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18 September 2018
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Miro Bilbrough, writer/director Floodhouse

Miro speaks to Sarah Runcie, AFC Film Development Administrative Officer.

Since her remarkable debut as a filmmaker in 1995, Miro Bilbrough has had something of a charmed career as both a writer and director. From the cine-poem form of Urn to the literary adaptation of Herman Melville's classic story Bartleby, Miro has developed a solid body of work that is at once lyrical, literate and individual.

Her latest film Floodhouse is a short feature that is part of the 50 Minutes From Home festival that is currently touring nationally.

SR: Floodhouse is set in a world that we don't often see on screen. What is the background of that world?

MB: When I was writing it I was writing about this era that I was exposed to in the late 70s in New Zealand - this kind of 'back to the land' movement. It was all about going back to this subsistence, pre-industrial lifestyle. The form that I experienced was quite anarchic. Instead of communities that were set up along pacifist lines or religious lines, it was all about there being no rules. In fact, in the community that I lived on, there were two rules: 'no drug dealers' and 'no welfare'. My father lived that way for a while and in the years that have passed since then, I've been quite amazed by how little cultural reference there is to that time and place - and the crazy idealism that prevailed. I find it very strange, because such a rich set of contradictions usually characterise that kind of a world: the idealism, the experimentation, the cock-ups.

SR: Do you have a satirical view of that world?

MB: Not exactly satirical but I was having a bit of a chuckle. Actually, I am really grateful to have that chuckle. I can't think of anything worse than a world that doesn't allow you to have a bit of a laugh at its expense.

… I still look at [that era] and think 'God, imagine thinking that you could reinvent yourself like that'. Imagine having the imaginative freedom to attempt that. And I look at it and think that we live in a much more conventional society now. I certainly live a much more conventional life - and I often feel there can be a dullness to that. Whereas the one thing about that world was that it wasn't dull. I think it was quite a brave world. It could be foolish and flawed and quite delusional even - but then what isn't?

SR: Floodhouse is dedicated to John of Saratoga. Who was John of Saratoga?

MB: John of Saratoga was this wonderful, trampish, hippie soul that I knew when I was 16. And who I very, very, very loosely based the Herringbone John character on. He's since died. He was somebody that used to pass through the hippie world that I lived in. And I had lots of romantic notions about him when I was young. He's left a strong after-image in my mind.

SR: Pinny, Mara's younger sister, must have been a fun character to write?

MB: She was a bit of a scene stealer when I was writing her. She seemed to attract all the best lines. She has such a strong little centre of gravity. It is great fun to write a voice like that: subversive, unimpressed by the adults, self-possessed, queenly - and quite delicious.

SR: Ava, Mara's warrior-like mother, where did she come from?

MB: I don't know if I can explain Ava. And I probably wouldn't quite want to even if I could. I mean, I guess she's a character that I had to grapple with in my imagination and I have grappled with elements of her in my own life.

SR: She seems to be this sort of extreme narcissist?

MB: Yes - but you can never explain anyone with an exclusive theory or statement like that. I always felt with Ava that she couldn't just be a dragon-lady. There had to be a sense that there was some kind of sensuous investment in her exterior so that her front is not just a front but also really connected into who she is, her whole bent and rhythm, the whole texture of her as a being.

SR: Mara, is she the character you most identify with?

MB: You find in order to write all these characters, you have to 'be' them when you're writing them. It's kind of ventriloquism. You start off writing the story and think 'well, this is me when I was 15' or 'I'm going to rely on elements of me when I was 15 and this should be easy to write', you know, 'she's female, I remember this time.' But then you find yourself pouring yourself into all these other characters. Your identifications shift all the time. And then there's a kind of dispassionate self as well that's looking at them all quite coolly. And seeing when they're being interesting and entertaining and when they're not, when you'll let them be on the screen and when it's time for them to bugger off.

SR: How did you go about casting? Given that you had some actual people in your mind, how do you manage that balance, that you still want to be true to your idea but remain open to all these possibilities?

MB: That's sort of the fun in a way. The whole reason I got into filmmaking is the attraction of having your ideas mutate in the presence of others. It's the same with casting. It's such a delicious thing tracing that [character] essence and finding it in different kinds of people or different forms. I find it tantalising. I actually love it the most - casting. It's so unpredictable. And it 's a great thing to have your ideas partially turned on their heads. With Floodhouse, I feel very lucky because nothing was distorted in the casting. That actually, while I got wildly different types from what I might have [originally] imagined, the essence of their character remained very close to the original. So it's lovely. I find that fantastic.

SR: From your first short film through to the short feature form, how have you transitioned as a writer into the longer form narrative?

MB: [With Urn] I didn't really have a strong grasp on how to write dramatic character. And certainly there was no dialogue and the acting was not naturalistic. Urn was tailored to my writing bent and ability at the time. I came from being a poet so I was writing with a poetic approach to the form. But no sooner had I completed that than I felt wildly impatient with what I suddenly perceived to be the limitations in this approach. My own limitations as a writer and a director. You know, I didn't understand simple things like 'leg acting'. I remember there was a shot in Urn where somebody had to walk through the frame and I just saw it as that: somebody walking through the frame. Whereas now I would want to know more specifically what that body was going to convey. In many ways, directing Urn was a terrible experience for me but it kind of dictated the path ahead. I had had incredibly strong emotional pictures and sensations in my mind and I hadn't been able to realise them. So that became a provocation to me. I just had to get back in the saddle and make a different kind of film.

MB: After Urn I immediately wanted to conquer dialogue. That became my next big thing. I always feel like that. I tend to want to eat up the next challenge as soon as I finish something and often reject everything that I have just done in favour of the next thing I need to learn or assimilate. So it became really important to me, after Urn, to handle character and dialogue and narrative - cause/ effect/ action - which I did with Bartleby.

SR: What attracted you to doing Bartleby?

MB: For me the whole beauty of [Bartleby] was that you could not know his internal state and that he wasn't psychologised as a character. So the invitation for you to do the psychologising is just huge. In my own life, I am always trying to explain my neuroses and psychoses to, you know, anyone who'll listen. (Or I used to. I've given up.) But the character of Bartleby has this beautiful freedom: he feels no need to explain. You know, he just says he 'would prefer not' and then he proceeds to do the most outrageous things in terms of the particular - 19th century - system within which he lives. Which is not to relate, not to work, eventually not even to eat. And I suppose I loved the freedom of the character. It always just made me laugh. I think Herman Melville's characterisation is really wicked and haunting.

SR: Would you consider yourself a writer who directs or is there an even balance?

MB: I'd prefer not to make that distinction. Yeah, I mean, a film like Floodhouse, a script like Floodhouse, I never could have surrendered to anyone else. I'd seen it so fully and so idiosyncratically in the writing, I couldn't have borne somebody else to mould it to their vision.

SR: So the directing is like an extension of that writing process?

MB: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that formerly I would have put 'writer' first because that's what I had the longevity of experience in. But having made Floodhouse, I did have a real experience of feeling 'Right, so this is what I am supposed to be doing'. I got over my feeling of being under-used in life in the most fabulous way.

SR: That it fully extended you?

MB: Yeah.

SR: And that you grew into it?

MB: … Yeah… to feel fully extended, it is such a miraculous feeling. I guess it had happened to me when I was writing. But the problem with the writing is that it's so monastic. And so there was always this other side of my nature that felt incredibly locked away. You've been ferreting away skills and talents, observational abilities, that all come into play in directing. Things that you thought never had any kind of practical use and all those sort of skills, just suddenly, get called up. Just life skills and relationship skills, even musical appreciation skills - all these fabulous things that didn't have a pragmatic end in my life, suddenly got, lassoed up.

... In terms of directing a film, you can prepare and prepare and prepare: do your story boarding and your rehearsals and you have all those endless conversations, but you still don't know what's going to happen. Perhaps you do know but I had a great fear of what could happen when I had to step out on set and be the leader publicly, in front of all those people. Because, I have plenty of initiative but I'm not used to having to have to 'perform' it. There is a kind of weird performative thing with being a director.

... It's like being paid to watch in some kind of way! Which is also, I think, a fantastic gift. When you are shooting, it can be like this amazing kind of communion that takes place between action and cut - where the cast, the crew are just in this heightened state together. And, in some sort of way, your eye is at the centre of it. And it's really flattering, honouring, humbling - lovely. I actually love being in that position.

Floodhouse will screen on SBS on Friday, 31st of October, 8.30pm. See 50 Minutes From Home festival for screening details around the country.