‘The only thing that matters are the odds you give yourself’, so goes the tag line in Ride Like a Girl, the incredible true story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. The line fits well with the film’s director Rachel Griffiths, in this her feature debut. Award winning actress, director, producer, activist and mother of three, Griffiths is a genuine home-grown all-rounder.
Overlooking the grand vista of Sydney Harbour, Griffiths meets FilmInk, immediately announcing, “I’ve got the flu” and gets comfortable by kicking off red high heels before talking generously and at length about the film and the grassroots of Australian culture.
As you would expect from an actor known for her humour, warmth, guts and talent, Griffiths is sharply observant, emotionally savvy, with a marked social awareness.
“I was determined to make one of those old fashioned films that didn’t segregate us into our little tribes, that was a story big enough that we can all share it together,” she explains. “I was aware of the audience diversity when I was building the film, the track is where the city and the country come together. It’s been the only club that the Catholics and Jews have been welcome at historically in Australia. Then, the idea at Melbourne Cup that the fancies rub shoulders with the garbo who might be in with a winner, it seemed like that great egalitarian thing where we all come together. I don’t think we make many movies that speak to the bush and the city, I think we’ve become quite divided.”
Since the 9 September premiere, the film has been embraced by children and older audiences, racing and Catholic communities, and Griffiths has been touched by the initial reaction.
“I was in Warrnambool, girls would come up saying, ‘I’m one of ten kids.’ Those big country farmers, they absolutely loved it, they could identify this was about country and family and a girl going to the big smoke to follow her dreams but taking all that country hard working ethos and resilience with her. When you’re from the bush and you’re making it as a farmer or a trainer, it’s a lot of hard work on the land and some of those values are in the film. Then I saw it with girls from Melbourne Girls Grammar, one of the most elite city schools, and they were cheering Michelle on. I doubt any of them will become jockeys, but they may be chief justices and brain surgeons and work in other male dominated areas. The film gives them a great inspiration to dream and achieve.
“I pictured it as ‘Disney Princess meets Hacksaw Ridge’, so it’s got a Disney pastoral lyricism with a big rat baggy family, but then when you’re in a race, you’re in battle. I really wanted that pastoral nostalgia, I felt audiences were ready to remember Australia at a simpler time, and the bush has that. I was just up in Winton in outback Queensland, the main street hasn’t changed for 80 years, the church, the rotary, the football club, nothing’s changed. The one frock shop on the main street is full of race wear for Mt Isa or Toowoomba. The big community days in regional Australia are at the racetrack.
“I could have made a much grittier film; I could have shown that raising 10 children without a mother was a lot tougher, but I wanted a film that was also comfortable. There are messages in there, you can’t be what you can’t see, we touch on the barriers there are for women and the barriers we put in our own way, but it also allows men to go on the journey.
“My own point of connection with the film? There was definitely the big Catholic family and I was very specific as we developed the script that faith had a presence in the film. I don’t think that’s been represented much in Australian films, and with the whole hideous betrayal of the church hierarchy of its flock and its most vulnerable, there is also space for a non-political, non-angry conversation about faith. For me, faith is really personal and it’s there in your darkest times. For Michelle, every time she gets on a horse and she’s in the barriers, about to participate in the next few minutes in the most dangerous sport in the world, that faith is with her.”
Referring to her own start in the industry, Griffiths says, “I was a storyteller before I became an actor. The drama school I went to, wasn’t a fancy acting school, we were always making up our own shows, writing, directing in little groups. My first job with The Woolly Jumpers in Geelong was 2 years [working] with schools, then it was a bit accidental I became an actor.”
Her breakout role as the irrepressible Rhonda alongside Toni Collette in P.J Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (1994) gained two Australian film industry awards, and it was another Hogan film, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1978) that debuted Griffiths in America. She scored an Oscar nomination for Hilary and Jackie in 1998, then made her mark in TV playing an emotionally scarred massage therapist in the Emmy-winning Six Feet Under (2001-2005).
A supporting role in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) earned her an AACTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile she had a strong stage career, winning a Helpmann Award for Proof in 2002, and a critically acclaimed Broadway debut in Other Desert Cities (2011).
Her first directing role was for a gritty, poignant short, Tulip (2000), about a widower struggling to cope with the harsh reality of his wife’s death. “Bud Tingwell said that performance in Tulip is the proudest of his life,” Griffiths tells us. There was another short, Roundabout (2003), then a gap before she came back to directing with several episodes of Australian television series Nowhere Boys (2015) and British drama series Indian Summers (2016).
Throughout the conversation, Griffiths continually extends acknowledgment to others’ skills, not least female directors.
“The number of women directors is still very poor, but there have been some bright beacons, Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, who I grew up watching as a young adult. I don’t know if I would have ever had the grit and self confidence like a young Gillian Armstrong had, because she really was the only girl at the time in a boys’ club, so we stand on the shoulders of our sisters.”
She applauds her crew and actors, her editors and script writers. The area she does claim as her particular strength is in understanding story and emotion.
“I still see myself as a storyteller,” she says. “I’m most influenced by directors like Sidney Pollack, directors that get the best out of their actors and allow actors to create those opportunities to have extraordinary moments with each other. I think that is my talent. I believe everyone is capable of greatness, if the set is right and the journey is clear. My contribution is probably tonal to reach for this gorgeous thing and to add touches of humanity.”
Griffiths had a racing director handle the track scenes. “I had my hands full with actors, including cast that had never been on screen before, including two juveniles who had never acted before. Then I had Stevie on screen (Stevie Payne is Michelle’s brother, born with Down’s Syndrome, who plays himself in the film). Then Teresa (Palmer as Michelle) was doing an incredibly ambitious performance. I’m proud to say with this film the world can finally see what she’s capable of. She was my first pick for the role, she’s emotionally so readable, she’s grounded and physically committed. That girl will go anywhere her director tells her to go.
“For me it’s always very much the story, and the actors are the ones that land the emotion, not the camera. As I continue to grow as a filmmaker, I’ll become more interested in what camera choices I can make cinematically but ultimately it’s people that move me.”
Griffiths recalls how she was instantly grabbed by the classic story arc of Ride Like a Girl.
“It’s the Joseph Campbell archetypal hero’s journey. We don’t tell that story very often in Australia, we’re suspicious of heroes. We like accidental heroes, like Simpson and his donkey but he didn’t set out saying ‘I will rescue people at Gallipoli.’ I think for girls to see a female following that hero’s journey with a clear goal is so important. What makes it palatable for Australian audiences was that she had 100 to 1 odds and she’s the last of the litter, and it’s a father daughter story and kind of the last chance to put the Payne name in the history books.”
As we wind up the interview, there’s an echo of Griffiths herself when she says of Michelle Payne, “it’s inspiring to see her stickiness, the determination that’s required. You can’t be a snowflake, you can’t let other people tell you what you will or won’t achieve, you quit when you decide if it’s not for you anymore, not when some bloke tells you, you’ll never make it.”
Going forward with a full slate of projects, acting in Amazon series The Wilds, her role as producer, and actor in Black B*tch aka Total Control with Deborah Mailman, and attached to direct a children’s TV show that she describes as “a kind of 7 little Australians,” Griffiths is odds-on favourite to continue making successful and important film stories.
Ride Like a Girl is in cinemas September 26, 2019