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Podcast – Director Lucy Gaffy: Learnings from Australian TV

Takeaways and advice from Doctor Doctor and The Unlisted director Lucy Gaffy as she reflects on her career so far.

Director Lucy Gaffy is standing in the middle of a field. A camera crew is out of focus behind her.

Lucy Gaffy on the set of Doctor Doctor

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Lucy Gaffy’s first time directing a full episode of television also happened to be one of the largest episodes for Doctor Doctor that season.

She remembers the shoot (for episode 7 in season 2) involved a beauty pageant, lots of extras and a huge action sequence.

“I think the way I managed it was to just say to myself ‘you can do this’ [and] to overprepare: I tried to be the first in at the production office every morning and the last to leave,” she says. “I created shot lists and breakdowns and birds eye views and everything so that I could just come in and be really present on the day.”

On the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast, Gaffy breaks down this experience as well as other frank observations and learnings from her career as an Australian television director on the likes of Doctor Doctor and ABC/Netflix series The Unlisted.

Gaffy started out studying an undergraduate film degree at QUT in Brisbane, where she met filmmakers Will Goodfellow and Tom Noakes and together started the director’s collective GOONO. A Masters at AFTRS followed and directing credits on short films. Something she learned from that period and encourages any emerging filmmaker to do is: “apply, apply, apply”.

“I would put in for every funding round I could… in order to make another piece of work,” she says. “I got knocked back a lot, but on occasion I was successful.”

It’s what led to creating short films such as 2016’s AACTA Award-winning short Dream Baby, which in turn led to “the real thing”: working on Doctor Doctor as part of the ADG’s Shadow Directing scheme, and then returning to direct her own block on season 3.

Pulled together from interview outtakes in the Next Step video series, in this episode of the podcast Gaffy explains her takeaways from being a director’s attachment on Nine Network’s House of Bond, her advice for emerging directors, and how she was able to direct episodes of The Unlisted while seven and a half months pregnant.

“I ended up going into labour in the edit suite of that production,” she says.

Also joining the podcast again is Screen Australia Distribution Manager Anthony Grundy to give an update on the current cinema landscape.

For feedback about this episode, please email [email protected]

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast, I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast we'll be joined by director Lucy Gaffy, who featured in our Next Step video series, which you can find on our YouTube channel, and who's worked on TV series such as Doctor Doctor and The Unlisted. Lucy talks to topics such as what her years making short films taught her, what it was like stepping into directing for Australian television and her advice for emerging filmmakers. But before we get to that, we've got Screen Australia's distribution manager Anthony Grundy back with us to talk through what's happening in the constantly evolving cinema landscape. Welcome back Ant.

[00:00:48] Anthony Grundy Thanks for having me back.

[00:00:49] Caris Bizzaca Of course, and now Ant even since you were on the podcast a mere month or two ago, there have been some big shifts and changes. Can you give us a bit of an update?

[00:01:00] Anthony Grundy Sure. I think the big thing that's happening at the moment is the tension between exhibition and distribution, where we're seeing a number of the big tentpole films that were slated for the end of this year have been moved to next year, which it's kind of, if you release them, will they come? It's that idea that what isn't making people come - the content's not strong enough to drive the audiences or if the big titles were released, are they not going to make enough money to to warrant the big P&A spend in releasing the film.

[00:01:30] Caris Bizzaca So big titles like the Bond movie?

[00:01:33] Anthony Grundy Exactly. Bond moved out. It was November, it's gone to next year. There was Death on the Nile, there's Dune. Wonder Woman's still currently dated for Boxing Day in Australia. But, you know, there's speculation that there might be pressure for it to go as well. There's Coming to America, which is the Eddie Murphy sequel to the first film. There's rumours that it's going to go to Amazon. Disney recently moved Soul to its Disney Plus platform in the territories that it has Disney Plus. In territories where there is no Disney Plus, it'll release theatrically. So it's a really difficult time, I guess, as the world starts to grapple with either what the new normal looks like and how territories are going to reopen. You know, it's still a work in progress and the parts seem to be moving constantly. But, yeah, the tension between exhibition and distribution around dating is highly problematic for the business to get back on track.

[00:02:23] Caris Bizzaca And so in Australia as well, even if Australia is doing okay and people may be able to go back to cinemas with those big studio tentpole movies, we're dictated by what's happening in the global market as well.

[00:02:38] Anthony Grundy That's right. I mean, Wonder Woman is a good example. I feel like there's a really strong brand awareness for the film. The first film did really well here. Boxing Day's a perfect date for it. And I'm sure someone is having the conversation about even though Australia would be a great date for Boxing Day, if the global strategy means that it jumps a couple of months into next year, then it's, I would say likely that Australia would go with it because you can't just keep back one territory, even though you know that it's probably the best for that individual territory.

[00:03:05] Caris Bizzaca And so what about the local slate? Because by the time people are listening to this podcast, there will be two Australian titles in cinemas. So Never Too Late and Rams. Can you talk to that a little bit?

[00:03:17] Anthony Grundy Yes. Both of these films are going out in a pretty significantly wide release. So they'll be available in lots of cinemas across the country. And the other thing that's quite interesting to note at this time, it's not all doom and gloom and there are opportunities for the right films that can take advantage of the shortage of American product, which means cinemas are still looking to fill their programming schedules. But there's a number of smaller distributors that have absolutely capitalised on this opportunity, releasing films maybe that they would not normally release, definitely wider than they normally would have released them. And they're probably not spending, you know, a lot of money releasing these films, which means the the upside is much higher. So it is creating a new opportunity for some of these smaller distributors to secure more screens and they would be making good money compared to the pre-COVID environment.

[00:04:10] Caris Bizzaca Where they were battling it out with whatever latest studio movie was kind of taking up a lot of the time slots.

[00:04:15] Anthony Grundy Exactly. So the major challenge is there are still probably as many films being released each week that there used to be. The major challenge is that distributors are definitely spending less on the awareness campaigns, the marketing campaigns for these films and also some of the product that is being released probably wouldn't have had a theatrical release, particularly to the scale that they're getting. So it is a really interesting time.

[00:04:42] Caris Bizzaca And something else that has happened recently is with the company Quibi. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[00:04:50] Anthony Grundy That was recently announced that it is no more, which is a really interesting and expensive exercise from Jeffrey Katzenberg. It's obviously a short form, mobile-first start-up that happened to launch right at the beginning of the pandemic. Some are saying that it's designed to be content consumed on the go and people are going less because they're confined to their homes.

[00:05:10] Caris Bizzaca So not on public transport and commuting and things like that.

[00:05:14] Anthony Grundy Exactly. So, you know, whether or not that's one of the reasons that it hasn't worked. Others would say that perhaps the idea's not strong enough and the content's not strong enough, or the price point's not strong enough. So it's interesting to see that kind of come to a close. But at the same time and in more local news, Mark Wooldridge, the ex-head of 20th Century Fox, has announced that he is launching a new company called Maslow Entertainment, which will move into the local production and distribution space, which I think is a really interesting one to watch and comes off the back of another recent company announcement with Mark Gooder and Lisa Garner, who are both highly respected Australian film executives, announced a similar kind of start up called The Reset Collection and I think it's an interesting time of bringing, of finding ways where very experienced screen executives who have a local perspective are able to understand what local audiences want, where local audiences are and how to connect that content to them. Definitely something to watch.

[00:06:15] Caris Bizzaca And in some other news that has occurred since we last spoke, Warner Brothers, who obviously have huge titles including the DC movies like Wonder Woman and Superman, they've ended their 40-year relationship with Roadshow Films and from 2021 their titles will be handled locally by Universal Pictures. Can you talk through this and what it means for Australian distribution?

[00:06:39] Anthony Grundy It's a really significant moment. I think all of the other major studios - there used to be six, then Disney bought Fox, now there's five - have had a significant local Australian office and they've run their operations but Warner Brothers has always relied on Roadshow to release its films. And yeah, and I think it's part of a global, it's not just happening in Australia, I think it's part of a global realignment for Warner Brothers. But the interesting thing is that it's moving in Australia to Universal and giving incredible market share to Universal, which will be interesting to see how that plays out. But Universal will be really busy with a lot of big, big titles to release.

[00:07:16] Caris Bizzaca Because eOne's titles went to Universal as well.

[00:07:18] Anthony Grundy That's right. About 18 months ago when eOne closed its Australian office, Universal picked up those, that slate of films, it also has DreamWorks. It's a market share partner to rival Disney now that Disney's bought Fox. At the same time, I think for Roadshow Films, sure, they may have lost some of that market share, but they've indicated that they're going to lean into local production and acquisitions as a way of bolstering their slate moving forward, which I think is a great thing for the local sector because they're really highly experienced film and sales executives in Melbourne and I think they'll do a great job if they're increasing the number of Australian films that they release.

[00:07:55] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic. Well thanks for joining us again Ant and thanks for the update.

[00:07:59] Anthony Grundy Thanks very much.

[00:08:01] Caris Bizzaca Now we'll jump to the chat with director Lucy Gaffy, but also remember, for all the latest episodes of the Screen Australia podcast, you can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts and you can also subscribe and leave a rating or review. But now to director Lucy Gaffy as she talks through the leap between short films such as 2013's The Gift and 2015's Dream Baby to working in Australian television.

[00:08:29] Lucy Gaffy So I made a number of short films in my journey, both at film school and outside of film school. Sometimes I shot them, sometimes I produced them but I always wanted to direct whenever I could as well. I would just put in for every funding round that I could, whether it was Metro Screen here in Sydney, Screen NSW, Screen Australia, any funding round I could in order to make another piece of work, I would go for. I got knocked back a lot, but on occasion I was successful. So that's how I made Dream Baby. So that was probably my largest short that I'd made as a director and so it was such a really beautiful opportunity to make something really cinematic, something where I could focus on performance and something where I could really manifest a world on screen as it existed in my mind's eye. So that was a great opportunity. And that film also ended up having a really great life, travelled really broadly and ended up winning the AACTA award for Best Short Film, which was great.

[00:09:46] Caris Bizzaca And so in terms of winning that award, the AACTA award for Best Short Film, what was that experience like and how did it impact your career?

[00:09:56] Lucy Gaffy Just the nomination alone opened doors. I also used the nomination to introduce myself to people that I wanted to introduce myself. So even before I won, I saw this as an opportunity to say 'hello my name's Lucy, I'm a director, I'd love to meet you'. So I used that opportunity to get myself an agent, which has turned out to be really helpful. I used that opportunity of just the nomination to meet with a lot of producers and production companies. Then when I actually won the award, that was a great moment. It's probably one of those moments in my life I'll have forever, because I was with my peers, I was with my heroes and to be acknowledged in that way for a work that meant so much to us was just extraordinary. From the moment after that, winning meant that all those doors that I'd been knocking on opened. And I think that's what I mean about having 10 years of preparation to be ready for the moment when it happens. So I was able to, again, meet some really extraordinary people that enabled other work to happen. I ended up going to Juilliard in New York. I was selected as their first international guest director for a program of working with the actors and generating work. So that was really extraordinary. And that came off the back of Dream Baby. And then the real thing happened, which was, this is how I got into television basically. The wonderful Claudia Karvan saw the short film and she asked to meet me, which never happens. And so we just had a coffee and we were just having a great chat and a great gasbag and I didn't really connect about what she was wanting to do. And through the Shadow directing program with the ADG, Claudia wanted to offer me an episode of Doctor Doctor. And so through Claudia Karvan and Tony McNamara, I have a career in television because those two producers, those two show runners saw my short film and they said, let's give her a chance. And that's what's made all the difference for me. So out of the Shadow program at the ADG, I was able to direct one episode of Doctor Doctor in 2017. And the Shadow program's really amazing. It means in one block of television, which is two episodes, an experienced director directs one episode and you observe and you direct the other. And so it's great for the production because they're able to get a new voice into the show without too many risks. And it's also something that the broadcaster is able to feel comfortable with because they know that the more experienced director is there to take over if you have a problem. I think what's really difficult now about being an emerging director is that the world of television is quite different to how it was five, ten years ago. Everyone is really risk averse. And while there are lots of platforms now, the nature of television has changed. There's no longer the ABC cadetships that used to exist that really helped directors get through. We no longer have television series that have 20 or 30 episodes where a new director can hide somewhere in the middle. Everything's now eight to 10 episodes, perhaps even fewer. So it's quite daunting for a production to risk a new director. And so that's why I really champion Claudia Karvan and Tony McNamara for my career, because they saw my short film and they made a really conscious decision to give me an opportunity. And they fought for me with the broadcaster and I'll be grateful to them for the rest of my life.

[00:14:22] Caris Bizzaca And well talking about the attachments, did you also have a director's attachment opportunity on House of Bond? Could you talk through that opportunity, how that came about and some of the key learnings from that?

[00:14:38] Lucy Gaffy On my journey to working in television, I had a couple of different attachments on various Australian television shows. So an attachment's where you just observe a director, whereas a shadow is where you actually get to do some directing. So I did an attachment on House of Bond for Channel Nine through the ADG program. I just applied because I just apply for everything and ended up being successful and I remember at the time I was shortlisted for both the Alien Resurrection attachment opportunity and the House of Bond, and I ended up meeting with both teams and through some advice from some quite clever people around me, I went with House of Bond because it was Australian based. I was going to be able to work with teams that create work here, work with a broadcaster who create works here. And so I was going to be able to make some connections that would possibly be more immediate. And also there was probably a greater chance that I would end up being able to direct some part of the program, which is what ended up happening for me on that series. So I ended up shooting most of the second unit, which for House of Bond was all of the yacht races for the America's Cup, which is absolutely hilarious because if you see my films, it's basically people looking out of windows. I had never done anything action-like. But I think that's the great thing about being a director. Someone says to you, can you do this? And you go, yes. And then you figure out how. And it was incredible for me. So I had to learn how to shoot incredible action sequences on two separate yachts and rig cameras in a different way and it was extraordinary and I think just tackling anything that comes to you with positivity and hard work means that you'll always be able to survive what is a life of a director.

[00:16:50] Caris Bizzaca And so you were talking about Doctor Doctor before? How did you feel making that step up from short films to television? Was there any nerves about it? What was the feeling?

[00:17:04] Lucy Gaffy Making that leap from short film to television? It was terrifying, actually, but I think the name of the game was to not really show that. I probably don't look like a director, I probably don't sound like a director. I'm like a small, small woman. But coming onto that set on Doctor Doctor, I was greeted with such generosity actually, I was really shocked. And I mean, it's a huge production. It's actually one of the biggest television productions in Australia. And I was shadow directing with the fabulous Ian Watson and Ian did an extraordinary thing. He watched me do my first set up and my first take, and then he walked away. He left. And it symbolised to the crew that he felt that I was comfortable, that I was capable and that they should trust me and they did immediately, so I was really lucky in that first experience that I was greeted so warmly by the crew and by the cast as well. It was a huge production. I had such a big first episode and I think that was really great, too. Once I'd done something so enormous and so hard, I was like, 'this is fine now, I can do this'. So that first year I did one episode and then I ended up coming up, the next year I came back and I ended up doing four, I did two full episodes and I shared directing of another two episodes with a director who had to leave. So it was it was a great experience for me. I think the thing about Australian television, too, is, it's moving so rapidly into a really exciting space. They're looking for cinema. They're looking for great performance but you have to make your day, you know, so you have to be really creative. You have to work really well and respectfully with your actors. But we still work with quite tight time parameters. And in fact, I've really enjoyed that. I think it's made me a much better director. It makes me want to work anywhere in the world. It means I can work anywhere in the world because my vision is on making something cinematic, irrespective of the platform, basically. And I think Doctor Doctor taught me that. And I've taken that to any project I've ever been on ever since.

[00:19:35] Caris Bizzaca And what was it like being on a set of that scale for the first time?

[00:19:42] Lucy Gaffy So the first time I directed a television episode, it was the one of the largest episodes that Doctor Doctor had that season, which I thought was hilarious that they gave it to me. And it was a episode where they were doing a huge beauty pageant. So out of the season, it was one where there was lots and lots of extras. There was a huge action sequence at the beginning of the episode and I think the way I managed it was to just say to myself, you can do this. To overprepare, I tried to be the first in at the production office every morning and the last to leave. My poor DOP, I created shot lists and breakdowns and bird's eye views and everything so I could just come and be really present on the day. But it's quite curious, even though it was the biggest thing I've ever done, the most pressure, you're being observed by producers and executive producers and broadcasters and actors who have been in the program for many years, I felt ok, and I can't really explain why. I think it was just that I knew I was ready, that I had prepared as much as I could. And then at some point you have to stop feeling inadequate. At some point, you have to say, I can do this and I did and I can't really articulate it beyond that, that I was oddly calm the whole time. And those few weeks that I was directing that episode, probably the biggest problems that I've ever had on a shoot happened. But I was oddly calm about it all. And we ended up with a really terrific episode. And that was such a joy. Can I tell you a secret about telly actually? I think something I wish I told a younger me as a director is that directing shorts is actually much harder than directing television. True. Because shorts, you're just responsible for everything, you're quite limited in what you have but your vision for the work is so enormous. Whereas actually in television, once you get there, you have these incredible crews around you and you're able to say, 'I would like one hundred people over here, please', and they turn up and it's amazing. And so I think my years of making short films prepared me for the rigours required of being a television director and hopefully a film director as well. It's not easier in that the days are any shorter or that you have more toys. It's the years of shorts taught me an inner strength, taught me an inner resilience, that has enabled me as a director to tackle anything that comes towards me, to internalise it, to not externalise the stress at my cast or crew, and to problem solve in a calm and positive way that leads to the best work being on screen, because that's what's most important. It's not what I'm going through, it's not the vision that I had that's not happening anymore. None of that is actually relevant. What's relevant is creating the best work on screen that you can, manifesting worlds, manifesting story, manifesting performance that takes people's breath away. That's what we're there to do. And so my years as a short filmmaker gave me all the tools to do that. I'm so grateful for it.

[00:23:57] Caris Bizzaca You've also gone on to direct episodes of The Unlisted. Could you tell me about that experience?

[00:24:04] Lucy Gaffy So after Doctor Doctor, I was developing my own work, but then through my agent, I was given an opportunity to meet Justine Flynn and Polly and Angie from Aquarius, the producers extraordinaire, absolutely love them, and have a sit down about their new show that they had in development for ABC and Netflix, which was called The Unlisted. And we had a really great chat and it was just one of those great meetings that you have and then I went away and I didn't hear from them for ages and ages and ages. But that's what development's like, that's what works. In the meantime, I found out I was pregnant and so by the time production rolled around and I got the job, I ended up being seven and a half months pregnant during that shoot. And Justine and Polly and Angie were so supportive of me, it was really extraordinary. And The Unlisted was quite a difficult shoot. It was all in underground tunnels in Sydney, a lot of night shoots, lots of children, lots of actors who'd never worked before, incredibly physical. And I was waddling around like this enormous lady. And again, we had such a wonderful time, mainly because of my beautiful crew, particularly my 1st AD, Sophy Robertson. She really enabled me to do that work safely and with support and she was really just my little angel during that shoot. So I think the other thing is the producers created an environment where being a pregnant person didn't mean that I was excluded from this very difficult job and it ended up being one of the best shoots I've ever been on. It was a really, really hard shoot absolutely. But I had the best time and I ended up going into labour in the edit suite of that production. So my son and The Unlisted are connected for the rest of time but it was really important to me to continue on that production even though I was so heavily pregnant, because I think whether conscious or not, there's a real reason why there are fewer women in leadership roles, particularly in directing, because you're only really hitting your stride probably in your 30s when you've got this background of shorts or other types of experience that enable you to have that position. And that's the time that you might be wanting to start a family and there's this concept around directing that it's either too physically demanding or that it's too arduous to have while having a family and I wanted to test that in myself. I certainly want to have a directing career after I had children so it just felt like something I wanted to try. So I'm really grateful that I was surrounded by a team who supported me and supported that idea, because ultimately that's what we're talking about when we say we support women in leadership roles. We need to support the complexity of what it is to have women in leadership roles, which is connected commonly to family. So I think finding a way through those type of natural experiences means that we can have a directing community that looks more like our community.

[00:27:45] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, and just a couple of final questions, if you're looking back, what do you feel like has been your greatest challenge in your career so far?

[00:27:59] Lucy Gaffy My greatest challenge... I think a strange answer is actually just myself and my own insecurities at times. I'm a writer-director, and so I tend to get a paralysis around my writing, often. And so I think it would have been great if I had just been able to move through that and get my own projects up quicker, that would have been great. I've been lucky in that I've always had great people around me. I haven't been lonely in this experience. I think that's what having a director's collective has always helped me and been of great benefit to me. I think the other challenges are just the realisation, I suppose, that this long held dream from when I was five was actually something that very few people actually get to do and that I saw around me really great filmmakers not having that opportunity and it was maintaining a positive outlook through that self-doubt. So once I did move through, I was able to feel worthy and be able to feel present and to be able to be the leader that my teams needed me to be. So once I 'd moved through my own personal challenges of what it is to be a leader, I found it much easier at the end of the day.

[00:29:39] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, throughout this chat, we've been talking obviously about going from the shorts to a longer form, and that's notoriously difficult. How would you recommend others go about making that kind of transition?

[00:29:55] Lucy Gaffy If I was talking to a young filmmaker, which I do a lot actually, I would ask them to do a couple of things. I would ask them to be quite truthful in themselves about what work they love and what they want to put out into the world, because the best thing for you to do is to create work that you want to make larger work that looks like that type of work. So if you focus on creating a short form, whether it's a short film or perhaps a web series, it's something that you love. It's something that you're enormously proud of, and that manifests a world that you yourself want to create in terms of a long form way. Well, that's the best place to begin. I think the second thing to do is to make sure you're part of the industry, make sure you're going to as many events or attending as many screenings as you can. You have to demonstrate that you're not a hobbyist, that you really are connected to the process and the professional practise that is being a film director. And I think from there, you just have to apply, apply, apply. You have to try and attach yourself to directors so you can observe their practice, because it's actually really important to see what it looks like in the real world. And then through those connections, work your way up into earning the trust of the decision makers, which are producers and broadcasters and streamers in this country. So as I said, it's quite a long journey. Your first job is to make sure that you are as educated as you can be as a craftsman, because that's the first thing you have to have, is you have to have really great skills. Then you have to work on your voice as an artist. And that's where short films come in. You create unique, bold, powerful, moving work that lead people to say, 'I want to work with that person', and then you have to work on being part of the industry so people can find you and so people know you. And once you've done all of those three things, it's at that point that you're ready to make that next leap into the professional world of directing.

[00:32:34] Caris Bizzaca That was director Lucy Gaffy and a big thanks to her as well as to Screen Australia's Distribution Manager Anthony Grundy for joining us on the podcast. Remember, you can subscribe to Screen Australia's podcast through Stitcher, Spotify and iTunes and if you have any feedback, feel free to email [email protected]. Thanks for listening.