So, what was the genesis of Hotel Coolgardie?
The genesis was me discovering this bar when I was working for a couple weeks out in the goldfields area many years ago, and then just occasionally dropping in on my way through whenever I had the chance to. I just noticed that there was this cycle of backpackers that would work the bar, as they do in lots of pubs around the country, and I just thought, what would we look like as Aussie blokes through the eyes of these women who come to work the bar? What would that outback pub experience look like? Because it was this fairly raucous, wild west environment, and these people had come from all over the world, with different senses of humour, different life experiences, different language skills, and they’d get jobs out of Perth, land out here, and their entire experience depended on how well they adapted to what they found.
You had some kind of idea of what the environment in the hotel was like before you started filming – how did the resulting film differ from your expectations?
Well, most girls go out there and they do adapt, so I expected it to be more of a subtle observation of the line between adaptation, expectation, and whether there was any kind of compromise in that dynamic. But because these women kind of refused to adapt, it became something very different. It became something that wasn’t subtle at all, because they weren’t seen to be trying to adapt to our way of life and celebrating the culture out there, they kind of became these blank canvasses for the guys to throw whatever they liked at them, and it became something that wasn’t subtle at all in the end.
It becomes very uncomfortable very quickly, and at times there’s what could be described as a very “rapey” vibe coming from some of the customers.
Well yeah, I went out there and I made the film consciously with the sensibility of the place. So if people were cracking jokes or hurling comments across the bar that they thought were funny, then I went with that and I observed it. That’s what I really love about ob doc [observational documentary] is that, as a filmmaker, I was able to observe – I control where I point the camera, obviously, but I didn’t need to place these value judgments on it, I didn’t shoot it like some kind of expose. But when you project that away from that world, you leave it up to the audience to decide whether or not what they’re seeing on screen is normal or unfamiliar or outrageous or whatever.
How did you select the two women that the film follows?
Well, they were the great unknown. We selected the pub and we made sure we could film in the pub first, and then we simply intercepted the girls before they went for their job interview. We interviewed maybe a dozen different pairs and then they went to their interview, so we went with whoever the job agency decided was right for the job – we didn’t interfere too much in that process. But they could have gotten anyone. If we’d made a film about the Welsh girls who preceded the Finnish girls, it would have been a totally different film.
So would you say the experience the film shows isn’t typical?
Yeah, that’s right. We would never say that that experience was typical – it was these particular girls’ experience at this particular time under these particular circumstances. It could have been a totally different film if we’d have other girls. Most girls who do go out there do go on a journey and adapt or are conditioned or just kind of make it work, and a lot of them go away with positive experiences, or there are women that have gone out there as barmaids just traveling through and have ended up marrying locals. We can’t say that it was typical, but we were lucky in a way that it wasn’t typical, because it helped us or allowed us to explore all of these really potent, kind of simmering tensions going on underneath the surface of the culture that we found out there.
That culture certainly contains a lot of damaged and, I would say, non-functional masculinity.
Yeah, and in their eyes a lot of the damage and hurt in their lives has been caused at the hands of women. The film explores that without letting them off the hook too much, it does explain that there is something there that is preventing them from having wholesome relationships with the women, or it affects the way they view women. That was very interesting to observe.
How did you arrange such free access to the hotel?
We just asked. We asked the boss and he was happy for us to go out there and film. I mean, this is the great thing about ob doc – to the people out there, there wasn’t anything peculiar going on, these were all kind of established norms. These girls in their eyes didn’t cut the mustard and so they were treated a certain way. And it’s not until you leave the place and cut the film together and project it that all these behaviours become magnified and you make these value judgments. But they were really happy with us. The boss was kind of the gatekeeper – as long as he was happy with us, we were okay. And as you see in the film, what he says goes. But it’s also that there’so much that goes on in this pub that is outlandish or unusual – people walking in with a video camera is not the most bizarre thing that people are gonna see. We were just blow-ins there with a camera and people just carried on, and we were just lucky that they didn’t modify their behaviour in any way.
Hotel Coolgardie is in cinemas now. read our review here.