Interview: Beck Cole

Beck Cole.

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Beck Cole’s name may not be as synonymous with indigenous Australian filmmaking as Thornton, Perkins, Blair, Sen or Purcell, but the Warumungu and Luritja woman’s filmography is equally extensive and just as impressive as some of those aforementioned names.

Cole’s television credits include eighteen episodes of the ground-breaking skit show Black Comedy on which she proved her talent for comedy. She also directed a handful of episodes of the small screen phenomenon Wentworth, as well as episodes of Between Two Worlds, Mustangs FC, Grace Beside Me, Redfern Now and The Warriors.

Here I Am, Cole’s 2011 debut feature film following three generations of Indigenous women, premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and her other work, including documentaries and short films, have screened at film festivals around the world.

On her latest project, We Are Still Here, a unique indigenous anthology film from New Zealand and Australian filmmakers made in response to the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival to both countries, Cole not only co-wrote and directed one of the contributing shorts, Grog Shop, but was also put in charge of merging the eight pieces together as Supervising Director alongside editor Roland Gallois.

The result is not only a powerful story of hope and survival, but a glimpse into Australia’s indigenous filmmaking future. With so much impressive talent on display from filmmakers like Dena Curtis, Chantelle Burgoyne and Tracey Rigney, it’s exciting to know the future of local filmmaking is in such talented hands.

Cinema Australia caught up with Cole over Zoom recently to discuss everything from her early beginnings in media and film, her involvement with Samson & Delilah, the challenges of constructing such a large piece of work involving so many filmmakers, and much more.

We Are Still Here is screening at MIFF from Friday, 5 August. More MIFF screening details here. We Are Still Here is screening at CinefestOZ from Thursday, 25 August. More CinefestOZ screening dates here

“We had a bit of argy bargy with the police. I told everyone not to be scared and don’t be intimidated, because this is actually why this is such an important story to tell. It can be challenging and difficult being an indigenous storyteller and telling these stories that can be a bit dangerous at times.”


Interview by Matthew Eeles

I’m curious about your father’s work with Karma Productions. Can you tell us about his work in the media and how that inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?
My dad started working at Karma in the early nineties. At that point Karma was mostly Karma Radio. It had a small production team called Karma Video. They were recording ceremonies and very important last-capture moments that were going on in central Australia. Really special culturally important moments. So dad was the CEO of Karma for many, many years. And then I actually didn’t have too much of an interest in media because I was quite young until, funnily enough, I was told by my dad that this young man named Warwick Thornton had gone off to film school. I just remember that really resonating with me. I was like, “Film school? What the hell’s that?” [Laughs]. I’d never in my mind thought there was such a place called a film school. [Laughs]. Then of course I became a bit more curious about it and I learned that there was a whole industry, and a whole heap of really young, interesting Aboriginal people that were pursuing it. So that’s how I stumbled into it. And, of course, Warwick and I ended up becoming partners for many, many years. We met many years later and made heaps of films together. And the other funny thing about that is that my dad took over from Warwick’s mum, Freda who had founded karma. Then dad took over from her, and then of course, years later Warwick and I met and had a family together and the rest is history. [Laughs]. I guess the desire to tell stories was in all of our blood

Did you seek your father’s advice when you started creating your own work?
Well, my parents separated. They parted ways and I went off to university and kind of hated it. And then I pulled out of school without them knowing, like the little bitch that I was at the time. [Laughs]. I applied for this part-time job in television as a cadet journalist. I was like a weather girl and news reader when I was 17. So I started doing a cadetship quite young. Then from there I fell in love with it and admitted to my family quite early on that that’s what I decided to do. And they were all very supportive. Of course the rest  is history. I went off to university, went off to film school and I’ve been making films all of my adult life.

Are there many opportunities in Alice Springs for aspiring filmmakers?
So many of the filmmakers from that area became quite independent and had quite a lot of success. There is Community TV which has younger people and emerging filmmakers doing interesting work. Alice Springs itself has been a little bloody powerhouse of a place for first nations filmmaking talent. And I don’t know why. I think it’s that there were a few people with the interest and then that showed other people within the community that it could be done. There’s about ten of us from Alice Springs that have had really good careers.

One of your earlier credits is the Samson & Delilah making-of documentary. Tell us about taking on that project and how that experience was for you.
I sort of co-wrote Sampson & Delilah with Warwick Thornton from the go get. I was always his scribe and someone that he would collaborate with. I remember when he first told me the idea for Sampson & Delilah, which at that point he was calling Petrolla. I just remember saying to him from the go get that I will be doing the making-of documentary, because I knew that he was gonna have to cast it from community. He was never gonna find kids that had had any acting experience. It was gonna have to be made on the smell of an oily rag. [Laughs]. It was gonna be a make-or-break film. And I remember him saying from the go get, I don’t mean this to sound wanky, but the faith that he put in that project and in that story was massive. He really, really wanted to make a splash. “I wanna win the Caméra d’Or with this one,” he’d say. “I want this to be my first big film that actually gets recognised.” And, funnily enough, all of that bloody came true. [Laughs]. I was so glad that I had followed the process for this documentary. It was just basically me with a camera and a sound recorder, when we could afford it, and it just gave me that beautiful access to be just a fly on the wall. I think it’s quite a funny film because It shows a really cute side to quite a painful process.

How open were the young actors, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, to being a part of that documentary process?
The kids that were auditioning for the role were told from the go get that there would be a documentary crew around them. So some of the auditioning kids were a little bit shy and uncomfortable with that, but then I just didn’t include them in the cut. But luckily the two main kids were not shy at all and quite happy to have a camera on them. But as it turned out, I ended up being a really great sounding board for Rowan and Marissa because they didn’t actually get along very well. Rowan loved to run amok and Marissa was years ahead in terms of maturity. She was like an adult already and she was only 17. Making the documentary was really important for the kids as a bit of time off during the film shoot.

Following Samson & Delilah you made your first feature film in 2011, Here I Am. How do you reflect on that experience now?
I think Here I Am is one of those films that probably wasn’t as successful as it could have been at the time, but it’s one of those films that keeps popping up for me. It’s a film that I get asked to screen a lot and to talk about. I don’t think there were many Aboriginal women making films like that at the time, and probably still aren’t now. I think that the film really does speak a lot of truth to the situation of young women trying to get out of tricky situations. And I think you can totally take that story now and put it anywhere in the country and associate it with ice addiction, and the entrapment that these substances have on people that have struggled in tricky situations. I love the film and I’m aware that I was so young when I made it as well, so I’ve learned so much about my craft since then. But I certainly know it was such a beautiful place to begin because it’s got documentary elements, dramatic elements, and so on. I just look at it so fondly because it’s my first feature and I just had so much freedom in making it and in learning how to express myself cinematically.

Shai Pittman in Here I Am.

I’m not surprised that you get asked to screen the film regularly. The themes will be relevant for years to come. 
It’s so funny because making these films is such a lifelong commitment. [Laughs]. Even docos I made millions of years ago just pop up every now and again. They are always around. It’s so funny. And sometimes it’s quite shocking, like even having this conversation with you now, to be asked about them, because in some cases I haven’t thought about those films for years.

Take us back to the early stages of development for We Are Still Here. When did you first become aware of the project and when were you brought on board?
Screen Australia made an announcement that they were doing a co-production with Screen New Zealand. They wanted it to be indigenous stories that spoke to the 250 year anniversary of Cook’s circumnavigation of Australia. So everyone went away and wrote some stories and submitted them like you would an initiative round, but I hadn’t done an initiative for years and I was a bit worried that I might have been a little bit too experienced. I rang screen Australia and asked them if I was able to submit an idea as well. They told me I absolutely could and that they were encouraging all sorts of people with different levels of experience to contribute. So I did. I’d actually written a horror film about some young aboriginal kids on an excursion who go on a small replica version of the Endeavor. Once they’re on it the Captain goes mad and goes on a murderous rampage at sea.

I want to see that film! 
I know. It was really fun. I still really love that idea. Samuel Nuggin-Paynter had written an idea which was also selected. We went to this workshop together and we started hearing everyone else’s ideas and I thought to myself that this whole anthology combined was going to be really hard-hitting, and really heavy. I remember saying to Samuel that we needed to inject some humour into it. It needed something funny and light and romantic that can still be hard-hitting, but will actually make an audience laugh. So that’s how Grog Shop was born. By recognising that it’d be nice to have a bit of romance and a few laughs.

Was Grog Shop a personal story for you? 
It comes from growing up in Alice Springs. Alice Springs is frontline in terms of its absolute shameless racism and prejudice. When it comes to Aboriginal people, they cannot go into an alcohol shop and buy grog without being asked sixty five questions. At the time it was the law that you had to show your ID, you had to be on a drinkers register. The whole thing gave the police an absolute free-for-all in terms of racially profiling people. So I wanted to talk about that because both Sam and I are from Alice Springs, so I wanted to talk about that in a modern day setting, but also give it a romantic twist. Funnily enough, when we shot that film in Alice Springs at that particular shop so many people were coming in to buy a six pack, or whatever they were drinking. So talk about life imitating art. It was so interesting to be making that film and seeing it actually happen every single day.

You were watching your film play out in real life.
Oh my God. Totally. And we had a bit of argy bargy with the police and the police media department, and we were a little bit bullied by the police, and young policemen driving by. I’m not even kidding you, you can’t make this stuff up really. I told everyone not to be scared and don’t be intimidated, because this is actually why this is such an important story to tell. It can be challenging and difficult being an indigenous storyteller and telling these stories that can be a bit dangerous at times.

How involved were the local community as cast or crew?
I was just drawing upon all the usual suspects who I usually work with on my films. And on top of that, it was all COVID. So basically we just got in there and shot it so quickly. I think we were there for three days. I was just calling upon all my favorite people. So mostly all the extras are family for me, one way, shape or form. [Laughs]. And then of course Clarence Ryan came over from WA and Megan Wilding, who I’m a huge fan of, came over from Sydney. Other than those two it was mostly all NT people.

Clarence Ryan in Grog Shop.

During a NIDA in-conversation interview a few years back you spoke about the importance of working with good actors. Were you involved in the casting process here?
I cast all of my actors, yeah. Megan is really coming into her own as an actor. The shoot was so fast and furious that when we were on, we were on. There was no mucking around, but it was the first time I actually met her in the flesh because I’d been a fan of her and we have lots of friends in common. So I didn’t audition Megan. I just knew I wanted her.

Anthology films can be challenging films to make, especially one like We Are Still Here in which the stories are intertwined. You’re the film’s supervising director, or montage director. What was involved in that overall experience?
I think the biggest challenge was honouring everybody’s individual vision for their story. As well as putting the structure of a feature film first and foremost. Some of the shorts were very long as individual stories and we ended up having to do quite a few cuts. And then of course we had to make decisions on where to transition from one story to the next. That became a really big job. Editor Roland Gallois and I realised that we needed to work this thing like an energy transfer. We were really, really focused on analysing where the story beats would leave audiences wanting more, or had a particular energy or feeling or emotion that was taking off. And it was at that point that we understood was a perfect time to cut and go into another story. We wanted to leave audiences wanting more.

How much of a training ground was this film for emerging indigenous filmmakers?
I think it’s fair to say that every single filmmaker involved has a different level of experience. And especially for the New Zealand filmmakers too. New Zealand filmmakers haven’t had as many filmmaking innitiavies as we get through Screen Australia, so their filmmakers don’t get the opportunity to work as much as we do. We’ve had such success with our indigenous film industry in Australia that it’s meant that more people are wanting to see more of our work. 

Do you have a favourite film from this anthology, other than your own?
[Laughs]. I’ve really trained myself to see the film as a whole. I’ve been really encouraging people not to talk about it in favourites. However, [Laughs], I really do love Danielle MacLean’s animation, Lured. I think that the idea of mother nature on this journey and the fact that it’s animation speaks for all first nations people globally. The film is a really clever way to bookend our story.

What can you tell us about your next project, Deadloch? 
It’s an excellent show. It’s by the two Kate’s, Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney. I do a lot of comedy work, so it’s super fun to step back into the comedy realm. I haven’t done comedy since Black Comedy. It’s set in Tasmania in a fictional town called Deadloch where a police investigation begins because somebody has washed up dead on the shore. It’s just full of kooky characters being really, really naughty. It’s a real gem. It’s a women-rule-the-world sort of a genre bending show. I honestly think it’s going to be a big hit.

We Are Still Here is screening at MIFF from Friday, 5 August. More MIFF screening details here. We Are Still Here is screening at CinefestOZ from Thursday, 25 August. More CinefestOZ screening dates here

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