Rachel Griffiths addresses the Screen Forever conference.
Is it a coincidence that three of the highest-grossing Australian films of 2019 – Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like A Girl, Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding and Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach – have all been helmed by directors who have backgrounds as actors? Not according to Griffiths.
“It’s not surprising to me that, in a moment where audiences for cinema releases are getting increasingly challenging, actor-directed content is punching above its weight at the box office, because performers have unique sensitivities that we develop by being at the coalface of the final content delivery,” Griffiths told Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever delegates last week.
Delivering the conference’s annual Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture, the Golden Globe-winning and Emmy and Oscar-nominated actor, who in recent years has also successfully turned to producing and directing, issued a rallying call to producers to break down silos and better collaborate on content with actors, arguing there is so much to be learned from each other.
“Now, we actors don’t always make the coolest movies… In fact, they’re often mocked for their warmth, because in the end, the actor wants an audience and we want to please them. It’s in our DNA. We understand the philosophical question: if no one saw it, did it happen? We want our stories to be seen. And I’m not saying that all auteur filmmakers don’t, but Jesus I’ve sat in a few cinemas wondering ‘Why the fuck did you just do that to me?'”
According to Griffiths, actors in Australia are often “managed down sock puppets” and have been historically seen as people “who steal the Cabcharges, try to have sex with the background artists and screw you for producer profit percentages.” (However, on the latter she laughed that producers don’t usually mind given “we all know I’ll never see them”).
This is unlike in Hollywood, where she argued the value of the actor as a “purpose-driven content maker” is usually far better understood.
“I don’t know how hard producers in this country are looking for and valuing performer-generated content. And there really is fertile ground to be harvested up here; groups of double and triple threats making their own content cheaply in a collaborative and independent way without commissioner and network input. Screen Australia’s funding of this part of the ecosystem is really fantastic. By growing their audience through social media and their own web platforms, these younger creatives refine their own brand and have a better chance of communicating their vision because it’s a concrete thing. And when they do get a deal to go legit, they’re getting a lot more control at the transfer moment because they’ve won the trust of their financial backers who care not only “Is it good?”, but “Is there an audience for it?”
“Portlandia and 2 Broke Girls have emerged out of this. Little Acorns from Trudy Hellier and Maria Theodorakis, which I’m an EP on, will also be moving from web to Seven. But beyond the digital sphere, one-woman Edinburgh shows have become Fleabag Emmy juggernauts and for Leah Purcell, her many years honing The Drover’s Wife will come to our big screen with Leah acting, directing and producing her feminist and Indigenous perspective shift across the colonial-lensed art of copyright classic.”
Griffiths claimed that until Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale sat next to her at a party a few years ago, no producer had ever asked her – now 50 and working in the industry for 25 years – if she had a show in her. That question by Dale led ultimately to the Rachel Perkins-directed series Total Control, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and just finished airing on the ABC, with Griffiths starring, co-creator and EP. “It was the greatest joy of my career and we are all lining up to do it again.”
Actors make good collaborators as they often care deeply about being represented in ways authentic to their own experience and want to create content to match, Griffiths argued. Further, they can also secure and hold onto talent, wield power to excite commissioners and help to secure international finance.
“Matchbox’s Stateless is a great example of a show coming out of out of conversations between Cate Blanchett and Elise McCredie over an issue they were equally passionate about. They brought the pitch to Matchbox and both creatives were in the first conversations with commissioners. Now this is pretty challenging content. So the engagement of Cate early was a really important part, no doubt, of getting it financed. And she’s also, I’m sure, used her star leverage to protect their vision of the project through the commissioning process,” she said.
“Performers are also uniquely positioned to bring projects to the marketplace. In lieu of neither of my two leads being available for our Ride Like A Girl press junket – and that is a hazard that’s happening right now with the talent bottleneck – Transmission were able to secure more than 180 outlets through which I could message the film. I’ve no doubt that the regional three week press blitz was impactful in getting us to our current cume of north of $11 million.”
Actors can also often have keen eyes for other talent, with Griffiths pointing the producorial instincts of Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Oprah and Reese Witherspoon.
“We can also pick up the phone and call talent directly, and those of us at the pointy-end can call top talent agents internationally and get material read quickly. We are passionate, able to excite the money and are often purpose-led in what we do. But most importantly, I think we actors are intrinsic collaborators.”
Collaboration, Griffiths said, is it at the “core of creativity”. However, in her view, most people spend more time considering how to “assemble IKEA furniture” than thinking how they might get better at working with others or choosing who they work with.
“Now, I’m no expert in this. I’ve got so much to learn and I’ll die ignorant. But I speak as a woman with a career of unwanted opinions, who’s navigated the business for 25 years and shared with female actors challenges in the process, wishing we’d had intimacy coaches to help handle confronting material we had no voice in, aching for the language that we’re now ‘woke to’ to describe the otherness we feel when alienated by and imprisoned in poor representations about human and female experience,” she said.
“I’ve also used lawyers, run from bad faith collaborators, had corporate coaches to help deal with sociopaths, used Valium as an anxiety crutch in conflict-ridden meetings. And I’ve gotten out of hotel rooms just in time. In the words of Helen Mirren, I wish I’d said ‘fuck off’ a lot more.
“I’m also privileged to be working with and mentored by colleagues I began this journey with decades ago, and extending recent collaborations with Blackfella and my directors attachment Maddie Dyer, who’s an actor with ideas and opinions and what I call a ‘sister zeitgeist hunter’. It’s like being a tornado hunter, but it’s harder, because you can’t actually see a zeitgeist on the horizon. You can only feel it like a poltergeist and find it by listening, and it has a very special frequency and it’s shy. But the zeitgeist is something that us independent producers need to woke to and realise that the collaborators that we choose to work with will bring them closer to it.”
The multi-hyphenate is inspired by both major studios and independents who are becoming open to new and different models of collaboration, and those working hard to bring unique and unheard voices to screen – they are the best placed, in her view, to survive a disrupted market.
“It’s lifeboat theory, and those working optimally with the right others have the best chance of adapting to the challenges that are facing us and find new lands. And there’s a weird dichotomy here because despite or because of the uncertainty, it’s also never been so important for those bringing stories to our big and small screens, to be clear in our purpose, unique in our branding and increasingly inclusive in our stories, not just to meet BAFTA quotas, Gender Matters initiatives, SBS charters, the Times Up movement, P.C. box ticking, or virtue signalling. But because diversity is both an existential imperative and a natural fertiliser of creative innovation.
“In an international streaming market generic tropes, lazy points of view, an absence of thesis, or funny-but-lame, cannot rise to the surface. The networks are facing big challenges here. Their perilous position must be acknowledged, embattled by a unique local market whose domestic successes do not always translate internationally and more profoundly, an unlevel playing field in regards to meeting quotas against international cabals of double-Dutch-Irish-sandwich-eating-non-tax-paying entities feasting on their business models like zombies at a drive-in. We know they’re scared. But there is really only one choice. You die with your ageing, white audience or you embrace diversity.”