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Film is a highly collaborative activity, so who you work with – and how free of friction - is of paramount importance. On Little Fish, director Rowan Woods worked with his writer wife, Jacqueline Perske, and Noni Hazlehurst played mum to international Star, Cate Blanchett. They talk about their experiences to Andrew L.Urban.

One Good Thing about working on Little Fish with his partner, writer Jacqueline Perske, for director Rowan Woods, was that “she knows how I work and she’s expecting me to be tough … so less insult is taken than is usually the case with me and writers,” says Woods, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses, his amiable face in a grin. “Jacqueline knows me and my process and is also a very experienced tv writer. She knows I’m quite tough on my writers,” he says, elaborating on his filmmaking methods and approach, as we sit high above Sydney Harbour on a glittering spring day, far from the western suburbs setting of his second feature film.

Rowan Woods is not an auteur. “I’m a translator of stories,” he says, “inspired by the darkened space that is the writer’s domain. But I like to infuse the script with my own research.” This can be confronting for writers, he admits. 

The working relationship between Woods and Perske was complemented by the collaboration of producer Vincent Sheehan, who worked at length with Perske in developing the screenplay, and later with Cate Blanchett, who stars as Tracy Heart.

After cleaning up her addiction, Tracy is treading emotional water and trying to rebuild her relationship with her single mother, Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst), aspiring to upgrade her working life from video shop manager to internet cafe business owner. When her boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) returns after four years away, it coincides with other problems in her life, including the desperation of her mother’s addicted and banished ex boyfriend Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving), who turned Tracy onto drugs, the criminal aspirations of her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) and the multi faceted criminal Bradley Thompson (Sam Neill).

"The themes in the film fascinate Woods"

The themes in the film fascinate Woods. “I’m always searching for unusual places in our society that are revelatory, that I – or the audience – would have pre-judged.” He seeded an idea years ago, way back before making The Boys, on the back of Tran The Man, his acclaimed film school graduation short, set in a milieu similar to Little Fish, but abandoned it, dissatisfied with what he had written. Perske “picked it up and took it away … three or four years later, after she and Vincent had been working on it, they were happy with the story.” But now Woods was up to his ears in potential projects, and had knocked back several. “I was feeling guilty and nervous having knocked back several Australian screenplays. I was thinking, ‘oh gawd, I may never make another film again. So I was full of trepidation about this, about putting it ahead of my other projects.”

But the pull of the screenplay was irresistible. “I have personal connections to family and families I know that have been hauled into states of despair when kids haven’t fulfilled their promises … they’ve messed up in their 20s. I thought it was extraordinary that a film about addiction didn’t concentrate on young people messing with drugs in their 20s and the downward spiral. It actually went beyond that; it went beyond that. As Cate describes it eloquently, this ‘lost tribe of people’ who she’s never seen in cinema. That’s ordinary folk heroically struggling in their own, small part of the world, not usually spotlighted, in the pursuit of happiness. Nearly always, these stories are about the visceral doing of it… the downward spiral stories like Requiem For a Dream and Leaving Las Vegas, all done eloquently and brilliantly.”

By contrast, in Little Fish, the central character had “got straight and was now searching for the happiness that was promised her by society and by herself. The shiny, shiny girl who was now having to re-apprentice herself to her parents and claw her way back to adulthood in, I guess, a desperate bid to find that hope…”

Woods was also drawn to the screenplay by other elements, including the character of Lionel (Hugo Weaving), Janelle’s ex, and Tracy’s father figure. “Ironically, the tragic hero of the script, her father figure, the hopeless romantic, decrepit drug addict … he also has the desire for Tracy to see it through.” And he is part of the film’s resolution, in which some form of hope arrives for Tracy.

"I’ve been surprised that people have been surprised at the profile of this cast"

The inspiration for Lionel’s character, oddly enough, was the Ratso Rizzo character played by Dustin Hoffman in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). “He’s decrepit, selfish, cruel, self obsessed, and yet he has such love for Jon Voigt’s Joe Buck character, who’s dealing with the demons of his past and trying desperately to put his past behind him.”

The film shifts from “suburban family drama to thriller, full of red herrings and delicious puzzles,” says Woods. This fed into another attraction for Woods, who had recently read the autobiography, Lumet On Lumet, and was inspired by the famed director’s traditional, almost theatrical approach to filmmaking. “Lumet hybridized genres … and, along with a few other directors, challenged the genre form.” With Little Fish, Woods has done the same, and in the process he has surprised some.

By turn, he himself has been surprised: “I’ve been surprised that people have been surprised at the profile of this cast and the magnitude of it – the fact that we sought out that cast. That they should come down to this uncompromising story in the suburbs of Sydney. I’ve had surprise expressed by journalists and commentators, and I’ve though to myself, ‘why should you be surprised; have you got tall poppy baggage or something? It is routine in Hollywood and in European cinema that actors of studio level stardom occasionally – sometimes often as in the case of Sean Penn – come down to tell uncompromising stories of their own culture that don’t claim to rule the mainstream.

“The assumption being that cate Blanchett, one of the greatest stars on the nplanet, can’t wear tracky dacks? That she’s too starry or too big? Is our psyche so crippled?”

Woods is not the only one perplexed by that attitude among some in the media. Talking to Noni Hazlehurst (at the very same coffee table at a high rise hotel on Sydney Harbour just moments apart) the same subject pops up. “One question I saw Cate being asked that floored me was about how did she feel about looking unglamorous in the character,” says Noni with raised eyebrows. “What a lot of rubbish! It’s called acting…” 

"There were no egos on set"

When she got the role of Cate’s mum, Hazlehurst’s only thought about working with the star was “I hoped she’d be nice.” She was. The entire cast worked hard and were “passionately keen about the story. I had no special bonding with Cate, there was no time for much socialising. She is so busy … one weekend she had to fly off to do promotions for her film The Life Aquatic, then she was back and we were into it. There were no egos on set, and she was willing to be different in every take. We were all thrilled to be making this film.”

The mood on set was “focused but light” says Hazlehurst, who got the part of Janelle after Woods had resisted pressure from international interests in the film to cast a major international star as Cate Blanchett’s mum. “Rowan’s focus is intense, but he appreciates what we actors were giving … we had a four week rehearsal, which is longer than usual, so we established those family bonds. It was a level playing field and we were all committed – and helped by Danny Ruhlmann’s cinematography, which was very special.”

Hazlehurst, herself a writer and director, loves Little Fish for the complexity of all the characters. “Most characters in Australian films are one dimensional. Here, they are all three dimensional, and we the actors were able to add the 4th dimension – spirit.”

Published September 8, 2005

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Rowan Woods


Noni Hazlehurst (Photo by Quentin Jones)

....as Janelle in Little Fish

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