When I founded Women Making Films about three years ago, I did have a utopic dream of being able to bring the voices of women from around the world, under a single web space. I say utopic because I didn’t believe that it would be possible, let alone welcomed. Somewhere in the process of pursuing this dream, I started noticing that this was not just possible, but it is being embraced and celebrated by women around the world. One of the best aspects of this dream pursuit is the access and opportunity I get to interact and learn from these fabulous filmmakers, who, if not for WMF, I would have never known of or had the chance to follow their work.
In that spirit, I wish to express my gratitude to Sally McLean for having taken the time to answer my questions so eloquently despite her whirlwind of a schedule. This interview gives us a dollop of the myriad things Sally stands by, her love for acting, the passion she has for Theatre, her wiring, her films and a heartfelt log of her formative years – of what made Sally the playwright, actor, singer, dancer, director, producer, voice artist, founder of Incognita Enterprises, and above all, a phenomenal woman. Read on…
I am a big believer that Art can change minds and therefore the world. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition and what we do to cope with trauma. And yet I am also an eternal optimist and still choose to see the good in others and the world, which I hope I never lose.
Let’s start with your story. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education, to the extent that informs the work you do currently?
I grew up in Victoria, Australia in a seaside town called Seaford, before moving to another seaside town called Mornington in my teenage years. My parents divorced when I was 4, so I spent most of my formative years living with my mother and grandparents and younger brother in my grandparents’ house, which had also been my mother’s family home. All the family was quite musical and my mother and grandmother had always had an interest in the Arts. I learnt piano from the age of 5 and took singing lessons from the age of 15, but acting won my heart very early on and was always my main interest.
I went to an all-girls school from the age of 4, who had a big focus on academic pursuits and sport, but thankfully included music in the curriculum and some drama as an extracurricular activity.
When I was growing up there weren’t a lot of kids in the street we lived in, so most of my interaction with my peers was through school. Outside of school hours I spent a lot of time with adults, but my grandmother had a philosophy that children should be “seen and not heard”, so I spent a fair amount of time alone, making up stories, inventing characters and spending time in the huge garden my grandparents’ had around the house, lost in my imagination. This led to my inventing plays which I made my brother and cousins act for the family at family gatherings (which I’m sure drove them all mad!). Naturally, I always played the leading role and was director and writer, so I guess I started my creative career very early!
Once I got to high school, my grandparents had both passed away and my mother, brother and I moved out to Mornington, in a street full of kids, which was great. I spent my early teenage years being a kid – climbing trees, riding bikes, going tadpoling (catching tadpoles in the dams on local farms), hanging out at the beach – the usual Australian kids’ activities in a rural/seaside town. That was quite an idyllic time, thinking back.
I was lucky enough to have a diverse family and be surrounded by people of different backgrounds growing up. Our closest family friends growing up were Greek, another was Aboriginal, one of my uncles is Indian, I have a cousin with Down Syndrome and we have nearly every religious belief represented from Muslim to Catholic to Buddhism, and a few others besides, amongst my immediate and extended family, who all manage to get along despite their different religious affiliations.
I’m not particularly religious myself, despite being brought up Church of England, maybe because I realised through contact with all these different beliefs and philosophies that they are essentially talking about the same thing and quite possibly the same god, so why be affiliated with the one dogma? I also got thrown out of Sunday School aged seven, for asking too many difficult questions and calling Jesus a magician (which was the only explanation that seemed logical to me for how he did the loaves and fishes thing), so that might also have influenced my current stance on religious beliefs!
My grandmother also used to do a lot of charity work, not just working on committees, but also volunteering in the field and protesting – she was a huge activist. I guess all this influence and exposure to different people, beliefs and communities has made me somewhat of an activist myself, predominately through my work, particularly my writing. I am a big believer that Art can change minds and therefore the world. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition and what we do to cope with trauma. And yet I am also an eternal optimist and still choose to see the good in others and the world, which I hope I never lose.
Your life as an actor – when did it begin – what lured you on to the stage?
When I was four years old, my grandparents’ let one of the big television dramas in Australia at the time film at their property for a day. I remember lying on the floor of our lounge room, which had floor to ceiling windows, peeking out under the curtains, watching the cast and crew film – all day (they filmed outside and we had to stay inside to not ruin the shots). I was absolutely transfixed, fascinated by all the activity (it was a crime drama and had actors in police uniforms, a stolen car in our large garden, an arrest and lots of other action going on). Afterward, I am told that I announced I was either going to be an actor or policeman (I don’t have a clear memory of that part, but I do remember thinking acting looked like a lot of fun!). So that was my first exposure to acting.
A friend of my grandmother was the American entertainer, Tommy Hanlon Jr., who used to be over at our house fairly regularly with his wife, Murphy. Tommy had established a career in the USA before being invited out to Australia, working with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and all of those original “brat pack” guys of the 50’s and 60’s. He became a TV host in Australia and continued his comedy career, as well as eventually owning one of our large circuses, where he was also Ringmaster and a clown.
I was about seven when I was allowed to go backstage at the circus to see what it was like behind the scenes, which was fascinating to me. I remember sitting on the bench next to the mirror in the dressing room, watching Uncle Tommy transform into a clown. Tommy was always a very quiet, gentleman. I remember watching him put on the clown makeup and literally transform into this outgoing, funny, loud character before my eyes. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to definitely be an actor – because I realised that job meant I could be whomever I wanted to be. I also took up clowning and vaudeville for a time in my career, which I know was a direct result of Tommy’s influence.
By the time I was nine, my mother had taken up the role of Director of a touring youth theatre company. I pestered her to be able to join, but you had to be ten years old and she was totally against nepotism, so I had to wait a year before I could be part of the troupe. Aged ten I finally got to join and was a member for seven years. We would rehearse every second weekend, putting on a variety show for charity a couple of times a year. All the members had to sing and do one other performance skill. I was studying dance, so I was initially in the dance troupe of the company. Later, I moved over to the drama troupe, and that was it – I knew acting was definitely for me.
We toured country Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, performed at large festivals and events, such as Adelaide Fringe and FEIP (Free Entertainment In the Park), the Melbourne Royal Show, the Moomba Parade, the Arts Centre Melbourne, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and one of our biggest ones – our European tour which covered Switzerland, Holland and the UK. By that stage, I was 15 and decided that it was time to take acting seriously, so I got myself an acting agent and moved into doing local theatre and musicals. Around the same time, I also started working on screen – my first speaking role on television was a couple of years later on an iconic Australian TV drama, “The Flying Doctors”.
As an actor, how do you go about navigating through the roles that stereotype and objectify women – at least until you hadn’t started directing, yourself?
I have to say that there isn’t anything on my CV that I would consider stereotyping or objectifying women – I just play human beings who happen to be female (and a couple of times, male) in whatever circumstances they find themselves in as truthfully as I can. I have turned down roles in the past that I felt were showing women in an unhealthy light. An example would be a couple of roles that had gratuitous nudity for no good reason other than having a woman naked on screen for the titillation factor, that had nothing to do with the story. I said no outright to those. I’ve also turned down contracts with nudity clauses that producers weren’t prepared to negotiate. That said, I’ve done nudity on screen, but only if it made sense in the story. Some might say that my acting career suffered because of this attitude, but if I can’t justify a character’s actions, then I can’t play it truthfully and that means I can’t do my job properly.
I have played women that some might find a “stereotype” – characters that might be described in the script as “the bitch”, “the victim”, whatever, but my job as an actor is to ignore those labels, work out what makes that person tick, why they are the way they are and then play that truthfully. To dig down below the surface and not play the idea of them, but rather that particular individual with all their quirks and layers, which hopefully takes it out of stereotype and into being a tangible human being. But the reason stereotypes exist on film and on stage is because they exist in life, so all an actor can do is capture the humanity of the character and give the audience something to relate to, connect with. Our job is to “hold the mirror up” to society and show people themselves in all their glory and their shame – even if they don’t want to see it.
There is no standard beauty for women (nor should there be) and definitely no perfect body shape and I wish we would just get over this unhealthy obsession with the female form! It’s not good for our young women out there to have this impression that a woman is only valuable if she can fit into a size 0 outfit. The sooner we can drop this obsession, the better.
There is an unnecessary premium given to the body types of women, a certain type that is desirable, and the others, somehow, not so much. Would you like to comment on the obsession with this ‘perfect body?’
There is no perfect body! You just have to look at the photographic history of any women’s magazine to see that! The “perfect female form” that was popular in the 1960’s became unpopular in the 1980’s and what was popular in the 1980’s is unpopular now! It’s also different from country to country at any given time. There is no standard beauty for women (nor should there be) and definitely no perfect body shape and I wish we would just get over this unhealthy obsession with the female form! It’s not good for our young women out there to have this impression that a woman is only valuable if she can fit into a size 0 outfit. The sooner we can drop this obsession, the better. This goes for men’s body shapes as well – everyone is different and different people find different body shapes attractive, so you’ll never make everyone happy. Perfect doesn’t exist!! As long as you’re fit, healthy and happy in your own skin, then you have the “perfect body” for you – end of story!!
From acting, was there a defining moment you decided to pursue filmmaking?
I went to drama school in London, UK and part of our training there covered the idea of creating your own work as an actor after graduation. So we were actively encouraged to look at writing, directing and producing as well as acting to support our acting career. I’d been a published poet since the age of 15, so I naturally gravitated towards writing as my first creative role outside of acting. I, therefore, wrote my first film script straight out of drama school, which I also ended up producing and acting in. A year later, I had my first film “A Little Rain Must Fall”, which ran at 43 minutes and was launched at Ealing Studios, London.
Prior to drama school and writing and producing that film, I also worked for the BBC in London in production, so got to work with some amazing directors and producers who were doing extraordinary things on screen, which meant that I had a better head start on understanding film production from behind the scenes than most actors. I’m a big believer that actors should have some experience of what it is like to work behind the scenes to understand how the whole machine works and what their place in it actually means. Sure, they’re important, but no more important than the Production Manager or Cinematographer, for example. We’re all part of a team trying to create something, and everyone needs to remember that.
Could you talk about your experience traversing into film from theatre? Was it smooth? Some old timers would consider it sacrilege! 🙂
I’ve always performed in film, television and theatre, pretty much all at once. I began in musical theatre, then moved into plays, which I did alongside appearing on TV, and finally started doing film. So I’ve never seen those mediums as separate – they’re all just different platforms to ply the acting craft.
They need different skill sets, that’s for sure, but I started as what is known as a “triple threat” (actor/singer/dancer), so I could move relatively easily from one to the next and back again. Was it a smooth transition? Well, the musical theatre to screen move is often seen as difficult, but that’s why you train. Even though I graduated from drama school a long time ago, I still take classes to keep my skills sharp and to keep me focused. I went to drama school to learn how to adapt stage performance to screen work. You still use the same basic skills, just in a slightly different way. And you should never stop learning. I’m a big advocate for creatives to keep learning, keep growing, keep improving. Otherwise, why do it? If you want to be the best you can be, and versatile in your work and where you can work, then you should never stop learning.
Also, in Australia, our theatre, TV and film industries aren’t big enough to support actors working in just one area, so really, to ensure you’re able to have an on-going career, you should make sure you can work in all three mediums. I’ve also done voice-over work and character voice work and worked on radio, so I definitely haven’t stuck to the one thing!
As far as writing and directing for stage and screen – again, it’s a different skill set, but I enjoy the challenge and always learn from both mediums, which hopefully improves my work overall!
How do you perceive audience of cinema, TV and digital content – do you write exclusively for each, is there a clear distinction?
I don’t necessarily write exclusively for any medium. At the moment I have a web series, a standard TV series and a feature film in different stages of development, so I’m pretty eclectic in what I write and what platform I write for. I’m also a playwright. But I think each project has a different audience, most certainly. So any distinction would be ‘project to project’ really. But you can’t write just for your audience – if you do that I think you cease to be authentic somewhat. I write for my characters and for the story I wish to tell.
I also work in documentary, which means you are indebted to the story and telling it truthfully, so I guess that influences my work in drama to a degree as well. I love telling historical stories in drama and showing their relevance to today (and the lessons we need to remember so we don’t repeat the same mistakes) and you’ll see that theme running through a lot of my work, whatever medium I’m working in. My comedy writing tends to be contemporary, however, which is interesting, now I think about it!
Comedy is a reflection of our world as much as drama is – people tend to use humour to get through trauma in their day to day lives, in my experience.
Could you talk about how you employ humour as a means to address tough, oft avoided topics – do you see humour as an effective medium to engage with the audience albeit with a difficult subject?
Humour will always be the best way to engage with an audience on difficult topics, in my opinion. But you have to be careful to be clever with it as much as possible. I have a few friends who work exclusively in comedy (either writing or performing) and it’s always finding that fine line between offensive and funny. Being clever about it will usually help you find a way to make your point, and make people laugh, even if they feel they shouldn’t be. It’s an art! As far as my acting work goes in this area, if you have a good script and play the character truthfully, then it will be funny because people will recognise the character as someone they know or know of (or even as themselves).
I’ve had certain lines in scripts when acting that I initially may feel uncomfortable about, but if I can see the point the writer is making or the kind of person they’re sending up to make a statement, then my job is to find the truthful through line for the character – why is this person the way they are? What makes them hold this view? Why do they think it is okay to say this out loud? In comedy, as in drama, you have to play the character truthfully to make it truly work – and play it seriously and for real. The minute you go for the laugh, you’re dead in the water. It won’t work. And comedy is a reflection of our world as much as drama is – people tend to use humour to get through trauma in their day to day lives, in my experience.
Please tell us about Shakespeare Republic – it’s on the second season now – how was your experience making the first, and how was it received?
I affectionately refer to the Shakespeare Republic as “The Experiment”. Mainly because I started with the idea of taking Shakespeare monologues and putting them into contemporary settings, with no idea how it would all turn out. But referring to the project this way also meant I removed the pressure of outcome and could just focus on doing the best work possible. As a result, it was a truly joyous experience for me. I also got to work with some of my favourite people behind and in front of the camera, so that helped enormously as well to make it fun and a journey of exploration. I set it as a challenge to myself as a director, as well as the writer (adapting the pieces to the present) and also as an actor – choosing to perform a sonnet as an acting piece (which doesn’t traditionally happen, as the sonnets are pure poetry, rather than a speech).
Once we’d finished filming and I’d edited all the episodes, I suddenly discovered the wonderful world of webfests. Up to that point, I hadn’t been aware that there was a circuit of festivals around the world that catered specifically for online short form content. But once I was aware they existed, we began entering that first season into a range of webfests and traditional film festivals. As Shakespeare Republic is an anthology series, each episode can also be viewed as a stand-alone short film, so that widened our scope for festival consideration. The first season ended up being officially selected for over 30 festivals and winning 9 awards, which was amazing!
That first season resulted in our being commissioned to create a Shakespeare short film, Speaking Daggers, which I also wrote, directed and produced and is currently on the film festival circuit – already winning an award for Best Short Film in the USA. That was produced in conjunction with Independent Schools Victoria and we are currently building a program around the film to take officially into high schools in Victoria to assist teaching Shakespeare in the curriculum, which is exciting.
I’ve also just been contacted by the Australian National Film & Sound Archive, who would like to officially acquire the entire Shakespeare Republic series for their archives for posterity, which was totally unexpected and really humbling.
How difficult was it to keep the language au naturale, but basing it in a post-modern setting? How did you go about casting for your series?
Shakespeare was an excellent writer, which some might say is obvious, but that truly does make all the difference when performing. The way to make his language seem natural (i.e. as if we are speaking modern English), is to truly understand what you are saying when you perform it. You need to understand every single word you are saying and what it means in modern English. Once that is worked out, and you’ve done your subsequent usual acting homework – understanding why your character is doing and saying what they do and say – you can perform his works in any setting – modern or otherwise.
Shakespeare was also a remarkably progressive playwright, considering he was writing over 400 years ago, and many of his speeches have very clear parallels to how we think today. A good example is Emilia’s speech in “Othello” where she speaks about how men shouldn’t be upset if women behave as they do in regards to infidelity and being their own person, as men have already set the example and we are just following their lead. And interestingly, despite Emilia doing the wrong thing by Desdemona, she ends up being the hero of the piece by turning in her husband Iago for being the perpetrator of all the horrific events that happen – again, a very progressive stance for a female character to take at that time on stage.
As far as casting for the series goes, all the actors involved are friends of mine in the industry or actors whose work I have admired and who I want to work with. We don’t audition for the series, casting is by invitation only, so I’m lucky that everyone has said yes so far as we have some fantastic people involved! Shakespeare Republic is a passion project and so I choose who I work with very carefully to ensure that we not only have the best actors possible involved but that they are also great people to work with and people I can work with who bring their own ideas to the table. I love being challenged by the work and my creative collaborators, but it has to be done respectfully and with the work being the focus. There is no room for unhealthy ego on my set – everyone is treated as important, but also as an ensemble working together – both in front of the camera and behind it.
Is it the love for the Bard, or just an attempt at juxtaposing two antithetical times of lives?
Shakespeare Republic definitely comes out of my love for the Bard and his work. I think he was extraordinary for his time and am saddened that there appears to be a trend of moving away from his works at the moment. I don’t believe we should only study and perform Shakespeare, but I think he still has a place. He was one of the founders of modern Western theatre and I’m a huge believer in knowing the history of what you do. But he also was one of the masters of writing truthfully and brilliantly about the human condition and we haven’t changed much in 400 years, even if we like to think we have! Bringing his works into the present is one way I’ve used to make his work more accessible to modern audiences and show people that we haven’t really moved too far from how we were in the 1500’s, for better or worse!
What’s new in the second season? And would you dabble with the works of other prominent playwrights in the future?
The second season of Shakespeare Republic took the work to another level in regards to production value. We had the one cinematographer (instead of three as we had in season one), we filmed in two dedicated filming blocks instead of ad hoc filming when we could and expanded the cast from 6 to 13. Which meant we also expanded Season Two to 13 episodes as well. The second season is also a more cohesive world – it’s more interconnected than season one. Some characters appear in other character’s episodes, either prominently or in the background, to give a sense of all of them existing in the same world, even if they don’t know each other. We also shot the episodes in cinemascope ratio and at 4k on a RED, rather than 16:9 HD on a Sony or a Canon (which is the ratio/format/cameras of Season One).
Season Two is currently on the festival circuit and has already been officially selected for over 40 international webfests and film festivals, been nominated 39 times and won 10 awards to date, which is extraordinary. The whole team is so delighted that people have been responding so positively to what we’re doing and that Shakespeare is getting seen in a new light through the work.
As far as exploring other playwrights – we do have plans in Season Three to potentially include other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights in the line-up, as there were other playwrights of his era who wrote some amazing pieces as well. But I’m not sure if I would go beyond Shakespeare’s world or not … there are no plans to, but never say never!
We make up more than half of the world’s population, so it seems ludicrous that we don’t have more female stories out there!
Could you talk about your experience working with women? (Both as an actor, and as a director)
Rightly or wrongly, I tend to not focus on someone’s gender when working with them either on camera or behind it – it’s more about their creativity, personality and talent and what they’re like as a human being than gender. Some women I click with immediately, some not so much, but then the same goes for the men I’ve worked with. I’m comfortable working with any gender, really. I have actually been mentored predominately by men as a filmmaker, probably because men are so dominant in directing and producing in our industry. Luckily all my male mentors have been brilliant, lovely and respectful humans and very supportive of female filmmakers, which I know isn’t always the case. But I always look to bring women into the crew when I can – it’s a case of paying it forward and ensuring that more women get a chance to get experience working in the industry.
That said, I’m very conscious of having gender parity when it comes to the ensemble, so we always have an equal ratio of women to men on screen for Shakespeare Republic, for example. Plus, I tend to write women-heavy pieces – my two plays are predominantly female casts and all my projects have female leads. It’s partly a case of “write what you know” and partly a sense of needing to see more women on screen and stage driving the story. We make up more than half of the world’s population, so it seems ludicrous that we don’t have more female stories out there!
Who are some of your favourite filmmakers?
The first film I remember being exposed to that was directed by a woman is “My Brilliant Career”, directed by Gillian Armstrong and produced by Margaret Fink here in Australia in 1979. It starred Judy Davis and Sam Neill very early in their careers and I fell in love with it. It was also a historical drama, adapted from a book by Miles Franklin (another woman), written in 1901 in Australia, so that may have influenced my own obsession with historical stories. I saw it about a decade after it was made, in school and it was probably the first time I thought that maybe I could work in the entertainment industry as a woman. It helped that the story was about a young woman in outback Australia who wanted to be a writer! I’ve always loved Gillian Armstrong’s work ever since. She’s an exquisite storyteller.
Other women filmmakers I very much admire include Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay – interestingly all multi-hyphenates (director/writer/producer), which seems to be the case with a lot of women working in the biz in this capacity and probably why I don’t see it as an issue that I do the same thing. I am grateful to all of them for paving the way for the rest of us!
What else are you working on at the moment?
I always have several things on the go in different mediums. Right now I have Season Three of Shakespeare Republic in financing (we need a bigger budget for the next season, as I’m ramping up the concept somewhat), an original television series set in World War Two called ‘Till The Boys Come Home’, which we’ve shot a concept teaser for and are now looking for a broadcaster, another original TV series, adapted from one of my feature films which is a historical/fantasy/mystery and my one woman show “Love Letters To My Gran”, which is a contemporary, semi-autobiographical play.
I am also returning to teaching and begin teaching my new course “Playing The Bard: Shakespeare In Performance” at the Howard Fine Acting Studio Australia later this month, which I’m very much looking forward to. I have been training with Howard (who is based in Los Angeles most of the year and is one of my favourite humans as well as being my acting coach) for the past 6 years, I am on the Board of Trustees for the Studio, so I am very excited to be working as a Guest Tutor at the Studio teaching the subject I love.
I am also the new General Manager for Melbourne WebFest, which takes place in late June/early July each year in Melbourne, so am busy organizing this year’s festival with that awesome team of people, in between everything else going on! Finally, I’m pitching to work on other people’s screen projects as a writer/director and continue to pursue my acting career, because I’m first and foremost still an actor!
Ultimately, I’m a big believer of doing what you love and challenging yourself as much as possible, so I’m glad to say that 2018 is shaping up to be another crazy, busy, but really exciting year!
Byline: Vaishnavi Sundar