There is a distressingly long list of clearly gifted female Australian directors with only one or two excellent big screen credits to their name, with talents like Kate Woods (Looking For Alibrandi), Elissa Down (The Black Balloon), Cathy Randall (Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger), Emma-Kate Croghan (Love And Other Catastrophes, Strange Planet), Anna Leigh (Sleeping Beauty) and Laurie McInnes (Broken Highway, Dogwatch) instantly coming to mind. While many have done other impressive, high profile work elsewhere – such as on stage, and particularly on television – it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed that their respective creative visions have, for whatever reason, not been able to flower and develop on the big screen.
A prime example of this not exactly edifying trend is Cherie Nowlan. While she’s currently right at the top of the tree when it comes to directing instalments of episodic American television (with eps of excellent shows like Young Rock, Law & Order, Riverdale, Animal Kingdom, Sneaky Pete and many, many more to her impressive credit), it’s hard not to long for more Cherie Nowlan big screen projects when you consider how good her existing two films – 1997’s Thank God He Met Lizzie (renamed The Wedding Party in the US) and 2007’s Clubland (renamed Introducing The Dwights for the international market) – truly are.
Born and raised in the NSW town of Singleton, Nowlan studied screenwriting at The Australian Film, Television And Radio School, before briefly working as a journalist. Nowlan then moved into the entertainment industry, working as a production assistant, researcher and writer for various independent production companies, including the lauded Kennedy Miller, as well as in commercial television. Nowlan’s directorial debut came in 1991 with the 50-minute TV documentary God’s Girls: Stories From An Australian Convent. Detailing Nowlan’s own education, the doco was nominated for an AFI Award and received very appreciative reviews. Her next project was the well received 1995 short Lucinda, 31 (which starred Joy Smithers and Jane Turner), which follows a woman who runs her life like a business.
Cherie Nowlan made her big screen debut in 1997 with the funny, honest and wonderfully refreshing Thank God He Met Lizzie, in which a man is thrown off-course on his wedding day when he keeps returning to a joyous relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Responding beautifully to all of the nuance, intelligence and originality of Alexandra Long’s script, Nowlan delivered a true charmer of a film. She also most significantly provided very early roles for three of Australia’s most successful actors, with Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett and Frances O’Connor all eminently displaying the charisma and skill that would eventually hurtle them onto the world stage. Smart and funny, Thank God He Met Lizzie announced Cherie Nowlan as a richly talented director able to tell a distinctly female story. “I feel that the movie is an actual women’s film,” Nowlan told Channel 9 upon the release. “Unlike the typical woman’s film made by men about what men think women talk about, it deals with the real life that both Alexandra and I deal with every day.”
From there, Nowlan moved sideways into Australian television, directing episodes of TV series like The Secret Life Of Us and The Alice, as well as two female-focused Small Claims telemovies, which starred Rebecca Gibney and Claudia Karvan as two women caught up in a variety of crimes. Nowlan also directed the exceptional 2003 two-part John Doyle-scripted ABC-TV mini-series Marking Time, a subtle but powerful treatise on modern race relations in Australia. Starring an excellent Abe Forsythe as a small-town country boy who falls for Bojana Novakovic’s Afghan refugee, the mini-series is a gut-wrenching, deeply human tale, and showcases Nowlan’s ability to deal with tougher material while also crafting truly engaging, often very funny, and distinctly Australian characters.
Nowlan’s second film finally came in 2007 with Clubland. Funny, rude and brutally honest, the comedy drama stars revered Brit import Brenda Blethyn as Jean Dwight, a middle-aged mum rekindling her dreams of fame after long ago having given up a promising career as a stand-up comedian to raise her two sons: virginal 21-year-old Tim (Khan Chittenden) and Mark (Richard Wilson), who has cerebral palsy. Now she appears at local RSL clubs with her bawdy act in an attempt to recharge her dreams of making it. The film also focuses on Tim, who is head over heels in love with his feisty new girlfriend Jill (Emma Booth). A comic battle then ensues as the overbearing Jean, fearful that she’s losing her son to Jill, refuses to give him up without a fight.
A terrific meditation on both the difficulties of middle age and the joyous anxieties of youth, Clubland is an exceptional effort from Cherie Nowlan, who received much praise from her twice Oscar nominated (Little Voice, Secrets & Lies) star. “Cherie is one of the most laid back directors I think I’ve ever worked with in my life,” Blethyn told FilmInk during the film’s production. “She has created such a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere to work in and that’s the truth. You can throw caution to the wind and not feel foolish. She’s not precious about anything.”
After Clubland, Nowlan moved into Australian episodic television (Packed To The Rafters, Underbelly, Crownies, Dance Academy, All Saints), and then onto great success in the US market with Gossip Girl, 90210, DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, How To Get Away With Murder, and many, many more. Here’s hoping that Cherie Nowlan ends up on the radar at Marvel Studios or some other major film company, and applies her singular gifts to another big screen project sometime in the near future…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.