With a very relaxed approach to filmmaking, Siobhan Jackson and Mischa Baka – Jack Baka collectively – have created a very sedated, very unique Australian film.
“We were lucky enough to have actors who were prepared to go to that weird and unknown place with us.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
I want to learn more about you both. You’re both involved with the University of Melbourne. Can you tell us about that?
Siobhan I teach there. I teach in the undergraduates stream in writing and directing.
Mischa I’m finishing my Masters by research. Sometimes I do a little bit of teaching. I started making films with a lot of dialogue and I was interested in seeing how I could make that work without boring the audience. I always had the desire to make dialogue a lot more interesting than it often is in Australian films where it’s cut back and quite sparse. Essentially I was looking at how to understand subtext in dialogue and understand what’s going on when people are talking to each other. The field of linguistics seemed to offer a lot of insight into that.
Siobhan Mischa was actually one of my first students about eleven years ago. So we’ve known each other since he was a student under me. Strange beginnings.
Was You Can Say Vagina developed specifically for University, or was it always intended for a wide audience. I ask this because I know of a few local student films which have found their way onto the festival circuit but never achieved a wider release for some reason or another.
Siobhan We started the project together to try and see what collaboration could bring to both of our practices. I’d describe myself as being a bit tidy while Mischa can be a bit messy. [Laughs]. We brought things that the other didn’t have. At first it was just about trying to see if we could collaborate and we found that we enjoyed that, so we decided to use that energy to make a feature film. We didn’t really have an end goal in mind. This film was really just a way of practicing and to see what we could make together. I wouldn’t say it was any more complicated than that at the beginning.
Mischa The film actually sits a little outside of our research at the university.
Is filmmaking something you’ve always wanted to get into?
Siobhan Yes and no. I started as a painter. I was actually a student painter and then I found my way into film and television. Visual arts has always been in my blood but filmmaking really came into my life around about fifteen years ago.
Mischa I’ve been making films for a very long time, since Attack of the Killer Guinea Pigs. I certainly didn’t make that one recently. [Laughs].
Siobhan Although we may do a remake. [Laughs].
Give us a run down of You Can Say Vagina. What’s it about?
Siobhan It’s a coming-of-age film. I find that strange to say that out loud because it sounds so formal, but it is a coming-of-age film. It’s about a young woman finding out how the world works, and how she works really. We didn’t know that that’s what the film was going to be about when we started making it. We did have this fabulous woman, Lucy Orr, who worked on a short film of ours. We fell in love with her and her capacity to bring something different to the screen. The film really grew from just playing with her in a space with one other actor.
Mischa We came into the making of this film knowing each other’s interests and sensibilities and we’re always trying to excite each other with our ideas and work with that.
Siobhan There’s always a real unknown vibe on set. We were never quite sure what we were going to film day-to-day. We were lucky enough to have actors who were prepared to go to that weird and unknown place with us and see what came out the other end. What came out was You Can Say Vagina.
What I love the most about this film is Ruby, or Lucy depending on which character you are. Externally she’s quite shy and timid and self-doubting, but deep down she’s actually a fearless woman willing to give anything a go even if she doesn’t quite recognise that part of her personality. Tell us about Ruby and how and why you wanted to tell her story.
Siobhan Well we knew she was going to be essential to the story but we never set out to tell her story. There’s something so fabulous about Lucy as a performer so we knew something would grow directly from her. We knew she was a young woman and there’s a real interesting space just in being a young woman which we both wanted to explore. Beyond that, it was all just playing and seeing. The idea of vulnerability and people’s hidden strengths is what interested us the most, so that was always going to be a big part of this character even if we didn’t admit it.
Mischa Lucy really did seem to have that vulnerability which really did seem to present itself as a strength as well. She would throw herself into these situations with this fascinating energy.
Siobhan Watching Lucy tackle some of this things we would throw at her was fascinating. She was so incredibly brave. She has this ability to go into a scene almost completely blind and it would always surprise us how much she would get out of it at the other end. She was a real gift.
Would you say Lucy is like her character?
Siobhan She’s certainly a totally different person to the character she plays in the film. In a funny way, as a director you sometimes get to know the character a lot better than you get to know the person playing that character for you. I know her more as Ruby than I do as Lucy. [Laughs].
Mischa We often wonder what Lucy is like as an actual person in real life. We ended up creating this character which we obsessed about that we got to know that character much better.
Siobhan It sounds like we don’t know Lucy, but we actually do. It’s just that when we work with her it’s always under these strange circumstances. There is a quality to Lucy that is evident on screen. Everything else is fiction. We did keep calling her Lucy in the film which is why her character has two names. [Laughs]. We had to repair that in the film from time to time.
Is that right? I wondered why she had two different names. [Laughs].
Siobhan It is. [Laughs]. It was such a relaxed set that we would be chatting away and we’d forget character names and we had to make a certain part of the story shift. In a way it worked because it was about making what we had in front of us work. It was an exercise in writing directly for the screen. We feel guilty that Lucy’s name is Lucy in the film sometimes because it’s actually Ruby. [Laughs].
It’s funny that you mention the word relaxed because I felt very relaxed watching the film. Like nothing was being rushed or that you weren’t trying to force anything out of a scene for the sake of creativity. Everything just seems to happen naturally. Did you face many challenges making the movie?
Mischa Thinking about how much we should push our ideas, because sometimes they’re a little perverted or extreme and it was a matter of how we should bring them to life without feeling the hand of the director.
Siobhan I agree. Especially because Lucy is so much younger than we are. We were careful not to push her to places she didn’t feel comfortable because she would say yes to things so often. We did have to look after her and I’d say our biggest challenge was making sure we didn’t push her further than what was reasonable.
Mischa We’re quite relaxed. We’ve both experienced being on high pressure sets so we wanted to approach this film in a different way and see what we would happen.
Is this how you will continue to make films going forward?
Siobhan I think this experiences has definitely infected how we will make films going forward, yes. I can’t imagine making a film without Lucy in it, that’s for sure. She said she will play a tree in the background if we have no other role for her. [Laughs]. The looseness of the plotting is important to us, that’s for sure.
Mischa Siobhan and I have such a relationship that we’re not afraid to share strange ideas and possibilities and I think that makes us very relaxed in each other’s company.
I’ve always found Tom McCathie to be an intriguing actor. I get the feeling a lot more of his role was improvised than Lucy’s.
Siobhan I wouldn’t say it was more improvised than Lucy’s, but in some ways everyone brought a different energy to set and Tom has a completely different energy to Lucy. Also, Tom has a lot more on-set experience. We’ve both known Tom for a long time, so in a way that’s changed the relationship which I think changes the performance. One of the things that was really particular with this film was our relationships with people which drew a certain performance from each actor.
Was that really him whistling during that particular scene? As a bird lover I found it incredibly captivating.
Siobhan Indeed. And it’s a really nice example of how we got some of the material on screen. I was walking home from set and I bumped into an old friend who said, “Oh, you’re working with Tom. You know he does those fantastic bird calls?” I had completely forgotten and immediately I knew we wanted to use it because we really wanted to give this character a skill and an expertise. He is great at it and I really like that scene because of it.
I know the film’s title is significant to some of the dialogue in the film but is there a more political or philosophical reason for the tile of the film?
Siobhan You know, we’ve never really talked about it. At all. We’ve spoken about whether we would call it You Can Say Vagina, but not about what it meant. There is a time in the film where that piece of dialogue becomes relevant, but other than that, not really.
Mischa Through the whole film there is a recurring theme of men trying to tell Lucy what to do, and who to be, and that title just seemed to capture all of that. And we’re not above clickbait either. [Laughs]. It is what it is. [Laughs].
You Can Say Vagina is screening at the For Film’s Sake Film Festival on Sunday. 15 April. Details here.