Film Graduates

Festival Success while studying at SFS

An interview with Sydney Film School Alumni, Megan Baker

by Nicole Newton-Plater

megan bakerSydney Film School would like to congratulate Megan Baker who’s film ‘Generation Girl’ has been named as one of the finalists for the Uni Shorts International Student Film Festival!

The Uni Shorts Film Festival will take place in Auckland this October and will feature the best in student made films from around the world. ‘Generation Girl’ is a perfect example of the exceptionally high quality of film that gets made by students while in attendance at Sydney Film School. Many people believe that the time to submit your film into festivals is once you have completed school, but Megan’s film is proof that the films made by the students at SFS during the semester are of such a high calibre that they are worthy of festival submission and acceptance.

We thank Megan for taking the time to talk to us about her experience with her film and it’s submission into the Uni Shorts Film Festival.

Congratulations on being selected as one of the finalists for the Uni Shorts International Student Film Festival! Can you please tell us a bit about your entry, ‘Generation Girl’?

‘Generation Girl’ was written by Fiona Gillman and shot on 16mm film. I connected with the important feminist comments the script presented, such as body image, portrayal of females in the media and misogyny. The film follows the events that unfold when two girls realise they’re after the same boy. It’s a satirical comedy with a big twist at the end!

How did you find out about the Uni Shorts Film Festival and what made you decide to enter?

A fellow SFS student James Harris entered the film into the festival and I was very excited when we got the news that the film had been accepted.

Did you make ‘Generation Girl’ especially for the Uni Shorts competition?
No, we made it as a major Sydney Film School Part 1 project.
In your opinion, what makes a film stand out to the judges in a film festival or competition?
A film that understands and follows the language of cinema is all well and good, but it’s nothing without a strong story and a compelling comment.

Do you think that it is a good idea to make a film with submitting it into a film festival in mind, or should that thought come after you have made it?
I think that having a festival in mind can be distracting and might tempt filmmakers to change their ideas to appeal to festival panels, rather than tell a story with your own artistic vision. Films shouldn’t be made to win awards, they should be made to express ideas and tell stories.

How did what you have learnt at Sydney Film School help you to make ‘Generation Girl’ and enter it into Uni Shorts?
Making the film was the learning experience in itself, which is what I think is unique about Sydney Film School. You’ll learn more by making films than studying them.

Do you believe that students should be submitting films into competitions before they graduate to gain experience in this for when they graduate?
Definitely, there’s nothing to lose by entering films into festivals and it’s a great learning process. 

What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished an Art Department Assistant role on an upcoming ABC show called ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’. I built some really weird and crazy props which was great! The show airs in November, keep an eye out for it!!

A SFS Q & A with Maya Newell, Director of acclaimed new Australian film ‘Gayby Baby’

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After screenings at HotDocs in Toronto, Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby has been highly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and has just been announced as one of the AACTA nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary. 2006 Sydney Film School graduate Newell made Gayby Baby in order to give a voice to the children of same-sex parents as they have a right to be heard through the political climate noise. The film is Newell’s debut feature and will receive a cinema release on September 3.

We have had t​he good fortune to speak to Maya Newell and we thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about Gayby Baby and the ways in which others can learn from her experiences.

Interview and article by Nicole Newton-Plater

Q. Congratulations on Gayby Baby being nominated for an AACTA! You must be absolutely thrilled!
A. Oh, yeah…we are still pinching ourselves! It’s really, really exciting. Also because a lot of the other films nominated are quite large budget films and it feels like we’re The Little Film That Could!

Q. Gayby Baby is such a beautiful film as it goes into the homes of children with same-sex parents and shows that they really are just normal children living what is presently a semi-unique situation. Was this something you strived to do, show the balance between normalcy and unique?
A. Yes, I mean I think this is a question that comes up a lot when people are speaking about our families and that is what is different and what is the same. I think the film really speaks to the idea that, of course our families have all the same banal and intricacies of any of our straight parent counterparts, but at the same time there are a lot of unique and exciting things that happen with gay parents and hopefully we are at a point where we can celebrate those differences. A lot of the time we say that children of gay families are normal and that they are the same as everyone else, but I think we shouldn’t have to say that our families are normal in order to be seen as equal.

Q. You literally spent years with the four families featured in the film. How important was the editing process with all the footage that you had in making sure that what you were trying to say with the film got across to audiences?
A. In documentary I believe that the editing is everything. From writing to beginning to end, the biggest part in writing comes from the editing room. So it’s absolutely essential. We had a really fantastic editor, Rochelle Oshlack who was responsible for Bran Nue Dae and the First Australians series and she just really worked magic on the film and brought a real intimate touch as she has a lot of attention to detail in her editing and I learned a lot from her. At the same time through the whole process we worked in a very collaborative way as we had a lot of input​.​

Billy Marshall Stoneking was the Executive Producer of the film and I believe he has also taught writing at Sydney Film School before. He has accompanied me as a creative companion ever since my first film, Richard which I made at Sydney Film School and every film I have made since. Of course, my producer, Charlotte (Mars), who I suppose is often confronted with and frustrate​d​ by the idea that the producer is not creative because in actual fact we have worked very collaboratively throughout the film. To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know how many hours we had in the end because we don’t really measure it by hours anymore, we measure it by terabytes. ​We probably had at least a hundred hours and we spent almost eight months editing the film so it couldn’t have been that easy!

Q. You, yourself are a child of same-sex parents. Was making the film an emotional experience for you?
A. Yes, definitely. The genesis of the project comes from a place of wanting to speak out and give a voice to the children who grew up in a family like mine. When I was a kid, there was definitely no documentaries about kids growing up in same-sex families and our voice was completely unheard. So one of the beautiful thing​s​ about making the film was I got to spend time with children from same-sex families around the country and I think there was a certain level of connection that was achieved because of my own upbringing. I was able to ask questions which maybe drew connections between my life and theirs. I think that definitely the level of intimacy in the film is largely because of the emotional, personal connection with the subject matter.

Q. Do you believe that it is important to write and make films about something you know or that is close to your heart?
A. I do, and I really like the concept of tribal storytelling. I think that idea really comes from a place of saying something that you care about. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you have same-sex parents and therefore you are making a film about same-sex parents, but as far as you do have an emotional connection to connect with that tribe or group of people who you are trying to represent. You have to authentically want to tell their story, so that while not everyone does that when making films, some of my favourite stories are tribal stories.

Q. In the background of Gayby Baby is the political question of same-sex marriage in Australia, yet the film isn’t about this. What were some of the challenges in making sure that the film wasn’t political?
A. You know, I think we have never denied that the context in which the film was made in is very political and in the end that is the draw card for a lot of people to come and see the film as it is so highly debated in Australia at the moment. However, the film is not political at all. When you watch it, yes it is a film about children growing up with same-sex parents but it is largely a film about parenting and growing up and it connects these pivotal human experiences. I think if audiences are drawn to the cinema because of the political content, I hope they leave the cinema understanding​,​ acknowledging that it is not really a political story, but a story about what connects and what separates us. I think that has been a challenge through the whole making as well, that I believe making an ad for gay families or making something with direct political persuasive techniques is never going to trick anyone because in the 21st century we are very used to advertising and understanding how the media works to convince us of things.

Q. What was your experience like working with children?
A. Oh, they are surprising, amazing, delightful and moving. I have now watched them grow up for over five years so they are now young teenagers and they are part of my family. I think we never give children as much platform as we should as they are very wise. It has really been a delight. They are like my family and I really wouldn’t make a film about anyone who I didn’t respect. So I think we will have that ongoing relationship for the rest of our lives.

Q. What advice would you give to people who are to work with children in film?
A. I think it ​is ​probably similar to anyone you are going to be making a film about, which is just acknowledge that they know what they want. I think with children there is a higher level of attention to the consent process because at every stage of their development they need to be reminded of what they have committed to and the implications to that when they get older. I think as a child and as you grow up you enter into different levels of consent. So that is something we have done in this film. They whole way through we have had conversations about the implications of doing a film between us and the children.

Q. So Gayby Baby has now been part of HotDocs and Sydney Film Festival, and is about to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. What is something you have learn​ed about submitting to and getting selected for film festivals?

A. I’ve learn​ed something about film festivals which I didn’t know in my earlier films which is I think that duration of your film really counts. I used to be of the party that “Whatever, my film is 20 minutes long and that’s just the way it should be and they will take it because it is brilliant”, but I think you can really hinder your opportunities for an audience if you do decide to make something of a shorter length. I made a shorter film called Two which was 18 minutes, but if I had probably been less of an egotist and cut it down a little bit it may have gone further. I think if you are making a film which is 20 minutes in a shorts program you are literally making it that much harder for yourself because you are saying your film has to be as good as two people’s other films in that program. It may be brilliant…but you don’t want to stack the odds against yourself.

I think it is natural as a first time film director to take advice from people you know and trust because there is that many thousands of entries so I think it is really good to align one’s self and show what you have made to a more experienced director or producer so they can put a red flag on it to the festival that you are trying to get into. I think that is a really great tip as well.

Q. What are some of the things you have learn​ed from you previous documentaries that you have been able to apply to Gayby Baby?

A. I don’t know if there is that many because every film and every story is its own beast, but you just have to trust your own instinct in everything, not just creatively. Also knowing the industry and your rights in the industry. If something feels funny, it’s normally because something is funny. Work with people you love and respect and not for any other reason.

Q. What is coming up for you next in regards to directing?
A. Well, there are lots of stories that I am excited about making. Gayby Baby is not going to be my last film. So just developing other projects. I am really passionate about documentaries at the moment so I think I am going to be staying within that realm for a little while longer.

Q. What advice would you Gayby-Babygive to people looking to get into documentary filmmaking?
A. Just spend lots of time with people and pay attention to a lot of the amazing things going on in the world. Read the paper, listen to podcasts, be inspired.

An Australian in Sweden

(SFS Graduate Oscar Molinari shares a story of his journey from Sydney Film School, Australia to Roy Andersson’s Studio 24 in Sweden)

There comes a point in any career when you begin to hunger for greener pastures.

The desire starts small, a gentle realisation that you’ve been sitting on a film idea for months without doing anything. It grows a bit stronger when you go to meeting after meeting and you realise that you’re not getting anywhere. Finally it dawns on you: “I talk more than I do”.

It’s not that there wasn’t any work or opportunity in Sydney but I had got into a rut. I needed to break out of it in a radical way.

Going to Sweden was the answer.

Becoming a real Swede

Admittedly the choice of country wasn’t a snap decision. For anyone that’s graduated from Sydney Film School you’ll know that Swedes are a well-represented group. While I was studying I met a lot of great people from Sweden and I knew that if I went there then I would have the advantage of friends and contacts that I could call on. Sweden also has a very active industry and they have a high pedigree of filmmaking. It seemed to be the perfect place to hone my skills and have new and unique experiences outside of my comfort zone.

With all this in mind I booked my ticket and prepared to leave Australia. I will admit that I left with a high amount of optimism and a very limited amount of pre-planning. Something that if I was to make the trip again I would certainly change.

Believing in your abilities is crucial but it is also important to get a sense of the lay of the land before you go anywhere. It is especially true when you are going to start looking for work in an unfamiliar country. Doing the research to find out what productions are working on what, who are some of the key players in the industry, where the majority of the productions take place etc. can only help to make life easier. Perhaps it was pride or stubbornness that made me refuse to do some simple google searches beforehand. Whatever it was don’t make the same mistake I suggest.

I landed in Sweden and went through the motions of starting a new life. Sweden does bureaucracy very well and the first month was a nightmare of trying to open bank accounts, obtain a personal number which is required for almost everything official and actually be able to work. Sweden and Australia have a reciprocal agreement on working holidays but I had a lot of difficulty finding someone in the Swedish immigration department who knew anything about this.

In the meantime I ran into a fellow student of SFS on the street and was given the contact of a production company. The company offered me work on an IKEA commercial and things began to look up. What could be more fated than working on an IKEA commercial in Sweden? Unfortunately they wouldn’t employ me without a Scandinavian bank account and I couldn’t open a bank account without a job contract which I wasn’t going to get from this job. The cycle continued. It was after this incident that I thought about coming back to Australia. When the money starts running out and you aren’t even sure you will be able to get a job it is probably time to cut your losses. I made one final push to get my personal number and was successful. That last sentence cannot capture the enormity of the achievement. They are notoriously hard to get and I am still not sure why I was given one and can’t really provide any advice. They really do bureaucracy well.

With this boost I started a relentless drive to get work. I called and emailed and called and emailed. I became a master of calling and emailing. Sweden has a well-established industry and as a non-Swedish speaking outsider it was difficult. I got a lot of maybes and a lot of brush offs. This is not unique to Sweden. Finally on the phone to a production manager they seemed to hesitate just a little bit more than usual when asked if there were any positions available. Eventually it was still a maybe but I had managed to get a vague promise of being able to come into the studio and have a look around. The next day I turned up at the front door.

The studio was Roy Andersson‘s Studio 24.

Crew watching a take

I took a tour and met with some of the staff and while looking at the scene they were working on at the time I met Roy himself and had a brief chat about his methods and the scene. I left without any concrete answers on whether or not I could come back but I felt that in any case I had met with Roy and seen the studio and if I didn’t work there it was still an experience. I went back to my full time job of trying to find work but I now had the very tip of my toe in the front door at Studio 24. After another week of correspondence they offered me one day of work on the shooting as an assistant. After all the ups and downs things were finally starting to go my way.

I arrived at the shooting ready to throw myself into any role that was needed. Would they want me in the art department? The camera department? As an AD? What tests would be in store for me?

Pasta. The simple answer was pasta.

The scene was set in a school hall populated by students and their parents. A young girl would be standing on the stage reciting a poem while her teacher corrected her as she forgot her lines. Everything would be taking place in ‘A’ hall.

I should quickly describe the layout of Studio 24. After the success of ‘A Swedish Love Story’ Roy was able to buy an apartment block in an area of Stockholm called Ostermalm. The ground floor is a large office and garage and the back section is a small studio. Next to that studio is the basement and ground floor of the neighbouring apartment block which used to house a small cinema. The space has been converted into a larger studio and it was here that the school hall had been built. On the first floor is a kitchen, the production office, Roy’s office and an editing suite.

The kitchen was where I spent most of the time that day.

My job was to prepare lunch and make sure that there was an unbroken supply of coffee. There was also the added bonus of having to directly compete with another applicant for the position. We would each be given a kitchen, I would cook for cast, she would cook for crew. In the whole day I only got to see a few takes of the scene before I had to hurry back upstairs and continue my work. Nothing went majorly wrong and at the end of the day I was thanked, paid and sent on my way with no idea if I was any closer to getting a job.

It would be another week of calling and emailing before I was told that I was able to come to the studio as an intern. My internship at the studio lasted for about five weeks. My first task was to dismantle the entire school hall set. Over the last two years my focus had been on writing and directing not on set deconstruction or in the case of my first attempt, destruction. The beginning was slow but after a few days of moving flats, window frames and dismantling everything I started to get the hang of it again. At the end of my time at the studio I could do the same amount of work in a day.

Roy giving directions in a rehearsal

My internship at the studio was an intense period of learning because the studio operates in a very unique way. All the scenes are storyboarded and the basic layout is already figured out. Everything else is changeable. At the beginning of a new scene the walls are laid out and the camera is positioned. The film is being shot on the RED and once the camera position is determined then it stays on all day every day so that changes can be made and viewed directly through the monitor. After that, wall and floor colours are tested with Roy guiding the process and determining the direction they will take. If there is any furniture in the room they generally go in early to complete the space. It is not uncommon that when a scene is almost complete Roy may decide that it is not what he had envisaged and a complete overhaul is done. Roofs may get raised ten centimetres in some cases.

Roy also tends not to use professional actors and through the course of preparing the set many people come in and auditioned. Even before that crew are used to block through actions or test dialogue. I got to stand in a few times in different scenes and it was great to interact with Roy as an actor. While we were shooting a scene in a warehouse on the outskirts of Stockholm that involved 18th century soldiers on horseback I was standing in as foot soldier and I was approached by one of the production staff:

“You can ride a horse right?” More of a statement than a question really.
“Ahhh sure but it’s been about ten years…” My careful reply.
“Ok great jump on this one”

Trying to look calm while riding a horse in a rehearsal

I think I did ok but I wasn’t asked to reprise my cavalry role. The other riders definitely got nervous when I asked how you make horses walk backwards.

In hindsight that was one of the great elements of working at the studio. Even though all the staff had special talents and skills there was not such a strict hierarchy to prohibit working on all sorts of different tasks. One day you are painting, the next you are on top of a sky-lift 3meters above the ground setting up a green screen. Or pretending to be a horse.

Unfortunately that last part is not a joke. The scene we shot in the warehouse involved a bar and street scene. The bar is disrupted by the arrival of Swedish 18th century soldiers and Charles the 12th, a famous warrior-king. To clear the bar a soldier charges in on horseback swinging a sword and screaming at the patrons to clear out. I can’t reveal too much but the scene is intricate and frankly epic. The horse charging in is a frightening specimen and the fear on the extras is genuine. The problem with using the horse was that after a few takes the horse had started to learn a rhythm and was losing some of the manic and wild qualities that made it so frightening.

I was working with props on the day of the shooting as I had been helping paint rifles and create crutches, a stretcher and a huge tattered flag. Suddenly the production manager approached with a request. He asked if I could stand in for the horse on a rehearsal.

Obviously I’m dubious. You want me to go into the bar and jump around like a wild horse? Yes.

Ha ha very funny, this is a practical joke. No. Just stand there, look for the green light as a queue and charge in. So of course this is exactly what I do. After the green light goes on I gallop up to the door of the bar, enter, survey the room and then proceed to canter around. How do you act like a wild horse? I don’t really know – I just sort of leaped up and down on the spot. So there I am in front of the crew and cast leaping up and down and nobody is reacting. Not a single person. The two actors in the scene who this rehearsal is for just stare at me blankly when they should be cowering in fear. I scream the line that the soldier screams in my rough Swedish. No one moves. I start leaping more and more frantically. No one is moving. Finally Roy screams “cut”. I stare around in confusion, what happened? No one was told I would be a horse. I just spent a minute running around like a wild horse and nobody said a word. Swedish people can be very polite sometimes. I still had to be the horse for a few more rehearsals.

That was probably one of the more extreme scenarios I was in at the studio. I’m still mad that they didn’t record it.

In the end the studio became an enormous part of my life in Sweden. I worked there 5 days a week and generally more when we were shooting. The staff became good friends and there was a great sense of camaraderie. Roy is affable and intelligent and it was always nice to have a glass of wine after a shoot and talk. Not knowing Swedish was a problem sometimes, especially when I first started and all the meetings would be in Swedish. Eventually I picked it up as best as I could and maybe I can’t discuss politics but I can navigate a Swedish hardware store with ease.

Outside the studio I tried my best to acclimatise myself to the Swedish winter, the Stockholm mindset and all the other bits and pieces that come with a new country. As an Australian Stockholm can be hard at first. People are reserved in the extreme. I have had more friendly chats with fellow commuters and shop people in the last week of getting back then I ever did in the year I was in Stockholm. The flip side is that when you get to know someone, which takes more effort, then I think the friendship has a more genuine quality.

I did learn to love sil, pickled herring, caviar paste on hard bread and all the other unique Swedish foods on offer. I picked berries in late summer. I swam in lakes and walked through forests. I made smultron jam. I made snowmen. I tried to throw myself into everything that had a hint of Swedishness. I’m so glad that I did because I got to see so much more of the country and understand what being a Swede is all about.
The only problem is that it’s cold. I don’t really want to talk about weather ever again though. An obsession that most Swedes have. The most common question I got asked when I arrived in Sweden was “How cold does it get in Sydney?” When I told them what I thought was the average they would nod sagely “Well that’s not really winter”. After surviving a winter I have to agree. If you want to live in Sweden for a period of time get used to talking about the weather.

All in all Sweden was good to me.

I got to work in a studio with talented people headed by a premiere director. I got to travel and experience a new culture. I got to make some great friends. I also got to gain a perspective on my own efforts to pursue film in Australia.

Roy, to paraphrase, would say “Failure is not an option.” Cliched but true.
I was lucky. But I was stubborn and persistent when it came to looking for work. It took being ripped from my comfort zone to finally push me into being more active.

It is very easy to spend a lot of time talking about the projects and ideas you have but if you don’t treat them like do or die there is no point. Really understanding that was the best part of Sweden.

Do you have a Question for Oscar? If yes shoot him an email: oscarmolinarisfs@gmail.com
If you would like to ask Roy Anderson a question you can email your question to iferris@sydneyfilmschool.com and we will pass it to Roy. The answer will appear in one of our future blog posts so stay tuned…..