Interview: Beck Cole (director of Here I Am)

Interview: Beck Cole (director of Here I Am). By Simon Miraudo.

Beck Cole’s first feature film Here I Am tells the story of Karen (Shai Pittman), a young woman who tries to piece her life back together following her release from prison. Although her mother (Prof. Marcia Langton, AM) thinks she’s worthless, and her three-year-old daughter doesn’t recognise her, Karen finds solace at a Port Adelaide women’s shelter where she meets similarly lost souls. Writer/director Cole emerges from the world of documentary and short filmmaking to deliver an affecting film about indigenous issues (with Samson and Delilah-helmer Warwick Thornton behind the camera as DOP). We spoke to her about her inspirations, working with first time actors, the state of indigenous cinema, and whether or not AFI and Caméra d’Or winner Thornton has gotten too big for his britches…

SM: I understand you used to be a journalist, and worked in documentaries. You can definitely see in Here I Am your passion for indigenous culture and indigenous issues. But the film is still ‘a film’, so I’m interested who your filmmaking influences are?

BC: That’s a very good question. Well, I guess… Ooh, there’s many. I love films that bring that sense of realism to a place and that you feel completely emerged in a world. Michael Winterbottom, filmmakers like that, appeal to me. Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who I adore, and I’ve met her a number of times and she’s an ultra cool woman. But also photographers – indigenous photographers – like Michael Riley and Tracey Moffatt; visual artists like that. Shelby Adams. That aesthetic appeals to me. A lot of documentary filmmakers as well. I’m drawing influences from a number of places. I spent a long time working on the script, thinking of this story, so there’s loads of place, and a lot of research I did to get things right.

SM: It’s interesting you say Andrea Arnold, because Fish Tank is a film that immediately sprung to mind after seeing this. Let’s talk about that first germ of an idea. Where did that come from?

BC: Just from character really. It’s hard to say in a nutshell. The character of Karen just came to me, literally. I knew I wanted to have a film that featured a woman, and it was a real case study portrait of a woman from the day of her release to the first parole meeting. I knew I wanted her to be this sort-of intriguing, beautiful complex character. So I had a woman like that in mind, and it was just a matter of working out what her story would be. Usually I start with a place, and then the characters. This time it was the reverse.

SM: Tell me about the scripting process; getting that idea to the screen. Did you do much research at women’s shelters?

BC: I did, I did. Women’s shelters, the prison, a lot of academic research as well, just trying to really get into that headspace. I worked really intensely with the script, and then went off for instance to work on First Australians. Then I worked really intensely on the script, and went off and did Samson and Delilah (the making of). So I was working, working, working and then having big breaks from it, so it was a really great process. Also, I had a baby, and now she’s seven. So life was really rolling along. It was sort of necessary to do it like that, just because back then I probably wouldn’t have been ready to do it. But there was a lot of research, and I spent a lot of time playing around with the dialogue, and I wanted to bring in humour. I guess I always knew it would always start on the day of her release, and it would end at her first parole meeting, with her saying, ‘I think I’m going to be alright, ay’. So it was just filling in the middle.

SM: Was that your first daughter?

BC: Yes.

SM: Would that have informed the character of Karen, as a mother?

BC: Absolutely. For my own personal journey, I’m thinking about motherhood, and my role as a mum, and how fortunate I am, and in your worst nightmare, what would go wrong. Drawing from all of those things.

SM: I understand producer Kath Shelper and Warwick Thornton – of course, of Samson and Delilah – helped a lot in getting it to the screen. Can you tell me about the relationship there?

BC: Kath and I and Warwick work pretty closely together. I wrote the first draft of this as Warwick wrote the first draft for Samson and Delilah, so they were about the same time. I basically wrote the whole first draft and gave it to Kath to read, and she loved it straight away. Although the story changed and things altered over the years, the character always stayed the same, and it was great to stay along with that.  She’s a fabulous creative producer; she gives you great script feedback, tells you when you’re barking up the right tree, and all that s***. She’s very honest.

SM: The good kind of note.

BC: Oh yeah, she’s very honest. She’s got a very good eye for storytelling, which is important. But for Warwick, I didn’t give him the script until close to the end. I knew that I wanted him to shoot it, and I wanted him to come to the idea of the story fresh, not after years and years of reading drafts, you know? That was great. And I’m always really nervous about showing things to Warwick in terms of my scripts. He can say something that can freak me out, and I’ll go, ‘F***, that’s it! It’s s***!’ (Laughs) Or, the reverse. In this instance, he loved it and of course we started talking about the look of the film.

SM: Saying that, I think one of the best aspects of the film is that it looks like ‘a movie’. That sounds silly, but there are a lot of movies – especially Australian movies – that look like they were shot for TV. This one is not visually flat at all, it looks great. Was that cinematic feel important to you?

BC: Absolutely. I think when you’re telling a story along these lines and with some of the performances, – you’re working with first time actors and things like that – you want it to be cinematic. We are cinema storytellers. It’s got to look beautiful onscreen. And I always get p***ed off when you go see a film and it looks crappy, or for TV.

SM: We paid big bucks to see it.

BC: I know! Adelaide is such a cinematic setting. And then you’ve got this rundown women’s shelter, and even that, the rusty colours and the blues; the palette of the film is really gorgeous. You want it to be beautiful. Shai [Pittman] – the lead actress – she’s in every scene. You want the audience lapping her up. You want to cast someone who you want to watch. This is cinema after all.

SM: Was this Warwick’s first film after Samson and Delilah?

BC: Feature film yes.

SM: So he wasn’t getting too big for his britches, no longer in the director’s seat.

BC: No, no. No no no. Warwick will go out into the bush and do an Aboriginal-spoken language thing that no one will see, that he made for $20,000. He’s grounded.

SM: It’s good to hear. Let’s talk about the casting of the film. You’ve got some first timers; you’ve got some trained actors as well. Also, not just first time feature actors, but Marcia Langton and people who are prominent in indigenous culture.

BC: There’s a number of people with parts who I’ve written them for. Like Marcia for instance; it was always going to be Marcia. It was just a matter of convincing her that it was always going to be her.

SM: Was she a bit apprehensive?

BC: She was a bit apprehensive because she’s quite a public sort of person, you know? It’s quite confronting for her to be looked at and criticised, but I think when she read the script, she said to me, ‘The film says more about Aboriginal life, than any amount of literature could ever do’. That’s one of my favourite compliments for the film I’ve ever had. That’s meaningful for me. So I think she was really brave. She’s got it though; that fire in the belly. The no-nonsense attitude that was necessary for that character. I wrote the character of Skinny for Pauline [Whyman}, and Jody is actually my niece, because Tanith [Glynn-Maloney] is that girl, always slamming the door. She’s wonderful; there’s no one like her. Pauline’s probably had the most acting experience; she’s done 20 years of theatre. Shai’s done little bits in dribs and drabs, and Betty Sumner’s done dribs and drabs but that’s it. The others are all new.

SM: Did you do a call out for amateurs to come audition?

BC: Yep, we really wanted to cast right out of Port Adelaide, where the film is set, and loads of women came to meet us. Like, hundreds, so that was fantastic. But I couldn’t find Karen – just couldn’t find the right person there. So, Kath had met Shai, and said, ‘Come on Beck, you’re going to love her’. I said, ‘Give me one more week’. Didn’t happen. I said, ‘Alright, I’ll meet her, but it’s gotta be here, in Port Adelaide’. So she came and the minute she walked in the door, I thought, ‘OK’. Because not only is she beautiful, but she’s still; she’s really a private person, and it takes a long time to work her out. She’s intriguing, as a person as well as the way she looks. And she can go from really still to explosive in terms of her performance.

SM: There’s definitely been a resurgence in indigenous cinema, obviously with Samson and Delilah but also Mad Bastards, which I think this film has a lot in common.  How does it feel to be part of that?

BC: It’s fabulous isn’t it? It’s exactly what you want to be. It’s what we’ve been working towards for decades, so it’s great. The thing about now, people go to our films not because they think they might sleep better at night. To feel like good people.

SM: To just see the ‘worthy’ films.

BC: Yeah, but because they know they’ll have a laugh, or a cry, or because they know they’ll be transported somewhere and see an interesting story. So it’s kind of the story that isn’t a story, about indigenous films. It just is and so it should be.

SM: Do you think we’re at a place where the Australian film industry is covering a wide enough range of topics now? Do you think the output is still a little narrow?

BC: I think this year’s been a fabulous year. We’ve had Griff [The Invisible] – superhero films. Snowtown – serial killer films. Mad Bastards – that’s men talking about fatherhood; I haven’t seen that before. This one for instance, women living in a world where men are on the periphery, and that’s OK because it’s a little story that happens here. I think this year’s been a very exciting, very diverse kind of year.

SM: Do you think you’ll keep working in narrative feature filmmaking, or will you move back to documentaries?

BC: Oh definitely move back to documentaries, but moving back and forth.

SM: Do you have anything lined up?

BC: I’ve just been offered a really cool job that I’m excited about. I’ve been asked to come in and mentor a whole heap of first-time indigenous filmmakers, who are making half hour documentaries and 10-minute dramas, which is where I began, so it’s kind of like giving back and not teaching but helping new filmmakers find their way through the hurdles of filmmaking. So for me it’s really cool because Warwick is off doing The Sapphires this year, which Wayne Blair is directing, and he’s DP’ing that. So I don’t have any stories right now…

SM: Another seven years maybe.

BC: No! Don’t say that! (Laughs)

SM: Once you let the story and characters ferment.

BC: I’ll be 101 then…

Here I Am is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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