Melbourne’s no slouch at turning out Oscar candidates, but our only hope at this year’s Academy Awards is Ivanhoe-bred Cate Blanchett. She doesn’t even live here these days. Still, Australia’s overall Russell Crowe Rule allows us to claim her as one of our own.
Blanchett has already been up for five Oscars, including a win in the best supporting actress category for 2004’s The Aviator. She’s back in the running this year for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and gambling types are putting her as a sure win (one betting site gives her odds of $1.05, with closest rival Amy Adams at $11).
But Blanchett has been on a steady course towards a win for the past decade – where are those just starting out on their journey? Cinematic prognostication is a science with too many variables, but we can take a few informed guesses.
Three of the best: Jonathan auf der Heide, Alethea Jones and Damon Gameau. Adam Arkapaw isn’t a household name, but anyone remotely connected to the biz will point to him as our new hope. The cinematographer, who studied at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, last year won an Emmy for miniseries Top of the Lake after a string of eye-grabbing films including Animal Kingdom, Lore and Snowtown.
He’s now lensing US series True Detective, and it’s a rare instance in which a show’s camerawork is as frequently commented on as its performances or writing. The New York Times, for instance, opened one review with a discussion of a six-minute tracking shot. Mr Arkapaw is ready for his close-up.
Arkapaw’s 2006 graduating film Catch Fish, was ”a very strong and moving piece of storytelling”, says Nicolette Freeman, head of the VCA’s School of Film of Television.
”Given that Adam was already displaying strong potential as a cinematographer, it was very telling that he chose to stick with the directing stream in his graduating year, rather than specialise in the craft of cinematography. He shot many graduating films that year anyway, but in the meantime developed his strengths as a storyteller by writing and directing Catch Fish.”
Director Justin Kurzel is another name that crops up regularly – he was named most outstanding postgraduate student when he left VCA in 2005, and his later work on Snowtown won him a gong for best direction at the AACTA awards and put him on the must-watch lists of critics across the nation. He is now in London directing a new version of Macbeth, a notoriously difficult play to film, but Kurzel collaborators hint at a possible hit. He has Arkapaw behind the lens, and the never-less-than-brilliant Michael Fassbender in the lead role.
Also starring in Macbeth will be actress Elizabeth Debicki. She might not yet be the next Blanchett but the 23-year-old has already shared a stage with her. In 2013 the VCA grad played opposite the star as well as French screen icon Isabelle Huppert in three-hander The Maids. The same year she appeared as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby after Baz Lurhmann handpicked her from an audition reel and flew her to LA. She won best supporting actress for the role in this year’s Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards.
”I remember meeting her at VCA on the graduation day and she had a great air of confidence about her,” says director Jonathan auf der Heide. ”I found out later that it was because she’d already been cast in Gatsby, so she hadn’t even finished at VCA and she’d already landed a role. That’s quite a big leap.”
Auf der Heide was out of the gates almost as quickly. While studying at the VCA (where he now lectures) he teamed up with fellow student Maggie Miles to create their graduating film Hell’s Gates, based on the true story of colonial Tasmanian convict-turned-cannibal Alexander Pearce. ”It was a challenging film for a student filmmaker with a big story for a short film, a large ensemble cast, a minuscule budget and trying physical locations,” says Freeman. Auf der Heide and producer Miles ”were formidable”.
The two proved even more impressive by expanding their short into a full-length feature within two years of finishing their studies. ”I believe this was a first for our graduates,” says Freeman. Miles has since gone on to co-produce the Tim Winton anthology film The Turning with Rob Connolly, and auf der Heide was one of the 13 directors chosen to contribute a chapter to the work.
When creating The Turning, Connolly selected an intriguing roster of directors that included people who had never tried their hand at it before. He points to actress Mia Wasikowska as the kind of exciting new talent that was able to be discovered as a result.
”Her film’s amazing. She’s only 24. I love the film that she did. It’s a staggering, innovative direction,” he says.
But taking a gamble on untested youngsters such as Wasikowska is something the Australian film industry does only reluctantly, if at all, says Connolly. ”I actually have a general issue about how the screen industry hasn’t really embraced generational change.
”This idea of generational shift is important in any area of artistic endeavour. You look in music at the success of Lorde and you realise there are other areas of artistic endeavour that really value the voice of younger artists. Other areas look to youth to try and find those voices.”
Ariel Kleiman is the kind of filmmaker other filmmakers praise, with the drive to get things done. He’s currently finishing editing his first feature, Partisan, starring French actor Vincent Cassel. But in his experience, Connolly’s words ring true. His graduating short Deeper Than Yesterday won a jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, but the level of interest it generated abroad wasn’t matched by a similar enthusiasm back home.
”The amount of emails you get from people in Europe and America, wanting to see the film or inquiring about what you’ve got going on next, compared to the amount you get from Australia … in a way it very blatantly showed that attitude. That being said, (Partisan) is a fully Australian film. I’ve been really backed by the powers that be. I’m definitely not complaining. But there is something to that, compared to the rest of the world who are really hungry to find that next talent.”
Connelly says he is interested in new filmmakers who bring entrepreneurial spirit to get things done. Actor Victoria Thaine is one young filmmaker he puts in this category. She recently directed a short that was successfully crowdfunded: The Kingdom of Doug is a superbly acted drama about a suicidal cult, and Thaine’s campaign saw supporters given cult membership and fictional identities.
”I’m not a brash salesperson and the idea of asking people for money, I felt like it had to be done in a gracious way,” says Thaine.
”But I don’t know if there actually is any short film funding available at the moment in Victoria. So we really didn’t have a lot of choices when it came to getting money raised.”
The film went on to win Flickerfest, Australia’s largest short film competition. Thaine is trying to develop it into a full-length feature, and in the meantime is planning another short. ”I think when you’re an emerging director you’ve got to keep up the momentum. You’ve got to try and be prolific and show people that you’re serious. I don’t want to be just another actor who’s dabbled in making a couple of short films. I’d really like to have people see that I’m taking it seriously.”
Since it premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Kitty Green hasn’t stopped touring her documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel, which reveals the inside story on topless activists Femen. She was the first VCA grad ever to be invited to the prestigious showcase, and the subsequent demand for her debut isn’t surprising given it managed to garner more publicity than George Clooney did.
”It was insane,” says Green. ”So many photographers and journalists. Because we were revealing a story that was quite scandalous and we had topless women there on the red carpet. It was a bit of a frenzy. So we had the best premiere I could possibly dream of.”
Last week she was back in Melbourne briefly before jetting off for the film’s American premieres at the South by Southwest and True False films festivals.
”I’m exhausted. Every month I have to jet off again. Which looks glamorous on Facebook but the reality of it is quite hard.” Ironically, the film’s Facebook page was blocked by the site during the recent period of violent turmoil in Kiev after Facebook’s no-breasts-please filter picked up on a stray Femen nipple. ”Generally I censor them but sometimes one slips through. There’s so much going on I want to post about. All my friends are sending me terrifying photos and I’d love to be able to raise awareness but I’m locked out.”
Freeman says that Green’s VCA graduating film, Spilt, was a ”refreshing and innovative exploration of the burgeoning sexual awareness of young girls. As her lecturer at the time, I recall our studios being awash with giggly young girls, unherdable little grey kittens, and dripping creamy-looking paint. I knew then Spilt would be something out of the box.”
All of her film-school films were ”unpredictable and arresting,” she says, and ”it comes as no surprise that she has made the world sit up and pay attention” with her first feature.
Other Melburnians following this route include indie darling Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose films such as Bastardy, Hail and Ruin have been critically adored, and up-and-comer Aaron Wilson, whose daring first feature Canopy, about a WWII Australian soldier and a Chinese refugee who must work together to survive, was shot on a shoestring in the Singapore jungle.
Then there are filmmakers such as Alethea Jones who are eager to embrace the commercial studio system. On the strength of her short films alone, Jones is about to move to LA to shoot her first feature. The actors who’ve read for it can’t be named here, but suffice to say that they’re at the top of Hollywood’s comedy tree.
Jones is also choreographing a short segment of actor Damon Gameau’s debut, That Sugar Film. The documentary is a Supersize Me-style exploration of the effects of sugar on the human system. Gameau has travelled the globe interviewing experts, all the while subsisting on the kind of typical diet that appears healthy but contains surprising levels of the sweet stuff.
So come Oscar night, whether or not it’s Blanchett, an actress will be thanking a bunch of people none of us have ever heard of. It’ll be boring. We’ll complain. But they’ll have earned it.
Local films to watch in 2014
The industry is in agreement that this year is one of the most exciting in local memory, with a hefty number of films hotly anticipated. Here are a few:
David Michod’s Animal Kingdom immediately put the director on the world map and earned an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver. Word is that his script for this Guy Pearce/Robert Pattinson crime drama is a killer.
Tony Ayres’ new outing apparently has some of the same stylistic edge that marked out Animal Kingdom, and stars that film’s Sullivan Stapleton in a 1970s Melbourne thriller.
UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL
28-year-old Kitty Green spent a year living with the members of controversial feminist activists Femen in Ukraine to produce this documentary which went on to be the hit of last year’s Venice Film Festival.
A winner at Sundance, Sophie Hyde shot this film on every Tuesday of the year, shaping the story of a schoolgirl coming of age while her mother attempts to become a man.
John Bailey – SMH – March 2, 2014