Interview: Unjoo Moon

Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Unjoo Moon on the set of I Am Woman.

I Am Woman is Unjoo Moon’s narrative feature directorial debut. The film tells the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s.

We recently caught up with Moon to discuss I Am Woman, working with Reddy to develop the film, her thoughts on the US election and who she thinks deserves a biopic next.

“I think Tilda’s greatest compliment that she could get was from the real Jeff Wald, when he watched the movie he said to me that at times he really thought he was watching Helen. You can’t get a better compliment than that.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

You’ve said that you have memories of your mother talking about Helen with her friends. It got me wondering, was music a big part of your life growing up?
You know, it wasn’t so much my mother talking about Helen, I knew music through my mother and her friends. We hadn’t been in Australia very long when I started to hear Helen’s music on the radio. My mother didn’t speak a lot of English then, so music was a great thing to be part of and to be able to listen to all these great songs on the radio. I do remember that when Helen’s songs used to come on, just how uplifting and inspiring it would be, and how much it would change my mother and her friends. And I really remember the women, when I was growing up in Chatswood on the North shore, I just really remember the women who my mother was friends with, and who had really embraced her and my family when we first moved to Australia, and how through a lot of these women, I learned about feminism and the women’s movement and how the seventies was such a big time of change. Suddenly women were going out to work, fashion was changing, music was changing, and people were even getting divorced. I remember that was such a big thing when I was growing up that somebody could actually get divorced.

It’s rare for any marriage to last these days.
Yeah, from the pandemic I guess. [Laughs]. We take a lot of things for granted, and that’s certainly what I learned in making this film. A young girl told me after they watched the film is they think that you don’t realise just how much work has been done by the women who came before us, and how much we stand on the shoulders of that work, in order to have the life we have now.

You spoke about meeting Helen at a star-studded Hollywood party, and how excited you were to meet her. What was that meeting like?
Well, I didn’t know who she was when I first sat down at the table, and when I realised who she was, I kind of swapped seats with my husband, and I was so curious. I wasn’t talking to her as if I thought I was going to make a movie about her. I’m a very curious person anyway, I love speaking with people. I think that as a filmmaker, you have to be like that and you have to really put yourself in situations where you listen to everybody’s stories, if you can, because there’s always a great story out there somewhere. And I remember when I spoke to her, I was just so excited to really try to understand who was this person that was able to affect this enormous change? But I wasn’t expecting the scope of the story that she ended up telling me. And we ended up really chatting a lot at this dinner, kind of mostly whispering to each other. We ended up talking a lot, and I really thought, what an amazing story, her life should be a movie, but of course her life probably already is a movie. So I went home and I started Googling her, and of course, once you start Googling Helen Reddy, and a lot of people will do this after the movie, is that you find all these amazing videos. You watch the midnight special, and Helen on The Carol Burnett Show, and Helen with her own show, The Helen Reddy Show, all these great performances that she’s done. I think I stayed up all night just looking at all this amazing material, but was ultimately really shocked that nobody had actually made a movie about her.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Unjoo Moon on the set of I Am Woman.

I’m wondering how Helen was involved in the making of the film. Did she play a big part in the development of it, or was she happy to leave it to you?
Look, Helen and I had a really, and still have, a very good friendship, and I’m very blessed to have had Helen’s support and also the support of her family, because a story about one person who is famous like that, it doesn’t just affect that person, it affects the whole family, and it affects the legacy of that person. And so I was extremely lucky to have that support. I may have mentioned that when Helen decided to give me her life rights to make a movie of her story, I remember saying to her, “Helen, I’m not going to make a documentary. I’m making a work of fiction based on your life, inspired by your life, really, and I’m not going to get every word right, I’m not going to get every event right. I may amalgamate characters, I may miss people that were part of your life, but I can absolutely promise you that what I will do is I will capture the spirit of who you are, what your life is, and what your music has meant to people, and the impact that you’ve had.” And I think that that was something that she really trusted. So we developed the screenplay, and she did read the screenplay before we shot, and they were fine with it. Along the way as Emma and I were working on the script, we had contact with Helen. I took Emma with me to Las Vegas when Helen did her last show in Las Vegas. We got to meet some of her fans, Jim, who’s the head of the fan club. There was a lot of research done, so we met with a lot of Helen’s family, mostly her family. And I think it was very important for this story, and for the way I created the film, to really feel that it’s her story, that it’s from her point of view. So a lot of the research was really focused around how Helen would have observed something or seen something.

Was it a surprise to you that Tilda didn’t want to meet Helen before filming?
That was a decision we made together. And in fact it was something I always felt that it wouldn’t have been right to do. Tilda plays Helen at a very different stage of her life, so I think that the Helen that you meet now may not be the Helen that you see in the movie. And even though she is still as spirited and as feisty and as outspoken as she was then, she still is now, but I actually always thought that it wasn’t appropriate, or the right choice, I should say, for Tilda to be meeting Helen, because she really needed to embrace that Helen of that time, not the Helen that she would meet now. And I think that when they finally did meet, it was actually quite a really lovely way for Tilda to meet Helen, because she’d already been on that whole long journey of Helen’s story.

Considering that, Tilda must’ve gone deep with her research.
Tilda did so much work. And I knew that, when I met Tilda, I knew she was going to totally embrace this character, and the depth of digging that she would be. Tilda is incredibly diligent and hardworking, but she also has great intuition and was able to beautifully melt into this character. Look, I think that anybody, even when you first watch the movie, I think a lot of people will go home and immediately YouTube and Google Helen Reddy and start watching all those amazing videos. There is a wealth of information, so Tilda had access to all that material. But then there was a lot of discussion about the smaller details, the nuances. And also, we were very lucky we scheduled in six weeks of rehearsals for Tilda. Tilda was cast a year before we made the movie, so we were in constant dialogue. We did a lot of testing along the way, we did camera tests, which actually, Dion Beebe, the cinematographer, he’s very big on testing, but it also helped really enormously with the development of the character, to be able to see it on the screen, to see her aging process, to see her physical development. And in the six weeks of rehearsals, Tilda was incredibly busy. She was so fully immersed into embracing the character she was having… she learned to sing, she had to learn to sing. She had to learn to breathe in the correct way. She had movement classes, she worked with a choreographer, she had voice lessons. But in the end, they’re just tools that you equip the actor with, and in the end, those tools are not what you end up often using onset. They’re things that you empower the actor with, and then she was able to come on set and eventually throw all that stuff away. Some of the things that she worked on, she may not have ever used, but they were ways for her to help her on that journey of being able to fully melt into that role. Yeah. I think Tilda’s greatest compliment that she could get was from the real Jeff Wald. When he watched the movie he said to me that he could not believe that at times he really thought he was watching Helen. You can’t get a better compliment than that.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy in I Am Woman.

What was your reaction when you found out the film was going to become a Stan Original rather than releasing to a wide audience in cinemas?
Well Rose [producer, Rosemary Blight] and I had talked about it. As you probably know, we were due to release on May 21, but once the cinemas started to shut down and it became literally a worldwide shutdown, I think we all just waited to see what was going to happen. And it didn’t seem that the option of going back into theatres, it just wasn’t going to be clear cut. I think in this whole situation, there’s not a lot of planning you can do. I think that everything is a risk right now. So I think that we felt very strongly that it was very important that this movie with the kind of message that it has, and the fact that it’s quite an inspiring and uplifting film, that this is a really good time for people to be watching it. And I think that we also felt that we needed to get this film out now rather than next year, because it’s a particular time in the world where a lot of big decisions are being made, and really decisions that are going to affect, even if it’s something like the US election, it’s going to affect the whole world.  I just really hope that our story, with the kind of message that it has, I really hope that even if, in its own small way, it helps women or people, especially women, make really good choices and really good decisions. I think it makes it important to be able to release the film now, and in a way where people have options and choices and that it’s safe for people.

You’ve mentioned the US elections a few times while we’ve been speaking. How does that play into your life? Is that something that’s very important to you?
Well, I think it impacts everybody’s life. I think that when we started making the film, when we were developing the script, I remember Rose and I used to look at each other and say, isn’t this incredible, we’re going to make this movie and release it at a time when there’ll be the first female president of the United States, and it’s going to be sort of historic and people will watch this movie and think, what a long way we’ve come. And I think that what happened, the world changed, things became different, but I think what has been really interesting with that change in government in America is that people realised it affected everybody in the world. Even though at the moment borders are closed and people are not allowed to move between countries quite often, or even between States, we are all very intrinsically interconnected. So choices and decisions that are made will affect everybody, not just one country now.

And during the development of the film, the #MeToo movement happened as well. How did that play into the making of this I Am Woman
Well I feel like the movie already had that message, even before that movement came up, but I think that once the Women’s March started to happen, and those marches went all around the world. I mean, I went to the one in Washington, there were more than a million people there. I mean, it was extraordinary, I’ve never seen anything like it. And I wanted to go there, not only to support the movement, but because the end of our movie is set in Washington at the last great women’s march. So the end of the movie, the 1989 Mobilise for Women’s Rights March, that was the last major march in Washington before the Women’s March. So I wanted to go and see it for myself because I wanted to kind of experience Washington then, and know that kind of last scene that we were going to be creating. And it was pretty extraordinary being in amongst this sea of pink hats, and seeing women holding signs saying, “I am woman hear me roar”. And then I’d look down the street and somebody would be holding a sign saying, I’m strong, I’m invincible, you know, old words from Helen Reddy’s song all these years later, from 1989 to when the march happened, that it felt like we still had a lot of work to do.

You must’ve been happy seeing those signs.
You know, I wasn’t that surprised. While I was there I met a journalist, who’s the editor of a Washington newspaper, and I was talking with him and he was saying how he was there on the ’89 March. And I said to him, ‘Well, what’s the difference between the ’89 March and what you’re seeing in the Women’s March?” And he was saying to me, “Well, what’s really interesting is just how much younger it is this time.” Which gives you a lot of faith and hope for the next generation.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Danielle McDonald in I Am Woman.

There’s another very important icon of music in this film and that’s Lillian Roxon played by Danielle MacDonald. Do you think Lillian is someone who deserves a movie of her own?
Another great joy in this movie was discovering and digging deeper into the character of Lillian. I’d heard about Lillian Roxon. I knew that she’d written the encyclopedia of rock and roll. I didn’t really understand the depth of influence that she’d had on Max’s Kansas City, which was such an important part of the New York scene which helped launch the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. So that was such a joy to be able to discover sort of the breadth and the depth of her career and her influence, and her influence on Helen. And yes, Lillian Roxon certainly deserves a whole movie of her own, but in this movie, her story is very much told from Helen’s point of view. So we don’t scratch too much beyond the surface of Lillian’s great life. There’s so much more to Lillian story than this movie, but as I keep saying, this story is very much told from Helen’s point of view, and what we were able to show. It was hard to not show all those elements of Lillian’s life.

You would have listened to Helen’s song I Am Woman many times throughout the making of the film. Are you sick of hearing it yet, or does it still have the same impact on you as it did all those years ago?
Oh my gosh, you know what, in the same way that Helen sings the song halfway through the movie, and then she sings it again at the end of the movie, and it has a different meaning for her. It definitely has a different meaning for me. I mean, I will never forget the fact that the song always will take me back to my childhood. I think people always, when they hear a song, it always takes them back to that first moment that they fell in love with the song, the music. And so it reminds me of growing up on the North shore in Sydney and being a young child and hearing that song and her Helen’s music, just in general, come on the radio, and seeing the way that it impacted my mother and her friends, the women who lived in my neighbourhood  who were learning about feminism and independence and starting to work for the first time. So it will always take me back to that. We had not lived in Australia for very long when I first started to hear the music, but I’ve been on a huge journey since then, not only just in terms of making the movie and getting to know Helen, but in terms of my own life. So that is what’s really magical, I think about the song is that at every stage of your life, it takes on a different meaning of the words. You know, those words that Helen wrote, I think that that’s the part of the song that has the impact, those lyrics, “I am woman, hear me roar, I am strong, I am invincible.” Those words, I think, mean different things to women as you go through different stages of your life.

I Am Woman.

If you could make a biopic about any other Australian, who would it be?
Wow, nobody has asked me that question.

No, no. Nobody has asked me that question. People ask me what I’m going to do next. And I would have to really think about that, because there are so many amazing Australian stories. Does it have to be somebody famous?

Not at all.
You know what, I don’t know if my father would be very happy that I would make a movie about him, but I think I’d really love to make a movie about my father. I mean, that would be a great Australian story because he was in Australia in 1959 as a young Korean man during the White Australia Policy. And he came to study at RMIT, he came to study as a wool classer, and he lived on sheep farms and learned how to shear sheep. And really, coming from a very small Korean town to a sheep farm in Australia, I always thought it was such an incredible journey.

That is beautiful. So would the story have a happy ending?
Oh, the story has a great ending because he moved to Australia and he’s embraced both countries very close to his heart, and he helped to set up the Australian Korean Chamber of Commerce. Korea went from being a non-existing trading partner to Australia, to being a very important trading partner with Australia. I think he’s just stepped down as the National President of the Korean Society in Australia. And last year while I was shooting the film, his society funded a trip for young Korean Australians to go to Canberra to learn how to promote leadership and to promote the ability for young Koreans to move into Australian politics. So yeah, had a pretty good journey.

That’s a great answer. And who better to make it than you.
I think it’s a pretty amazing story. I’ve seen incredible photos of him standing on a sheep ranch, shearing sheep. I think he was only in his early twenties, and I remember him saying how all he wanted to do was eat Korean food, but there were no Korean restaurants. And so what he would do was he would go and catch a train into Melbourne and go to the Chinese restaurant and try to eat something spicy, because all he was getting was lamb and two veg, or something.

I Am Woman is out August 28 via Stan.


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