I'm reading
Natasha Pincus is a Filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Natasha Pincus is a Filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Natasha Pincus is a Filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
"Every film you make is going to be with you forever like a limb."
Conversations
1 July 2008

Natasha Pincus is a Filmmaker

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Narelle Sheenan

Kate Bezar on Natasha Pincus

These days, rather than having limited choices (like if you’re a girl you’ll be a nurse or a teacher), we’re told we can be whatever we want. Although this is surely a good thing, it can sometimes make it a bit tricky to figure out exactly what you do want to do, particularly if you’re a bit of a jack-of-several-trades.

It took Natasha Pincus two degrees (in Law and Science) and 365 days practising as a lawyer to finally commit to pursuing her first love, film. She has since developed an extraordinary reputation for making short films and music videos. Feature film world, here she comes…

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: There’s a university student in Melbourne making a short film for Dumbo Feather and, as a funny coincidence, she sent me a link to your Lior video clip and told me how much she loves it. Is it getting a beautiful response?

NATASHA PINCUS: It is, yeah. I got a call from my sister-in-law an hour or so ago with her wee ones in the back of the car. They were listening to [Sydney radio station] Nova and heard I’ll Forget You. Afterwards listeners were told to check out ‘the amazing’ clip on YouTube. That was really exciting for me.

What was the appeal in doing something with Lior?

It’s actually the second clip I’ve made with him. Lior came to me a little battle-scarred from his past experiences with the film industry. He’s an incredible artist and a really human being. He’s very honest and full of integrity and I was quite taken by that straight away. I thought this must be an act. No one can be this respected and renowned and still so open. He said he’d never released a proper clip before because nothing he’d seen of himself had captured his vulnerability and his honesty. He’d seen the clip I’d done for Paul Kelly’s song God Told Me To and said he wanted to work with me on a clip for his song Heal Me. Some would say Heal Me is quite un-video-clip-able because musically it’s very unusual and it’s hard to interpret visually because of its chaotic narrative. However, I came up with an abstract concept he really liked and we went off and made it. It ended up being quite an epic project, which dang near killed me. Lior is an independent artist and we were working with an independent artist’s budget. The clip I’d done for Paul Kelly had been so well received that the pressure on me was high. I chose Heal Me over projects that would have been a lot easier in terms of production demands, and surer bets in terms of audience approval, but I loved Lior’s song and really wanted to work with him, so we pushed through the difficulties. Then, before Heal Me was finished, Lior came and asked about the next clip and we were off listening to mixes of I’ll Forget You. It was actually Lior who suggested shadow-puppetry for I’ll Forget You. I could see it was the right medium for the song and that it would also make an interesting public piece.

Is the music video genre one you’re keen to explore further?

I absolutely love it. I lectured on music videos at Swinburne University’s film school and got to rant and wax lyrical about all things music video and found myself getting quite red faced. Everyone in the film industry is passionate about feature film and it’s often what motivated them to embark on a film career in the first place. Feature films are a strong motivator for me too, both as a writer and director, and that goal is continually in focus. A lot of Australian filmmakers work towards getting their first feature made but

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

I don’t want to be another onetime feature film director

like those we seem to keep propagating here. I’d like to work towards having a feature film career. I try to think past the first, to the second and third features I want to make. Music videos are a good complement to feature film making because you have to be economical with the storytelling. You can’t rely on dialogue. You have to tell your story visually. It has to be clever to capture and then hold the attention of what is a very mercurial audience. You have to be able to manipulate audience intrigue, have a sense of velocity, of pacing and rhythm. It’s a fantastic challenge.

There’s also the opportunity for your work to be seen by millions, more so than ever before. That must be exciting.

More and more so. The word is it’s getting bigger. Because of an explosion in the numbers of mobile media devices, there’s talk that every song an artist makes will soon have its own video, not just a select one or two from an album. Also, because the standard of clips has increased dramatically, music video is becoming recognised as an art form in its own right. The video for Paul Kelly’s God Told Me To was selected for the St Kilda Film Festival’s music video offshoot SoundKilda. I’ve been a spectator there for years so it’s really exciting to be screening in it. A benefit of working on music videos is getting to hang out with musicians. Being able to collaborate with musicians and help facilitate their vision is an honour and a privilege. There can be a great divide between the film and music industries so to be able to paddle in both ponds has been great fun. For me it has resulted in a collaborative project with Spiderbait bass player Janet English. I brought her onto a show that a couple of Sydney producers were working on. I’d heard Janet was a brilliant artist and when we met we got along brilliantly. Since then she’s conjured up all the animated characters in this show and, because she’s so multifaceted, she composed the show’s theme song. I’m also working with fashion designer Kevin Azzopardi. Even though his speciality is fashion he came on as art director for God Told Me To and costume designer on Love’s Labour. When I was working with Kevin I remember thinking, wow, two heads are so much better than one. It can push your creative buttons so much to have an aligned collaborator testing you and raising the bar. It’s excellent.

Original ideas can be the result of working away from your primary field of interest.

Exactly. Also, I want to be working all the time and our industry can move at a glacial pace. It’s quite conservative. It goes; this is the money, this is who is going to get it, this is when they’re going to get it and this is who they’re going to work with. In my opinion it’s why so many products look and feel alike and then drift quietly to the middle of the road.

I like to try to come at the creative process a different way. By opening up our point of view on a subject we might be able to expose a new perspective or new truth on it. One of the best ways to do that is bring in people from different industries and throw them into an allied film role. I’d love to do that more. In fact, I’d love to do more work in general, but I find that I spend 80 per cent of my time doing administrative stuff, which leaves only a fraction of time and energy for the real work. Improving your craft can be a slow process with those percentages in play. If you could spend your creative hours creatively you’d get to practice your craft more, gain more experience and skills and the quality of your work would improve.

The danger for you, I imagine, is that because you can do all that other stuff, you do end up just doing it.

Yeah. As much as I love collaborative projects – and it is such a joy when it works out well – I find it hard to walk away from aspects of production.

So, how far off is that first feature?

That’s a really timely question for me. There’s often a lot of pressure on me to define what it is I do. Am I a writer or a director? Am I a producer? I try to resist that mentality and just say I’m a filmmaker and, depending on the project, I’ll bring whatever expertise I have that suits it best. I was a lawyer and have some business acumen which helps on some projects, but at other times those skills are completely withheld and only the creative muscles are flexed. So, in terms of an impending feature film project it will depend on whether I want to attack it as a writer, a director, or as a producer. As a writer I’ve sold a couple of screenplays to producers and I’m happy for those scripts to be directed by someone who has more experience and ability to direct the genre than I do. I’ve started thinking it’s probably better for me to direct someone else’s script and, in turn, for someone else to direct my scripts. The writer-director model is pretty unique to Australia. Other countries don’t really favour it, and with good reason. It’s kind of like asking someone to be both a brain surgeon and rocket scientist. While both writing and directing are related to storytelling they require very different skill sets and demand thousands of hours of concentrated attention before any kind of competency can be achieved. So, at the moment I’m in discussion to direct a script that isn’t mine while also continuing to write my own scripts, which I envisage will be directed by another director. Basically,

I want to make good films that tell important and engaging stories, whatever role that requires of me.

You spoke about longevity in the film industry, as opposed to one-feature wonders. What do you think it takes to continually make great features?

Well, you have a whole wealth of life experience leading up to your first film and in your subsequent work. While you can draw on the past you’re often motivated by you’re experiences between the first and second film. I’ve seen some artists become almost too successful very early on in their career. They haven’t yet got the life experience or body of work behind them to work with inspiration, yet everyone is pushing them and asking what’s next. At the other end of the spectrum there are a lot of artists who are creatively over-baked. Filmmakers can be 20 years into their career when they finally get their big opportunity. They’ve done a swathe of ads and videos and they’re exhausted, or they’ve now got four kids in the back of the car. Neither of those realities are the ideal environment or head space to produce your most hungry work. I think the longevity of your creative stamina is connected to how, and when, you start. The ideal would be to start somewhere between those two extremes – when you’re still hungry, but have some experience. I think artists have to be a lot more strategic than people realise. People think art is an accident and that an artist’s career simply unfolds organically. In a sense that is true, external circumstances do certainly come into play, but it is more about consciously picking the right projects at the right time. Making a film is a long-term investment. This will sound really mechanical and cold, but even if I had a great career it would be an amazing achievement if I got to make a dozen feature films. So, I ask myself,

if I’ve only got enough time to tell 10 stories, is this one strong enough to be one of those 10?

It’s important to recognise that every film you make is part of a body of work that’s going to be with you forever – like a limb. You have to make sure the films you choose discretely announce something about you and what you have to say to the world and are connected to the narrative you are constructing as an artist over the course of your life.

Have you also directed or written plays?

Yeah, when I was a teenager. I was about 15 when I started writing and directing plays that attracted some attention. They allowed my writing career to get going. I was an actor as a kid and had been reading scripts since I was about nine, so it had always been a familiar medium for creative expression. You know, the award thing is funny. People tend to get very excited about someone for about five minutes. You’ve got to be wary of that and remember you’re the same person after the award as you were five minutes before it. At the same time, you want to take advantage of the momentum the award offers. Last year, the Paul Kelly clip won the Inside Film (IF) award for best music video and just before that one of my short films, Love’s Labour, was nominated for a Dendy award in the fiction category. Bang, I was offered all sorts of projects to write and direct but none of them really fitted. Unless the project fits I’d prefer to be stuffing pamphlets in people’s letterboxes. People ask me why I don’t direct ads. It has never been my thing, but I can tell you, financially, it’s starting to look attractive. There’s no money in music videos and I’m struggling. I teach law part time at Monash [University] to earn my pocket money but between paid writing and directing jobs it can be pretty tight. If you’re not careful, some film work can be like working in any other service industry and if I’d wanted to stay in a service industry I would have stayed in law. Why work as a service technician in a creative industry? It doesn’t make sense.

Why did you study Law? You studied both Law and Science, right?

I loved them both, passionately. I’ve been asked, ‘Law and Science, that doesn’t make sense?’ But it made perfect sense to me: one concerns the rules of nature and the other the rules of engagement. I’d find it really hard to get around without knowing what’s beneath the surface. People drive in traffic, talk to each other and conduct business without knowing what their rights and responsibilities are. I think you need to be informed to be able to affect your circumstances and achieve the best possible outcomes you can. To me both law and science are the basics, the back story, of life. There was great joy in learning all that. I worked as a molecular microbiologist for three years, on DNA and cloning. I really miss it at times, but I s’pose, if you do too many things for too long you just end up a jack of all trades. I knew on that first morning as a lawyer it wasn’t for me, but I’d made a contract with myself to keep at it for 365 days. I literally wrote them down and crossed them off, one by one, and on the last day walked out of there. You do have to do a year’s internship to be qualified, but for me, to complete the year was a personal goal, not a career one. I was surrounded by a great team of people and worked at a really lovely firm who dealt with all my eccentricities – like working with no fluoro lights in my office – and let me wear jeans to work. Yet, despite that, I felt in danger of losing something I might not have been able to get back. You lose a kind of innocence when confined to an institutionalised environment and made to do something you don’t want to do. The positive was, however, that it took me so far away from what I wanted to be doing it was the push to finally take control. I had always wanted to be a filmmaker but I’d prevaricated because I felt the buoyancy of time and imagined life and opportunity stretched on infinitely. It was only once I was locked into the confines of my work predicament I realised time was so incredibly limited. You’ve got to go out and grab the opportunities now. So, I burst out of there on that last day and I’ve been running uphill ever since. Out of breath, but still running.

No looking back?

No way.

Did you hit the ground running? Did you have projects ready to go?

Yeah, sure. Because law work can be slow in between tasks I basically did film school 101. I learned about the industry and read everything I possibly could about funding bodies, etcetera. I was basically getting everything in place so that within a month of leaving law I was producing Emma and the Barista, a short film I wrote. It went on to win the WorldFest [Houston International] Short Film Festival Platinum Remi for best short drama. I spent three months of that year traveling from festival to festival through the US. I went to Boston, Houston and Seattle – all around. It was difficult financially but it ended up being the best investment I could have made. I learned so much about distribution and the realities of the film business by being on site and meeting people in Los Angeles. When I came back I was able to secure funding for my next project, and so on from there. My next short film was funded by the Australian Film Commission. It meant I could make Love’s Labour on a bigger budget. You have to make sure your next project teaches you something and moves you forward so you’re not always jogging up and down on the spot.

Will you stay here and keep doing what you’re doing?

That is such a hard question. In an ideal world the answer would be yes. I love Melbourne. I was in Sydney 12 times last year, which was so dislocating, and I think it’s going to be a battle to stay at home. I don’t want to be a hypocrite and I do get upset about what we call the brain drain. At the same time I’ve been told my films will never get made here. About a year ago I was in my car crying on the phone to my mum. I was devastated. I’d just spoken to a guy from a major film funding body and learned a feature film script I’d written had had its funding rejected. I was upset, not just because I’d missed out on the cash, but because the guy had said to me, very off the record, ‘Quite honestly, we love the script but we just can’t fund it.’ He said, ‘Tash, if you want to make films like this, pick up your bags and get out, you’re never going to get them made here.’ I asked why and he said, ‘Your films are anywhere films and we only have enough money to fund films that feel Australian.’ He told me my films had a kind of French, or independent American feel and wouldn’t get Australian funding. I rang my mum so upset and said, ‘I don’t want to go. I want to make my films and I want to stay here.’ I felt so conflicted and confused about what to do next. Then, honestly, I hung up the phone, walked from the car and wandered dazed through the back streets of Richmond. Then my phone rang. It was Paul Kelly’s manager. Since then music videos have kept my creative side satisfied and distanced me from the turmoil I felt a year ago. That said, only in the past week or two has that same issue resurfaced and again I find myself in the same predicament. So, my answer is, I don’t know. I’d so love to stay here but I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to be able to.

We’ll watch and see. You might be able to find a balance.

A balance would be wonderful.

Natasha Pincus dried foliage and shadows against wall. By Narelle Sheenan.

Natasha Pincus dried foliage and shadows against wall. By Narelle Sheenan.

You might have to go and earn your stripes for the credibility that attracts funding, no matter where you are.

The interesting thing is that in this career there’s no real model. The joy, and also suffocation, of the corporate model is that you sit in your position and you’re moved along. You don’t move. They move you. I detest that, but at the same time I envy it. In this industry you don’t really have colleagues and you don’t have a human resources department to advise you every couple of months on how your career’s tracking. While the film industry has this beautiful mentoring aspect, there’s also this quiet hum of bitchiness. Everyone’s very aware that we’re playing musical chairs. The music stops regularly and there are only a couple of seats to accommodate everyone. At the same time, we have a great amount of empathy and respect for each other. It’s a complicated dynamic.

Can you name some of the people you look up to?

In Australia, the director whose film I most recently watched and loved is Kriv Stenders. He’s someone I can’t wait to meet. Last year Stenders made a film called Boxing Day, but it was never really released theatrically. That was another reason I seeped into a funk. One of the greatest films I’d ever seen hadn’t even made it into cinemas. I thought, how can you get so far and make such a brilliant film and still not penetrate the public conscience? The writer I most admire is an American called Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin created the television drama West Wing. Rosemary Blight, Daniel Scharf and Ann Darrouzet are producers among my role models. Ann amazes me. She has survived as an independent producer in the industry for 30 years, is bringing up two kids alone, studies law part time and runs marathons. Whenever I am fatigued I think of her and am inspired to suck it in and work harder.

What kind of films do you want to make? What threads will run through them? What do you want to be known for?

My partner asked me once who I made films for and, I think, when I know the answer to that I’ll probably retire. Ideally, you want to be able to communicate what’s burning inside you and what’s current for you. I find it really hard to resurrect an idea I had a year ago and feel as passionately about it as I did then. Even though I keep notebooks, it’s like trying to remember a dream – it’s just not as real the next day. One goal I have is to keep the audience firmly in mind when I’m working. You’re always made to serve so many different masters – a producer, a funding body, a zeitgeist – and in the effort to please them all style can win out over substance. A friend of mine recently shared with me a quote by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. It was something about never trying to impress. It is crucial to make sure you’re serving your story and your impetus for telling it; what makes it your point of view and your perspective. In terms of the style of films I want to make my aesthetic influences are varied. My dad is French and I grew up at the Astor – an old cinema in Melbourne. He took me there two or three nights a week from the age of eight and I would watch five or six films a week that were predominantly old French cinema. To a degree, that work is ingrained in my cells. When I look at the work I’ve made so far I suppose I expect a lot from the audience in terms of participation. I’d like to be able to maintain that, where the story demands it. I want to make decisions that serve the story and the audience’s experience of it, not broad commercial concerns.

There’s nothing wrong with making people work a little bit. We’re lazy because we’ve spoon fed.

Yeah, I sometimes think my last film might have pushed that a little too far. The narrative might have been too ethereal. On each project the hardest thing is to listen to the right degree of feedback. There’s nothing better than being in a cinema audience and feeling their reaction to your work, but what you do with that is potentially dangerous. If it informs you too much you can find yourself trying to please with your next work and move away from your main creative directive. As you make more work it becomes harder still to create pure work because there’s more critique embedded in your conscience to haunt you when formulating the next plot. All of this is very much on my mind right now because I’m writing again. I found my first couple of drafts were just total crap and realised I was crowd-pleasing. I knew what to do in order to please and went, this is shit. I’m just scared of alienating the audience. I have to start writing from within again.

I wouldn’t have the first clue on writing a script. You must be thinking about so many things at once – the action, the dialogue and the shot.

For me it’s like method acting but it’s method writing. You tend to act as a medium. You need to find that pure unconscious space from where you can literally lift truth. That’s one part of the process, but there’s also an analytical stage where you mould that mental vomit into something crafted. It’s that thing about art not being an accident. People ask me if I find writing really easy. I’m like, why, because it involves pen and paper? Of all the things I’ve done writing is, by leagues, the hardest endeavour. It’s both scientific and artistic. It’s both emotional and rational. It requires discipline and diligence without prospect of reward. It’s personal and collective… it’s everything. They say it takes 10,000 hours of writing before you write that first good script. I’ve written four screenplays, for free, and they’re scripts I don’t anticipate will be made, or even read necessarily, and people ask me what I do it for. It’s like practice. The American screenwriting community is incredible. A television show will have nine writers developing the concept for six months before it even gets to the scriptwriting stage. Their standards are incredible. I try to take my lessons from their practice. I’m quite fanatical and am always trying to improve my craft. A major reason I haven’t pushed to shoot one of my feature scripts is I feel I haven’t yet written my best script. Until then I’m not going to waste the money, time and environmental resources on a masturbatory exercise.

People push you and tell you to do it now while you’ve got the momentum, but I feel like why bust my gut now to contribute to the wealth of shit work already out there.

There is plenty of that.

I’d rather eat beans for a bit longer and make something worthwhile when I’m capable.

Tell me a little more about your childhood. You said your dad is French.

And my mum is Russian. They both came to Australia when they were little. My grandmother spoke to me only in French so I’ve got that Francophile thing going on. Most of my family is still in France and there’s only a small group of us here, so we go to France every couple of years to visit. I was born in Melbourne. An Irish friend who came to live here told me once they hadn’t met anyone more Melbourne than me. ‘You are the physical embodiment of Melbourne,’ she said. I’m still learning what she meant but think it was about wearing black, wandering the streets and reading books in cafes.

And drinking lots of coffee.

Yeah.

Also, being the child of European immigrants is very Melbourne, I think.

In my family we love our French breads and pastries, but also footy on the weekends. We love surfing and the beach life. It’s a real mix. I feel very at home here. As I get older, I am stronger about my Australian identity, whatever that means, and especially since the last Federal Government election. Is that a really weird thing to say? All of a sudden I feel like my surroundings are more emblematic, more in tune with me and who I am. I don’t know I noticed it was missing until the change in government but suddenly I feel more in my place. I feel part of something exciting and my identity is swelling to fit that. I haven’t had that before. I feel like I’m growing up with the country, or something, which is great. I’d love to stay here and be a part of that.

Do you sometimes wish for more formal film training?

Not formal training as such but I love learning and having access to a formal institution for that. You can turn up and ask questions and there’s a library and resources like old cameras to bang around. You’re not confined to a day’s equipment rental and you can gain a sense of play and experimentation from educators. Still, you learn so much more on set. I imagine the learning curve will flatten out at some point and I might go and seek out some formal training. When that wears off, I’ll try hitting it another way or maybe go back to theatre for a while. For now,

the learning curve is still pretty much straight up for me.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Narelle Sheenan

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.