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Kate Dennis: Emmys, Handmaid’s and Glow

The Handmaid’s Tale Emmy-nominated director Kate Dennis on how carving out a career in Australia gave her an edge in the States.

When The Handmaid’s Tale won best drama series at the end of the 2017 Emmy Awards, there was an Australian in the team who beamed onstage amid the cheers and claps of the crowd.

An Australian who script supervised on Babe. Who did continuity on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And who directed some of the country’s most beloved television series, such as Offspring, Rake and Love My Way.

Kate Dennis.

The director, who was nominated herself for directing Handmaid’s penultimate episode The Bridge, says it was a thrill to be up there onstage.

“After we all put so much passion and commitment into that show it's just incredibly satisfying to pick up so many awards (it won eight in total) and to know that I was part of a show that was so timely and so resonant at this point in history.”

When Dennis speaks to Screen News, it’s from outside Los Angeles where she’s now filming Heathers, a series that couldn’t be further from the tone of Handmaid’s, and is an “acerbic and camp” one-hour comedy based on the film of the same name.

“I always wanted to direct,” she says from her trailer on set.

It just took a while for that to become a reality.

When Dennis finished her Communications (Media) degree at UTS in Sydney, she thought she was a fully-fledged director – until she volunteered to crew on a film and realised just how much she had to learn.

“I'm not the personality type who wants to jump in and fake it. I really wanted to know what I was doing before I put up my hand and waved it around and said, ‘I'm the director’,” she says.

“So I was a clapper loader for five years and then I moved up to focus pulling. At that point I was on a film in Brazil (A Play in the Fields of the Lord) produced by Paul Zaentz and I had to go up the Amazon and do a splinter unit for two weeks where I was camera assisting as well as being the script supervisor.

“The script supervisor on that took me to Italy for Cliffhanger and I did that for six months.”

"Having worked in Australia has really helped me tone my muscles."

Friends of hers were making The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so she worked on that before script supervising on Babe.

“One thing led to another and I swapped between focus pulling and script supervising for five years.”

When it came to directing, Bryan Brown gave Dennis her first big break on the 1996 anthology series Twisted Tales.

“Filmmakers were given a half-hour episode each and were allowed to make it completely their own – it didn't have to fit in with the overarching style of the show.”

From there she said producer John Edwards got her to direct second unit on Big Sky and “all through my career he's been an incredible champion.”

“And through John, I began working very closely with Amanda Higgs and then Imogen Banks,” she says, on series including Love My Way, Offspring, Party Tricks and Time of Our Lives.

“So between the three of them they've been incredibly good to me over the years.”

Martin Henderson and Kate Dennis on the Secrets & Lies set

In 2014, Dennis set up a show for Hoodlum called Secrets & Lies, which was remade by ABC in America and she was brought across to direct several episodes.

“I thought that was a one-off experience, but on the back of that I was offered CSI: Cyber and then TURN: Washington’s Spies and that just led to more and more offers. By the time you've invested in an agent and a manager and you paid your DGA (Directors’ Guild of America) dues it seems to make sense to keep working and before you know it you're living over there.”

Highlights since then, aside from Handmaid’s, have included Preacher (“that was a completely bonkers show - it was a lot of fun”), The Tick for Amazon (“a really interesting cross-genre piece and finally something I can show my kids”), I'm Dying Up Here (“a great ensemble cast of comedians and actors and such an interesting tone”) and Netflix series Glow (“just a great bunch of women in a very nuanced half-hour comedy with Jenji Kohan who created Orange is the New Black”).

Looking at Dennis’ body of work, it’s clear that the director was never pigeonholed into a single genre. But her eclectic CV she puts down to learning her craft in Australia, where you have to be adaptable to make a living.

“In Australia we don't have enough money or we don't have enough time or there’s less work so you're moving around between more genres than one might be here,” she says.

“We are just so resilient. You can knock us down but we'll pop back up again. And in many ways we have a very unique voice that we're given the space to develop in Australia…

"You can knock us down but we'll pop back up again."

“It's very much a machine here (in the US) and you can see how you could fall into patterns… I know a lot of the US directors (who) are very much the procedural person or the half-hour comedy person.

“But I've tried really hard to keep moving around between genres and having worked in Australia has really helped me tone my muscles in all those different arenas. I've been able to be brave and try to keep myself out of a single genre pigeonhole and it's paid off.”

The differences between the Australian screen industry and the US struck Dennis most recently on the set of Queensland-filmed Harrow, again for Hoodlum Pictures.

“I realised how much I miss the Australian sense of humour: that wry devil-may-care attitude and the ability to laugh when things get very tough. But also the speed at which Australian crews work is really refreshing because instead of having 14 hours to shoot, by the time you take out afternoon tea you've got nine hours 50 minutes and you just have to get it done.

“So it keeps you creatively alive to have to work around those restrictions and it means the work never feels leaden, it always feels spontaneous and reactive.”

As someone who’s now permanently based in the US, Dennis is now looking from the outside-in at the industry that made her. And she thinks globally it’s never been stronger.

“It's absolutely thriving in the sense that it is having a much wider international reach than it ever has previously. Obviously television producers are doing a lot of deals internationally which is enabling them to make bigger projects and find bigger audiences. I think it's a great time for Australian TV and film.”

Watch The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS On Demand now, all seasons of Offspring on Netflix, and Time of Our Lives on Stan and Netflix.

Dennis will also be honoured with the Create NSW Annette Kellerman Award with Vogue Australia at the 2017 AiF Awards and Benefit Dinner in Los Angeles on 18 October 2017.