How To Make It In The Australian Film Industry

Sophie Hyde, the director of sex-change docu-dramedy 52 Tuesdays, talks us through the do's and don'ts for a successful release.

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Want to play a depressing game? Check out how many feature films Australians made in 2012 (37, not counting documentary features), and then count how many you’ve heard of, let alone seen. For every Wolf Creek 2, there’s a Darkfall Resurrection; for every Red Dog, there’s a Bathing Franky.

Like so many salmon swimming upstream, the odds are stacked against Australian filmmakers — and with the 50% funding cut to Screen Australia proposed by the Commission of Audit this week, it doesn’t look set to improve.

As of writing, there were 40 narrative features in various states of production in Australia, and at least half that again for documentary features. In 2013, 26 features in total released in cinemas (it is a precondition of most government film funding that you have a distributor attached – i.e. at script stage – so that’s part of the equation). Some of the features go to TV instead; others release as a digital download, tossed into the gaping maw of the web.

The following first-time feature directors will be premiering and/or releasing their babies in cinemas over the next few months: Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours, showing in Directors Fortnight in Cannes); Jennifer Kent (The Babadook); and Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays).

All come with good pedigrees (key creatives who have talent and/or runs on the board); all have had previous outings at Australian and/or international film festivals, at which they received critical plaudits and/or awards. The signs are good. Whatever comes at the box office, these three directors will be funded or paid to make more things; they won’t necessarily get another shot at a cinema release, but they’ll have a career directing.

First cab off the rank, in cinemas on May 1, is 52 Tuesdays: Sophie Hyde’s sex-change docu-dramedy. If you think that’s clunky, her film would have been about that easy to pitch to funders, who operate on the infamous one-line pitch. Premiering in 2013 at Adelaide Film Festival, and then internationally at Sundance in January 2014 (where it scooped up a directing award), followed by a screening at Berlin Film Festival (where it won a youth jury prize),52 Tuesdays follows a year in the life of 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and her gender-transitioning parent Jane/James (Del Herbert-Jane).

Cobham-Hervey, a circus performer who Hyde discovered at an open audition, is one of the film’s key assets. According to Variety: “A thoroughly beguiling newcomer blessed with offbeat beauty and natural charm, Cobham-Hervey makes a potentially irritating character a pleasure to spend a year with, even when she’s at her most selfish.”

Another talking point is the clever narrative conceit: the entire film was shot one slice at a time on Tuesdays — 52 of them.

On the eve of her Melbourne preview screening, the director Sophie and lead actress Tilda (Tilly, she calls her) were cooking moustache cookies for the audience. We took her insights – and culinary theme – and turned it into a “recipe for success.” (** Image on packet may not resemble resulting dish).

#1: Beware Peanut Allergies – Or: Know Your Audience

“We made 52 knowing we needed to stay true to making it for a festival audience,” says Hyde, whose debut feature documentary Life In Movement (a posthumous portrait of Australian dancer/choreographer Tanja Liedtke) did very well at festivalsas did Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure (which she produced).

“[52 Tuesdays] is low-budget, and also we felt very strongly that we needed to maintain the experiment of making it, and make it for an audience who wanted something different: wanted to be seeing a film that was rich in certain ways, and maybe not easy in other ways. Our path to that was making it for festivals.”

“Australians do really well at [overseas] film festivals, and we need that, because it’s really hard to break through any other way.”

For the first-time filmmaker, festivals (the big three — Sundance, Cannes and Berlin film festivals — and, increasingly, South by Southwest) are a way to reach critics, funders, producers and audiences in one hit — and to sidestep any antipathy towards Australian films, to get an ‘objective’ response. “Australians do really well at [overseas] film festivals, and we almost need that, because it’s really hard to break through any other way,” says Hyde. “Dave Michôd and the Blue-Tongue guys – so many of them went through Sundance. Now he’s in Cannes.” (The Rover, directed and written by Michôd from a story co-developed by him and fellow Blue-Tongue filmmaker Joel Edgerton, has been programmed in a midnight screening slot at the festival).

Festivals are not the end goal, however: “People really loved [Life In Movement], but to get a wide audience to see it was almost impossible,” says Hyde, “despite people walking out of the cinema or screening feeling really involved with it. And so you are always fighting to get your next lot of funding, your next project, and then getting audiences to come. So we realised we needed to find something that felt a bit different, but would still enable us to make films in the way that we thought was really interesting, like all the things that we wanted to explore.”

#2: Do Not Follow The Recipe

Universal themes are essential to any story – fact. But the rest should be as strange, extreme, different as possible: a comedy about a real-life contract killer (Chopper, by Andrew Dominik, who went on to make The Assassination of Jesse JamesKilling Them Softly – and next up, Blonde); a vérité-style family-thriller about a real-life bodies-in-barrels murder spree (Snowtown, by Justin Kurzel – who’s currently in post-production on Macbeth); a languid portrait of a petrol sniffing teen and his Florence Nightingale in remote Northern Territory (Samson and Delilah, by director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton – who subsequently shot The Sapphires, directed docu-drama hybrid The Darkside, and is about to shoot Wayne Blair’s next film, The Septembers of Shiraz).

No-one should have made your story before, or at least not at all like you did it.

For 52 Tuesdays, the point of difference is method and subject: odds are you can’t think of another film that was a) filmed in real time, once slice per week; and b) about gender transitions. It’s not that they don’t exist – it’s that you haven’t seen them and therefore what’s in front of you is fresh and interesting.

#3: Use Fresh Produce

Every debut feature can benefit from fresh meat — an effortlessly talented newcomer that chews up the screen and makes people sit up and take notice. They’re also affordable, and more likely to trust a first-time director than a seasoned actor with an image to maintain and other offers on the table.

Think about Eric Bana in Chopper — he wasn’t new per se, but he was a comedian showing a completely different part of his performance range; or Abby Cornish and Sam Worthington in Somersault; or James Frecheville in Animal Kingdom. And could anyone other than the non-actor leads of Samson and Delilah have pulled off those characters? Unlikely.

“It’s hard to get that kind of performance all the time by making a film the ‘normal’ way,” says Hyde. “I think it’s often the unusual film that gets that performance, or an unusual collaboration between people.”

For 52 Tuesdays, Hyde was looking for a needle in a haystack: not only did she need talent, but she needed all her cast to sign on to the year-long experiment: one shoot per week on a Tuesday, without fail, with the script delivered in instalments.

She met Tilda Cobham-Hervey and the other two leads (Sam Althuizen and Imogen Archer) at an open audition for the three teen roles.

“[Tilda] was different to how we imagined the ‘Billie’ character to start with. She had this very clear idea of who she was, from what she’d created and what other people had said to her, and I felt that when we met her she was really ready to question that, and explore who she might be. And that was really intriguing for us, to find someone just at that exact moment – she felt very ripe. And also she felt like she would work with us very closely – that’s always exciting to me, someone whose going to really be part of what you’re doing rather than just coming in and ‘enacting’ it.”

#4: Too Many Cooks… Is Awesome

The film industry is a hard fucking slog, and you’ll want plenty of friendly faces along the way; friendly faces with creative minds and specific talent/s, who can work for cheap or free when you can’t afford to pay them, and who can contribute their ideas and help make your film better, better, better.

It worked for David Michôd (whose Blue-Tongue Films collective churn out film clips, award-winning short films and features, including Animal Kingdom), and it works for Hyde too. Since about 2010 she’s been making films with a group of filmmakers (directors, writers, an editor/cinematographer) who go under the name Closer Productions. They met as first-year Screen and Media students at Flinders University, although they didn’t come together until years later, when Matthew Bates, Sophie Hyde and her partner Bryan Mason were in SA Film Lab together with separate projects (Shut Up Little Man and 52 Tuesdays respectively). “We decided to team up,” says Hyde.

“You can spend months in your room on your own – and you need to – but you still need to be able to jam it out.”

“There are days when we feel like we aren’t getting that much time or space for creativity, but then we all get in a room – and the amount you can do in a few hours if you’re out-loud about it, and you’re forcing each other to say things out-loud – that’s big,” she says. “You can spend months in your room on your own – and you need to – but you still need to be able to jam it out. You can go so far so fast with people that you don’t have to tip-toe around. It’s as much about the positivity of that process as the rigour of it. And you’re not all necessarily trying to make work that you all like – you’re just trying to be really rigorous with each other.”

If that “group brain” works in the script stage, then it’s perhaps even more important during the editing process.

“We are really, really brutal with each other in that part of the process,” says Hyde. “We really push each other around. And that’s pretty important, because if people are pushing you at that stage, you know that you’re going through all that in that room – rather than later on, in the cinema. You have to have trust in the people around you, that they’re going to tell you, ‘That bit really sucks.’”

#5: Presentation Counts – Or: your cookies might be delicious, but if they look like oatmeal vomit I will not eat them.

You might go with your gut when you’re shooting a film, but you have to think of an audience when you’re editing it. No-one knows this better than Hyde, whose three feature projects all had long, bloody edits.

“The films that we feel like have worked for us have had this freedom in the conception and during the making of, but the edits have been really hard because of that. Particularly Life In Movement and 52 Tuesdays – because at that point you really are totally focused on the audience and what the story is to them. Bryan edited both of those, and he’s a really great editor, but we also allowed a lot of time for the edit. We couldn’t do this if we were working in a much more traditional way, because we end up spending a lot longer in the edit suite than you could afford working in a hired suite.”

52 Tuesdays is in cinemas now. To find out where and when you can watch it, head to the website.

Dee is the Arts & Culture Editor of Time Out Sydney. She has been talking and writing about film for over ten years and for various outlets, including ABC 702 and PowerFM in Adelaide, Inside Film, Filmink, and Senses Of Cinema.