Jessica talks about joining a short feature project after it has been funded and the crucial process of casting.
Why did you choose to make a short feature?
This project came to me after it was actually funded by SBS. The writer, Madeleine Blackwell, and the producers, Samantha Jennings and Martin Williams, had been developing the script for a long time before I came on board. I was very keen to direct this script as soon as I had read it. It was emotionally powerful and wonderfully economic in its dialogue, allowing room for a director to create a strong visual piece. I had directed a lot of television prior to this and was very excited to do a film that was much more personal and where I was able to be cinematic in my choices.
What interested you about the length? What can short features offer that shorts and features can't?
50 minutes is a very particular time frame in which to tell a story. We wanted the film to feel comfortable within that length of screentime and not look like a cut-down feature. Much of Madeleine's script allowed for the film to have a cinematic flow without being rushed. Her sparing use of dialogue meant I was able to fill out the visual moments in the film and structure the flow of the story so that the emotional balance felt right developing over that period of time. We were very happy with the way the finished film worked within this time frame.
How did you settle on the narrative for the film?
The initial narrative idea was already well developed by the screenwriter and the producers when I joined the project. We worked from that point on the story structure and in particular the ending of the film. It was wonderful to work with a writer who was so visually oriented and who had a great strength in telling story through action and gesture. Madeleine's background is as a actor and director herself, so she had created a very filmic script right from the beginning.
What's your film about?
It's a political story told through a personal experience. It starts as a journey between two strangers who become unexpectedly tied up in each other's lives. We meet Maggie (Kerry Fox), on a train. Her solitude is broken by Azra (Arbenita Fellzulahu), a young Albanian refugee, who comes into her train carriage and who, on their arrival in Sydney , trails after Maggie. Maggie is unsure of what the girl wants but decides, on the spur of the moment, to take the girl home with her. Maggie's relationship with her emotionally manipulative and needy mother, Ramona (Gillian Jones), means Azra has to fight to get Maggie to take her to where she insists she wants to go, the Opera House. Ultimately, it is Azra who takes Maggie on a humbling journey of self-discovery and revelation.
How important was casting?
Casting on this film was hugely important. Firstly we had to try and find an Albanian girl that I felt possessed some of the qualities that Azra needed to have. Qualities such as; a strong sense of self, someone who was still a girl and not yet a woman, and someone who would be prepared to access very difficult emotional areas. We were looking in the 14-18 year age range. She needed to be able to speak fluent Albanian and her English had to be heavily accented. We worked closely with a counsellor from the Albanian community, Seide Ramadani, who personally contacted all the Albanian families for us. Arbenita was an extraordinary discovery and she grew so much as an actor during the actual filming. Gillian and Kerry took great care with her and their work and her personal bravery helped bring about an astounding performance, which is so central to the film working. I worked with Nikki Barrett (casting director) to audition all the girls and to find a Maggie and a Ramona. Kerry Fox was always in the back of my mind when I started casting Maggie, but I never thought we would be able to get her! We auditioned a great number of Ramona's and when we received a tape from Gillian Jones, I knew we'd found her. Gillian brought such a warmth to the role while being able to be shameless in her need for her daughter's love and attention. Both Kerry and Gillian bring such warmth and complexity to their roles. It was a real joy to work with them on this.
As a filmmaker how has making a short feature given you the confidence to continue working in film?
Making a short feature has made me hungry to direct a longer film. The joy of being able to craft something for cinema and to make it very image and sound-based is so rewarding. I know I learnt an enormous amount on this project and would love to do something like this again, soon!
What are your future plans for the film? How is it doing at festivals?
The film has screened in the AFC's 50 Minutes From Home festival and we have sent it away to various international festivals for consideration. It's being screened on SBS on 14 November as part of its Friday Night Drama Series.