Ana Kokkinos doesn’t “do” happy. The celebrated Australian indie director has made a trio of bold and provocative don’t-dare-look-away pics: Head On (1998), The Book of Revelation (2006) and now her new feature, Blessed, an ensemble drama with a narrative twist. The film follows 24 calamitous hours in the lives of a group of disenfranchised youth and then, at around the half way mark, chronologically resets the story to show the same day from the perspective of their mothers. With a peculiar plot structure, complex characters and high velocity performances, Blessed must have been – as I said in my review – a real bugger to direct. On the publicity circuit shortly before the film opened theatrically in Australia, Kokkinos took time out to chat with me about making her challenging third feature.
Is being on the publicity circuit one of the more enjoyable parts of being a filmmaker or one of the least?
Well, it’s a mixed blessing in a way. It’s really great to be able to talk about the film but yeah, there’s a level on which you sort of think after the 500th interview, how can I keep talking about it in a way that is vaguely fresh?
From the opposite end of the spectrum, as an interviewer you try and ask questions that provoke a fresh response but inevitably you want to talk about things that other people have talked about as well.
Absolutely. There are some things you sort of have to talk about so it’s fine. It’s also enjoyable when you’re talking to people who are good interviewers as well. It really makes a huge difference.
Congratulations firstly on the film. I saw Blessed just yesterday so it’s very fresh in the memory.
Great. How did you find it?
It was bold, interesting, provocative. It strikes me as the sort of film that in many ways would have been an absolute bugger to direct. It changes emotional chords so quickly and there are so many high velocity performances so you are very fortunate – perhaps lucky, though that’s not really the right word – to have such a talented cast onboard. How long did the film take to cast and lengthy was the rehearsal process?
I agree about a measure of luck in terms of the actors that are in the film. Each and every one of us had a great time working together and in effect I had 13 lead actors. It was an eight month casting process, which is very long and it was very complex. When I thought about who I wanted to cast as the mothers I sat back and thought about what actors would be great for those particular roles and I approached them. We approached Frances (O’Connor) and Deb (Deborra-Lee Furness) and Miranda (Otto). Victoria (Haralabidou) was a bit of a discovery for me, and Monica Maughan. Each and every actress completed responded to the story; they relished the idea of playing these very meaty female roles. Most of them are mothers so they felt very connected to what we were exploring in the film, and at the same time I had to concurrently run a very big casting process for the kids. I think I probably would have seen about five, six hundred children. So I had a very rigorous audition process and as you know the children’s roles are very big, very complex. They carry a lot emotionally in each story for each character’s journey. So it was putting them through a very rigorous audition process and these were the kids left standing. These were the kids that kept impressing me, that kept coming back to every audition process and kind of wowing me with their intelligence but also their innate talent. And then there was the complex process of making sure that each character felt like they would fit within each respective family. So that was a huge job and I knew as I was casting it that I had to make sure that each actor was right for that particular role. Then we had a very exhaustive and long rehearsal process over a six week period.
Wow – eight months for casting and six weeks for rehearsals. That’s a hell of a lot, but I’m not surprised. One of your actors who I was recently introduced to in the film Beautiful Kate is Sophie Lowe, who contributed quite a wonderful performance in that film and has followed it up with her role in Blessed, which confirmed for me that she’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. In terms of her tone, intonation, mannerisms and manifestations of emotions I think Lowe is potentially a very powerful actor in the future.
I totally agree. It’s interesting because I was unaware – someone tipped me off about Sophie. I had seen so many girls. Someone said “have you seen this young actress called Sophie Lowe” and I said “no” so I kind of investigated a bit further and got her in for an audition. She did one take and I just thought wow, this girl is amazing. What was terrific about the audition and the role she plays in our film as Katrina is that she’s still got that sort of teenage rebellious quality to her, and she’s got a very contemporary take on that sort of slightly defiant sort of quality that teenage girls often have. She’s got a great kind of comedic quality to her as well. I agree – I think she is definitely an actress to watch and I just loved working with her. She’s a great girl.
I guess one of the obvious questions about Blessed concerns the format of the film, where you show the story of the kids in the first half and their mothers in the second. This is a very interesting way of framing their story and giving the audience a sense of perspective the drama really needs. I’m not familiar with the play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, on which you’ve based the film, but I assume this was part of the play’s structure?
No it wasn’t. It’s interesting that the original structure of the play was completely different. Four writers had written four individual stories and then a number of tangential stories around those core four stories. As we developed the screenplay and we started dramatising each story, what we found was that the screenplay just wasn’t hanging together. So we had to go back and think really carefully about what the emotional core of the story would be. There is two lines of dialogue that always resonated for me – when Rhonda (Frances O’Connor) says in the film “they’re my blessings and you’re not going to touch them.” When I went back and thought about what I emotionally connected to in the play, it was that core idea that every child is a mother’s blessing. So I went back to the writers and in particular to Andrew and said you know what, I’ve got a feeling that the emotional heart of these stories is actually about the powerful bond between mothers and their children. That really resonated for Andrew. He went away and had a long think about it and that’s when the unique structure was developed around telling the kids story first, from their point of view, and then going over the same day and night to tell the stories from the mothers’ point of you. That was kind of an exciting breakthrough for us, because it is a unique structure. We kind of wanted to get away from what had been done with multi-narrative stories before, where there are contrived coincidences between characters kind of running into each other. We wanted to take the multi-narrative idea one step further, try to do something new and different with it. I think one of the great things about the structure is that it’s slow burn, and as the stories unfold you get different points of view and different perspectives. You learn new things about the characters – assumptions you might make in part one then get turned on their head in part two. And it’s a really kind of beautifully textured mosaic approach to telling one story through a multiple set of characters.
When you say you were sort of weary of the film’s narrative structure, did you have concerns that the format of the film would turn into a storytelling gimmick? That it could potentially reduce some of the story’s impact?
Well that was one of the reasons why we didn’t go down the path of, say, a Shortcuts or a Babel or a 21 Grams. The deliberate idea was by actually framing the stories and having those two parts what you’re actually doing is privileging each character’s individual journey and giving it its own integrity. But then what happens is that once one story starts to riff off another story or once all of a sudden you gain new insight into that character it actually becomes more complex, because of the ways in which it is riffing off the story that preceded it and the one that comes after. So in that sense I think it’s a really intelligent script and therefore the way in which you experience the narrative doesn’t feel contrived, quite the opposite – it’s like every story is speaking and riffing off the one that preceded it and the one that comes after, as well as giving each story its own integrity.
Why is it just the mothers that take the focus in the second half? Why not open it up and make it about parents and share the focus with the fathers?
It’s interesting because fathers were always absent in the play and when we hit on the idea of mothers and children we collapsed certain characters and developed other characters. For example Bianca, played by Miranda Otto, is not even in the play. We created her in the screenplay. What we then did concerned the Peter character, which forms the family of Tanya, Peter and Daniel – we brought him into that family because again that was an important way of at least exploring a mother/father relationship to the son. When we meet that family things are at a point where you’ve got Tanya the mother, who is really trying to keep the family going, you’ve got Peter, who’s been out of work for a period of time and dealing with his loss of self-esteem, and you’ve got a young boy who’s watching that relationship and is quite troubled by what is going on. And yet what I think is really important about that story is that Tanya craves a certain kind of intimacy that she’s lost with her husband and which is regained and found again by the end of their particular journey. I guess in some ways we felt that was a very satisfying narrative, a really great story to tell about husband and wife reconnecting despite everything. Rhonda has a husband or a boyfriend, we gleaned that relationship in very succinctly in one particular scene and one particular moment. Gina’s husband has passed away and Bianca is actually a single mum who really has woken up one day, looked at herself in the mirror and said “my god I am 40, how did I get here.” I guess there were two things: the focus is on women, the focus is on mothers, and as a result is becomes a very fascinating exploration of motherhood. The reality for a lot of women out there is they often don’t have husbands to rely on and the kids don’t have father figures in their lives and that was in some respects something that was also in the play. We kind of address that in the film but yes, the focus was very much on the women.
Blessed struck me as a narrative of sometimes strange encounters that hang together as a sort of tapestry of dramatic situations, some of which underscore the bizarreness of human behaviour. Do you agree that there are moments in the film where you think ‘why are the characters doing that?’ And it sort of sets up a question mark hanging over the scenes, for example when William McInnes hands out hundreds of dollars to a stranger in the hotel, and there is also the elderly lady’s peculiar reaction to being burglarised. Was that your intention – to put a question mark over their heads and ask the audience what is inspiring the characters to act in this way?
Well, if you take the example of the William McInnes’s character in the bar with Bianca, Miranda Otto, what we know is that some money has gone missing from his house and I think one of the fascinating things about the way that scene plays out is we begin to realize that he is giving to her that money because he responds to her needs. He kind of gets a sense that she’s down on her luck and he ends up giving her that money in order to feel better about himself. All of a sudden he can actually give Bianca, this stranger, something that he can’t give his wife. Now that’s a really interesting journey. I don’t think that it’s inexplicable. I think if you think about that journey very carefully it is about a man who has done something in a way to actually provoke his wife into being honest with him. He says “where are getting that kind of money?” The assumption is that she is off doing something inappropriate. We discover of course that she is receiving money but doing it through comforting a stranger and craving a certain kind of intimacy that Peter isn’t offering her. Peter in the bar is giving that money away so he can feel like a man. All of a sudden he feels powerful. There is that wonderful sort of moment when Bianca kisses him in the hope that it might lead to something but he kind of can’t go there because his real feelings are for his wife, which by the end of the journey are completely expressed. So to me that is not inexplicable; that is embedded in his particular journey. The way we tell that is by allowing those characters to play those things out in both subtle and not so subtle ways…These are really interesting characters who kind of spin us around and make us think about things.
Yeah, and that’s what I mean when I say you’ve sort of put gigantic question marks over some of the characters’ actions, really poking the audience and encouraging them to piece together the puzzle of their actions. It’s an effective tool of engaging audiences without necessarily dealing a deathblow to the reality of the film.
Yeah, because it allows you to kind of go “oh God, that is interesting” and it makes you think a bit more deeply about what is happening, who those characters are and what they’re really espousing.
I mentioned before that Blessed struck me as a particularly difficult film to direct, in the sense that you’re working with a peculiar non-linear plot structure, the film changes emotional chords very quickly and most of the characters are high velocity. I know that each of your films would be tough to direct in some ways and easier in others, but where does this one stand? Is it the most challenging film you’ve directed yet or does it get easier as you progress as a filmmaker?
Both. It gets easier and it gets harder. This one was a really hard one because it was all about getting every moment right. I’d been involved in the development of the script for eight years so I knew the characters inside out. I knew why we were doing what we were doing. So I’d been integrally involved in working to develop the screenplay with the writers, so that gives you a head start, you’ve been part of that development process. The second part of it is, having thought very deeply about it, I did an enormous amount of preparation so that every character’s journey was right but in addition to that I had to make sure that they then fitted into the mosaic or the pattern, and that only comes with experience. This is my third feature and I felt able to handle those complexities in a way that I perhaps couldn’t (before). If I’d have tried to make this film as my first feature, I wouldn’t recommend it! So you do develop skills as you progress. In some ways it was the most challenging but I was more equipped to handle the complexities of this one and therefore it became a joy, it become a pleasure. Working with all those actors was just a sheer delight. Working with Fran and Deb and Miranda and Mon and Victoria – they’re all actors who came in really committed to the film. And then the kids are another kind of story in a way – all the kids also really wanted to give the characters all their love.
All your three films – Head On, Book of Revelation and now Blessed – have been very bold, provocative, don’t-dare-look-away sort of dramas. Can you imagine yourself making a light hearted film?
I joke about that. I often say to people “when I grow up I’m going to make a comedy.” It’s possible. What’s great about these films but also in particular about Blessed is they make you think. I think there is something really great about being able to make films for audiences who are seeking something a bit more rewarding, a bit more thought provoking, a bit more truthful, and something that is an intelligent take on what is going on out there at the moment. This is a film I think that is speaking about our times. It’s very contemporary; it’s about characters living in suburban landscapes who we can all understand and identify with. So yes, thus far my work has been thoughtful provoking and deliberately so: truthful, honest. But I also don’t want to be pigeonholed by that. I think I’ve got the capacity to make a range of different films that are lighter in tone or may actually be stories that can connect with audiences in different ways.
2009 has been in my opinion a pretty special year for Australian film. Have you been following this year and do you agree that it’s one of the best years we’ve had in the Australian film industry for a long time?
I completely agree with you. I think it’s been a stunning year for Australian cinema. I really do and I think that one of the great things is you get a sense that audiences coming back to the good Australian films. I also think that we’ve had a couple of lean years. There’s no question about that and there’s no denying that. But the great thing is that when good Australian cinema is being made, you know, that is a cause for celebration. It is also really heartening to sense that people are coming back to our films with an open heart and an open mind and I think they are being richly rewarded.
Do you have any particularly memorable Australian films you’ve seen this year?
I think Blessed is a knock out film, it’s probably the best I’ve ever done. But the other film that spoke to me in particular was Samson & Delilah. We’re in a really great place I think at the moment…I do feel there is a kind of new energy around what everyone is doing. I think all filmmakers are feeling very strong about what they’ve done and what we are collectively achieving.
A couple of weeks ago The Age production editor Michael Coulter wrote about what he believes is the Australian film industry’s unrelenting habit of making miserable down and down dramas. Is this the sort of criticism that’s been levelled at you before – that your films are too dark and despairing?
I think most critical responses I’ve had to my films have been positive. I think they all know that thus far the films I’ve made have been driven from a place of wanting to make films that I believe matter. That it is about making films for intelligent audiences – audiences who are seeking something with a bit more complexity and depth. I am one filmmaker in the landscape. There are others who are making all kinds of things and I think the key to it is we’ve got to be making diverse films. It’s about being able to make bigger budget films that have bigger appeal (as well as) smaller intimate films, films that are a bit edgier, bolder, that take risks and are more experimental. So we’ve got to be able to make a breadth of all of those films. Perhaps one of the things that hasn’t happened recently is we haven’t achieved that diversity. I think if we can continue to achieve a diversity in the kinds of films that get made every year, then we are looking in the foreseeable future to a very healthy film industry. To a film industry that is also producing terrific work and actually striving to speak to its audience. The truth is my films have not been made for the big multiplexes. I’m not pretending to make those kinds of films at the moment. I’ve been very clear about who my audience is and all I can ask is that my films find the audience that they are intended for.