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Not Just a “Woman Director”: An Interview with Gillian Armstrong

15/08/2017 at 5:00 pm / 0 Comments

 By Faith Everard 

The Pioneering Women program at this year’s MIFF contains not one, but two films directed by reputed filmmaker Gillian Armstrong: the musical Starstruck (1982) and the drama High Tide (1987).

In the former, a young woman (Jo Kennedy) has aspirations of stardom that conflict with her working-class background. In the end, it is her own unstoppable personality that fosters her success. Starstruck’s musical demands proved challenging. “It was so different. We were completely naive and had no idea”, she explains. She hadn’t anticipated things like the dancers getting tired, or the difficulties of getting good music. “We were about to start pre-production and had no music. At that point, we were panicking.” In the end it was musician Phil Judd with his band, The Swingers, that saved the soundtrack. “I realised afterwards that there are many incredible songwriters out there but they write personal songs, and in their own time. But to actually write something that has a sense of emotion and character to fit into a story is a really different talent.”

Claudia Karvan in High Tide

Then, five years later, she would go on to make High Tide, which was wrought with its own difficulties. “I was very lucky that I had one of the most brilliant child actors of all time, the very wonderfully talented [sic] and astute Claudia.” she tells me gushingly. And there’s no doubt that Karvan really did hold her own in the film, even alongside the much more experienced Judy Davis. It was a role that required a child with extreme maturity, yet innocence. “She had a sense of an inner world”, says Armstrong sagely. Karvan’s adaptability made things easy for everyone, even as she had to pick up unexpected, water-based skills. As the film is set on the beach, casting agents had originally searched for children with surfing talent, only to decide that Karvan, who couldn't surf, was otherwise perfect for the role. Karvan learnt how to do so in rehearsals: “she was so conscientious and hardworking. She took to our surfing classes that she did every morning before school…she was pretty good by the time we came to shoot the film.” Armstrong liked this idea of using surf culture as a backdrop for the film, as she felt that it hadn’t really been done before. In fact, Armstrong fancied herself as a surfer girl, although she never got in the water herself. Instead, she photographed the surfers, perhaps pre-empting her love of cinematography. “My very first published photo was actually in Tracks magazine and it was a close-up of a hole in the back of Simon Buttonshaw’s t-shirt… which [some] didn’t think was appropriate. Maybe that’s why I didn’t become a surfing photographer.”

“To think we’ve only increased the number of women directors so slightly, something is definitely wrong.” 

Career choices aside, it’s clear that Armstrong values the level of dedication from her cast and crew. High Tide was the product of two other female pioneers as well 一 screenwriter Laura Jones and producer Sandra Levy. As a trio of women, they wanted to avoid making a film that was also about the lives of other women in order to circumvent critics’ expectations. According to Armstrong, they “met for weeks trying to come with an idea for the greatest small story ever made.” In the end, they conceived a script concerning a male drifter, John, who finds his long-lost daughter. Armstrong was fascinated by the tales which had been emerging after Australian adoption laws relating to heritage had begun to open up. “There was a story about a woman who was maybe in her late sixties, who had found her mother, who was nearly ninety. And I thought, how amazing! To think that that need to belong [was strong enough] that you’d even care in your sixties.” Yet Armstrong would soon face a dilemma after coincidentally going to see Ian Pringle’s independent Australian film Wrong World (MIFF 1985), which had almost the exact same storyline. It was only then that they decided to bring on Judy Davis and hurriedly rewrote the character of John just for her. “We realised that it’s so much of a tougher story for it to be this woman with her child. Everyone expects the men to go.”

Jo Kennedy in Starstruck

Over and over, Armstrong praises her actors and her production crew. She tells me that, as with Karvan’s surfing lessons, Jo Kennedy had to learn to walk the tightrope for Starstruck. To Armstrong, every person on the set is an equal, so I asked her how she felt about the evolution of women’s roles in the film industry. Armstrong refuses to be categorised as a ‘woman director’ it’s a label that she has been entangled with since she directed her first feature, My Brilliant Career, forty years ago. Quite rightly, she feels as though the term itself is sexist, and discourages people from asking her about her work as a person. Still, she acknowledges that the industry has a long way to go. “To think we’ve only increased the number of women directors so slightly, something is definitely wrong.” There are times when she wishes she could have been credited as G. Armstrong instead, if only to avoid unconscious bias. “Unconscious bias is a poison”, she says seriously. “When my first features came out, all anyone ever asked me was: what was it like to be a ‘woman director’? Well, actually, that hasn’t changed.”

Gillian Armstrong was a guest at MIFF2017 and featured on the Pioneering Women: In Conversation Talking Pictures event. Her films Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1988) played as part of the Pioneering Women program.


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