Hard working Australian actor Sophie Mathisen didn’t shy away from making tough choices when developing her first feature film, Drama. Not only did she write, direct and star in it, she decided to conduct the entire shoot in Paris over one hectic month and instituted a hiring policy which ensured that the entire crew was made up of equal numbers of men and women. The result of her efforts will be screening at Gold Coast Film Festival, where she will also be in attendance for a Q&A with the audience. We spoke with Sophie about the film, which has been described as ‘a relationship film about love, life, death and what’s for dinner.”
I understand the central relationship is one between a straight girl and her gay male best friend. What prompted you to explore this type of relationship?
I have always been rather frustrated by the lack of depth and overall exploration of this kind of friendship within screen culture. My longest relationships have been with my friends and I think this is a generational issue – in a societal context where a nuclear family is not necessarily the norm, that of course shapes your outlook on love, marriage and partnership. That’s not to say I’m cynical – far from it, it’s just to say that my experience has been that friendships endure when love fades.
Having a partner isn’t a marker of success or failure in life and regardless of your marital status there are people who will love and care for you when you feel totally alone.
I imagine that ensuring the crew on the film were 50/50 male and female added to your task load. Why do you think this hiring policy was so important?
People unfortunately believe that there is equal opportunity in the film industry and to those folk, who are normally men, I’d say try being a lady on set. It’s not simply as cut and dried as saying that the best applicants get the jobs, there are social factors that go into being the ‘best applicant’. As social creatures our environment shapes us – having fewer women working and recognised at the highest level shapes the way young people envisage and plan for their future. Looking at the lower statistics of female directors, writers, editors, sound designers, lighting technicians affects how you are received and perceived in those roles. Because of the high instance of female engagement on Drama some of the male crew and actors took to calling us ‘sexy crew’ and look, at the time we chuckled, but it speaks to how women are seen in the film industry. We are the pretty faces the camera is pointed at, not the brawn lifting those cameras between takes.
How do you feel about the argument that we live in a meritocracy and that opportunity exists for anyone, male or female, to succeed equally in filmmaking?
I think that perspective is highly out of touch with reality and usually belies a lot of fear and anxiety around the push for more equality. The film industry is hard for everyone but despite that truism it still remains harder for some than others. It’s the same for all minorities – fewer opportunities and less recognition results in lower engagement in the sector. An intersectional approach in acknowledging the increased difficulty for women of colour, trans and intersex women and non-able bodied women is important when advocating for change. If we are to be a truly inclusive environment, it’s not about transposing the old rules with a set just as flawed, it’s about really examining the structural bias that underpins our industry and exploding that. Finding friends and peers engaged in the same pursuits as you is so important in providing support for your aspirations and often as a woman it feels as if you’re the only one. That can be crazy-making and often a deterrent from continuing in the film industry. But honestly, people like Lucy Fisher [Festival Director of GCFF] make it worthwhile. The simplest thing, like listing whether a film passes the Bechdel Test, ensures that as female you feel recognised and your contribution acknowledged. BRAVO LUCY FISHER! It’s a really incredible step in makers being accountable for the content they create and thinking critically about representation on and off screen.
What was the appeal to you about Paris as a setting in Drama? Do you have much personal attachment to Paris, or France?
Jonathan, one of the lead actors (and one of my best friends) is French and my connection is through him. His family was so supportive in hosting us – the crew lived in the Burteaux residence, on a variety of couches and blow up mattresses for an entire month. I spent a good deal of time there in the lead up to shooting and it’s a beautiful city. I found the people to be incredible.
As an actor, did you feel a different connection to material you wrote yourself, or that you made different choices?
Absolutely (and what a great question). The big difference is to do with the rhythm and flow – I think one of the strongest elements of Drama is the dialogue – it sounds the way that people actually speak. Oftentimes screenwriters follow a formula that often feels expository or inauthentic. We spend our lives talking and yet scripts often read as two virtual strangers talking about key plot points neither one seems to know too much about. Ultimately it comes down to trusting that your audience is smart enough and interested enough to invest in something that unfolds slowly rather than simply giving you everything upfront. My background is in theatre and there is such a rich and vivid history of writers really demanding audiences to go with the story without having a guidebook of where you’re going. So really I crafted the performance the way I would if it’s on stage – be true to the moment as it happens. Affect nothing, deny nothing. The story ultimately unfolds the way it unfolds and the job of the actor is to be a conduit for the experience of the narrative.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently in pre-production for the follow up to Drama, a comedic romantic tragedy. Although that’s an invented genre, the film (The Book) plays in the same space as Drama – looking at the lengths we go to get a significant other and often how ludicrous that pursuit can be. Nearly a third of all adults in the urban environments live alone and I want to make a story for the women and men who know that living alone is not necessarily a marker of being “broken” or “immature”. It’s just a choice, like being married is a choice. I’m producing it with my sister and we are hoping to make this one a little bit less stressful in its production approach but ultimately we are hungry to make another film so we’ll get it done anyway we can.
Observant audiences will note that in the final scene for Drama, Anna, our lead protagonist actually passes a film poster for The Book that we embedded in post-production as a little marker of what’s next. We always imagined Drama as being a part of a trilogy of films so we’re excited not only for the second instalment but also the third.
Drama is showing at The Arts Centre Gold Coast on Saturday 9 April at 3.00pm. Tickets at theartscentregc.com.au. Stay afterwards for Q+A with Sophie Mathisen.