Painting a poignant portrait of hope, forgiveness and redemption, documentary filmmaker Beck Cole delves into the post-prison life of a young Port Adelaide woman in Here I Am in her debut piece. Positioned from a perspective not often seen in Australian film, the thoughtful and tender feature explores the realities of overcoming the past in order to face the future, in a tale grounded by mother-daughter relationships. After premiering at the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival in February, and touring Australia with the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival during May, the quiet and contemplative film nears general theatrical release. We sat down with Beck Cole to chat about her first foray into feature filmmaking, from the idea to the audience experience and everything in between.
SW: First things first – congratulations on the film, and the success that you have had with it so far.
BC: Thank you.
SW: Can you tell about the evolution of the idea behind Here I Am?
BC: I started writing the script five years ago. Screen Australia has an Indigenous department, and they had just announced an initiative called Long Black. They’ve been pretty fabulous, they’ve pretty much supported all my drama work – the short films, then the longer format half hour dramas – and then this feature film initiative came along. So that was advertised, and I’d had the character for Karen in mind for quite a while, and I thought this is the time to have a go at it. I wrote the first draft, and submitted it and got through, and got my first sort of round of funding.
So it sort of came from the character really, before anything else. I knew that I wanted to tell a story about a young woman who was about my age, who had had a child – and I had just had a child too – and who had come out of prison and wanted to turn her life around for the better. And I knew that I wanted to set it from the day she was released to her first parole meeting. I had these kind of ideas in mind, but what happened changed a trillion and one times over the course of the writing period. I think Karen came out of a desire to do a really good character study and find a character that I thought was interesting – one that I hadn’t seen before and would be a really sexy role for a young woman to play. Then I was thinking about how I make this big ensemble piece, and so I came up with the idea of placing it in the women’s shelter and so on.
I guess politically it comes from the fact that there’s a ridiculous amount of women in prison in this country, full stop, and a large percentage of that are black women. As I’m also a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been curious about incarceration and those sort of issues for a long time, and sometimes you can do things with dramas that you can’t with docos. People often come away from docos feeling like they’ve been battered on the head, you know – “this is an issue”. So I was very conscious of addressing the topic in a way that was entertaining and spoke on different levels. That was the aim, I don’t know if I pulled it off, but that was what I tried to do.
SW: The film has a strong female perspective, which is quite rare in films in general, and Australian films in particular. How did you go about that?
BC: Well, that’s something that I’m really passionate about doing, and subconsciously that’s something that I’ve been doing over the fifteen years that I’ve been making films. I think there’s a place for it, and it interests me, so there’s nothing stopping me from doing that, to a degree. And it pisses me off that there’s not enough of it. Men, lots of journos, have said to me that “you’ve written men out of the film, why have you done that?”. But I haven’t. There’s that many films about men, and no one ever asks you why aren’t there more women in them. So it just goes to show, doesn’t it. The film also deals with universal issues. It has those big, broader themes, like mothers and daughters and big fragmented families, and all of that. I’m also looking for something that everyone can relate to, and hopefully it has that universiality that can be placed anywhere.
I’m really excited about writing interesting roles for women to play, all sorts of women. It is exciting, especially when you’re doing Aboriginal filmmaking, as you have to draw upon people that don’t have that much acting experience just simply because there’s not that body of experienced actors out there. So it is sort of also creating, getting people up and experienced, and then sussing out how people go. And I mean, that’s a gamble I guess, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But something that I love about this film is that there’s some really quirky performances – and some people really like that about it, and some people really criticise that, but I don’t care. At the end of the day the film is saying something and it’s offering Australian cinema something that it hasn’t had before, and that’s a good thing, I think.
SW: The film tells a story of hope and forgiveness, with a positive inflection How did you shape the film to ensure that it was a positive experience for the audience?
BC: It took ages to get that right because I didn’t want it to be too much of a happy, glossy ending, but I didn’t want it to be too miserable ending either. So it took a long time, it was a hard slog, and I put a lot of hard work into it. The thing is, I personally don’t like coming away from a film feeling like shit. I mean, I feel like films, for my personal taste, need to have a redemptive quality to enlighten me. So I came to the film wanting to create that feeling, but not going overboard. I worked really hard to create an opportunity of hope between – without giving away what happens – the mother and the daughter, but most importantly I wanted to let an audience get into Karen’s head space, and honestly believe her when she says “I think I’m going to be alright, hey” at the end. Which is such an understated thing to say, and to actually vocalise it like that is actually quite brave for her to come to that place. I definitely worked hard to give the film humour, and I let women ad-lib and play around with their own dynamic, which we were just sort of discovering as we went along, as you do.
SW: You’ve touched upon the fact that many of the cast were inexperienced performers. How did you go about finding them, and then working with them to shape their characters?
BC: Well, there’s a few women in the film that have had experience. Pauline Whyman, who plays Skinny, has been in theatre for 20 years, and I wrote that role for her as I just love her. I’ve admired her for a long time, and she’s never landed a role in a film before simply because she’s got a particular look, and there’s just not that many roles for forty year old women playing forty year old women. She gets offered roles as nannas, but she’s forty years of age, you know. I knew that Pauline has such fantastic comic timing, and is such a beautiful person to look at, so I always had her in mind. So I wrote the role of Skinny for Pauline, who is a great mate of mine as well.
I also knew that I wanted to cast Marcia as Lois. When I had the idea of Lois in mind, I very quickly realised that it had to be Marcia Langton. It took me years before I just worked and worked and worked on her character before I even approached her about it, and then luckily she agreed to do it – under a bit of duress, but she did agree to do it. She’d been in Tracey Moffat’s Night Cries, which was one of the films that made me want to be a filmmaker. And it’s funny there, because she’s playing the daughter in that film. So I was aware of that. And then there’s Betty Sumner who plays the woman that sings the song. She has quite a strong presence down in Adelaide in theatre, and she’s a singer, so she’s had lots of experience.
And then of course Shai [Pittman], who plays Karen. She’s done bits and pieces in the past but this is definitely her big break, if you like. So, it’s a big cast, and they’re not all inexperienced, most of them actually have a desire to be an actor or have done theatre. And I guess that’s kind of what you’re looking for as well. There were a couple of people who had no experience at all, such as Vanessa Worrall who plays Big Red, and two of the girls that live in the house. So it was mixed. But I wanted to cast it mainly out of Port Adelaide, because the women there have a particular way of speaking, a particular way of looking. I’m like “don’t change it, let everyone be as they are”. It was fun.
SW: Can you tell me about the importance of Port Adelaide to the story, because you wrote the film with that location in mind?
BC: It was always going to be set in Port Adelaide, for no particular reason other than it just had to be. Where we filmed, that’s exactly where that story would unfold in my mind. There’s nowhere else I would’ve considered, it had to be Port Adelaide. When we were shooting the film we were surrounded by that world all the time – there was a mob camping in the park that had come down from Uluru and gotten stuck, the Centrelink was across the road, all the social services were there. It was really grounding, it made you really aware of what you were doing and why. And from a cinematic point of view, it’s really beautiful, it’s a port but no-one’s going anywhere. The catchphrase for Port Adelaide is “Port Adelaide, it’s happening”, and it’s so not happening. It’s all boarded up, and they’re desperately trying to make it yuppie-ised, and it just won’t budge. Plus I have family connections there, and spent a lot of time there growing up, so it just felt right..
SW: What was it like making the film in an area that you had ties to?
BC: In terms of filmmaking, I think Adelaide is a really fantastic location, full stop. I mean, the Adelaide Film Festival and SAFC are both fantastic organisations, but it’s beyond that. The community was so generous, and the councils too. If you try to shoot a scene here in Brissie or anywhere on the street there is so much red tape, but I found it wasn’t like that in Adelaide. The guy that’s in the film, the shopkeeper, I went there because I was looking for a little deli. I knew I wanted it to be a deli, not an IGA, something really true to Adelaide. So the guy that’s in the film, he owns the shop. I told him I loved the shop and he said “yeah, yeah”. And asked him if he minded auditioning, and he said “fine, fine”. Cut to later, and he’s in the film, it’s his shop, and it’s all as it is. We didn’t dress anything there. It made it much easier.
Really, we weren’t doing a lot of dressing outside of the house. We went into the house, and our production office was downstairs, and we were shooting upstairs. So it was just all very low key and intimate, no bells or whistles or anything. I think Adelaide allows you to do that, it was really supportive. Also, putting out for casting calls, there were so many women that came to see Kath and I. Hundreds of women, just people willing to give it a go. I think that from the success of some of the other films they were excited, hyped up and wanted to give it a shot. It was bloody cruisey, it was great! There was no drama, so I can’t say “well this happened, and then that happened”, because it was lovely.
SW: Let’s touch upon the character of Karen, and Shai’s role in the film, as she is in every scene. How crucial was it to find the right person, and how did you know when you found her?
BC: It was actually quite hard, because all the other cast members depended upon who I found to be Karen. And I really wanted to cast her out of Port Adelaide, and I looked and looked and looked, but it just didn’t turn out that way. So reluctantly I started looking further afield, and a friend of mine that’s also a filmmaker had seen Shai in a film school film, an AFTRS film where she’s doing a two-hander with Chris Heywood. At this stage I was like “no, we’re going to find her in Adelaide”, but they sent me a DVD and I watched it, and I was really impressed. Shai was quite a bit younger then – she was 19 and now she’s about 25 – and she was impressive. She had guts, and I particularly loved her speaking voice, with the thick accent. I didn’t want to meet her in Sydney, so I said to Kath [Shelper], our producer, to get her to come down to Adelaide, because it was important for me to see how she fit in with the people I had in mind.
So she came down, and the minute she walked in the door I was just thinking “man, she’s beautiful”. On the screen she looked different, she had her hair blonde, and was a bit younger. She’s got a beautiful jawline, but she can also look quite masculine. If she looks one way she can look like Cleopatra, with this amazing, beautiful face. And then she’s got the hips and the stretch marks and this bit of oomph to her as well. So that was the aesthetic I was looking for, and she looked good. Then I just started getting down to the casting and testing. I just loved her range, and I find her really intriguing to look at. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but for my taste, I find that in her performance she slowly reveals herself. And that’s not an easy thing to do, and she was so brave, she just gave it her all. The way she could go to angry in an instant – I loved that she could go explosive, from really calm and kind to full on explosive. That’s not an easy place to get to.
Also with Marcia, I thought it was really interesting. They didn’t know each other very well at all – in fact, they didn’t know each other at all. So I kept them really separate, I didn’t even really rehearse them together at all as I wanted it to be quite cold and awkward and weird. Maybe that was a bit risky, but I think we had to do it that way just to get that edge. Of course, by the time we were shooting the last scene, there’s that little stuff on the front lawn, they know each other a bit better and they’ve done a few scenes together, because the only time they’ve spent together is when they’re on set. So yeah, it was interesting, an interesting dynamic between them.
SW: Let’s talk about the look of the film. What kind of creative decisions did you make, in conjunction with the cinematographer, to create the distinct look that comes through in the film?
BC: First of all we started talking about the palette of Port Adelaide. I basically said to Warwick [Thornton] that I wanted the palette of the film to be rusty, like the rusty wharves and ships and steel, and the cool blue of the sky and the bridge and the water. So we knew that it had this orange and blue palette, and that was the starting point really. From there we tried to use natural light, we didn’t overlight the shots at all, we let there be lots of shadows. When we’ve got her in her room she’s only lit by the light overhead or the lamps by the side of the bed, we’ve very rarely got any other lights coming in to the rooms. That was our overall lighting plan. Then of course we were talking about portraiture, because Shai is such an amazing woman and you’re watching her all the time. There’s not a lot being said, you’re just watching her through her gestures, seeing her be. We basically went from quite wide shots letting the action unfold within a scene, to doing coverage which is quite intense, which goes from wide to tight. So they were the visual ideas we had. We were just trying to make the most of what was already there, without overdressing or overlighting, working within the room and within what we had.
SW: Now that the film is about to open in cinemas, what do you want people to walk away from it talking about, wondering, questioning?
BC: I just hope that people walk away saying “that was surprising, it wasn’t what I expected”. And that they laughed, and possibly that they cried. Also, I want people to come away with a sense of hope, and not feeling really deeply miserable. And hopefully having a bit more understanding about that little part of the world, that slice of life.
SW: Can you tell me about what you’re working on next?
I can actually. I’ve been asked by Screen Australia to take on a few mentoring gigs for a while, which is really exciting. I’m working with five emerging documentary filmmakers to make their first documentaries as part of a series, and I sort of came up with the concept. Screen Australia have a whole heap of filmmakers doing their first short dramas, and I’m coming along to mentor them on their first screen journey. So I’m just trying to get inspired by what other people are doing. And I’m writing a novel, which has been a very slow process as I haven’t been doing anything with it. And just enjoying this. I love documentary, and I have a few ideas for things that I’ll do in doco land next, but who knows? It’s early days. Let’s get this film out of the way first!