Ray Argall met with Sue at her office in Fitzroy, a hub for independent filmmakers in Melbourne. Sue has embraced the opportunities new media platforms offer and has extended her filmmaking into distribution, where she is taking her substantial back catalogue to a new audience. It’s a long way from getting bogged in outback Western Australia while making Japanese Story (2003). Sue’s career has taken her to some extraordinary places, from the Pilbara to The Highest Court, and brought untold Australian stories to light in Thanks Girls and Goodbye (1988) and Hunt Angels (2006).
Tell us about one of your titles on the website
The clip on the site that I remember most fondly is the clip where Sandy and Hiro get bogged in the red dirt [see Japanese Story, 2003, clip two]. And this was filmed just north of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region where it’s pretty isolated. But that particular scene – In fact I managed to re-create in pre-production and on location – I actually got bogged in that very spot one day when we were – the crew had gone out on a road to sort of check various vantage points and so on. And I was coming up the rear, and – on my own, in a four-wheel drive, and sure enough went 'shoonk’, straight down into that red dirt and actually had to dig myself out. And partly to save face because I knew that they’d be returning from the location recce not long afterwards, and I didn’t want to be the producer stuck in the sand.
Where are we?
Well we’re in my producing office here in Fitzroy. Pretty much what I do involves a computer, a phone, and a mobile, it kind of just happens here at my desk. So it – this is a highly sophisticated filing system (laughs). Which I quite deliberately always don’t file immediately into filing cabinets because as soon as you do that, it’s lost.
I do like to be surrounded with the posters and the memories and so on of what I’ve worked on as well. And it’s also to try out marketing ideas. So for instance if I’m doing a new marketing angle for working out how we’re going to reach Hunt Angels (2006), I tend to be involved in storyboarding the images, and thinking, 'Well what is it that’s going to be the key image?’
This is a rough of what then eventually became the poster. Bit hard to see probably with the glass, not sure if you can see that. But you know, that was the final poster of Hunt Angels where we’re trying to get a sort of slight Bonnie and Clyde look, the era and the setting, but also the idea of a kind of a caper movie. And there’s nothing on that poster that suggests it might be a documentary, which was quite deliberate.
How did you get started?
I was in Canberra. I was at the ANU and studying science at the time, and I’d just completed my Bachelor of Science degree. And I had started a year in Honours in Zoology and I loved it and I was doing a lot of field trips. I was interested in animal ecology of a particular species that lived in the Kosciuszko National Park. And it was the kind of antithesis of who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. And at the time I had no media background other than the fact that I was working in community radio at 2XX, and was part of a women’s broadcasting collective there. And I was also playing music. I was a bass player in a rock band at the time called Domestic Dirt. I knew that I couldn’t just drop out of an Honours year. I seriously had to have some other alternative because my mum would just kill me.
I was literally just going to wander around the college and see what kind of courses were on offer. And I wandered into this corridor and there were film posters and photography courses. And then I discovered they only took four students. But by then I thought I’d really like to give this a go and I applied and thankfully I did get in, and it was at that point this thing that just completely changed my life. It was film, television, radio, photography. It was like 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And from there I’ve been working ever since.
I think I’ve been really blessed to have some long term collaborations in my working life. And I’ve actually sought those out to a certain extent because I am a firm believer that if you find the right people to collaborate with then the projects will follow. If you find people that you have a shared language with, that you respect, that you have a shared vision of the kind of films that you want to make happen, then you’ll hopefully do good work but you’ll want to keep doing good work together.
An interesting working relationship
I think that the 27 years or so that I’ve been working with Daryl [Dellora] has been a hugely successful collaboration because we’ve made a number of films together that have spanned that time. And they’ve tended to be films that are documentary films that focus on historical, political, social issues often that are looking at challenging the mythologies that build up around well-known Australian stories or public figures. Say for instance films like Mr Neal is Entitled to be an Agitator(1991) which sought to take a look again at the story of Lionel Murphy, or revisit revisionist histories like conspiracy about the Sydney Hilton Bombing where we’re interested in pulling apart the mythologies that build up around those so-called infamous stories and try to get to the heart of what really may have been played out.
And often they’re stories that may have been well covered in current affairs. The difference with documentary is that you’ve got the time that journalists don’t have to actually really properly go back and interrogate, you know, the primary source material, instead of just always relying on secondary or tertiary sources which journalists often have to do where of course they get into the trap of repeating the same kind of half truths over and over again.
What do you do when you're not making films?
To relax, and it’s very hard to switch off because you’re usually always – you know even at night, 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m just constantly writing notes to remind myself of things I have to do the next day. But the thing that I do do is, underneath the cost reports you will usually find a crossword. So Age cryptic crosswords, that’s a real distraction, I love doing crosswords.
And um, the other thing that I get complete relaxation from, and I don’t keep this in my office, I’ve just brought this up today, but um, I do enjoy playing golf. So yeah get out on the golf course, but I particularly enjoy playing golf with writers. And have been out over many, many years now playing golf with novelists because you get a good sort of two hours, two-and-a-half hours on the golf course where you can talk books and ideas and life and love and the – it’s just this completely relaxing environment but actually talk about things in depth in between trying to get a silly golf ball into a hole. We’re terrible at golf but we have good conversations.
How do you relate to the digital era?
I love the fact that the technologies keep changing because, every time they do – even to the extent of working with different cameras now. Lightweight HD cameras now, as a documentary filmmaker, can get you into places much more easily than the old days when we were having to cart around really big DVC Pro or Digital Beta cameras. You get access and documentary’s about access.
And then when you move into feature films the impact of digital technology on film has just been enormous. It’s given us access to not only CGI-based effects, but our editing processes and post-production processes have been completely transformed. And I love 35mm. I love the tactility of it, but increasingly I’m recognising that as we move into feature films in the future we’ll probably be shooting digitally, particularly if we’ve got a very strong digital post-production pathway.
What is your strongest personality trait?
I’ve been thinking a little bit about this and, you know, some immediate things come to mind like determination and perseverance, and – But the two things that really, really stick out for me is taking a challenge. Like I love to take a challenge, I like to make any film that hasn’t already previously um, been made, or that represents a challenge whether it’s on the form, the technology we’re using, the content, the way we want to go about making it. But I love it if it hasn’t been done before. Then, you know, it’s a real challenge and that’s what I get really excited about.
But the other thing that I think – 'cause anybody can be interested in challenges and take risks and so on – but the, I think the strongest thing that I do bring to projects is belief. Like I – when I fall in love with an idea and a desire to work in a collaborative team, then I will go to any length to back, to back that project, to back that team. And I believe in it, I have enormous self belief and I believe in the people that I’m working with. And if I’ve got that then I think it’s possible to do anything.
Theory into practice
Right from the beginning, I was trained to see film theory and learn about how aesthetics in film were articulated through a whole range of filmmakers and genres and so on. And that was every bit as important as the actual practice of making film and video. So the two were enmeshed. And I’m really, really glad that I had that grounding, because it’s actually really served me well to have a common language with the filmmakers I’ve worked with ever since.
And after that year finished I stayed in Canberra and over the next two years probably made about 17 or 18 programs where I was writing, producing and directing. And they ranged from rock clips through to corporate videos about heavy-trailer braking systems, through to an information documentary about Woden Valley Hospital. There were art installations.
This was in the days of course when there was no such thing as mini-DVD cameras or Final Cut Pro editing that was accessible on laptops or anything like that. We were using old ¾-inch U-matic cameras and you couldn’t make anything unless you had access to the editing equipment which again was very expensive and usually locked up inside institutions or corporate companies and so on. So you had to negotiate access to everything in order to do any kind of film or television making.
Thanks Girls and Goodbye
The very act of putting people’s stories on screen is an important one and it’s something [that] actually came up again right at the very beginning when I first got into documentary, a film documentary called Thanks Girls and Goodbye (1988). This was a film that took around five years to make, three of which were the research and getting in touch with a group of women who during the Second World War had worked on the farms to replace the manpower that had left to fight in the forces. These women went and filled their jobs and worked right across Australia in many ways, and they were part of this thing called the Women’s Land Army. Well the day that Sue Hardisty, my collaborator, and I went to the [Australian] War Memorial and said, 'Look, we’d like to make a film about the land army, can we please look at your collection?’, and they brought out a single cardboard box and that was it, we realised we had a big job ahead of us.
And that process over a couple of years, when we were asking women to describe a period of their life that no one had ever taken an interest in before – the history had never been recorded, they were not invited to participate in Anzac days because, even though they were called the Women’s Land Army, they weren’t a service. And it was a very cathartic experience. So often over the course of a three-hour interview, consistently women would be opening up and would be in tears and it would be a very emotional experience. And then I started becoming very involved in all of that too and I realised I was blurring the boundaries and ending up in tears myself, which is not a particularly useful thing to do when you’re a documentary interviewer. But you forge very close relationships with the subjects of your film. And yet as a filmmaker you also need to be able to step back from that so that you can frame the story and tell the story.
It did teach me a very great lesson that, when you’re working with real people, it’s not enough just to be curious about their story. There is also another layer that is about caring enough about their story to hopefully peel away the mythologies and the surface memories and so on to really get to below the surface about what it is that actually really happened and, you know, tap into why they now want to tell you that story. And why you’ve been given the privilege of being able to communicate that story to others.
Proving the pundits wrong
I’ve also had another collaboration which was very important to me and that was with Sue Brooks and Alison Tilson, and we made Road to Nhill (1997) and Japanese Story (2003) together. I’m really proud of what we’ve done together because we really did take on fairly ambitious projects and wanted to tell stories, not in traditional genre expectations. In both cases we found our audiences. In both cases we were told there were no audience.
In the case of Road to Nhill (1997) it was, like, here’s a bunch of bowling ladies. There’s no particular romantic interest in the film. There’s no particular young characters. Nothing much ever happens. It might appeal to women of a certain age and that would be it. Well that film on less than 20 screens ended up grossing nearly a million dollars, and this is by mid-‘90s terms I might add.
And then Japanese Story (2003), again we were told well there’s not much audience, this is an art-house film that will appeal primarily to women, 35+ and perhaps a bit of festival exposure. And like Road to Nhill (1997), we were convinced – we were convinced that that story would have an audience, and it did find its audience and it did end up grossing over four-and-a-half million dollars, and ran for months, as indeed Road to Nhill (1997) did. So it was good to prove the pundits wrong in both cases.
On a tight budget
Often your budget is, hits a limit around what you can raise in terms of finance. So we knew [on Japanese Story, 2003] that we were going into a situation with a very, very tight budget. As soon as you get – look like you’re going over budget, and we were looking like that within about week two of filming, the pressure is enormous. The pressure to cut pages from the script. The pressure to cut back on scenes, to remove locations, to get rid of cranes or – So we had to fight really, really hard to keep those things and not throw the baby out with the bathwater as some of the people back in Melbourne and Sydney who were obviously biting their nails looking at what we were doing, may have preferred us do.
On location and in country
One of the things I’m actually most proud of that, in the filming in the Pilbara that Sue, Alison and I did over the course of a number of months [for Japanese Story, 2003], is to develop a relationship with the Indigenous traditional owners of that land. But at the time I remember we were strongly advised against it because it would just create a lot of difficulty. Probably there was no legal need to do it. There was no council need. We were supposedly on council roads.
At the completion of that, really, was when [on] day one of the filming the Indigenous community and some of the Elders came out and welcomed us onto country. And that was really, really special. And again when we finished filming there they actually put together a corroboree ceremony for us, some dance, which was sort of under the stars and around bonfires and it was a kind of farewell to country. So whenever I look at that scene and think – the stories that go behind the filming can be every bit as interesting as what we’re hopefully trying to achieve on film itself.
Separately we did trips where we drove literally from Perth all the way up to Port Hedland and then inland to Newman and right in the heart of the Pilbara region [for Japanese Story, 2003]. And as soon as you’ve had that experience, as soon as you’ve been driving for seven hours across that landscape and you arrive in this place usually towards sunset and you see this landscape transfigured, the red of the earth and the iron ore that’s just in all the rock ranges around you, against that deep blue sky. At that point you think, 'This is cinema’. You just have to capture this. It’s extraordinary to experience it.
And of course the challenge is how do you then put that on a piece of 35mm film which of course we were very fortunate to be working with an experienced cinematographer like Ian Baker who could help translate that. And even more fortunate to be working with an experienced editor like Jill Bilcock who didn’t let us indulge in that landscape, and just always kept it to what was required to service the story, which I think is a failing of many films that fall in love with the landscape and don’t know when to cut.
As a producer, and I call myself a 'screen producer’ and always use that in a quite deliberate way because I work across all screens – documentary, television, increasingly computer screens, digital media and so on. But having now had the experience of working across the different formats, from documentary for instance to feature film, you also carry things across with you. And I think your film practice can be informed.
So for instance in a film like Hunt Angels (2006), which is a hybrid – hybrid drama and documentary – we in fact called it a non-fiction feature film because it’s using the storytelling techniques and so on of drama in a feature film sense. It has Ben Mendelsohn in the lead role together with Victoria Hill. It draws very deliberately from the style of black-and-white movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s art directed, it has the music and so on that carries an atmosphere. And then deliberately creates that, inserts that dramatised world into the real world of Sydney in the 1930s and ‘40s as constructed from archival photographs and archival footage.
Fiction vs non-fiction
I think the idea of playing with fiction and non-fiction forms is something I’ve been fascinated with for a long, long time. It’s just about in all the films, right through to using fiction techniques in films like Conspiracy (1994), about the Sydney Hilton bombing, Mr Neal is Entitled to be an Agitator (1991), Hunt Angels (2006). On the one hand using those fiction techniques in order to give a way of understanding actual events. And then conversely using non-fiction techniques in the feature films.
In working together with Sue Brooks and Alison Tilson, the three of us had done a lot of documentary work. We’re very interested in documentary techniques and how they – this quest to get authenticity on screen and authenticity in the small moments as well as the grand gestures. But it’s the detailed observation that I think comes from a documentary sensibility that plays out in Japanese Story (2003) and Road to Nhill (1997), that informs and makes those films stronger as a dramatic piece of work.
A Mirror to the People
[One of] the real highlights for me would have to be having a year on the road with William Deane, the former Governor-General. Daryl and I made a film called A Mirror to the People (2000) where, on and off over a period of 12 months, we got to travel with William Deane here in Australia, to remote Indigenous communities and then overseas when he presided over an Anzac day ceremony at Gallipoli before then going on to meet the Queen, which we filmed at Windsor Castle.
And the thing that was so special about that was Deane himself. The humility of this person and his – the way that he could use his office, which is the most senior office here in Australia, as Governor-General, to somehow link the most disparate members of the Australian community together. And he just did it so eloquently.
Meeting Jørn Utzon
The other really wonderful experience was spending a day with Jørn Utzon [for The Edge of the Possible, 1998]. And that came about in the most bizarre imaginable way because Daryl and I had been trying for many, many years to get in touch with Utzon. But of course he was a recluse and he’d had no contact with Australian media. And so of course none of our correspondence was ever replied to. But over that period we had started to build a network with the architects that Utzon had worked with on the Opera House. And they were obviously feeding information back to him because he’d been tracking exactly where we were up to.
Well we flew across to Copenhagen and we arrived at about 11 o’clock at night. And the travel booking agency had actually booked us into the red light district of Copenhagen. So I took off locally to try and source a more up-market hotel. And I was coming back and the concierge came out and said, 'There’s a phone call – there’s a phone call for you, you must come to the desk. It’s Mr Utzon on the phone.’ And I just naturally assumed it was his sons, either Kim or Jan Utzon, who we’d also been in touch with. And he said, 'No, no, no, it’s the maestro.’ And all of a sudden having travelled thousands of miles over he managed to track down our hotel and he’s on the end of the phone. And he said to me, 'Welcome to Copenhagen, to my beautiful country. I think we should meet today if you have time.’
So Daryl and I got into the hire car and we drove about 40 kilometres north of Copenhagen to the assigned spot, which was this little taverna. And we pulled in and there was no vehicles, there was nobody there. It was on the edge of a forest, and I’m just thinking, 'Oh God, I’ve blown it, completely blown it.’ I’ve got no way of getting in touch with Utzon, we’re just sort of sitting there in the car thinking, 'What on earth are we going to do now?’ And then the next minute this figure walks out from the trees, you know, down through the forest towards us. And it’s Utzon and he said, 'Oh look I’ll just hop in the back and direct you up to, along this little dirt track up to the house.’ And so we drove up to his house which was this really beautiful, very minimal house that he had designed and built that just sits literally in the middle of the forest, surrounded by glass windows and so on. And just is at one with this forest.
And I was so struck by him because this was a man who had really given an extraordinary gift to us as Australians, and had a vision but, as Australians, we didn’t back and see that vision through. And he never got to complete it, and he could have been a very broken, very bitter, bitter man. And he was the complete opposite. He knew he had made a building that was really loved by Australians and was iconic and recognisable symbol of Australia around the world and he was very proud of that building. He quoted Goethe at the time, which we put actually at the beginning of the film. Where Goethe says, 'Give me a job that I can give myself a hundred per cent with love, and it no longer becomes a job, it becomes an act of love in making that work.’ And to me that still stands as a wonderful measure of – when we start to question why we do what we do, is to remember that.
Selling from the start
The one thing I know about audiences is that audiences love to be surprised with something that they can discover and then tell their friends about. And secondly audiences know bullshit. They know when something’s authentic and when it’s not. In many ways in thinking about audience, it’s about thinking, 'Well what is the thing that I fell in love with in this story? What is the thing that connects me to it?’ And then it becomes a job of marketing that. And you’re thinking, 'Well how can I communicate that?’ And starting right from the beginning. So I start thinking marketing and how we’re going to reach the audience with those ideas from the script stage. And it’s there right through the financing because of course I’ve got to sell the idea in the first instance to the investors, to the market, to the distributors, the sales agents.
But I certainly would never start from a point of identifying there’s a gap in the market here, let’s go out and do something to fill it; (a) because you’ll be completely out of date by the time that happens, (b) is because audiences don’t work in that way. It’s always the project from left field that captures audiences by surprise, that often end up being the most successful. And they come from a real place. They come from a place where somebody’s got something they care passionately about, that they want to say, and that they’re saying it with conviction.
Archiving stories on screen
I think it is really important to archive stories on screen. And that has to be taken in the context of the capacity for the archive media to sustain over periods of time because again, as the technologies have changed, I think we’re going to be quite challenged. Already the archival work and the interviews and so on that I might have done on U-matic and VHS is already completely redundant and also the quality is very, very poor by today’s standards. And then as you move into digital, we’ve had many formats that now in very short turnaround become increasingly redundant.
And you also don’t know how long (a) they will survive, and then (b) whether there will be the technology in the future that will easily read these older redundant forms that you’ve recorded on. So it’s an ongoing problem of migration across archival forms. But the fact that something is put down, you’ve still got picture, you’ve still got voice, and that gives a whole layer of context, interpretation and meaning over and above what you can record on paper and keep on paper.
Effect of digital on post-production
I’ve never changed the post-production schedules [following the introduction of digital technology]. There was a bit of pressure when digital editing first came in through the Lightworks and the Avid systems that, 'Oh great, this will reduce our editing schedules considerably’, because you can make changes and review those changes so much more quickly. But it’s – There still is the time, the thinking time that is required, I think, in order to properly do the job of editing and compiling. And by having the digital technology enable you to make changes more quickly of course gives you more options and more choices for review, so you’re starting to try things out. But no, in my mind a documentary edit is still always around ten weeks, to get to a fine cut. And a feature edit should still be around 15-20 weeks.
So I feel really very proud of the kind of work that Daryl [Dellora] and I have done over the years, but I feel even more proud that we’ve stuck it out and that we’ve managed to survive as a business and as filmmakers. And not only survived, that we’ve kind of got really excited about the possibilities of the new technologies in relation to distribution and started to look at, well, how we can not only just make films, but also work more closely in reaching our audiences and actually managing the marketing and distribution of the films as well.
Distributing in a new environment
One of the things that Daryl [Dellora] and I did when we kind of reviewed what we were doing with Film Art Doco, which is our production company – we felt that under the new environment, screen culture environment, and with the producer offset where there’s now the opportunity for the first time for filmmakers to have an equity in their work, and [we decided] to start taking a more entrepreneurial approach to our work because we’ve got a vested interest in seeing how the work performs.
So to that end what we’ve been looking at is distributing for the first time. And Celebrity: Dominick Dunne (2008), which was the first title – we executive produced this film but we also acquired the Australian distribution rights and we oversaw the theatrical release and the subsequent DVD and online marketing and so on. And our second title is this one, The Edge of the Possible (1998), which is a re-release of a film we made over ten years ago about the Sydney Opera House. And the story of Jørn Utzon and the building and design. And we’ve re-authored completely this film, we’ve added a whole stack of extra features, including the full-length interview with Utzon, some previously unseen home-movie footage taken at the time. And some really beautiful footage sequences that we filmed of Jørn in his home in Hellebaek.
And we have a vested interest in reaching the audience because, if we do it successfully, then we’ve got a revenue stream, and that’s the difference, we’ve never had that before. We’ve been making these films for years, and they’ve made a lot of other people quite wealthy, but we, as producers, have never seen any returns.
Finding a niche
The upshot of the self-distribution path is that you now have a lot of boxes starting to pile up in your office where you’re now starting to dispatch titles. So doing quite a bit of that these days as well. But actually enjoy it, don’t mind that at all and it’s, um, it’s manageable in addition. This is really the online marketing distribution aspect of it, but in addition to this of course is the more lucrative retail sales and doing deals with shops, as well as the airlines, cable television, international specialist … For the kind of work we do, we go after the niche markets that are non-theatrical but they’re international, and they’re lucrative. So, that’s – yeah, the producing desk is now morphed across into the distribution despatch department.
Always on the job
I keep these sort of photographs like this one where Sue [Brooks] and Alison [Tilson] and I are in hard hats sitting on the edge of the giant iron ore mine at Newman in the Pilbara [for Japanese Story, 2003]. But um, it reminds me that a producer’s job is – it never stops. You can be sitting in the dirt in a hard hat or you can be, you know, sort of at a film launch next to a former prime minister, in this case, Gough Whitlam. And, you know, you’re on the job, doesn’t matter which part, it’s still producing, that’s being on the job. You’re the first one on and the last one off.
Dressing the part
This was the year Sue [Brooks] and Alison [Tilson] and I went in drag to the AFI Awards dressed up as bowling ladies [for Road to Nhill, 1997] which um, I think was probably the first and only time bowling ladies have been to the AFI Awards in such dress.