Desperately Seeking Greta: On micro-budgets, Mumblecore in Australia, and recognition with writer and director Sophie Townsend.
by Claire White
I love this suburb and its bagel stores. I love its abundance of $2 shops, its bars with open mic nights and spoken word poetry and too many sushi places. This is my suburb, but not many people know of it. I have been a resident of Balaclava for three years. Seeing it on screen in Sophie Townsend’s Pretty Good Friends added a beautiful extra layer to a film that was already so relatable to me. It only seemed fitting, then, that Sophie the writer and director, and I should meet on Carlisle Street, Balaclava’s main street, and revisit the area which means something to us both.
Pretty Good Friends depicts the story of Jules (Jenni Townsend), who, approaching her 25th birthday and figuring out what to do with her life, moves back to Melbourne and in with her friend Sam (Rain Fuller) and her boyfriend Alex (Nathan Barilliaro).
It’s been about five years since it was made, and Sophie was at first a little bit hesitant to screen it again. “It’s had its time, but that’s how I learnt how to do it, by seeing other people’s first films.” The film is, in her own words, true low-budget filmmaking.
“So yeah, we shot all around here. Shall we go down?” She says as she leads me down one of the streets her and her small crew walked down all those years ago, when they, too, were residents.
“I wrote the film when I was overseas, and then came back and found an apartment with the sole purpose of living in it and shooting in it.” She reminisces. “Anytime we made a film, we all lived together.”
She is referring to Nathan Barillaro and Tom Swinburn, her collaborators, producers and co-founders of the production company Amalume Films. Together they made three feature films, taking up roles of writers, directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, editors, camera people. Each feature was made with a micro budget and tiny crew, getting smaller and smaller until it was just the three of them together in Bali for a month, shooting Swinburn’s Island’s Apart.
Micro budgets, filming around your own apartment instead of sourcing actual sets, and collaboration are all characteristics of what has been dubbed “mumblecore” filmmaking.
Since its first use by Eric Masunaga at South by Southwest festival in 2005, the term mumblecore is given to films from the early 2000s onwards made with a micro budget, featuring highly improvised dialogue, natural acting, and usually depicting the lives and relationships of people in their 20s or 30s.
Pretty Good Friends is referred to as Australia’s first mumblecore film. There is even a reference to the term in the film, while Jules and Sam visit the wonderland video store that was Video Vision, reading aloud it’s definition from the back of a DVD case. This is a term Sophie takes in stride.
“It’s a name which has just stuck,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a genre, it’s more like an approach. So Pretty Good Friends was my first film, that’s what I was influenced by, and we all were at that time. We had been watching those films for a couple of years, but I have always liked dialogue heavy films.”
Being referred to as the first Australian mumblecore film, though, is not something she takes to as easily. “Marketing picked up on that but who knows, I’m sure there are other ones around Australia.”
However, there is no ignoring the influence mumblecore has had, not only to the world of low-budget filmmaking. Especially in America, it has also contributed to launching the careers of the likes of Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers and current Academy Award nominee Greta Gerwig.
When I mention Gerwig, a topic I am prone to bring up in all conversation as of late, we launch into a fervent discussion. This is largely influenced by the glass of wine we each have, now sitting inside a wine bar on Carlisle Street. Yet it is also due to the heat which rises through your chest and to your cheeks when you talk about something you’re incredibly passionate about. While Sophie is currently focusing on her career as a video producer for a tech company, film evidently remains her biggest passion. “Relating to your passion is a thing that doesn’t go away”, she tells me later.
Of Gerwig, “She is a legend” she sighs. Her dreamy look, however, is quickly replaced by one of hardened determination.
“It’s like, who’s the Australian Greta Gerwig? Who is she? Who is Australia’s Lena Dunham? Who are the Australian versions? I don’t think I know yet. I think there’s still space for us. Even if there isn’t ‘A Version’, we should still be able to be like maybe it’s this person. I just think that we would see those films.”
Likewise, I admit that no names immediately rose to my head, not like the immediacy of the American filmmakers. We both agree, however, that these films and filmmakers are probably out there, they are just not given the platform they need for us to find them.
To have her film screening at a female focused film festival has Sophie in awe, and it is something she brings up, asking about it with keen interest, at multiple points throughout the interview. She wishes Melbourne Women in Film Festival, and festivals like it, were around when she first released her film. Though the direction the industry is going in, with the creation of these festivals is exciting.
“My main goal has always been to make Australian films for an Australian audience,” she says. “I think we need to see more about younger Australians and what their experience is. Because our industry is so small, it’s ten years behind. So there’s a lot of room out there for new characters, for female characters. There just needs to be more, definitely for women. I mean, that’s not an original thing to say but in Australia, particularly, we need more women filmmakers of all kinds. For drama, comedy, just different stories. Examples of inner city and outer city life. We’ve got lots to show. And the talent is out there.”
As our wine glasses empty and the sky darkens, our conversation swirls around not only as a pair of fellow filmmakers (“as cheesy as that sounds,” she laughs), but as if we were old friends. From the current state of the Australian film industry and the potential of its future, to the stories we are interested in telling, to more dissection of Gerwig’s filmmaking as it relates to our lives, the topic lands on how everything seems to be about television these days. Would she ever delve into episodic content?
“Like, yeah, I would, but now that I have been removed from filmmaking, I’m like nope, feature. It’s all I’ve ever thought of.”
“Feature is just what films are to me. I can’t think in a small story that ends in a little neat package. I think you can do a lot in an hour. Features are like a period in time. A moment, a feeling, an era, a chapter.”
And as we walk back through the streets of Balaclava in the moonlight, I realise Pretty Good Friends itself is a snapshot in time. The film is a snapshot in time for the characters, struggling to figure out who they actually are, who they want to be. Watching the film now, during this chapter of my life and recognising myself in those struggles and fears is similar. It is also a snapshot of Melbourne, of this suburb. The $2 shop with a barber shop at the back remains, but things have changed. Video Vision is no longer there. It is now an artisanal bottle shop. Even the Coles supermarket has changed. As we look towards the future, this version of Melbourne, this version of filmmaking, will always be there to look back on. An era pre- Australia’s Greta Gerwig, whomever that may be. Maybe, it’s Sophie Townsend herself.
‘Pretty Good Friends’ is playing at Melbourne Women in Film Festival, Saturday the 24th of February, 4PM at Hoyts Melbourne Central. It is screening alongside animated short The Gallant Captain. Tickets available here