Filmmaker interviews: Rachel Perkins
Rachel works from the Blackfella Films office on Sydney Harbour in Gadigal country. She is an Arrernte woman from Central Australia. This interview took place in 2009.
Rachel came to filmmaking from Canberra via Alice Springs, and is part of a large family of filmmakers that still work together.
They’ve had a lot of fun over the years – burning down a house in Radiance (1998), making musicals One Night the Moon (2001) and Bran Nue Dae (2009), and covering 200 years of Australia’s Indigenous history in First Australians (2008).
Rachel balances her creative film work with serving on many boards that govern filmmaking and screen culture.
Tell us about one of your titles on the website
I think the thing that stays with me about Radiance (1998) is the love I have for the people I worked with, that’s the thing that I most enjoyed about it. People like Warwick [Thornton], you know, Trisha Morton-Thomas who started at CAAMA too, as a journalist, Deb Mailman who sort of got her first acting gig on screen and Rachel Maza. We were all on the same footing, you know, none of them had really done a major film. So yeah, we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun burning the house down. We had lots of fun in lots of ways.
Where are we?
This is Sydney Harbour, um, Gadigal Country. And this is the wharf, and it’s like an arts precinct. It’s where Sydney Theatre Company and Bangarra [Dance Theatre] are, and Blackfella Films, which is my company with Darren Dale. We rent a space from Bangarra. So, you can see the lovely harbour. We’re very lucky to be able to work here. Thank you New South Wales Government.
And in here is where all the organisations are. This is our office. Blackfella Films is an Indigenous production company which has been running since 1993. And upstairs is where all the slaves work, and this is my office. I get the flash office, because I’m the boss, no. And that’s it really. Small, well-oiled unit.
How did you get started?
Yes, well I didn’t really particularly choose to sort of begin filmmaking, unlike a lot of other people. I didn’t have a sort of burning desire growing up or anything, but I did have a burning desire to go back to Alice Springs. I’d been living in Canberra for a lot of my life and my Grandmother’s people, my father’s mother’s people, were from Alice and I didn’t really know a lot about them and I felt this sort of cultural gap. I think in 1988 when I finished school, I heard of a job that had come up in Alice Springs working with the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association as a TV presenter. And I really didn’t want to be a TV presenter but they were offering an airfare to go up for the interview and I thought, 'Well, I won’t get the job but I will get an airfare’.
So I got on the plane and went up and they interviewed me for the TV presenter job and thankfully I didn’t get that – they realised as much as I knew that that wasn’t my thing and they didn’t give me the job. But they gave me a traineeship in the television unit Imparja which was the commercial television licence that still exists in Central Australia and parts of Western Australia and Queensland and South Australia. So, the next day I started working there and we started making, you know, I was just thrown in to record sound and start editing and general sort of production work.
I went to see my friend Trisha Morton-Thomas, who ended up playing Mae in Radiance (1998), do a segment out of Radiance [the play] at the Eora Centre, which is an Indigenous college in Sydney in Redfern. And and I was sort of blown away by the – the scene that she did. And read Radiance and then rang Louis [Nowra] and asked him if I could do it as a half-hour. So that’s when we started to work together, to collaborate together.
An interesting working relationship
When I did Radiance (1998), which was my first feature, Warwick [Thornton] was a natural choice to shoot it because, well, he was a DOP who’d, you know, who had the skills but who was a creative collaborator and a friend. And that’s one of the things that I’m most proud about – that we both blindly went into making our first feature together and we went into it as friends, and that was really important.
There was a shorthand between Warwick and I and we could communicate and we had the same language in a way. Like, you know, I’d get wild with him and he’d get wild with me like you wouldn’t with other people that you knew well, but we’d get over that and, yeah, we had a good time.
What do you do when you're not making films?
Well, yeah, I don’t know what I do really, when I don’t make films. Not much. Not macramé. Yeah, I saw that. No, I don’t … Yeah, just spend time with family and friends, I suppose, like most people. Read, go bush, things like that.
What is your strongest personality trait?
I suppose my most positive trait is my positive outlook, I think. That things will happen, that things can happen, and that you can make things happen. I think being a filmmaker you have to have belief, you know, and you have to inspire belief in others, because they have to believe that you’re going to make the money and believe that you’re going to get the film up, and believe that you’re the best person to tell the story, so you have to be able to … have to be a bit of a bullshit artist. And you have to have a strong belief in yourself, and I think the thing that helps me believe in myself is, you know, the fact that I’m telling Indigenous stories, because I feel like that’s a great motivator.
Learning on the job
The first hands-on job [at CAAMA] I had was recording sound. And someone handed me one of those shotgun mikes which is in a big sort of plastic container, like a big tube, and, uh, they said 'You know, here, you can do sound’. And of course I didn’t realise that the mike wasn’t inside, so I was sort of pointing this thing not knowing what to do. No-one had told me that the mike wasn’t inside or how to set it up, and that’s when I started learning. And I think it’s a great way to learn, like you’re on the job. I mean, as terrifying as it is – you’re thrown into it and you have to learn really quickly.
Working at CAAMA
We were making programs that aimed to maintain culture, so most of them were in language, Indigenous languages. And so they might be ceremonies that we were filming, could be bush tucker – people getting bush tucker, bush skills. Then on the other side we were doing current affairs programs, so interviewing people about legal rights issues, land rights issues, covering protests, you know, alcohol and health issues. It’s a vehicle for communication and representation for Indigenous people. So that was really the grounding for people like myself, Warwick Thornton, Erica Glynn, all those people who came out of CAAMA in the late, um, ‘80s.
Being in control
So I did a bit of editing [at CAMMA], a bit of sound, bit of sort of organisation. Moved into producing and did a little bit of directing in my final year. So, yeah, I sort of did everything and then, you know, studio camera and research and, it was sort of, you did everything. But eventually I realised that I wanted to be in control and wanted to produce and direct and so that’s where I started to focus my skills.
Indigenous Unit of one
I left after my traineeship [at CAAMA], finished and went to SBS and became an Executive Producer, of their Indigenous Unit. And they didn’t actually have an Indigenous Unit at the time, so it was like an Indigenous Unit of one, which was me. But that was a great time too, because we had to re-establish the TV unit and, you know, I was very young. I moved to Sydney and I was I think 21. So I was very young and inexperienced really to be an Executive Producer but, because I was Indigenous, I had this extraordinary opportunity that I was sort of thrust into this senior position because there weren’t experienced Indigenous media practitioners at that time, you know. We were creating them, we were becoming them.
Yeah, I just felt with Blood Brothers – Freedom Ride (1993) that it was important that people understood that we had a segregated society that was entrenched across the country until the late 1970s. And that here was a – here was a bunch of students who tried to change that, and in fact did change that to some degree, and that we should know about this part of our history. Because all my friends knew about South Africa, they knew about apartheid, but they didn’t know about apartheid – our version in Australia. So Freedom Ride was about expressing that. And of course I had access to my father, Charlie Perkins, who was one of the members of the Freedom Ride, so it’s sort of a perfect situation for me to make a film.
You would never think, I don’t think necessarily as a child, that you’re going to interview your parent, and I think a lot of times, you know, we don’t ask our parents the sort of intimate questions that perhaps we would like to in life. But, uh, interviewing them gives you this opportunity to – to ask these questions, and ask them, well, what did it feel like growing up, you know, how did you feel about things like that? And so making Blood Brothers – Freedom Ride (1993) gave me an opportunity to get an insight into my father’s life that perhaps I wouldn’t have normally.
Making the film with him was a really great experience and we, as part of the film, we went back to a lot of the places that the Freedom Ride went to and, yeah, it was a wonderful opportunity. I feel proud that I was able to document his experience on the Freedom Ride and come to understand that a bit.
Power of film
You know, when you look at archival film, as a filmmaker, you realise how precious film is, and how it captures a moment in time, and – and how precious it is to filmmakers later on, when they can go back and use this extraordinary footage. And so it gave me a real understanding of the importance of filmmaking, in terms of capturing Australian cultural history.
Those items of film are so precious, because really they capture a moment that can’t be necessarily communicated, you know, on paper. Or there’s something about seeing the students lining up in front of the Moree baths, or with their signs, or being hunted out of the Moree pool, um, that says so much. You know, film can really translate an extraordinary amount of things.
AFC Indigenous branch
In the early ‘90s, there was an initiative that happened in one of the government funding agencies, the Australian Film Commission. They set up an Indigenous Branch and, like the ABC and SBS, it was staffed by Indigenous people. And, so the idea was to get Indigenous filmmakers, of which there was a small cluster who’d mostly been working in the community organisations, and move them into making drama. Six short films came out of that initiative and I produced one of them for Warwick Thornton, From Sand to Celluloid – Payback (1996).
And the workshops were designed in that they brought the best sort of tutors – filmmakers, technicians, DOPs, sound recordists – in to collaborate with these Indigenous people and make films with them. In a way, so again it was the sort of hands-on experience. So filmmakers would be – they’d write a script, they’d be selected, they perhaps work with a script editor, they’d then go into pre-production. They’d do the full, sort of, drama production experience, so that they would learn really what it means – what a gaffer means, what a grip means, you know, what sort of a character arc means, you know, what editing – what you do in an editing room. They’d learn the entire process.
So the casting on Radiance (1998), is a sort of a long story. And it was actually quite tortuous because we had to find three of the cast that would work together, because they were related, they had to sort of physically match. And, now there’s not a lot of Aboriginal actresses in Sydney – oh, in Australia – and back then, there wasn’t – you know, this was 10 or 15 years ago now – there was even less. Um, so we had a small pool to choose from and, of that pool of actresses, most of them were my really good friends. So, it was really horrible having to cast, you know, audition people and then choose people, because they were all my mates. Like, I knew them all really well.
You know, the first person I’d seen actually do Radiance [the play] was Trisha Morton-Thomas, who was – who’s really one of my very closest friends. But when she auditioned, I sort of thought, 'Oh, no, she’s not really right’. So over a very long process where I looked at a whole range of actors … at the last minute, I brought Trish back into the play. And she said to me, 'You know, I knew this was always my role in the first place – I was just waiting for you to work that out’. So, anyway, I’m glad that we cast her, but it took a long time.
Deb Mailman had – had been living in Queensland. No-one had seen her on screen before. She was – she was a – really a newcomer then. I flew up to Brisbane to see her in a play and cast her that evening when I saw her, because I thought she was just so terrific. And Rachel Maza we knew would always be part of it, but she sort of moved around in roles depending on what other actresses we put with her. So it was a – it was a complicated, elongated process.
We didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of time, so we had a six-week rehearsal process which we really workshopped the script in, and developed that and, you know, it was as long as the shooting time. And it meant that, you know, as an inexperienced director with relatively inexperienced cast, by the time we got on set we had this very strong core understanding of what we were doing. So I think – and since that experience, I’ve always believed in the rehearsal process as being a really important part of developing the script, getting the best out of your cast. You know, basically stealing all their ideas, putting them into the script, and getting as prepared as you can to go on set. Because that’s, you know, ultimately, it’s the cast that are on set, they’re going to make the difference, and that’s where the energy really lies.
By the time we’d got on set, because we’d rehearsed so much, and we’d studied the sort of character journeys, of each of the characters in the film, the cast really knew – Trish, Deb and Rachel – what their character would do in any given situation, how they would respond, how they felt about the world. So when the circus arrives, you know, of all the crew, they still felt very strongly in what they were doing because they understood their characters. They identified with their characters in a way, so they were able to keep their vision of their character intact, you know, beyond all of the other distractions of – that occur on set.
One Night the Moon
One Night The Moon (2001) – what attracted me about that was the music initially. Like, I loved the music. When I put in a sort of cassette, which it was then, and heard 'This Land is Mine’, I thought, 'Oh God, I’ll be able to do something great with that’, you know. It’s such a great song, and it was just a demo. And I think, apart from filmmaking, my other passion is music.
And the songs had been written as a sort of a narrative, and were the sort of spine of the existing script, so it really turned things on its head. But it gave – it gave a structure because we had a suite of songs to work to, and the songs then determined the rhythm of a scene, and the action of a scene. And the musicians – Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and Maireed Hannah – were all part of the creative process. We wrote the script together and, uh, we stripped back a lot of the dialogue, so that the music really told the story.
So the characters communicate in song, rather than in words, and that, I think, gave the film an overall, sort of stylistic difference that set it apart from most sort of dramatic works in that it had little dialogue, you know. It had a lot of song and it was just really vision and – vision and music communicated the narrative.
Yeah, I find editing the most enjoyable, actually, out of the whole process. I find writing really hard, I think that’s the hardest. Very hard to write well, and I don’t think I necessarily do it well, um. Shooting is fun but always, you know, there’s always so many pressures on you when you’re shooting. It’s very exhilarating, and lots of adrenalin, but it’s – can be tough.
Editing, you can just sit in a nice dark room and all of your rushes are there, and all the choices have been made. And, really, it’s where the creative process, in a way, really kicks in for me because you’ve got all this material, and it could go almost in any direction, and it – and often it does for me.
Yeah, First Australians (2008) was one of those great moments where you’re in the right place at the right time. Gordon Briscoe, an Indigenous professor who we interviewed in the series, said to Nigel Milan, who was then the General Manager of SBS – Nigel asked him, 'What can I do for Indigenous people?’. And Gordon Briscoe said, 'Give them back their history’. So Nigel Milan said, 'Right, I’m going to do an Indigenous history series on SBS. It’s going to be well funded and, you know, here’s the money to do it.’
So I think probably [it] will be the most important thing that I’ll ever work on, for me personally, because it really was an opportunity to try and tell the Indigenous story in a comprehensive manner from an Indigenous perspective, over a span of 200 years. It had never been done before. You know, we had very big ambitions for that project and – nothing less than actually changing the way a new generation of Australians see their country.
A personal responsibility
I don’t know whether you could say the Indigenous community expects this of its directors because there’s such a diversity within the community and, you know, a lot of us, we’re not really known that well in the sort of wider Indigenous community. We sort of are not like sportspeople or, you know, activists, we’re just sort of filmmakers [which] is pretty obscure.
But I think, I’ve been brought up in my personal life and also through my sort of groundwork at CAAMA, to – to have a responsibility, you know, personal responsibility to make films or to use media as a vehicle to tell my people’s story and to create change, and, uh, that’s essentially what drives, to date, my work.
Well, for a film like Bran Nue Dae (2009), certainly I’m thinking about young kids and their parents, and that’s what I’m thinking – hoping – who will go to see it. And, uh, for One Night the Moon (2001), it’s such a strange piece of work in lots of ways, it’s like a depressing musical, I didn’t really think that anybody’d go to see it! With First Australians (2008), you know, we were looking at sort of secondary [school] age up to sort of 60, 65, 70-year-olds as our – as our brief.
Because we’re an independent production company, and we’re independent filmmakers, we do everything. You know, we do the mail, we do the tax, we do the filing, we do the dishes. We, uh, we don’t have people to do that like you do in another organisation. But the good thing about being independent is it gives you – you’re your own boss, and you get to do the projects you want, and you get to work the way you want, and you don’t have to wear a suit every day, and you get to – yeah, you get creative freedom.
I’ve been on the NSW FTO Board, the Australian Film Television Radio School Board, the Australian Film Commission Board, now I’m on Screen Australia. I’ve been on the National Indigenous Media Association Board, the Indigenous Screen Australia Board, the National Documentary Conference Board – so bored of being on boards.
Policy means opportunities, and if you don’t have, you know, good policy at a senior government level, then you don’t get the outcomes at a grassroots level, and I’ve seen the way those things connect. And that’s why I get on all these boards