Donna McRae: Lost and Found

July 21, 2018
The filmmaker’s sophomore film, Lost Gully Road, is an uncompromising micro budget feature film to savour.

Premiering at Monster Fest last year, and recently screening at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Lost Gully Road returns to Melbourne for a special screening that will hopefully inspire many others.

Its co-writer/director, Donna McRae first came to our attention with 2011’s Johnny Ghost, a black and white, deliberately paced story of a woman haunted by her past. Lost Gully Road takes a similarly contained approach to story, and again involves a central female character dealing with symbolic and actual ghosts of the past and present.

We emailed questions to McRae about the ghosts that populate her films and life.

You have a few acting credits. Was that the goal initially for you?

I studied acting at the National Drama School in St Kilda. I was very interested in it and had come from a background of ballet, callisthenics and music as a child. Once I graduated I worked for a couple of years in ads and TV, but realised that I had to make my own work to succeed, so started writing. I was much more interested in writing for film than anything else. I was in a VCA short film by Maciek Wszelaki called LOOP which was like a mini film course to me – and that’s where I met Laszlo Baranyai [cinematographer on Lost Gully Road]. Maciek and I worked together on screenplays until he left for the US, but I kept going, eventually landing at the VCA Film & TV school myself.

What inspired the filmmaking bug?

I have always loved film but can put it down to a few things: My parents worked on a 1950s Hollywood film called Kangaroo that was shot in Port Augusta, South Australia, which is where I grew up. Their stories were amazing (and the first thing I ever wrote was a screenplay about this called Flyville). My mum also worked as an usherette in a movie palace there, so she had a great knowledge of films too. I also loved all the old horror films that were on Adelaide TV on Friday nights, so it was a mix of glamour and family really.

That short film LOOP which I just mentioned was also influential because I saw just how inventive you can be with the medium – and it felt so achievable.

The other thing is that film is a visual medium – there is nothing else like it.

You also teach film studies at Deakin University. What’s your personal approach/philosophy to teaching film to young people?

I try to encourage my students (especially the young women) in our film school by doing – so if they see it they can be it. I try to empower them to be inventive with the medium – to play and to be different; not to tell the same story as everyone else. I also try to get students to watch old films – this is crucial for anyone wanting to become a good filmmaker, a free supermarket of inspiring ideas – not the latest multiplex fodder. I try to remain excited by cinema, even though it is the hardest and most unrelenting industry of all. I try to encourage students to keep going in the face of no clear avenues in which to succeed. There are always social media posts by ex film students worldwide about things that weren’t taught at film schools like “why don’t they teach us how to work the industry” but the truth is that no one knows. It’s different for every single person and to stand up at the front of the class and say ‘this is how it’s done’ would be a catastrophe. You have to steer your own boat.

Is crew-ing your film with students part of the course?

No, but it’s something that I wanted to embrace with Lost Gully Road. At Deakin, we have many fantastic students all trying to get experience, so [Producer] Liz Baulch and I wanted to give them a chance that they may not otherwise have been offered, and definitely not so soon. They had an opportunity to work with a professional Head of Department in a specific area on a shoot that lasted longer than the couple of days they were more accustomed to. It worked out really well – and some of the students found work through these avenues, which was fantastic.

Who are your biggest influences in filmmaking?

I have many and they are all varied. I get inspired by music and that opens up a portal in which to write. I love how filmmakers from the past deal with ghosts and I find it so exciting to see how they use darkness instead of CGI so much more effectively. Val Lewton said that “The audience will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the writers in Hollywood could think of. If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” I love this – it speaks to me very clearly and addresses the sort of films that I want to make.

I also have favourite films that I come back to: Joseph Mankiewicz directing Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in The Ghost and Mrs Muir brought out personal subtleties in relationships that I find exhilarating. Andrei Tarkovsky and his use of landscape to imbue texture, Kelly Reichardt and her deliberately unhurried exploration of character; the whole franchise of The Woman in Black – the 1985 TV movie and the Hammer remake are superb – (I have just seen the original play in London and it occurred to me how monstrous The Woman in Black really is. I wish the writer, Susan Hill would do a prequel!).

There’s a bunch of subtext in the ghost story that is Lost Gully Road. Did the inspiration for the film come from personal experience?

Yes and no. I, like so many other women, am sick of not being able to do the things we would like to do, without fear of harm or retaliation in some way. I’m sick of arming myself with my keys through my fingers if I ever walk along a dark street alone at night. I’m angry that this is still a thing in this day and age. When we were writing, there were some awful events happening in Australia: young women going out and being assaulted and murdered for just walking down the street. And it has happened recently again. I wanted to explore this – why is it that young women have to go through this? So, the film is about when no means no – and the politics of that statement. I also wanted to examine the enablers of these situations, and how it is an isolating situation. That’s the great thing with genre – you can scrutinise many social issues while still making it palatable for an audience.

LGR is deliberately paced, is this a conscious decision and how do you think audiences brought up on YouTube will handle it?

It is a slow burn film, and I am very aware that it could be challenging for audiences that are used to quick stories. However, I believe that if you settle back and wait for the suspense and dread to build it will reward you. Adele Perovic’s performance is exhilarating and Dave Graney and Clare Moore’s soundtrack will entrance, so just go with it. It’s something different!

What do you hope that audiences are going to get out of the film?

First and foremost, to be entertained – and spooked. Also, perhaps to think about the perils of what it is like to be a young woman, alone and vulnerable.

How did you cast the film?

Usually I write with someone in mind for the roles. I had a very short list with the lead role and I always go on recommendations – I have a few actors that I have worked with and directors that I always ask because I like to know who is doing interesting work and what they are like to work with. Laszlo recommended Adele as he had worked with her before. I wrote John Brumpton’s role for him (I had worked with him before as an actor) and we thought of Jane Clifton for Val as we were writing it. Eloise was also recommended. I like working with the same people so am always looking to add to our tribe!

How did you find going from Johnny Ghost to Lost Gully Road?

It took 6 years!! That is such a long time between films even though they were both micros! I was wanting to make another film and the one that I was working on was taking a while, so I thought I would do a micro to keep my hand in!! Probably madness but I also wanted to be more ambitious. It was a much bigger production and Producer Liz Baulch really managed it like clockwork. However, post production was more involved, but we got there. Film Victoria came on board with a small marketing budget and it was picked up by Umbrella for distribution, so it has been successful. We are pleased.

What’s next?

I am still working on that other film – it is a Western with ghosts about Kate Kelly, Ned’s sister, which I am really excited about. I am writing the next draft of that now. I am also contributing to an all-female horror anthology, so fingers crossed with that one too.

Lost Gully Road screens at Cinema Nova on Tuesday July 24, with a post-film Q&A with Donna McRae, Producer Liz Baulch, and soundtrack composers Clare Moore and Dave Graney. More screenings will be announced soon.

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