Interview With Writer/Director Cate Shortland

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Credits include Somersault and Lore

By the time this piece goes to print, there won’t be anybody left who doesn’t know that film director Cate Shortland, in her mid 30s, is originally a Canberra girl. Her film Somersault has screened at the Cannes and Edinburgh festivals this year, and been very well received. For some reason, I suggest, it seems like a long way from Duffy in the ACT, further away than it is for someone from Randwick or Brunswick in our big cities to the international film festival circuit. But what does Cate think?

‘I think we’re really lucky in Canberra because even though when I grew up there was a lot of drugs, there was also an amazing creative, angry youth culture that pushed people to excel in what they were doing. You wanted to know things. You were never complacent.’

‘It wasn’t daggy to have read (Flaubert’s) Madame Bovary or (Dostoyevsky’s) The Idiot and it was, like, if you hadn’t by the time you were 16, there was something wrong.’ And thinking it over a bit more she said, ‘because there was nothing to do (in Canberra), you always had to … find something to do.’

Because her family lived in Weston Creek, she was always on the buses. ‘That’s what I remember of Canberra.’ There’s frequent laughter during our interview, and this point is followed by another peel of laughter. ‘Hanging out at the interchange in minus eight degrees waiting for the last bus home.’

From when she was small, her parents took her to the drive-in and she saw The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure which both left a big impression. She can recall seeing her first art-house movie at Electric Shadows. It might have been an introduction to Luis Bunuel’s surrealism but she thinks it was most likely an Andy Warhol season. ‘All that white trash desolation – it really stayed in my mind’.

We then move on to the main female character in her new film. Sixteen-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) leaves home for Jindabyne when she’s caught making a pass at her mum’s boyfriend. In the mountains she gets a job at the servo and falls in love with Joe (Sam Worthington). Why did Cate choose the name Heidi? Was it anything to do with the Joanna Spyri childhood classic about a flaxen haired girl who lived in the Swiss Alps? ‘It’s funny because when it started it wasn’t set in the mountains, she just happened to be called Heidi after someone I knew.’ It was later, when the location was moved to Jindabyne, that Somersault took on this resonance.

Yes, Cate loved books like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did Next, Little Women and ‘all of that really, really girlie, girlie stuff’. She always wanted the emotion, and a book wasn’t any good unless you had a good cry.

This takes our discussion to melodrama. It might had been synonymous with the ‘woman’s weepie’ but melodrama has such a strong presence when you think about it. What about all those Indian movies from Bollywood to Mira Nair, French films, English (think Mike Leigh), and Spanish (think Almodovar) Then there’s the The Piano.

Cate mentions some of the directors who have influenced her, directors famous for their melodrama such as Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes and Fassbinder, and recalled: ‘I love Fassbinder films like Ali (aka Fear Eats the Soul) The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and also Sirk’s Written on the Wind.’

Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, a classic Australian melodrama, was an early influence, and in fact the rambling rural homestead where Joe’s family live in Somersault is the same house that featured in My Brilliant Career. A film called Jesus’ Son by New Zealand filmmaker Alison Maclean was also a great influence on Cate. Having not seen it myself, I make a mental note to catch up with it.

Somersault is just lovely to look at, with its cold palette and bleached out high country landscapes. Of the photographers Cate mentions as influences on her, like Nan Goldin and Bill Henson, what was it about their work that captured her imagination? ‘It’s probably the sense of drama in their images, a sense of narrative in the landscape – and a sense of foreboding.’

Does Cate think there’s a women’s language in film? Most definitely. ‘I was talking to Jan Chapman (the producer) about it the other day. Like for most of the women that we’re friends with, there’s a longing. Jan said it’s one of the things that’s in all women filmmakers’ work and it’s really true.’

Cate wanted to be a painter, then a photographer before she took up film directing. She’s been quoted saying she is happy to leave the technical issues to her crew, but she says her next project will be very technically demanding. ‘You’re forced into changing and learning the technical side, even if it’s not your forte.’

Closing, there’s more laughter. ‘I can’t even drive a car, so Canberra’s like – ‘bloody hell’. More laughter.

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