Never delete your emails – a salient piece of advice from Sydney filmmaker Monica Zanetti. The suggestion came in handy when she was looking to cast lesbian – and very much alive – Aunt Patty in her cute queer rom-com Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt).
Zanetti had the email address of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok star Rachel House from when the New Zealander was a drama coach on Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Crediting a “history of doing every job on set” Zanetti was an assistant to Campion and would drive the chatty House to set. So she chanced her arm, shooting the screenplay through to her.
“Luckily she remembered me and said she loved it,” Zanetti recalls. “She was the last person we cast, this final piece of the puzzle, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be very good’.”
And it is. Adapted from Zanetti’s stage play, astoundingly, when it opens the 27th Mardi Gras Film Festival this year, it will be the first Australian film to do so.
Starring “Type-A, tenacious personality” Sophie Hawkshaw as teenager Ellie, the high schooler is summoning the courage to ask her secret crush Abbie (Wentworth’s Zoe Terakes, a non-binary actor) to their formal. While Ellie is already out and proud, she hasn’t quite got around to telling her mum yet (Janet King’s Marta Dusseldorp).
Getting great advice from her living Aunt Patty, kookily and unexpectedly, she also enjoys a hand-up from her deceased Aunt Tara (out star Julia Billington). An enthusiastic queer rights campaigner who died in the late ‘80s, she’s now a fairy godmother. Emphasis on the fairy, it’s a neat nod to the first short Zanetti wrote (and starred in), Guardian Elf.
Geraldine Viswanathan appeared opposite Hawkshaw in the play, and Zanetti had hoped to carry them both over to the movie. However, Viswanathan flew to Los Angeles the day after it closed to shoot Blockers, and the Newcastle-born actor’s life has never been the same since.
“I remember messaging Geri when she arrived on set to let her know I’d just transferred her $200 profit-share from the play,” Zanetti chuckles. “It’s kind of funny that my claim to fame is I was the last person to under-pay Geraldine Viswanathan.”
Terakes was the perfect substitute, Zanetti says. “We did a chemistry test between them and it was an instant win. I remember thinking I could never picture anyone but Geri in the role, but Zo just brought this extra layer of vulnerability, I think because they are a queer person. Also, Abbie in the play was very different to Abbie in the film. She’s much more vulnerable, rather than purely a comedic, cool love interest.”
Handily, Terakes brought Dusseldorp with her. The pair, who appeared in Janet King together, were working on a play. Enthused by Terakes’ excitement about Ellie & Abbie, Dusseldorp asked to read the script. The rest is history.
“It was a big confidence boost for me, that someone like Marta was excited about something I had written,” Zanetti says. “As soon as Zo, Soph, Rach, Julia and Marta were on board, I just knew it would be really hard for me to fuck this up.”
The energy of a predominantly female cast and crew that also has significant LGBTQIA+ representation is refreshing. As is the decision to sidestep well-worn trauma tropes, while not shying away from typical teenage crises.
Zanetti grew up with two gay uncles, Alan, with whom she is very close, and Garry, who sadly died when she was 10. “I had a particularly easy run, being queer. I’m the first to admit that. But for my uncle Alan, he didn’t. I got to come out to my very loving, left-wing parents. He had to come out to very conservative North Shore parents, and I can’t imagine how hard that would have been.”
The Mardi Gras showcase is an excellent synergy, given one of the plot strands involves Tara’s historical activism, shining a light on some of the battles that happened post-1978. “I loved the idea of looking at protests that weren’t as popular or publicised,” Zanetti says. “Julia was one of the first people we cast and she just got it from the beginning. She provides wonderful comic relief, but has the emotional range to be very touching too.”
While there is a brace of jokes about Tara’s obliviousness to social media and podcasts, there’s also a heart-tugging twist underlining how much was lost to win how far we’ve come.
“It’s a great experience for someone like Ellie, who thinks they kind of know everything, but it’s easy to forget about what people have gone through before you,” Zanetti notes.
Not something the director is likely to do, emphasising that she stands on the shoulders of giants. Writer, director and producer Julie Kalceff – creator of web series-turned-SBS show Starting From... Now! – has been a significant influence on her work.
“Julie fought to get that made,” Zanetti says. “She just pushed and pushed. Watching her do that gave me confidence, because I remember back when I wrote [debut feature] Skin Deep, everyone kept telling me, ‘oh, you don’t want to get pigeonholed doing queer stories’.”
That held Zanetti back a bit. “And then seeing someone like Julie change the minds of people in positions of power made me like, ‘nup, fuck it. If I want to keep telling queer stories, I will’.”
Monica Zanetti’s Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) will open the 27th Mardi Gras Film Festival, February 13–27. For more info, click here.
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