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"As an act of self-preservation, I’d probably tried to make a virtue of my individualism."
1 July 2011

Robyn Kershaw is a producer

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Leah Robertson

Myke Bartlett on Robyn Kershaw

I don’t know what to expect on meeting Robyn Kershaw. Over the years, I’ve chatted to plenty of actors and directors about films they have, haven’t or shouldn’t have made. With each artist there have been creative decisions to applaud, to interrogate or to boggle at. But what to ask a producer?

As holder of the purse-strings, surely a producer is an enabler at best and a dabbler at worst? Surely it’s all fiddling finance and minimal passion? I suppose I’m thinking of The Player or an interview with director Bruce Robinson, where he summarises Scott Rudin’s production role on Jennifer 8 as “a couple of hot lunches then his arse out the door in his Mercedes.”

Kershaw is, without doubt, an enabler. She makes things happen.

When I arrive early for our second afternoon of interviews, I realise the café we’ve been chatting in is closed. In fact, it always has been closed, a waitress sneaking us in after Kershaw had a word. Still, not once during our chats do we find ourselves talking about funding, or box office takings. Not once does Kershaw slouch back in her seat and light up a cigar.

When we talk about her work, be it as manager of Sydney’s renowned Belvoir Street Theatre, or her production credits on Looking For Alibrandi, Kath & Kim or Bran Nue Dae, I can see a warm electricity buzzing through her. She’s not just proud of her back catalogue, but still genuinely excited to have been part of its creation. Each project is recalled with the kind of passion most artists keep firmly tucked up their sleeve.

As we sun ourselves on the balcony at St Kilda’s Circa café, Kershaw arranges for two pots of tea, a selection of chocolates and for a lace curtain to be drawn over the afternoon glare. Few such curtains are drawn over our conversation, although Kershaw admits she sometimes struggle to talk about herself with the same clarity or enthusiasm as her projects. Part of the problem is she rarely stops working long enough to reminisce. When first we meet, she’s just flown back from a week on the other side of the country. When we say goodbye, she’s about to fly out for a month’s work in India.

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

MYKE BARTLETT: You flew back from Perth yesterday, is that a pretty typical week for you?

ROBYN KERSHAW: No, but it’s a probably a typical month. I recently agreed to be a mentor for (Perth media industry think tank) XMediaLab, and they put in my biography that I was from Melbourne and Perth. I thought that was quite good, I’m going to use that from now on, because, while I live here, I have a very strong sense of being a Western Australian.

That sense of identity seems to be a recurring theme across your work. Is it important for you to have a sense of belonging?

Yes, absolutely. I do think my work has identity running through it—the importance of it, the connection with it. No-one ever picks up on that, but to me it’s so clear.

I grew up all around Australia. I was 18 months old when we left Perth. My father was with the army and we moved to Sydney, then moved around. As a young teen, moving back to Perth and then, as an adult, moving back to Sydney, I probably had the experience of, what does it mean, to me, to be Robyn Kershaw? Is it about being close to my family?

It’s not, actually. I have my own family, that I have created, that my husband and I feel very connected to, a tight little unit. I know it’s shocking for some people to hear that being close to my family isn’t important, but I think that’s because my context isn’t one place.

At the time, did you enjoy all that moving around?

I loved it. You know, people talk about friendships they’ve had since they were five years old. I don’t have any of that, but I do love it that there are people I’ve known for 20 plus years. It’s great to be reminded of who you are, because you sometimes have amnesia about yourself.

Certainly, friends can take the place of family.

Yeah, and for me, that was the theatre too. I still feel very strongly that inside me, at my core, is a theatre baby.

You studied Drama at Murdoch University, but presumably that wasn’t your first exposure to the world of theatre.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Patch Theatre! It was a (children’s drama) course I went to at the weekends, which was very satisfying to me, creatively and personally. All praise to my mother and father to make sure I was doing something I’d expressed some passion for.

Where do you think that passion came from in the first place?

My mother was very alert to it because she herself had had a great love of performance and had to leave uni because she was pregnant with me. She’d been in dramas at UWA (the University of Western Australia), but she probably wasn’t very fulfilled in that area, poor thing. My dad made a little stage in the corner of the backyard and we did little plays there all the time. I remember the first time I did an improvisation in front of people, and what an extraordinary feeling it was.

When you went to study drama at Murdoch, were you thinking you wanted to be an actor?

No, not at all. I wasn’t going to university to be an actor, I went to university to think. I was very fortunate, because I didn’t go to university straight after school. I actually left home quite young and started working quite young. I worked for a graphic designer and painted the slides that used to come on before films, the tiny little images that advertised things. After a little while, I went into graphic design at a printing company and, somehow or other, managed to teach myself to run the printing machines.

You not only started working young, you also married young. Was going to university a chance to recreate yourself?

No, I had a great time in my first marriage. I married a Noongar surfer and we lived a very big surfing life, we’d go down south on surfing expeditions. I think my decision to go to uni was more bound up in my relationship with (second husband) Chris, who was already at university. He was the first person to say to me, “Hey, you’re really smart!” That was new to me, because I hadn’t done well at school, in fact I’d done really woefully at school.

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

As an act of self-preservation, I’d probably tried to make a virtue of my individualism.

It’s only now, when I look at my own children, and understand the education system for what it tries to quantify, that I understand the skill set I had wasn’t really quantifiable.

When I finally got to the university, to the theatre, I just had a ball. I got the chance to make costumes for friends who were doing dance productions, got to hang out with all sorts of different people. I also got to do a bit of cabaret.

Behind the scenes?

No, I performed there. I still have the (Perth nightclub) Connections award for performer of the year—I can’t remember which year it was—for my half-man, half-woman. I think that’s where my love of comedy grew, or started to evolve. Chris was at UWA, which was at the very serious end of the university scale, whereas Murdoch was more cutting edge. We were doing semiotics and lots of other fancy-schmancy things, because it was run by all those reprobates who’d dropped out of Berkeley or somewhere in the 70s. Chris used to want to rush off to see Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa—not that I have anything against these filmmakers—but I’d be like, “Okay, okay, but now can we go see something fun?”

Murdoch had a really strong experiential approach to learning, was very fond of mixing up subjects, of encouraging you to create your own subjects. So I actually studied drama, ritual and magic, specialising in dance. Really, when I look back, when I’m deep in development on a new piece of work, I know it comes from that early connection to the fundamentals of story. What a story means to someone else. I think there’s a pathological need for story, both to be heard and to speak.

What was the process that led you from Murdoch to managing the Belvoir Street Theatre?

I just got so engaged by performance really, and the meaningfulness of that. I had a fun time doing cabaret, but I didn’t find it intellectually satisfying. I was fortunate I had a friendship with one of the tutors at Murdoch who told me I’d be really good at arts administration. I didn’t even know what that was. But I applied for a job at the WA Theatre Company (WATC), and got it, and then got offered work in Sydney with a dance company. It was a series of stepping stones, in which I got very good at touring.

Did you find the theatre lifestyle particularly attractive?

Certainly, I found the constant shifting of touring attractive. I don’t like sitting in an office, it doesn’t suit my style. After I’d worked with the WATC and worked for a whole year on the road, I found it really hard to sit still, so it was really exciting to get an offer to go to Sydney and work with another company.

There must have been an immense freedom in working in an environment like the Belvoir, where the theatre was owned by the actors?

I felt very much at one with the ideology that was Belvoir Street Theatre. You know, these guys had, over a weekend, gathered together 50 of their mates to put a down payment on a theatre and then worked like crazy to raise the rest of the money. The first time I walked into Belvoir, I thought, “I wanna work here one day.” It just had such an incredible energy and vitality, it was where, for me, all the fun things were happening.

Do you still feel there’s room for that sort of freedom in the work you do now?

At Belvoir, I was managing and supporting and assisting and facilitating an ideological approach to making theatre. I have my own ideology now, which was very much informed by that experience. We were answerable to two boards, the management of the production company and a second board responsible for the bricks and mortar. I don’t miss having to have regular board meetings. As a general manager, there was so much responsibility; you’re looking after so many areas. As producer of Robyn Kershaw Productions, I have management responsibility to me, my development director who lives in New York, my business partner who lives in WA, my executive assistant and that’s it.

Touching on that idea of responsibility, taking a production of Diary of a Madman (starring Geoffrey Rush) to the USSR in 1991 seems a massive undertaking.

It was mad, yes. I learned to read Russian at University, which I think I did out of a perversity to my father, who was very much the Liberal man. At a very young age, I did spend quite a lot of my energy borrowing books from the library on communism and socialism and Nazism, so I could understand it and have proper arguments with my father, which must have driven him insane. I think it was on opening night, where (director Neil Armfield) and I had a conversation on the stairs, where he went, “Oh, it’d be nice to take this to Russia” and I went “Okay, right, yes” and did everything I could to make that happen. And it did.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the challenges of working within that country at that point in its history, being a country in crisis.

I wasn’t thinking about that. It was post-Glasnost and Perestroika.

Someone said something to me recently about the way that I work, that I do my best work under the most enormous pressure. I think I must know that intuitively, so I put myself in situations where the challenges are pretty steep.

One of the things I identified quickly when I moved to the east coast, was that in WA there is a much stronger sense of anything is possible. I don’t know whether that’s to do with the topography or what.

And with that comes a perverse delight in doing the impossible?

Probably. WA has produced an inordinate number of successful entrepreneurs.

Geoffrey Rush reportedly found the play to be quite a draining one. Were there extra challenges in managing your star, while managing the logistics?

By the time we got to Russia, we were on our third season. That play is a particularly gruelling one for an actor because there is no release at the end. Really, it was a pretty life-changing experience for everyone. For me, it forged friendships that have been incredibly sustaining, and it made me decide to have a child.

Why was that?

Watching Russians hoard food for what they knew to be a really harsh winter and continuing to grow their families, that was a really big thing for me. I had no intention of having children until that point. It was quite an epiphany for me to see, “Oh, having children isn’t about why other people have told me they have children, it’s actually about a little soul coming and sharing in your life experiences”. They were hoarding black cabbages, but still having children and loving them. I suppose I had thoughts that children should only be in situations of great abundance and hadn’t understood that in periods of great deprivation, there is still reason to continue the cycle of life.

Did it feel strange to be taking this Russian work back to Russia as an Australian production?

No. Don’t ask me why. We didn’t even question it and, you know, we had lines happening outside the theatre in both Moscow and St Petersburg. But we walked into an environment that was so different. It was scary at times. There was a mini-coup in August and the Australian embassy tried to tell us not to go, but by that stage, I was already friends with (journalist) Monica Attard, who was very famously in her pyjamas on top of the tank in Red Square, so I took her advice. The only thing we did differently was to cancel the Georgia performances because it was too dangerous.

Having been involved in that circle, are you proud to see them go on to such international acclaim? Did it feel inevitable?

Yes. Geoffrey always had a perception of himself that was exactly what he is, which is one of the world’s greatest actors. He was very alert to the responsibilities that an actor brings to the work, from a marketing point of view, from a protocol point of view, from every aspect. His thoughtfulness was quite profound and he was always someone whose work was reviewed as world class. It’s wonderful to have been part of that period, everyone was doing amazing work.

Thinking back to that time, what do you think working in theatre gives you that, say, working in film and television doesn’t?

I’m not sure. When I was working in the theatre, I would have been seen, in film terms, as one of the crew, so you get a very strong sense of family. I think it’s a combination of that ongoing continuity of being part of a team, but I don’t think that’s all. I think I like the speed of theatre, and TV. When I work in TV, I love that you can have an idea and then have it on air within a year. Film is much more bespoke, much more rubbing and rubbing and rubbing to get it absolutely perfect before you can take it out into the world.

I remember, during production on Looking For Alibrandi, I spoke to the distributor and he said, “Yes, we’ll be releasing the film in two years’ time”. I couldn’t believe it would take so long. But of course, they’ve got to build a campaign from the ground up. It’s not like getting a known quantity from the States. With an Australian film, you’ve got no idea what you’ve got until it’s delivered.

At least, with Looking For Alibrandi, the book had already been a success.

Yes, but before us there was He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, after us there was Hating Alison Ashley. I think success always makes people go “Oh yes, of course!” You know I get that all the time—“Oh yes, that was always going to be successful!”

Making a film is a ten-year chain of activity. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to understand that. Sitting inside it, you always know it takes a long time, but it’s when you break it down to your life’s work that you understand you’re probably only going to be able to make 15 pieces of work, just because of the nature of the model.

What was it that saw you move into film, then?

I wanted to speak to more people. Diary of a Madman was probably important there, because it was a remarkable production, and in its lifetime, I think it was probably only seen by 20,000 people. That’s a very small number.

When you devote so much of your time and energy to working on something, it’s very satisfying when it’s appreciated and understood by a large number of people.

It’s not about trying to make a lot of people happy, but trying to say something more.

Certainly, with something like Kath & Kim, you produced characters and catchphrases that have since entered the national lexicon. Most producers would dream of that sort of cultural impact.

If you have aspirations for engaging with an audience, then you have a very particular approach to the work. That’s what I do, I sit with audiences when I’m looking at scripts. I never engage in anything, unless I can see quite clearly what the audience looks like.

We spoke earlier about the importance of identity to your work, and Looking for Alibrandi is a film that’s very concerned with it, with its lead character struggling to work out exactly where she belongs.

There’s probably a whole lot of thematic elements we were bringing into that film. The fact it’s a coming of age story, for Melina Marchetta as a writer, for Kate Woods as a director, for myself as a producer. But I think most people feel caught between two things. Family and friends, tradition and new ways, pleasure and working. I think that duality expresses itself everywhere in our lives.

Having successfully made the transition from theatre to film, then becoming the Head of Drama for the ABC seems something of a sideways step.

I remember my mother going “Oh my god darling, you’re the head of drama for the ABC!” For her, it was the pinnacle of my professional life. But I never saw it like that. I was like, “Excuse me, I won an AFI for Looking For Alibrandi, that was a huge box office success, darling!” I didn’t have the same sense of the prestige that was attached, I saw it as an opportunity to make some real change. The role of ABC drama had been such a huge one in my life, growing up, that I really wanted to play a part in its future.

Were there specific things you wanted to achieve?

Yes. We didn’t have a huge budget, so I wanted to concentrate on landmark work. It wasn’t like we could get Australian drama on TV every night. It was a very mean, lean department and a tight budget we were working with. Years after I left, there were still things coming out, like Bastard Boys, like Curtin, that were put into production by my team.

I consider the work I did at the ABC with huge regard. I was very proud of the work we achieved there in a short space of time, with very limited resources. I’m just not the sort of personality who works well inside big organisations like that. I think I’m much better as an independent producer.

What did you find limiting, exactly?

I loved the chance of working inside a large organisation, because you get to see all the different functions. You get to see it broken down into its pieces and to see what the expertise needs to be in every area to make something great. With any organisation that’s been around as long as the ABC has, there are very institutionalised traditions which aren’t necessarily suited to a personality type like mine, which is more into adaptation and change and being a little bit more maverick and lateral about the way things are realised.

You were there for three years, you weren’t tempted to stay on after that?

No, not at all. I sometimes think of it as doing my national service for the country. It was great being able to deliver something like The Shark Net to audiences, it was great to be able to deliver MDA. That was the ABC’s first International Emmy nomination, after years of producing drama. That was incredible. And being involved in making Kath & Kim, which was the highest rating show in 2002, 2003, 2004.

There’s often a perceived wariness in film or television production about doing something too Australian, or too steeped in Australiana. The success of shows like Kath & Kim seem to suggest we’re wrong to be wary. Perhaps the truer you are to yourself, the more universal your work’s appeal.

I think that’s very perceptive of you, because that’s exactly what I say as a producer. The more culturally specific you are, the more universality you afford yourself. Because everyone understands the complexity of belonging, which is the essence of Bran Nue Dae. Everyone understands the search for identity. I think it’s just sometimes hard for people to understand conceptually what that might look like.

It’s not until it’s actually finished that people understand. You know, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a Porsche! Before, when you were explaining it, all I could see were pieces of metal sitting on the ground.”

There’s a wariness in taking on any work where the investor or commissioning editor can’t connect with who they think the audience might be. It’s my job as a producer to explain how the work will connect. I don’t ever sit there and expect the writers and directors I’m working with to come up with those kind of answers, but I need to have them as a producer, before I go down a long journey of development. I need to know who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about.

Do you think to be a good producer, you often have to identify an audience no-one else believes exists?

I don’t know if I would qualify it in that way. I just know that to buy into any work, I have to see who it’s going to appeal to and I have to be able to articulate that. With Bran Nue Dae, the investment pitch was, this is the good news Aboriginal story, in the midst of the intervention in 2007. There was a very strong foundation for that film, in terms of awareness to purchase a ticket, because there were thousands of people who’d seen the play in the early 90s. That awareness and that understanding made a very simple case for me to be able to say, this is our Hairspray.

You were involved in Bran Nue Dae from a very early stage, what was it that first attracted you to the project?

At that stage, in 1987, I was working in theatre and I met Jimmy (Chi) and he introduced me to the songs that he was working on. He is a very iconic force and there were many people who travelled from all over WA and the Northern Territory to be near him. I think his energy was something that just stayed with me. I introduced the material to the WATC, who then went on to produce it, but I first saw it when it had come to Sydney. The audience were on their feet from the closing of the show. It was so beautiful and powerful to see something that celebrates life, and celebrates Indigenous life. It was seminal. All of us working on the film believed that it would have the same transgressive effect for a film-going audience. It shifted the narrative for a non-Indigenous audience about what an Indigenous film was.

It’s certainly a unique way of addressing injustices. The sentiments expressed in songs such as “Nothing I Would Rather Be” are ones most would struggle to put across to a mainstream audience.

And yet everyone loves that song because it’s an anthem. I guess, at the end of the day, for a non-Indigenous person to be humming and singing along to some of those lyrics is more than ironic. But it’s wonderful to hear people sing it, that’s what Jimmy would want, for all of us to be imagining ourselves as someone who is a combination of all sorts of things.

One of the main injustices the film addresses is the treatment of Aborigines during the Noonkanbah confrontation. Was that something which had a special significance to you?

No, not particularly. I remember being on the road when the big trucks were coming up with the equipment, but that’s just the confluence of living in WA, and of being on the road when that was happening. For me, it wasn’t what it was to some other people.

You didn’t go into the film with burning issues you wanted to address?

No, it was absolutely about the life-force inside that film. It’s never about issues for me.

It’s sometimes hard talking about the way that I function and work, without my collaborators here. It’s also part of what’s pleasurable about this opportunity. Usually, I’m sitting here, trying to convince an audience why they should go see a work that I’ve made, but this particular interview is about saying, yes, but why do I make those choices? I’m not used to sitting in that zone. Usually, I’m just saying this is the experience you’ll have if you go see Bran Nue Dae, this is the experience you’ll have if you go see Looking For Alibrandi. I don’t know what the experience is sitting inside my head.

Returning to Bran Nue Dae, how important was it to involve the community? Were you wary of taking on something that was such a prized cultural artefact?

Hugely. Everyone involved felt that was absolutely the only way to make a real success of that film. It was intrinsic. Every single step of the way involved that act.

Were you wary of taking on something that was such a prized cultural artefact?

I was conscious that it was a cultural artefact, I think everyone was very conscious of that. I think whenever you’re dealing with a cultural artefact, there’s a very strong belief in what it is and what it should be and any pathway away from that is one of tense negotiation and navigation.

The timing of the release, which coincided with Kevin Rudd’s long-awaited apology to the stolen generation, seemed fortuitous.

Yeah. It did. But, you know, when we were working away at financing in 2007, we obviously didn’t know that was going to happen. The intervention was a significant thing to refer to, though. While everyone was being incredibly repressed by the act, being able to talk about Bran Nue Dae as a celebration of being Indigenous was a good juxtaposition, which probably helped some people to understand the significance of it. I really do believe that film changed the way Australian audiences approached Indigenous films.

I wonder if its success in that comes back to that idea of a pathological need for story, that the right story can get any audience interested in a situation they might not have been interested in before. Do you think that’s the case with Bran Nue Dae?

I do. I think, at its essence, it’s a film about a character who yearns to be home, which anyone can relate to. I’ve experienced the film with international audiences and there are many nations that have laughed much more heartily and much earlier than Australian audiences.

I think non-Indigenous Australian audiences, at the time, didn’t have an experience of knowing it was OK to laugh at Aboriginal jokes. It wasn’t until Geoffrey came on the screen with his “Ahhh, Villy!” that people went, “Ah, now I know that I’m watching a comedy”.

Sitting with Indonesian or Indian audiences, they laughed from the very first moment.

It’s interesting to me that the film does have such a strong narrative, given it just started as a vehicle for a collection of songs.

I know, I think moving from a stage play to a film, when it’s a road movie, is not too hard an adaptation to undertake, because there is narrative movement involved, in terms of the journey. In the stage play, interestingly enough, the main character was Tadpole. He’s the most exciting character, the most charismatic, he’s a larrikin, he’s the one that you can fall in love with. The way that he deals with authority is delightful. In the film, putting Tadpole as the main character is not possible, because in a film, the main character is the person who changes. Tadpole doesn’t change.

In terms of story, Louis Nowra recently criticised Australian films for their resistance to Hollywood-style storytelling, their resistance to the hero narrative. Do you think that’s a valid criticism?

I think it’s a craft issue. When you look at the craft that has been developed around American storytelling, which most of the world embraces, they have a very strong mythology of the hero. I do think that the most defining aspect of what happens throughout development is constantly searching and searching to make that story structure meaningful. To look for main character, desire, conflict. I think we all need to have a character that we’re rooting for, emotionally, and locating that character and giving them the right characters that allow you to invest in them and not feel cheated by the end, is what development is all about. I remember reading that Nowra piece, and I think what he’s talking about is craft. Writing is not necessarily Australian creative artists’ strong point. I think story is, but writing not necessarily. I think part of that is because there isn’t the celebration of text like there is in the UK, or the history. I think we have fundamentally great storytellers, but it’s about moving through those craft steps to maximise those stories.

Do you feel passionately that Australian films deserve a fair go in the international market?

You know what, they’re just films. I would prefer for us to be engaged in making good films, rather than thinking about them as Australian films. I think there’s probably a perception from audiences that Australian films have more of a worthy aspect to them. I don’t want audiences to be feeling that going to the cinema to see work that I’ve produced is a chore. I’d like them to go, knowing they’ll have a fun experience and maybe they’ll be changed by that experience. They’ll start seeing their world in a different way.

Is it important for Australian films to be engaging with ideas of national identity, of what it means to be Australian?

No, not at all.

Yet questioning that identity is a big part of Bran Nue Dae.

That’s the context of the film. As a filmmaker, you’re not obliged. Otherwise you just become part of the propaganda department, or the Australian Tourism Board. I don’t sit there and think, “Oh, what’s Australian about this? That’s why I love it!”

On television, at least, it’s certainly still hard to find texts that take a broader view of Australian identity. Few look outside the White Australian experience. Is that something that frustrates you?

I’ve noticed I’ve stopped watching TV recently, which is probably my way of showing a lack of satisfaction there.

A friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t watching Australian television and what I said was that I found there seemed to be a lot of incompetent women as the main characters and I found that really annoying.

I feel uncomfortable talking about it, but it did irritate me. The UK hasn’t really delivered for me lately either. But there are amazing shows coming out of the US. The independent filmmaking scene in New York now seems to sit inside cable TV. I mean, who would have thought Martin Scorsese would do TV?

You’ve said you’re not driven by the need to tackle particular issues in your work. Aside from story, what does drive you to get working?

There are two things at the bottom of the skull that trigger memory. One is smell and the other is music. It was only recently that I realised that every single piece of work I’ve made actually ends with a big dance sequence. Even Bombay Banquet, the first TV series I produced. I think for me, those sequences signify the celebration of life, to sing and to dance and to be with everyone. Music is hugely important to me. What I listen to changes all the time, at the moment I love Rihanna, Cee Lo Green, I’m listening to that beautiful Indian music that came out to the Perth festival (The Manganiyar Seduction). I love M.I.A., lots of different things. I created the soundtrack for Bran Nue Dae—a director I’m working with at the moment was talking about that, saying, “You got some Frenzal Rhomb in there, some Magic Dirt… you’re cool!”

Do your children think you’re cool?

No, not at all. I used to think, “Oh I can’t wait for my son to be old enough to study Looking For Alibrandi“, so he could go “Oh my mum produced that”, but he just went “Oh, mum, it’s a bit naff.” I was really surprised, but my daughter says it’s one of her top five favourite films, because it makes her cry. She thinks crying is what makes a memorable film. But no, they don’t think I’m cool.

I was just thinking about having a child on the way here, and how it gives you a chance to understand yourself. It wasn’t until recently that I understood that my daughter heard music in her head the same way I do, all the time. I’ve noticed that I have particular anthems when I’m involved in particular aspects of my working life, which are quite interesting because they often foretell the sort of experience I will have. It’s been very interesting looking back on that. I went through the songs that have been my favourites over the years and they link up with what I was working on.

Talking to you, although most people might consider your work to be more technical, it seems clear you find the production side of filmmaking to be just as creative as the artistic side.

Totally, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. I’ll work very closely with as many people as I can when it comes to telling a film, because you need to have lots of voice. You need to hear the voices, but you also need to keep a clear vision of the direction the work has to travel in. That’s what a producer does. It’s an incredibly exciting and challenging and all-consuming process. And sometimes very lonely too. You sometimes have to see things coming that are going to be painful, but you can’t stop the pain, because that’s part of reaching the end point. I don’t really see a disconnect between what I do and what an actor does.

I think you have to have a burning passion to be a producer, I think you really have to want to tell stories and work with lots of people. And you have to want to be someone who has to manage a lot of conflict. It’s certainly not all roses.

Do you consider yourself a workaholic?

I love my work so much that other people would probably consider me a workaholic. I don’t conceive of myself as being one. I love what I do and can spend a lot of time being engaged by it. But I also know that, in order to give to the work, I need to live a life, so I try to make space for that. Before my children were born, I was pretty much working seven days a week and had done for many years. It’s not like you sit there and want to be a workaholic, you’re passionate and you just want to do so many things.

I remember watching my father as a young teen, watching him paint at the dining room table on the weekends. He worked as an accountant and he never got to fully engage with painting because he had children, because of family life. He didn’t come from a family of artisans, he was the only person in his family who could draw. I remember, at a very deep level, watching him and feeling very sad that he couldn’t do it all the time. I think I must carry some of that now. There’s an expectation that when you’ve achieved a certain amount of success, you’ll be sitting at a certain level financially. That doesn’t happen as a creative artist. It’s very difficult as a creative artist to achieve great comfort, but I’ve never felt propelled to be working in something just to earn money. There are not a huge number of people who have the opportunity to love what they do.

And that’s always been very important to you?

Hugely. I’ve always felt very passionate about what I’m engaged in. I love to work.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Leah Robertson

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