The Melbourne-based production company Ghost Pictures is responsible for the most intimate Australian documentary work of the last decade. Their latest feature, Ecco Homo, centres on the prismatic life of Peter Vanessa “Troy” Davies, a gender-fluid artist whose provocative demeanour surpassed a troubled upbringing. Ahead of the film’s screening at Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival and other queer festivals around the country, Dominic Barlow spoke with Lynn-Maree Milburn, who has co-directed the film with Richard Lowenstein, and producer Maya Gnyp about the process of peeling back a life characterised by sin and secrecy.
It was interesting to learn from a rage clip that Richard Lowenstein was hesitant to work with INXS, as Sydney rock and roll wasn’t really his thing, but eventually you and he and Troy created what turned out to be a long collaboration. I’m curious to know what role Troy played in that?
Lynn-Maree Milburn: We were all jacks-of-all-trades. We loved what we were doing, so we would do everything and we kept things small. Strangely enough, even though Richard might not seem like it and I definitely do seem like it, we’re quite shy. When we first encountered INXS, we were just out of the blue asked to go up and meet them in Townsville, or somewhere strange. Troy came with us and he was really into styling and makeup and things like that. It wasn’t necessarily that kind of job, even, but what he was incredible at was people, and he immediately broke the ice. He immediately brought in multi-layered tensions and frisson and that sort of thing. You brought an electricity when you brought Troy. I’ve got a certain degree of radar. I’m like a sea anemone; I’ll go back into my shell if I sense danger or I’ll sit there musing about how wonderful someone is, and it’s all inward, whereas Troy just goes out and acts on it. When I say frisson or tension, it can be positive or negative or anything. Suddenly, everyone’s intermingling and you know each other at a level that you didn’t think was possible. He was a mischief maker and he was incredibly incisive. He didn’t ever talk about it, but you just knew by what he said that he picked people’s measure. He wasn’t afraid of them, and he would disarm them. He was so disarming, even when he got so naughty.
It’s interesting to hear how he would help people open up, and how in approaching his life story for this, you and the rest of the Ghost Pictures seem to go at it in a kind of investigative fashion – a “psychological detective story”, as it’s pitched on the Pozible page. Why do you think that investigative aspect suits the psychological aspect so well, or vice versa?
Lynn-Maree: This one always was going to be that way because Troy was a mystery to start with. He could be all these things and be this electricity and could just disappear. Even though we knew him and we knew so many sides of him, the arc of his own journey was quite grand, or inwardly grand. In a way, it was us being honest too. He was someone we knew and loved all the way, no matter what. Even though you never felt he was inauthentic or not fully present, there was just a part of him that decided a long time ago that fiction and fictionalising was the stuff of life. You always felt there was this mystery as to why, and what it covered up. And there was also the mystery of the fact of where he came from. He would denigrate it a great deal, or take away its chance to have any worth and yet, he flourished as this person and deepened and had so many aspects to him, to his psyche. That’s partially why we did it. It felt honest, and it’s actually been a long-term project…
I think Richard said in a past interview that you’ve been thinking about it in one form or another since 2005?
Lynn-Maree: Yes, and possibly even before that because Troy was getting quite sick.
Maya, did Lynn and Richard’s personal history with Troy make producing the project easier, or present unique challenges?
Maya Gnyp: It makes it really inspiring in a way, to enter it from that perspective. You can really trust the director, really. You can completely stand behind their vision and because they’ve got so much knowledge of the person and were such close friends, that they were able to start from that point. All the interviews went really well. They didn’t have to do all that extra research with interviewees. It was actually quite an amazing experience, because you just start from within the story, from the very beginning.
In that first third of the movie, we’re introduced to him when he was Vanessa, and there’s not that many materials from that time beyond those photobooth shots that we’re constantly leafing through as we’re listening to interviews. There’s immediately a need for those original sequences shot by Lynn, Richard and Andrew de Groot, which is something you’ve done in past films. Lynn, what kind of dialogue happens between you, Richard and Andrew when deciding how to start that story and how to establish the tone for this personal mystery that we’re about to get involved in?
Lynn-Maree: I guess we bring different things to it. A lot of that opening is stuff that I do, even before I start editing or working on it. I did it on the other films as well. It comes out of a story, what you’re trying to bring out of the story, and knowing Troy. They sort of underscore themes without being literal about them, and support aspects of his life.
From what I understand, you’re committing down this emotional response to the story, not just to break in the audience but yourselves, in terms of what themes you’re going to work with?
Lynn-Maree: Yeah. I guess it’s a way to illuminate things that are inspired by Troy, his own imagination and his own stories, so that you work out ways that they come together. The mix of home movie footage and then “home movie footage” from his mind, which is the Pan creature, or his psyche or what he’s in touch with, or where his imagination reaches to, which informs him as a person and an artist. He embodied that kind of character, that myth of Pan, which is a god of mischief of mayhem, but also the very sensualised or sexualised character that he was. These are the iconic things of his life, his brothers’ and sister’s journeys. Those abstract things are what define a body and an image. We write those things and we discuss them, then say “OK, let’s go”. Maya’s the producer but she’s very much a part of it at well. Our sensibilities inform and support it. Andrew’s a wonderful cinematographer but he’s also got authenticity as far as the storytelling and emotional impact [goes]. He really helps and guides all that. We kind of all chafe against each other as well. Richard’s an amazing editor, I’m a very slow editor. I’ll do sequences that will take me forever, and then Richard will set them up and Andrew will come along and go “nope, sorry, you’ve set them up too much”, so we have to undo it again and reconstruct it to how it was. Not so much in the past, but definitely in this one. It was a difficult one.
It is heartening to hear that, on some level, you have that jack-of-all-trades crossover within Ghost Pictures now. Maya, how does it feel to be able to be a part of that dynamic?
Maya: They’re all masters of their craft. It’s always an amazing experience for us to continue to collaborate, and for me to make films with them. They really understand how each other works, and each of their own sensibilities and what they can bring to a project. Even though film is such a collaborative medium anyway, and a lot of communication has to happen. But I guess when you’ve been working with someone for so many years, you can sort of communicate on a different level. There’s a lot of inherent understanding in the way that the films are made, between all the different creative sensibilities, and they all bring completely skills and sensibilities.
When you move into that second part of the story – I’ve heard it likened to three acts and I agree with that – the conflicting or contradictory perspectives that people have on Troy start to move into his family life, which was so fraught particularly with his father and older brother. I found it really gut-wrenching in a really good way, taking that dive into that life he had before he met you. How did you feel talking to those people and realising that something quite painful and contradictory was being laid out in front of you?
Maya: We definitely had to be sensitive in the way we went about [the interviews]. Some people were so touched by it that they could not be interviewed. They would not sit in front of a camera to relive all that. It was certainly a delicate and long process. We had to give everyone space, so we did it over years and years. Even though someone would sometimes say “no”, we wanted to give them space and time to reflect, because we didn’t want to then regret not being a part of this film. He was a big part of their life in a way. And everyone’s quite sensitive, so it was definitely a process.
Lynn-Maree: Interestingly for me, I find that they each have their own pain as well. The middle brother, Adam, has his own story that he fully lived, but it is also the result of things that happened, but also the result of who he was as a person. I find it extremely interesting. Even though there’s physical and psychological torture, there are ultimately the things that pushed Troy not to ever want to be… but each of them also showed that – and this is where you learn something about human nature – they don’t want to be defined by “the other”. They want to transcend those limitations whatever way they can. I also end up feeling like what Troy would actually dislike or find the most harrowing, beyond any physical or psychological torture, is that limitation of who he was. I think, in some ways, the conflict between Adam and Troy almost was an aesthetic thing. [Adam] just sees life in such a certain way, and Troy was busy trying to transcend all that in how he lived, what he thought. Adam was very sadly cynical, maybe cynical because of his intelligence and he didn’t do anything with it. I’m not sure.
And then there’s the question of the older brother [Andrew]. I know Richard, when he talks about this at the festivals we screened, that he felt that Adam’s signed, sealed and delivered; that he’s guilty. Whereas I am not 100% sure.
Andrew’s tough to read, at least from my perspective. That inner world you mentioned is going on inside him, and it’s not something to be so easily signed away, like “oh, he’s lying” or “he’s telling the truth”. It was really interesting to hear that he jumped at the chance to talk to you, so it’s not like he’s running away or wanting to be left alone.
Lynn-Maree: I think that’s what Troy would have chafed against more than anything, because Andrew had some innate talent as well, but his intelligence was very different to Adam and Troy’s. I think that’s one of the things again that Troy would have… I think all of those things tend to create a limitation. Especially within the family, those limitations can be really psychologically damaging.
And when you consider the hang-ups the father had, it’s hard to deny that. But coming out of that into Troy’s time in Sydney with his new love, there seem to be so many materials to work with, like the video blogs he kept. It must have been a massive task to edit – how was your experience of putting together that specific section?
Lynn-Maree: I wish I had more time! We wish we had more time. It was wonderful and there was a lot of very painful things. The sad thing about it was the quality and the sound was not great all the time. There were massive amounts of things. I could have almost made the film just all about those. It might not have had a story arc to it, but there was some amazing things there. I guess the themes, like when you work with a scene, help guide you, but then you would find gems, and even right up to the last moment, I found something where I nearly died. It was sort of like the “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane, just one of those things that was about the very first episode he remembers in telling fiction, and he was reading it out from his diary. It was just amazing, and it was too late!
That idea of calling back to his childhood – is that what motivated the Jimmy Somerville track from Orlando? When I heard it, I was amazed, because it has such a specific significance to his story.
Lynn-Maree: That was just one of those things where… because you sit with a subject and you know them, that came together when editing that part, like “that just has to be it”. I can listen to that song and it just feels like it was written for Troy. Those lines… I don’t know. It’s one of those things. It just felt like the right thing.
Watching that ending scene of Orlando again, I could picture Troy watching it and casting himself as any one of those characters.
Lynn-Maree: You’re very right there. He would have loved to have played Queen Victoria!
On the subject of music, there’s much made on the Pozible campaign about how much it cost to clear the music for screenings; not just that song but the score by Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, and Nils Frahm. I’ve heard Richard say how that’s change significantly since you and he started making films. How has it been dealing with that for this film?
Lynn-Maree: Richard probably would tell a story about Dogs In Space and the Iggy Pop track [“Dog Food”]; how kind of easily he got that, and how they almost gave it to him. But these days, yes, you pay by seconds or minutes. You pay the rights for it outright. It would be things like the Somerville track, and the track used during the performance [“Why Don’t You Do Right”]. They’re quite expensive and you’ve got to go to management. Sometimes like the Jimmy Somerville track, because it was made for Orlando, there’s various people involved.
Maya: The music was always meant to be a big part of the film, because we wanted it to be a cinematic experience in that way. In terms of dealing with people like Nils Fram, when we first discovered him, I think it was this strange sort of moment. I think it was just before he played the Melbourne Arts Festival, and then he released a new record within those two years that we were making the film, so his career began to explode at that time. It is sometimes hard because all of a sudden you start to deal with greater and greater costs than you wanted to at the beginning, but you get attached to certain music. His music is so beautiful, it’s its own character within the film. And Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, they’ve been so generous. They’re both megastars and mega-talents, so we’re just so thrilled to have put such an accomplished suite of music together.
That financial tightness seems to be the case for film-making and the arts in general. Lynn, what kind of new opportunities do you see for people starting their creative journeys now, versus what you, Richard and Troy were afforded when you were starting out?
Lynn-Maree: It’s hard to know. When we did start out, you actually had paid work straight away, and there were different avenues, though we were both a bit too shy to take full advantage. It is difficult [nowadays] because our budgets, though we’ve had support, it’s been really low, and we do live on an oily rag, as they say, and try to keep a group together as a production company. Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s harder to be a single filmmaker starting out. You always need to be a sort of team, at least, or be a producer yourself. I think people are working on web series and web pilots, because you hear of those and then they build an audience and get supported. It is really difficult, and I guess the only thing really is to push forward and work with simple ideas and make something that really stands out. You don’t give up. On the practical side, I don’t know. They cut out a short film fund years ago and that seems to have come back. Even just up until last year, the ABC would put out calls to young film-makers to make short docos for very low budgets.1
And what’s in the future for Ghost Pictures? I understand Richard is focused on an INXS feature…
Lynn-Maree: Yeah, Richard has out in the marketplace an actual feature for the story of Michael, but he’s also been commissioned by the ABC for development, to develop a documentary about Michael, and there’s another low-budget [Ghost Pictures] feature in development, and one we’re about to put in. We’ll see what happens.