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 Love, Lust & Lies: An Interview with Gillian Armstrong

 

By Rochelle Siemienowicz

May 2010

 

When Gillian Armstrong made My Brilliant Career (1979), she was the first woman to direct a feature-length film in Australia in 40 years. Featuring the youthful talents of Judy Davis and Sam Neill, that film was nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes, won 11 AFI Awards and was both a critical and box office success. The fact that the baby-faced Armstrong was one of 12 graduates in the first cohort to emerge from the new Australian Film and Television School, and that her film was about a woman choosing a career in the arts over marriage and children, seemed to suggest a bright future for emancipated women in the revitalised national film industry.

 

In the decades that followed, Armstrong’s early promise has been more than fulfilled. She has carved out a career spanning Hollywood, Australia and Britain, working with a variety of genres and budgets. Her films have has included shorts (Roof Needs Mowing, One Hundred a Day), documentaries (Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst) and features (High Tide, Little Women, Charlotte Gray and Death Defying Acts).

 

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Rear: Diana, Josie, Kerry & Gillian Armstrong
with the next generation of girls, 1995.

Right now though, Gillian Armstrong is coming full circle with a project that began back in the seventies. As a young graduate she was commissioned by the South Australian Film Corporation to make a 20-minute film about ‘what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl’. That film, Smokes and Lollies (1976) introduced audiences to three lively working-class Adelaide girls. Kerry, Josie and Diana giggled and smoked like naughty brats, but they were sweetly honest about their hopes and dreams. Motherhood, love and marriage featured large. They couldn’t wait to get out of school. Four years later came a follow-up film, 14’s Good, 18’s Better, and then when the girls were 26, Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces – a film that saw them well and truly mired in the world of early child-rearing, limited career choices, and serial relationships.

 

In 1995, Armstrong returned to make what she thought might be the last film, Not Fourteen Again, which saw Kerry, Josie and Diana dealing with their own teenaged daughters.  Now, with Love, Lust and Lies, Armstrong has revisited the trio, who are 47 years old, and in two cases, already grandmothers. With their trademark candour, and an obvious rapport with the filmmaker, the women reveal lives that are both ordinary and extraordinary.

 

Here we talk to Gillian Armstrong about this amazing documentary project that’s seen her grow up alongside her subjects. She also tells us that she’s mightily ‘pissed off’ at always being positioned as a ‘woman filmmaker’ – but that it’s time to speak out again about the status of women in the industry. And be sure to read right to the end of this very long interview to hear Armstrong talk about her early career mentors, and her strategies for getting her foot in the door.

 

AFI:  Congratulations on the film. It’s beautiful and fascinating. I’ve seen the other installations over the years but this one was the most moving of all, that scene where you show the families these girls have created, the three generations of women. They’ve held together these functional families, despite everything.

 

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Gillian Armstrong and film crew
at Semaphore Beach, 2009.

Gillian Armstrong: Yes, yes they have. That’s fantastic. Actually the only other public screening – a special preview at the documentary conference in Adelaide in March, afterwards a lot of people came up and said that they were deeply moved. Actually I think I have to say my harshest critics, Kerry, Josie and Diana, when I showed it to them, as the credits rolled at the end, Josie said “it’s the best yet.” That was very nice.

 

AFI: One of the poignant things about the film is the fact that these women have had kind of limited working lives that have been extremely constrained by having children early and finishing school too early. There is a real sense now that they’re yearning for more challenging and interesting work in their lives. Do you think they are envious of the wonderful working life that you’ve created?

 

GA: I don’t know if they’re envious of that, but I think they’re probably envious of the travel that I’ve done. They haven’t had much of an opportunity to even travel outside of Australia. I think definitely that around the time that they came to their early 30s, which was the last film, they all agreed that they regretted leaving school early...but they all were very very conscious that it was something they wanted for their kids, and for their daughters. Sometimes people have said, “the film’s a bit depressing because their lives haven’t changed,” and I say, “there actually are changes, and some of the things they’ve learnt they really hope will be different for their own children.” All their kids have stayed on at school longer than they did. But I have to say I’ve got huge admiration for what they did, and the fact that Josie did manage to go and actually finally get a qualification, that is wonderful.

 

AFI: Can you talk about choosing these girls and spotting that early potential that they might make good subjects?

 

GA: It was really a bit of a fluke. I’d been brought down to Adelaide to make this 20-minute film in the series of 20-minute films that women directors were making for the SAFC on various subject matters relating to women’s issues and so on. I’d been chosen to make the one on what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl. It could have been a girl from any walk of life at all, and I think in some ways the feeling was that this would be the new liberated 14-year-old. The researcher who’d started a couple of weeks before I got there had a file with information about girls from all walks of life, but she said the night that I arrived, she was going to this drop-in centre because she’d heard that there were kids round about that age, and did I want to come? I said, “yeah, sure,” so we went to this drop-in centre which was inner city Adelaide. My memory is still of 30 to 40 Greek and Italian boys running around the hall, and I think there were only three Australian girls – no Greek or Italian girls, they wouldn’t have been allowed out. And these three Australian girls were having the time of their lives. They were Kerry, Josie and Diana, and they came racing up to me. I later found out they thought I was going to join the centre, and that the researcher was my mother. I did actually have a very baby face around that time, and I had waist-length hair, and I was hippie so I had no makeup, so that whole subject of age came up. And I said, “no no, I’m too old to join, I’m over 21.” And the first thing they said was, “are you married?” And I was sort of shocked. I said, “no, am I too old – over 21?” They were quite definite, and said, “yes!”’ Don’t forget I was looking for girls to be the new liberated women, and I said, “what age am I meant to be married by?” and they said “’18.” I was absolutely shocked. I went back and told the producer and said I’d met these three girls – who were also very funny and lively and cheeky, and I said, “I can’t believe it, that they think 18 is the age to be married by.” And she said, “they sound great. Do them.” I have to say that producer was Penny Chapman who went on to be head of drama at ABC and produced Brides of Christ, and just got the Logie for My Place.

 

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From left: Gillian, Diana & Kerry, 1980.

So I went back to Kerry, Josie and Diana and said, “would you be in this film about what it’s like to be 14?” and they said, “yes, yes, but we have to be honest. If we’re going to do it, we have to be honest.” I agreed, that would be very good. Then I had to tell them what that would mean – “you know how you all smoke and your parents don’t know? Well if I film you smoking, they’ll know!” and then they’d say, “alright, we’ll tell them.” So they really stuck by that.  At the time it was a breakthrough in a lot of ways because they talk so openly and honestly and intimately on camera about their feelings about themselves, their hopes and dreams, and sex and so on. And it was actually used, that early film, it was mostly screened at festivals and so on, because it was only 20 minutes, but I was very proud when I heard it was being used for teaching people who were dealing with troubled adolescents. Because in some ways they were more honest on camera than if a social worker had called a 14-year-old in and said “what do you want in life?” “I dunno.” Because I had a very low-key crew and they were very relaxed with me, that was what made it special, from the beginning.

 

AFI: It says something interesting about class and feminism too, because here you were being supported as a middle-class woman, and with no chance of being married at 21, but these girls had no idea of that huge change that had gone through society in the early 70s.

 

GA: No, they didn’t have any idea. That was the eye-opener. How limited their opportunities were and how there may have been a revolution but it certainly wasn’t at that point something that had got to all corners of society in Australia. It has [now] – I think the film has caught major changes. Their attitudes have changed as they grew older and had their own kids, definitely. They’d be the first to say now that they want their 14-year-old daughters to do well at school, to have careers, and if they can have degrees that would be even better. That’s a change that’s happened in 30 years.

 

AFI: Can you talk about that ideological environment back in the 70s where there was that explicit push to make films by women and about women?

 

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Josie and daughter Wendy, 2009.

GA: I have to say that I was a very fortunate girl who had parents who really supported me and were supportive of my talent and my idea of having a career in the arts. I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne. My parents were ordinary folks, they weren’t academics or anything, though I know that they were special.  But my best friend at high school, her family said, “we can’t afford you to go to uni, we want you to get a teaching degree so you’ve got something to fall back on.” So that was the era that I grew up in, in the 60s. In the beginning of the 70s there was a change and that was happening around the time that I was at art school and had definitely happened by the time that I was making Smokes and Lollies. But see when I first went to Sydney there was a co-op where anyone could bring a film and you could screen it and part of that group of – people like Phillip Noyce were there and so on. But there was also a group who banded together the – what was it – the Sydney Women’s Film Group. Martha Ansara was one of the leading people who were part of it and they put enormous pressure on. Around that time the Australian Film Commission had started up and there were grants for young filmmakers and those women really really lobbied and said, “for there to be an equal number of women in the media making films we actually need some positive help.” And the Australian Film Commission at that time funded workshops to teach women how to use a camera and do sound recording. And there was big pressure on the Australian Film and Television School to be well aware of gender when they were selecting. Big pressure to make them conscious of it. And I think that had a great effect on the Australian industry at that time. I was a freak in my own way, as I said. I had supportive parents. And truth be known, I had a father who was a frustrated photographer, so I was sort of living out his dream a lot of ways. So I managed to get on my way and start making films and when I came to Sydney…my early films were criticised by the Sydney Women’s Film Group because they said they were too slick, that they look like a man’s! And I got into the very first year of the film school, the pilot training scheme where there were only two women and ten men. But I do think the women’s group’s initiatives were very very good, because one of the reasons that women were not going into film was because they were afraid of the technical side. It’s sort of like that thing of having these divided maths classes for girls at school now, because they felt that they were dominated by the boys and people didn’t want to put their hand up and ask questions and seem like a dummy. And I think it was the same for those who wanted to go into camera. So I think this initiative, which the SAFC set up, which was called ‘One to One Films’ – which gave six to eight young directors a break – was great.  I had graduated from the film and TV school and it was one of my first jobs down here. I was doing a few other films and I would have been alright without it, but I was very grateful, and certainly very grateful that I had the chance to film these young girls growing up.

 

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Josie, Gillian & Recordist 1976.

But you know I’ve been thinking, in the last few years, the AFTRS school, there’s still many more young boys applying than girls. The numbers are down again, which is crazy. And I think there’s another generation where women are frightened of the technical side, which is now a digital side. Nowadays, these are the boys that were making films at high school, and they all had a nerd friend who worked out how to use Final Cut on the computer, and the girls are being left behind again. Maybe it’s time for a bit more affirmative action.

 

AFI:  We’ve still got women representing only about 24 per cent of directors [in film, TV, radio or stage] and that hasn’t changed in over 20 years.

 

GA: I know! And you consider that at one stage we were really leading. When I first made my features I had to talk to Women in Film in Los Angeles, and they were like, “oh my god, you’ve made a major feature film, this is so wonderful!” And Australia was really ahead. And then of course, all the rest, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Jane Campion, Samantha Lang, and many of them said they went into film because they saw an interview with me and just thought, “god, look at her, she just looks like an ordinary girl. If she does it, I can do it too,” which I’m very proud of. But you think, with all our wonderful women filmmakers, there’s still hardly any doing features and very few in camera or sound. They are still the ones who are organising. They’re still running the arts boards, so I suppose that’s changed, but people say that’s a corporate job that women end up doing because if you want to make money you wouldn’t go into the arts. And then there are women who are producing – and a number of a women editing. But it’s still nothing like 50/50.

 

AFI: And yet it’s much worse in the US where about 7 per cent of film directors are women, which is astonishing.

 

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Kerry, Josie, Diana at rear, with
Gillian Armstrong, 1995.

GA: It is astonishing. It’s actually quite serious because the director and the writer are telling stories that become our myths and our culture, so it’s actually very important that women are telling stories as well.

 

RS: Does it frustrate you that you’re always interviewed and talked about as a ‘woman filmmaker’?

 

GA: Pisses me off no end!! I literally have actually refused to talk about it because I just feel like, you don’t ask Peter Weir or Phillip Noyce about being a male director. But just now and then I meet someone at the film school and I ask about the intake and then I have felt that now it’s time to speak out again because I can’t believe the numbers!

 

AFI: Perhaps there is another wave of activism coming along because there have been all these depressing statistics recently released about women in the workplace – all over the place, not just the in the arts. Women are not making it into the powerful positions.

 

GA: Yes, women lawyers who are paid less than the men, and so all these smart girls who are topping the state and everything, you think, well, in the end, bloody men are still running the country and they didn’t have to work nearly as hard as you did, but they all go to the pub together and talk about football!

 

AFI:  You said somewhere that your natural way of working wasn’t as a documentary filmmaker. What did you mean by that?

 

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Kerry, Josie, Diana & Gillian, 1988.

GA: I meant that I’m really a drama filmmaker. But when I’m working as a documentary filmmaker, oh god, I do try to work like the best documentary filmmaker I can possibly be! Just that my major work and time has been directing drama. Documentary is a completely different skill but I have done quite a few. I put my documentary hat on and I’d stumble around the first two days, because I haven’t done if for a couple of years. But then it comes back. I’m very conscientious at making the best possible documentary I can.

 

AFI: So when you’re making the film, and for example, you’re filming the three women sitting on the couch talking, are you the one asking the questions? You’re not behind the camera?

 

GA: I’m asking the questions. I’m not holding the camera. It’s becoming rare in documentaries, but I did have enough money to have a fantastic documentary cinematographer.

 

AFI: So you’re there and you’re able to just interact with your subjects?

 

GA: Yeah, yeah. It such a pity that budgets have been cut back so much because it’s a different art. The person who’s got a visual head and the person who’s sensing who’s going to talk next and move the camera and get them in focus is very different from the person who’s thinking, “where’s this going? Are they answering the question? Should I ask it another way?” To have those two things going on in your head at the same time is a very big ask.

 

AFI: You edited the film with your long term editor Nick Beauman. How do you work together and how many hours of footage were you working to cut down?

 

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Kerry with husband Neil, 2009.

GA: I can’t remember how many hours, but it was a huge job this one, because I had to cut the old film down, the 90-minute documentary from the past, because I felt that first of all you have to understand the girls’ characters and where they’re all coming from. So that was really tough, to bring that down. A delicate balance, because I know the audience are feeling like, “ok, we want to get onto ‘now’.” But if you don’t understand where they’ve come from…It was weeks and weeks in the cutting room. Also the thing about documentary is that even though I had a basic idea of roughly what had happened in their lives, and themes I wanted to explore and question, there were other areas that opened up and there were surprises. That’s the exciting thing about documentary, that you go out and you think it’s going to go one way, but actually… There’s definitely a theme about motherhood and early childhood that came out of this one, which was a complete surprise. Both Josie and Diana look back on their childhoods and their own mothers. Structuring it and giving it a form so that it’s like a drama – you take the audience in and start gradually revealing, and hopefully taking them deeper and deeper, it took us a lot of time.

 

There are two things with the editing process. The first thing is to cull and get the best. We had more on the daughters but in the end we had to really cull. And then you have to structure. There were literally coloured cards all over the walls in my cutting room with 20 holes in each of them as we moved them round as we played with the structure and tried to get the structure right so that it would really take you on an emotional journey.

 

AFI: It’s really well done and it works for someone even if they haven’t seen the other films. But sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who’s who because the women change so much!

 

GA: Yeah we had something like 69 supers [identifying subtitles] this time. Because we knew not only with Kerry, Josie and Diana, with their looks changing over the years – fatter or thinner, or brunette or blonde or hair shorter or longer – then we had their daughters as well. A whole new raft of characters.

 

AFI: You’ve worked in the US sytem and the UK system with Charlotte Grey and Death Defying Acts. What were the major differences that you noticed?

 

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Josie with daughter Rebecca, 2009.

GA: The bigger the budget – especially with a studio film – the more interference, because obviously there’s more money at risk. It’s like working in advertising. You have all the executives worrying about whether this film is going to be commercial. Which means that they question every single thing. And you have to fight, because they’ll always be trying to dumb things down to make it more accessible, or make it ‘nicer’. That’s very different to working on independent films in Australia where basically once the money is raised, you and the producer are in charge of everything about the film. So with greater money come greater battles for the integrity of your work.

 

AFI: Are you finding it easier to get a film up and financed now?

 

GA: Well definitely once I’d had successful commercial films it became easier. But as someone once said to me, “You always like all the difficult ones!” So yes, it is easier, but the sort of films I like have always been about character and also I don’t like repeating myself, so one of the things that happens is that once you’ve had a hit in a certain genre that’s what you’re known for. So there have been so many period films and films about women achievers that I’ve turned down over the years! And at the moment, with the global financial crisis and less money for independent film worldwide, all of us drama/character storytellers think that things have got very conservative. The bigger tent-pole films as they call them, there are more and more of them – cartoon, action, or the brand-name sequels, but less risks about human dramas in the feature film industry. We’re seeing some of the best dramas now in America on TV. A lot of the writers are now moving into TV because TV is being braver, less formulaic, which is fantastic. I think Australia should pick up and think the same way. There’s certainly been a few here, thanks to Claudia Karvan’s production company. But I think some of the other channels could follow. The ABC could follow. Be braver. Do some brave dramas. Because there’s a smart smart audience out there and we all want to laugh, cry and be challenged. We don’t want to know in the first five minutes exactly what is going to happen in the end. I think the ABC used to do the best drama. I feel they should be leading the way. There’s so much talent in this country and it’s sad. I think there’s going to be quite a brain drain because people are going to go. A lot of the young actors now are just going straight to Hollywood, and I think the young directors will be doing that as well.

 

AFI: One of the questions we like to ask in the AFI interviews is: Can you name three key mentors who’ve helped or supported you along the way?

 

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Kerry and family, 2009.

GA: Yes, sure. Well number one was Mr Frederic Schepisi who was an assessor at Swinburne when I was a film school student and Fred was the top commercials director in Melbourne and ran the top production company Film House. He had a history of both helping assess the students’ work and giving a break to young graduates over the years, like Ian Baker, who became his cinematographer, and Jill Bilcock who became his editor. And he liked my graduation film and they offered me a job at Film House, and my very first job was as a tea girl on Fred’s first feature. There was this thing called Libido and four directors each did a story. And Fred very kindly gave me a break straight out of film school. It was only like a 2-week shoot because each of them were only 20 minutes to make up a feature. I was very shy and humble and on the last day I managed to say, “goodbye and thank you Mr Schepisi, and I’m going to Sydney where I know nobody. Have you got any phone numbers?” And he gave me two numbers of people in Sydney. Fred would be my very first mentor, and as I said, he’s been a wonderful mentor to other filmmakers.

 

My second one would be Bill Stacey. After 5 months of waitressing and unemployment, I finally got a job in a commercial production house as an assistant editor, and I worked with a commercial editor called Bill Stacey. I was very very lucky. I know that now. When I look back on life, I know that when you get that first job, you’re so lucky to have had someone who was incredibly patient and who was a born teacher. Because I was hopeless. Hopeless! I was meant to be the assistant, remember. And I hadn’t even seen a Moviola. Most of us who came out of Swinburne were really pretty technically unprepared for the real world. So I always look back and think of Bill.  They tried to make my little job more exciting. They let me choose a bit of music to put in a documentary, and they gave me a little commercial to cut. And by the end of the year they’d found me a job as an editor with a Brisbane production company, but I had seen the ad for the first year of the national film school and I had applied. And I remember they were all very concerned, and they were worried about me doing another year in a film school because I’d finally got my foot in the door. I think back now about how kind they all were, even worrying about me, even though I told them I wanted to learn about drama and go to film school.

 

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Diana (left) with extended family, 2009.

The third mentor would be a person called Nicholas Beauman. Nick Beauman was one of the top commercial editors in Sydney when I was trying to get my first job, and I was sending out endless letters and no-one ever answered them, and along the way, one person had told me – because I’d been told that girls did continuity – and someone along the way had given me the great tip that actually it would be better to get into editing because it’s more creative and if I was a script assistant I might still be one in 20 years, because you never went from script assistant to director. One of the two people to ever answer my letters was Nicholas Beauman who was at a post production company called Spectrum Films, and he wrote back. By this stage I was writing letters on brown paper to try to stand out and stuff like that. And he wrote back to say I should call Spectrum every two weeks because people often rang in asking for assistants. And also he wrote, “PS. love the paper!”’ And so I did call every two weeks. Just someone saying that I should call meant that I didn’t have to feel so bad about ringing endlessly looking for a job.

 

Anyway one day I came home from my waitressing job and there was a young man standing outside my house and he was from this other King Cross productions where Bill Stacey worked and he said, “Um, are you Gillian Armstrong? Did you used to work in Melbourne with Fred Schepisi?” “ Yes.” (Keeping my mouth shut that I was only a tea girl). And he said, “we need an assistant editor, can you start tomorrow? Nicholas Beauman recommended you.” So Nick got me my first job. To cut a long story short, four years later when I got a grant to make my first long film – The Singer and The Dancer – I asked him to cut it. And he did. And we’ve been working together for 35 years. He’s cut all my features.

 

AFI: How lovely. Finally, has making this documentary series culminating in Love Lust & Lies changed or affected you in any way?

 

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Wendy (daughter of Josie) with partner Ian,
Gillian Armstrong & producer Jenny Day, 2009.

GA: I think that it’s actually a privilege for a drama director to be reminded about what real life’s about. Obviously we do live real lives, apart from working on fiction stories, and we’ve all got our own families and neighbours and relatives and so on to keep reminding us, but this was an additional thing. By going into Kerry, Josie and Diana’s lives and their children’s, it reminds me all the time – you know that terrible cliché – about how real lives are much richer and more complicated than often our script writers even remember and realise. I think that’s a good thing for someone who spends a lot of time creating fantasy characters and dramas, to be reminded that actually people are much more complicated and richer and deeper than we sometimes realise.

 

AFI: And shocking and scandalous too! Thank you for being so generous with your time.

 

Love, Lust & Lies is in national release from 13 May 2010. Check out the website to see a trailer of the film.

 

 


 

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