Actor-turned-director Rachel Griffiths was still “just” an actor when she saw jockey Michelle Payne win the Melbourne Cup, but she was definitely thinking about moving behind the camera when Payne crossed the finish line first in 2015.
Having spent a good decade in the United States working on various projects, including the hit drama Brothers & Sisters, Griffiths returned to Australia itching to tell some stories from her own neck of the woods.
“I was very fortunate to work with incredible people and great scripts,” she recalls. “But I was always very aware that I was telling American stories. So, I started looking for Australian stories. I was reading a lot of manuscripts and yet-to-be-published books and meeting with people about various different projects and happened to be watching the Melbourne Cup the day Michelle won and just in five minutes I knew.”
Four years later, the result of that spark of recognition and inspiration is on our screens. Starring Teresa Palmer as Michelle Payne and Sam Neill as her racing legend father, Paddy, Ride Like a Girl traces Michelle’s life and career from her early experiences as the tenth child in a venerable horse-racing dynasty to her eventual triumph as the first woman jockey to win the Cup.
It’s a stirring, fist-pumping underdog story, and that’s exactly what attracted Griffiths to the project.
“I love sports films,” she explains, “and I did want to make a girls’ coming of age film – I think that is a great first film for a woman because we do understand the delicacy of being a girl and having a dream, and the barriers both self-imposed and sometimes external, to realising those dreams.
“So, the soil was ripe, and I just felt that this was such a great Australian story and that there would be an audience for it. When you make a film it’s four years of your life, and I can’t imagine doing that if a) you didn’t really think there was an audience for it and b) it wasn’t going to be meaningful in some way to someone, somewhere.”
Still, it was a massive undertaking: a decades-spanning biopic with a lot of action sequences, and a setting and roster of characters that would involve working with both children and animals, flying in the face of W.C. Fields’ advice. However, Griffiths notes that she is not the first Australian actor to undertake a challenging first feature directing gig.
“I was really inspired by Simon Baker’s film, Breath,” she says, “which had very complex surf scenes – some of the best water scenes ever shot. And he was working with young actors who gave extraordinary performances. And also Russell’s [Crowe] film, The Water Diviner, was multi-nationality and a big war story, and so equally ambitious, and I was inspired by that. I had moments, dark moments, where I’d think, “What have I done? Why did I take on so much?” and I thought, “You know what? I’d rather fail greatly than fail timidly.” So, if not now when, and if not me, who? So, I just surrounded myself with an incredible team of great experience to offset my liability.”
She also cites some of Australia’s noted women directors as inspiration, saying, “Seeing women like Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong, and Jocelyn Moorhouse have their breakthroughs made me think that maybe one day I could do that.”
Crucially, however, she didn’t want to make a movie only for women – although it centres on a female protagonist Griffiths knew that, as a sports movie, Ride Like a Girl also had a good shot at moving the hearts of men as well.
“I did want to change men’s hearts and minds and I don’t think you do that by shaming them – I think you do that by having a laugh and having people walk in the shoes of your heroine. I think Teresa Palmer’s amazing gift is that men and women are prepared to walk in her shoes. I wanted to make a male tearjerker like The Shawshank Redemption and Rocky. If you make men cry, you can change the world.”
Ride Like a Girl is in cinemas now.