Alice Englert on Berlin, Ben Whishaw, and ‘boys with jackhammers’

04 February, 2016 by Harry Windsor

Alice Englert made her acting debut in a short film, The Water Diary, directed by her mother, Jane Campion. 


Now the young actress (whose credits include Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa and BBC One's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) has made one of her own.

The Boyfriend Game premiered at TIFF last year, but Englert couldn't attend – "I was in New Zealand acting in a film. It was a bummer not to go".

The film has now been invited to the Berlinale, and Englert won't miss it.

The Boyfriend Game was shot over two days at the Colo River in NSW, and is about "two little girls, friends, playing a game they've created at a farmhouse in the Australian bush. They discover difficulties when they become competitive over one of their imaginary boyfriends". 

"I came up with the idea because I was once an eleven year-old girl and I did all sorts of strange things in games, and I always found it really interesting what the courage of the pretend or the not-real can do to a personality or to an ego", Englert said. "I wanted to explore that. I also found it really funny".

"The writing process was very quick. I wrote it in an afternoon". 

Englert gave her script to Peter Knowles, an actor (Blue Heelers, The Mule) looking to produce.

"He really liked the script, and he has a little girl himself, and is experiencing all the hilarity and strangeness of watching her grow up. He got the story and thought it was funny".

They got the short made "through lots of help. I've just made my second short film now, and both of them I imagined I would make on my phone. The way I end up making them for real is by telling people I'm going to make them on my phone, and it so outrages people in the film industry that they immediately give you gear to make it proper!" (laughs) 

Englert describes the shoot as frictionless.

"It was a remarkably fun project to make. I've been around film all my life, and I know that fun is not necessarily how you can describe the process. And that's okay with me. I don't need to have a great time all the time to have a great time! But it really was good. The girls that were in the short [The Tree's Morgana Davies and Thomasin McKenzie] were such wonderful little actors for me. I really enjoyed watching the whole crew be really good".

Only one thing was a pain: "the main challenge was the summer camp across the river. Boys with jackhammers playing bonding games very loudly". 

Did the acting background help when it came to directing?

"I've heard directors talk about finding actors frightening, or not knowing how to talk to them, and I think I would feel that way if I hadn't been one", Englert said. 

Acting has given Englert experience in "making myself understood", she said.

"I learnt a lot through acting about communication and about how to express myself – if I wanted to do something a certain way, or if I didn't want to do it".

"I think growing up I was quite a lonely worker. I was writing when I was younger and felt the loneliness of that. For me, acting was great, because I always felt I could talk about work, I knew how to express myself in that way, and I was forced into situations where I had to". 

Being on the other side of the camera "has made me feel the importance of trust. You get to know a set in a different way when you're spending most of your time waiting around on it, as opposed to how I feel when I'm constantly needed and desired [as a director]". (laughs)

Instead of score, The Boyfriend Game features just one song playing over the end credits. It was written by Englert herself, who writes with cues in mind; "I usually have to think with the music before the film". 

The 21 year-old has just finished cutting her second short, shot in Sydney's Darlinghurst and titled Family Happiness,.

"Ben Whishaw and myself are in it, along with Mark Bradshaw, who is Ben's partner and a wonderful composer. He'll be working on the music with me".

"It's a portrait of a brother and sister who were orphaned when they were already pretty much grown up. For me it's a story about calming down".

"The sister, Fiona, is about ten years younger than her brother, and has a lot of ideas about how she should be that she's trying to fulfil. Her brother has that quality that is so lovely: of being quite sensitive but also hopeful. He just loves her. It's one of those [films] that has a terrible synopsis, but I'm really fond of it".