Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


In their first Australian public discussion about the making of Suburban Mayhem, the writer Alice Bell, director Paul Goldman, star Emily Barclay and producer Leah Churchill-Brown, faced their audience in Sydney’s Dendy at Opera Quays prior to the film’s release at Movies Now, a course in Continuing Education (Sydney University), presented by Andrew L. Urban.

Emily Barclay was at first concerned that in the sex scenes in Suburban Mayhem, she may not come off as sexy enough; the audience may not buy her sexiness. Considering that sex is Katrina Skinner’s primary currency, her concern was valid – if misplaced. As she sat with a demure look on her face and a modest outfit covering her body, she looked the antithesis if Katrina. “No there is nothing about Katrina that is like me,” she said, and when asked if this made it easier, she said “no”.

Barclay, one of the most talented actresses of her generation, sat between writer Alice Bell and director Paul Goldman at Dendy Opera Quays, facing an auditorium full of participants in the 7th course of Movies Now, a contemporary movie course presented by this writer for the University of Sydney’s Centre for Continuing Education. (The course is modelled on Movies 101 run at New York University by Richard Brown, screening movies before their commercial release for discussion with guests afterwards. Course 8 begins at Dendy Newtown on November 1 at 6.30pm.)

"countless recalls"

Paul Goldman had put Barclay through countless recalls – each time from Barclay’s home in New Zealand – before casting her. “I knew that the film relied on the actress playing Katrina and I was unsure …we saw everbody!” His indecision countered Barclay’s determination to get the role. The decision was made after yet another reading, when one of the actors took Goldman aside afterwards and told him he’d nuts not to cast Barclay.

The decision was quickly justified. As soon as Barclay got over her concerns and stepped into the high heeled boots, the mini skirt and slapped on the lippy, Katrina emerged like the hurricane that stormed into New Orleans at the very time of the shoot. “It wasn’t that I was worried about doing the sex scenes,” she added, “it was about people believing it of me.”

She and Alice Bell – at 27 slightly older than Barclay but with matching dark hair – quickly became friends and professional colleagues. Suburban Mayhem is Barclay’s second feature after In My Father’s Den (for which she won the New Zealand Screen Award for Best Acting in 2005 as well as the 2005 British Independent Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer), and Bell’s debut as a screenwriter. Producer Leah Churchill-Brown is also making her debut in features, but she had worked with Goldman on tv commercials – and they, together with friend Bell, had grown to trust each other creatively, something Goldman referred to in the Movies Now discussion. Goldman had previously directed Australian Rules and The Night We Called It A Day.

Bell had accumulated newspaper clippings over the years about families in meltdown around Australia’s suburbs; not high flying celebrity cases but murders next door. She was fascinated and admits to blurting out the script in a short time – although she and Goldman continued to re-draft it with input from Churchill-Brown. It ended up pretty much how it began, with some streamlining:

Katrina Skinner (Barclay) is a single mum living with her baby and her single dad John (Robert Morgan), manipulating him to support her, just as she manipulates all men – using sex as currency, and an abnormal determination to get what she wants. Her long, shiny red nails, her hair and her mini skirts are flags of aggression, and when dad starts to urge her to get a job and generally get real, Katrina fights back. Her beloved brother Danny (Laurence Breuls) in jail for murder, her boyfriend Rusty (Michael Dorman) is critical of her mothering, her aunt Dianne is most disapproving, and only poor, slightly ‘off-centre’ Kenny (Antony Hayes) considers her wonderful without reservation. So Katrina gets what Katrina wants …

"She does the wrong things, but for the right reasons."

Katrina feels entitled to anything she wants. As Barclay has put it, “If you look at her with middle class morals and values you’d think she’s really wrong and behaves in an incredibly inappropriate way, but in her own head everything she does is justified. She does the wrong things, but for the right reasons. Katrina is not apologetic about the way she behaves; she has incredible lust for life, she does all this crazy stuff but she has a great time doing it. She’s so exciting, you want to be around her. She’s frightening at the same time because she embodies that dark space deep inside all of us, she’s the thing parents are afraid of their children becoming. She’s so free and it’s great playing a character like that.”

There was considerable interest at the Movies Now session in the relationship between Katrina and her brother Danny (Laurence Breuls), who doesn’t get much screentime because he beheads a retailer during a robbery at the start of the film, and lands in jail. But it’s Katrina’s undying love for Danny that triggers questions usually aimed at writer Alice Bell: is Katrina’s baby her brother’s son? “Emily and I have come to a conclusion about that,” she said, “but we’re not saying …” We can make up own minds.

It’s also that close bond between the siblings that drives some of the film’s character drama. Interestingly enough, when the Movies Now participants were asked (show of hands) whether they considered the film to be a drama or a black comedy, about 40% said yes to each, with the remaining 20% saying it was both. Some thought the film played like a realistic drama, while others felt it was slightly hyper-realistic – which is what Goldman was aiming for.

Published October 26, 2006

Email this article

Suburban Mayhem Australian release: October 26, 2006


Movies Now - Nov/Dec 2006 course info & bookings

Selected for Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2006 (World Premiere)
Selected for Vanguard Program, Toronto 2006 (North American Premiere)
Australian Writers Guild 2006: Winner, Best Feature Screenplay / Alice Bell,
If Awards 2006: Nominated in 6 categories
AFI Awards 2006: Nominated in 12 categories

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020