A review of the Friday on My Mind talks from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, 2008-2011.

Part 1

Every Friday at 5pm, students of the Australian Film and Television and Radio School – Australia’s national screen arts and broadcast School, along with film buffs and interested members of the general public, take their seats in the AFTRS theatre for a free talk and occasional screening with the best practitioners from the Australian world of screen arts and broadcasting.

Founded in 1973 AFTRS was set up by the Australian federal government to strengthen the Australian film industry and in 2008 the national film, television and radio school relocated to new premises adjacent to Fox Studios in Sydney. The relocation was an opportunity to establish closer ties with industry and the School’s CEO Sandra Levy also saw it as a perfect opportunity to introduce Friday on My Mind – a regular industry focused public program where practitioners, students and the wider community come together to wind up their week by soaking up ideas, information and inspiration.

Friday on My Mind has to date been hosted by film journalists including Rachael Turk and Jason di Rosso, who work with the School to curate the weekly sessions which are in the spirit of a dedicated interview, followed by an audience Q&A comprised of a wide spectrum of Australian film and TV directors, cinematographers, screen writers and producers.

Friday on My Mind sessions are transcribed, edited and included in the School’s self-published journal LUMINA, the Australian journal of Screen Arts and Business.

Over the two and a half years since it began, Friday on My Mind has covered every topic from script development to funding to international film festivals. It presents something of an overview of the key challenges involved with creating, funding and distributing good filmic stories as well as the identity and relevance of Australia’s geographically remote and relatively young film industry. The talks also touch on the industry’s relationship with its Hollywood and European counterparts.

Australia has a small population and film market, but it also has a distinct landscape, indigenous voice and a unique governmental support system and performs well beyond its fighting weight on the world cinematic stage. Australian actors with international profiles include Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts; the list goes on, but there are also many Australian directors, cinematographers and screenplay writers who either straddle their careers between Australia and overseas studios, or work to bring Australian stories to the international stage.

Jan Chapman produced The Piano (1993), an Academy and Palme D’Or award winner for director and AFTRS graduate Jane Campion. Chapman also produced Love Serenade (1996), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), and a more recent collaboration with Campion on Bright Star (2009), starring Abbie Cornish. In April 2008, Jan Chapman was a Friday on My Mind guest and spoke about her early career directing and producing for television and what attracts her to working with certain directors on feature films.

‘With Jane Campion I saw her short films and went, ‘this person has a unique visual interpretation of things and … the things that people feel under the surface.’ Shirley (Bennet) too has a fantastically absurd sense of humour. I think Love Serenade is one of the most original statements in our cinema. It won the Camera D’Or, which is the best film award in Cannes.

When I look back at my work it does make me think; ‘there’s a whole lot of very strong-willed heroines!’ When Jane first showed me a treatment for The Piano, maybe ten pages long, I loved the character that was so strong-willed she willed herself not to talk. ‘

The character of Fanny Brawne is another strong willed female character at the heart of Bright Star.

‘It was the first time I’d done a co-production (English/Australian) and they are complicated. A film about a poet – people were not jumping at it, but they were still very keen on Jane. I think very distinct directors in the world retain their allure for financiers; Jane’s always been very definite about what she’d done, and it’s always been something that you say, ‘that’s a Jane Campion film.’

We found a company called Pathe in the UK and they came in very early with substantial development money so it was enough for her to write it and for us to cast. Then thank God for the Australian funding system is all I can say. It gave us the power to say we can bring this money to the table and it meant we had Australians like Janet Patterson on set and costume design, Grieg Fraser the Director of Photography and young Australian composer Mark Bradshaw, so it really was a UK/ Australian coproduction.’

After The Piano, Jan Chapman produced Lantana (2001), a relationship drama with thriller elements that was originally a theatre play. Winning eight Australian Film Industry awards and a British Film Industry award, it was a groundbreaking film for Australian cinema.

‘I think Lantana should make us all have confidence that Australian films reach Australian audiences,’ says Chapman. ‘It did $12.5 million at the Aus box office which was fantastic. Lantana is different in terms of vision because it came from Andrew Bovell, the writer – it was his play. But why did it work so well? I think we’re all interested in relationships, in why we relate to each other, how we relate to each other, the things that are not said.’

During his own talk at Friday on my Mind, stage and screen writer Bovell describes how the success of Lantana became a springboard for his career while bringing with it massive hurdles.

‘For Edge of Darkness (2010, which Bovell was hired for), director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) saw something different in Lantana. He didn’t just want a standard Hollywood adaptation, just an American thriller. It was a struggle because the pressures on me to make it that standard American thriller were huge. The producers knew what they wanted, that it should fit into genre. It was a tough experience but one I wouldn’t change because I learnt a lot about the trade and craft of screenwriting and how to negotiate studios and LA.’

Bovell also touched on the more challenging aspects of working in a small scale industry. ‘It’s tempting to live overseas. Art house Australian films would nurture me if it wasn’t so frustrating. It’s hard to find budgets, it’s hard to effectively distribute the films; it’s hard for the films to find a broader audience. But the international market is open to Australian film. The world is interested in good film.’

In Part 2 of Films From A Far Off Country, screenwriters John Collee and Stuart Beattie talk about the challenges of moving from Australia to work in Hollywood.

All quotes are extracts from transcripts published in Lumina : Australian Journal of Screen Arts and Business, published by AFTRS, 2008-2010