“They’re my blessings, and you’re not to touch them.” It was this simple yet evocative statement that had Ana Kokkinos hooked. Watching a performance of the politically charged play Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class, the director of the controversial Head On and The Book Of Revelation felt sure that she had the makings of a “really beautiful film. I was really struck by its boldness and veracity,” recalled Kokkinos to FilmInk just before the world premiere of Blessed at The Melbourne International Film Festival in 2009. “The characters were so compelling and engaging. I was struck by the way in which the writers had dealt with ordinary people dealing with everyday life with great courage, humour, energy and intelligence. I was deeply affected by the play.”
Originally commissioned by The Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, the four-act play delved into the struggles of a host of characters living in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Optioning the play soon after her viewing, Kokkinos and the original playwrights – including regular Kokkinos collaborator and Lantana screenwriter Andrew Bovell and Christos Tsiolkas, the author of the controversial recent novel The Slap and Loaded, which was adapted by Kokkinos for the screen as Head On – transformed the source material over eight years into a substantially different, less overtly political creation. Some characters were discarded, some created or enhanced, and other character connections were introduced. “It’s one thing to have a collection of stories, but it’s another to actually find a cinematic way to tell those stories,” Kokkinos told FilmInk.
Amongst the web of characters and plotlines, the aforementioned poignant hook – the inherent bond between mothers and their children – would prove the key. “That was probably the most important line of dialogue in the whole play, because I found that to be such a simple and yet profound truth. As we developed the screenplay, I kept feeling very strongly that what was inherent in the play, and what was really attracting me to the play, was the idea of every child being a blessing for a mother. That was literally the simple idea that drove me for eight years to actually make the film.”
Told in two interconnecting parts over a timeframe of one day and night, Blessed opens with “The Children”, told from the perspective of seven disaffected characters struggling to find love, acceptance or simply to be noticed. Fourteen-year-old Orton (Reef Ireland) and his younger, emotionally stunted sister Stacey (Eva Lazzaro) are living rough on the streets, but are better off on their own than with their incapable mum, Rhonda (Frances O’Connor), and her abusive string of partners. Fifteen-year-old Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) conversely writhes with hatred for his fiercely independent mum, Tanya (Deborra-lee Furness), who has accused him of theft, and his despondent father (William McInnes). Daniel pines for attention, and actually makes an unexpectedly poignant connection with the serene Laurel (Monica Maughan), as he attempts a burglary of the helpless senior’s rambling home. Sassy truant schoolgirls Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (newcomer Anastasia Baboussouras) are in trouble with the law, and both have been emotionally neglected by their respective mothers, Bianca (Miranda Otto), and Gina (Victoria Haralabidou). Trisha’s brother, Roo (Eamon Farren), has been missing for over a week, and is on a journey of sexual discovery. James (Wayne Blair) is an adult white collar Aboriginal man raised by a white mother who feels accepted in neither his native nor adopted culture.
In the film’s subsequent part, “The Mothers”, we see the eponymous characters’ point of view. Rhonda is the epitome of the white trash stereotype: she’s on welfare payments, and she’s pregnant, with an already multi-fathered brood. She’s also reconciled to the fact that the streets are a safer environment for her children than her own home and compromised brand of care. Tanya, a nurse and the sole breadwinner to a father and son who show her no love, looks for affection elsewhere. The depressive Bianca, who numbs the pain by sleeping and gambling, would rather be a sister figure than a responsible mum. Hard working religious widow Gina, in her devotion to her missing son Roo, fails to meet the needs of her rebellious daughter.
It’s a gritty, often unrelenting world juxtaposed with hope, humour and poignancy, and is driven by the highly realistic performances of a stellar cast. “I spent eight months casting the film, which is a very l-o-n-g process,” Kokkinos said in 2009, emphasising her well rounded approach. “I tend not to think a lot about casting until a film is actually happening. I had a very strong and deep connection to all of these characters because obviously I’d been developing the project with the writers over a very long period of time. Probably the first person that I really seriously thought about for Tanya was Deborra-lee Furness. Deb has an earthiness that she could bring to that role which just felt right. She was one of the first actors that came on board. My casting director, Jane Norris, suggested that we think about Frances O’Connor for Rhonda. I knew that she would bring something very special, and Rhonda is probably the most extreme character in the film. I really wanted an actor like Frances, who could bring a certain warmth and humanity. I’d always wanted to work with Miranda, and Victoria Haralabidou was a bit of a discovery for me. I ended up getting my first picks, which was fantastic.”
At 10:00am on the eve of Blessed’s world premiere at The Melbourne Film Festival, Frances O’Connor, despite a perky greeting, admitted to FilmInk that she was suffering from a significant case of jet lag after having flown in from her LA home the day before. From her hotel suite, O’Connor instantly showed an obvious hint of dotage, unlike her Blessed character, Rhonda. The actress was observing her young son in slumber as she talked about why Blessed marked her return to the local film scene – it was O’Connor’s first film here since 2005’s Three Dollars. “I really liked Andrew’s script. I really related to the characters, not just because they were mothers, but also because there was definitely something very human about the way that it was written. I liked the sparseness of the script; there are a lot of silences in it. Those moments are great to play.”
So how does an actress – even one with such a proven track record as O’Connor’s – slip into the tightly dressed skin of such a complex, difficult-to-like character as Rhonda? O’Connor couldn’t be more different to the film’s central character. “God, I hope so!” jested the actress. “Rhonda is a bit shocking on some levels, but you have to embrace that, and not shy away from that. At the same time, you have to try and make the audience understand why she is the way that she is. You have to make them see the cyclical nature of what has happened to her, and how she’s passed this on to her kids. It’s not so much a monetary thing, but more about what has happened to her and her history,” says O’Connor of her character’s entrenchment in the welfare system, and the messy rut that is her life. “It’s actually her own perspective that is keeping her trapped in this cycle. That’s the worst prison that you can be in because it’s self-imposed.”
As part of researching Rhonda, O’Connor would perch herself at a McDonalds in Sunshine, one of Blessed’s western Melbourne settings, and watch the customers, observing everything from posture to the topics of discussion being played out. “Sometimes you can pick up nice little things. You’ll see things that people do that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily come up with on your own. I talked a lot with Ana too about Rhonda’s psychology and history, and that really helped. Because Rhonda came from a damaged home and doesn’t have a really strong sense of self, she gravitates towards showy but very shallow men who make her feel good for a minute. When it actually comes to getting to know them, it all falls apart, and she moves on to another person. She’s constantly trying to escape the emptiness that she’s got inside her. She loves her kids, but she just doesn’t have anything to give them. It’s impossible for her to be a mother because she was never mothered herself.”
Young actor Reef Ireland (who subsequently appeared in the TV series, Puberty Blues and Tangled), who plays Rhonda’s street wise son Orton, gave FilmInk his take on the complex relationship. “They love each other as mother and son, but Orton doesn’t really forgive her for her actions. It’s very sad that he’s forced to live on the street when he has a home, but it’s not safe for him there. Rhonda knows it, but I don’t think she wants to admit that she’s not doing her job very well.”
An undoubtedly daunting challenge for Kokkinos was casting the right young actors with the intuitive and empathetic mettle to portray characters facing the harsh realities of their lives. “We saw about 500 girls for the roles of Katrina and Trisha,” the director explained. “We saw at least a couple of hundred kids for Stacey and Orton. It’s really great to be able to cast the net wide and make sure that you’re really seeing what kind of young talent is emerging. These were all quite sophisticated and demanding roles for young people, so I put them through a very rigorous audition process. I wanted to make sure that the kids were going to be able to really be in the right head space.”
One standout discovery, says Kokkinos, was the sassy first timer Anastasia Baboussouras, who plays Trish. The director first came across her in a local community play. “She’s the real deal. She just had what I call an amazing, pure ‘wog energy.’ There’s a moment in the film when a cop is interrogating the girls, and he calls them trash. Trisha says, ‘You can’t say that.’ When Anastasia performs those moments, there’s no bullshit there – it’s pure. It’s coming from a very real place, because she’s a wog kid who’s grown up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and for many, many years, she has been told that she’s trash. They were the kinds of kids that I was looking for: kids who could connect either directly or indirectly through their own empathy with those characters.”
One such budding thesp, sixteen-year-old Harrison Gilbertson from Adelaide, was in the final throes of shooting the comedy drama Accidents Happen alongside Geena Davis in Sydney when he found out that he’d landed a plum role as the troubled Daniel. “It affected me really deeply,” the young actor – now a burgeoning Hollywood talent – told FilmInk. “It’s a really important film about everyday people. That was a big attraction, and that’s why I really strived to be in it.”
An extensive six-week rehearsal process helped Kokkinos and her sprawling cast, particularly the younger members, to come to grips with the complexly etched characters and their predicaments. “With Reef and Eva, it was about spending a lot of time with them,” Kokkinos told FilmInk. “It was about working through a very rigorous process so they could give those characters a real sense of truth. Those two kids also had an innate talent and desire to portray those children out of a place of love. I talked a lot about them loving those characters, and giving those kids a really beautiful vibrancy.”
For Ireland, a reference point for his character was to draw on the turbulent home life of his mates. “I have a few friends who have it pretty tough at home, so I brought to it what they go through, and connected that to what my character does. They’re obviously not homeless, but they have it pretty tough at home. After school, they don’t go straight home, they hang out until really late. They spend the least amount of time at home as they can.”
Gilbertson also drew on other’s experiences, but found that placing himself in his character’s shoes helped to get under his skin. “Having empathy for the neglect that he feels was the key to working out Daniel and not just going, ‘This guy’s a bit nasty, or he’s an angry kid.’ You see these kids in town, and they walk around looking all tough, and you think, ‘Why do they feel like that?’”
It’s hard not to view Blessed as an acting master class, both on and off camera. Theatre style exercises, improvs and role plays, and soaking up the acting experience from the adult cast, all proved vital tools for the young actors. Gilbertson fondly recalled the days spent filming one of Blessed’s most moving sequences, with the extraordinary Monica Maughan. “With a veteran like Monica, and a great director like Ana, I pushed myself further than I’d planned to go. After a take, I’d think ‘Wow, I think I got that’ and then Ana would come over and say, ‘Do you really think that you got that, or do you think that you could do better?’ I won’t ever forget those few days. I learned a lot.”
For O’Connor, performing one particularly heart-wrenching sequence proved to be an unusual experience. “With emotions, sometimes they’re quite elusive. Sometimes you think, ‘I’m prepped. I’m ready to go and I feel like I’m gonna hit it.’ Then you get there, and the emotion isn’t there! It’s up to the gods sometimes. I’d never done a scene like that before. Playing this part was quite hard, but I did feel like I had a lot of stuff on tap from just being a mother.”
For the maternally minded Kokkinos, securing such a gut wrenching performance can only come from unconditional, collaborative support on set. “I’m there 100% with the actors. You don’t get performances like that unless you really give them a lot of love. At the same time, you’ve got an amazing actress like Frances, who is actually excavating and giving birth to a character that’s coming from a very deep place within her. If an actor feels supported through a process, they will give you things back that you couldn’t even imagine were actually going to happen. You go beyond performance into a very exhilarating place: the actor isn’t just saying the lines – they’ve actually physically transformed as well.”
Never one to compromised, Kokkinos made no bones about the fact that she wanted Blessed to elicit very strong emotional responses from audiences. The first of the film’s acts deliberately withholds information, cannily testing prejudices and judgement. “That was deliberate. You make a whole lot of judgements about the mothers in the first part of the film, but then as you progress through the story, those judgements get turned on their head. These mothers are just as vulnerable as the children that they care for. One of the ideas running through the film is that we all have to look like who we are, or society will irretrievably break down. That’s a really potent idea; we often judge a book by its cover, but if you delve deeper into what is really happening to a person, you’re going to find that their heart is ticking in the same way that yours and mine is. It’s about letting go of judgements and prejudices.”
O’Connor admitted that would be a particularly testing challenge for viewers when it comes to the ballsy, irresponsible Rhonda. “I like a challenge!” the actress laughed heartily. “Things are stacked against people liking Rhonda, but there is a goodness to her, and she does love her kids. Maybe people won’t identify with her, but they may have some understanding that underneath it all, she’s a mother, and that’s something that we all relate to. We’ve all been a child with a mother, or we are a mother. It’s this key thing for all of us that we probably relate the rest of our lives to. Our mother is the first person that we have a deep relationship with. Whether it’s negative or positive, underneath it all, I think we all love our mothers.”
Indeed, motherhood is portrayed with complex realism in the film, a thoroughly potent and relatable point for the mothers in the cast who are also mothers in reality. “It’s a huge responsibility,” said Furness during press rounds at The Melbourne International Film Festival. “If there’s something dysfunctional going on, you’re going to hand it on to that child, and that child’s going to hand it on.” For Kokkinos, the fact that she isn’t a mother herself was an irrelevance when it came to relating to the film’s central maternal theme. “Well, even though I’m not a mother, I am a child.”
The director was even more emphatic when FilmInk raised the criticism sometimes placed on the local industry of having too narrow a focus on dark subject matter. “I don’t see Blessed as being a dark film. Blessed is actually a film with hope and truth and joy in it. When filmmakers choose to put their lens on characters that are very real and contemporary, that can be very exciting.”
Kokkinos was calmly but intensely passionate about, and protective of, the characters portrayed in Blessed. They were all “living and breathing” right on her doorstep in the culturally diverse inner Melbourne suburb of Northcote. “I live in a suburb where I experience and observe and see people. I see ordinary people struggling with making a living, and trying to deal with issues about daily life. All the characters in the film deal with their daily struggles in very courageous ways. They deal with them with great dignity. They’re not lying around whinging. They have great strength and great vulnerability, and that’s what interests me. That’s what it means to be human. I make films from a place that I know. My experiences are not directly related to all these kids, but god, haven’t we all found ourselves in really difficult situations? Haven’t we all done things where we’ve put ourselves in slightly dangerous situations? Haven’t we all gone off the rails at a certain point in our lives? When I look at a bunch of characters like that, I come to those characters full of understanding and empathy.”
But while Blessed is framed by a tapestry of hot button social and political issues – homelessness, the vulnerability of children, The Stolen Generation, and the welfare system, amongst other things – Kokkinos’ deeply affecting work is not a message movie. “I didn’t set out to make a polemic,” the director told FilmInk. “I didn’t set out to say, ‘This is a big social issues film.’”
The boldness in which the director depicts the film’s subject matter isn’t necessarily a case of taking up the mantle of the provocateur. That said, there’s an undeniably gritty and provocative edge to Blessed that is pure Kokkinos. “I don’t see myself as being a provocative filmmaker for the sake of being provocative, or for the sake of being confronting. As a filmmaker, I feel that I have something to say. What I’m trying to do is connect with audiences on a deeper level. I want to make them feel things. I want them to think about things rather than having the experience of going to watch a film and walking out of the cinema, literally forgetting about the film the moment you walk out the door.”
With the gritty, uncompromising Blessed – which received a Best Film nomination at The AFI Awards, and a Best Actress win for Frances O’ Connor – there was absolutely no chance of that…
Blessed will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 10 at 10:15am as part of David Stratton’s Australian Women Trailblazers programme. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website.