Hollywood

From Sydney Film School to Hollywood

by Nicole Newton-Plater

Australian educated filmmakers are highly regarded the world over and no more so than in the centre of global filmmaking, Hollywood. We caught up with a few SFS alumni who are plying their trade in L.A to check out what they are up to and get some insight into how to break into the Hollywood film scene.

2009 Sydney Film School Alumni, Agnes Baginska, won a full scholarship to the David Lynch MA film program at Maharishi University of Management and was mentored by the filmmaker in his studio in Los Angeles. She has continued to work there ever since. Agnes describes the town as the Mecca of filmmaking and a city that revolves around film as a business.

“Statistically speaking, there are approximately 650 movies produced per year in the USA, while in Australia it’s closer to 40…numbers say it all” Baginska says. “Because there are so many productions happening there, people are attracted to it…but it’s a catch 22 because there are thousands of filmmakers arriving in L.A. every year hoping to make it, so the competition is fierce”

Melanie Jayne, who graduated from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma in 2015, is currently working in Los Angeles after winning the 2016 Village Roadshow Entertainment Group and Animal Logic Entertainment Internship. Jayne agrees that there are far greater opportunities in LA than there are in Australia as it has a relatively small industry in comparison.

“Australia nurtures a lot of terrific talent, but unfortunately there aren’t always the opportunities to grow in the field there are here” she says.

But the size of the Australian filmmaking scene is also seen as beneficial to those Australians who are trying to break into the Hollywood glamour.

Lee Launay, graduated from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma in 2010 and now works part-time in the United States in Art Direction. Lee has found that his education and background in Australia and working in the Australian film industry gave him a head start when seeking work in the U.S.

“I started small by landing an Art Director roll on a short film produced by James Franco called City Bus. I felt intimidated at the prospect of working with Franco, but soon realized that everyone was really impressed with my level of dedication and professionalism” Launay explains. “I realised that the Australian work standard is extremely high and also highly valued due to the size and competitive nature of the job market here. That also made me realise that having an Australian training was indeed a privilege”.

Gracie Otto, who graduated from Sydney Film School in 2007 and has gone on to direct several short films as well as the critically acclaimed feature length documentary The Last Impresario, also believes that having worked in the Australian film industry and being educated here is a great positive when working in Los Angeles.

“As far as talent and crew go, Australia can match anything in the States” Otto says. “There are so many Australians doing great work in the States and I think they have a good reputation here”.

Sydney Film School has been recognised by many as one of the top film schools in the world and it will therefore come as no surprise that it has an impressive record of nurturing Australian filmmaking talent to take on the world. The education which students receive at Sydney Film School is a hands-on filmmaking experience with teachers who have worked in the industry. Upon completion of their Diploma or Advanced Diploma, students have been equipped with the right tools to be career ready and feel as though their filmmaking journey has already begun.

Kate Hickey graduated from Sydney Film School in 2006 and moved to the United States straight after to start her career in editing in New York and has since progressed to Los Angeles where she has just finished editing the documentary Roller Dreams and an episode of HBO’s “Girls”. Hickey says that Sydney Film School taught her to love and be passionate about the art form of editing and nurtured this love so that she was able to start her filmmaking journey in the United States straight after graduation. When asked advice for people beginning their filmmaking journey to the United States, she says “It’s easier to get lost in the backwaters if you don’t keep your wits about you. Use your instincts and do what you love”.

Melanie Jayne is also quick to agree that what she learnt at Sydney Film School has helped her make the most of her time in the United States.

“The Advanced Diploma program at Sydney Film School gave me a really great holistic view of the filmmaking process from the development to post-production of a film” she says. “While the work I have been doing at my internship has strictly been in development, it helped me to have such a well-rounded knowledge of the film process”.

When Gracie Otto was asked how Sydney Film School has helped her with her work in the United States, she says “I think the fact that I just hit the ground running at Sydney Film School. I was there only a couple of weeks and I had pitched to direct a film and then I was making it…the immediacy of working that way has given me confidence to tackle any job I am offered”.

There’s no getting away from it, finding your feet in Hollywood is tough. As you step through those glass doors and into our fabulously vintage foyer for the first time, the bright lights of Hollywood may seem a million miles away. However, it may be reassuring to know that many of your predecessors have successfully trodden that exact path and that an SFS education, a supportive alumni group and entry via the Australian Film Industry can certainly provide you with a head start if that is your journey.

 

A Q&A with film and television Art Director and Sydney Film School alumni, Lee Launay

by Nicole Newton-Plater

Sydney Film School prides itself on giving it’s students a hands-on education to film-making so that they go into the competitive Australian film industry as prepared as possible with all the tools they need to start their long and successful careers. Graduate Lee Launay is only too happy to talk about this aspect of his alma mater and how it has helped him with his career thus far.

Since graduating from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma course in 2010, Lee has worked in art and production design in both film and television in Australia and in the United States. He worked in the props department on the set of the 2013 films Goddess and The Wolverine and as the art director on episodes of the television shows The Voice and Disney Channel’s Hanging With Adam and Ash and the upcoming film, Jack Goes Home.

We are delighted that Lee has taken the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his experience at Sydney Film School and the benefits to his career of choosing to study there.

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How did you initially decide to begin your filmmaking study at Sydney Film School?

I was always interested in design and storytelling. I spent more time building cardboard buildings, caves and spaceships for my action figures than I did acutely playing with them. I’d draw comics, write fiction and get some friends together to film improvised fantasy and drama shorts. They were awful, but put me on the path toward studying film. I had looked at a few other film schools, but didn’t want the sterile university vibe. I fell in love with the Sydney Film School creative space as soon as I walked in. It had character from top to bottom, and was full of instructors who were active filmmakers, not just full time teachers. The vibe is what got me and I’m very glad with my decision.

How did you decide to make art direction and production design your filmmaking focus?

When I began at film school I assumed (as most do) I would turn out a director. Over the intense year at SFS I tried many on-set roles, learning their responsibilities and the realities of what each entailed. I learnt a lot about my natural abilities, and through collaborating with other filmmakers developed a slew of new ones. It seemed my skills at drawing and ability to comprehend and articulate ideas into images made me a good fit for art direction. I dived in while in my second semester and have been working in the industry ever since.

You’ve now done work in both film and television. What are the major differences between working in the two? 

Working freelance is a constant hustle, but its always offering fresh and unique experiences. I’ve found that TVC and commercial music videos are very demanding but offer good money for short periods of high stress. Television shows are always under funded and thus art departments are always under the gun to deliver on tight turn-arounds, but it’s constant, dependable work with a steady pay check and forges great working relationships that ultimately lead to more work later. Feature films are their own beasts entirely. A visiting production from the USA has a very different feel to a local feature and the budgets involved can vary dramatically. Feature films offer a fantastic scope of challenges and are where I would ideally like to spend most of my time. Working with a dedicated crew on a single project for a long period of time really tests your mettle and evolves you in your chosen art.

In your few first credits in film and television you were working in the props department. What does working with props entail? Is this a good place to get your foot in the door working in the art department on projects?

The Wolverine remains the biggest production I’ve worked on. I was hired as “Assistant Standby Props”, which is a gloriously misleading term for “Assistant to the On-Set Art Director”. It’s a role that mixes set dressing, prop fixing, rigging, carpentry, SFX, construction, cleaning and A LOT of sweating. I got to build some set pieces and props that got a major close up in the film. I became “Claw-Wrangler” of Wolverine’s deadly blades and would be called on by the Director by name to solve problems as they arose. Strangely when given the extra responsibility, I sort of “settled” into the high-stress environment more. The lessons learnt were invaluable and talking favourite 90’s cartoon theme songs with Hugh Jackman between resets will remain a treasured memory.

What was it like to work on films Goddess and The Wolverine?

Working on a big set is daunting no matter your role. There are so many people to meet, names to remember and protocols to adjust to that I remember feeling really overwhelmed the first time. But with each completed project I realize there isn’t as big a difference between short film and ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’. The budgets are bigger and there’s more to do, but at the end of the day you are still showing up early, solving problems creatively and then going home to do it again the next day. No matter the budget, the “perfect” tool for the job is rarely in reach and it comes down to the ingenuity of the team in place to keep the project moving forward.

You’ve now made the move to be working part-time in the United States. When did you decide to start work in the United States and what was the process like to break into the film business there?

LA is a soup of people trying to ‘make it’. Everyone is trying to do something. Every waiter is an actor, every receptionist a model or a singer… it’s a big masquerade ball of people doing things to survive long enough to “make it” doing something else…myself included I guess. Everyone is a scrapper; it reminds me of that Old Ben line from A New Hope, “Never was there a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”.

In contrast Australia’s film industry is a small one. We have incredibly highly trained and talented professionals doing amazing work on the limited number of production available. After a few years of stable freelance work I wanted a new big challenge, so began to search out productions abroad. In the USA there are a huge number of productions being crewed and completed everyday, the foot in was all I needed. I started small by landing an art director roll on a short film produced by James Franco called “City Bus”. I felt intimidated at the prospect of working with Franco, but soon realized that everyone was really impressed with my level of dedication and professionalism.

I realized that the Australian standard of work is very high due to our competition in the job market, and that having trained here was indeed a privilege. With the fear of being an ‘outsider’ somewhat faded, I threw myself at more projects, always aiming up and last year I Art Directed my first feature film shooting in upstate New York as head of the art department. Jack Goes Home is a psychological thriller directed by Thomas Dekker and starring Rory Culkin, Lin Shaye, Britt Robertson, Natasha Lyonne, and Nikki Reed, which premiered at SXSW Festival in March and will hit Australia early 2017.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itYrHQEqQuE

People often comment on the differences in film financing between Australia and other countries. As you work in production design and in the art department, is this something you feel is evident in production when you are working overseas?

Yes. Australian funding rests largely in winning grants or being awarded funds by government bodies. In the USA there is a market for producers to gain multiple streams of private funding,either on their own merits or on their ability to sell the production to a financier. An indie feature’s budget can start at $300,000 USD and then be rocketed up to $1million USD while shooting through acquiring additional executive producers, letting them visit the set, “wowing” them with the footage shot or simply by getting the right handshake over drinks at a bar. The funding structure the USA seems much less rigid and with more to go around. However, having said that I am not a producer, so I’m sure there’s an entire inside-ballgame that I was not privy too. I’ll just say that I think the Australian Film industry is dramatically underfunded and I really hope we can begin to create Australian franchises to send internationally,as opposed to simply crewing American features that shoot here to save a few bucks.

What are some of the challenges you have faced working in the art department in film?

You name it. There’s no proper way for me to answer this question. Filmmaking is all about challenges. Overcoming challenges against insane odds is what we do. It’s how we learn, how we grow and how we become fearless. I’ve encountered everything from trying to safely orchestrate a horse-mounted gun-fight sequence on a mud slicked hill in thick fog under a heavy rain machine to how to dig a meteor sized crater in the desert, and where to hide all the dirt. No matter the production demands the biggest challenge remains getting out of bed on a cold morning.

You still have a great deal of contact with Sydney Film School. Do you feel that it is important to stay in close contact with where you studied?

Important? I don’t know. I certainly like it. I would not be where I am without the tutelage of Sydney Film School and as I worked with filmmakers who studied elsewhere, I became certain that I made the right choice. A film school needs to allow growth, it needs to hold its own spirit and it needs to challenge you. Nothing has ever been nourished by a concrete slab, which sadly I feel are all other film courses offer…blocks of pre-fabricated lesson plans. I like staying in contact with SFS as it keeps me connected to the future of the Australia film industry. On a selfish level I know that somewhere in each semester is a future producer or director who may ultimately hire me, but really this industry is all about collaboration and I know that every year SFS will produce another set of talented art directors destined to be a collaborator. I do my best to offer assistant roles and paid work placements to alumni as often as I can. I know they will have a strong work ethic and take pride in the results. The SFS community is a unique one that I’m proud to be a part of.

How has what you learnt at SFS helped you in your career thus far?

The greatest offering by Sydney Film School was the ability to try new thing and make mistakes on working film sets. SFS’s focus on practical film making means you can try and fail over and over in a supportive environment, so you can learn from, and ultimately not make those mistakes when working on a professional production. In my first semester I volunteered on a dozen Part 2 Thesis films and I made every mistake in the book from sleeping through alarms, to breaking things, to my phone ringing while filming… you name it, I learnt the lesson in film school. I continue to learn from every production, but becoming intimate with on-set etiquette and protocol was invaluable to me delivering on the first jobs that got my foot in the door.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’ve just wrapped on a short film by Australian director Genevieve Clay-Smith called Kill Off staring ‘American Horror Story’s’ Jamie Brewer. I’m now beginning pre-production for a music video with director George-Alex Nagle, who is another SFS Alumni, to shoot early next month with a TVC to follow. I have plans to return to the USA for a feature film at Christmas, but as productions often get delayed I’m still looking for work locally just in case.

If you could give one piece of advice to those starting their filmmaking journey, what would it be?

Try everything, stay focused and don’t give up. Life is going to be tough no matter what, so prepare your self for a lot of soul-searching in-between each amazing production. Filmmakers suffer from a great deal of ‘impostor syndrome’ and self doubt that can make the jobs we don’t get seem more important than the ones we do, but it’s this feeling of ‘Oh maybe I’m not good enough’ that keeps us humble, keeps us motivated and keeps pushing us to aim higher and higher. So stay focused on your goal, I’ve found it to be a truly amazing existence, worth every petty stress and sleepless nights.

Bob Ellis: Keynote Speech at the 19th SFS Festival

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On 12th December, esteemed Australian writer and filmmaker, Bob Ellis gave the keynote address to a packed Chauvel Cinema in Paddington to kick off the final session of the 19th Sydney Film School Festival. Here are his words of inspiration.

“When I began first making films in Sydney – a drama called Who Travels Alone about an Australian soldier dying in a nameless Asian war and in a steamy, muddy jungle remembering home, in April, 1960 – it was with a borrowed Arriflex and short ends stolen from Cinesound by my cameramen Mick Molloy, later to shoot Barry Lyndon, and Peter Hannam, later to shoot 2001 – -A Space Odyssey, and it was a kind of weekend outing, with no thought of funding, or even release.

Films were made then for love, by young men like Bruce Beresford, who at fourteen persuaded the Australian army to lend him two tanks for his anti-war film, and Chris McGill, who at twenty made After Proust in two weekends with borrowed carriages and parasols in Centennial Park, and belonged, as a rule, to Communist-connected Russian film appreciation societies and screened Ivan The Terrible Part One and The Cranes Are Flying a lot, and The Overcoat, and the Sydney University Film Society which favoured the Marx Brothers, Bob and Bing, and the earlier Pommy comedies of Peter Sellers.

All of us, of course, awaited eagerly the new subtitled films at the Gala and the Lido and their refreshing nude sequences. One Summer of Happiness comes to mind, Black Orpheus and The Virgin Spring. You can never appreciate how, in those days, in Les Murray’s words, ‘Film was our spare religion’. We awaited each new Bergman offering with the same elated suspense as our ancestors awaited each new Papal Bull. What is the answer, Ingmar? What is the answer this time?

Bergman, and Antonioni, Renais, Alf Sjoberg, Renoir and Marcel Camus seemed to comprise all wisdom, and Fellini to be an embracing Shakespearian universe that we preferred to our own memories of childhood, wartime, circuses and acrobats and clowns.

We were ‘opened up’ by cinema in those times as a previous generation had ben by Marxist activism, and a later one by drugs. If the Seventh Seal had meaning, then 2001 had, wow, total meaning, and the films of 1968, In The Heat Of The Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, 2001, and the dreary, Oscar winning Oliver! seemed a tumult of possibility, a gateway to a new world.

And, in Australia, it was.

Bazza McKenzie, Libido, The Cars That Ate Paris, Sunday Too Far Away, Caddie, Newsfront, Don’s Party, Alvin Purple – I had credits on only three of those films – opened us up and internationalised us as never before, Newsfront was made for four hundred thousand dollars, and the great breakthrough war film Breaker Morant, dizzyingly, for eight hundred thousand dollars, and in each if the above a PROFIT achieved by the film adoring students of the Russian classics who were, then, the entire film industry.

Then 10BA occurred, and the lawyers and accountants got in. The Treasurer, John Howard, decreed that you could write off 150 per cent of your profits and 50 per cent of your losses, but each film must be done by June 30, which meant all films were begun, at the latest, the previous October, and everyone was bidding for the same ten cinematographers whose prices quadrupled. Soon four and five million were being spent by tax-avoiding dentists on a two-page script, and shysters demanding actors improvise, or fight to the death a savage koala, and from this absurd inflation of cost, dumbing down of standards, and the unique and typical two-faced creation of John Howard, we’ve never truly recovered.

State film funding bodies sprang up, and, under Keating, a film bank, run by Kim Williams, called the Australian Film Finance Corporation. But never fully addressed the big budgets – Oscar and Lucinda with Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes, cost eighteen million and lost the lot – and the rapid migration overseas of our better directors, actors, editors, designers and cinematographers, to work on sometimes demeaning projects in Hollywood. Simon Wincer made The Lighthorsemen here, and Free Willy there, Fred Schepisi made Jimmy Blacksmith here, and Mr Baseball there, and IQ, a wacky romantic comedy about Albert Einstein administrating the difficulties of two young lovers. I proposed at one time what I called a Judas Clause for all Australian directors who trained here and did well overseas, that they send one half of their income over a million dollars each year, home to Australia, which made them, and got nothing back from them.

This migration, however, did less harm than one might think. The film schools disgorged each year considerable talent, and the ever-cheapening new technologies empowered almost anyone with half a dozen friends to make a ten or twenty-minute film that was adored at Tropfest or Dungog or the Sydney and Melbourne festivals. Each year in the 1990s with relentless predictability brought out one or two excellent features, and three or four good ones, and five or six … acceptable ones. Ten years ago there were, by my count, five hundred good young directors viewable in the archives of Tropfest, and shows like Frontline, and The Games, and, lately, A Moody Christmas, displaying a level of international excellence that left me in no doubt that the ‘industry’ was in no trouble, though everybody in it was pretty often starving.

It is absurd, for instance, that the director of Australia’s best … or second best movie, Beneath Hill Sixty, is broke and in need of a feed most times I ring him, and actors as good as Brandon Burke, Simon Burke and Bill Charlton and Drew Forsythe and Amanda Bishop and Heather Mitchell and Laurel McGowan had interims of struggle in the last ten years.

But the answer, probably, is in this room. A vow of poverty, a group of friends, an eight hundred dollar camera, an editing computer, some NIDA actors or WAAPA actors more keen to work for nothing, than wait for the phone to ring, and a co-operative sprit like we had in 1960, a desire to make good things, now. Now, and not waiting for a committee to dally over a third or fourth draft of a script while your enthusiasm drains down into your boots, is, I’m sure, a fair description of many here tonight, awaiting the announcement of the first or second prize, and commiserating afterwards with a gang of fellow travellers, fellow pilgrims, to the Shrine of Godard and Truffaut or Tarantino or, God help us, Baz Luhrmann, and the glories that await the pure of heart and the rich of soul, on Oscar night, or BAFTA night, or … the Logies, or the Dungog wreath of honour, or something less. It is a journey worth taking, in the first or second flush of youth, to the foothills of the Matterhorn that beckons us up to amazement and bliss and immortality, or not.

It is the answer, and the only answer, and it is in this room.”

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From Left to Right: Mark Allen (Chairman of the Sydney Film School Board), Ben Ferris (SFS Artistic Director), Bob Ellis and Hannah Klassek (MC at the awards ceremony)