Actors’ Cauldron: The Making Of Beautiful Kate

May 29, 2019
Ahead of a special screening at The Sydney Film Festival, we take a look back at the making of Rachel Ward’s acclaimed 2009 feature directorial debut, Beautiful Kate.

Beautiful Kate is a film made by actors, and you can feel it in every single frame. Though artfully and meticulously crafted – from the haunting, evocative score, through to the rustic, beautifully burnished cinematography – this is a film built on what makes actors’ creative lives course and pulsate so vigorously. The best kind of actor kicks aside peripheral frills like fame, money and influence. The best actors, now matter how rich and recognised they might become, always make it about the work. And that work is usually based around one essential thing: the creation of a character. Beautiful Kate churns and twists with the richly complicated emotional lives of its characters – they are, quite simply, its true beating heart.

Stoking that heart is the film’s writer/director Rachel Ward, and her husband, producer/co-star Bryan Brown. In Australia’s film community, they’re at the top of the tree. The couple met while shooting the phenomenally successful mini-series The Thorn Birds, and between them have amassed a truly impressive body of work. Rachel Ward has starred in films such as Against All Odds, Fortress and The Umbrella Woman, amongst others. Bryan Brown, as well as starring in a long list of seminal Australian movies (Breaker Morant, Two Hands, The Odd Angry Shot, Newsfront), has also fostered exciting young talent through his omnibus TV series Twisted Tales, and produced a number of fine films under the shingle of his production company New Town Films (Dirty Deeds, Dead Heart, Cactus). Though multi-hyphenate artists, Ward and Brown share the committed actor’s sensibility, and the undoubted charisma and presence that goes along with that.

Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown in The Thorn Birds.

It’s on display once again in their new film, Palm Beach, directed by Ward and starring Brown, alongside a cast of luminaries including Sam Neill, Richard E. Grant, Greta Scacchi, Claire Van Der Boom and Jacqueline McKenzie. The film makes its debut at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. But first, there was 2009’s Beautiful Kate, Ward’s debut feature film, which also starred Bryan Brown in a major role.

When FilmInk arrived to interview the couple at the waterside offices of New Town Films in Sydney’s Balmain back in 2009, their passion for Beautiful Kate was obvious. Though both industry veterans, there’s nothing jaded or laissez faire about this couple. They know how hard it is to get films made in Australia, and that it can be equally difficult to get audiences to go and see them. Brown and Ward are eminently charming, funny and warm. Sitting in the bright autumn sun right by the water, I’m offered a hat (later revealed, to my inner delight, to be the very one worn by Brown himself in the pig-shooting scenes of Dirty Deeds) when they can see that the glare is hitting me directly in the eyes. There are offers of tea, coffee and snacks. In short, Brown and Ward are inviting and generous hosts. The best thing about them for an interviewer, however, is their enthusiasm for their work. They’re proud of the film that they’ve made, and they’re happy to dig right into the whole process of getting it made.

Both obviously well established, Brown and Ward didn’t seek funding for the screenwriting process, instead developing their script on spec. “The government funding goes to about three drafts,” Ward explains. “Maybe some people can write a screenplay in three drafts, but that’s not enough for me. I take my hat off to those people who can. There were definitely moments there when I thought, ‘I’ve worked pretty hard for two years, and it could so easily fall over.’ Those are the risks that you take. It’s a risk that a lot of filmmakers take. If you’re employed as a writer, you are obviously paid. When you’re not hired as a writer, and you take the auteur route, then that carries a huge risk.”

The original novel by Newton Thornburg.

Beautiful Kate was a risk right from the start. Firstly, it’s based on an American novel by Newton Thornburg, the author of such cult favourites as Cutter And Bone (filmed in 1981 as Cutter’s Way), To Die In California and Knockover. Published in 1982, the book is set in the grainy outer sprawl of Chicago, and is rich not only with American vernacular and social concerns, but also details of the author’s own life. A snow covered family home is at the centre of the novel, and Ward’s first job was to rework it for an Australian setting. “It took me a long time to let go of material that wasn’t working for my story,” Ward explains of the adaptation process. “It was difficult to understand what that was. I had to change it so it could work from America to Australia, plus I had to update it two decades. It was a universal story though, and that’s what I was looking for. I wasn’t actually looking for an Australian story. I very much wanted a story that was set here, but that had universal themes which could work everywhere.”

That story is indeed about a truly universal theme: family. It’s also literally thousands of miles away from the dirty urban snow of Newton Thornburg’s novel. When brooding, slightly cocksure writer Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his family farm in rural Australia, he’s met with a barren field of opportunities. The ground is cracked and bone-dry from drought, the swimming hole has been burned away by the unforgiving sun, and the farming equipment is a mess of wrack and ruin. Ned is there to announce that he intends to wed his much younger girlfriend – the scorched-blonde, liberated, sexually precocious wannabe actress Toni (Maeve Dermody). It seems merely a ruse, however, for the writer to walk amongst the ghosts of his childhood.

His decent, level-headed sister, Sally (Rachel Griffiths), encourages his re-engagement with the past, quietly aware of the emotional closure that it may bring the perennially adrift Ned. Their gruff, profane father, however, is little help. A onetime rural politician and community big-shot, Bruce (Bryan Brown) is a dying man, crippled by illness, but still tough, hard and constantly disapproving. He and Ned have been waging a near lifelong war, and as the film treads its winding, quietly dangerous path, it is soon revealed that the luminous, bewitching, long-gone Kate (Sophie Lowe) – Ned’s twin sister and Cliff’s cherished daughter – has had a devastating effect on the family that still reverberates today.

Rachel Griffiths and Ben Mendelsohn in Beautiful Kate.

Though taking place largely in one setting, and with only a handful of central characters, there’s something undeniably wide-canvas about Beautiful Kate. It takes place in the middle of a looming, threatening landscape, and its themes cut right down to the bone. It marks a high profile debut for director Rachel Ward, but she wasn’t exactly new to the game, with three extremely impressive short films to her name as director: the bruising but tender 2000 prison drama The Big House, the unconventional love story Blindman’s Bluff, and the deeply moving 2003 drama Martha’s New Coat. The first two films ran at 25 minutes each, while the third clocked in at 53 minutes, rating almost as a mini-feature in itself.

All appeared to be driven by Ward’s instincts as both an actor and filmmaker, fore-fronting characterisation, but never losing sight of the cinematic medium’s visual opportunities. Too long for most film festivals, but too short for commercial distribution, these three fine films put Ward between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “I was really able to develop my skills, but it was very hard to place the films in festivals,” Ward explains. “All the major festivals feature films of fifteen minutes or under, and part of the process of doing short films is to forge relationships with festivals, so I missed out on forming those relationships.”

Bryan Brown dryly interjects: “There are a million shorts made every year around the world. Within themselves, they’re interesting, but they’re really a training ground for someone, whether they’re going to be a filmmaker or not. It’s not too often that people come from absolutely nothing and direct a feature. They might come from writing screenplays, and then they direct a feature. You usually find out whether you can make a film or not based on learning to do shorts.”

Bryan Brown in Beautiful Kate.

Despite his obvious close proximity to Ward, and his already sealed role of producer, Bryan Brown was initially slow to realise that there was also a position in Beautiful Kate requiring his services as an actor. “I never gave it any thought until the movie got up,” Brown says of playing the verbally vicious, horribly domineering Bruce Kendall. “I never thought about playing him. Rachel said, ‘It’ll be one of the best roles’, but I never listened to that. I never thought about Beautiful Kate in terms of playing that role. Then when the idea of playing Bruce came about, I thought, ‘How do I tell her that I’m not doing it?’ For the next year, she’ll be spitting at me and saying that I destroyed her movie and all that sort of stuff, or the marriage would end or whatever.”

Ward chimes in with a big laugh. “He was definitely kicking his gift horse in the mouth,” she says. Bruce Kendall is the kind of character that an actor could really sink his teeth into, but his advanced years and crumbling physicality at first seemed out of reach for the robust and decidedly fit-looking Brown. In the end, however, the character appealed to Brown’s instincts as a performer. “Once I got the first scene down, I said, ‘Okay, I can feel the skin of the character, and I get his rhythm.’ You’ve got to try and find a rhythm with a character. What’s their rhythm of life? Or with this guy, what’s his rhythm of death? Once I did that first scene, I felt that I could come to terms with the fact that he was dying, and what that means in physical terms. Once I’d done that, it was a lot of fun. Bruce is blunt and abrasive, and he’s dying, and he’s wickedly funny…there are all of these things to work with. Once I got that first scene down, I felt, ‘Okay, I can deliver someone who I can be in touch with.’ I didn’t know if I could be in touch with him. When action was called, that’s when the character spoke. Then it was like, ‘I hope there’s something fuckin’ here’.”

Rachel Ward, however, has no time for her husband’s reticence about the role. “I don’t know what he was fussing about,” she smiles. “I knew from day one that he’d be absolutely excellent at this character. He’s a grumpy old bugger anyway, so it’s like, ‘Just roll out of bed and play the fuckin’ thing.’ There aren’t many actors who have Bryan’s authority, and with him playing the role, you could actually understand why he had affected his children [in the film] to such a degree. I’ve known those kinds of characters in life: the ones that you just don’t cross, and who intimidate their family forever. There are many children who have been shaped by the bullying nature of the father, and the domination of the father. Bruce Kendall was a politician, and he was a man who failed, and who had great pride and ambitions. I wanted someone who had a natural position of authority to play the role. The prouder and more ambitious someone is, the more tragic it is when they fall. I felt that Bryan having to deal with failure was interesting.”

Ben Mendelsohn in Beautiful Kate.

To go head to head with the naturally towering, authoritative figure of Bryan Brown, Ward decided to go with an actor who holds a similar position within the local industry. Since bursting onto the screen in the 1987 masterpiece The Year My Voice Broke, Ben Mendelsohn has established himself as one of this country’s most consistently compelling screen actors, with a series of fine performances in films such as Return Home, The Big Steal, Spotswood, Cosi and many more. Now, of course, he’s making his presence felt internationally, with scene stealing work in Captain Marvel, Rogue One and TV’s Bloodline.

“Ben was so right to play the role that I was almost scared of it,” Ward admits. “I just thought that it couldn’t be that easy. I think that Ben has always dragged one foot in adolescence, rather like this character. I haven’t seen Ben play a man before; in a way, his characters have always been quite boyish. It’s also in the way that he presents himself: he’s always got the runners on, he’s always got the hoodies on. He’s got a boyish quality, and I wanted to lose that. I very much wanted him to be a man in the film.”

When FilmInk puts this to the charismatic Ben Mendelsohn, the genial and often hysterically funny actor is amusingly flip. “I’m an adult, and I have been for a while,” Mendelsohn laughs on the line from the states, where he’s enjoying a quick break after shooting six films back to back. “I know where they’re coming from, but it’s not a territory that I bathe in. They may talk about that, but it’s not really something that comes up on the radar for me. If you start thinking about that sort of stuff, you end up with a pointless frame of reference for yourself.”

Rachel Ward and Ben Mendelsohn on the set of Beautiful Kate.

Despite her initial feelings that Mendelsohn was a perfect choice for Ned, Ward did insist on the actor auditioning for the role. When FilmInk asks about how he came to get the part, Mendelsohn is a little cagey. “Well, they wanted me to come in and read, and I did,” he says. “In a colourful kind of a way, you might say. I gave it to them for that, but it all worked out eventually, and that was pretty much it. They were looking at a few people, and a couple of different options. So I did a read for them. I gave them a bit of cheek to test them. I tried to point out to them…ah, it doesn’t matter…what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as far as that’s concerned. Look, I would’ve been absolutely gutted if I didn’t get to do it. That’s why I went along when they made me read; I suppose that somewhere in me, I was worried that I wasn’t going to get it.”

Regardless of the process leading up to his taking of the role, Mendelsohn is a revelation as Ned. “On the page, the character was not necessarily loveable, and he had a real complexity,” says Rachel Ward. “Ben has such a great sense of humour, and such a great sense of fun. The minute Ben came in and did the screen test, it was obvious.” The actor’s natural charm and charisma is there as usual, but Mendelsohn burrows deep to navigate this character’s complex emotional journey. With a hardened exterior belying a deep well of hurt and vulnerability, Ned is one of Mendelsohn’s finest creations, up there with Kev in Idiot Box, Trevor in The Year My Voice Broke and Eddie in Mullet. “It’s very strong material, and I love that kind of stuff,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s a very intense story with a real redemption thing going on. There’s a lot there; there was enough there to sink my teeth into. I could really do some stuff with it.”

When asked about the process of working his character into shape, Mendelsohn hints at a fairly tempestuous creative environment. With a film built largely on the memories and interior lives of its characters, and experienced actors in key creative positions behind the scenes, this kind of process – somewhat akin to bashing and teasing materials in a workshop to create a beautiful sculpture – was always bound to shape Beautiful Kate. “Rachel and I would argue, and I’d try and find stuff that was fulfilling for what her emotional meter was,” Mendelsohn explains of his work with Rachel Ward in building up his haunted character, who is tormented by a festering family secret. “The important thing about the character of Ned was really just to try and have it there without having it drag things down. There are people who go through extraordinary things and deal with a lot of heavy guilt. My job was to carry that stuff without it labouring on the audience. That can be delicate.”

Sophie Lowe in Beautiful Kate.

While Mendelsohn slots in perfectly with the film’s cast of seasoned professionals, its other emotional pillar is cut from decidedly less-worn material. As Ned’s beautiful, magnetic sister Kate, teenaged actress Sophie Lowe literally catches the sun on screen; appearing in melancholic flashbacks, Kate’s presence hangs over the entire film, and Sophie Lowe’s performance is appropriately ethereal. Though she would go on to appear in the likes of Blessed, What Lola Wants and The Butterfly Tree, and TV’s The Slap, The Returned, Romper Stomper and The Beautiful Lie, Beautiful Kate marked Lowe’s big screen feature film debut. “We found her way back, very early on,” explains Bryan Brown. “We saw her in a short film, and we just went, ‘Oh My God! That could be beautiful Kate!’ We saw other girls, but she was right.”

Lowe principally shares her scenes with fellow young actors and relative newcomers Scott O’Donnell and Josh McFarlane, who play her brothers in the film. Like everyone else, they were thrown into a project where character and performance were key. “I had about three days of intensive rehearsal with the three young kids,” says Rachel Ward. “I don’t know if it necessarily shaped the performance, but it really helped make them comfortable with each other. That was really the thing that I needed to do most: get them very familiar with each other. They were playing siblings who were in isolation, and obviously they’re going to know each other very well. They need to be physically very comfortable with each other. After we’d done this rehearsal though, they became immediately very bonded with each other. We didn’t really go near the script; we just did exercises getting them familiar with each other.”

When FilmInk catches up with Sophie Lowe, she’s in The Flinders Ranges on the other end of a dodgy mobile phone connection. Lowe was filming the thriller Road Train for director Dean Francis, but the memories of her debut in Beautiful Kate were obviously still fresh. “When I first read the script, I was a bit like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ It’s so intense, but as soon as I met Rachel, I felt so comfortable. She just made me understand everything so much better.”

That vulnerability extends to a number of nude scenes in the film, often seen as a young actor’s cinematic trial by fire. “It was challenging, I’m not gonna lie,” Lowe says. “But it was really important to show how vulnerable that Kate had made herself. It was a closed set though, and it was just me and the actors and Rachel, who was always looking after me. My mum was there as well, so that helped. At the end of the day, it was fine. It was a really amazing experience, and it just fit perfectly.”

Sophie Lowe in Beautiful Kate.

Lowe literally bubbles with giddy enthusiasm when talking about her work on the film, and speaks with genuine fondness about Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown. “I felt like we were always in tune with each other,” Lowe explains. “Whenever I suggested something, Rachel would go, ‘Yes! Whatever you say, that’s it, because you are Kate.’ It gave me more confidence. I was really happy that she believed in me enough to trust my instincts. I just loved working with Rachel, and Bryan is an absolute legend.”

When FilmInk asks Ben Mendelsohn if it ever got rocky working with a director and producer/co-star who just happened to be married, the actor answers in the negative. Ward and Brown are a big in-built presence, FilmInk suggests. “Yeah, they are, but I’ve been in the boxing ring plenty of times,” Mendelsohn says. “They’re really, really good together. They’re both significant entities, and they’re very substantial presences on their own. It was both a very comfortable set, and at times a very difficult set. They’re a great help to each other, and they’ve got very different qualities and strengths which they seem to match up pretty well. They also seem to know when to get out of each other’s way. That’s very important too. Clearly they’ve got a very strong marriage, and they’re able to translate that pretty seamlessly into working together.”

According to Mendelsohn, however, this didn’t make Beautiful Kate a particularly more collaborative film than others that he’d previously worked on. “All films are collaborative, to a degree,” he says. “When they’re not collaborative, you’re either in particularly great shape because you’re right on the money, or you’re in fuckin’ trouble because you’ve got a bunch of harangued people who aren’t able to bring their best to the project. You hire people on a film for their talent, and you want to let them use their talent. It’s the most collaborative artistic endeavour there is. If a film’s not a collaborative experience, you’re either in great shape or you’re fucked. Most of the time in my experience, I’ve seen it to be fucked.” For Mendelsohn, the constant actor’s challenge that was Beautiful Kate was far from fucked. “I was absolutely fuckin’ wrapped to play in it, and I would’ve been spittin’ chips for years if I didn’t, and that’s the truth,” he says with disarmingly gruff honesty.

Rachel Ward on the set of Beautiful Kate.

At the other end of the experience scale, Sophie Lowe feels exactly the same way about being thrown into the middle of such an actor-driven project. “I feel so thankful that I got this role. It’s going to be a new experience,” she says of things like appearing on movie posters and doing media interviews. “As an actor, you kind of forget about those things. I’m really excited, and I’m going to take everything that life throws at me and just enjoy it.”

Before FilmInk says goodbye to Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, it’s interesting to get their perspectives on working with each other professionally. “Rachel has such a great visual eye,” Brown offers. “She can look at a painting and understand it completely. I’d look at a short with her, and she’d just go, ‘Fantastic cinematographer’ and I’ll go, ‘Huh?’ or ‘I like that scene and that story’. She’s incredibly strong at identifying things like that. That’s really informed and helped her in making the movie.”

Rachel Ward appropriately ends with a sly dig about her husband as producer. “He’s cracked the whip on all the young filmmakers that he’s worked with,” she says with a smile. “This was no different.”

Beautiful Kate will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 10 at 12:45pm at The Art Gallery Of NSW as part of David Stratton’s Australian Women Trailblazers programme. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website. Palm Beach will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 5 (Opening Night Gala, June 5, 7:30pm, The State Theatre) and June 10 (4:15pm, The State Theatre). For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website.

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