Ray Argall spoke to Sue at her office in Northcote, Melbourne, where screenplays line the walls in many drafts. She took us through her scrapbooks of location photos, showing how important landscape and location is in her films (such as Road to Nhill, 1997, and Japanese Story, 2003). For Sue, the journey from page to screen and capturing the essence of a story is what she loves – she calls it 'chasing angels’.
Tell us about one of your titles on the website
I think Toni [Collette] and Go [Gotaro Tsunashima] both really appreciated the experience of being there and not having to sort of, um, make it up. So if you’re in a most stunning, gorgeous, which is in one of the clips I think (Japanese Story, 2003, clip 3), which is like, they’ve got this most beautiful view, and this is after she’s just found out that he’s married. They’re standing apart looking at the view and then she’s – she walks around and just stands beside him. And they just touch, just slightly, you know. And there’s something very accurate about that experience. That there are these elements, which is the landscape and you in that landscape, and therefore what that does to you.
Where are we?
Now we’re in my office. And this is where I’ve been working now for quite a few years. I think we moved here 1990. 1990, it’s a long time isn’t it? And there’s 20 years of junk in it. And paper.
Sometimes I think we’re drowning in paper in this place, you know, there’s just a lot of paper. There’s a lot of paper leads up to a film. There’s a lot of paper leads … comes out at the tail end of it. And I know people say, you know, 'The digital age – you don’t need to do all of that, you know, you can just leave it on your computer and you don’t need paper copies’, but we feel like we do. We’re very … we work with paper, you know, like it’s a tactile process really. And, you know, you’ll see around the corner there, there’s stacks of scripts like this because that’s the way we work.
How did you get started?
I was working here in Melbourne, and I was working for a medical company and I was doing a diploma in photography part time. And then for some reason I’d met somebody, a series of events, but I met somebody who’d been to the film and TV school in Sydney. And he’d talked about how wonderful that was and he’d been also going to the same photography school, and he said, 'You should give it a go and see if you like it.’ So I applied to go to the film school and then my world changed. And I went into the photography workshop and I did that for a year and a half and then I moved over into the directing workshop after that.
Going into direction was mystifying really. It was particularly mystifying in terms of how to work with performance, performers. And how to arrive at a good performance with people and it all just seemed to be a lot of mumbo jumbo and really difficult. I remember thinking, being really mystified about all of that stuff about 'crossing the line’ and, you know, all of those technical terms. I can remember sort of sitting at kitchen tables with salt and pepper shakers a lot and going, you know, 'But if he’s there and she’s there, then you can’t go there’, and having arguments on beaches about whether you crossed the line or not. But nowadays people don’t seem to even, they sort of go much more with the comfortable sort of reaction to a shot and to a scene. And I – I mean it’s a long time since I’ve seen someone have an argument about crossing the line. It’s like it’s organic, filmmaking is much more organic now than it was when I was first learning it.
I guess the main collaboration that I’ve had is with Alison, Alison Tilson, because she and I have worked together since film school. And in a lot of ways that was about finding each other at film school and finding that we had very similar sensibilities and sense of very similar values. I think that was – not that you sit down and have the first conversation and say, you know, what do you believe in, it’s not at all like that. But you do, as you’re communicating with people, I think it’s one of the big things that sort of sifts us out is values. How what we think matters and what you’re trying to do in the world. And that collaboration and that storytelling collaboration has been going on for a long time now. So we’ve done two films together and hopefully – and a number of shorts. And hopefully do more.
An interesting working relationship
Working with Jill Bilcock [editor on Japanese Story, 2003] is an amazing experience. I was going to say 'unique experience’ but I suppose you can’t say that because a lot of people work with Jill. But the thing about working with Jill is that she’s got this, well she did with me anyhow, this amazing way of presenting the material to you as if you were going to be the first and only audience to it. So she would take out the treasures of it, if you know what I mean, and present those to you in a way that was pretty gorgeous.
You’d come into the editing room and she would’ve worked on it for a few hours and then she’d show you a scene and she’d say, you know, 'What do you think?’ And, you know, usually you’d love it. Usually you’d love what she had done with it. And there wasn’t a sort of a much of a process on that particular film where you’d be going back into the box and sort of trawling through all the material saying, 'Isn’t there something better in here?’
What is your strongest personality trait?
Yeah, I’m stubborn. I think that makes me good at it. Yeah, yeah. Being … I think I’m pretty determined, in a fairly non-aggressive way. Although I suppose that’s for other people to judge isn’t it? I guess the other thing is that I have the capacity, although I often, often don’t do it, but I have the capacity of actually being where I’m meant to be.
I think what I’ve learned about it is through performance itself, actually learning how performers work. And then recognising when they arrive at a good performance is often when they’ve connected with something very genuine. It’s not easy because I think filmmaking itself actually puts you in a place that makes that hard to do. It actually puts many, many, many, many barriers between you and the experience.
Advice for young players?
I think the thing that’s fabulous about it for younger people now that come into it, is that it’s so much easier, you know. Everybody says that because the technology is easier, so there’s no, the whole thing of the voodoo of it, you know, is gone. There’s lots of ways you can do it.
I think if you know why you’re doing it, and that you’ve got good reasons to tell those stories and you’ve got something to say, then, um, it’s not that hard. What’s hard of course, which remains hard, is the whole thing about financing and distribution and exhibition. That remains hard.
How is your work-life balance?
It’s one of those funny questions really, isn’t it. Probably for me it comes through my family. Your life is your work and your work is your life. My father used to always say, you know, when he spoke about somebody he admired he’d always say, 'He’ll die in his saddle.’ And that’s exactly what he did.
Because I suppose it’s something about filmmaking or any creative pursuit in a way, it’s like … it is what you do with your life, really. So I don’t sort of think of it – oh finishing at five, I’ll go home now and do a bit of macramé or [laughs] crocheting or something or other. It’s because it consumes most of my life and then there’s the rest that you squeeze around the edges, you know, but then I also put them into the middle of my day as well.
I mean I do do other things. It’s not like [laughs] it’s not like I’m here from eight to eleven or something. Although sometimes you are but um … I suppose I think of myself as a storyteller and that’s what storytellers do is they obsess over it.
Casting for 'marquee value'
I reckon that’s the best thing about starting off filmmaking, is that you don’t know enough about what you’re meant to be doing so that you just go on and do it because it’s what you want to do. It’s really, it’s frustrating when you start getting more and more savvy about markets and trends and box office and previous records and who’s – I can remember really clearly when we were doing Road to Nhill (1997) we were trying to work out who to play the role of Bob, who was Bill Hunter in the end, but at that stage we didn’t have him in the role. And I remember somebody saying to me, he does or he doesn’t have marquee value. And I had no idea what the term meant. I had to ask somebody what 'marquee value’ meant. And I had to find out then whether – I actually thought it had something to do with marquees on the Croisette at Cannes or something. I still don’t even know why they call it marquee, does anyone know?
On the Road to Nhill
It was in the script [for Road to Nhill, 1997] right from the beginning that these women were – the car had tipped upside down, and the women were hanging there like fruit bats. I think that was the expression in the script, I’d love to have a – go back and have a quick look. And one of the things that happens when you get a script, I’m sure you’ve had this experience, where you get a script and you get something in it and you think, 'How the hell am I going to do that?’.
Originally we went through this concept that we would get into harnesses and we would flip upside down. And that’s how we would get the women to do it. So Sue Maslin and I tried it, and I think – I don’t think Alison went in the harness, but she was videoing it anyhow. And at that point we thought, 'There’s no way we can do this’. I remember Sue had to go home afterwards cos she felt so sick from it, because there’s a lot of pressure, unnatural thing to do.
We physically did it because we thought you can’t ask these women to do it when you’re not prepared to do it yourself. Plus I also needed to know what the experience of it was like in order to know what was happening. Because I mean, mostly the thing that was – one of the things that was really important was how it affected the voice. Because everything – all of your body organs come up, you just do it yourself, hang over a chair and start talking, it’s quite funny. Some people get really nasally, and some people get really resonant. But everyone gets very affected by it.
So then we came up with the concept of dropping them over a seat so that not all of their body weight was going down into the head, but just the upper body. But even so we were told by a doctor that you couldn’t do that for more than 90 seconds or something or other because if you do it longer than that you’re going to cause all sorts of optical and neurological problems for their head. So when, you know, the women were all over 70, well some of them weren’t, but they were meant to be over 70, you don’t want to be sending them home with a, you know, being blind or…
Acting upside down
I remember Patricia Kennedy one day, she was – I had her dropped down into the shot. And she was acting, as Patricia does, gorgeous Patricia. And anyhow it was the time to pull her up and I said, so I said, 'cut’. And um, and she was being dragged back out again, and she was going, 'Oh no Sue, oh no, I haven’t been able to do what I wanted to do.’ (laughs). So we laid her down and took her blood pressure and took her back down again. But…
Nurse on set
We had a nurse on set [for Road to Nhill (1997)] and I said to her, 'You know, I’m so into the drama of this and I’m so focused on that, I don’t want to have the responsibility of calling cut, cos I can’t do both.’ And so I gave her the job. And she was fairly young and inexperienced at the time, and we were doing this scene and they were talking and everything and then suddenly there was this voice, ‘cut, cut’. It was the nurse going 'that’s enough now’. So we had to pull them back up and lie them down, take their blood pressure.
Moments of connection
I remember in Road to Nhill (1997) when Brian [Bill Young] trips over the phone cord and, you know, and nearly lands in the fridge, which is you know, now my favourite moment in the film, but I can really remember clearly standing next to Robin Plunkett who was operating, and I thought he was going to fall and I made a grab for Robin, because I was scared at that moment that he was actually going to fall, of course he was just acting well.
But if you have those moments where you are genuinely moved or find it funny or you can see the connections happening or you find it sad or you, you know, like Toni [Collette in Japanese Story, 2003] pulling the – go into the car – pulling the dead body into the car, if you can see – if at the time you feel a little bit sick and anxious and think that you should call 'cut’ because you think you should help, then the moment is likely to be on the bit of celluloid as well.
Screening Road to Nhill
When you first see your film finished I think it’s, it’s a pretty appalling experience. By and large you look at it and you just think, 'We’ve done it, we’ve achieved it, it’s a wonderful thing’, but it’s – there’s no sort of jumping in the air thinking, 'Yes this is wonderful and we’ve achieved excellence.’ And I remember thinking, we’d seen at – one of the first screenings of Road to Nhill (1997) that was fabulous was a parliament screening actually, at Canberra. And we were sitting in the middle of the pack and everybody else around us we didn’t know and they started to laugh, and um, I remember thinking that was pretty amazing. 'We’d made strangers laugh’ was the expression that I used then.
Revisiting Road to Nhill
I saw Road to Nhill (1997) about two months ago with Alison. We sat down and watched it because we had to check a cut for some reason. And that’s probably the first time I’ve actually seen the film, seen it independent of still making it, you know, and just watched it. And not knowing what the next cut was going to be because it was so, you know, ingrained – I still wasn’t, still making it, and that was the first time I really enjoyed it.
It was like we were watching anyone else’s movie, you know. And we just sat there and laughed. And it was funny cos there’s a few bits in the film that I don’t like, and I had exactly the same reaction, I thought, 'Oh what’s that in there for?’ That was weird. But apart from that, I was completely happy with it.
Jumping in the deep end
When I was doing Japanese Story (2003), I hated the idea of going – Toni [Collette] going into that waterhole because it was freezing. So I went out the day before and jumped in and thought, 'This is terrible’. So I went up to Toni afterwards and said, 'It’s really cold, you’re going to hate it.’ And she said, 'Yeah thanks’. That was all I did. Cos it was hard, it was hard work for them.
The actor's journey
I mean the thing that was interesting about Go (Gotaro Tsunashima) working in Japanese Story (2003) was that he was, I remember him saying to me one day, to Alison and me, we were driving along and he said, 'I’m feeling, I’m feeling very close to my father through this. Every day I feel a little closer to him.’ So I think it’s sort of um, what was probably the more interesting journey there, rather than the strange man in a strange place, was something about a fairly cool, hip, gorgeous man of the, you know, of the century going somewhere very special emotionally. And reawakened a naivety, I suppose is what I’m trying to say.
In a way Alison had written a character that did have all of that naivety, based on somebody she knew very well who had it who wasn’t Japanese. But the world moves in strange ways with all of that stuff, and so that we didn’t – I didn’t say, 'Go, think of your father’, of course. But he, he went there incrementally until he brought that man into that landscape. And then you have this extraordinary tension.
On the beach
I mean one of the most exciting things that I ever saw of that film (Japanese Story, 2003) was, 'cause it got into the Cannes Film Festival, and for some reason they had these great big screens up on the beach. And they were showing films on the beach. And we were walking down to a cinema one night to see something else and there was – and you could hear it first, you could hear this sort of evocative music. And then this, there you were in the middle of Cannes in the middle of the night of this, you know, these great Australian landscapes sort of ticking over through the gate. It was pretty special.
The script [for Japanese Story, 2003] had a lot of um, had a lot of requirements. One of the biggest ones was that it needed a really good waterhole which is, you know, I think in the end we found the definitive waterhole for the film. But that was after we’d gone through all of Western Australia and a lot of South Australia. So every time I went to a waterhole to see if it was going to be any good or not I’d take a series of photographs of it and sort of, you know, paste them all together like that and put them on a bit of paper. And these became all of my workbooks. But like, that’s the sort of thing that I would do while I was doing Japanese Story (2003).
That’s Alison, Sue and I. In one particular spot the light was beautiful. This is when we needed a mine, you know, there’s a mine in the film so this one’s BHP, so that’s the one we actually used in the end. But the light’s not fabulous at that point but the scale was pretty good. I was saying to you before that the thing I love about using photographs is that you can, you know, feel them.
I leave all the photographs of people in because it gives you the sense of the light and how it plays. And shots like this I love, you know, just how those gumtrees are just almost exploding with light. You know like they’re just points of reference. I don’t expect that to be in the film but I love the saturation of – that’s with no, you know, that’s no polarising or anything. It just comes out like that. There’s a sense that the world is as polarised as that.
Body in the back
This is … [laughs] this is us out on a location recce [for Japanese Story, 2003] trying to work out how to get the body in the car. I think that’s Alison and … Sue, yeah. Having a look at what the possibilities might be for dragging the body in. We went through a stage where we thought you wouldn’t put the body in the back of the car. It seemed irreverent. And so we thought she should put him in the back seat but in fact that was a lot, lot harder than putting him in the back. But in the film I think there’s a little moment where she’s just sitting, and that’s sort of her movement of thinking that’s what she’d like to do but she can’t do it.
The light you like
Well this one, for example, it’s like the light’s flat and it’s too green. But we knew we were coming back when it wasn’t going to be that green. And we knew we were going to come back at magic hour when the light was going to be just stunning. So that – that for me, is just the architecture of it, you know, so I would take that for where I think architecturally I think it’s going to work in the film.
Whereas sometimes I take photographs where I think the light’s extraordinary, like those ones of us sitting on a rock. And that’s the light that you want, you know, so you just sort of … you mix it all up. But it’s a means of talking about what you’re wanting. Like I love that really flat light. Like [cinematographer Ian] Baker and I talked a lot about getting that really saturated, in-your-face light [for Japanese Story, 2003].
Specks in the landscape
That one just looks like a nothing shot in lots of ways but the more you look at it the more you realise that there is a tiny little vehicle and tiny little specks of people. So that was sort of not a shot I expected to have in the film (Japanese Story, 2003) but it evoked something for me about the fact that I wanted us to be like specks in the landscape. That we were, ah … well we don’t sort of amount to much really.
The Newman airport. When we saw that gorgeous little thing there that you … where the little truck comes out and you get your bags off. We thought we had to have that. And that’s where they, she meets him for the first time. And this one here is the café where they have that meal. And I think it looks, you know, a lot better in the film (Japanese Story, 2003) than it does there.
Sitting with death
I mean, I remember at one stage one of the location recces [for Japanese Story, 2003] with the location manager and just he and I were sitting in his four-wheel drive and we were trying to work out how, how it was all going to work. And I said, 'Well, it sort of has to work really.’ And, so we were just sitting there, you know, in the bush together and the next day he said to me, he said, 'I was thinking about it. What would I do? What would I do if I was in that situation? If that was my partner?’ And you could see it sort of hit, you know, it had hit him in the gut.
And I think that happened for Toni [Collette]. I know it certainly happened for Go [Gotaro Tsunashima] as well. 'Cause they were really genuinely dealing with death. Unlike what we usually do in film which is, um … have a death in a film and then see what the repercussions of that will be. Which sometimes can be comedy and sometimes can be escalation in the drama but it’s very rarely these days, um, just sitting with it and going – what does the death mean? Not just what does the grief mean, but what does the death mean? How do I go from this step to this step?
Japanese casting photos
And these, I found these here. These are the photographs out of a whole stack of photographs of the Japanese casting that we did [for Japanese Story (2003)]. So that’s Yumiko. That’s me with Yumiko. That’s Go. Had to ask Go to take his shirt off to see what he’d look like.
Casting in Japan
And there was me, Alison, Sue and the casting director and this endless stream of Japanese actors. And um … we all just met around this little table and eventually I’d get them up into another room to do a bit of the work. It was – it was great, but interesting. Sometimes when we were meeting some of the more senior actors there was a lot of protocol involved, you know, and we had to do all of the bowing appropriately. Talk through a translator of course.
A lot of tools
It’s just interesting, what a life is. And if you make things, you make, a lot of stuff comes along with it. Like, you make Japanese Story (2003) and it comes out and it’s in a little DVD like that, or it’s in a film. But that’s the product, you know. All of the stuff that makes a product is, you know, a lot, a lot of stuff. A lot of tools.
That’s the thing that I love about directing is chasing those moments of just trying to get those really, you know, like sometimes when you’re reading a script, you know, I’ll sit in that very chair and I’ll read one of Alison’s scripts and I’m moved by it. And then you get to the point when you’re trying to direct it and you’re trying to capture that moment of it being, that it does to you, and in all the configurations of making a film, which are – basically remove you from those experiences. Basically everything sort of takes you away from being able to be really connected with it. But if you can get connected there and then, there’s a good chance it will go on the screen and then it will go on, and then an audience will get to it. Chasing angels, I call it.
I think the thing about acting is that usually what happens for actors is that they love to be able to go beyond that limit of what they normally do. So if they’re given something that’s actually quite, like um, the film that I’ve just done (Subdivision, 2009), they, all the boys were playing rugby. And they, they all ramped up a notch for it, you know, like they got fitter for it, they went for it. It’s sort of, it’s like a gift you give them I guess, it comes out of the script itself. If you give them something that they really want to – give them a bit of a challenge. I mean you see it in Geoffrey Rush, you see the, the exuberance and the pleasure of being able to go somewhere that, you know, your daily life doesn’t let you do.
A sense of place
Maybe it’s just how life’s panned out – or filmmaking life’s panned out – that it’s ended up being films that have always been shot on location. But it – it probably is more fundamental than that. It’s probably about having a sense of place and that that place is really important and how, particularly with Road to Nhill (1997), that it was very much about how people lived in that community, therefore how they danced together and therefore when it came asunder how they had to sort of put it all back into place again. And that was also true of Japanese Story (2003), is finding the right landscape that had a sort of logic that, for the journey, and for the impact that it had on their story. And same is true of Subdivision (2009).
And I suppose in a funny way I find it hard to cheat in film. You know when you see films where people are running on one street and they land in another street, and then another one, everybody knows how to do that these days. But somehow or other it doesn’t feel good for me as a storyteller. Because place to me, probably of who I am and where I’ve come from, means a lot to the sorts of stories I’m telling.
Working on location
If you can work on location, it just brings the most amazing rewards. It’s sort of – it puts you all in the one boat to start off with, the crew’s all off there together doing the one, on the one journey together. And you know that you’re on that journey together and you’re going to go through it come what may, whatever tensions happen, you know.
But like something with Japanese Story (2003) for example, is that it’s actually the dirt itself can affect you, you know, the way you’re dealing with that red earth every day of your life. How it gets into the seams of your clothes, you know, how you fall into the earth and the way you, you know, like, you could be working in the Pilbara, you wouldn’t ever think of putting lipstick on, do you know what I mean? If somebody put lipstick on you would think, 'What’s she done that for?’ You know what I mean? The longer you’re there the more you sort of seep into the ground. And I think that affects what you put on the film but it also affects how you make a film as well. It’s about being there in a way, not the film being there, but it’s about actually being in that world and therefore creating that world with a sense of truth, really.
Editing and drafting
I love the fact, I mean especially when you’re shaping the story which, you know, you’d think the script is sort of set in concrete you don’t have to, but you do do a lot of shaping of it – balancing it and moving it around and shaping it with music. You know, the final moulding of it, if you like, the final sort of – you know 'cause there’s so many cuts that can come out of a film. Like, I don’t know if you’ve had that experience where you, you can go and watch your rushes and night after night just think they’re just brilliant rushes, doesn’t mean you’ve got a brilliant film yet.
It’s the same as drafting a script. You know, you can easily fall off the rails when you’re drafting a script, you can – just because you’ve done another draft doesn’t mean that you’ve actually made it any better. Because you’ve put something in that tips the balance of it, or you haven’t landed it properly, or you’ve um, with editing, it’s because you’ve put music in that’s thrown you off course at the wrong moment. Or you’ve left something in that’s far too long or, or you’ve cut it down so you’ve lost the heart of it, so now it’s just there for sort of expository reasons and now you may as well not have it at all. Those sorts of questions can go on for a long time.
Starting in television
When you go onto a television set, especially if you’re a new director – of course when you’re a new director – everyone’s more experienced than you are, but you’re in charge. And it’s just the Noddy-est, the silliest sort of concept that you can come up with really. But it works, eventually everybody says, you know, you go with it and it works and it’s good fun. I mean, doing Something in the Air (2000–02), which was years later, was, you know, like hell on wheels it was so fast. It was like cramming for an exam, you know, you just had to remember everything you possibly could, just shove it into your brain. But then you just work at this phenomenal speed, and it just creates its own energy. And it can be really good fun.
Tricks of TV
Somebody taught me very early on just mark up your 'A’ scenes. I didn’t even know what that meant, but just marking up the scenes that you were going to give priority to, cos if your episode wouldn’t work if you didn’t have those. And so now I know to do that a bit more intuitively than I would have if I hadn’t have done TV.
I think it is quite different because there’s usually a lot less rehearsal time, so you often have to be very clear and fast about communicating something. So I got a lot, I lost my nerves about um, saying to an actor that that wasn’t good enough and we’ll just do it again. Being blunt and honest but also being respectful of the fact that you’re there to do a job.
That’s the one thing I’d say about using two cameras is that, sure it can occasionally get you out of a hole, but by and large being efficient is about being focused I think, and about being clear about what you’re trying to communicate and being honest. Rather than being – getting a lot of stuff in a hurry, and then rushing back to the edit room and saying, 'What did I get?’
Do you have any mentors?
I don’t sort of have someone who’s a lot more senior than I am that I can ring up and say, you know, 'What do I do here?’ Jill was a mentor for Japanese Story (2003), Jill Bilcock. Yeah, I rely a lot on friends and relatives. A lot. And that means work friends as well, you know.
You put little tags of your life in your films which, you know, I’ve just done again this time with Hervey Bay with Subdivision (2009). And I see it go through on the screen and I think – 'Oh, that’s personal’. And I know I’m the only one that will know that. But then there’s another level of how much you have to, and you want to, disclose of your personal life.
Well I think what happens when you and I were doing it, like when we were first learning filmmaking, it was like um, it was a – it was probably true of a lot of disciplines, you were crossing over into a whole other world and there were lots of rules to learn and there was a lot of sort of mystifying voodoo stuff around it and you had books on it, and I had a whole book on the grammar of film language, a whole book, it was that thick, on the grammar of film language. And you know, I can’t – now I think there’s two things that’s happened. There’s um, younger people are much more comfortable about telling stories using film, so that’s become a lot easier. But the other thing is the audiences have come to filmmaking as well. So that you watch TV at night and we put up with anything, like we don’t – things don’t have to be technically perfect.
I reckon I’ve let go of a lot of anxiety about things that seemed really, really important when I was learning them. But that would be true if I was talking about nursing too, because I was nursing first off. It’s like, there are certain things that have just evolved and become easier, but the fundamental things about people going on a journey and telling a really good story and being emotionally connected to something or feeling like their life has been enriched by something, that remains as elusive and as hard to get, and all of that is ever – if not even harder, I reckon.