Adapted by Lisa Hoppe from award-winning book My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg and featuring Emma Booth, Richard Roxburgh, Deborah Mailman, Joel Jackson and Harry Potter actor Miriam Margolyes, H is for Happiness tells the whimsical tale of Candice Phee (Daisy Axon), an optimistic and hilariously forthright girl on the cusp of her 13th birthday.
Candice’s family is in disarray: her mum has been living with depression since the death of Candice’s baby sister, while her dad (Roxburgh) and his brother – Candice’s beloved Rich Uncle Brian (Jackson) are not on speaking terms. As she faces the uncertainties of impending adolescence with the help of her new friend Douglas Benson (Wesley Patton), Candice hatches a variety of outlandish schemes to make her nearest and dearest happy again.
We caught up with the film’s director, John Sheedy to discuss bringing his stage background to his first feature film, which recently won the highly coveted CinefestOZ $100,000 Film Prize.
How did this film come about?
In 2017, I was a part of the MIFF Accelerator Program with a short film I made called Mrs McCutcheon which won best Australian film at MIFF. From that, I was approached by (H is for Happiness producer) Julie Ryan. She was looking for a director for her latest project which was H is for Happiness. I had a conversation with Lisa Hoppe who wrote the screenplay, based off Barry Jonsberg’s book, My Life as an Alphabet. I had a conversation with Julie over the phone about what my vision for it would be and then we ended up meeting up in Melbourne.
What I liked about it was that it’s a family film – we don’t see many on the big screen. I love that there was a leading female protagonist – a 12-year-old girl. We don’t have a lot of that on our screens. I love the that there was a fine balance of humour and pathos across the script, which is something that really attracts me. I love comedy, but I also love getting into the humble, heartfelt stuff and the gritty stuff as well. And how you balance those two, it’s quite tricky. And I love that about this script.
There are a lot of big themes in the film.
The story has a big heart, and it explores some big themes and some challenging themes. And so certainly, the element of storytelling was certainly not small – they’re big voices and big characters in there – and tackling things like grief, and celebrating difference as well. The humour and the heartfelt stuff is there. I come from a highly visual background in theatre and opera. And I like to create a world that is a character in itself. And so, that’s what I did and I put these things within that world. That was a lot of a lot of fun. And I think that’s what you see up there on the screen, real issues in our slightly heightened world. And I love that juxtaposition.
How was transitioning from your short film to making a feature?
It was a big learning curve. It was very quick, very ambitious. I was incredibly nervous, only making one short film and then going into a feature length film. I have had 15-20 years of directing theatre for most major theatre companies and directing opera. So, in terms of working with the creative team, in terms of having a vision, in terms of working with actors and storytelling, I felt completely at home and knew where I wanted to take the performances, and how to approach the storytelling. But there’s a whole technical side as well, and a much larger crew, that is a whole different vocabulary that you’ve gotta get your head around. So that was a big learning curve. And I had to jump in very, very quickly and hit the ground running.
How did you go about your casting process?
I worked with Jane Norris, who’s an amazing casting consultant and incredibly experienced. Some of these actors I’ve worked with before directing them on the stage. Richard Roxburgh was already attached to the script, which was a bonus, because I love him as an actor. Wesley Patton was in my short film Mrs McCutcheon, so it was great to be able to give him a leg up with his first feature film. Casting the other characters involved looking at actors that I know and have worked with before, and approaching them and sending the script and luckily, they loved the script. Then following up with a further conversation. Also writing a few letters, love letters. Miriam Margolyes, I’m a big fan of hers. I’ve never worked with her before, but I knew she had to play Miss Bamford.
Letters helped you land your cast?
Absolutely, because it comes from a very genuine place. And what was wonderful was when you get a great response back and they signed on.
Is the whimsical world of H is for Happiness similar to your short film?
It does feel like a companion piece to Mrs McCutcheon. It’s a similar world that we’re playing in. You’re dealing with young people that are going through those transitional years of their life, and don’t fit into the norm. Tonally and visually, there were a lot of similarities. And so, it really felt like the big brother or the big sister to Mrs McCutcheon.
You’ve directed productions such as Storm Boy for the STC, you’ve just made your first feature. Do you go in both directions now or focus more on one medium?
I still direct theatre and opera. I directed Jasper Jones, and The Rabbits. I just finished directing Whiteley, the opera at the Sydney Opera House. So, I still keep a hand in that. And I love live theatre and opera, but I also certainly am focusing my attention a little bit more toward film.
What’s next for you?
I am doing another film project which is an adaptation of another Barry Jonsberg book. So that’s pretty exciting. That’s in development at the moment. And there’s a few other things on the boil. A few conversations that are happening.
H is for Happiness is in cinemas February 6, 2020