I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Her legs go up to her bum and they’re not for lunch,” the heroine’s grandma tartly rebuffs a mesmerized pub customer in Starstruck (1982), the musical odyssey of an eighteen-year old singer who’s practicing her tightrope act above the counter. Director Gillian Armstrong’s films seethe with saucy local idiom, interlacing a real Australian spunkiness into the drama, but their warmth and intimate human quality has a universal appeal that easily transcends the original locale. Armstrong directs with considerable lan in sumptuous landscapes or actively peopled interiors—favoring a dynamic open frame, and punctuating fluid camera choreography of sweeping amplitude with decisive point of view shots. No wonder, then, that in 1984 she became the first foreign woman approached by MGM/UA to direct a big-budget feature, Mrs. Soffel, starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson. The mother of two small girls who’s fortunately had “a long happy marriage,” Armstrong recently returned to Australia to shoot The Last Days of Chez Nous, a tightly drawn study of a successful forty-something author who’s not so fortunate, walking a proverbial tightrope as she tries to orchestrate maternal, conjugal, filial, and sibling loyalties. Or is she? And how will the arrival of Beth’s younger sister rattle her rambunctious Sydney household? This emotionally wrenching drama, which won its lead actress Lisa Harrow the 1992 Australian Best Actress award, complements the strong quixotic women portrayed by Judy Davis in Armstrong’s earlier films (A Brilliant Career, 1979, and High Tide, 1987) and keeps us on the edge. For someone with such an outstanding career, (she’s been awarded the Order of Australia) Armstrong is inspiringly unassuming, combining one hundred percent focus on the moment with steely authority and a quick sense of humor. I spoke to her all too briefly on her way to Sundance for the US premiere of Chez Nous, which Fine Line will release nationally in March.
Liza Béar What I thought was very interesting about The Last Days of Chez Nous and also My Brilliant Career is that you’ve picked as one of your central characters a writer. I wonder … you don’t direct from your own scripts, right?
Gillian Armstrong I did some of my short films. None of my big films.
LB Were you drawn to the character of a writer partly because you don’t write yourself, as many independent filmmakers do?
GA No, that had nothing to do with it. Chez Nous was written around a writer because the author, Helen Garner, is a novelist the decision was hers. I was given the script when she’d already done about three drafts, so I had nothing to do with collecting the background to the main character, her profession.
LB What drew you to that script?
GA I like the script because it is a very honest study of people in relationships—sisters, father-daughter, husband-wife—a contemporary story which is rarely being done in Sydney.
LB It’s also what I call a democratic film. There are a lot of relationships going on simultaneously.
GA That was actually one of the reasons I was attracted to the script—it studies a situation from several people’s point of view. That’s rare in a lot of material I’m given, which is much more formula, with the hero or heroine defined in black or white. This is a character study which is quite complicated and it varies throughout the story, who you’re with … whose point of view you take. And that’s part of the richness of the writing. You asked two questions, one was a more practical one.
LB Yes. I think multi-character films pose special directorial problems—going from one pair of characters to another.
GA Ultimately, as a director when you go out to shoot you have to make each scene work within itself, day by day. But for the overall balance of the film, that’s something I work on—I do work with the writers on all the scripts—for a long period of time beforehand. I must have spent six months to a year on the Chez Nous script with Helen Garner. Balance is the key thing to consider.
To go back to your first question, it’s never been a problem for me, that I’m not a writer. I have great admiration for writers—I feel I’m a script editor. And every published novelist will tell you the most significant person in their life is their editor. I could see the biggest trap with this kind of film is that the audience may not care about any of the characters. Certainly, in the end, they are meant to care about the female character, Beth. And what I was aware of from the beginning, working with the writer, and then working with the actors, was that we were all treading on fine lines, because a lot of times the characters are being unpleasant and selfish. I had to keep the threads together so that in the end, you still like the key character. You could actually have the audience distanced from them all.
LB It must have been very different from directing High Tide or My Brilliant Career.
GA Shooting so much of the story in one place, that was a major challenge, both artistically and practically. It could have become tedious and claustrophobic that so much of the story was within four walls. That’s something I was aware of and planned very carefully. I also discussed it with the cinematographer and the designer so that we created a very strong mood within the house, reinforcing the dramatic moments of the story. I think we used every corner of the house in the end. There was not a corner left unturned. The house was so small we weren’t sure whether it would be possible to shoot a movie in it at all. The rooms look bigger on the screen because we often used wide angle lenses. I said to the cinematographer, “Ultimately, it’s your decision.” For me there were a whole lot of pluses about the house, particularly the whole exterior with the back staircase and the verandas.
LB How big was your crew?
GA It was a full feature film crew. I had Geoffrey Simpson, the director of photography, be the camera operator as well, to cut down on the number of people. It was also a huge problem for sound. They couldn’t follow an actor moving from one room to another, because the boom would hit the doorway. You could use any old radio mikes, but both they and I don’t think that’s the best sound quality. I had a wonderful sound department, a team of three. Sometimes the radio mike might be reinforced by an overhead boom or hidden microphones that were all over the house. It was a very hot summer. We decided in the end it brought us closer together. We had to spend so much of than summer squashed in a corner of the room or standing in sinks, in the bath.
LB To get back to your principal aim, within this multiple web of relationships, to keep the audience identified with Beth …
LB Ultimately. Kerry Fox’s persona on screen as the younger sister Vicki is absolutely flamboyant. She’s completely engaging … In that kind of situation—I’m playing devil’s advocate—what is going to keep the audience identified with a successful, more demanding older woman who prima facie is not a sympathetic role?
GA Well, there’s no simple answer to that. We were just walking a delicate line. It was something I was aware of and in some moments pulled Lisa Harrow back if something went too far. Some people don’t like the younger sister. In the end, I’d have to try and keep a balance with all of them—watch for the tone and the performance. It’s also what I emphasized in the shooting whose moment I hang with and whose expression I’m with at the key moments.
LB You got a screenplay whose approach is more novelistic than throughline drama.
GA I’d say it’s more of a character study than plot driven.
LB But then all great films are character driven.
LB The film has a pyramid structure. We got to know the family in such detail, at times I thought you pushed it to the edge. But, by the end of the film, the frustration has a definite pay-off. If you had sown more clues as to the denouement—because there’s only one major thing that happens, right?
LB It’s not like there’s a succession of plot crises. Had you sown more clues, then the pay-off wouldn’t be so great. But when the pay-off came, it was completely heart wrenching. Basically it’s a betrayal story. There are a lot of ways to look at it. You could look at it as a successful woman gets her comeuppance. That would be a very traditionalist approach.
GA It’s not meant to be that, no.
LB You could see it as youth wins out over age, because Beth loses the guy.
GA If you think Vicki wins out …
LB Or you could see it as Beth winning out because she learns something about herself, and self-awareness has become part of the cannon. You can go through anything, as long as you learn something at the end of it, right? It doesn’t matter what you seem to be losing, because the gain is greater than the loss.
LB Then your primary value is knowledge.
LB So, I wonder, what do you want the audience to be left with?
GA The last thing you said, not the first two. I’ve heard a lot of discussions. People are deeply affected by the film and discuss these characters personally as though they’re all alive and get quite passionate about them.
LB Oh, they do. That’s a strength of the film. It addresses such central human concerns … not at all offbeat. By the way, what was the budget of Chez Nous?
GA Three and a half million.
LB Is that the level you usually work at?
GA No, Chez Nous was the lowest budget I’ve had for about five years. My Brilliant Career, which was 15 years ago, was just under one million. But times have changed. People worked for less, the costs of stock and lab have gone up. Today in Australia it would probably have cost eight. But I’ve done 12 million dollar features like Mrs. Soffel. And High Tide cost more than Chez Nous as well and had a longer shooting schedule. Chez Nous was funded from a low-budget fund at $3.2 million (Australian). That was the deal. So everybody worked for less money and it was an eight week instead of a ten week shoot.
LB To me, it’s interesting the way the themes develop in your films. In My Brilliant Career Judy Davis plays a young woman growing up at the turn of the century who wants to be a writer—maybe to you it just symbolized wanting to be an artist of one kind or another. And you leave her at a certain point, where she sees marriage as a threat to what she wants—i.e. to be her own person, and the film comes full circle, because she’s been writing the story of that growth. Then, in High Tide, it seems like we’ve skipped a couple of stages. We’ve got Judy Davis playing a woman who is a performing artist, and not terribly happy about it. She’s made some trade offs—she’s abandoned her child—I’m simplifying the plot—as a result of the death of her husband—and the whole film is about the recovery of that mother-daughter relationship. Lost and found. We’re left on a very upbeat note. She loses a lousy career and finds a wonderful daughter. There it’s not really a trade-off between career and relationship because the career’s not that great, it’s crappy. So there’s no ambiguity about how to read this film. Now in Chez Nouswe go to a woman who’s a little older than the Judy Davis character …
GA Oh yes, definitely older.
LB Mid-forties, which is a very interesting age to take for a woman character in a film, because everyone shuns it like the plague.
GA They don’t exist.
LB And there you’ve managed to find a script that’s a combination of domestic drama, sibling rivalry, generational conflict, and you’ve kept up your interest in the art/life conflict. What’s fascinating to me is: you don’t write these scripts, but you’ve kept this wonderful continuity of theme, at least in three Australian films, as though you’ve found screenplays that reflect your own train of thought, your own deepest concerns.
GA All the screenplays that I choose do, because in between the ones that I choose—right at this very moment there are three in the rubbish bin upstairs (sorry, writers)—I turn down hundreds. I only do the material that I am personally affected by and that mirrors things that I believe in. I’ll find something where already the writer and I are thinking the same way. It’s not that I’m out consciously looking for it. The writer theme is really coincidental.
LB Beth could have been a woman doctor or …
GA Yes, she could have. It’s been 15 years between the two films that’ve had writers.
LB If you had wanted to make a film about a writer’s conflict between the demands of her life and her work, you would set it up very differently. I did wonder how Beth could get anything done in the house where there’s no solitude or privacy …
GA Well, actually the house is based on the real writer’s house, and a lot of the story is autobiographical. The thing is, in the drama we didn’t spend half an hour with Beth sitting alone at the typewriter. But then, this was a story about the domestic part of her life.
LB You didn’t study film immediately.
GA I went to the Swinburne College of Education which is an art school.
LB Was there anything that happened there that was really significant and turned you onto film?
GA That’s where I learned about film.
LB Oh. Right. But what drew you to film rather than painting or sculpture or conceptual art or performance?
GA I originally went to art school because I wanted to be a theatre designer, and the only school in my state that had costume design was Swinburne. The idea was you went in the first year and did general art, and then you would major, either in film or graphic art. Or you could transfer to another college and do something else in the arts—painting or whatever. And when I was in the first year I saw all the student films from the film/television course and was very intrigued. They made films seem accessible to me, and I saw, for the first time, films that were purely artistic expression, and that’s what excited me. They were so different from commercial cinema and television.
LB Did you get to see Fassbinder, or any European directors?
GA We saw films from all over the world. But the key thing to me was seeing films made by my peers, contemporaries, that made me feel I could do it. That anybody could. We had no film industry in Australia at that point. We actually had a booming film industry in the ’30s and the ’40s, but then the American cinema chains bought up all the theaters and took over and totally dominated our cinema, as they do around the world. So, in the ’70s, when I was a student filmmaker, there was a push from a number of people to set up a film development corporation to encourage a film culture in Australia. It’s hard for an American to understand because they grow up in a culture which is full of their own cinema, but the first Australian feature film that I had ever seen was in my final year at art school, and I was embarrassed by hearing Australian accents on the screen. I’d never seen an Australian film at the movies, ever.
LB What was the film?
GA It was a film called Two Thousand Weeks. It wasn’t a bad film, it was just so odd, it didn’t seem real. A real film had American accents, that’s the cultural imperialism that America’s taken around the world. So I was very fortunate that by the time I’d graduated, short and independent films were actually being made in Australia. The film development corporation offered grants, films from two minutes, ten minutes, half an hour, and some directors who’d been doing commercials and documentaries, like Peter Weir, were getting grants to do a half hour drama, and we as students were sometimes attached to them.
LB What had you done before My Brilliant Career?
GA Film students in Australia all think that I walked straight out of film school and got a feature. What actually happened was, I did four years at art school before I finally decided that film was the thing I liked to do and I did three short films that year, very short, two minutes. The last one was a ten-minute with sound. Then I worked as an assistant editor in a commercial film house for a year. At this point with the government funding, they decided to set up a national film school. There’d never been a proper film school. So I applied to go to the national film school. They chose twelve people from all over Australia the first year—it was just a pilot training scheme—a postgrad director’s course. And in that year we were allowed to make three films with professional crews and cast. They had money to pay actors.
LB Oh, not student crews?
GA No. We were really tested as directors. Two of three films that I made won a lot of awards. One of them was sent to an international student film festival, and I went overseas with the film and traveled around for 18 months.
LB How did you meet Judy Davis?
GA Oh, that was years later. I’m still just out of film school—second film school. When I came back I did some low budget documentaries, paid work as a director, and at the same time I worked on some friends’ films as art director, which meant I did props, the wardrobe.
LB So you really got a good grounding.
GA Then I worked on two low budget features as an art director/designer and then I worked on a much more professional feature being produced by Margaret Fink, who produced My Brilliant Career, as a props buyer. She and I got along very well. She was the sort of person who wanted to know about every member of the crew, what they’d done. She asked me to read a book that she had the rights to. At that point she was talking about all sorts of people like Polanski directing it. When I came back to Australia from overseas, I worked at adapting a short story into an original screenplay, which I then made into a 15 minute 16mm drama, called The Singer and the Dancer, which won the Sydney Film Festival short film award. Then Fink came back and asked me whether I would direct the film. So that was about two years later. And five years out of the second film school. That’s for all the film students who think you get a feature just like that.
LB Do you see yourself continuing to make films in Australia?
GA I’ll make a film anywhere if I like the script. It’s the material that matters. There are wonderful actors all over the world that I’d love to work with and production designers and composers. The greatest thing about working in America has been the chance to work in an international film community, which has been very exciting and a great honor.
LB Did you get what you wanted from making The Last Days of Chez Nous?
GA I think most directors would say that they’re never ultimately satisfied. There’s always part of your film you’d wish you had more time for. I always find it very painful to watch because I see all the flaws, but in the overall sense I was very proud of the cast and the cinematography.
LB But I meant more in terms of what the film’s trying to say.
GA It does seem to be communicating what we wanted it to say, and affecting people, which is your ultimate aim, both emotionally and intellectually.
LB That if you’re juggling a lot of balls, as Beth is, you’re going to drop one once in awhile.
GA Well, Helen Garner’s intention is that women in the ’90s have been trying to do it all and they can’t. They have to kick a couple of balls away, and make choices, and say, “Myself, my personal space and my relationships should take priority.” That is her point of view, that you can’t be a superwoman and you have to have priorities. Don’t be so perfectionist about getting the kitchen bench nice and shiny.
Ultimately, with such a deeply human drama, every person in the audience brings their own spirit and background and emotional reaction to situation and characters. What’s fascinating is how diverse the reactions have been. People like or love or hate the characters. Overall, the central track that I was taking, most people would go with. But all you can do is trust your own instincts, and hope that there are some people out there that will think the same way as you do. And there are some. I realize that I can’t control all their reactions. I have to accept that.
Liza Béar is a short storyist, reviewer for The Film Journal, and a BOMB contributing editor.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee