A film usually begins with story or character. The starting point for 52 Tuesdays was the creative team imposing an unheard of level of rigidity on themselves: to film every Tuesday for a year and include some of each Tuesday’s footage in the film.
MATTHEW CORMACK: "Some people think what ends up in a film is exactly what the filmmakers originally intended and that’s not what happens. The process is full of compromise and on-the-spot creative decisions. I was interested in the idea of intention on a conceptual level, and in the intersection between the filmmaking process and the everyday lives of us and the actors and how that might impact storytelling. No big events happened that changed the direction of the story but a lot of subtle, genuine things did.
52 Tuesdays was made via the South Australia Film Corporation’s FilmLab, which aims to develop innovative, imaginative filmmaking teams. Knowing that is implicit to understanding how it came to be made within the Australian system. Bryan Mason, cinematographer and editor on 52 Tuesdays, was the third person on the FilmLab team.
MATTHEW CORMACK: “I clearly remember sitting on Sophie and Bryan’s lounge one night talking about film ideas for Filmlab. We needed three to apply. The idea that became 52 Tuesdays was the last on my page of one-line ideas. I was excited about it but hadn’t thought about it too much. They didn’t reject it outright so that was a good sign. In the interview stage of Filmlab we spent 10 percent of the time on us as a team, 20 percent on the other two ideas and the rest interrogating that idea.
“FilmLab started with a two-week workshop. We had to think about the projects while doing things like building clay models and playing around with string, decide which of us was going to do what. A few days before the end we were still talking about why we wanted to make a film using this process and what was important about it and hadn’t yet come up with characters or story. We still didn’t know if it would be sci-fi or something else but thematically we had come to the idea of time and change.
“So, we went to the pub and jammed out this family of characters: 16-year-old Billie (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey), Jane/James (Del Herbert-Jane/Billie’s mother) and Harry (Mario Späte/Billie’s young uncle). Bec Summerton from FilmLab, was also there. Eventually she became one of the producers, along with the three of us.. The next step after the workshops was that I went away and wrote character histories: 5 to 10-page stories about each of them.”
From left: Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Del Herbert-Jane (Credit: Bryan Mason)
In the film’s set-up Billie is asked to move in with her father Tom (Beau Travis Williams) while her mother undergoes gender transition. Mother and daughter decide to meet every Tuesday. Billie was undergoing change too, simply due to her age. Cobham-Hervey has said that over the course of the film she became an adult.
MATTHEW CORMACK: “The structure of the film had to be integral to the story and characters. It had to make sense for the characters, not just because we wanted to make a film this way. We didn’t want to make it that the filmmakers had just decided to drop in on the characters every Tuesday. It seemed to me that how we made the film could inform what the characters were grappling with, especially around the pursuit of authenticity and the promise of change. As a writer, it was not about relinquishing control to chance and circumstance but about embracing the chaos of the unknown in a way that would hopefully show me (and consequently an audience) something about the challenge of constructing a life, a story, an identity.
“A couple of months after writing the character documents, we came up with the teenagers Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmin (Imogen Archer) when asking ourselves what other characters we wanted to populate this world. They gave us a spine for Billie’s journey that was outside her journey with James.”
Hyde has said 52 Tuesdays delves deeply into the relationship she has with her parents and with her child, Audrey Mason-Hyde, who plays Frida. Cormack tends to talk about structure and form first but says it is “incredibly personal” to him too.
MATTHEW CORMACK: “I have a twin brother and we have different sexualities and this fuels my interest in identity and biology. 52 Tuesdays mirrors my interest in how, when someone in your family who you identify so closely with does something unexpected, it can make you question your relationship with them and your own identity.”
Cormack was in control of “the master document”, a full outline of the story, and this was developed while in constant discussion with Hyde. When casting began, the filmmakers used a few key scenes from the first three months, but none of the cast ever saw the full outline and, once filming began, were only given their scenes the week before. Casting has a big impact on any film, in this one, particularly so. Del Herbert-Jane, originally hired as a gender diversity consultant, was cast first as Billie’s mother.
MATTHEW CORMACK: “We knew if we got James right we could make the film work. All the cast were a lot prettier than we imagined, Billie especially. We thought she’d be more awkward teenager: dorky and dirtier, with pimples.
“We wanted the actors (all non-professionals) to experience the film one week at a time. Some embraced it, others found it challenging because they didn’t know what kind of person their character would end up being. The actors didn’t decide the direction of the story but who they were in reality and elements of their lives became infused into the characters. I had a lot of time to reflect as I was writing and was definitely informed by performance.
“We always tried to be six weeks ahead with the script. Sometimes we would be rewriting the night before the shoot but just tweaks.”
Footage filmed by the characters features heavily in 52 Tuesdays but wasn’t in the original outline at all. James films his transition and interviews people going through similar and shows the results to Billie. Billie mirrors her mother by videotaping the sexual experimentation that was in the outline, happening between Josh, Jasmin and her.
MATTHEW CORMACK: “Billie in particular became a different kind of beast during the making of the film because of Tilly’s (Cobham-Hervey) approach and her curiosity about the material and life. In the outline Billie went to a warehouse with the other kids and mucked about but what exactly they did in their secret location was not completely known. The dynamics in that teenage story line changed quite a bit, especially the videotaping and the consequences of that documentation.
“It sounds like we were vague but we weren’t I swear! We were deeply committed to the experiment but we weren’t sure it would make a cohesive film with momentum. We wanted people to feel deeply about the characters, be concerned for them and pissed off with them. We didn’t necessarily have a commercial imperative but knew that if we pulled it off there would be festival interest.”
Already this year 52 Tuesdays has won the award for best director in the world cinema section of the Sundance Film Festival and the Crystal Bear in the Generation 14+ at the Berlin International Film Festival. But not everyone in the audience could have known the background to the film.
MATTHEW CORMACK: "The way we made 52 Tuesdays created a tone and performances we could not have got if we had made it in a different way. A lot of people have seen the film and talked about its authenticity and maybe that is the residue of the process. There’s something in me that wants to subvert my next script too, to disrupt the sense of authorial control."
52 Tuesdays is now in limited release around Australia.
Image: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, photographed by Nat Rogers.
Watch this exclusive featurette on 52 Tuesdays, which includes the trailer, official teaser, three scene clips and behind the scenes footage: