Alice Englert has displayed considerable acting talent in movies like Beautiful Creatures, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa (available at SBS On Demand), and the BBC series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Recently she's been filming a supporting role in the second series of Top of the Lake directed by her mother Jane Campion in her hometown of Sydney.
What many may not realise is that, over the past year, the 21 year-old daughter of Campion and her ex-husband producer Colin Englert, has been giving her all behind the camera as well.
Her first short film, The Boyfriend Game, world premiered in Toronto last September, but she was unable to attend as she was appearing in The Rehearsal, Crush director Alison Maclean’s return to New Zealand filmmaking. When an invitation came to present the seven-minute short in the Berlin Film Festival’s youth-oriented Generations programme, Englert jumped at the chance.
Distinctively Australian and feeling like a cross between Campion’s early shorts and Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Boyfriend Game follows two 12 year-old girls, Tomika and Edith, (The Tree's Morgana Davies and Kiwi Thomasin McKenzie) who set out in the bush to play the aforementioned game when they delve a little too far into the fantasy they are creating.
Englert has since shot her second short, Family Happiness, which was part of the Cannes Festival’s Short Film Corner, a kind of rendezvous for filmmakers. This time Englert also appears in the film, alongside Ben Whishaw and his Australian musician partner Mark Bradshaw who met on Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star.
Englert explains how one of her buddies, who had lived in Berlin for a year, had recommended a cool Australian-run café, Passenger Espresso, in the alternative Berlin area, Schlesisches Tor, Kreuzberg 36, where we met over the whirring noise of a busy espresso machine. Interestingly it was around the corner from where I had lived when I first came to Berlin in January 1991 – and situated on the city fringe right near the remnants of the Wall, it wasn’t groovesville then.
HB: How did the move from acting to directing come about?
AE: I love acting but I’ve never wanted to be a famous actress. I don't really imagine having success in acting because I’m not sure that I could ruthlessly pursue it and I think you have to.
HB: Does it take the pressure off as you wait for the next role to write and direct?
AE: Yes it can. It’s difficult to relax during those periods. You can’t really treat it like a holiday and I’ve always written because of that, even when I was young just to soothe myself. I liked that.
HB: You’ve been around movies your whole life, so it must have been easy at The Boyfriend Game’s Berlin premiere?
AE: Noooo. At the screening I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I wanted to be a part of this knowing it can be really hard and feel scary and lonely sometimes. But telling stories is so cool. I just want to try to do that for as long as I can.
HB: Did the idea for The Boyfriend Game come from games you played with your girlfriends?
AE: Yeah, I did play the boyfriend game in that special time period when you’re too young to interact in an adult world but are completely aware of it. The film itself is not from an actual experience, but was inspired by some of the energy that I remember feeling. I love the idea of the pretend, when people feel they don't have to take responsibility for themselves. I feel that's such an astute age and it amuses me as well. Suddenly all your intelligence and courage and vivacity is narrowed down to one objective which is to be loved or accepted.
HB: It’s just before all the teenage pressures and being besieged by hormones so we can produce the next generation.
AE: I find it quite disturbing sometimes wondering how much of my lofty thoughts are just some base human genetic code. Some of it probably is and I actually find that kind of comforting sometimes.
HB: Morgana Davies is realising the potential she showed in The Tree.
AE: What Thomasin McKenzie had to do was very important as well which was be bullied and allow herself to poked in the heart. Yes Morgana was wonderful at that, so smart and instinctive.
HB: Your mum started by making short films like 2 Friends.
AE: The girls were older. I love that film.
HB: Have you inherited some of her tastes?
AE: I would never imagine to make the stories my mum makes. In fact, when she mentions a new idea, I can’t see where her mind is going at all, but I love what she does.
When making my own films, I love when people can show me things or help me to see something I couldn't have done by myself. I really feel that with Mum, so I guess in some ways we do have similar tastes, like we often enjoy the same things. I do have a soft spot for fantasy, which I think she doesn’t quite understand.
HB: What was your first memory of a film set?
AE: On Holy Smoke. I’m not sure where it was, but I remember being taken to see my Mum at lunchtime, being picked up by her and feeling very happy. I have a soft memory of the crew and it being “Alicetime now”.
HB: You've travelled a lot.
AE: Yes I followed Mummy around as a little one and I think that is important to how I’ve turned out. I was very aware that people live in very different ways from a young age.
HB: Which filmmakers have influenced you?
AE: I’m really a fan of my mum’s movies, I love John Cassavetes and one of my favourite films is Alien. It’s a perfect and respectful film about fear, just how fascinating it is, and I love the acting.
"You go into the industry imagining that you have to be good enough and that's not a freeing space to be creative. This idea that you have to be a representative for all women instead of just be yourself adds even more pressure."
HB: Your mother is the only woman director to have won the Palme d’Or in Cannes for The Piano. What do you think of the pressure to tell women’s stories?
AE: I think everyone working in film has to have courage because it’s really difficult. You go into the industry imagining that you have to be good enough and that's not a freeing space to be creative. This idea that you have to be a representative for all women instead of just be yourself adds even more pressure. I think it’s important to be playful. Besides, people change their minds all the time. They hate things and they love things and it’s tempting to give up your power to their opinions – beyond your instincts. If you do that, it can end up being extremely irrelevant to who you are or what you do.
HB: One of the hardest things about directing is constantly making decisions. Do you find that a challenge?
AE: I respond well to high pressure. It actually makes me calm down. If I’m bored then everything’s a lot worse because I have lots of time to go “Grrrr”. I like the scheduling and I like the practicalities of making a film.
'Top of the Lake'
(Elisabeth Moss’s unorthodox detective breaks open a difficult case when she discovers that an Asian girl washed up on Bondi Beach did not die alone.)
HB: You’re being directed by your mum.
AE: Yes it’s the first time I’ve been directed by Mum since her short film The Water Diary. But I’ve always worked with her when I was auditioning and things like that, and we have a lot of fun trying to work the scenes. For all the big hilarious damsel-in-distress moments, we try to make it real. I was going to be in the original Top of the Lake series but scored a part in Ginger & Rosa after attending auditions for about a year, so I had to do that instead.
HB: What is the story about and how long is it?
AE: It’s about a brother and sister who were orphaned when they were nearly adults. There’s a ten-year age difference and both are uncomfortable in the world in different ways, but they very much love each other. It’s sort of a family love story. It runs for 14 minutes and 59 seconds and we filmed in Darlinghurst, Sydney.
HB: How was it directing an experienced actor like Ben Whishaw? I actually saw him and Mark at the airport as I was flying out to Sundance.
AE: (chuckles) They were on holiday, they didn't come over to Australia for the film! We lived on the same street in London for a year and a half, are good friends and wanted to do something because we have fun together. I actually wrote Family Happiness before The Boyfriend Game. It was the first thing I wrote. I wrote it with Ben in mind knowing how human he is, and he has a magical quality as an actor. I mostly left him alone; I think it’s good to know when to leave actors alone. Mark is also helping me with the music.
AE: This was a really nice job, so I didn’t feel too ruffled about missing TIFF. It was nice to feel “Ooh I’m so busy.” It’s adapted from Eleanor Catton’s first novel before 'The Luminaries' and has James Rolleston from Boy in the lead role, and the director Alison Maclean is such a lovely woman. It’s about the relationship James’s character has with this girl, and how he inappropriately creates a drama piece about her. Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table, Bright Star) is the drama teacher.
HB: Where do you like to work?
AE: I like working in Australia and New Zealand as there’s good catering. You know, I think it’s really important. Good coffee. One less thing to complain about on set!
Creatively I love being from Australia and New Zealand. I think there is something kind of raw about the way people approach stories because there’s not such an intense idea of the industry as there is in America or England. I really enjoy working with my friends on my own films and the people I’ve been able to meet. But really, I’d work anywhere.
HB: So you are going to make a feature film?
AE: I’m writing one.
HB: Are you in a rush?
AE: No. I try my hardest when I do something. I feel more ready now after making my second short, but I’ll take my time.
HB: Is it about boys or girls? Obviously it’s about relationships of some sort.
AE: It will be about all of it. You get to do all of it in a feature. I’d love to make it in Australia. I love the Australian bush and there are some beautiful locations.
HB: So it’s not an urban story?
AE: I really can’t try to describe it.
HB: At one point will you let your Mum read it?
AE: I let her read everything quite quickly. She’s very honest with me so I always know with her.
HB: Does your father have some input?
AE: I love my Dad. He’s really important to me. He reads my stuff as well.
'The Boyfriend Game' screens at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival on August 7 and 10.
'The Rehearsal' screens at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival on August 14.
Watch The Rehearsal trailer: