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BSS 2012: Gillian Armstrong

Most Kiwis, even those within the screen industry, could be forgiven for thinking that Australia’s first female director of a feature film was a one-hit wonder, a shooting star who’d vanished in to the ether, almost. But Armstrong, who tends to look a little like a waif left over from 60s hippiedom rather than a woman capable of leading and inspiring devotion in a cast and crew, has had a quite substantial career growing on that first breakthrough film – as have the two stars who were launched by My Brilliant Career, Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

Not afraid of what some might call an earthy as well as pithy turn of phrase, Armstrong titled the first of her two seminars at the BSS “Ten Ways to Fuck Up Your Film”. It’d be fair to say that, in most instances, the ten ways (and how to avoid them) were pretty self-evident – but Armstrong described them in such an energized and entertaining way, we didn’t care.

For the record, the list, or this version of it at least, goes like this:

  1. The Script
  2. The Wrong Producer
  3. The Wrong Cast
  4. The Unsupportive Crew
  5. The Useless First Assistant Director
  6. Losing Your Instincts
  7. Your Own Personailty
  8. Bad Performances
  9. The Affair
  10. Losing Objectivity in Post

There’s a reason for the ranking – and it’s not just the chronology of making a movie. The script is one thing that cannot be fixed in post. The objectivity of a good script editor is essential – as is asking the question of yourself: Are You Really A Writer/Director? Armstrong herself figured out when fresh out of film school that others could write dialogue better than she could.

Two qualities stand out in a producer for Armstrong: the ability to nurture and protect the director and the director’s vision; and the ability to raise money!

Casting is 70 to 80% of your movie! This was not the first time Armstrong talked about trusting one’s instincts. And the right crew is equally important: “No assholes. No lovers – or ex-lovers. No best friends or relatives” – to which an audience member responded, “But this is a small country!”

As someone who has worked as a First AD for over 25 years, I was pleased to hear Armstrong’s assessment of a good First – someone who is NOT a shouter, someone who is warm and protective of the actors, sympathetic and capable of creating a harmonious environment on set, someone who helps achieve the best results in the art of compromise, as shooting a film is often described. To hear all this corrected some of my obviously misplaced pessimism about working again in the Aussie industry – you see, when a major production house in Australia thrust me into firsting after only two films as a junior AD, they went to great lengths to try to turn me into the jack-booted Nazi style of First, including telling me bluntly to “… be much more aggressive!”

Much of the rest is basically about being confident in yourself, trusting your instincts, being an open, warm and encouraging leader. “Call it our film, not my film”.

Perhaps Number 9 should have taken last spot: Leave it until the wrap party! Do NOT sleep with any of the cast or crew!!!

A sub-theme running throughout was the instruction to eat well, sleep well, and to generally look after yourself. Her final suggestion before questions was to have fun. “It’s a privilege to be able to tell stories.”

In response to a question, Armstrong described her relationship with her DPs as one in which “I’m a complete control freak”. But she added that if as a director you have no great visual sense, then by all means rely on your DP – “Who cares how it comes to be good, as long as it is?”

* * *

The second of Gillian Armstrong’s sessions, this one given its own solo slot rather than competing with 3 others, was titled “A Conversation with…”, introduced and facilitated by Kate Rodger. As such, a significant portion of it was a further delving into the “10 Ways to Fuck Up”, illustrated by detailed reference to her first experience of shooting in the USA, Mrs Soffel. This film, a two-year nightmare, was so close to being a total disaster – averted at the last minute by the recasting of a lead role with fellow-Aussie Mel Gibson.

By Armstrong’s account, the USA screen production industry is a bureaucracy full of political machinations, producers who don’t care about your film, production managers who are on the take (shoddy gear on set because of bribes, for example) and who stab you in the back.

She prefers working in Australia because “You don’t have to deal with all that peripheral shit as you do in the USA.” She was advised once to fire the female production manager, because “having two women controlling the money is freaking the men out”.

Armstrong is also famous, in Oz at least, for her documentary series Smokes and Lollies, about what it’s like being a working class 14-year-old girl growing up in Australia. It’s developed into a series, with updates on the women at ages 18, 25, 32 and 47. But although Armstrong believes that documentaries do have a greater power to change society, she prefers to work in drama – although it’s increasingly harder to raise money “for the films I like – character-based drama for adults”, especially in the USA, where all the best writers seem now to be working in television. Art house cinema is in crisis.

Starting a discussion at the beginning of a career almost inevitably means the focus tends to remain there. But Armstrong hates looking back at her own work: “I find watching them all extremely painful!” Asked if she had regrets, she mentioned script stuff-ups: “Rule Number One!”

In contrast, her experience at Cannes with My Brilliant Career was memorable. In what she describes as her naivety, she thought the standing ovation was orchestrated by the publicity machine, until told that “No, you can’t make the French stand up!”

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