August 2019

Family Ties

Words & Images: Matilda Brown

It was a long time ago when my mother sat down at her computer, blew the dust away from the worn-out keypad, took a deep breath in and began her first draft of Beautiful Kate. Originally set in the 70s in Idaho, she’s adapted it to work in contemporary outback Australia with flashbacks to the 80s. It’s a gothic love story, a redemption story, a story about a family dealing with the past and struggling with the present, it’s about growing up in isolation, awkward sexual encounters, forgiveness and grief. But don’t write it off as another depressing Australian film because it’s not. It’s handled with a deft touch and as a result it offers and delivers on a plethora of themes.

I bore witness to the arduous struggle through the two-year writing process. Mum, cooped up in her office emitting disparaging sighs well into the night as she wrote and re-wrote draft upon draft. There were mornings when mum, suffering from a brain-too-switched-on-to-be-switched-off lumbered down the stairs ranting about another sleepless night spent devising conflict between siblings Kate and Ned, procuring a love/hate relationship between the dying Bruce and provocative Toni or inventing a fantasy life for loyal old Sally. There were problems with dialogue, the weaving together of past and present (Beautiful Kate is a parallel narrative), adaptation dilemmas, not to mention the contentious issues that make the story worth telling.

“Audiences are more cynical and demanding than we were in the 70s but given original obstacles to thwart our lovers, its not easy living in our permissive world and given contemporary moral quandaries, there is no doubt that audiences still want to be romanced and still want to be transported to exotic locales with beautiful alluring characters.” She’s talking about Kate, Bruce, Ned, Cliff, Toni and Sally – the characters I developed an aversion toward because they had my mother’s unwavering attention. Another year passed and albeit feeling a little neglected, I watched on in admiration, as mum, even when champing at the bit, void of sleep, and faced with us demanding lot, kept the pedal to the metal. It was bitter sweet when she finished the script. Soon after I learnt that she planned to direct it too.

After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, dad, as producer, who also plays the dying Bruce and co-producer Leah-Churchill Brown finally secured budget. With the green light shinning bright, the writer was transported from the dark office to the Australian outback where she became the director. So seventy odd cast and crew headed off to freezing South Australia, (spare a thought for Sophie Lowe and Maeve Dermody who both reveal a bit more than their fabulous acting abilities). We listened to mum make her pre-shoot speech. “If you’re not having fun or if you have a problem with something, come and talk to me. I want this to be a great experience for everyone.” And she meant it to. She doesn’t say things she doesn’t mean.

As part of the press team I interviewed all of the main cast including Ben Mendelson and Rachel Griffith along with the other cast and the producers, director, cinematographer, set designer and the costume designer amongst others. For six weeks I watched on through the lens of my own camera as I filmed behind the scenes, recording everything from the gutting of road-kill to helicopter rides above Lake Eyre. But it was mum in her element as a director that impressed me most. Because even though I’d grown up on film sets it was very different to see a mass of humble, grounded people working together to create someone’s vision. It was an absolute privilege to see someone make everyone feel important and in safe hands. “I loved working with Rachel as she’s a fearless director, which is the kind of director that you hope to work with. She’s written it and is directing it, but at the same time, she has a distinct vision. She’s definitely not locked into a particular thing and very open to the way that things unfold and the ideas that come from other people.” Director of Photography, Andrew Commis told my camera toward the end of the six-week shoot.

The outback is a strange place where isolation, clear air and wide-open starry skies make for incredibly vivid dreams. Everyone had them. Except for mum, who according to dad tossed and turned each and every night on set. Even after the shoot with Beautiful Kate ready to be unveiled, still it seems, the woman cannot let her sleeping dogs lie. And I wonder if she questions if it’s all been worth it.

“That was the best bit of the whole thing, it being a family affair, working with my daughters and nephew and the fact that Bryan and I could do it together was so fantastic for us. To be married for 25 years and then to make a film together, I highly recommend it. To have your daughters working on the film doing such a great job and being so proud of them. I hope they like the process, I hope they’re part of the industry because it’s a great industry to be a part of when it goes well and when we’ve had as much fun as we’ve had on Beautiful Kate with as much hard work, creativity, and laughs you couldn’t recommend it highly enough. We’ve had a great time together.” And from that response, I suppose I might have to concede it was.

The journey has reached its zenith and it’s now completely out of her hands. To her surprise the reviews have been consistently outstanding. And as if to mark my words she appears grinning from ear to ear and reads aloud the end of a review by Moviehole’s Clint Morris, which states that Beautiful Kate is “Easily one of the best films of the year, and quite possibly one of the best and most important Australian films ever made,” and with a childlike squeal, she slaps me on the leg in excitement. “He’s talking about my film!” she says, prouder than punch.

But that night while I slept, apparently Mother didn’t. While dad’s hanging the clothes on the line mum lumbers down the stairs ranting about characters from the new book she’s adapting into a screenplay. “Did you sleep last night mum?” I ask, genuinely concerned that my mother is turning into a crazy woman. Her response is predictable. “Not a wink. I’ve been struggling with the conflict between Deb’s internal need verses her external want… Is this for me?” she asks, as she grabs my cup of tea and disappears again.

Beautiful Kate is in cinemas from August 6

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