Director of My Brilliant Career, Little Woman, Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Grey talks to Marc Fennell about being the first Australian female director in fifty years.
Thursday, July 16, 2015 - 19:30

You’ve launched the careers of so many people – Sam Neill, you introduced Cate Blanchett to the world in Oscar and Lucinda - what is it that people don't realise about the really hard working actors? What is it that makes those kind of performers great on that granular level?

 Great directors. (laughs).

So when you made My Brilliant Career in that moment you became the first Australian female feature film director in fifty years. What sort of reactions were you getting from people? Because I've read that people said you should do children's films.

Someone did say that to me once, and was some hippy in my late 20s, like, 'kids? Who wants kids?' It was that thing of ‘girls should do things with children’. I know the press wrote 'would she be able to survive, standing out there on the set in the heat and the dust', because I'm a girl.

We laugh about it but god that's embarrassing.

And it wasn't that long ago. The editor told me only at the end of the editing period that when he was doing the initial rough cut, while was still shooting, people stuck their head in the door and said, 'is it cutting together?' Like, a girl wouldn't understand the technical side. It was a different world.

Is it that different? Have we changed that much?

There's just been an interesting survey about women in film. Apparently the number of women as directors has increased by something like four per cent since the eighties, but the perception that there are many more women in creative roles has increased by 35 per cent. There's still not that many women directing features worldwide, still not winning the Oscars, and still not being in competition in Cannes, which My Brilliant Career was.

When My Brilliant Career did go to Cannes, is it true that you ran out of its first screening?

Yes. I went in and I'm in the dark, watching it, and it was my first experience of ever sitting in an audience of my own film. My ears were so attuned, and anyone that was coughing or moving in their seats... I just couldn't stand it. I was thinking, ‘they hate it, they coughed!’

I just had to get out. I couldn’t stand it. Then as I was creeping out I thought, ‘probably half the audience are now thinking that girl hates it, let's go’. I was thinking that they were all going to follow me out on the street. It was the worst thing could have done.

 I wandered the streets of Cannes, I probably went somewhere and had a coffee or a martini - actually I was broke, so it wouldn’t have been a martini - I ran into some fellow Australian filmmakers who said, 'wasn't that screening great!' And I said, 'it was?' ‘Oh yes, they were all applauding at the end.’ 'They were?' I'd gone!

Did you have a side ponytail at Cannes?

I did.

You're embarrassing, get out.


So Orry Kelly is this fantastic unknown Australian hero; it's astonishing to me that nobody found this story and did it earlier. Why did you?

Actually in the beginning I didn’t know whether this was a full feature film, or whether it was only one hour. The man did extraordinary work, and the number one question is, 'how does a boy from Kiama get to Hollywood?' But I didn’t know how much there is to this story until we really researched it and got together. We started this whole detective story to find out.

He was the person that designed the clothes in Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, Some Like It Hot… At that time Orry had won the most Oscars of any Australian. There was a story about a missing memoir, and he was involved with all these amazing up and coming stars that were at that time vaudevillian, like Cary Grant. All those little bits came together and we realised what an incredible life he had.

When you see somebody walking into an audition can you tell that they're going to be a star?

I always remember Judy Davis reading My Brilliant Career, and we'd heard hundreds of people read it. And I remember that I had the same feeling when Claire Danes read for Little Women. It was just breathtaking watching her read. Chills. And of course, that other woman, Cate something?

Hmmm. what's her name?

Um, I think it's Blanchett?

Oh, that's how you pronounce it?

Yeah. Cate came in to audition for Oscar and Lucinda, I think she had bleached white hair and no eyebrows and a head cold. But there was something there.

That was almost exactly what she looked like in Elizabeth too.

I'm glad you brought up Little Women because I was fascinated to discover that you didn't really want to do it, did you. You said no to that film for years, and it's become one of those iconic Gillian Armstrong films; why say no?

Well I thought Little Women was too like My Brilliant Career.  It's period, it's about a young woman who wants to be a writer who is a rebel. But I had a really smart, receptive producer, Denise Di Novi, who had been Tim Burton's producer on Batman, and she said, you may feel like it's like My Brilliant Career, but there's another whole generation of women and they still need to hear this story about a young woman who doesn't want to fit in.

What is it that most people don't recognise about Hollywood when they land there? Because you landed there with a film that had been successful in Australia. What is it that you fish you'd known?

 I suppose I wish I'd known, and certainly learned pretty fast, that you really don't have creative control until you've made the film that made $100 million worldwide. I had executives telling me they didn't like Diane Keaton's earrings. Calls at midnight; 'can you make the crew work faster tomorrow in the snow?' I said, 'the only way I can make the crew go faster tomorrow is if I go to bed right now and you hang up on me.'

If you could change anything about the way we make films in Australia, what would you change?

They should be braver, and take more risks, and be more passionate, and more emotional. And they're all too long! They dive in the middle. I feel like saying, 'just call me in, I'm happy to help every Australian filmmaker.'

Normally what happens is you finish it, you and the editor walk away and then you see it at the opening night screening and you're going, ‘oh no, oh no, cut cut cut’. Finish your cut, you and the editor, and then have two weeks off. And then see it again.