Simon Stone’s The Daughter might be an accomplished first feature, but a lot of that has to do not just with what’s on-screen but rather what’s not. Legendary producer Jan Chapman (The Piano, Lantana) teamed up with Nicole O’Donohue, who cut her teeth on some exciting short films, to produce Stone’s debut, and Imogen Gardam sat down to talk with them about The Daughter, the Australian production landscape and the leap from shorts to features. You can read our interview with writer/director Simon Stone here as well.
I wanted to start by asking how to process started for the two of you. Producers are always the first ones on board and then the last ones to wrap and go home and turn off the lights. Where did you two start?
Nicole O’Donohue (NO): Jan executive produced my first feature Griff the Invisible, so we knew each other already and I have an office space in Jan’s building so we’re very much in the same physical space, seeing each other most days. We both had seen The Wild Duck at Belvoir and I’d spoken to Simon about it but we hadn’t really moved forward on anything. It just kept coming back to Jan and I, the power of the performances in both the original Belvoir production and then Malthouse restaging. And yeah, we were just kind of like, “let’s do this together”. It got so much energy then and Simon available to work on the screenplay for about a year.
You had a sort of mentor-mentee relationship to start out?
Jan Chapman (JC): That might have been how it started when I was executive producer on Griff but I think together on The Daughter, Nic had got a lot more experience and it did really feel like two partners coming together. It’s been a good balance between the two of us.
How does the process for The Daughter compare to Griff? I know with Griff you sort of set out to make a low-budget, quick-to-shoot feature. The Daughter seems like a bit more of an undertaking.
NO: It’s funny actually, we had a bigger budget on the The Daughter, but it was sort of a similar period of time in terms of our shooting. I guess we had maybe six weeks on The Daughter and on Griff we had five. But it was a similar scenario in that we had a deadline of when we knew Simon was going to be having to go back to Europe, so we had to jump through that window, in terms of “if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to get the film shot by that date”. And we had a similar thing on Griff, with Ryan Kwanten’s availability, a very similar date at the end when we would lose him, so we had this window again to jump through. I think that can be very stressful because you have to move very quickly, but it also creates incredibly momentum and there’s nothing like a deadline like that to propel you forwards.
It’s quite difficult to fund Australian feature films at the moment. How did you go about it? What challenges did you face in that process?
JC: You know, we are nevertheless, even if it is hard, incredibly lucky to have to government support we have. When you tell people from other countries how much money we might be able to get from various government funding sources they’re completely amazed. We had development money from Screen NSW, they were really helpful – also creatively helpful, there were some advisors who we got a lot of help from. So I guess that’s where you start, with Screen NSW and Screen Australia and then finding an international distributor and a local distributor who will commit money as well as agree to distribute it. So again we were very lucky, because Joel Perlman from Roadshow had seen a lot of Simon’s work and really loved it, and he read that we were thinking about doing it and called and said “I want to be involved”, so that was just great. And sometimes it’s even harder to get an Australian distributor than it is to get an international one. Then I went to Cannes, because we were having to do it so quickly, to look for the rest of the money really, and Nic and Simon went to look for the locations. And I had a really good trip, people responded really well to the script, and we had a few companies who were interested in doing it. We eventually settled with a Canadian company called Mongrel International, particularly because it’s run by Charlotte Mickie, who is very well known as a buyer and seller of independent films. Then the last bits of the puzzle – there’s always a bit of a gap you can’t fill, so we had to get some private investment. I met a woman in Cannes called Joan Peters, who’s a lawyer and she helped us to find some investors, which was really wonderful – you know, you can look and look and look and sometimes you don’t meet people who can help in that way, but it was just fortuitous that it all seemed to come together. And then our post house, The Gingerbread Man also invested. So that’s how that particular jigsaw was solved.
NO: It really is a jigsaw.
Jan, you also produced Lantana, which is also a stage-to-screen adaptation, and it’s interesting to see the number of Australian theatre people who pop up in The Daughter. Do you think it’s unique to the Australian industry that we have this very co-dependent relationship between the screen and the stage? Particularly this year with Holding the Man, Ruben Guthrie and Last Cab to Darwin.
JC: I don’t think we have a co-dependent relationship. I don’t know what happens in other countries. I think our stage scene, our stage world is very strong and there’s some great voices. I mean obviously, Andrew Bovell, it was his own play that we were adapting with Lantana but I was very struck with what was happening at Belvoir now – and I’d been involved with it and watched Neil Armfield’s work there for a long time – but there was this fresh new brood, and Nic is sort of part of that group, because you’re friends with all of them. Yeah, I just started thinking, “Gee, this is the most interesting work I’m seeing anywhere”. It’s more original, and Simon’s work in particular, was just so revealing about human nature, I think.
And it felt like, when I met him and Nic already knew this, he knows so much about cinema. I mean, he knows more about cinema than anyone, just about. So there wasn’t going to be an issue of whether or not it was too stage-y. And it was a fresh interpretation of his play, so it was like going back to the drawing board. We actually tried a number of different scenarios, didn’t we? Different stories. I still sometimes remember bits of them and I miss them a bit.
The film that could have been?
JC: Yeah. But we finally settled on this one and the idea of setting it in a logging town seemed to give it it’s own definition. But I don’t know whether this happens – obviously there’s been things like August: Osage County.
NO: I think the UK film industry often draws on theatre. Wasn’t The King’s Speech originally a play? I think it’s just, from the producing point of view, it’s exciting when you can view a piece of theatre and know that there’s so much work that’s been done already and you’re sitting with an audience so you’re getting a very immediate feel for how people are being affected by the play. And being able to take that and use that as the foundation and start adapting for the screen, you jump forward through the initial stages. It can really help to fast track a project, when that’s the source.
Simon made a point at the premiere of talking about the three of you as co-creators. There’s often this misconception about what a producer does, where people think it’s the person who has the money or just finds the money. Is that a relationship that you have across the board with your directors and your writers where you’re involved in the script from day dot?
JC: That was very nice when we heard Simon say that last night. Because people don’t always understand it. I mean, I don’t know if all producers work like this but we do. It wouldn’t be much fun to just organise and get money. If you’re not really involved in a creative process, for me, I wouldn’t want to do that job.
NO: And when you can invest part of yourself in creating the story and – you have to really get to know people on a very intimate level when you’re working like that, because you’re all sharing your stories to work on the script. And I think that then, as a producer, makes you determined to make the project happen because it’s so personal. If I didn’t have that personal connection with it then it would be hard to do the long hours. We’re with a project for many many years, it’s in our lives forever.
Then as storytellers, what are the stories that you’re drawn to particularly? Are there things that you’re noticing that you keep coming back to or revisiting?
JC: I think stories that come from the personal and detailed and create something profound are what interest me really. And I’ve noticed that a lot of the work I’ve been involved with has had very strong female protagonists but I only noticed it later. I think I’m drawn to films that help you to understand the kind of contradictions in humanity, and shared things between us all.
NO: Yeah, the same. This is only really my second drama feature but I love watching films, and I love films that make me think about my own life or my own relationships, that help inform how I’m going to lead my life. I’d like to make films that can do that as well.
Nicole, you also produced Gracie Otto’s documentary The Last Impresario. How did you find the differences in process between a documentary and a fiction feature?
NO: Quite different, really. Very – we use the word organic, but it is with a doco. You’re shooting and editing, we do everything at the same time. And Gracie came to me with that, and she’d already shot some of the material, and then we got an editor involved and we started cutting but we were still probably a year away from locking off the final edit. It’s very different – we didn’t have a script, we had the rushes, the material. And we were trawling through that to find the story. So we would edit for a block of time and then come away and thing, “we need to get these interviews, we need to ask Michael these questions”. So an entirely different process.
And you both cut your teeth on shorts to begin with. Is that a pattern that you notice, people make the progression from shorts to features while working with the same people, collaborating with the same contemporaries?
JC: Well these days you kind of have to – it’s so impossible to make films that if you haven’t…
JC: Well yeah, a bit. And it’s hard to make a short film, I mean I always feel like the process is basically the same. And if you can get together a whole short film, you can get together a feature. I mean I only made a couple – you had quite an interesting few shorts, Nic.
NO: Yeah, Leon Ford and I made two short films together and then with Nash Edgerton, I worked on Spider with him. And then Joel Edgerton, we made a 20 minute short of his. I made a lot of shorts, and that’s how I learnt, I kind of learnt on the job. I was working in post production but making short films on the side, taking annual leave so that I could make the short films. I think it’s really essential, because it also enables you to build the relationships, and that’s what’s so important in filmmaking. You need to find the heads of department that you want to work with. Bringing a team together – unless you’ve been making short films, it’s hard to have been establishing those relationships.
It’s interesting that you two have this fantastic relationship that started out as a mentorship and has become, I guess, a colleague-ship. I feel like for women in film, that’s quite an important thing to establish in terms of ensuring gender equity, and it’s something that the Natalie Miller Foundation, for example, has spoken about at length as having an important role to play. Is that something that you see yourselves actively developing?
JC: I made a point of getting some funding from Screen Australia to mentor people. I have enjoyed doing that a great deal. It’s so great, being an executive producer – first of all, because I could help get things made, but then I discovered that you could actually have relationships with other producers, who were often younger. And sharing those experiences was really interesting. It was like a new thing I learnt, in a way.
NO: That’s amazing, isn’t it? Because when you produce, maybe you’re only going to produce a film every 3-5 years if you’re lucky, and in the executive producer role you can be coming in on other projects in that time. And otherwise you might be having a hiatus, so it keeps you plugged in, I guess, to what other people are going through on their films.
How was your experience of executive producing The Babadook, Jan? Was that something you were drawn to, as you were saying to help?
JC: That was part of that company, I gave them some development money and I talked a lot with Jennifer (Kent) and Kristina (Ceyton) through the development of it. I’m a bit – I go over and over and over things in development, I like to keep pushing things, not as a principle, but until they’re right. That can be something that writer/directors resist, I suppose, because they want it to be ready and they want to move on. I think you also have to know when to stop. It was quite intensive, my experience with the two of them. Jennifer’s really rigorous, and she’s really determined about the kind of film she wanted to make, so we would have quite intense conversations. But that’s amazing, that that film worked out the way it did, I’m so thrilled for the both of them. Kristina is just an incredible producer too. She has that determination that Nicole’s got. It was really exciting to see that film, because it had some tough bumps in the road – people didn’t understand what it was.
So what’s next for the both of you?
NO: I have a few projects in development – one with Kate Mulvany, which is actually an adaptation of her play, The Seed, which was also at Belvoir, which is her life story really. She’s got an incredible voice, very original, very great black humour tonally. So that’s probably next. But also, I think the second half of this year will be releasing The Daughter and enjoying it being released. I quite like to have a single point of focus on one thing.
JC: I’m working with Cate Shortland on a film called High Season set in Bali that we’ve been working on for a while. And then a couple of other things, including a television work with Andrew Bovell.