Interview: J. Harkness and Natalie Eleftheriadis (director and star of Birthday)

Interview: J. Harkness and Natalie Eleftheriadis (director and star of Birthday). By Simon Miraudo.

J. Harkness’ new feature film Birthday – adapted from his controversial stage play of the same name – opens the 2011 CinefestOz Film Festival this week. The picture stars Natalie Eleftheriadis as M, a high-end call girl who discovers love has become as valuable a commodity as sex. Also featuring Kestie Morassi and Richard Wilson, Birthday has been burning up the international festival circuit. I spoke to J and Natalie ahead of the film’s debut at CinefestOz, and discussed “the girlfriend experience”, prostitutes-turned-lawyers, the c word and, of course, the l word.

SM: Birthday was a play before it was a film, but I’d like to go back even earlier, and ask what the original germ of an idea was for the story.

JH: I sort of wrote a skeleton of it. I wrote it as a short film back in 1998. I then thought it should be expanded to a feature, but at that time I was focused on the lack of intimacy in the world, and the lack of love. Then, when I started writing it as a feature, by a quirk of fate I had come back from the Cannes Film Festival, and I’d come home with a $4000 mobile bill. And I had limited it to $1000, and I had told Telstra beforehand that I was gonna set it to stop at $1000, and I had to get a telecommunications ombudsman to step in and get it so that all I paid was $1000. The lawyer that I had with the ombudsman used to be a sex worker, and she really shared a lot with me, particularly in what ways the business had changed. People weren’t just necessarily going for sex anymore; they wanted love. So much so, they had to invent at different brothels, a price structure for things like ‘a hug’; ‘a cuddle’ for $20 bucks …

NE: The girlfriend experience.

JH: Yeah. Or a kiss, for $50 extra. They actually had to invent that. And I thought that was so different; the industry had become so different. The world’s oldest profession suddenly changed.  I thought that said a lot about the need for love in the world, and how urgent that is. That was the inspiration for expanding it out and making the sex worker the main focal point of attention.

SM: Interesting. Aside from the lawyer there, can you tell me a little bit about the research you did? Were the people in the industry receptive to you?

JH: There were some places we went that didn’t allow me to come in because I was a man. I guess they had their own reasons for that, and obviously they weren’t too keen. They’d probably had in the past people come in and misrepresent their story, so they were a bit suspicious. But I did get to go to a lot of brothels, and we even based the production design of the film on a brothel we knew in Adelaide.

NE: It was a very useful exercise, particularly for the female leads though. We spent the bulk of our times in Melbourne brothels, which is quite a different system to Adelaide, because of the different legalities and so forth. Speaking to the women, what was so eye-opening about that was how well represented these characters were in J’s writing – the depth of the characters, the kind of personal conflicts they have, the kinds of lives they lead – they are essentially facing the same sort of challenges as in an office job, or particularly in a service role, and having do deal with that role being grossly misunderstood by society. That was the most useful thing; understanding the psyche behind the choice to be involved in that kind of work. All of the women we spoke to, I suppose, were really really helpful in that way, and really keen for a form to be made, or a piece of fiction to be put out there that really represented the kind of lives they lead. Because often sex working is kind of glamorised to be more acceptable and presentable to an audience, but we really didn’t want to go down that path. We wanted it to be a raw representation and still cinematic.

JH: We’ve actually had sex workers see both the play and the film and actually want to come backstage after the play to meet me, because they saw the play and said, ‘That’s just my life. That’s my life represented there’. Especially the internal world; the film does focus on the internal world of these characters. As recently as our appearance at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, we had a couple sex workers in the audience, and they were both very effusive about how it was very authentic and it moved them.

SM: That’s probably the best compliment you can get really.

NE: I think what touched them, in many ways – I received a lovely email about it – was the representation of the client and sex worker relationship, because quite often it’s simplified to being a sexual transaction, much like a bank transaction, but in actual fact the service they provide is more of a counsel. It’s more intimate than a lot of people would believe or would want to believe, and that was something that they were really moved by. That being well represented, rather than seeming like a heartless transaction.

SM: Natalie, you’ve alluded to why you were drawn to the role. Can you tell me how you got involved with it, from the start with the play?

NE: Look, like most young Australian actors, I sat around waiting for the phone to ring, grew frustrated with the process, with the lack of work and the rest of it. It was one particular afternoon I decided to be a little more proactive than I had been in the past; I guess I’d been a little less educated about the industry as well. I stumbled across a casting advertisement for this play, Birthday. The time was right – I had just finished a tour with another company – and it just sort of seemed too fitting. I read the script and honestly, I couldn’t believe I’d managed to stumble across a script like this, in such a strange – but simple – kind of way, just by answering a casting brief. Being involved, I was very lucky in that I hit it off with the then director – J was just a writer on that project, not a director – but the director of the play and I had a very lovely rapport. We got some amazing responses and in many ways the rest is history. I was offered to continue that role in the film version, and being involved from such an early stage, it seemed fitting to get a production education; to learn more and take the producing role. And that’s where my very lengthy and involved relationship with BIrthday stemmed from.

SM: Was there a concern in taking on the extra role of producing, and even transitioning to the film? Was there a lingering thought of, ‘Can we pull this off?’ having succeeded on the stage?

NE: It’s funny, I was just thinking the other day, ‘When I get asked this question, is there a way of drawing a parallel or making a reference so that people can understand the situation I was in?’ You know with children, they have no sense of consequence, so that lovely innocence in them means they’ll do anything, and it isn’t until they take a nasty fall or realise the stove is hot, or whatever it might be? I think the same thing goes for passion and entrepreneurial type ventures. In hindsight, I would normally run away terrified, but at the time I went in guts first, and the beauty of that is that it’s not until you’re in the thick of it that you start thinking, ‘Geez, this was a big undertaking’. But I’ve learnt invaluable skills along the way, and I’ve really been thrust into the heart of the Australian film industry, and there’s really no other way that opportunity would have come up for me, so I can’t help but feel like it’s a little bit fated and I’m grateful that I was a little naïve in the kind of undertaking that it was. At this end of the process now, of course, all the struggles aside, I’m very proud of the film and very excited to be sharing it.

SM: I think that metaphor works actually; when kids fall over, they don’t put their arms up, which is why they can bump into things and never break their bones.

NE: That’s it. But at the same time, that experience then shapes the next. And that’s very much how I feel about what I knew about the industry and I’m grateful for it in a way that I went in gut first and learnt. Obviously there are things I’d do differently, but the beauty of that is there are things I’d do exactly the same, and that’s really important to me.

SM: J, I read in an interview with FilmInk that you thought your last movie, Shot of Love, would be your last. Can you elaborate on that?

JH: I was planning on going into theatre, because I’d had a fair bit of training that way. I thought I’d go into theater because it’s a lower risk venture; you don’t have to spend more than a million bucks to put on a decent play. You can do it quite efficiently and cheaply. I really was not going to go back to the Australian film industry, because we’re told to imitate American films and make genre pictures, but I think the future of Australian film is more personal films, because we do them better than anywhere else in the world. I think trying to make a genre picture on three million bucks when you’re competing with American films that cost $120 million or whatever, just for a romantic comedy or something – the local industry is not right. It needs to embrace personal Australian stories; we need to tell stories that are true, because that’s our best chance of connecting with our audience; with something that’s truthful and beautiful because of it. I think that’s the kind of work our industry should embrace.

SM: You’ve both been taking the film to a number of festivals. How’s it been to watch the film with an audience in a cinema, as opposed to live on the stage?

NE: It’s incredible from the standpoint that you’re sort of seeing your baby grow up and something come into fruition, and then on the other hand, in each cinema we’ve had entirely different audiences along the way. We initially premiered in Alaska at the Anchorage International Film Festival, which was an incredibly receptive, vocal audience; very much kind of moved by the intimacy, and the portrayal of an industry that is differently perceived over there. It’s quite a big theater and we got a really big reception. By contrast, we’ve had screenings in exhibition type spaces – a 20-30 type-seater theaterette – and in that environment it opens up the opportunity to see people have a lot more personal connection. Different things come from that as well, but I think we both probably unanimously feel very proud of it, and always enjoy the screening opportunity, but also how wonderful and diverse the responses have been from different countries and different sectors in society, if you will. That’s been pretty amazing. We’ve been pretty blessed that it’s been selected a lot and enjoyed a lot. It’s really wonderful for us.

JH: We’ve never had a bad response to the film. When we did the play, it was controversial due to the language. We did have one particular day when a person walked out, the first time – should I say it?

NE: The c-bomb was dropped (laughs).

JH: But I was expecting that kind of thing. But no, people are really glued to their seats; they’re hanging on every word that’s said, because it is such an intimate piece. They’re very intrigued by the way the sex industry is presented, because it totally goes against the conventional clichés of what a brothel is. I think having it focused on the internal life of the characters, there is a lot of substance there that people can identify with, and that’s really important because it’s very easy for a film like this to evoke just pity and sympathy for people who work in the sex industry, and that’s wrong. What a film like mine should do is present how much we’re all alike – the things we have in common – so that we get closer to one another and the truth of the story.

Birthday is the opening film of the 2011 CinefestOz Film Festival in Western Australia. 

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