Rachel Ward began her career as an actor, and has since directed three shorts, including 2000's The Big House, which screened at Sundance in 2001, won an AFI, a Film Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist at the Dendy awards in 2001. Having conquered the short film, Ward was ready to tackle her first fifty-minute feature, Martha's New Coat, which will screen on SBS later in the year, as part of a series of fifty-minute dramas. The film stars Ward's daughter, Matilda Brown, and has already been nominated for a Dendy award for this years Sydney Film Festival. SBSi's Johanna Hough recently caught up with Rachel and Matilda to find out more about Martha…
Rachel, how did you initially make the change from acting to directing?
RW: I'd always struggled with acting and I didn't really understand why, until I started writing and directing and realising that I have a very strong opinions about everything (laughs). Part of my problem had been working on projects that I felt did not live up to expectations and I wondered why I felt so frustrated by it all. I guess its because I want to be behind the camera. I feel a much greater creative satisfaction.
How did Martha's New Coat become your first short feature?
RW: One of the project officers at the AFC sent it to me. They felt directors weren't quite prepared to do full length features with just having done ten or twenty minuters, so for me it was a natural progression. I needed to tackle something a little bit longer
It was a lovely story. It was sort of unresolved a bit, and beautifully written. I really like social realism and Elizabeth Mars really knew these characters. The work in getting SBS to take it on was just clarifying and focussing the story.
Matilda, what drew you to the script?
MB: I thought it was really original and sad and exciting and I liked the character of Martha.
Did you think it was an honest depiction of teenage life?
MB: It's completely different to my life. I can't say that I had any of the sorts of experiences that she (Martha) had. Her family home was a mess. But as a teenager you're still feeling some of the same sort of things.
What was the casting process like?
MB: It was basically going in and reading lines and going back and Mum said it's between you and another person. I got the part and then it was just being there with other people who were trying out for parts. It was scary.
Rachel, did your work as an actor help you during the casting process?
RW: I suppose…I'm not really aware of it. Faith Martin cast it, and she's terrific. When Alycia (who plays Martha's younger sister) came in and read I recognised immediately she could do it, but it was only when we put the funny little head band on her and roughed her up a little bit that she fit as a kid from that world. She surprised us every day. And Martha, when I read this character, something about her vernacular reminded me of Matilda…her rhythm of speaking. When Matilda read it she totally understood it from the beginning. But she went through quite a casting process. She wasn't an automatic choice. She didn't want the role if I was just giving it to her because she was my daughter and I spent a lot of time reassuring her that she was the best.
Where was it filmed? Was it hard to film without the metropolitan infrastructure?
RW: Murrurundi, which is about 3 hours from Sydney. We had weekends where people had to go back to Sydney, so all that travel time eats up the budget, but it was such a great location, it was very photogenic. There was something sad and moving about the place. It was one of those towns where people passed through. Trains passed through, highways passed through and you felt people who lived there felt they were a little bit left behind or cut off.
Matilda, how did you find the shoot, not having done such a long shoot before? Was it arduous?
MB: It was very tiring and long hours. I hated getting up early and in the cold and then being in basically every scene and I had to do my schoolwork on top of that. But it was definitely fun.
What reaction have you had so far from the film? Do you find people are relating to it or seeing parallels with their own lives?
RW: It's interesting. I'm with an organisation called the auntie and uncles program. The family have had a relationship with a young girl for about 6 years, who's from a disadvantaged background and I helped her find her father. So the ending was changed to reflect the experience she had when she discovered her father. When she realised he wasn't going to deliver in the way that she'd idealised she was able to love her mother more completely. So people will definitely identify with it. People who have that experience with fathers or mothers or whoever not coming up to scratch. Or basically just variations on the theme of often what you look for is just right underneath your nose.
MB: I sort of get the reaction of people through my mum. Lots of people have said that they really enjoyed seeing it.
The Dendy awards at the Sydney Film Festival are coming up and Martha's New Coat has been nominated in the fiction over 15 minutes category. You also won an AFI and went to Sundance with The Big House. How important are awards to you?
RW: Well, it's interesting. The last three years I've just basically sat in my office writing scripts on spec and you send them off occasionally and they come back with a little rejection slip and you just think "Who am I kidding?" Then you win something and you just go "well I guess I can kid myself for a little longer".
It's so easy to become discouraged and there's so many people writing scripts and it's so hard to get films up, so it's vital that you get some feedback from the industry. Unless you reach the top of the pile, you're not really going to get the opportunities, so unless you can say you've won this or done that… it makes you stand out from quite a competitive crowd really. Particularly in the beginning stages, when you're doing shorts and things because there are no commercial imperatives, so the only thing you can really move forward on is people's response to it and your peers' response.
Do you want to continue writing and directing? Doing both?
RW: Yes, the writing is the slog and you're on your own and it's months and years of sometimes…nothing to show for it, not a pay check, nothing. With directing, you're being paid for it, you've got your team around you, it's social, it's fun, it's high pressure but you're on the job. The writing its very often a lot of work with no returns. Particularly if you're writing on spec and if you don't write on spec you're always in debt, you always owe, so…
Matilda, what was it like being directed by your mum?
MB: It was really good. I loved it. I thought she'd be bossing me around the whole time but I was sort of bossing her around! She had complete respect for what I wanted. As well as being the director…I couldn't have it my way all the time. It was easier than I thought it would be, and we got along really well and it was good to have support from my mum.
What do you want to do next? Do you want to work on a feature now?
RW: I just read something about this guy winning best short film at Cannes and he was saying everyone was asking him what he wanted to next (laughs). Well I've yet to have that experience! I'm looking forward to that one! "What would you like to next Rachel? Let me give you some money!!"
I want to do a feature now. I love doing shorts but you're limited as far as your audience goes and I need to sort of put it out there now and see if people want to go and see my movies. I've written two scripts. I'd really like to do them both. One's set in England, one's set here.
I'm incredibly grateful to SBS and to the AFC, because compared to a lot of other countries we really do get a hell of a lot of support here. And particularly Miranda and Glenys' support of new filmmakers, that's just been so great for those of us that were chosen to be part of the fifty minute dramas. It's such a great opportunity and it's a honeymoon period when you don't have any commercial imperative. There's no one saying we've gotta have a few more car chases, we've gotta have a bit more sex. The only imperatives are your own expression, getting that right. I've come to the end of my honeymoon period now, so it really is my turn to go out there and find out if there's a place for me out in the marketplace.
What about you Matilda? Are you going to keep acting next year, during year 12, or are you going to give yourself a break?
MB: I'm going to concentrate on my studies, finish year 12, hopefully do a bit of travelling and then hopefully get in to it. I'd like to act.
Martha's New Coat screened at the Dendy Awards on 6 June and will be seen on 17 October at 8.30pm on SBS.
This interview was reproduced with permission from the SBSi website.