Acclaimed Australian director Sue Brooks is the latest female filmmaker to make her way to the big screen and achieves wonderful results with the charmingly sedate drama Looking for Grace.
Looking for Grace starts off as a slow-burning, suspenseful, runaway-teen type drama but transforms – like a breath of fresh air – into something else entirely: a funny, charming and quite moving study of fate and family life. Sixteen-year-old Grace’s reckless actions, and their consequences, unravel over the course of five acts, as told from the perspective of five intertwining characters.
It might have been her first time writing, but Sue Brooks is no stranger to directing, having carved a strong niche for herself with thoughtful Australian dramas like Japanese Story with Toni Collette, Road to Nhill (a Best Film winner at Thessaloniki Film Festival) and the Ashley Bradnam-penned Hervey Bay comedy Subdivision.
Here she talks about the nerve-wracking experience of sitting in the writer’s chair for the first time on Looking for Grace – which was most recently in competition at the Venice, Toronto and Adelaide Film Festivals – and being influenced by the forgotten wave of great Australian female filmmakers of the 1980s.
Congratulations on Looking for Grace. I was really surprised when I was watching this movie… I did not anticipate things taking the twists they did, even just the way you told the story. I think it’s really unique.
Oh great, that’s lovely.
How do you describe it to people? What was your elevator pitch for this film, did you say it was a mystery? A comedy?
No, I used to always start it as – my elevator pitch used to be very banal actually – I’d say “It starts with some girls who have run away from home, they’ve stolen some money out of their parents’ safe, but it’s the catalyst for a lot of other stories.” But you know, I never really got it down pat.
I like that. The way you told this story, the way it unfolded in so many different stories, the first time I remember seeing a film like that was Doug Liman’s Go (1999). It was a teen film with Katie Holmes, and it took place over the course of one night and it was the way all the events unfolded.
I don’t remember it, but that sounds intriguing.
It was one of Melissa McCarthy’s earliest films too. I saw it in my late teens and it always stuck with me, that way of telling stories. You used a similar concept here, because you wrote the script as well?
I did, yes.
A lot of the characters’ everyday experiences felt very relatable… did you draw from people you knew in real life?
I stole a lot from my family.
I thought that might be the case!
(Laughs) I saw it with some friends yesterday and they were laughing about the “teeth” scene (with Tom) – the “Can you see my teeth when I talk?” moment – and eventually I had to admit my father had said it and they were just pissing themselves laughing. It was just such a funny moment with my dad one day, who was not particularly vain, he just said it to me one day and I said, ‘For goodness sake!’ It’s just amazing what people think about, really.
So the decision to write this time – I know in the past you’ve worked with writer Alison Tilson. Was this something you felt like, I’m ready to take it over myself this time? How was that?
It was quite good fun actually. That was a lot to do with her encouraging me to do it…. We were going to write it together for a while, and then she said to me one day, ‘I think you should write it and just see how you go’… (But) it’s not what I think I do for a living, you know what I mean? I think what I’m best at is directing so I think I’m really happy to have the next one where I direct, rather than I write and direct (laughs).
It must be nice to challenge yourself like that once in a while though?
It was exciting, absolutely exhilarating. And it’s really nerve-wracking.
We showed it to an audience yesterday, it was a big audience out at Balwyn, and my heart was in my mouth because every word up there is yours. There’s nowhere to hide.
But you know, they really warmed to it, and that was an amazing experience.
In the end I think Alison Tilson was a producer on this film as well?
Yes, there were three producers on it and she’s one of the producers.
The other two were Lizzette Atkins and Sue Taylor. You had so many great, talented women working with you (including composer Elizabeth Drake and cinematographer Katie Milwright).
It’s sort of one of those things you don’t notice yourself, when you’re doing it, because I always say you pick the best person for the job and it just happens to be a woman, you know?
Absolutely. But when you’re there – I’m just so used to hearing about men working in those key roles – it must be nice.
It changes the dynamic, absolutely. And it’s good for the men who work on the film too, to be honest. They like it as well. It’s… what is it? There’s something right about it, which is probably a strange way of talking about it.
We’ve gotten so used to men occupying positions of power in all sorts of situations, like on boards and things like that, and they all sit there in their grey suits and everything. But when you just change the dynamic a bit, you think ‘Oh now this feels a bit more comfortable, this feels right actually’.
It’s terrific. And they’re really smart women.
What was the process to get this film across the line? You’ve had a very prestigious career so far. Does that make it easier to get things made? Or is it still a big battle every single time?
We found it really hard on this one and I think that’s just because the story itself was a bit different. So people were sort of scratching their heads. We’d get to the finish line (for funding), I think we got shortlisted a number of times, but you’d get to the end and they’d say ‘Oh sorry girls not this time’. And I think that was because they couldn’t quite imagine how the film would seem on the screen at the end. So that made it hard. And we were going through it at a time when I think a lot of the investors were a bit risk averse… they were very interested in what they called ‘genre’ films. So we didn’t quite fit into any boxes there (laughs).
But you know, that’s not uncommon, is it? If you try to do something different, then you’ve just got to, I don’t know, suck it up really!
Do you think the situation’s getting better?
No, I reckon we’ve always been working on the edge a little bit. I think we’ve always been pushing the proverbial uphill. But you know, it doesn’t stop me from being optimistic about what will happen next time around. Optimistic, stupid and belligerent is probably what you need to be.
If we look at the other films that you’ve made – Japanese Story, Road to Nhill, Subdivision – they all have a message, they’re all quietly thought-provoking. What did you want to say with Looking for Grace?
I suppose I wanted to say that life is precious. I suppose I wanted to say something like, communication is not always saying words to each other.
A lot of people look at (the film) and they think, these people can’t talk to each other. And I think ‘Yeah, but they really, deep down, they really love each other.’
And I guess the other thing is that I think we’re all flawed.
I get that. It definitely rings true.
We often just get hit over the head with other people’s storytelling and I wanted to have a more inviting gesture to the audience, so they can take what they like from it. So what I love when I see the film with other people is they come out and they’ve all got their bits that they’ve hung onto, or they love, or they’re intrigued by.
For me the character of Tom (played by Terry Norris) added so much to the story. He just adds that extra level of interaction with the elderly generation. I think that’ s missing from a lot of stories that come through. It was really great to see that.
We really wanted to have a character who was an older character in the film, whose job was to have his own world, and his own views, and have his own worries. And not to be in the film in a dressing gown in a nursing home. You know how, so often they have to be – if they’re older in the film, they have to be an old character, and it’s about ageing. Whereas I wanted him just to be… obviously he’s a certain age, but he’s still worried (about things).
And he’s working!
Yes, he’s working (laughs).
Odessa Young, who plays Grace, is another great talent. Is she someone you were aware of?
No, I wasn’t aware of her until I did the audition. She did a self-test and I went over to Sydney to meet her and she just bowled me over. So did Kenya (Pearson). I hadn’t met either of them until we did the screen test and audition. There’s a lot of young actors out there who are extraordinary but she’s got something very special, Odessa. She’s very capable of being very still within the scene… a little bit of how Radha is too. They’ve got their whole worlds going on (in the movie) but you don’t have to know what those worlds are. All you are is intrigued by the fact that it’s happening for them.
Richard Roxburgh (as Grace’s dad), is a huge favourite of mine, but Radha Mitchell (as Grace’s mum) is great too, that was nice to get her back doing a local film.
Yes, she lives in LA now.
Had you worked with her before?
No, no, I’ve been a fan of hers since Love and Other Catastrophes (1996). Shows you how old I am.
Back in the Love & Other Catastrophes days we had scripts and we’d be sending them off to her agent saying ‘Do you think Radha could do this?’ and her agent was saying ‘Oh I don’t think so Sue, she’s really busy in LA now’ (laughs). We used to joke with her about this (while making Looking for Grace) and she’d say, ‘I never even saw those scripts!’
But yeah look, you send the script off with a hope and prayer that a) it’ll get to her, b) that she’ll read it, and c) that she’ll like it and then she’ll come back for it. But she did all of that and the thing that was amazing about working with her is that she’s a joy to work with.
Her character wasn’t ocker exactly, but the way she speaks with the twang… it’s very funny, it’s sort of Upper Middle Bogan-y.
She’s sort of just on the edge isn’t she? (laughs)
Screen Australia recently launched their Gender Matters initiative to address the gender balance in the screen industry (most notable in traditional film where women only make up 15 per cent of working directors in Australia). But I feel like the last 12 months have actually been quite positive – with films from Jocelyn Moorhouse, Kim Farrant, Gillian Armstrong, Jennifer Peedom, and now yours. There have been some strong figures getting recognized. It feels like that’s a good step for the new generation coming through?
Yeah I think so too. Look, I think Australian filmmakers are pretty extraordinary full stop. They punch above their weight, I can tell you that. … and there’s some great inspiring women filmmakers out there. Gillian Armstrong is an amazing, amazing inspiration.
I’ve been to overseas festivals years and years ago where people would say ‘Oh the women filmmakers from Australia, they’re so good, how does this happen? How come you’ve got such a great selection of them?’
I think statistically it turned to not a very good place there for a number of years, but I think it’s turning back to the right direction now. And like you say, we’ve got to celebrate all of those women and their work. They do incredible stuff.
From the women I’ve interviewed so far – Gillian and Jocelyn last year, for example – everyone is just very much, let’s get on and do it. Nobody’s looking for a pity party. Everybody’s keen to get on and do the work and celebrate the women around them doing well too.
I honestly think in the end that’s the way that makes a difference – if you see other women doing it, and you see them doing it well, or even just doing it, whether they do well or not, but having a go. You know, some of the documentary makers are just amazing. I’m working with Gillian Leahey at the moment, she’s making a film about her relationship with her dog. It’s called Baxter and Me. It’s terrific. She’s got a chocolate lab, and she’s decided to do an investigation into the nature of that relationship and it’s a full length documentary. It’s really out there and I think it takes guts to do that.
I think a lot of women are very gutsy about what they’ll put up on the screen and have a go at.
Because when people are taking risks – I haven’t seen Jennifer Peedom’s film Sherpa yet, I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I mean, that is really taking a risk, isn’t it? And you know the same with Gill Leahey – putting something as personal as your relationship with your dog on screen, or us with Looking for Grace, it’s taking a risk, you know? I think audiences get that.
When you were coming through were you mentored by anybody or influenced by any filmmakers?
It’s funny you should say this. We were going to write an article about this and put it on our website, about women filmmakers of the ’80s, because there’s a whole wave of women who were really interesting. Jane Campion obviously is one of them. Jane’s the sort of name that everyone remembers, but there were all sorts of women making extraordinary films.
Women filmmakers in the ’80s like Sarah Gibson, and Susan Lambert, Margot Nash, Gill Leahey, Lou Hubbard, Sarah Watt, Jeni Thornley… They were at that time making films that were different, and they were making films differently. It was a really inspiring time to come through.
There’s all the ones we were talking about before, but there’s a wave before it that have sort of become forgotten a bit. They were even more out there, if you know what I mean.
What about before that, at film school?
I went to film school in Sydney, AFTRS, and after that there were these two things called the Women’s Film Unit – one run in Sydney and one run in Melbourne – and at that stage you were able to get a film financed. And they were all financed by women and crewed by women, even the gaffers and grips were women…. It only ran for a year. It was sort of coming off that last wave of feminism. It was great.
I can’t remember how many films they made. This was in the ’80s, and one we made was a short film called High Heels which did really well on the circuit, won all these prizes and things. It was a really inspiring time. You know, that’s why I get a little bit worried about these ebbs and flows about support – because you have these pockets of time that are really, really wonderful and you feel excited, and then it drifts back again and suddenly someone’s saying ‘Oh we’re 15 per cent again’ and you think how did that happen? I’m just working my butt off here (laughs).
For young filmmakers coming through, what’s your key piece of advice?
Firstly, don’t think you’re going to make any money out of it (laughs). Secondly, just hang in there. And thirdly, if you’re going to make it, just do something that’s worth it to yourself. I think that’s the big trick. Not do something because you think this is the thing that will work. Do something because you really need to make it. I think that makes a big difference.
It’s all very well for me to say that, there’s many days when I’d like to give up…
But you haven’t! And look how many things you’ve achieved. Best of luck at the box office.
Thank you, good on you.
This has been part of our 100 Women In Film Down Under series. You might also enjoy reading (or watching) our interviews with women in film such as:
Looking For Grace is in cinemas now.