interview with belinda chayko
Writer/director Belinda Chayko’s new film Lou (due to be released in theatres on the 17th of June) is a touching story about identity, abandonment, and the importance of family. The film follows a single mother named Riah (played by Emily Barclay) who is struggling to raise her three daughters. The leading character, 11 year old Lou (played Lily Bell Tindley) has closed her heart as a result of the loss of her father and is coming to terms with her own identity. However, the lives of this family are transformed when their estranged grandfather, Doyle (played by John Hurt) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is brought into the family home in rural Australia.
I had the pleasure to speak with Belinda about her background as a writer, her experiences as a female working in the film industry, her inspirations for the script and the primary themes in the film.
How did you manage to break into the Australian film industry?
I started out as journalist for the SMH and then applied for AFTERs where I specialised in writing. I then had the opportunity to direct my own script which went on to win awards at festivals. This set me up as a director as well as a writer.
How do you feel about being one of the few female filmmakers in the industry?
It’s lonely! The percentage of women in the business is very low, which seems to have a sort of ‘flow on’ effect in terms of the films that we are offered. However, there is clearly not one distinctive way in which women tell stories – you’ve got people like Kathryn Bigelow who is making masculine films, so we clearly don’t all just want to focus on character based works. We are a huge part of the population and we have different approaches.
Are there any females in the business that influenced you in particular?
I’m a Jane Campion fan, obviously. I also admire the French filmmaker Agnes Varda who started out in the French New Wave Cinema with Goddard and Truffaut, and is still making films in her 80s. She recently released some very poetic and intellectual documentaries that were filmed on ‘low-fi’, which is basically home video quality, which I find very inspiring. A major theme in her films is aging and identity, which are themes I dealt with in Lou. Agnieszka Holland is another director who made a number of films in the 90s that I thought were amazing, particularly Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier both of which focus on identity and doubling.
Lou is your second feature film, and you wrote and directed it. What were the advantages or disadvantages of having both of these roles?
The real advantage is that you know the material at a cellular level so you can discard the script at any point if need be, without having to worry about the writer’s opinion. The fact that I was working with children in this film meant that I allowed for improvisation, which brought a level of freshness to the film. I don’t think there are any disadvantages in having both roles! For me, coming from a writing background, direction is more about performance and the interaction between the characters.
Lou is a bitter-sweet story as it follows a grandfather who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Was this close to your own heart?
Yes. My uncle had Alzheimer’s, which was a big inspiration in writing the script. The characters are grieving in the film – Lou is grieving the loss of her father, the mother Riah is grieving the loss of her partner, and the grandfather, Doyle is grieving the loss of his past love, so all of the characters are lost. And that’s what happened with my uncle. It was almost as if he was losing himself. It’s a horrible disease, but I think there were moments of grace and beauty in the way his reality intersected with ours, and we were able to learn from that.
The film is about the transcendent nature of love. Lou is not looking for a grandfather figure, she is looking for her dad, and the grandfather is looking for his past love, so they are both almost looking past each other. They don’t connect on a personality level, it’s about them connecting on a much deeper level. They are both substituting people for each other.
Another key issue was the challenges that come from single parenthood- but what is the film’s message about family relationships?
It’s about the healing of a family. I am a sole parent myself and I believe that love and respect is the glue that holds a family together. This family is in trouble, which is why I wanted to bring another figure in (the grandfather) to help them move on.
Lou, your main character was quite a complex figure. Why did you choose to focus the film on her over the grandfather or the mother?
I wanted each character’s development to be equally compelling. The film is about identity and I think that (particularly for girls) Lou’s age (being 11 years) illustrates the shifting between childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, which is one of the most fascinating and complex times in a person’s life. I wanted to use Lou as a centrepiece for a number of characters whose identities were in flux.
Lou’s character was actually inspired by an 11 year old girl that I met in foster care. She was a very tough individual and I had the feeling that she saw the world in terms of power and the need to protect herself. This made me start to think: what if she had the opportunity to understand what love is, and to be protected by that, rather than her own power plays – this is why I introduced the boy as a love interest for Lou.
One scene that stands out in my memory occurred at the BBQ when Lou decides to dance on her own and slow motion editing is used. What is the significance of this scene? And what do the images of the burning cane (which is intercut in this scene and used throughout the film) symbolise?
Lou is “trying on” her adulthood and her identity as a sexual object in this scene. For me, one of the most beautiful moments in the film is the way that the mother, Riah responds to her dancing. There is such a level of complexity in a mother watching her young daughter becoming the teenager that she missed out on (and the actress Emily Barclay captured this brilliantly in a 20 second shot). Riah is a mother, but she is also a thwarted teenager. Even though her character is 27 years, Emily was only 24 years when we filmed and that was a deliberate choice, to have an actress who looked really young.
The burning cane was a metaphor for Lou who is essentially playing with fire. It is a dramatic build as she gets further and further into this impossible relationship with her grandfather (as she continues to pretend that she is Annie – his past love).
I thought the acting was brilliant by everyone involved. What was it like working with such a talented Australian cast, and the award-winning actor John Hurt?
It was pretty scary working with John Hurt! John and Emily are both generous actors and they were great with the children. John works very interiorly. He engages completely with the script and brings that to the set to share with the other actors. John said that he is proud of the film, and he mentioned to me that only two scripts have made him cry: mine was one, and the other was Elephant Man.
I knew that a big issue in terms of casting was going to be working with children (there were three girls and a young boy), so we a drama coach. She helped maintain focus, and helped to get the children to be “in the moment”. We didn’t rehearse many of the scenes. Most of the rehearsal time was spent “hanging out” and getting used to one another, and becoming a little family.
Are you working on a new film?
Yes, a horror film! It’s much more Shining than Saw, but I’m interested in a challenge and a divergence from a film like Lou, which was very deliberately a much more lyrical interplay between characters.