Interview: Donna McRae

Director Donna McRae on the set of her new film, Lost Gully Road.

Lost Gully Road will have its world premiere at Monster Fest this month. We caught up with the director of the new Australian supernatural thriller, Donna McRae.

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Can you tell us about yourself and your filmmaking journey so far.
I came into filmmaking as an actor. I graduated from drama school and started writing. One thing led to another and I found myself at the VCA where I discovered directing. I made a few shorts and then went back to uni, finally doing a Phd where I used a scholarship to make my first feature film, Johnny Ghost. Here I am, five years later with Lost Gully Road.

You’ve said you have a strong interest in ghosts, memory and Australian female gothic. When did you first begin to develop interests in these themes?
Ghosts have been haunting me for years. It all started with watching Casper the Friendly Ghost! I was an only child and Casper seemed like a good friend to have. I was always attracted to gothic films and novels – an early memory was watching I Walked with a Zombie on a Friday night with Deadly Earnest. I am a big fan of Charles Dickens, and his writing tends to show these difficult women that are complex and strong. Perhaps that’s why I am drawn to 19th Century stories. I believe that Australian Female Gothic is a rich area to tap into. We have this history of these amazing woman battling the landscape, the patriarchy, the hypocrisy of a new land and make wonderful stories which need to be told. So, I have always loved this area.

Lost Gully Road is about to have its world premiere at Monster Fest. What’s it about in your own words
Lost Gully Road is, on the surface, a film about a haunted house and a young woman that gets caught up in it. Lucy, the main character, has arrived at the house to lay low. She, and her sister Cassie, have cooked up a wild scheme that will set up their lives, and all Lucy needs to do is stay in the house to wait for her sister. However, the house is not all that it seems, and hides a ghost. So the film is about the relationship between Lucy and the ghost. It’s not pretty.

Lost Gully Road has some strong themes. Can you tell us about these themes and why you wanted to explore them in this film?
The film is really about random and domestic violence towards women, when no means no, and the complications of that statement. It’s very relevant now, especially as we have been seeing the #metoo hashtag trending so powerfully. It’s examining this insidious culture where some men do not respect women – and the consequences surrounding that. Lucy is a young woman who is just being herself – but here, it is misconstrued and not valued. It is also about enablers, and how we cannot seem to be able to move forward to change this culture. I wanted to make a film that comments on what it is like to be misinterpreted by actions; which is what women are up against every day. Hopefully it will shine a light on this behavior, which, in this film, leads to catastrophic results. I also wanted to wrap it up in genre, so it would be palatable to a cinema audience.

Adele Perovic in a scene from Lost Gully Road.

The film has a limited but impressive cast. Did you hold auditions or did you cast people you already had in mind?
I tend not to hold general auditions and see a million people. If I see a good performance on film or on the telly that’s what I remember. I always get recommendations, sometimes from other actors that I have worked with. That’s how we cast Adele. Our cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai had worked with her before and suggested her. I Skyped her and she put down a tape. Eloise Mignon was recommended and she came in for a read. We wrote the Shopkeeper for John Brumpton. I have known him for a number of years and had worked with him when I was an actor. As we were writing Val, Michael Vale (the co writer and production designer) thought that Jane Clifton would be perfect. I met her through our composers Dave Graney and Clare Moore. She was perfect.

John Brumpton has worked in the Australian film industry for many years. How valuable was it having that kind of experience on set?
John is a dream. He was down in Melbourne working on another film and our times lined up. He came on set and just knew instinctively how to work to the camera, understood exactly what was needed, and conveyed a wonderful energy that lights up the screen. He brings this ease to his work that carries with it an X factor, but is also very open to ideas. We were very lucky to have him.  He also understood the low budget nature of the exercise, so nothing was too much trouble. He went the extra mile to help us out.

This is the first lead role in a feature film role for Adele Perovic. It’s quite a physical role, especially the confronting scenes towards the end of the film. How was your experience working with Adele.
Adele is a very talented actor who strives for a naturalism that is impeccable. She gave 110% commitment to this very demanding and difficult role in a hard shoot that was shot quickly. She has an amazing range and is fearless. We had no rehearsal, I completely trusted her to inhabit the role and make it her own. I wanted to capture that fresh ‘in the moment’ performance that rehearsal would never deliver. It can be dangerous because it is risky but Adele rose to the challenge and nailed it. The scenes that you are talking about were blocked on the day with a stunt coordinator, and that was very hard for Adele – but she commanded and earned total respect from everyone. Her performance is mindblowing. It builds and builds and builds.

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Lost Gully Road is your second feature film after Johnny Ghost, another horror film. Is horror a genre you’d like to continue to explore going forward?
I find horror such a rich area to work in. You can explore so many different subjects and wrap it up in an exciting genre that can be entertaining and palatable but so effective. Obviously there are many sub genres of horror and I am attracted to the supernatural (blame Casper!). It can work on a micro budget too – some of the best films are the ones that trade on their inventiveness. 

What are you hoping audiences take away from the film, or get out of it, once they see it at Monster Fest in November?
I hope that the audience will enjoy a supernatural thriller which will make them think about the plight of young women in our society. I’m thrilled that Monster Pictures has included Lost Gully Road in their program – particularly as this is a slow burn film.

What’s next for you? Do you have another film in development?
I have another film in development – a western with ghosts called Kate Kelly – yes Ned’s sister. I am really excited about it as it is a reimagining of the Kelly story in genre. It has been to a co production market at Frontieres at Fantasia in Montreal and we are looking for a lead Producer at the moment – so anyone out there? – please get in touch.

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