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AFI-winning actor Judy Morris has been acting since the late 60’s and has appeared in some of Australia’s most iconic films including Razorback and Phar Lap, and lesser-known gems like John Power’s 1977 comedy, The Picture Show Man.
In the late 80’s Morris took her talents and love of cinema to the next level when she directed Luigi’s Ladies which she also co-wrote with Jennifer Claire, Ranald Allan and the great Wendy Hughes.
Almost a decade later, Morris teamed up with George Miller to co-write Babe: Pig in the City, and Happy Feet, which she also co-directed. In 2012, Morris won a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for her feature film adaptation of The Eye of the Storm, a powerful drama directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush.
When Cinema Australia called Judy Morris this week, she was preparing for the Queensland premiere of her latest screenwriting achievement, Chasing Wonders.
“Everybody who worked on this film was very involved with it on a very personal level,” Morris tells Cinema Australia.
“The film deals with a lot of life issues and emotional family issues. But also, I’ve tried to get quite a bit of humor in there as well, particularly with the kids, but with the adults as well.”
Morris is right, Chasing Wonders does boast moments of great humour, but the story at its core is heartrending.
It’s a neat coming-of-age story set across the lush wine country of both Australia and Spain, in which a young man explores the nature of father-son relationships and the pathway toward understanding and forgiveness.
Morris was born in Queensland and can’t wait to screen the film in her home state.
“I left when I was 17 years old to go straight to NIDA. I always love going back to Queensland and I have relatives that live there who are lots of fun and very lovely people.”
“I found most of these characters very easy to align myself with, and I understood them because of my own family background.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
More recently you’ve become known for your writing work on films like Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet and The Eye of the Storm. But of course you also have this very impressive list of acting credits including Razorback, Phar Lap and The Picture Show Man, and television shows like Homicide and Mother and Son. Where did you journey as an actor begin?
Well, it started when I was about five. I think I was a drifty dreamer girl, and I started to go and see movies when I was five. I was taken there and then I didn’t ever want to leave the theater. My mum was so gracious and kind that she let me often go into the cinema and watch the same film again and again, until really I actually could come to the point where I went home and I knew all the lines and I would just do the whole film by myself. Acting was very much my life. I did it for a long, long time. I did also, lots of things with Kennedy Miller, things like Bangkok Hilton as an actor, and Dirtwater Dynasty, all very lovely pieces to do. And then I’ve worked with George Miller a lot since, obviously. So I’ve been lucky.
Can you remember what some of those films were that you were watching at such a young age?
I remember one title from when I was five, Where No Vultures Fly. That was my favorite film.
I mentioned some of those big iconic Australian films like Razorback and Phar Lap, films you were making back-to-back. Describe the Australian film industry to us at that time from an acting point of view.
I think as an actor, and as a writer, I’m very instinctive. So I think we all had different ways of working, actors all have different ways of working, and I found it quite easy to sink into the characters that I was playing and it felt very natural to me. So that was my personal way of approaching the industry at the time. I was fortunate to have worked with wonderful people who were very, very talented, and I think Australia had a golden period there, where we made beautiful movies. I started with a movie called Between Wars, and I think it was just great. It was absolutely golden, the Australian period was for about 15 to 20 years. So I learned as much as I gave, that’s the way that I approached it all.
Do you keep up to date with Australian films now? Do you find yourself at the cinema watching Australian movies?
Well, I do, but the Australian cinemas closed down for a while because of reasons we all know. So that’s very sad. It feels funny because we’ve just been through a rather strange period, haven’t we? I think the UK, the Europeans, certainly the USA have all been fighting with it. But things are getting better and I’m starting to feel that bubbling optimism about things, that I believe it’s going to get better, and actually, a lot of films are starting to be made right now.
You mentioned the great George Miller who you worked with on Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, and of course, other films that you acted in. Tell us about your working relationship with Miller and how that came about.
Well, George obviously hired me as an actor first, and I’ve always been interested in every part of filmmaking, and when I’d done acting for a lot of years, I became very, very interested in every single thing that happened in terms of making a movie. That of course required writing and directing. I wrote and directed with George on Happy Feet for three-and-a-half years, and wrote on Babe: Pig in the City. So I love to think that I’m multi interested, if that makes sense. In absolutely every part of filmmaking. So I was very lucky, George asked me to write something, and it just all went on from there. George is pretty great.
So were you that actor on set who’s asking all the questions to the technical departments and learning as you went along?
I did it more silently because when I was on set, they were always working hard. The crews were always working incredibly hard. So I tried to do it more by observation than asking, because I think that could have been a bit annoying to them. So I didn’t do that, but you often have so much time off as an actor, that you can go round and see exactly what they’re doing and exactly why they’re doing it.
I’m sure some of our readers will be keen to know about your experiences working on the Australian television series, Mother and Son. Can you tell us about playing Liz on that show, opposite the very talented Garry McDonald and Ruth Cracknell?
“Oh my God.” “OH MY GOD.” I’m saying that because that was my repetitive line in Mother and Son, where I could throw my eyes heavenwards and say, “Oh my God,” and that’s what I remember there. But it was an amazing thing to work on because I just worked with wonderful people on that show, and it took off because I think it asked the audience very much about the mother, was she slightly doolally or did she actually manipulate that she was doolally? I think that was the thing that really held people completely engaged by it.
You mentioned your acting studies at NIDA earlier. Did you also study screenwriting?
No, I did not. I just acted people’s screenplays, and loved what they’d done with it in many cases. So that was the way I learned, by really by loving the story and loving the talent. I consider myself extremely lucky. Extremely. I just think there are so many talented people and they just don’t get the shot at doing something that they’re married perfectly to the vehicle that they’re playing in, in any way. But I really do think that I have known some extraordinary, and I always say this because I’ve known some extraordinary actors and writers, so, so talented. But because it doesn’t hit at exactly the right moment in time or when the culture is at an exact moment in time that everybody wants to listen to it, they could just as easily dislike it at that point, but it’s really whether it’s in the zeitgeist at the time. So I consider myself extremely lucky to have got vehicles that actually moved forward and propelled into having the public take notice.
How did Chasing Wonders come about for you?
It all came about from a gentleman who is a great businessman, Hilton Nathanson. He is an amazing man, and he works very well in lots of fields, but he really had a passion to make a movie that he felt very deeply about, and that passion was shared by Louise, his wife, and he just decided he really wanted to make a film, a film that he was proud of, and that’s how it all began. I was asked to come and write the film, and I was in the UK, and I did that in the UK, with them and with others working on the film. So that was the real step into having someone who felt as passionately about doing something that he wanted to. It was a great thing to see.
How much of the story was brought to you by Hilton, and how much did you contributed to the story?
Well, he had big input into the characters, and it was basically that, that was sent to me and that I became very interested in. So then, the screenplay process, hooking into those characters and seeing what you can do with them became the plot, bit by bit, and that’s usually how it starts. I found it a lovely and a really deeply meaningful movie, because it was so accurate about family.
Tell us about your writing process. Are you a writer who can bang out a script in no time at all, or do you like to take your time with it?
I would probably say I do like to take some time with it. But the fact is that I have discovered that whenever I write, I actually do every part as an actor. I just think that because that’s my background, it just came to me naturally. Whenever I write a scene, I always became the person I’m writing. It wasn’t something that I thought about, but I just became aware that I was actually trying out certain things. So the two things became very closely allied.
That sounds like so much fun now. So you were physically acting out these characters as you were writing them?
It was hard to physically do it because I had to sit in front of the computer. But I did get up and walk as I did it, and it’s something that was so strange because it just happened out of nowhere. I didn’t think about it, and I think it gets back to the instinctive thing that some actors, writers, directors, work instinctively, and others do a huge amount of really trying to find exactly what would work for them as their working force.
The film is brimming with these deep characters, and even the smaller side characters are bursting with life. Which character did you resonate with the most and have the most fun writing?
That’s very hard for me to say, because I think I found most of them very easy to align myself with, and I understood them because of my own family background, which is often the case, which did have certain difficulties during the time that I was a child. All I can say is that each one of them touched me. The fact that I ended up writing each one of them was because they touched me or I wanted to make them funny, and I wanted to get that going as well, because I do love humor, and I think I’ve written humor in most of the scripts that I’ve written. So I just fall into being who I’m with at that moment, and that moment is the character that I choose at that moment.
The film’s main character Savino is this young boy on a journey of self discovery. Was it easy for you to write from a young boy’s point of view? Did you use anyone in particular as inspiration?
I think that I found him reasonably easy to relate to because he had a lot of things that I think, what they call emotional memory, you have experienced certain things yourself and you tend to veer towards writing those things for that character. Then you get the great luck of having Savino, the lead boy played by Michael Crisafulli, who is just so charming and so beautiful that he only helped me all along the way in realising the character on a page.
What a wonderful, wonderful actor Michael is.
I think all the actors in this movie were. Michael and Jessica Marais. Paz Vega, Edward James Olmos, Carmen Maura. These people, they’re very, very famous, and Antonio de la Torre, they’re all very, very famous in Spain.
I guess Michael is being spoken about the most because you’ve all made this brilliant creative decision to stop filming once all of the young Savino’s scenes were complete, and came back to it when Michael was a little older to film the rest of his scenes as a young man.
I think it paid off very well. I think that it was just a great idea, and the fact that they often have lookalikes for it, I think was bettered by the fact that it was the same person with the same heart and the same soul, and I think it worked very well for the film to be able to feel, “Oh, this is actually the same boy. Hasn’t he grown up handsome?” Which he did, and is. I don’t think there was ever a moment when people didn’t completely respond to the idea. So often, just because of schedules and the way you have to work on a film, you might lose out on that. But in this case, there was nobody saying that this wasn’t a wonderful idea, and that it worked very well for them. So that was great.
Do you know if Michael was acting on other projects in the meantime?
No, I think he actually just went on with his life and enjoyed that. But he has been speaking recently again about how he would really like to do some more acting roles. So that would be wonderful. If he took the gauntlet up again, that would be great.
Chasing Wonders is directed by a first-time feature filmmaker, Paul Meins. How closely did you work with Paul during the making of the film? Considering your extensive experience, I’m wondering if he ever called on you for any advice?
I didn’t go on set.
Was that your choice, or a production choice?
Mine. I’ve often felt that it’s a bit inhibiting sometimes for actors, if the writer’s sitting there, just watching very carefully what they’re doing. I often talk to the actors afterwards. It was wonderful because of the Spanish influence and all of that, not only of the people really famous in Spain, but all those people are famous internationally, have done wonderful international films. So I liked the idea of talking to them about it, but not actually being there, watching them, because I think sometimes that can feel a little bit like there’s a hawk looking down on you.
Are you working on anything else at that you can talk about?
Well, actually, I was going to work on something, but something got in the way, didn’t it? Starts with C. [Laughs]. So recently, no. Like a lot of people in our industry, their work was stopped completely, and in every creative sense, they couldn’t continue to do the work for a while. But again, I’m going back to holding the optimistic viewpoint now because it’s all coming back to life, which is really, really wonderful because it was a very tough time for people to not be able to work. When you like working as much as we seem to, it’s quite difficult. But let’s not dwell on that now because it’s good. Really, a lot of things are happening at the moment, and it’s very exciting.
What would you say is the one thing that you hope audiences take away from Chasing Wonders?
Their hearts. I hope they take their hearts into an area that I think they feel very strongly about how difficult it can be with family. But also, at the same time, to be the most loving thing that happens in your life is often your family, and having to come to grips with what you’re going to get out of that, that actually will change your attitude in your heart. I think that would be what I would say is the thing that happens most often at the end of this film.
Chasing Wonders will screen at the Gold Coast Film Festival on Sunday, 18 April. Details here.