“I wish I was more like Ellie [Sophie Hawkshaw],” says Monica Zanetti, whose first film as director, Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), is a coming of age, coming out story for the ages. “I wish I had Ellie’s experience in high school. I think Ellie is aspirational for me, but definitely the coming out experience, of just being, ‘OMG, I like someone and they’re a girl’, and feeling so excited about that and telling everyone – that was definitely something I related to. I didn’t feel anxious about coming out, I just felt very ‘nope, this is happening, so get onboard’.”
Going to high school on NSW’s Central Coast, Monica admits that she was very closeted at the time, and it was in her early twenties that she finally came out. “I was much older when I worked everything out. I wish I was a bit more like Ellie but there were definitely more parts of Abbie in me, absolutely.
“In high school, I became really obsessed with Buffy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Joey Potter [Katie Holmes’ character in Dawson’s Creek],” she clarifies. “When I speak to a lot of queer women now, it’s what we have in common; these characters that we’ve become so invested in because they were speaking to us in a certain way and it was the safe way to have a crush on a celebrity than to actually having a crush on an actual person.”
Originally written and directed as a play, the experience informed Zanetti’s handling of the story when adapting it for the screen. “When I wrote the play, I didn’t realise that all the characters were female and it was when I first understood the different gazes; when people talked about the female gaze, queer gaze. Because in my world, and particularly in my high school world, it was female dominated and if you were a character like Ellie, who didn’t grow up with a dad or a brother, there aren’t many men that are in your peripheral.
“That was certainly a big point of contention early on. It was coming across like I was trying to make some kind of point. It definitely started as something that was unconscious and then it became something that I did actually have to fight for. I remember there being comments early on about it feeling like a dystopian world with no men. I just thought, nobody is looking at The Usual Suspects like it’s a weird dystopian world with no women. It’s not right or wrong, just a different point of view.”
Two of the key female characters in the film are Ellie’s mum and her best friend, played by Marta Dusseldorp and Rachel House respectively. How did Zanetti manage to get these two high profile actresses for her little indie first feature?
“They both loved the script,” says Zanetti, proudly. “I worked as an assistant on Top of the Lake, and I used to drive Rachel to and from set, and we just talked, so we built up this nice rapport and that’s why I had her email address. I hadn’t spoken to her in years and I sent her this email like, ‘I don’t think you remember me but I’ve written this script and would love for you to do it’. She was like, ‘of course, I will read your script and I’ll let you know what I think’. And I just thought that was good enough, but she came back to me and told me how much she loved it and how much she wanted to do it. She was really onboard; she booked her own flight to Australia before we had a chance [to do it for her].
“Marta was doing a play with Zoe Terakes [who plays Abbie], and Zoe was talking to her about auditioning for the role and Marta was like ‘this is very interesting’.
“I was thrilled. They both were really great powerhouses that just were so excited to be a part of it. It was really, really wonderful.”
Without giving away the specifics, as they do contain spoilers, Ellie & Abbie (& Allie’s Dead Aunt) does contain social commentary subtext beyond its awkward and cheery exterior.
“When I wrote the play, it came from a place where I just wanted to see a lesbian romcom where no one is sad, nobody dies, and everyone just accepts themselves. Because that was my experience.
“After the play, when I had the chance to turn it into a film, the plebiscite was happening, and I had this real ‘aha’ moment. I want to see content like that in my privileged gay point of view because so many people had to fight for what I have now.”
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is in cinemas from November 19, 2020