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NFSA Presents: Inspired

NFSA Presents: Inspired – Leah Purcell

Leah Purcell Interview

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 NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent and ambition. Book tickets here now. 

In this episode, Jenny Cooney interviews actor Leah Purcell, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021). Leah talks about the impact of seeing black worlds on screen, the upcoming talent that inspires her, the significance of our film history, and the importance of hard work and self-belief. Watch here:

NFSA Presents: Inspired – Leah Purcell in conversation with Jenny Cooney about Australians & Hollywood, 2021.

'It was the first time that I saw blackfellas on screen'

Jenny: So much to talk about with Australian cinema. Could you maybe start off by talking about your first or most influential Australian cinema memory?

Leah: Yes, I've actually got 2. The first one when I was around about 11 and I've got an aunt and I don't know how she got her hands on this film, but we had the reels. So what would that have been, 35mm? Yeah, we had a projector. We threw a white sheet up on the kitchen wall and she played us Wrong Side of the Road (Ned Lander, 1981). So it was an Aboriginal band and they were on a tour, and it was the first time that I saw blackfellas, Aboriginal people up on screen and doing our thing like I could relate to them. And the humour up on screen, and doing our thing like I could relate to them, and the comedy, and I could see my aunties in them when they finally got there and they played their music. And I knew that music, you know, so that was very empowering to see our story on my kitchen wall.

And the other big influence on me was when I was 15, and I got the bug for acting. The one that really cemented that there was hope for my dream was The Fringe Dwellers (1986) by Bruce Beresford. They shot it in my hometown so I can watch that film, and I'm related to just about everyone, and I can tell you what corner I was standing on and what was happening. And you know, Bruce... There was me and my little gang, and there's about 5 of us. And he fed us sandwiches one night when they were doing a night shoot. He came out and gave us a plate of sandwiches.

Jenny: Does Bruce Beresford know this?

Leah: Yeah, I ran into him in a Qantas line, we were going over to America and he was there and he was coming around behind us, we were side by side and I said, 'Oh, Mr Beresford I just want to say, hello, my name's Leah Purcell. You filmed Fringe Dwellers...'. As soon as I said Fringe Dwellers he said, 'In Murgon'. I said, 'Yes, I'm a Murgon girl', I said, 'but I wasn't white enough and I wasn't black enough to be in your movie. But I followed you around and I watched you. I watched what you were doing.'

My mum wrecked a scene. It was a big scene cutting across town as she was going to pay the rent, and she just walked straight through set and we were on the other side of the road going, 'Oh my god, Mum!'. And she was just doing the maths and figures and everyone just watched her. It was hilarious, and Bruce went 'Cut' as she walked past.

So they were big influences and especially seeing the actress that played Trilby [Kristina Nehm], you know, I can't think of her name, Aunty Justine Saunders was in it. And I had seen Aunty Justine in other shows when I was little, you know, TV shows. So it was great to see them in lead roles and I knew that my dream... From an Aboriginal girl in a bush town, sole parent, mother... You know, we didn't have too much. That if I kept that dream alive, maybe I could, I could have a crack. And here we are. So they were big influences in my life.

'It was a black world and I understood that'

Jenny: So what films, music and stories do you find yourself going back to and why?

Leah: I'm a big fan of The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, US, 1985), you know, so I go there for a good howl. And once again it was inspiring when Whoopi [Goldberg] scored that lead role, the cast was all... It was a black world and I understood that. And that's where I come from as a writer; when I'm writing my things, that the focus is on the black world and how you get through life by outer oppressions and stuff. So that's one that I go back to as as well.

Jenny: So when you're sort of in the mood to come up with something in your writing and whatever, you'll put on a copy of, you have a DVD or something of The Color Purple or The Fringe Dwellers, those are kind of like your touchstones?

Leah: Yeah, just to go back and keep it real and look at the authenticity in how those characters... Like Fringe Dwellers, they're all non-actors in the background. So it's that rawness and the truth and people from the community that I know and, you know, saying 'Keep the truth'. When I'm writing, think about that truth in that. So it's just inspiration and motivation. You know, when you need it every now and then. And as I said, you can have a good cry as well. So it caters for a lot of things.

Jenny: Well, you are going to be inspiration for another whole generation. You've written, directed and starred in the amazing movie The Drover's Wife (2021). And I wonder, what do you think is the secret sauce for Australian cinematic success?

Leah: I think it's our bravery. I think it's our camaraderie. We're such mates to get shit done. You know what I mean?

We're awesome talent, from the people in front of the screen to our hardworking crew. I think our crews in this country do not get enough praise for what they do for our industry, the hours that they put in. You know, the cut budgets that they have to work with. The talents behind our heads of department are just off the dial.

And our women are just coming through in leaps and bounds. You know, I'm very lucky that when I joined the industry, there was a lot of women at the helm of things, and I've actually worked with majority of women in heads of departments and from executive producers down.

Their sensibility to story in general, but then story that's our truth, that we sit in our knowledge of who we are as a country. And I think that's what's our secret sauce is. And that we can all have a beer at the end of the day and be mates, you know?

Jenny: So when you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?

Leah: Just personal striving for my personal best. It's a personal achievement, too, that I've fulfilled my dream, and I'm lucky to have found a way into the industry. Especially coming from somewhere where I've never trained in anything. But I’m an observer. I listen. To have that initiative to go, 'I'm going to put my hands up and I'm going to dive in and I'm going to go hard'.

Jenny: All of that skill and talent and beauty is on screen in The Drover's Wife, and you the quadruple threat on that one yourself. But besides those things that you've already done now, what element of filmmaking fascinates you?

Leah: Editing! I love the edit room and, every now and then when I was doing Drover's, I try to watch Dany Cooper's fingers as they dance across, skilfully dance across the keyboard and go, 'Oh, what's she pressing?'. But it's like, 'No Purcell, sit back, let someone else do something'. But I really love that process because what I also love about it is the film starts to speak. The film shows itself in what it needs to be. And when you listen to that – the detective work, piecing it together – is just a thrill.

'You have to find the balance, but you have to work bloody hard'

Jenny: So what does the National Film and Sound Archive mean to you?

Leah: It's so important to know our history and how advanced we were back in the day, you know, with the first film in the can. And I wish we could have more access to that. Not only to learn about the past, but look at the craft and look how masterful it was back in those days and where we've grown from.

And I reckon that's where our success, our secret sauce, also could come from. Of the talent that's in those vaults. And we forget how we come to be. And I think it's important that we have access to that. And we're not proud enough in what we do in this industry. You know, we need to be reminded of our successes. We don't celebrate it enough.

You know, if we were Americans we would be popping bottles every day, you know, or patting ourselves on the back. But we just do a good job. Go, 'Thanks, mate' and we move on. So I think having the National Film and Sound Archive, there is a reminder of the greatness that was before us and we can pick that up and continue to the future.

And mate, If I could get into those archives, that's where I want to be with my popcorn and soda water, sitting in there going through some of those boxes going, 'Holy moley'. That's what I get excited about.

Jenny: Who currently inspires you that we might not already have on our radar?

Leah: I think there's a lot of young – there's this new generation, the millennials are coming through, like All My Friends are Racist (Enoch Mailangi, 2021). You know, I'm so proud of those young people in there because – bar one – I've been a mentor to them throughout their career, and I'm so proud that I was just a little moment in their life where I may have given them a little bit of support, a kick up the bum, you know. They ring me up, you know, help with the project, being a soundboard. To see Bjorn [Stewart] as the director, Kodie [Bedford] as a script supervisor, Enoch [Mailangi] as a new writer, new voice coming through.

And then those actors. It was just, you know they excite me, the new generation with this new voice. And I think they're the ones to to watch out for and keep an eye on because they're very brave and not afraid. And that's brilliant. That's what we need.

Jenny: And, last question. There's obviously going to be a lot of people watching this looking for some kind of advice or inspiration. How do you do it and how do you go forward? And how do you make a movie that ends up premiering at South by Southwest like The Drover's Wife did?

Leah: It's sacrifice. It is a sacrifice in your life to get something like that up. You know, you have to find the balance, but you have to work bloody hard. You have to believe in your idea. And don't let anyone deter you with their critique. You know, you've got to believe it, and I believe in The Drover's Wife, and everyone gave me notes and everything, and I took stuff on, you got to take that on with their experience.

But at the end of the day, I believed and I stood by my guns. Boom boom. Pun intended.  [It’s a] Western. I stood by my guns in how I wanted this to go to the world.

So believe in your talent. And you find the right people to come around and give you that support. Then you build your outer team like your Bunyas, like your heads of department. Your DOPs and your 1st ADs that you trust and you've worked with to build that scaffolding, to hold you up and to allow your ideas to be amongst great collaborative people, you know. And then you've got to have the guts to let it be. To let it become what it needs to be.

Jenny: Wow, it's so great talking to you about all of this, you're only really just at the beginning of the next stage of your career. Can't wait to see what's next. So thank you for doing this.

Leah: Thanks everybody for watching.

Interview transcript edited for length and clarity. Book your tickets now for Australians & Hollywood at the NFSA.