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Corrie Chen: Mustangs FC, Sisters and Gender Matters

Years of trying to break into the screen industry finally paid off for Corrie Chen in 2017, with a non-stop year including her TV directing debut Mustangs FC.

Corrie Chen and Emmanuelle Mattana on the Mustangs FC set

When director Corrie Chen first heard of the teen comedy Mustangs FC, it seemed like it would align perfectly with her, but also impossible that she would be a part of it.

It had been five years since she had finished her Masters at VCA and she felt like her career was stalling.

“It was at a stage in 2016 when I just felt like nothing was moving for me. I had done all these attachments and ticked all the little boxes I was told I needed to do, but nothing was changing. So I knew about the project, but I just thought, ‘it's not going to happen for me’.

“And then Gender Matters funding happened.”

Chen’s first feature film Empty Empire (formerly Strangers) was one of 45 projects to receive development funding through Gender Matters: Brilliant Stories in July 2016, which enabled her to travel to China on a research trip to pen her first draft.

It was during that trip that an email pinged into her inbox from producer Amanda Higgs asking to set up a time to chat about the ABC Me series Mustangs FC.

Despite the terrible internet connection from Inner Mongolia, Chen and Higgs spoke about her love of coming-of-age and teen films, which are all wrapped up in identity and figuring out who you are. And how, like in Mustangs FC, sport is the perfect way of exploring that.

“Sport is such a universal gateway anyone can access. It doesn't matter what your background is, or class, or race, or sexuality, it can all happen on the field where everything is equal… And I think my body of work spoke to all these things.”

Chen’s short films include Bruce Lee Played Badminton Too, which she says was “very much inspired by Bend it Like Beckham, but with badminton and reversing race”, while Bloomers was about girls going through puberty.

“But what was so great about Mustangs FC is a lot of it I really inherently understood and I feel like I've lived a lot of those storylines. It was very natural for me to find authenticity in it.”

Higgs and co-producer Rachel Davis thought so too.

After their FaceTime chat, ‘Higgsy’ sent Chen an updated series bible and she went to the read-through for the first block to meet some of the writers, cast and crew (she would go on to direct three episodes of the 13x30 minute series).

“It was a very warm, open, collaborative environment. It was kind of the perfect first job,” she says.

“You never forget your first, and there were a lot of firsts on Mustangs FC: it was my TV directing debut and it was the first time I did scenes with more than three people speaking, which came as a shock. It was also the first time I had to direct five days in a row, which was physically exhausting.

“But when you have leaders like Amanda Higgs and Rachel Davis they're so enormously collaborative and open to backing the writers and the directors. My experience was just a delight and I really hope some of that warmth is captured in the show.”

On the Mustangs FC set

Chen says one of her big take-aways from directing episodes 6, 8 and 9 of Mustangs FC was a better understanding of the pace of television.

“As well as how to pre-empt possible problems at script stage or at least in my prep stage, so I'm not suddenly struck by it on-set. And just understanding that the biggest tool a director has is blocking (where the actors will be and camera position).”

She says the breakneck pace of TV is the best, but also the worst, thing about it.

“There's something really thrilling about having to think on your feet and problem solve as a team,” she says.

“But then because you don't have time you just end up committing all these crimes against cinema to get the scene shot, which is when I go home and sit in the corner and stare into the wall and question all my life choices.

"Every single significant milestone in my career has been because of a woman."

“At the same time, there have also been instances where, because we're all under pressure and had to get it done, surprises happen. And it's really wonderful.”

This came in great use just a few months later, when another career milestone arrived in the form of Network Ten drama Sisters. Produced by Imogen Banks (Offspring, Puberty Blues) of Endemol Shine and Nicole O’Donohue (The Daughter), it was another step up for Chen – into primetime one-hour drama.

And it all happened fast. After first interviewing in early July, Sisters began production in late July and Chen, who was directing the final block, was on the set in September.

“It was all very overwhelming. And I spent most of Sisters pre, and maybe the first week of the shoot, extremely stressed. I had a lot of anxiety because it was going to be primetime and I was doing the last two episodes with big setpieces and had to tie up all the storylines. I really felt like I was in the deep end,” she says. “But once I relaxed into my role it was really great.”

When Screen News speaks with Chen, she is in the midst of post-production on her episodes of Sisters, before she has just two days off and heads to Brisbane to start pre on Homecoming Queens – a short-form SBS On Demand series whose shoot and post will take her right through to early next year.

The Sisters cast

And in between all this, she is co-writing the second draft of Empty Empire (Gender Matters funded the first draft, Film Victoria funded the second) and will soon start looking for a producer.

“This year especially has felt like every single tiny note-taking job or attachment or assistant work I did has added up to all these jobs – all my breakthroughs or funding,” she says.

“I feel like it's taken five or six years since film school. But it really made me realise that you just have to keep chipping away and getting people to know you. And make a lot of sacrifices.”

But she also puts it down to the support she has received from the screen industry, particularly since gender disparity was placed under the spotlight. 

“All my big breakthroughs this year, they've all come from incredible women who have backed me,” she says.

“We need more people of colour as writers, directors, or producers."

“I am very, very confident in saying every single significant milestone in my career has been because of a woman. And I think that says a lot about what we need to do to make a change.

“My understanding is that I got interviewed for Sisters because of Amanda Higgs telling Imogen and Nicole they should speak to me. And I think that's something that for a lot of women has been missing. Just being talked about by other people.”

On Homecoming Queens, Chen will be directing a female driven story as part of a team including fellow executive producer Amanda Higgs, producer Katia Nizic, and writer/creators Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson.

“It's an idea I've been developing with Michelle and Chloë for a couple of years now, so I feel very ingrained in the DNA of the show,” Chen says.

“And it's great to know all the heads of departments. They've come up with me through my shorts and they've also done other long-form work. It's nice to just really all be part of this tribe together and make a show that we believe in.”

Which ultimately, is part of the end goal for Chen. When asked whether she wants to work in film or TV, or what the dream is, she doesn’t think in terms of genres or formats. She thinks much bigger than that.

“The end goal is to be able to continue creating projects I believe in that will help change the Australian screen landscape. And I don't mean ‘changing it’ just by throwing some more actors of colour in front of the screen.

“We need more people of colour as writers, directors, or producers. And if you want to tell a story that you know has an Asian character in the lead, or where their race is part of the story, then the team behind the camera should be majority that, otherwise you're just using our stories for profit.

“I know quite a lot of people don't like hearing that. But I feel very strongly about it and that's why Michelle Law and I love working together. It’s something we both believe in. And hopefully Homecoming Queens will be a tiny pebble in a very long path ahead of achieving that.”

Mustangs FC airs nightly on ABC Me from 11 October and is available to catch-up on ABC iview, Sisters will premiere on 25 October on Network Ten, and Homecoming Queens will be available as a 60 minute special and 7 x 8 minute episodes on SBS On Demand in 2018.