Sick of sexism in the film industry, Sophie Mathisen decided to write, direct and star in her first feature film, ‘Drama’. Committed to change and equal opportunity, she self selected a quota of fifty percent female talent across all departments.
Ahead of the national release of Drama tomorrow, Sophie had a chat with us about learning to work with women instead of seeing them as competitors and producing the film with her sister Dominique.
Congratulations on your first feature film which you wrote, directed and star in! Can you tell us a bit about Drama?
Drama is the most insane and ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted, it’s also my greatest achievement. I had been thinking of making a feature for a few years and when I moved to the UK to study my Masters, an opportunity presented itself that was too good to pass up. I met an incredible French actor Jonathan Burteaux and we had a great working chemistry. One day after class he said that his parents would be away all of August and that we could sleep quite a few people there. I started mulling it over and realised that having a free place to sleep the crew actually made shooting a film in France entirely possible. I locked myself in a house in the Czech mountains with plenty of wine and coffee and eight days later I had my first full length feature script.
The film is the story of Anna, an out of work Australian actress who is having a pretty rough trot and decides to go to Paris, chasing her ex. She stays with her best friend Jean who is himself dealing with the impending death of his soon-to-be mother in law. It’s about the big things in life but told through the lens of a very small story – the love of two friends.
Is the film autobiographical at all?
The character of Anna has strong similarities to myself but she’s also vastly different. And the relationship she has with Jean, although modelled on my relationship with my own bestie Russ, is entirely its own thing. I think as a writer you always unconsciously show parts of yourself and your perspective and there are elements of myself woven throughout all the characters. I think that’s one of the strengths of the film – I have invested and believe in all the characters and motivations so the most common response I have heard was that it feels authentic. Coming form a theatre background, I’m acutely aware of when screenplays sound like ‘dialogue’ rather than how people actually speak so in writing the film, I had many, many conversations with myself, making sure that what was on the page could exist in real life.
Thank God I wrote the thing in isolation because I would have looked intensely mad walking around talking to myself for a week.
Your sister Dominique produced the film – had you ever worked with your sister before? What was that experience like?
We’d worked together in theatre – Dom is a very experienced make up artists but is also an incredible brain, she’s been a real asset to me in shows where I could dialogue about what I wanted to achieve with characters or with my writing so I guess we had a bit of practice for our roles as writer/director and producer before we formalised it on Drama.
Working with a sibling is the most incredible blessing but can also be a bit a of curse in times of stress. You see through each other in a way that is unique to the relationship and that can result in an indefatigable ally but sometimes an intensely damaging agitator. We made it through the first film, often considered to be the first war and because of it, we know more about each other as women, artists and people. We will work together for life, I’m sure of it. I think as someone who invests a lot of time in taking on a huge workload, you need to have strong support and she is that – just last night she was giving me a pep talk that completely changed my perspective and I think only an older sister can do that at times.
The film was shot fairly quickly! 31 days straight in Paris – what were some of the challenges while shooting?
Not enough time on location, scheduling, location owners not showing up, no permits, cops, getting lost, sleeping an hour a night… It goes on and on. Making a film is hard, making a film in a foreign country with a bunch of out of towners is even harder. Having said that, I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. Every person in our crew was hardworking, dedicated, talented and sincere, despite the pressures we made something incredibly special and wonderfully unique and it’s down to everyone’s efforts.
Can you tell us about the reactions to the screenings overseas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Portland and Paris)? Were you surprised by any of the feedback?
The feedback has been incredibly positive and to be honest, the most heartening thing we found in the States was the reception of our male audiences – guys in their twenties really loving and believing in the story. I think this is an important point – yes the film has a central female protagonist but the film itself is about maturity, confusion, love, grief and authenticity. It’s through a female lens but the story is universal and I hope that that comes across in the Australian release.
I think the thing that sets the film apart is its language and contextual play – it speaks to a very modern sensibility of being displaced and I looked to films like 2 days in Paris in writing it so it made sense, but was so exciting that the film got such a positive reception from the States.
You mentioned that Drama is the first Australian film to work with a self-selected gender quota of fifty percent female talent across all departments. Why was this important to you?
My sister and I didn’t go to film school and in that sense we understand how hard it is to be outside of a club – having spent our careers in the entertainment industry we were acutely aware of the unique circumstances women face through marginalisation.
When I was in London I used to have a desk in a feminist co-working space called The Other Club and whilst I was there I realised how completely ingrained it was in me to antagonise other women, because I felt threatened and intuited that there wasn’t enough space for more than one woman in the current system. Once I’d had that brainwave, inspired by a wonderful feminist entrepreneur Cindy Gallop who called it Highlander Syndrome, I just thought – what if I flip the script? What if I hunt out other women, more experienced than me and give them a job? I spoke to Dom and her experience after a decade working on sets where she was called the “Glamour Department” by male crew members made me realise what we needed to do was be the change we wanted to see. So we hunted out emerging females and gave them a job. It was brilliant and something our company has committed to doing moving forward. Women are often overlooked because of a number of factors, so many of them subtle and insidious, like they’re “not experienced enough”, well what we proved with Drama was that experience is secondary to enthusiasm.
Our focus puller, Origa, who we called Oreo, had only two months before had her first baby and she was the most ridiculously talented human being I’ve ever encountered. She never faltered. We need to understand that women want to break in to the industry, we just need to give them the chance.
I read in your open letter to James Ricketson that you have found it difficult to be taken seriously as a female director?
It’s a tricky one. Even the label ‘female director’ rather than simply ‘director’ paints us as outsiders and interlopers in a predominantly male environment. This is partly due to the lack of cultural currency ascribed to females and their perspectives, let alone our talent. It’s unfortunate that we still invest any weight in the notion of ‘merit’ as Ricketson was banging on about, as if merit is somehow an objective attribute and not a completely subjective set of values. I struggled all throughout preproduction to be called a director because I was often too inexperienced in the eyes of men to deserve the title and that extended sometimes to the attitudes on set. I was undermined, ignored, sniggered about at times. I don’t think I would have survived the experience had I not been able to act – often I had to play different roles in order to get what I wanted.
That kind of emotional intelligence is something that you need to make it work on sets because you’re sidestepping egos and for guys who have their entire careers been surrounded by other men, they just don’t take too kindly to being told whatfor by a lady. We need to understand that the circumstances that have let to gross inequity in the film industry isn’t because people have set out to discriminate, it’s because women have been kept out of the conversation for long enough that there’s very little imperative for us to be included. So we need to look to how we inspire system change – that’s through active lobbying for changes in funding, representation, distribution. A lot has happened to get us into a place where stats are stagnating for decades at a time so we have to do a lot. Token gestures won’t cut it.
Who are some of your favourite female directors we should keep an eye out for?
Sarah Polley is fantastic, also Joanna Coates, a great emerging UK director. Dee Rees. I urge everyone to get onto Directed by Women, a great site that highlights all films directed by women all over the world. There are some amazing films there waiting to be watched.
Drama launches November 17 at selected cinemas nationally and will also be digitally released on iTunes, Vimeo on Demand. For more information and tickets head here