Award winning writer/director Christina Andreef has seen it all – not getting into film school, working with Jane Campion’s and finally seeing her own films at Cannes and Sundance.
Cleo Mees spoke with Christina about writing for the screen and seeing her screenplays through the production process.
Tell us about not getting into film school.
Very painful. The first big rejection in my life! I applied in the ’80s, and there was no Major in Directing those days. You had to do a year in another craft and then graduate to Directing. So I chose camera. On the day of the final test they made me lace up a 35mm movie camera. I made a stab but didn’t have a clue… I thought that’s what you went there to learn. The clincher was being told that as a girl, and a short one at that, I would have trouble carrying the equipment.
I made up my mind to do what the successful students were doing: Make three short films, on 35mm, over three years, and get them into international festivals. And that’s what I did.
How did you get into contact with Jane Campion?
In the meantime, I began a PhD in film at Macquarie Uni. I was writing my thesis on Australian women filmmakers and I interviewed Jane for it. Soon after that she got funded for her first feature, “Sweetie”. She needed an assistant but it was extremely low budget and they couldn’t pay for one. I had a Commonwealth Scholarship, so I just stopped going to uni and started working for her… Didn’t take much persuading.
The Gap (Sundance, Telluride)
How did your experience on other peoples’ films shape you?
It just made me feel like anything was possible. It was like an awakening for me, I absolutely thrived in the creative environment, and Jane was a totally generous, inspiring boss. Everything felt like a treat – from stopping the traffic in Sydney’s suburbs to bribing the neighbour’s kids to shut up during takes or driving out to the desert for the ‘Jill-a-Roo’ scenes. It was all brilliant.
“The Piano” was really the high church of my experiences on other people’s films. Everything … everything just filled me up. I organised and ran the rehearsal room and that was a terribly fertile learning ground. I filled up notebooks on how to “be” with actors, what to say if things weren’t working, how to help them.
I’d been a bit afraid of actors, but had to get over it, as Jane used to make me get up and play opposite Sam Neill or Harvey Keitel if their scene partner wasn’t there! I also learnt about the critical importance of preparation in pre-production – no stone unturned. Things will always go wrong on the day but I really absorbed the notion that the better the prep, the richer the elements that do end up on screen.
Shooting the Breeze (Sundance, Berlin)
How does being a writer/director affect your writing?
Polish everything beautifully till it sings. When you’re writing for yourself to direct, you should be able to pull out a lot of the descriptive embroidery. Now I just make separate art department or character lists to remind myself. The critical thing is that the script gets a clean, fluid read. And the more you trust your director self, the more sparely and cleanly you can write.
How did you crew up your first shorts?
I started off with a friend producing – we were at kind of a similar level. It helps because then you’re both hungry for the same thing. My DP, Gary Phillips, had shot heaps of ads and focus pulled on features, but had never DP’d a 35mm drama himself. So there was something in it for him – especially when our first short together went to Cannes.
The 1st AD (Mark Turnbull) and Designer (Janet Patterson) had both just worked on ‘The Piano’. We’d made friends and then I kind of insisted they come on my short for free! Funny how naivety helps. It was terribly cheeky when I think of it now, as they were two of the most experienced and talented in their jobs, in the country.
It’s good to start forming a ‘team’ early on — Screen Australia likes that. It’s all about ‘teams’ these days.
Soft Fruit (winner 6 international awards, 13 nominations)
How did you go about getting funding for your first shorts?
With “Excursion…” we were turned down for production funding, so we put our glad-rags on and went out to Kodak and made a proper professional pitch to Tim Waygood. He came to the party with the 35mm stock that I wanted for the film. It was terrifying. I thought “God, we’ve got the stock now, we have to make a film!” Because we had stock, Lemac came on board with 35mm camera and equipment, and producer, Helen Bowden and I shot the whole film for nothing.
Problem was we couldn’t get the work-print out of the lab without paying for it, so we invited the AFC out to Atlab to see the rushes, and they loved it and gave us solid post-production funding to finish the film. It went to over 60 festivals around the world. On the strength of that the AFC fully funded my second short, “The Gap”. Through my shorts going to Sundance, I met the people at Fox Searchlight in LA. They invested in my feature “Soft Fruit” along with the FFC and FTO. It was the first time that Fox Searchlight had backed a debut feature in Australia.
What did you learn after watching Soft Fruit as a finished film?
Jane Moran (Editor) and I changed the order of scenes from the script to the final cut quite a lot. It should not have been possible to do that. There should be an inevitability about every scene in your screenplay. Each scene should be where it is because it’s totally necessary to advance the story, and won’t work anywhere else. There wasn’t a sense of inevitability about some of the “Soft Fruit” scenes, which in the end made the film slightly episodic.
My script was quite ‘talky’ and I wished it was less so. That I’d left more open moments for Antony Partos’ gorgeous music, or just for the audience to reflect and feel what we were showing them.
Excursion to the Bridge of Friendship (Cannes, Sundance, San Fransisco)
What tips would you give to screenwriters, from the perspective of someone who has been on the practical end of filmmaking?
Stay in there. Simple as that. I’ve heard it said that 90% of filmmaking is persistence and 10% is talent. That’s obviously not to denigrate talent. It’s just that there are many more talented people out there who would love to make a film but never will, for various reasons; they can’t get beyond self-doubt, they can’t do without the safety of wages, they can’t abide the long long time a script takes in development.
I do every workshop and masterclass that comes to Sydney – have done for years. I really recommend that. Join the Directors’ and Writers’ Guilds, get involved with the filmmaking community. Volunteer yourself as an Intern on feature sets or TV writing tables. Write every single day. Know the FTO and Screen Australia Guidelines, and keep applying for development funds. Trust that good things will come.
Christina Andreef has written and directed three prize-winning short films, “Excursion To The Bridge of Friendship” (In official selection at Sundance & Cannes), “The Gap” (Sundance & Telluride) and “Shooting The Breeze” (Sundance & Berlin). She followed with her first feature film “Soft Fruit” in 2000. “Soft Fruit” won the International Critics’ Prize in Spain and was invited to Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. It was also nominated for 7 AFI Awards. Currently, she teaches Screenwriting and Direction at the Sydney Film School and Sydney College of the Arts.