Monthly Archives: November 2016

WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

by Mark Poole (first published in Screen Hub pm  Friday 9 September, 2016 )

This week Women in Film and Television Victoria took stock of diversity and gender matters with a panel which made the barriers and frustrations all too real.
WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

On the panel was Emma Freeman, a familiar name but not such a familiar face. Freeman has gone from being the first woman to win Tropfest with a short film to directing more than 60 hours of television drama including Love My Way, Offspring, all episodes of Glitch and the recent Secret City.

She is currently in preproduction on a feature film, The Circus, to be produced by Leanne Tonkes, the second member of the panel, whose first feature was My Mistress in 2014. The third member of the panel, chaired by Lisa French of RMIT University, was researcher Amanda Coles who provided an overview of the ecology of gender and diversity issues in film and television with research she has conducted in Canada.

Freeman has been working consistently as a director since 2002. However she recently realised she’d had an idea for a feature film in development for that entire time but failed to gain traction on the project. Meanwhile she has seen her male colleagues manage to make two or three features.

One problem for Emma Freeman, as a working director, is to have a life outside her work. She works 15 hour days, 6 days a week when employed on a show, and on her day off she wants to do ‘normal things’ like anyone else.

She first met Leanne Tonkes by accident.  Tonkes had just lost a director to the UK, and had been told about Freeman’s talent by the Victorian College of the Arts. Then she heard Freeman interviewed on the radio after winning Tropfest. ‘So I called the radio station and asked them to pass on a message for Emma to call me,’ Leanne recalled. They began to work together on television commercials, and discovered a shared liking for certain types of stories.

Although Tonkes acknowledged that financing first time feature directors is tough in the current climate, she expected that Freeman’s credits on series and the telemovie Hawke would ease the way. ‘She’s won heaps of awards and clearly knows what she is doing as a director,’  said Leanne. With an all female team, including writer Alice Bell, the increasing sensitivity to gender equality seems to be helping.

The duo are seeking support for their feature project The Circus. It grew out of stories told by Emma’s mother about growing up in a remote part of South Australia and sneaking off at night to visit the circus when it was in town. It’s a period piece which makes the piece financially challenging, but Tonkes commented that bigger budget films should not be viable for male directors only.

According to researcher Amanda Coles, the film and television industries are risk averse since the chances of any project failing are high, so the traditionally white male gatekeepers attempt to minimise the risk by hiring men to key positions of director, producer, writer and cinematographer. Yet Coles pointed out that this risk management strategy is deeply flawed, since films created by women are more successful than those by men, despite being low budget. ‘There is absolutely no business case in support of minimizing risk by employing men,’ said Coles. ‘Despite smaller budgets, films made by women have higher returns.’

Tonkes added that at the end of the day a producer should be able to present a package that can include women in all areas, not just a token one or two women. Women should be able to be cinematographers, composers and directors as well as makeup artists and costume designers. ‘There are so many areas where women are overlooked,’ she said.  ‘You are not getting the best out of the industry because  we’re not finding the people whose light would shine, given the opportunities.’

Chair Lisa French asked if the panel felt that women have a different perspective on storytelling, and Emma agreed. ‘Yeah, I think there is a female gaze,’ she stated. ‘A male director would direct a project differently to a female, and what you want is a balance of the male and female gaze.’ As an audience member she wants to see women on screen that reflect her point of view, and she rarely sees them on the big screen, but it is better in television. ‘I directed all the episodes of Glitch and Secret City. With both of those projects I know that if a male director had made them they would be different.’

Freeman said she’s been extremely fortunate to be able to work with some stellar women producers such as Louise Fox, Penny Chapman, Joanne Werner and Imogen Banks, who understand the need to create opportunities for strong female characters. On the recently aired Secret City, the books upon which the series was based featured a 60 year old male protagonist named Harry, and producer Penny Chapman urged the writers (Matt Campbell and Belinda Chayko) to change Harry to Harriet (a role played brilliantly by Anna Torv). Emma said that it made a huge difference to the sensibility of the series.

‘Women definitely need more opportunities,’ Freeman added. ‘When I go on set I’m often in a sea of men. They are beautiful people, and extraordinarily talented at what they do, but it’s an odd feeling to discover I’m one of the few women there.’

Asked if she forms networks of other female directors to share experiences, Freeman said that she has a friendship with Daina Reid and Kate Dennis. ‘There’s a lot of chattering amongst ourselves,’ she said. However they are all incredibly busy working, and Kate is presently based in LA.

Freeman checked out the LA scene a while ago but was put off by a meeting with a powerful female agent, whose first question was ‘So, what do you want to do, have a baby?’ Emma recalled that she’d been mortified at the assumptions underlying the query. ‘So I didn’t go with that agent,’ she said with a laugh.

Leanne Tonkes noted that the recent Screen Australia initiatives Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers have created opportunities for female creatives, although Screen NSW has gone even further, aiming to distribute funds 50:50 to men and women by 2020. Furthermore, Amanda Coles reminded us that Screen NSW has stated that they won’t fund television projects where the key creatives are all male, nor film festivals where judging panels are all male. Leanne added that Film Victoria has a Women in Leadership Development Initiative, of which she is a recipient, and Film Victoria have also introduced a Women in Games Fellowship to help address the gender imbalances within this industry as well.

‘Screen Australia will match fund up to $300,000 for distributors investing in projects which have women in key creative roles,’ said Tonkes. ‘So for bigger budget productions a distributor may take a risk where they know the project meets the Screen Australia gender guidelines, where previously they wouldn’t.’ Lisa added that producer Sue Maslin has been reported as saying that the distributor Universal were the only ones that understood The Dressmaker project and its potential for attracting female audiences – and the film went on to gross $20 million at the Australian box office last year.

Debra Allanson, producer on the Board of Film Victoria was in the audience, and she suggested that the old distribution models were no longer sustainable, and if the current crop of gatekeepers are white and male, that will change as models are shifting massively. ‘There will be new gates and the old gatekeepers will go,’ she said. ‘It will provide a more equitable landscape.’

As Amanda Coles reminded us, diversity and recognition of talent regardless of gender and race benefit us all.

Books at MIFF 2016 – fostering the slow growth of adaptations

From straight reversioning to simultaneous development, Australian cinema is slowly embracing adaptation.

By Mark Poole

Books at MIFF 2016 - fostering the slow growth of adaptations

Image: the MTC stage adaptation of Jasper Jones. 

For those with long memories, Books at MIFF was ten years old this year. Part of the Melbourne International Film Festival and held in conjunction with industry event 37 South, the initiative bringing together publishers and producers with the aim of facilitating adaptations to the big and small screens.

As MIFF Chair Claire Dobbin said in introducing the one-day event, around 50% of producers’ slates are taken up with adaptation projects, an increase from previous decades when there was a focus on original work rather than adaptations. And since Books at MIFF was created to redress that imbalance and promote adaptations to follow the US model where far more films result from adaptations than original ideas, this event has certainly contributed to that increase.

As in previous years the Books at MIFF event commenced with a case study presented by a panel of industry experts, expertly steered by MC Sandy George. This year’s panel featured Debbie Lee, director of scripted development at Matchbox Pictures, producer David Jowsey whose impressive body of credits include Ivan Sen’s current film Goldstone as well as the director’s previous feature Mystery Road and the forthcoming film Jasper Jones, plus three representatives from the publishing field in Sophy Williams from Black Inc Books, Fran Berry from Hardie Grant Books and Benython Oldfield from Zeitgeist Media.

The focus of the discussion was how adaptation has put diversity on our screens by offering us a rich source of diverse stories, and so the first such story to be discussed was the Matchbox television series Barracuda. Debbie Lee told the audience of producers and publishers how Matchbox producer Tony Ayres had previously established a fantastic working relationship with author Christos Tsolkias on the iconic and highly successful 8-part series The Slap. Barracuda, screening on ABC, is a four-parter shown twice a week on ABC1, and all episodes were also made available on iView. Lee said that early considerations about how to adapt the book centred around whether it should be four by one hours or two by two, and how it should be approached stylistically. One factor in the show’s success is that all four episodes were directed by the highly experienced Robert Connolly, who is also expert at adaptation, which has been a central focus of his feature film work (think The Boys, Three Dollars, Romulus My Father, and Balibo). Interestingly for a panel discussion on adaptation, Barracuda’s two screenwriters Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko didn’t actually get a mention, so when the AWGIE nominations were announced a few days after this panel session, it was great to see the two Barracuda writers honoured on the list.

The panel also explored the development of another Matchbox production, that of forthcoming feature Ali’s Wedding. Fran Berry explained that this project came into being through a conversation between Berry and Tony Ayres at a Books at MIFF session six years ago. Tony mentioned to Fran the stories he had heard from Osamah Sami, a young actor he’d directed in a film called Saved for SBS in 2009. Tony felt there was a film project in the stories Osamah had told, about growing up in Iran where Sami was born. Apparently Sami went on to write the screenplay for the film and the book version more or less simultaneously. (IMDB cites this film as being ‘based in part on the book’, and the screenplay for the film, co-written by Sami and veteran Andrew Knight is nominated in the AWGIE original feature film category, so it seems that this is one project that defies easy categorisation as an adaptation.) The book version is titled Good Muslim Boy, and Osamah also stars in the film version, playing the lead role as Ali. Fran Berry described the story as being about an Iranian boy who moves to Melbourne with his family and attempts to bridge two cultures by going through with a marriage arranged by his parents while being secretly in love with another woman.

Debbie Lee also talked about a third Matchbox production, that of The Family Law, which is written by Benjamin Law and tells the story of growing up Asian in Queensland in a dysfunctional household. Law’s book was published in 2010, selling well in part through the author’s extensive social media networks. Ben is represented by Benython Oldfield, another member of the panel, who persuaded Matchbox in acquiring the rights to hire the author as the head writer of the television show, since it couldn’t be realised without Law’s distinctive voice.

When asked about the dollar numbers of these projects Sophy Williams was guarded, suggesting that people get depressed when numbers are discussed, since in a small territory like Australia, the numbers are always going to be small. However if a book is adapted for the screen the numbers of books sold gets a solid boost.

The publishers on the panel pointed out that in Australia a successful book is likely to sell only around 4000 to 5000 copies, and if you manage to sell 20,000 that is a great success. But Ben Law has forged a new career in screenwriting due to the adaptation of his book into television, which is a great thing for his career, maintained Oldfield.

Bonython explained that his starting point is a book that has sold at least 10,000 copies, or has won a prize, as something that can be taken to producers. Oldfield was adamant that authors need to be paid for their work and so producers should be paying up front for options, despite the length of time it takes for production funds to come through. He talked about keeping pressure on producers to follow through and not just sit on the project, and he may agree to a peppercorn advance if that means that the producer must pay a premium in six months’ time when the project looks like eventuating. Oldfield also sets milestones for the producer to hit, such as a timeframe for the completion of drafts, which must be met in order for an option to be renewed. Sophy agreed that stepped options can be extremely useful.

Producer David Jowsey talked about the adaptation of Craig Silvey’s book Jasper Jones into a feature film, which has recently been completed and will be released next year. The screenplay was written by Silvey and Shaun Grant, and it too has been nominated for an AWGIE this year. Over 200,000 copies of the book have sold which provides a great base to build an audience, Bonython chipped in. The film is directed by Rachel Perkins who did a terrific job, Jowsey told the audience, and they are very happy with the end result. Author Craig Silvey was a presence on the set during the filming, and that experience has convinced Jowsey of the benefits, since the author can provide a lot of backstory to help the director wrestle with a problem.

‘It was always going to be a long and arduous journey and it took many years,’ said Jowsey.

The panel agreed with MC Sandy George that publishing is more open to diversity than the screen sector, as they aren’t as scared of it. ‘Perhaps diversity is less confronting on the page than on the screen,’ Fran Berry mused. However Debbie Lee reminded us that the sector has been really successful bringing indigenous stories to the screen, over a considerable time period with programs such as Shifting Sands, partnerships with government agencies and ABC and SBS, which created and environment where indigenous people were skilled up. ‘That has been hugely successful and I think everyone would recognise that.’

‘I really like the fact that we have series like Transparent and Cleverman where people who are diverse can screw up and be human,’ Sophy said. ‘Even a show about a gay Asian male can be transcended by witty dialogue, and it helps to create a sense of connection and breaking down barriers.’ She added that Benjamin Law’s stories are about humour and family, and they are universal themes that even straight white guys can connect with.

How The Dressmaker was adapted into a film

Books at MIFF: how The Dressmaker was adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet

The film of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel The Dressmaker will gain greater recognition for the author. EPA/TAL COHEN

The Books at MIFF event – held yesterday in Melbourne – saw producers mingle with publishers in the never-ending search for the next book-to-screen adaptation. Although Hollywood is based on adaptation, the Australian film industry has always relied much more on original screenplays, and that is something that Books at MIFF – now in its ninth year – aims to redress.

The Dressmaker, to be shown for the first time at Toronto International Film Festival in September, could well be Australia’s next highly successful adaptation. Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth, the film was adapted from book to the screen by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan.

The Dressmaker (2015) trailer – Jocelyn Moorhouse.

For those who don’t yet know, The Dressmaker (2000) is a Gothic novel, written by the Australian author Rosalie Ham.

It tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who returns to her childhood town of Dungatar to take care of her ailing mother Molly. While people in the town are blown away by Tilly’s dressmaking skills, learned in Paris, she plots and exacts revenge on those who have wronged her in the past.

So what did we learn about the book’s journey to screen adaptation at yesterday’s event?

The Books at MIFF panel featured the book’s author, Ham, alongside screen producer Sue Maslin, the film’s director Jocelyn Moorhouse and the book’s publisher Michael Duffy.

The Books at Miff panellists (L-R): MC Sandy George; panellists Rosalie Ham, Sue Maslin, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Michael Duffy. Photograph courtesy of the author

Ham – who studied Creative Writing and Editing at Melbourne’s RMIT – told us her lecturers advised students to write a marketable idea, and that she soon realised The Dressmaker wasn’t what they had in mind. It didn’t have a typical story arc, and it lacked the sort of happy ending publishers usually go for.

Undeterred, Ham decided to write it anyway, to get all those things “that got up my nose” out of her system, and then she could start her second novel, the one that would hopefully be marketable.

But the book was picked up by Australian publishers Duffy and Snellgrove. It “erupted from the pile”, according to Michael Duffy, who was also on yesterday’s panel:

We began our publishing business intending to do lots of fiction, but ended up publishing almost none […] It seemed that most of the manuscripts we received were written by bored public servants about their fairly uninteresting lives.

Duffy and Snellgrove published the book without making any stab at sales projections, but it sold steadily thanks to word of mouth and positive reviews. Anyone who has read it seems to love it, including film producer Sue Maslin.

Maslin was returning from a shoot in the Pilbara region (Western Australia), for the feature film Japanese Story (2003), when she saw The Dressmaker in a bookshop and was drawn to the author’s name. Wasn’t that the Rosalie Ham she went to school with, who had grown up in rural Jerilderie with Maslin? It was, and as soon as she read the novel she was hooked:

I just fell in love with it immediately. It captures brilliantly what it’s like to grow up in a small community, and what happens if an outsider comes to town.

Maslin got in touch with Ham, only to find out that the film rights had already gone. Ham explained:

I had ten offers on the table within weeks of the book coming out. I selected a producer who seemed passionate about the book and determined to make it happen.

But it was the producer’s first project, and over time Ham began doubting it would be realised in the way she had envisaged, if at all.

In the meantime, Maslin and Ham played golf. Maslin said:

We wanted to resume our childhood friendship and golf seemed an excellent way to do it, even though we both play terrible golf. We never discussed the book. Once a year I asked politely how it was going, and that was it.

Ham used the hours spent wielding golf clubs to find out more about the film industry, and eventually, when the option to the film rights expired, she turned to Maslin, who jumped at the chance.

Maslin approached US-based Australian director and writer Jocelyn Moorhouse, who had directed Proof (1991) – another drama with an ironic tinge. But Moorhouse wasn’t interested:

I didn’t even read it, as I was having a major personal drama at the time. My son had just been diagnosed with autism, and I wanted to focus on that.

So Maslin was patient. A year later she called Moorhouse and suggested a meeting as she was travelling to Los Angeles. Moorhouse said:

I’d read the back cover and it was interesting, but I didn’t want to read the whole book in case I really wanted to do it, and I couldn’t. I told Sue she seemed a great producer but I couldn’t do it, and she said just read the book, and so I did and I was hooked.

By then Moorhouse’s son was in a much better place than he had been previously, and reading the book made Moorhouse feel homesick for Australia. So she agreed to do it:

As soon as I met Tilly [the protagonist] in the book I fell in love with her, because she’s a femme fatale. And then I read about the cross-dressing policeman …

She didn’t know how she could adapt a novel with so many characters into a feature film. But she did know that, if she could manage it, the screenplay would have the power to attract actors of the calibre of Kate Winslet and Judy Davis – they would be attracted by the complex roles.

Maslin tracked down Winslet’s London agent and pitched the book to him. Winslet considered the role, and since Moorhouse and Maslin were sure she was their perfect lead, they waited for her decision, which was an eventual yes.

The film was financed with Winslet on board, but as they prepared for the shoot Winslet told them she was pregnant. That delayed the film for a year, which meant re-financing the project.

Ham jokingly told the audience that, since she had done a year on screenwriting at RMIT, she felt qualified to have a shot at adapting the book herself – but as soon as she realised she would have to cut out many of her beloved characters, she realised she couldn’t:

A lot of the film’s dialogue is from the book, but we had to make the story more of a three-act structure and focus on Tilly and her mother as the throughline.

For publisher Michael Duffy, the film will provide new readers for the book, especially overseas where it will now be published in more than 16 territories.

Has it been lucrative for the author, MC Sandy George wanted to know?

I get A$2 per book sale and that ticks over nicely and pays my credit card bill. But when I got the big cheque from Sue, that paid off my mortgage.

Books at MIFF is part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs until August 16. Details here.