The awards are voted on by fellow make-up artists so it really is a great honour.

AFI | AACTA: Do awards help in obtaining further work?
Nikki Gooley:
Awards give you recognition and exposure, [and] depending on the size of the industry you work in, it can also determine the amount of future work you will be offered.

AFI | AACTA: You are also an honorary councillor (Hair & Make-Up Chapter) in the newly formed Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). How would you like to contribute to the Australian industry within this role?
Nikki Gooley:
I would like to see an Australian award introduced into the AACTA Awards for Best Make-Up. I will be campaigning on behalf of all of those great make-up artists who work really hard on minimal budgets to produce such great looks and contribute to the whole mood of a film.

Nikki holding her BAFTA Award for Best Hair & Make-Up for THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced during your career? What have been the highlights? What are you most looking forward to?
Nikki Gooley:
Often, the biggest hurdle for make-up artists is receiving acknowledgement for our craft. It encompasses so much more than just a slap of make-up. It is a subtle, intimate and personal craft but the long hours are back-breaking. Hair and make-up plays a pivotal role in assisting actors to realise their characters, whether it is through simply trimming a mustache or applying lavish prosthetics and wigs, every little bit counts.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three people who have inspired or mentored you over the years, who would they be?
Nikki Gooley:
Producer Julia Overton had great faith in me when I was starting out. Patrick McCormack, another producer, and fellow make-up artists, such as Lois Burwell and Dick Smith were also strong influences.

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming Australian hair and make-up artists wanting to break into the industry?
Nikki Gooley:
Advice … Look at the bigger picture. It’s not just about applying a bit of lippy!

AFI | AACTA: What is your all-time favourite Australian film or television series? Why?
Nikki Gooley:
Favourite Australian film – The Sapphires! – It’s part of our history, an incredible story, told through the eyes of some amazingly talented filmmakers, an Indigenous director, cinematographer and suite of actors. It’s beautiful, rich, funny and real! There are so, so many great stories out there that need to be aired in the mainstream.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks so much for your time and we look forward to working with you in the new Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

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
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Twitter: @SapphiresFilm