“I was very lucky because not only were they great to work with but they’re all so incredibly brilliant and supportive of each other.”
You’ve been a documentary filmmaker for most of your career with a few short films along the way. When and why did you decide you wanted to make a feature film?
To be honest with you I had always set out to make a feature film from the very beginning. My main passion is human drama cinema. I spent a lot of time writing scripts and doing short films but I also like to work a lot. The process of making feature films in Australia is a bit like watching paint dry so I’d always be making other projects on the side. I think that people often separate fiction and documentary but in many ways they’re the same in the way that they’re trying to tell storeys and explore different characters and try to work out what makes the world around us tick. I ended up making a lot of documentary projects at the same time as I was trying to raise money while writing a number of other fiction projects. Thankfully we finally raised the money for Galore.
Was it difficult trying to raise the money for Galore?
I think it’s always incredibly difficult. It’s a pretty modest film and it’s a film about young characters which is tricky because you’re not always able to attract the known cast members who these days you think you need to guarantee financing. Also, we go through waves of fashion in Australia and I think when we first tried to get the money for it there was a real kind of backlash against drama, which I’m never quite sure why and how that came about. If you didn’t have a film that was a horror or a thriller or a crime film then it was very hard to raise money. But you know, like every script it probably needed a bit of development and work so I would be lying if I said it was easy. [Laughs].
I guess it kind of makes you sharpen your tools and makes you a lot tougher by the time you get on set.
The characters and events of Galore are very convincing. Did you draw from personal experiences while writing the film?
Well it’s not autobiographical but I grew up in those areas and they’re similar kind of experiences to what I had at that age. I’m not very interested in writing autobiographical films. I always seem to write stuff that comes from a character and a very fictional place but I think inevitably you end up exploring terrain that is familiar to you and Galore was definitely very familiar to me.
Both lead actresses have impressive resumés and quite a bit of experience behind them. Did you have Ashleigh (Cummings) and Lily (Sullivan) in mind from the beginning?
No I didn’t actually. Because the film took a while to get up I’d start casting and looking at actors and when you’re looking at 18 year old actors it’s difficult because you’re trying to capture people in that kind of cusp period where they’re convincing or they are teenagers. But what happened was, when we finally got the money raised, it was excellent timing because there where only a handful of incredible young actors and I think there’s a bit of a generational wave where you get these young people like Ashleigh and Lily, and Toby and Aliki as well, who are really intelligent and complex in the performances that they’re able to give and also comfortable in themselves and incredibly vulnerable which we needed. We needed that for the intimacy in Galore.
Ashley Cummings is a knockout as Billy and brings a lot of authentic intensity to her role and deserving of an AACTA nomination. Is she this intense in real life?
She’s the opposite actually. She’s the sweetest and gentlest person. She’s very quiet and she never swears you know. She’s an incredibly good person and she was determined to do this role. I think she had just come of filming the first season of Puberty Blues when she auditioned for this and she had also done Finding Fisher and Tomorrow When The War Began and she felt like people where casting her as these very intelligent and sensitive characters and she felt like she really had the scope to do something that was a bit more instinctive and intuitive. She’s an amazingly rigorous actor who did so much research and she was just able to find the human and emotional commonality between her experiences and the experiences of Billie who’s responses to things are so knee-jerk and passionate and reckless and Ashleigh is considerate and sensitive and intelligent about things. For me, when I look at the performance of Billie and look at her on set, it’s a testament to just how brilliant an actor she is. There’s no part of Ashleigh inhabited in Billie, she’s just created this character from the ground up.
Was there any improv from Ashleigh because she’s very convincing and dynamic?
It’s all very scripted but we always wanted it to feel very naturalistic. We just felt like with the drama of the film and those performances would have to feel very realistic for the film to work so we did a lot of rehearsals with just me with the actors and then in pairs and then as an ensemble. We didn’t really work on the script so much but we did work on character a lot and explored, through improv, the ways that they would react to different scenarios. A lot of it was to build up the deep back stories so that the actors felt very familiar with the characters. They also spent a lot of time in the location riding their bikes around and causing havoc in all of the areas that these characters would. I think that that was much more useful to them then really rehearsing the scripts and also more useful then doing straight improv which you can often get distracted by. It was more about making those characters deep and rich so that when we hit the script itself the actors where able to put a lot of effort into those little simple things by hanging out together.
The four young actors also got along very well I think because they’re all just really really great people. When you’re casting you’re casting for talent but I guess you’re also casting for people who you know you’ll be able to work with. I was very lucky because not only were they great to work with but they’re all so incredibly brilliant and supportive of each other.
Are you hoping that Ashleigh’s Puberty Blues audience will come over to Galore?
I think it would be brilliant if they did. I think it would be so great for people to see the scope of what she can do. I think people have been really blown away by the performances of the actors in Puberty Blues and I know the two directors who worked on that show and they’re both very sensitive to doing great character drama. I think that it will be amazing for a majority of our audience to see how vastly different this role of Billie is and to see what is possible for Ashleigh. For Ashleigh and Lily as well, for people who may have seen her in Camp or Mental, what they do as actors is just so interesting and there’s no doubt in my mind that they are going to be pretty extraordinary actors throughout their careers.
The bush fires play a major role in the film. What were some of the processes involved in filming them, or were they CGI?
It was one of those really weird things, and it’s hard to explain in a way, but it was always very important to us that we film against the backdrop of fires. Not only was that because in places like Canberra you have bush fires every couple of summers on the edge of town or just over the next bridge line, but it’s not necessarily a contrivance because that’s part of what life is like and I think people in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide understand that. We also wanted a place specifically like in 2003, when this big event happened. We did a lot of research and the fire services out there took us out to film a lot of stuff but the intense drama of what actually happens in a bushfire is so apocalyptic and insane that if you were to be realistic about it it kind of becomes unbelievable on film. If you look through the YouTube videos of those fires it’s just so wildly from another world. So what we had to do was work with CGI and create the ferocity and intensity of those fires when they arrive at the end and then place throughout the film those glimpses that Billie gets of the bush fires as they hover on the edge of town. That was all just really amazing CGI work from a very small group of very committed artists who kind of lived and breathed bush fires for a few months. [Laughs]. The poor guys. We put them through hell but in the end they did an amazing job. We knew that if those fires look dodgy then it would kill any of the mystery or magic that we needed for that atmospheric part of the film.
Was the CGI expensive?
Well we had to have three artists working full time on it so there was certainly a lot of costs in that. I guess one of the things you spend a lot of time doing with that kind of stuff is rather than grading your film and finishing it you tend to go back and forward so it extends your post-production a lot but I think these days most CG is inexpensive. When you look at films like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which he did on his laptop, the CG is so incredible. That kind of stuff really inspired us and made us realise that that kind of thing was going to be possible.
Can you tell us about the title for the film?
For some reason the first thing that came out of this film was that word galore and the idea of this character Billie who has this big heart and is always seeking out these incredibly pure and real friendships and love affairs but she just makes very bad decisions. I like the idea that galore describes that things are just too immense to get your head around. I think it somehow described this world. Titles are always a hard thing because sometimes you can’t always shake them. We thought about whether the title was too elusive but in the end we liked to think of this film as being a bit like a song and somehow Galore sounds more like a song title than a film title and that felt true to the kind of experience we wanted to create with the film. We wanted it to sound a bit like your favourite summer song rather a big blockbuster.
How did you feel when you found out Galore had been nominated for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Generation 14plus category?
That was amazing. I had taken a short film to Berlin and won a prize which was one of the absolute highlights of my career and it was an amazing thing to have gone there. The festival is like a dream, you know. It’s insane the kind of filmmakers that are there and the types of films you get to see and the insane passion of the audiences there. When we knew we were going there it was just ideal. I wanted to go to Berlin and I wanted that to be the place that we launched the film but you never know if it’s going to be a pipe-dream for not. The fact that we ended up there was as good as it gets. When you’re there you don’t have to do any press and they will sell out the screenings with a thousand people in the audience who will than want to walk around for hours afterwards to talk with everyone involved. The level of the kind of passion that you get at that festival is wild. Some other festivals are more business minded and some other festivals are a bit more celebrity minded but Berlin is the perfect balance of all of it for me.
Without giving anything away, there’s a scene in Galore when Billy’s mother plays Gigantic by Pixies on her record player. Now that Apple have used the song in a major advertising campaign do you think audiences might be distracted during a pivotal scene in the film.
It’s so hard, isn’t it? You can never predict those sorts of things and I genuinely don’t know. The thing I always liked about that was the fact that she plays the song because she loves it. In fact, it’s one of those funny songs that people do always argue about whether it’s just about sex or whether it’s about love or something bigger than that. For me, I just love the fact that all these characters have these little passions and for her at that moment was the thing that was going to get closest to her emotions. You are right though, there are things like that which will be impossible for the audience to necessarily distance themselves from but I also think that people who don’t know the original song will get drawn into it and get drawn into the world of the characters a bit more intensely.
The Turning still lingers with Australian audiences and related articles are still amongst the most read on our website. Can you tell us a bit about how your involvement in the film came about?
Well I had known Rob Connolly for a long time. He’s been really supportive of me. He’s one of those amazing characters in Australian film who just wants everyone to do good work and he’s always pushing people. He was always asking me what I was up to, then out of the blue I got a phone call from him asking me if I was interested in making one of the parts of The Turning. It’s actually my favourite Tim Winton book. When Robert told me all of the other people involved I thought man, I’m not going to get to do one of the ones that I wanted to do. I told him that I would love to do Small Mercies and he told me to go for it. I think that it was good for me in the sense that the kind of stuff that people desire and have to deal with tapped into other stuff that I was writing so it was brilliant for me because before we shot Galore we went off to Gippsland with a couple of really brilliant actors. Everything about that experience was brilliant. It was so exciting to see that Rob’s vision for it was completely realised and he knew audiences would respond to it. To see the life that it’s having is inspiring for everyone involved.
Who influences you as a filmmaker?
I get very sucked in o character stories and I love Jacques Audiard, the French filmmaker who made things like Rust and Bone and A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped because he’s often playing with crime films and everything he does is always stripped back to human emotions. I also listen to a lot of music and I’m a pretty heavy book nerd so a lot of stuff that I draw on often maybe comes from those. In terms of pure cinema I love the Dardenne brothers. For me they make the most beautiful human stuff. I’m always looking for those really intense human dramas and often that’s the kind of stuff you might find in the Dardenne film’s of Audiard’s stuff.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
Well, we’re actually financing a thing called The Warmth which is about a young guy from the Wheat Belt who retraces his sister’s footsteps through the backpacking trails of Columbia. It’s a very intense sensory experience about this boy plucked out of this very stark environment and thrown into this insane, feverish experience. That’s all ready to go so when we were in Berlin we met with a lot of co-producers and we’re just trying to raise the money for that. We’re looking at cast but you never know how these things go. It could take a million years but we would love to be shooting it very soon.
Interview by: Matthew Eeles
Galore is in cinemas now. You can read our review here.