Fifty years of La Mama theatre is documented in the University of Melbourne Archives, offering an insight into the emergence of Melbourne’s avant-garde theatre scene in the late 1960s.
By Jane Beattie, University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne.
Inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, founder Betty Burstall was confident that Melbourne performers and audiences wanted and needed a place for progressive music, poetry and film too.
La Mama nurtured local talent and rode the international wave of social and cultural change in the late 1960s to provide a platform for alternative voices in the arts. In a company newsletter from October 1969 this vision was expanded: La Mama would be a theatre to make possible “a new audience-actor relationship. It was informal, direct, immediate. It was also a playwrights’ theatre…where you could hear what people now were thinking and feeling.”
Early archival material, such as correspondence and newsletters, reveals the co-operative nature that Burstall was committed to; her policy of developing solely Australian work was financially risky in an arts scene dominated by the mainstream canon of mainly American and English work.
Censorship and controversy
“Revolutionary things are happening in theatre today and I want them here.” Burstall’s ambitions for La Mama were grand, and the revolution began almost immediately, with plays pushing the legal boundaries of decency of the time.
The earliest offender was the 1968 production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. The final line of dialogue “fucking boongs” is delivered by Norm to Ahmed, a Pakistani student. Actor Lindsey Smith was arrested for using obscene language, and the play’s producer Graeme Blundell was charged with aiding and abetting Smith. In 1969, John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism resulted in the arrest of nine actors for using obscene language in a public place.
Boxes of news-cuttings from this era tell the story of La Mama’s ongoing battle against censorship and the restrictions imposed by Australian social and cultural values of the time.
The archives also feature production posters, including lino-cuts crafted by Tim Burstall, Betty’s husband. The few styles repeated in different colours with handwritten production dates and times illustrate trends in grassroots art and design, as well as the collaborative nature of La Mama.
Other established artists such as photographer Peter Lyssiotis created production posters and art work – in Lyssiotis’ case posters and artwork for his playwright daughter Tes. A wild variety of style and quality is demonstrated in some of the earlier posters by anonymous artists whose work is marked with holes left by the staples used to distribute them on street corners.
Supporting other art forms
La Mama encompassed many more facets of the Melbourne avant-garde arts scene. Neo Kyma refers to a movement in Greek music that found popularity in the 1960s and 70s, extending well into the 1980s in Australian Greek communities. For around five years, Christos and Tasos Ioannidis played Greek and ployethnic music at La Mama.
“The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden era of Melbourne’s Greek community. Everything, including the arts, was blooming. Especially La Mama - it was not only for Greeks, it was a place of meeting, getting together, it became a culture” explains Christos. Burstall and Liz Jones, who followed her as artistic director in 1977, had created a space where artists from all backgrounds could practice, improvise and collaborate with their peers
Poetry and spoken word were also promoted from La Mama’s inception in 1967, led by Glen Tomesetti and Kris Hemmensley, and continues today as a regular in La Mama’s program. Each La Mama Poetica event featured multiple acts and showcased work from both emerging and established poets.
Mainstays included Jennifer Strauss, Wendy Poussard and Jennifer Harrison. University of Melbourne academic Kevin Brophy was a regular and a reading by Chris Wallace-Crabbe would have been rousing. Left field inclusions were the works of Indonesian poets performed by Geoff Fox, radical experimental poet and a founding member of Australia’s Poet’s Union. And there was Thalia, a night dedicated to the Perseverance Poets collective, featuring Louise Craig and Whitefeather Light.
Despite earlier confrontations with the law, La Mama continued supporting Australian writers, actors and directors, providing a place where collaboration and experimentation were centre-stage. Stalwarts of the Australian theatre scene like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and Graeme Blundell were given the chance to practice and develop their craft, as were other performance artists, such as filmmakers Corinne and Arthur Cantrill.
In the decades following the ‘obscenity trials’, La Mama continued pushing audiences, exploring concepts of identity, and elevating voices of the silenced. Playwrights such as Mammad Aidani and Tes Lyssiotis used this platform to chronicle the variety of the migrant experience, whilst plays like Pundulumura: Two Trees Together (1990) by Aboriginal actor comedian Gnarnayarrahe Immurry Waitairie and prolific Melbourne writer and director Ray Mooney explored relationships between black and white Australian cultures.
From the first donation of records in 1977, the University of Melbourne Archive has seen its relationship with La Mama as a valuable one, not only for volunteer projects and exhibitions but in maintaining a comprehensive record of Melbourne’s theatre history. The La Mama Collection complements that of the Union Theatre Repertory Company which evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as smaller collections of ephemera from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
The La Mama collection is open access to all researchers and its finding aids can be located on the UMA online catalogue by using the search term “La Mama”. A selection of records and production posters from the La Mama archive are on display in the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Wikimedia
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It took Annie Murray 30 years to heed her calling as an animator. Now in the final months of her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) degree, she talks about false starts, challenges, hard work, and her many inspirations.
My pathway to the VCA started when I was one year old. That’s when the asthma attacks started. From that time into my early twenties I spent many, many years in and out of hospital, on the benches during PE, and off school when my class went on camps. It was a blessing in disguise, really, as I spent that free time drawing and developing my love of storytelling and appreciation for cartoons from my bed (think Ren & Stimpy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and exploring films. I developed a passion for watching animation and drawing my own panel-strip comics, which usually entailed some kind of warped humour. I think when you're faced with your own mortality from a young age you have no choice but to develop a dark sense of humour.
When I finished high school I was offered a place to study archaeology at university, which I promptly deferred. I would have adored to have applied for something in the arts but I was far too unsure of myself and family pressure to choose something that would ‘make money’ loomed large. I then took a gap year … which lasted ten years. So much for making money – sorry Nana!
I moved to Scotland in my mid-twenties and it was there that I bit the bullet and started illustrating comics for an online company called Popcorn Horror, a small film company that promotes grassroots horror filmmakers. It was the first time my work was shown to the general public and it taught me an invaluable lesson: don't let the fear of rejection hold you back. If you’ve made something, show it to the world and see what comes back.
In my late twenties I decided I couldn’t work another decade in jobs I hated. I desperately wanted to pursue a career in something I had always loved, and it seemed an obvious choice to me – a degree in animation at the VCA. I spent a year researching the establishment, contacting people and asking questions. I packed up my life and moved back to Australia to apply for the 2015 intake of students.
At 30, I threw everything I had into applying for animation courses. I covered all my bases by applying to RMIT and other universities, but for me, VCA was the golden goose and I wanted to study there more than I have ever wanted anything. I submitted my application and hoped for the best but expected the worst. It was an insane feeling being accepted and every day I walk into the Margaret Lawrence building I feel a rush of pride to be among so many talented, inspiring and encouraging contemporaries and advisors. Secretly, I’m waiting for a letter from student admin saying it was all a mistake and that I should please leave now without making a scene, ma’am.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. It could be the whispered words of a stranger on public transport, a voyeuristic experience, smelling something that reminds me of my childhood, the sound of cicadas, or the tiny patterns on the wings of lace-winged moths. I am inspired by so many things on a daily basis that it’s hard to keep up. I would advise anyone looking to build a career in the arts to carry a journal with them at all times. If you see something, hear something or feel something that could be the basis for a story or project, write it down! I have lost so many keepers because I have thought to myself, ‘I’ll remember that later’. I’m constantly inspired by my classmates, and by my advisors, Rob Stephenson and Paul Fletcher. They are amazingly encouraging, personable, charismatic and learned. I wouldn’t be here today without their support and kindness.
Animation is a lot of work. Luckily, I very much enjoy sitting in a darkened room, frowning for hours on end at a computer screen. It's an amalgamation of all things filmic. We need to know in depth how to take an idea from conception to final production and everything in between. When you apply at the VCA they want to see original stories and ideas – and they'll teach you the rest. We learn directing, producing and editing. We must be storyboarder and cameraperson. We are our own lighting and sound mixers, colour graders and composers. We are the marketing, budgeting and promotional department as well as the animator. You really have to love this work. If you don’t, you will find it difficult to stick with. Pacing yourself and getting comfortable with schedules that are reasonable and attainable are skills that take time to learn, but are invaluable. You need enthusiasm and an open mind.
What I love about my study at the VCA is the freedom it gives me to produce work to a level of which I'm proud. I've grown so much in my skill level as an animator and writer. I have been exposed to all manner of filmic techniques and animation styles which I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I also enjoy the networking opportunities.
Recently, one of my very shortest films was selected by New York Film Week and received an official selection Laurel. The piece was a 35-second, abstract, stop-motion exercise that I created in my first month at the VCA. I find this hilarious – it just goes to show how subjective art is. That short film is nothing special in my opinion, but someone, somewhere on a judging panel watched it and it meant something to them. It may have helped that I titled it with an emotive name – You Are at First, Frightening – and banged a Nietzsche quote on it: 'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity'.
Without the skills and networking opportunities I have been afforded at the VCA, I would never have even got my foot in the door of a studio. The VCA teaches us how to search for work in our fields, shows us avenues we can go down, and teaches us how to impress prospective employers with our work.
My life is better for having been able to develop myself as an artist, business woman and animator. I have made friends that will last a lifetime and think of my class as an extension of my own family.
I’m not sure what the next few years hold for me. I'm considering doing an Honours year. But whatever happens I want to continue developing my skills and hopefully, much like a leech, attach myself to something bigger than myself and work in the creative industry. I’m ready to make some money and look forward to taking my skills into the workforce.
OK, it’s advice time. Be inspired by others but never, ever try and be others. Be the best version of you that you can be. Go hard. Put yourself out there. Take risks – mistakes make great mates.
As told to Sophie Duran
Applications for the VCA's Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) close on 31 August 2017. Find out more.
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Banner image: Annie Murray in the VCA Animation studios. Photograph by Sav Schulman, animation by Annie Murray.
The relationship between elective facial surgery and feminism in China is at the heart of Su Yang’s short film Beauty, which recently won the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Powershorts Short Film Competition. Here, she explains why she made it.
I was introduced to feminism for the first time in the US and became very interested in it, having not heard or learned about it properly in China. I was doing my MFA studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo at the time, having graduated from a Bachelor Degree in Design in at the Tsinghua University in China. When I went back to China from the US on vacation, I was confronted by the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery in China. Many people I knew, including a number of my relatives and friends, had undergone facial cosmetic surgery, and I saw advertisements for cosmetic surgeons everywhere: on TV, billboards and posters in our apartment elevators.
It struck me that people had started cloning each other, losing their personal characteristics. And the notion of beauty in China seemed very singular to me, and the procedures for changing your appearance very oppressive.
I decided to start my graduation thesis on notions of beauty and the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery among the female population in China. And after graduating I still wanted to continue my research because I wanted to know more, not only about feminism, but also feminist art and western feminist art theory. I read some Chinese feminist art criticism but it wasn’t progressive feminism – I wouldn’t even call it feminism – so I decided to move to Australia and continue my studies here.
I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015, and am continuing my studies along this theme. The current working title of my thesis is Feminist Aesthetics: The Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Art.
Recently I co-created a short film Beauty as part of my thesis research with my husband Zhang Xiaoan, who is also studying a Foundations Film course at the VCA. It won the Powershots Short Film Competition and will be shown at an exclusive Melbourne International Film Festival screening this month. It's about one girl’s experience with cosmetic surgery. She goes through the process of choosing a new face from a number of different options presented to her. All of thee faces are actually my face adjusted on a phone app that's very popular in China at the moment.
Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
In the past, the trend in China was to look European but recently the aesthetic, I’d say, is not even human. The chin has become very sharp, and the eyes are very long and very round … the facial features don’t fit the face properly. So the character chooses this style of face at the start of the film. As the trends change, so too does her dissatisfaction with her now ‘outdated style’ of face.
There have been many different understandings of feminism for ordinary people in China since it was introduced from the West in the early 20th century. The initial translation of the word in mandarin was 女权主义, which is close to ‘women’s-power-ism’. But in the 1990s, that word was seen to be too ‘man-hating’ and not aligned with Chinese values, which are underpinned by Confucianism – quite a sexist belief system. The core philosophy of Confuscionism is ‘harmony’, and people in China people believed that 女权主义 or ‘women’s-power-ism’ was too oppositional for the men. So the new translation became much softer, and much less feminist, in my opinion: 女性主义, which translates roughly to ‘women’s-feminine-ism’. This translation was supposed to be more in line with Chinese beliefs.
When I go back to China I am still shocked about the state of feminism there. I went to an exhibition by a Chinese woman artist who painted three-inch shoes, from the times of foot-binding in the Tong Dynasty, in a romanticised way. I was so shocked to see these shoes, which are symbols of female oppression, celebrated in the painting. She painted the shoes like flowers, and talked about how Chinese foot-binding was a great part of Chinese culture. I believe this attitude is still able to exist because people haven’t had a chance to learn feminism. They should have access to this knowledge.
I have spoken to young women and girls in China who, because of overseas travel and education opportunities and the internet, are learning a more progressive feminism. But it is not common enough. My current project is to identify and name a lot of these problems in China. For future projects I hope to help educate people in China about Western feminism.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Screenshot from Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
Hannah Samuel graduated in Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015 and is now Office Coordinator at Matchbox Pictures. She shares her thoughts on what it’s like to love what you do, and offers some tips to budding screenwriters.
Day-to-day of VCA life was pretty great. Nearly every single day of my degree, I’d saunter down from Flinders Street Station listening to Let it Go, as it was the only song that I’d worked out how to put on my iPhone, and head into the campus cafeteria to hang out with fellow screenies before class. Then we’d all saunter in to class, watch some scenes and discuss them, learn about structure, learn about each other, do some writing exercises – anything you could imagine. I'd then head back to Flinders listening to Let it Go, feeling excited by the thought of heading back to uni the next day.
Originally I thought I’d study law, but my English teacher at school suggested the VCA to me. I went along to the Open Day and sat in on a session about Screenwriting. Until then I didn’t know such a course existed – it was everything I loved wrapped into one university degree. Who knew a reality existed where you could do what you love and love what you do? The VCA – those three letters became a magic spell for me, my own little Hogwarts that I’d give anything to attend.
Studying screenwriting comes with its challenges. It’s a time-consuming degree, the hours are long and you need to spend hours on top of that, outside uni, writing, reading and watching. But can cramming in the last 50 years of cinema into your weekend really be considered homework?
I loved my cohort and the teachers. We watched movies and dissected them on a Thursday morning. We had tutorials made up of four people, where we shared our scripts and became so invested in each other’s work that these alternate worlds became part of my university experience. We learned from each other and grew together – and I can’t wait to work with those people in the future. We were instilled with a drive and work ethic that made us believe we could actually make a career out of our passions.
My highlight was when I broke the table in the cafeteria in my first week and everyone lost their lunches, all because I thought it would be easier to climb over the table, rather than get up and walk around. But really, the highlight of my degree would be producing my graduate film WOOF! which was written and directed by fellow Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Nina Buxton. The process taught me so much and watching it surrounded by family and friends on the big screen at ACMI was definitely the highlight of my three years.
I’d like to continue working at Matchbox Pictures and, in the coming years, work as a script coordinator on one of their shows. Eventually I’d like to work my way up to script editor until eventually I get the dream gig of realising my first script. In the meantime I’m going to continue writing my own stuff. I’d also like to collaborate more with my screenwriting buddies.
The VCA taught me to make the most of opportunities, to work hard, and that networking is one of the most important skills to have. It also taught me to be prepared. Things often don’t work out so you have to keep at it and be in it for the long-run.
To budding screenwriters, I’d say feedback is everything and you need to learn how to take it and give it. Write as much as you can and listen to the feedback of your peers and teachers. Email writers you like and ask them to meet up for coffee, pick the brains of those around you. Make the most of the support you’re given and create creative partnerships for the future.
As told to Sophie Duran
Main image: Hannah Samuel at Matchbox Pictures. By Sav Schulman.
Applications for the Victorian College of the Arts' Bachelor of Fine Arts (Screenwriting) close on 31 August 2017. Find out more.
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Gillian Armstrong's debut My Brilliant Career was the first Australian feature to be directed by a woman in nearly half a century and set the path for an outstanding international career. As she looks forward to a festival screening not just of her own films but daughter Billie Pleffer's graduating film from the Victorian College of the Arts, she explains why she's become a vocal advocate for more women in the industry.
By Sarah Hall
When director Gillian Armstrong was studying film in 1968 there was no Australian film industry. A series of smart moves, lucky turns and an abundance of creative talent landed her in the front seat of the industry just as it was taking off again.
Her debut feature, My Brilliant Career (1979), was the first feature-length Australian drama to be directed by a woman in 46 years (the previous being Two Minute Silence by the McDonagh Sisters in 1933, before the local industry crashed).
I was lucky enough to speak with her in the lead-up to the screening of two of her films – Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1987) – in their original 35mm format at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).
I began the interview feeling a little woozy from a late night re-watching of Armstrong's 1994 film Little Women, me and my sister's childhood favourite, and opened with a question relating to her documentary series Love, Lust and Lies, which began in 1976, following the lives of three lively Adelaide girls, who have been revisited on film four times since.
If you were a star in your own documentary series, Love, Lust and Lies, what parts of your life would be shown on the trailer?
Well, we try to have very sensitive trailers, not sensational ones. So it depends if it's an ABC trailer or …
No, it’s a sensational Hollywood trailer that gives everything away.
Oh, right, well ... I don’t think I’ve actually had a sensational Hollywood life. If they wanted a sensational Hollywood thing, they’d probably make a trailer similar to the one that was made for me for the Cannes Lions Advertising Awards this year. They said to me, “We just put the bits of your films in that had famous actors because that makes you look more important”. So if they were cutting a trailer for my life it’d probably be me with handsome young Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Diane Keaton and Ralph Fiennes.
And of course all the Little Women ...
Oh yeah, and Winona and Susan Sarandon. They certainly wouldn’t be interested in the reality of a director’s life – in a parka, a baseball cap and gumboots trudging through mud at dawn shooting in a freezing English countryside …
Before deciding to study at Swinburne did you know that filmmaking was what you wanted to do?
Well, let me just give a little context. Before I studied at Swinburne, Australia had no film industry at all. I don’t think too many people ever thought about having a career in film. If you were interested in a career in drama there were two options: Crawfords for [the long-running police procedural TV show] Homicide, or the ABC for drama.
I had an interest in theatre, literature and art in in high school and it just so happened that my brother went to Swinburne to study business and accounting and he told me, 'There’s this amazing art school at Swinburne, you should come and have a look at it'. So I did. At that point, Swinburne had set up a filmmaking school as part of the art school and it was the first one in Australia. It had really only been going for three years. Both Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock were above me in the cohort, and so was Michael Leunig.
When I went there on Open Day and saw all of these amazing arty handheld student films with cute boys with long hair running around, I thought, 'I want to do that'. So I applied and got in to the full-time diploma.
Did you know much about film before that?
I think I wrote down at the start of my time in film school that my favourite film was The Graduate. The person next to me was writing down Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. I really had no idea. I’d never seen a foreign film. I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, in Mitcham, and my family had nothing to do with film.
Gilliam Armstrong's 1971 graduating short film The Roof Needs Mowing, from the VCA Film and Television Film Archive.
Had you not become a filmmaker, what would you have done?
Pretty much all the girls in my year in high school became teachers, secretaries or nurses. Because I was quite academic, I probably would have gone to uni and done teaching.
How did it go from Australia not having any film industry to you making My Brilliant Career?
Well, timing was really key. Just as I was graduating, the government was setting up the Australian Film Commission [established in 1975] to restart the Australian film industry. Two years later people like Fred Schepisi, who was always an incredible role model for us at Swinburne, was directing his first feature film. So were people like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. Fred also gave big breaks to people like Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock.
After waitressing for about six months I managed to get a job in the commercial industry. Despite all of our teachers at Swinburne sending us the message that women could only get jobs in continuity, someone gave me the advice, 'Don’t get into continuity or you’ll never move anywhere. Get a job as an editor'.
I moved to Sydney, despite having no contacts there and, after a year working as an editor in the commercial industry, I saw the ad for first year of the National Film School. I was really driven at that time, really motivated. It was there I realised I had wasted so many opportunities at Swinburne, just having a really great time. I was very lucky, timing-wise, to get into that pilot training scheme at the film school at the same time Australian directors and Australian films had really started taking off.
Then my ambition became getting a grant. Then, after making a number of short films, I realised you couldn't make a living from short films as the director’s entire wage goes into the film, so my ambition became making a feature film. I lived on the dole then … all of us did. We thank the Australian government for their support of the arts. You know I went on the dole for a year to make The Singer and Dancer (1977). But I think I’ve paid it back in tax by now.
And in your contribution to Australia culture …
Yes ... But I just grew up and learned things step by step. Now I say all I want is creative freedom! I don’t want pressure from investors or exhibitors or distributors. In the end I’m back to where I began at Swinburne; I’d rather do something small and creative and call myself a filmmaker.
Do you make films with a particular social impact in mind?
Not consciously. The stories I’ve chosen over the years have all been things I’ve had a gut reaction to, stories that reflect your beliefs and ethics, and mine are of a humanist, and yes, feminist, nature of course, as well as those with themes like justice and fairness. When I first started making films The Sydney Women’s Film Group was very active, and you know they looked down on my films – like my AFTRS graduation film, One Hundred a Day (1973). They said it wasn’t proper propaganda for women, because it showed women who weren’t being really nice to each other. I’ve never wanted to be a propaganda filmmaker. I’m a storyteller.
Will you be sitting through your own movies, Starstruck and High Tide, at MIFF this year?
I will sit through High Tide, because I haven’t seen it on the big screen for more than 30 years. It’s the 35mm print so I’m really interested to see it. I always watch the end of Starstruck because I love the final scene, and I've actually seen it a lot recently as I was involved in regrading the NFSA restoration with the producer David Elphick and cinematographer Russel Boyd. But generally I find it very hard to sit through my own films. I spend a lot of time thinking how I could have made it better.
Unfortunately High Tide clashes with my daughter Billie Pleffer’s VCA graduating film Fysh which is screening as part of Australian Shorts.
Did it come as a surprise that your daughter decided to study film?
A complete surprise! She actually secretly enrolled, having already done a double degree in fine art. We did everything possible to discourage her from going into this incredibly brutal film industry.
Is there a part of you that’s secretly happy that she's a part of it?
Well, I’m very proud she’s done this whole thing on her own. She’s a writer/director which is something I never was. She’s won numerous awards for her short film Bino (2011). She won a national award last year. I’m very proud and in a practical sense think it’s much better to be a writer/director because you can write your own material.
Bino (2011). Dir. Billie Pleffer.
Would you like to work with her?
Oh no! I don’t ever want another director on set! I mean, I do kind of envy all of those brother director pairs, like the Coens. It’s such a lonely thing being a director, it’s hard, you have to make a lot of decisions. You obviously do make all of these decisions with your team. But having someone on your side with whom you have a complete shared vision and taste and shorthand, and the ability to sort of protect each other … that could be good.
But no, Billie and I have kind of different tastes in filmmaking. Her style is not only different – it's unique and it's wonderful.
When you made My Brilliant Career in 1978, you were the first woman to direct a feature length drama in Australia for 46 years. Now, has the situation changed much for women? Do you still feel like an outsider in the industry? Is this frustrating?
When I made my first feature film, being a woman was all anyone ever asked me about. It really, really annoyed me and I found it quite sexist in the end. I thought, 'You know what – I’m just me and this is a Gillian Armstrong film'. Not all women are going to do the same films and the same stories, and I was really put in this box, because it was a feminist story in a lot of ways, they thought that’s all I ever wanted to talk about. So yes, initially it was frustrating to talk about.
But 40 years later, when the figures of women directors worldwide are still so appalling, I am speaking up a lot about the reality – that it’s not a level playing field and there is an unconscious bias, and this bias needs to be readdressed. We need diversity and it’s time for real action.
These talented young women are coming out of film school, where they’re represented 50/50, but they aren’t getting the breaks and the boys are. The reality is only 17% of feature films in Australia are directed by women and for commercials, only 9%.
I went to the Australian Director’s Guild when I heard these figures and said, 'You know what, we should really do something about this'. The guild formed a working committee of which I’m just a very small part. The whole Gender Matters movement comes from this guild.
We’re thrilled that we really have had an effect and money has been put towards developing female writers as well as directors. There have always been women producers, but why aren’t there more women artists? There should have been a million more Jane Campions.
Is there much doubt involved in making a film, with what script you choose to work with and the process of the filmmaking?
The process of working on a script has many ups and downs. Sometimes the development of a screenplay takes so long you can start to look at it and think, 'I don’t know if I’ve really got the passion for this anymore', because actually making a film takes two years.
When it comes to making the film I always tell young filmmakers that there's never enough time and enough money for a director – whatever the budget is, your ambitions are bigger.
Of all of your films and documentaries, which one stays with you the most – which one makes you think – if I were to die tomorrow I’d be happy because I made that?
Probably my personal baby, my Adelaide series, Love, Lust and Lies. I’m stopping short of saying it’s over because maybe there’s a possibility it'll return in a few years. It’s really captured Australia and Australian lives. Just after we did the second meet, when they were 18 (in the first they were 14), I happened to be in Canberra. I ran into some politicians, Susan Ryan and Bill Hayden, who had seen it, and they said to me, 'Oh, what’s happened to the little blonde girl driving that car with the bumper bar nearly falling off?' They were talking about Josie.
I felt really proud to have made something that had reached the people who could make our country a better place. At least that’s how we used to feel about politicians. I was proud they had a chance to look into the life of someone as brave and wonderful as Josie, where otherwise she just would have been a figure and a number – 'unmarried teen mother'.
It’s an incredible document of 30 years of people's lives. In the first episode the girls all said, “The man’s the breadwinner and I’ll be looking after the babies'. Just to see how that changed over the installations was fascinating.
It’s not as if I went out with that intentional social consciousness, but I have felt very proud when my films have affected people in a good way.
What's your advice to budding filmmakers?
Just do it, don’t talk about it. Try to be different and original but not in a fake way. Push the boundaries, get out there and make it. The more you make the more you learn. Be free and be brave.
Gillian Armstrong's films are showing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival: Starstruck on 11 August and High Tide on 13 August. More details.
Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Alethea Jones has won numerous festival awards for her short films. Ahead of the release of her debut Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner, she explains where she’s at and what’s coming next.
By Paul Dalgarno
Hi Alethea, what’s your life like at the moment, ahead of the release of Fun Mom Dinner?
This week especially has been pretty hectic because I’ve been directing an episode of a TV show called American Woman that stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and some other really brilliant actors. And they just had me come back for reshoots on other episodes that needed a little bit of help. I’ve also just started on a new feature film and I’m in the office tomorrow on that, and doing press all week for Fun Mom Dinner. It’s been very exciting.
What’s your elevator pitch for Fun Mom Dinner?
It’s a broad R-rated ensemble comedy about four mothers who assume the only thing they have in common is the fact their children go to pre-school together. They embark on a night-out with varying expectations of the evening, from not wanting to be there to perhaps wanting to be there a little bit too much. They find out there’s a lot more to each other than the roles of motherhood, and they just cut loose.
As an Australian filmmaker, did you notice the differences in sensibility working on an American script? Did you bring any Australian humour to it or did you just work off the script and shoot it as it was?
The script always tells you what it wants to be and how it wants to be expressed, and I nearly passed on this one. I rang my manager and said, ‘I don’t think I should be considered for this film, it’s not me, I’m not a mother, and it’s very broad and I make very specific kooky comedies'. He explained they were looking for someone to bring something unique to the film and that they wanted a first-time female director. He said, ‘Alethea you can wait forever for your first feature to come along or you can rip off the Band-Aid and prove to people that you can do it. These are really special people to work with, and they’re probably going to get a great cast.’ And so I did it, and I had the time of my life.
Where’s your heart – in TV or feature films?
I’m more drawn to features. I haven’t consciously gone for television, because I was really nervous about it. I think my style of filmmaking is gentle, and I wasn’t sure I was robust enough for television. But I’ve done a few TV things here in America, it’s been the most delightful experience – the crews here are a joy. So I’m actually very open to doing more television as it comes up, but I also have a few features on the back-burner that seem to be stacking up quite nicely.
And you’re Hollywood-based now?
Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, even though I never meant to pursue a career here. I never thought I was good enough. My short-film Lemonade Stand won Tropfest in 2012 and part of the prize was a trip to LA, all-expenses-paid, and the opportunity to meet with industry people. I didn’t feel ready but I went, and from that point on I got an agent over here. I visited for two years, back and forth, while I was directing commercials in Australia and teaching film at Swinburne and the VCA. Eventually my agent said, ‘You’re making great progress here, but we lose it all every time you go home for three months.’ I made the move with my two dogs and, as soon as I did, booked my first episode of television with Amazon Studios. That’s when it all started happening.
When you found out you’d won Tropfest did you have a sense of that being a real career-starter?
I was incredibly naïve and overwhelmed. But I think I was most excited when my first short When the Wind Changes got into the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator Program in 2010. I cried because no-one had wanted to produce or even edit that short. We had to beg the crew to take part, and we'd entered the film in MIFF by writing on the DVD with a marker pen. And then I got a letter saying, “You’re in Accelerator,” and I lost my shit. That was the game-changer for me.
What’s your next film?
I don’t know if I can say, but I think I can say I’ve just signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Studios and am developing one of their projects with them. If it’s greenlit I will direct it.
For Fun Mom Dinner, you mentioned they were looking for a woman director, the film stars four women, and the screenplay was written by a woman, Julie Rudd. Do you think there’s finally a sense of the tide turning, where we’re actually going to see more women’s stories told by women?
Yep, the tide is absolutely turning. I could sense it starting to happen about two years ago, but in this industry, like others, it takes time. A couple of years ago, when lots of articles were coming out about this issue, people were saying it was all hot air and that nothing was actually happening to really change things. But it takes a long time to get films green-lit. I’m so glad that I moved here two years ago. Back in Australia, when my shorts were winning awards and I was like, ‘I wanna work in TV,’ someone literally said to me, ‘It’s not your turn, you have to get in line’. And I thought, ‘Well, if I have to get in line, I may as well do that in America.’ I’m glad about that, because I’ve taken hundreds of meetings and many of those are coming to fruition now that I’ve proven I can do it.
I read somewhere that you’re interested in doing a musical at some point. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right, and in fact this studio deal with Sony has bunch of musical numbers in it. My ultimate musical would be a sort of old-school film like the Pajama Game. And I’m actually doing one like that next year in America, which is really exciting – it’s technicolour with a really kooky bent to it. I’m also developing a musical with Aquarius Pictures, with Polly Staniford, who I went to VCA with, and Angie Fielder.
As a director, is it the finished product that gets you noticed within the industry, or does that come from the process of actually making the film?
It’s 100% process. People just want to know that you can do it, that you’ve made a profit for the financiers, that you can work with big stars and not be phased by them, and that you can get good performances out of your actors. Fun Mom Dinner was shot in 19 days and the budget was extremely low. You can’t tell an audience that, but the producers and studios here in LA know what the numbers are and they all talk to each other to vet you. I booked an episode of Santa Clarita Diet starring Drew Barrymore. When I went in for my interview the show-runner said, ‘Drew’s looking forward to working with you,” and I’m like, ‘What? How?’. He goes, ‘Oh, she rang Toni Collette. We wouldn’t even be talking to you if you didn’t check out with Toni’. I was like, 'Wow, Jesus'.
Even if technical directing skills can be learned on the job, I’m guessing a director’s interpersonal skills have to be there at the outset?
Yeah, that’s right, and I’m really conflicted about that in relation to film school because we weren’t taught that. You’re trying to learn every part of the craft but there’s no room given for leadership and interpersonal skills – even learning how to send a succinct email that just gets to the point to busy people who get hundreds of emails every day. I would love to go back to the VCA and talk with students about that some time. But then I think about how much I just needed to focus on the technical side of film-making and I understand why we didn’t get to that part of things. Like most industries, if you’re starting out and you’re a jerk, you probably won’t get recommended for your next job.
Why did you choose to study at the VCA?
I went there for two reasons. I saw that Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, went there, and I loved that film. And I saw that Emma Freeman, who directed Lamb, went there too. Emma came in and spoke to us one time and she told us that she was the worst student in her class. I knew I was the worst person in my class, too, so that gave me hope that I would improve one day. The more mistakes you can make at film school, the better. I felt the same with Fun Mom Dinner. Watching it, I still cringe, from what we missed or shots that I wish were wider. It was an extraordinarily fast film to make and I had to compromise every step of the way. But now that I’m looking at doing a studio film I know exactly what mistakes I don’t want to make and how determined I am to avoid that nauseous feeling again. And that’s exactly how it was at the VCA – I made really bad shorts but was able to course-correct with the three short-films that I made out of film school.
You’ve mentioned you’d like to direct science fiction movies in the future?
Oh yes, I want to really muscle-up and direct tent-poles. I’d love to do science-fiction or a superhero movie. I saw Wonder Woman three times and bought the soundtrack – I loved it. And I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming – it was just so joy-filled and well-crafted. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, too. The people at Marvel are really special and I’d love to play in that universe. But, you know, one of my all-time favourite films is Contact. And I’d love to make something like that too – a grounded and human science-fiction with a big feel.
Would you like to shoot films in Australia?
Absolutely. I was poised to come back and do a film at the end of last year. We had the money but it just wasn’t the right cast. I’m dying to come back and make something really special and punchy. I’d like to bring a big film with American money to Australia. I know it might sound strange to Australians but I love making big commercial stuff because I like the entertainment factor – that’s what spoke to me as a little girl, that’s what made me happy. If I could bring one of those films back to Australia I’d be thrilled. Everyone would get paid well and I think it would be a treat to work with my Aussie friends again.
Fun Mom Dinner is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 11 and 13 August. Full details.
Banner image: Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.
Despite an initially unsuccessful application to the Victorian College of the Arts, Gabriel Hutchings persevered. Now a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student, he shares some of the joys and challenges of his filmmaking journey so far.
I knew the VCA was the right place for me when I came across the 2013 graduate screening trailer. It was set to this lovely melodic music and there were a bunch of images that jumped out at me, like a man sitting on a white horse in someone’s bedroom. In the last ten seconds the trailer takes a really dark turn and the music becomes abrasively distorted industrial percussion. I remember thinking, 'Any course that cuts their promotional material like that is for me'. Film should make you feel something. It should be compelling, not just pretty images.
The first year I applied for the course I didn’t get in. I’d spent a year travelling after high school and then started a film course in Perth, but I realised pretty soon that it wasn’t what I was looking for. I decided to move to Melbourne with the hope of getting into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) at VCA, but when I didn’t get in I ended up doing the VCA Foundations course instead. That year turned out to be super valuable: I met a lot of people that I still work with, did as much crewing as I could, and got some great on-set experience. I got into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) the second time.
Filmmaking is a challenge in almost every way. It takes a lot of people, time and resources to make a film and it’s a very personal and exposing process. But it’s also an incredibly collaborative and rewarding art form. All of the challenges along the way are what you learn from and how you develop.
One of the most rewarding parts of the course is seeing the films screened to an audience. You know the work and effort that has gone into all of them and often you are involved in many of the projects in various crew roles. It’s great to see what you and your classmates are capable of up on a screen in front of an audience.
I’m influenced a lot by music and images. The mood and textures of photographs can be great references for a visual medium like film. Inspiration comes from everywhere. For me it’s more about filtering it down and trying to distill my own style. It’s about discovering what will help me to tell the stories I’m interested in.
Over the past few years my focus has shifted from directing to cinematography. I’ll finish my degree at the end of this year, and moving into the industry I want to continue developing my knowledge shooting as much as I can. My goal is to be making a living shooting stories I’m passionate about with good people.
To anybody out there who wants to be a filmmaker I’d say: hustle and keep producing work. It can be frustrating seeing the divide between the work you like and what you’re able to create yourself but the more you do it the more that divide gradually closes. If you want to be a director, direct as much as you can on any level. If you want to be a cinematographer, shoot as much as you can. Along the way you learn a lot from the theory and study that feeds into your work, but the best way to get better at making film is by making films. Go out and do it.
As told to Sophie Duran
Lead image: Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Gabriel Hutchings in the VCA Film and Television studios. Image by Sav Schulman.
Find out more about the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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Serkis continues to revolutionise screen performance using a motion captured avatar, conveying extraordinary emotional depth in the role. His success, often attributed to the mastery of animators and technicians, is testament to the rise of an entirely new approach to acting animals in an age of CGI, animation and motion capture.
Performance Capture (the total recording of a performance using a motion capture system) was first used in 2004. It is inherently theatrical, since a performance is filmed in its entirety - without multiple takes of a single scene. Actors wear suits with markers to help computers track their movements during the scene.
To perform as apes, Serkis and others are drawing on the techniques of method acting to emotionally connect with their simian characters. For Serkis, and Planet of the Apes movement choreographer and actor Terry Notary, this has meant going to extraordinary lengths to feel their way into their roles.
Serkis was led by Notary on all fours for hikes in the Canadian woods. They would spend two-hour stints not talking, only communicating as apes. The aim, says Notary, was to allow “the human conditioning to fall away”.
A brief history of monkey business on film
1968 was a big year for apes on film. Primates appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, first aired. In Space Odyssey, actors such as John Ashley donned monkey suits and set about charting the early history of tool use in the celebrated opening sequence known as The Dawn of Man.
In Planet of the Apes, actors such as Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowall relied on monkey masks with furry hands and feet to convey their simian characters. Their bodies were clothed in remarkably human-looking outfits.
Fully costumed performances of primates in films continued until 1995, when Misty Rosas as Amy the Gorilla in Congo performed alongside “enhanced gorillas” running through the jungle at an extraordinary pace, complete with appendages to extend their front limbs.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of cinematic apes, with a full reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, a couple of King Kongs, and more than one Tarzan. But the monkey suit has shifted from a furry outer layer to the modern motion capture suit as actors such as Ace Ruele in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and Notary (alongside Serkis and others) in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) transform how they perform - and we consume - monkeys on the screen.
Feeling like an Apeman (or woman)
With these new technologies, comes a revitalised interpretation of “The Method”. Primate actors are now exploring their performance by inhabiting and feeling “Ape”, and have developed their own “system” to perform as primates.
This system is built around the aspirations of Stanislavski - the father of method acting. It includes embodying the emotional state of the primate via practising regimented gait and walk cycles and using specific breathing techniques and even numbered approaches to gaze and smell. So, for instance, the scent of another primate in the distance would be given a number and a correlating pose, which ape actors would be instructed to adopt.
The Ape method includes a bespoke, non-verbal language used by actors to communicate with each other during filming. Aspiring actors can even take masterclasses with the likes of Notary, as seen in this video.
Serkis calls Notary (who also starred in Kong: Skull Island) “the greatest unsung hero of this entire [Planet of the Apes] franchise”.
Notary talks of “de-conditioning” to play an ape and finding each ape character’s “first position foundation” (a neutral non-human, pose). He says,
most of the actors that do play apes have told me that it’s been one of the most profound things they’ve done, because you have to be so honest with yourself.
He describes his own ape character, Rocket, as “that open, vulnerable, grounded, connected, feeling creature that I aspire to be all the time”.
As humans, our development of tools was made possible by our eventual rising to two feet, releasing our hands from the earth, Freed from holding objects (such as bones and babies) our hands and mouths could then perform other functions.
Our hands and minds now grasp vastly complicated objects, like virtual studios and motion capture systems, and use these to perfect the art of pretending to be monkeys. It’s a strange full circle – an origin story returning.
Banner image: Andy Serkis as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes. Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.
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