NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations that dive into the creativity, the inspiration, and the success of Australian cinematic talent. Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the video series complements the exhibition Australians & Hollywood, which was on display at the NFSA from January 2022 to January 2024.
Jenny: Let's start with your first or most influential Australian cinema memory.
Deb: For me, I would have to say My Brilliant Career, Judy Davis. I was inspired by the freedom, by the beauty and performance, it was so Australian and so real. I loved it, it was magic.
Hugh: The first, I don't know if it was the very first, but one of the most influential [memories for me] was Gallipoli, Peter Weir's film and I remember going to Ian Drew's birthday party … we were 12 or 11 and we all went to the movie and all of us were crying at the end. Mark Lee at the end, that final shot. All of us crying, not a usual Australian 12-year-old birthday party! All boys. It was that and The Man from Snowy River, Tommy Burlinson.
Jenny: What do you think is the secret sauce for Australian cinematic success?
Deb: We are authentic. We're not trying to copy American films or Scandinavian films. We are authentically... I think we're doing us. We have our own personality as Australians. We have our own culture and sensibility. And I think our films really show that … people are attracted to it because it's unique and it's different and it's, you know, people are drawn to it.
Hugh: I remember when I went over to study acting in Perth. This is the great thing about going there is you're sort of isolated from a lot of Australia and you're insulated in the school and we are on a global scale. And if you think back to those movies that I grew up in the 70s, 80s Australia, we of course had influences from Europe and England and we had influences from America. But we were so far away making our stories our way. So it's another way around of saying exactly what you're saying, Deb.
I also remember George Miller telling me that you have to be incredibly disciplined as an Australian filmmaker because the budgets weren't there. You couldn't just throw money at a problem. You had to solve it with wit, with ingenuity, with creativity, because you couldn't just whack up a green screen and solve a problem, you had to find a way. And he said those restrictions make you more creative, and maybe that's part of why Australian films have such a distinctive flavour.
I also think – sorry, the secret sauce is getting very big now, lots of ingredients – I also think the sort of courage I would say Australian filmmakers and actors have, there's a real sort of have-a-go sort of quality, they go for it.
Deb: … I think we step up, we've got a cockiness to us that we can stand on the world stage and feel confident we have something to offer.
Jenny: When you reflect on your careers, what does ambition mean to you both?
Hugh: For me, Jen, I think I've certainly, way exceeded any possible ambitions I had. I never remember thinking ‘I want to go to Hollywood’ or ‘I'm going to be in big Hollywood movies’ or ‘I'm going to host the Oscars’ or ‘I'm going to be on Broadway’, I don't remember thinking that at all. But I do remember feeling as though I'm just going to say, yes. I'm going to work incredibly hard, but if I get a shot at anything, I'm going to say, yes, I didn't really care what it was.
I thought to say yes, no matter how frightening it was, no matter how, even if you don't feel you deserve it yet or whatever, say yes, go for it, give it everything you have. I think that sort of have-a-go mentality is a very Australian thing. Work as hard as you can and make sure you have a good time while you're doing it.
Deb: Yeah, that's the most important ingredient. If you're not having fun, change careers. But I was the same, I said yes. I came back from studying in New York, and I think I was offered 3 films in the same week and my agent said we can only do one. I said, ‘Why? Why? I can get a helicopter and I can fly in there’ … I was doing everything within my power to make it all happen. So you have to say yes to everything in the beginning because you don't know what's going to hit. You don't know.
Jenny: What does the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia mean to you?
Deb: I think it's confidence for us as Australians to see our legacy through the generations of filmmaking; where we've come from, where we're going to, and that's how we learn, so future generations will learn from the past and see what it was like to make a film in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and so on. And it's commemorating some wonderful work. So it's wonderful to keep that memory.
Hugh: Perfectly said, as always. But I think that if I could just add to that, so much of film is about new innovation finding a new way. I think it's really important in a way to, as you said, not just honour the past, but to track it, to understand and know where everything fits in in the present.
Deb: And it tells our story, because in history, that's how we know about the past history of the artists, through what stories were told. That's how we know about where we came from, who we are. It's the artist’s stories and their representations through painting, through music, through filmmaking, through books.
Jenny: You both have plenty of work in there, but also Shame was something that came back again, restored thanks to the NFSA.
Deb: Yeah, that was remarkable. That showed in New York at the film festival there in New York. And it was so amazing because I made that in, what, 1990 and it is still so potent and pertinent today. It was great to have my daughter in the audience as a 15-year-old seeing her mother kick ass on a motorbike, number one. But you know, it was great seeing the audience react in exactly the same way: the outrage, the connection and sadly, these stories still resonate with what's happening in, you know, not just the outback but in the cities today. So yeah, that was great to have it brought back, I was really proud of that film. I loved the character. I love what it had to say, and I know a lot of Australian students studied that film, so I'm proud of it.
Hugh: Yeah, it was really awesome to watch our kids watch their mum in Shame. Particularly Ava, she was probably 12 or 13, so just coming into womanhood sort of thing. And Oscar, who was 16, 17. Ava seeing her mum totally kick ass.
Deb: They were scared of me after that!
Jenny: In January 2022, the NFSA opened Australians & Hollywood, an exhibition celebrating Australian cinematic success. What in your mind is there to celebrate?
Hugh: I think there's a really rich history and legacy of Australian films. Many of which, people won’t know about. I think Australian actors right now – and certainly over the last 40 years – directors and crew members have been really well celebrated. But there's so many gems. There's so many gems that need to be revisited, need to be watched. And if you're Australian or if you're a film fan from anywhere in the world, I think going and watching the uniqueness of Australian film, watching some of the landmark filmmakers, storytelling, the actors and those incredible locations, it's something I feel very proud to be part of. I know you do too, Deb.
Deb: And let's face it, we as Australians, we love to celebrate. We could celebrate daily. We could celebrate everything we like to celebrate. And why not? Every day is a miracle, and I think it's great that we get to celebrate what we do.
Jenny: Which Aussie inspired you? I know you mentioned Judy Davis, but others, as you were coming up in your career, and who currently inspires you today?
Deb: I go back to Wendy Hughes and John Hargraves. That was quite a way back, but they were both powerful, strong actors. And I remember thinking how good they were and I was proud to say they’re Australians, and they're really kicking ass.
Hugh: Certainly for me, Judy Davis was one … and the reason I decided to become an actor was Richard Roxburgh. I saw him doing something at the Sydney Theatre Company and I didn't know acting could have that effect at that point. So I'd say Richard Roxburgh, who's done a lot of amazing work. Also, Hugo Weaving. My dad took me to the high school I was going to be going to, to see their musical, and he was the lead in that, Man of La Mancha, and I can still remember it completely. Ben Mendelsohn, who I loved growing up and then even now, he also incredibly inspires me.
Deb: I'm impressed with Margot Robbie. I think she's done great work. You know, she constantly challenges herself in the role she chooses.
Hugh: I'm impressed with Nicole Kidman, who I was lucky enough to work with … and to see how she, through the years, keeps the quality of work.
Deb: And stepping out of her safety zone.
Jenny: What's your advice to Aussies dreaming right now of making it in Hollywood?
Deb: Be very careful what your objective is, whether making it in Hollywood is your dream, or being a fine actor and telling stories. Hollywood to me represents enormous opportunity. It's the workplace for actors there. So many films are being made there. But just to pursue success or fame in showbiz is a very different dream to really wanting to hone your skills and be an artist.
Hugh: One [piece of advice] actually came from Deb when I first was going over there. I'd shot X-Men, but it hadn't come out yet, and you said the trick to Hollywood is to always have a return ticket. So, the mistake some people make is taking a one-way ticket … don't forget you can work in Australia, you can work in other places and keep fires burning in different areas, particularly if you have a career or things going in Australia. It's really great mentally and creatively to go in 3 months, audition … if you don't grab a film, go home and work. Don't just sit there waiting for work when you could be working somewhere else.
Interview transcript edited for length and clarity.
Want to be the first to hear stories and news from the NFSA?
Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss out.