Interview: Ben Hackworth

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Radha Mitchell and Nadine Garner in Celeste.

“It’s not heavy on plot. It’s all about character, and these characters are complex and real,” Australian director Ben Hackworth tells Cinema Australia about Celeste.

Since the early 2000s Hackworth has directed four short films and two feature films including Celeste and his feature film debut, Corroboree about a young man (Conor O’Hanlon)who is summoned to an eerie meditation retreat by a dying theatre director.

Celeste shows a unique side of Australia, especially its focus on the country’s Bohemian culture and how that interfaces with North Queensland culture.

“Women like Celeste because it’s about this idea of devotion and sacrifice and the nuance and resentment we have around that,” says Hackworth.

“Men of a certain age don’t really seem to get that. Although a lot of men above the age of 60, or men who are in touch with their feminine side, often tell me they enjoy it. But that’s a generalisation of course.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

You sound surprised that people over a certain age are enjoying this film.
I’m not. We knew that trying to get a film made in Australia with Producer Offset money that we had to make it for a particular market. Clearly you either chose to make it for the trendy, visceral Screen Australia market, or you’re making it for a prestige market which I think is the better audience to make it for, mainly because they’re the ones who go to the cinema. It didn’t mean that we had to make it any less of a film because we were trying to appeal to a certain audience, it just meant that how we were trying to make it edgy or artistic is a subtle perversity. It’s about the character or the poetics of something rather than a rock and role form.

It’s interesting that we’re speaking of this demographic because I saw an episode of Gardening Australia recently which featured Paronella Park. The story of Celeste has been in development for over a decade so I’m wondering when you got the idea to shoot at this breathtaking and alluring location.
I found it in 2006. I did a residency in Paris where I was going to begin the film. When I was there I fumbled with the film. I wasn’t getting it right, so I wrote Corroboree. I made Corroboree in a very short time and travelled around with that film which took up a lot of time. I started writing Celeste again with Bille Brown who passed away not long after. We committed to shooting at Paronella in about 2008 and we spoke to the owners who agreed to let us shoot there. They were really supportive of it.

I’d love to hear your opinion of the historic location, because it’s somewhere I’m sure a lot of people would love to visit.
It’s a remarkable place. There’s really nothing like it in Australia. It’s this strange ruin that looks like it’s from an Aztec time, yet it’s got Spanish deco features. It’s twentieth century, but the way the buildings have weatherd is amazing. Obviously because of cyclones and fires but also because it’s built from this clay that has an eroding quality. It’s built from a clay from the lagoon which really doesn’t last. What you see is this moss covered, crumbling building being overtaken by these incredible gardens. The guy who built it wasn’t actually a builder but a pastry chef. The whole park was built like a pastry chef would build it. It’s ornate and well decorated. It’s excessive and silly, but really beautiful. [Laughs].

Odessa Young in Celeste.

Because of the film’s location, Celeste feels very European aesthetically and the story and themes are so universal that it could be set anywhere in the world. Was this film always going to be made in Australia?
I always wanted to make it in Australia. As Australians we’re only closely removed from being Europeans by hundreds of years, and what I like about the place is this interface between the Europe that we left and the laconic Australian culture of this township. Jack, the lead character, is living in this broad Australian world and comes into this broader European world once he gets to the park. I think only English speaking audiences get that.

Speaking of the themes, Celeste isn’t your average tale of family dysfunction which usually plays out in the suburbs in most Australian films. Where did this story come from?
The idea is from a few places. The story is weird and fictional in the absolute sense that this didn’t happen. Celeste’s character is bits of psychology from women I’ve known, including my Mum and my Stepmom and also Diane Cilento who was a close friend of Bille Brown and the wife of Sean Connery. She had a property up in North Queensland and I think a lot of Celeste’s way of dealing with people publicly was taken from Diane. A lot of the ideas of how Celeste deals with her husband and Celeste wanting to escape the drama of her career came from Diane. Of course we didn’t want to make the film about an actress, but we wanted to include a musical interface because of how operatic the story is. You could certainly put on a movie or a theatre production in the jungle, but an opera is so much more pervasive.

Were you nervous about shooting Radha’s singing scenes?
Yes. I was nervous about everything. [Laughs]. I just didn’t know how well Radha had learnt it. I could see her trying to learn it and going over it night after night and singing it to me over Skype when she was working with her teacher. I was very lucky that she did learn that piece very well. The other stuff we did in reverse. Radha would mime it then we would get the singer to post-sync it. It works so well because the singer actually sung it how Radha was performing it, with a softer singing voice. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. The technology now it really great.

Thomas Cocquerel in Celeste.

You could not have been gifted a more talented cast. We know Radha is always going to be good, but Thomas, Odessa and Nadine are phenomenal in their performances. You must have been pinching yourself on set.
I was lucky. Working with everyone was such a joy and everyone was so giving. I was fortunate to have a bit of time with Thom and Radha during rehearsals so we got to go out of town and play out improvisations and get into character via scenes that weren’t in the film. It was great for them because they knew each other well enough in and out of character that they could help each other out if something wasn’t working on set. Odessa is a genius. I’ve never seen an actor turn up with the character’s journey mapped out so well. She just knows exactly what the character is like and informed me quite often how I could better make her character work. [Laughs]. You could role her performance in the edit from beginning to end and hardly have to cut anything out. I don’t think all actors are like that, but Odessa is.

Had you seen Looking For Grace and was that film an influence on the casting of Odessa and Radha?
I had seen the film. It’s funny because we knew we wanted Odessa early but casting Celeste was much more complex. Once we eventually cast Radha I was a little nervous because I didn’t want Sue Brooks or our producer Lizette Atkins to think I was copying their cast. [Laughs]. Thankfully they’re much different character.

Very different characters.
And there’s something postmodern about that. It’s a very gentle film and I didn’t want to make it a star vehicle and make it too top heavy. This cast is amazing.

Ben Hackworth on the set of Celeste.

Going back to Celeste’s aesthetics, your first film Corroboree felt very European in style. What’s influenced this?
I grew up on a lot of different cinema. A lot of old cinema. I wouldn’t say my style is European influenced as much as it is influenced by old movies. I really hate what’s happening with movies at the moment. I find most new movies to be really boring. I think the stories are good, but the way the movies are edited doesn’t allow you to get into the world of the film. Movies are edited for story, story, story and at the end you feel bereft of any inquisition or curiosity. I watched this great Emma Thompson film recently called Carrington. It’s such a great movie because it all happens at its own pace. You really get into the world of the film. I grew up watching a lot of French and Italian cinema and American movies from Cassavetes and a lot of older American movies. I’m less excited by what’s happening in movies now. Everything feels so high concept, almost like you have to have the TV advertising pitch before you go out and make the movie. I’ve got to keep making enough movies for people to realise that that’s what I’m about otherwise people will think I’m daggy and old fashioned. [Laughs].

How excited are you to jump into your next project?
I’m so excited. I wish I had one to jump into. [Laughs]. If anyone has an amazing script I’m interested. [Laughs]. I’m working with a few different writers at the moment on a few different things but it’s hard to know which one’s going to be ready first. I’m really excited about the future. I’d even be keen to make another short film soon. I put so much energy into Celeste over so many years that I’m finally looking forward to moving on to something else. I was really excited to see Strange Colours last year. It made me so thankful that something out of the box is being made and it gives me motivation to continue with my style.

Celeste is in select Australian cinemas from April 25.

Did you enjoy reading this interview? Help us continue to bring you more Australian film coverage by making a donation to Cinema Australia below. 

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