Alethea Jones’ first reaction when she was informed she was among the winners of this year’s Screen Australia Breakthrough Award from Australians in Film could not have been more self-effacing.
The director did not think she belonged in the lofty pantheon of the past honourees who include Margot Robbie, Chris Hemsworth, Elizabeth Debicki, Joel Edgerton, James Wan and Mia Wasikowska.
“It’s amazing company,” Jones tells IF from Los Angeles, her base since 2014, referring to previous winners of the award which recognises screen talent who have had major international presence over the past year. “I don’t feel I am in those ranks at all.”
The other recipients of this year’s Breakthrough Award are director/screenwriter/cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) and actresses Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why) and Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$).
Musician, actor, comedian, writer and director Tim Minchin (Matilda) will receive the Qantas Orry-Kelly Award, which celebrates an Australian who has contributed to Australia’s national identity and created opportunities and inspiration for other Australians internationally.
Previous honourees include Village Roadshow Entertainment Group CEO Greg Basser, producer Bruna Papandrea, directors Baz Luhrmann and John Polson and the filmmaking collective Blue Tongue Films.
The 2017 Australians in Film Awards will be presented on Wednesday October 18 at Neuehouse Hollywood, hosted by Patrick Brammall.
Previously announced honourees include director Kate Dennis, who will receive the Create NSW Annette Kellerman Award; screenwriter Luke Davies, who gets the Fox Studios Australia International Award; and Disney executives Mary Ann Hughes and Paul Steinke with the Ausfilm International Award.
Langford broke through as Hannah Baker in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which is now in its second season. She will next be seen in director Greg Berlanti’s drama Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda alongside Jennifer Garner, Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp, which Fox will release theatrically in March.
Danielle Macdonald plays the lead, an aspiring rapper from New Jersey in Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, which debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. She began her US career aged 18 in the 2010 short film The Thief, directed by Rachel Weisz, starring Joel Edgerton and Rosemarie Dewitt.
In 2013 she made her feature film debut in Zal Batmanglij’s The East alongside Ellen Page, Britt Marling and Alexander Skarsgård. She will next be seen opposite Jennifer Aniston in Anne Fletcher’s musical drama comedy Dumplin’ followed by the lead role in an untitled Babe Walker project.
“Australians in Film has built a strong community of creatives in Los Angeles,” said AiF president Kate Marks. “We are immensely proud of this year’s group of honourees, congratulate them on their successes and look forward to their future work both in Australia and the US.”
Toni Collette, who has mentored Alethea Jones since she was a judge at Tropfest in 2012, stars in Jones’ debut feature, Fun Mom Dinner, which premiered at this year’s Sundance festival, and is attached to another of her projects.
Scripted by Julie Rudd, Fun Mom Dinner features Collette, Katie Aselton, Bridget Everett and Molly Shannon as women whose kids attend the same preschool class and decide to get together for dinner. When the night takes an unexpected turn, these unlikely new friends realize they have more in common than marriage and motherhood.
Budgeted at just $US2.5 million, the film was in profit before the Sundance premiere thanks to a raft of pre-sales including eOne’s Momentum Pictures, which took North American theatrical distribution rights, and Netflix (multi-territory SVOD rights). Transmission Films will release the comedy in Oz early next year.
She decided to move to the US after directing shorts and TVCs for Jungle. “I make really colourful comedies. My short films did not really have too much of a home in Australia,” she explains. “It felt like people did not know what to do with me there. I got more job offers over here.”
Her first US gig was directing an episode of Amazon Studios’ series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, which earned her a DGA nomination for outstanding directorial achievement in children’s programs. That led to her helming a pilot for an Amazon series, A History of Radness, which alas was not picked up.
Following Fun Mom Dinner she made an episode of American Woman, which follows Bonnie (Alicia Silverstone), an unconventional mother as she struggles to raise her two daughters (Makenna James and Lia Ryan McHugh) after leaving her husband. Bonnie and her two best friends, Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and Diana (Jennifer Bartels) gain independence in a world reluctant to give it.
The producers were so happy with her work they asked her to do pick-ups for other episodes in the 12-part series which will premiere on the Paramount Network (the re-branded Spike), which launches in the US in January
With her writing partner Belinda King she co-wrote the pilot and series bible of Cleopatra in Space for DreamWorks Animated Television. Based on the graphic novels by Mike Maihack, the plot follows a young Cleopatra as she’s transported to the future and learns it’s up to her to save the galaxy.
If it goes to series Jones will stay on as a consultant as she is now attached to The Barbie Movie, which is in development for Sony Pictures. Anne Hathaway has agreed to play the lead in the fish-out-of-water comedy about a Malibu woman who is cast out of Barbie Land for supposedly un-Barbie like behaviour and is banished to the real world.
The script is by Olivia Milch (who wrote the upcoming Ocean’s Eight) and the producers are Walter Parkes, Lori MacDonald and former Sony studio chairman Amy Pascal, who bought the rights from Mattel in 2014.
Jones wrote a presentation of more than 100 pages when she was pitching to get the job, believing she would be an outsider for a big studio film. The document kept growing after the producers asked for her views on the technology required, casting and the musical sequences. Hathaway read every page, posing questions and offering her own ideas.
Amy Schumer was originally in line for the role but dropped out before Hathaway was cast. “I have a pretty weird sense of humour and a weird point of view,” Jones said. “I think that’s why the producers chose me, because they wanted something different.
“The Barbie property is such an empowering feminist icon but she is problematic as well. We want to address what role women are asked to play in society, our understanding of ourselves and our expectations. We want to break that open.”
She’d love to shoot the movie in Australia. Also, she is developing a rock Eisteddfod musical movie with Aquarius Films’ Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford.