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18 September 2018
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Director Rowan Woods talks about his latest feature Little Fish

With his debut The Boys, and now Little Fish, director Rowan Woods has crafted some of Australia's most distinctive contemporary cinema from the prosaic horror lurking beneath the surfaces of Sydney's suburbs. While The Boys dramatises an extreme familial situation, Little Fish delves into the complex reality behind the tabloid image of Sydney's poorer suburbs. The film focuses on Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett), her family, and friends like has-been rugby star Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving): 'little fish' struggling to stay afloat in a harsh world of limited means and minimal opportunity, where drugs offer a constantly tempting escape.

Rowan Woods talks to Dan Edwards about the research and development that went into
Little Fish.

Dan Edwards: You've spoken in several interviews about the importance you attach to culturally connected stories. Do you feel a personal connection to Sydney's south-western suburbs?

Rowan Woods: Yeah I do. I have a very strong personal connection to that place. I was born in Berala, which is a suburb a couple of stops down the train line from Cabramatta. But that's kind of beside the point because I spent most of my time growing up in Balmain. But my parents were both teachers of English as a second language - they were sort of pioneers in that teaching movement that started in the 60s. And they taught mostly south-east Asians. Most of the first wave of Vietnamese, Loa and Thai folk who came to Australia before the fall of Saigon, and then after the fall of Saigon as refugees. My parents taught many people who become lifelong family friends. But also from my teenage years on I would travel out to Cabramatta and shop there, and have done all my adult life. And then I made a short film out there 10 years ago [Tran the Man, 1994], and we shot in the house of some Thai friends. So my connection to the south west of Sydney, and Cabramatta in particular, goes way back.

DE: Do you think a sense of cultural connection to a particular time and place is something generally lacking in Australian cinema?

RW: Perhaps, yeah. I have noticed that more often than not we don't tell stories that are genuinely connected to our culture and have a specificity about the story-telling and the characters…And I think it's no surprise that when we do it, they're often our most successful films…they're usually festival-driven films that market themselves to a core audience outside the multiplex. And even some of our more blatantly commercial films like Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom have succeeded in a cultural specificity on their own terms.

DE: Little Fish was in the first round of projects to go through the NSW Film and Television Office's Aurora Script Workshop. What kind of impact did Aurora have on the script?

RW: I think it had an important impact. We were at a stage of script development where we had run out of puff, and it certainly put wind in our sails. There were no huge diversionary ideas that came out of Aurora, but it did confirm what was strong about the script, and it gave us confidence. Workshops like Aurora are really a very concentrated version of that stock movie industry approach of getting readers to test your material, but with a workshop like Aurora you get interactive readerships from several people at once, and they're film practitioners with amazing CVs. It would be very, very expensive for projects to do that on their own. So it's very useful.

But I am also cautious about hothouses like Aurora and SPARK, because I think that often if you're not experienced and confident about what you want out of the script there is the danger of being diverted to a place that isn't an organic extension of you as a writer or director. In our Aurora program I'm a little bit curious about the fact that both Cate [Shortland] and I came out of that with projects, while the others haven't come through. It makes me a little bit nervous about less experienced people going into a hothouse like Aurora or SPARK and being able to properly take advantage of the wonderful information and ideas on offer.

DE: There has been a lot of talk in recent times about the weakness of Australian scripts. Do you think schemes like Aurora and SPARK are effectively addressing a problem in the Australian industry?

RW: They are, but most of the issues that people raise about scripts and scriptwriting in this country are, I think, a by-product of the size of our filmmaking community and the fact that there's not a lucrative end point for scriptwriters. In America there is much more competition among scriptwriters, and scriptwriters are able to be sustained, whereas in this country they're absolutely not able to be sustained - there's only a few that can make a living from being scriptwriters, and often they have to supplement their income by writing TV or doing other things completely. Which automatically means your formative years, in your 20s and 30s, aren't the sort of rigorous background that American and European scriptwriters have as a basis for their career.

DE: Can you tell me a bit about the research that went into Little Fish? I believe there was a year long research period?

RW: I'm always quite obsessive about the research I do, but in the case of Little Fish we were a little bit more over the top because Cate [Blanchett] got pregnant, so we had to put our schedule back eight months. I went out and did more than 100 hours of interviews with various people who were almost the real-life equivalents of the characters in the script. I also did formal research on various aspects of the script that I thought were blanks in my knowledge base, to do with refugees, drug addiction, and particularly the after-life of famous sporting identities. At a certain point we started to really chase the real-life equivalents of the script - that became very useful to the actors in particular, for voice and movement reasons. Also the library of DVDs [generated by the research] was useful at the end stage of script development, and was available to everyone in the crew, particularly the designer and cinematographer.

But one of the great things about doing research is being able to throw it all away. Because at a certain point everyone that's working on the film should feel confident that they can speak for the characters and for the story.

DE: So the research becomes almost an unconscious background?

RW: Yeah, and that's when it's great. When you can throw it away and make unconscious decisions on behalf of the characters and story. That's what I crave coming into rehearsals.

One of the reasons I do all that is I don't have a storyboard. I research and I have a visual plan, but none of it involves storyboarding. I like to be fluid in the way that I shoot, but also have that backlog of information and ideas sitting in the back of my head. I did this on The Boys and on all my projects; I have quite a rigorous process parallel to my research, which is the forming of a visual plan across several parameters, to do with lens, light, colour palette, position of camera, style of camera operation, sound, and music. I have a huge graph that goes right across a room that maps all of those elements. And then at a certain point we lock into that and that's thrown away, but we'll know whenever we shoot a scene that it will fit all of those parameters, so I don't have to storyboard.

DE: Have you considered doing anything else with the research material? Something more documentary orientated?

RW: It's useful in the sense that nowadays you should be looking at DVD extras anyway. With The Boys I used a lot of the background material and made a little documentary about the making of the film, but it wasn't a slapped together shallow documentary-it was actually quite a serious film about the process. With Little Fish I'll have an even bigger backlog of material, particularly in relation to the hundreds of hours of interviews that we did. I was particularly excited by a lot of the interviews we did with famous Rugby League players, who spoke very openly and honestly about what it was like for them after the glory years were over.

Little Fish premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July, and opens nationally on September 8.

Little Fish
Written by Jacqueline Perske, directed by Rowan Woods and produced by Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts and Richard Keddie.

Cate Blanchett as Tracey Heart in Little Fish