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Sophie Hyde on '52 Tuesdays' & a whole lot more...

Australian women directors did brilliantly at Sundance. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a horror about a single mother losing her grip on reality, enjoyed rave reviews and will be distributed in the United States and Latin America. Ashlee Page won a prestigious Sundance Institute | Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award (given in recognition and support of emerging independent filmmakers from around the world), for her single character feature Archive. And Sophie Hyde won the Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic for 52 Tuesdays (for which she co-wrote the story with the screenwriter, Matthew Cormack). 52 Tuesdays then won a Crystal Bear, for the Best Youth Film, at the Berlinale.

Sophie Hyde & her Silver Bear
52 Tuesdays' logline is '16-year-old Billie’s reluctant path to independence is accelerated when her mother reveals plans for gender transition and their time together becomes limited to Tuesday afternoons'. And although it’s a drama, not a documentary, it was shot chronologically every Tuesday for a year: the filmmakers set themselves a rule, that they could only shoot on Tuesdays up until midnight and only consecutively, so whatever filmed on that day is what happens in the story on that day. All the actors are non-professionals. Before 52 Tuesdays, Sophie directed three narrative shorts and a short documentary and co-directed Life in Movement, a feature documentary about choreographer Tanja Liedtke. She’s also a writer and producer.

Interviews with Sophie Hyde (see links and clip below) have highlighted her involvement with Adelaide’s dynamic Closer Collective and her desire to explore alternative models for making features. I often focus what works for women directors and why  (for example in
Beyond 'Career' and Sharing The Love) so I interviewed Sophie to explore how the collective and her alternative model work for her as a writer/director. I wanted to be able to place her work practices alongside those of prolific women directors who have strong individual visions and who sometimes self-produce, like Kelly Reichardt (combines directing with teaching), Ava DuVernay (who combines 'everything'), Isabel Coixet, Christine Jeffs and many others who combine features with commercials and Lynn Shelton (“[I can] pick up a camera, and call [my] friends and say, ‘let’s go make a movie!’ And if we fail, like, we’ll just shove it under the rug.”) I’m also interested in women directors whose scripts are written by men. Although writer gender is in some ways not an issue, because a good writer can write about anything, I worry because men write and direct the large majority of commercial projects with women as central characters and there are too few spaces for women writers and writers/directors who want to tell stories about women.

To read more about gender and
52 Tuesdays, I strongly recommend Danielle Lurie’s superb interview for Filmmaker Magazine (within Danielle’s superb Sundance and SXSW interviews with her fellow women directors).

Sophie Hyde (photo: Bryan Mason)
You and Bryan Mason established Closer a decade ago. How and why did you start it and why do you call it a collective?

When Bryan and I started Closer it was a partnership between us. We wanted a way to consolidate the freelance work we were doing and most importantly to start creating our own work together. Since we started we have continuously made films, which is wonderful. We call it a collective now to remind us that it is not a business for-business-sake, we are here to create work and we need a constant reminder of that.

Were you influenced by other collectives, and if so which ones? Did you have a manifesto, like Dogme, for instance?

No manifestos - though we have been laughing that, it’s a good idea so maybe we will create one. We have a general ethos I think. We like to create. We all enjoy working hard and investigating ideas. We are interested in unusual processes and collaboration. We like to maintain an independent spirit and tell stories with and about people that might not be represented a lot. We increasingly like to have direct contact with the audience and be part of a conversation about the films and the ideas. We like quality too and are really brutal with each other about the ideas and the way they are realized.

Collectives are often politically rather than business oriented. But when I look at your website Closer seems very businesslike, and includes offers of a range of commercial services. How do you balance your own work and making money? What would you change if you could? Any tips for others?

We are always asking just this question. We are a business it’s true. We have clients and we make videos for them for money. In reality, the money we bring in is just money enough to keep the business going – pay for our premises, accounting and our very meagre but consistent wages. So the business is set up to enable us all to be employed and also to be able to create work together. In the most part our ‘clients’ are people and organisations who bring more than just $$ to us – a lot of arts organisations. We work with the Art Gallery of South Australia for instance and they have been crucial in helping develop and make some of our work in terms of expertise etc. In terms of the balance between creativity and dollars, I don’t know how the balance goes – I know it is a really difficult and time-consuming part of what we do, running a business, but it has also somehow enabled us to move quite quickly and to have a real ownership over what we have made. It’s certainly not making us money. But it is enabling us to make the kinds of films we want to make.

My experience of collectives has been mostly within women’s collectives, so I’m intrigued by the gender mix in Closer, that nourishes you as a director of films about women, and not only you – Closer is also producing Ashlee Page’s Archive. In low budget mixed-gender film projects – I think especially of New Zealand’s 48 Hours competition – women are much more often producers than writers and directors. But at Closer, you seem to be more flexible about gender roles. How did this happen and what helped it happen? Do you have a gender policy, or discuss this kind of gender issue? Any thoughts?

We have no gender policy but it’s something I feel distinctly aware of. FilmLab (the South Australian Film Corporation’s – SAFC – initiative that both 52 Tuesdays and also Ashlee’s Archive came from) is surprisingly strong on female directors. When I say that there are 3 of us out of 8 (10 if you include the shorts through FilmLab) so that’s not actually really good – but in the first round with Ashlee and I, there were two of four which is very unusual I think. I feel I have ruminated on this so much lately and the truth is that the numbers of women directing is still so so unacceptable but there are so many complicated reasons behind this inequality that it’s really difficult to pin point. So no, we have no gender policy but two of the four directors of the company are women and we have very strong points of view.

What are the benefits and disadvantages for you of shifting roles, from writing to direction to production? Each has creative elements but has very different demands. And it makes a further difference working on your own project or someone else’s? What helps you be versatile?

Again a really tricky question. I love directing. I love to make – especially the research, development stages and working with the actors. But I think directing is brutal and raw and at times I find it consumes me in a way that is thrilling, devastating and not always healthy. So I love to direct things that I am passionate about and I have found it hard to work as a director in conflict with a producer or a broadcaster. This has been particularly true of documentary when you have such intense responsibility for telling someone’s story. I have found this responsibility difficult to reconcile with the needs and wants of those that can be in charge. So, when I was making documentaries I found it really important (and mostly practical) to produce myself and even if working with a producer, to also be a producer. The truth is I love producing. I like creating a blueprint in a budget and thinking creatively about what team to work with and how to get something made. So I am a particular kind of producer as well.

For me, I have found that I would rather produce a range of really interesting projects with really excellent directors than direct constantly. Although that balance shifts at different times and I found 52 Tuesdays to be an incredible privilege to make as a director, in that we worked for so long – a year in production, nearly as long in post – which gave me a chance to really feel I was working as a director. I have definitely been fed as a director by working as a producer. Working with Matt Bate for instance, has ignited a whole lot of different ways of thinking about telling stories. The benefits are many – a feeling that we are all working together to create, even if the project is led by the director, an understanding of the parts, a creative freshness from being able to work from different viewpoints. The disadvantages are mostly that I get caught up in the producing really easily and I find producing easier to switch around on roles and to come in and out of and for that reason I find it the easiest work to pick up and do at any given time. I’m not suggesting producing is easy, just that at times it’s the go-to work when the other work is slightly more raw. Also just that you end up feeling like you need to know and understand everything so I’m trying to work out which bits I don’t need to actually do.

Where did the idea for the 52 Tuesdays story come from?

Matt Cormack and Bryan Mason and I were ruminating on what we could make for this new program called FilmLab. FilmLab was an unusual initiative partly because you had to apply as a team and with 3 one-page ideas rather than a script or detailed treatment. Matt said ‘how about we make a film where every Tuesday two people meet and we have to shoot it like that, only on Tuesdays, every Tuesday for a year’. There was a silence and I think Bryan and I went… alright. There was immediately a potential inside that – something each person would attach to that wasn’t necessarily the same. The selection panel certainly attached to that potential and in some ways it took us longer to come to a story and characters because there was such a wonderful promise inside that initial idea that everyone seemed to own.

How did you and Matthew develop the story? Did you create the whole story before you started shooting and then Matthew wrote the script each week for a year? What did Matthew offer as a scriptwriter of this very woman-oriented story?

In terms of the story, we went into a FilmLab workshop and it was quite late in that 3-week period that we began to really develop the characters and from there the story. First we investigated why we wanted to make a film in that way and then we decided we needed characters we could live with for some time. On the one night we really found Billie, James and Harry – three characters who essentially made up a family and three characters who each question the rules of how we are supposed to live.

From there, Matt and I spent a good few years developing the characters and the story but we never set it in stone. We were making other films over that time (Shut up Little Man! Which came out of the same FilmLab round and Life in Movement, which was another very personal film that Bryan and I made together).

When we started shooting we had a story document that outlined what we thought would happen and long character histories and scripts for the first few months. Then we committed to writing as we went, so Matt and I would chat about where things were going and he would write scenes and we would re-chat. Sometimes things would shift around after the rehearsal and later in the process the story room opened up a bit more and Bryan and our production manager Matt Vesely were more heavily involved in the story discussions. The cast were only given their scripts a week ahead of shoot and only the stories they were in though they all had a strong impact on the work in different ways.

In terms of what Matt offered to the story, the story comes from us both. The structure and the concept came from Matt. The core ideas came from conversations and an ongoing dialogue between us and the other people we were working with. There are, of course, parts that feel very resonant for Matt and other parts for me, but once inside it you are just working towards the film together. Matt certainly wrote the scenes and maintained the ongoing script document and it wasn’t like I just had ideas and he turned them into a script at all. We worked very closely on what would be happening, what the characters were doing and where the story was going all the time.

Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey and James (Del Herbert-Jane)
photo: Bryan Mason
What did FilmLab contribute?

I firmly believe we wouldn’t have made this film without that program. FilmLab was designed as a program that sat outside market and that was important with a film that took risks – in fact we were encouraged to take creative risks, it was after all a development program and a chance for us to be rigorous with ourselves, to find our way of making, but not have to deliver a particular kind of film to a market.

With that in mind we wanted to make something that we would never get to make in another context and we worked hard to maintain that spirit of experimentation while still making a film for an audience.

The SAFC’s contribution through FilmLab therefore is very significant, in pursuing risk they opened us up to make a film we really wanted to make. I think there can be a fear of risk-taking in making films but I think it’s fair to say that films that seem low risk can also fail. It’s very risky to keep maintaining a status quo that doesn’t work. It’s very risky in creative areas to try to turn things into productive, efficient machines or to suggest that there is one path to creating something. The SAFC and the FilmLab team gave us the space and permission to create something we really wanted to make and see rather than what we thought would get financed through existing channels.

What about the idea for shooting each Tuesday?

This idea was inherent in the initial concept. I think it fascinated us as a challenge and to examine what that would do to our narrative and to an audience’s experience but also as a production methodology to see how different making something outside of the industrial model that is fairly consistently used. We often talk about being interested in how we live creative lives to, 52 Tuesdays forced us to examine that – how to create within our lives and not instead of our lives or next to our lives.

What were the benefits and challenges of shooting in sequence and over such a long period? Were they different for you as a producer and director than for the cast? Did you manage to have the same crew throughout and did that help? What advice do you have for people who are considering something similar? Will you use the same once-a-week-shoot structure again, though not necessarily with a film that covers a year in the characters’ lives?

Big question. The benefits of shooting in that way are working with the cast to gently create and reveal their characters. They were able to settle into being those characters on screen in a way that might have been harder (or different) during a 6-week intensive shoot. Another benefit was being able to be with my daughter, a lot. That doesn’t mean it was easy but it does mean I wasn’t working 20 hours a day for 6-8 weeks. The ability to focus on details was also lovely. The challenges are similar. It was hard to come in and out of life so consistently, to find a way to make without the adrenalin. It was like a marathon and there were times where each of us wanted to stop. Maintaining relationships over that period of time for a shoot was also a challenge but we had a very generous cast and crew and it was quite a gentle shoot in many way. The ability to focus on details meant at times we were so ‘in’ something that only needs to be a very small part of the film or story. But we lived it each week so it’s different to viewing it post edit. Also a challenge was keeping a grip on the story in this way, what’s important to an audience? What do we need? How economical do we need to be with the pieces – we can’t just shoot piles and put only a bit in, when do we need scenes that tell us a lot?

Can you share the budget, and where and how you raised the money? Did you apply to Screen Australia for funding? Did it help to spread expenditure over the 52 weeks of shooting?

The budget cannot reflect the time and energy people put into the film so I always find it a little deceiving, but the budget ended up about $700,000. We started filming with just the $350k knowing that finishing would be extremely tough on that. The Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund came in during the shoot thankfully and their investment boosted up the budget to be offset eligible (once offset eligibility changed to include films over $500,000 rather than $1mil). That pieced the budget together. Both AFF and SAFC also supported the making of the My 52 Tuesdays app and photobooth which have been wildly successful – they were made on miniscule budgets. No, Screen Australia weren’t involved. At the time we didn’t fit into their eligibility criteria because we had no market attachment and I suspect they would have struggled with the lack of script thing too. They have supported us in the development of the app and in travel and marketing to festivals.

James (Del Herbert-Jane) and Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey)
photo: Bryan Mason
One of the ongoing debates about low budget films is payment of cast and crew. (I’ve had an ongoing interest in this ever since I read about Sally Potter’s practice with The Gold Diggers, decades ago, where she paid cast and crew the same daily rate regardless of role.) Does Closer have a consistent payment principle for its projects or a specific one for 52 Tuesdays? Can you write a little bit about that and any ideas/experience to share?

All of us at Closer are on a set, low annual wage regardless of what projects we are on or how much our fees from those projects bring the company. So for 52 Tuesdays that includes writer/producer Matt Cormack, Producer Rebecca Summerton, me and DP/Editor/Producer Bryan Mason. For the other crew (and there were not very many of them), they were each paid the same daily agreed fee. Because we only shot one day a week all the camera assistants and sound recordists etc were able to take other work and so they kind of rotated roles. Some weeks were very short for the fee and some were longer. It was a situation where they would be on if they were available and if not we would get one of the others. There was hardly any art department just the occasional person for big weeks near the end and some styling. We only had makeup maybe twice in the shoot. We were a tiny little team. The cast were all paid according to the award and on dailies – most of them continued with other jobs and study too.

You’re a mother. Can you write a little bit about the interface of motherhood and filmmaking for you? What have you found to work well for you and your child? What doesn’t work and what ideas do you have about making things even better? Would it make a difference if you had more than one child?

The interface happens daily. My partner and I both raise our child together and make films together. We don’t separate work from ‘life’ – it all mooshes into the same thing. So as a filmmaker I am a mother and as a mother I think my daughter knows me as a maker as well. Whether this works well or not I can’t really say, I think it’s the choice we made and possibly the only one that could work for us and the only kind of balance we could find in that. For me, making and also running our own business, the idea that you can switch off from that is absurd and finding balance for us is about allowing whichever part of life needs the most attention to have it. What we are trying to be good at is taking afternoon walks when things aren’t crazy, taking off a day occasionally, being present with our daughter – which she might argue is limited, but in truth, we work between a studio at the Adelaide studios and our studio at home and so we are both often with our daughter at the start and end of every day and on weekends. That doesn’t mean we aren’t working then, but we spend a lot of time all together.

At the end of the year of shooting of 52 Tuesdays I remember writing a list of all the things I failed at during the year and all the things I succeeded at. Being a mother or a parent was on my own list of success. That doesn’t mean every day was idyllic or that is was smooth, but I felt I was being a good parent while I was making. There are times during the edit where I wouldn’t exactly say that, but I suppose underneath I believe that’s good parenting too – working out how to be yourself and acknowledging in your relationship with your child that it’s sometimes a bit yuck and hard and distracting and that you are still there and finding ways to love each other and teach each other inside that. Sounds a bit cheesy…

Would it be different if I had more than one child? Of course. My child is able to be part of our creative lives in a way that seems more difficult imagining another child. Really simply the logistics of two is harder – babysitting, travelling etc. At the moment we are like a little trio which suits us well. Not to say we wouldn’t be up for the challenge of more but it’s not an easy choice for us.

I love it that you’ve created an app to go with the film. What inspired it? What are your hopes for it?

We always thought that there was a lot of potential around the project for audiences to have a broader extended experience. We dabbled with a lot of ideas – presenting the narrative in a different way online or extending the world of the characters for instance – and essentially decided that what we wanted was to extend the thematic world and give audiences a chance to consider the themes of the film in their own lives and in relation to their own relationships. My 52 Tuesdays (our app – free from the app store and google play) allows everyone to participate in their own miniature 52 Tuesdays. Every Tuesday we send a question (it’s a photographed question) and each person that has signed in can respond by writing down their answer and taking a photo with it. It’s designed to be simple to do (write on a napkin or your hand or a post-it-note) and gives you a moment to think about something in your life… 'What does it feel like to kiss?' 'What would you tell your mum today?' 'Have you been brave enough this week?' It’s not about creativity but rather just a chance to consider something, even if you don’t answer. Answering though is fantastic, because you can see everyone else’s answers to the same question and therein lies much of the joy – following others and seeing their responses or seeing a large number of different responses to the same question. You can keep answers private and you can share your own response on twitter or facebook and you can also share someone else’s response.

The project has the added connection to the film because it allows anyone to make something or respond to something every Tuesday, giving a little glimpse of the strangeness of our weekly/year-long experience. When you mark time like that you notice for instance how quickly the week comes around but when you look back at 10 or 15 how long it can feel – or 52, how very long that can seem, and you notice things have changed and nothing has changed.

Any news re distribution? I can’t wait to see this film!

We release in Australia on May 1st. We have partnered with New Zealand distributor Vendetta Films to do this and are working with a wonderful bunch of cinemas. Internationally we are working with Kino Lorber in the USA and Peccadillo in the UK among others. We will be in NZ later in the year

What’s next for you? Can you imagine becoming a director-for-hire, working away from Closer? Do you have long-term ambitions?

My long term ambition is to keep making interesting, challenging work that is emotionally rich and smart. Simple right. For me, Closer seems like the best place to do that if we can raise finance, but I’m not adverse to other options they would just have to be the right things which could be for any number of reasons. Closer is a great team and there is familiarity and challenge there – these are both good things. I am developing some feature ideas and also some TV.

Twitter 52 Tuesdays Sophie Hyde

Download the app from the app store or Google Play

52 Tuesdays trailer

Danielle Lurie's interview in Filmmaker Magazine

A lovely Closer Collective interview with Sophie, at 26 of the 52 weeks

Ed Gibbs' post-Sundance ABC blog

David Knight on the Closer Collective in the Adelaide Review (great pix!)

Guardian Australia Culture (Martin Farrar) blog about Sophie post-Sundance

Sophie winning Sundance award

interview with Sophie, 41 min in


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