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Queensland: the producer emerges

Pests Pests
Victor Abbott started as an engineer. Angela Walsh developed her skills in radio and television. Directing his own short films provided Judd Tilyard with an understanding of “how hard it is to be a director without the proper support a good producer can offer.” Emma Spencer discovered that she “was always the one organising everything for the shoot, and making sure everything got done.” From these diverse backgrounds, a group of promising producers is emerging in Queensland.

Recent decades have seen the producer’s role diluted as discourses of auteurism gained critical and popular mindshare. In contrast to the Hollywood studio heyday, when the producer was the dominant figure, and the director more often “the producer’s brother-in-law” (Gore Vidal), recognition for contemporary producers, even in film culture, is often scant. The image of the demonstrably ignorant financier-philistine producer, rolling onto set occasionally to loudly oversee proceedings before retreating to power lunches, is light years away from the kind of producing done by these Queensland independents. Rather, work in the ‘slog years’ is characterised by long hours and minimal remuneration driven by a personal connection to the work.

Judd Tilyard says: “to me a producer who’s just about putting together the details is a glorified production manager–if they can’t understand why making the film the best it can be is important, then why are they doing it? If you’re seeking money or fame there are better professions out there.” Most producers have to subsidise their work with other jobs; Walsh does voiceovers to support her “filmmaking habit”, and Abbott concentrates on “fewer but quality projects” rather than navigating “the financial instability of being dependent on filmmaking for a living.” For Spencer, producing is just one of many things she does as manager of a multimedia production company.

Philosophically, there is much that unites this group. All, for example, are utterly pragmatic when talk turns to their own creative capacities. “As I can’t direct and am not a masterful writer, but have the skill to work with others, understand a vision, organise things and get things done”, Abbott says, “producing appeals to me.” He adds, “it’s important for the creative producer to understand that their main job is to support the director’s vision.” While Tilyard “hasn’t given up on directing”—he is warmly regarded in the close-knit Queensland film community and in high demand–there’s a certain inevitability (about the job) to which even he seems reconciled. “It’s simply part of who I am.”

Likewise, though Emma Spencer enjoys writing and directing, she finds she needs “to be involved as a producer on some level with every project I work on, it helps me feel a little more in control over a medium that generally runs along the lines of barely organised chaos at the best of times.” Despite numerous awards for writing, Angela Walsh says: “you can be good at something and that doesn’t mean you want to do it.” Work across other media has solidified Walsh’s self-knowledge and her sense of purpose: “I can direct, but it’s not a burning ambition. I get quite excited about finding someone who’s very good at what they do and matching them with someone else... and then making this team who are really excited about a project—there’s nothing better.”

This clear-eyed assessment of individual skills and talents links with a belief in the incontrovertibility of specialisation. For Abbott, “it’s important to get buy-in from the production team”: this means not only being responsive to “what they want to get out of the production” but “respecting crew and cast disciplines—I believe in the tenets of ‘the director directs, the producer produces and the actor acts’.” Believing passionately that “everyone has a gift, and they’re going to look into every facet of that”, Walsh sees the job of producer as primarily about cohering specialisations. Spencer agrees: “it sometimes feels like trying to mix oil and water, but it is the producer’s job to be aware at all times where each of the elements are and to make sure they come together in the end.”

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge for producers, emerging or otherwise, is budget. For Walsh budgets are the biggest trial, outdoing even last-minute shocks like a child actor disfigured by a skin condition the day before shooting. For Tilyard, they are the necessary limitations against which a producer displays their mettle; “it can feel like you’re drowning in problems, but you have to remember, it’s times like these that define a filmmaker’s life–these are the war stories you’ll tell at parties.” Spencer puts it in a typically laconic, Queensland way: “no matter how much money you are given it is never enough and you will always have to find ways to rebuild the Titanic when there is only $22.50 left in the art department.”

Offsetting these budget trials, the producers recount myriad tales of assistance and encouragement from the film community, from donations of equipment and resources to mentorship and exceptional generosity. Tilyard recently worked on a production where camera assistants from interstate offered time and experience, demonstrating that the community is national and “how people pool together to make dreams a reality.” The legendary intimacy of the Queensland community figures largely too: “everyone from suppliers, local professional crew, film school graduates, established producers, production companies and other industry practitioners are all willing to help and offer advice or services,” says Abbott, adding “there’s a real camaraderie and cooperative spirit among Queensland filmmakers.” Walsh decided to pursue her producing ‘up north’: “I quit my job, went freelance and came up here. I thought, if I’m going to be broke I may as well do it where it’s warm!” Her connection to place is common to many Queenslanders: “I’d love to be based in Queensland and have a successful production company here, get stuff off the ground and bring really good actors here and get great new ideas up–get people to live and work in Queensland.” For Walsh, this means work overseas, “to learn from different people, then bring it back here.”

These producers ultimately learn to be masters of realpolitik: “you have to be prepared to just throw everything into keeping the film running,” says Tilyard. Walsh agrees, “the producer’s role is to say ‘regardless, we can make this film happen’.” Abbott’s pre-film career furnishes him with a sense of civic duty: “I guess it’s the engineer in me that wants to see things made for the good of society.” After some serious soul searching he says he “wasn’t interested in TVCs, corporates, music videos etc, but in telling stories about who we are as people that resonate with my spirit.” For Tilyard, it’s only natural “when you surround yourself with talented people they will have great worlds of their own dying to be brought to life.”

Never underestimate a good producer, says Spencer, “they can move (or make) mountains for you if the project needs it and despite the bags under her eyes and the tufts of hair falling out from stress, she will always ensure that there is room in the budget for a slab of beer at all production meetings...A good producer is a woman with her priorities set straight.” Abbott concludes, “filmmaking can often be soul destroying and heart-wrenching but when you see the collective creation up there on the screen, the joy makes it all worthwhile.”

Recent Producing Roles: Angela Walsh Tongmaster, Judd Tilyard Pests, Emma Spencer The Last Hour, Victor Abbott Brace Yourself

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 17

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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