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Podcast – Writer/director Leah Purcell on her feature film debut

The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson writer, director, producer and star Leah Purcell on adapting her acclaimed play for the screen.

Still of Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson.

The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson

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

Leah Purcell was always adamant that to direct her first feature film, she needed to have a script that that she connected with on a deep personal level. It made sense then, that her feature directorial debut would be the story that has been with her for a lifetime: The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson.

Purcell is proud Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland, and The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is a re-imagining of Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story “The Drover’s Wife”, which her mother would read to her as a five year old.

“That story’s been with me for 45 years and I think the reason why it stayed with me was as a child it was the first time I used my imagination,” she says. “I saw myself as that young boy in the story and my mum was the drover’s wife.”

The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson started out first a stage adaptation. Purcell wrote and starred in at the play at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre, which went on to win numerous awards, including the Nick Enright Award for Playwriting, the Victorian Premier’s Award for Drama, the Victorian Prize for Literature, as well as the Golden AWGIE at the Australian Writers’ Guild Awards.

But even before she started performing, Purcell says she and producer Bain Stewart – her life and business partner who she founded Oombarra Productions with – knew there was a film in it.

To wind down from performing each night to sold-out audiences, Purcell would come home and work on the screenplay. It got development funding from Screen Australia and Create NSW and the journey progressed from there: the film, which also received Screen Australia production funding, started principal photography in late 2019 and premiered at SXSW Film Festival in early 2021.

Purcell also published a novel based on the story in late 2021, but she says the play, film and novel are very distinct pieces.

“I really wanted to challenge myself and make sure that when you witnessed the three of those, you’d get a different experience,” she says.

“So the novel was more of a spiritual feeling when you read it. In regards to the theatre, it’s all about the words and the space and then for the film, I had the luxury of filling with the landscape, which to Aboriginal people is almost another protagonist.”

Throughout the podcast, Purcell talks to her approach as a writer to adaptation, the difference between directing television series such as Redfern Now, Secret Daughter and Cleverman compared to feature film, and why she always tried to work with the Snowy Mountains landscape of NSW rather than force her vision upon it.

“Being on location for the majority of your film is a lot of hard work because you’ve got elements to deal with, but I never looked at anything as a challenge. I said to a lot of people ‘it will be a gift. And whatever nature throws at us will be for the betterment of the film’,” she says, talking about how they actually used a huge wind, or a freezing night to their advantage in the storytelling.

“I started the day… going ‘ok I’ve got my shot list. We’ve got to plan for the day, but let’s be flexible with what nature’s going to throw at us and make that work…’

“It worked out so much better for the film because the film could breathe and grow without being strangled because I had this vision in pre-production… you’ve got to start somewhere, but at least allow it then to move.”       

Watch The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson in Australian cinemas from 5 May 2022.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher 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. Before we start, I want to take this moment to acknowledge the countries we meet on, the unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The work of producing this podcast has been on the lands of the Gadigal people who are of the larger Eora Nation, and it's where I've been able to work during my years at Screen Australia and also as a journalist before then. It is a true privilege to be a visitor on this land of the Gadigal people. Always was. Always will be. For this episode of the Screen Australia podcast, we are joined by writer and director Leah Purcell, whose feature film debut The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson, releases in Australian cinemas through Roadshow Films on the 5th of May. Leah is a proud Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland, and throughout the podcast she talks about how structurally the screenplay for The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson, is infused with First Nations storytelling. Leah also talks about the journey of the film, which started out as a stage adaptation of Henry Lawson's 1892 short story The Drover's Wife. Leah wrote and starred in the play at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre and it went on to win numerous awards, including the Nick Enright Award for playwriting, the Victorian Premier's Award for Drama, the Victorian Prize for Literature, as well as the Golden AWGIE at the Australian Writer's Guild Awards. From there, Leah began adapting it for screen and into a novel. She talks to the challenges of adaptation, juggling the various hats she was wearing as writer, director, actor and producer, and the difference between directing television series such as Redfern Now, Secret Daughter and Clever Man compared to feature film. Before we get to the chat, remember you can subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes. Feedback can be sent to [email protected] and subscribe to Screen Australia's industry eNews for the latest news from the local industry. Now here's Leah Purcell, the writer, director, producer and star of The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson.

[00:02:15] Caris Bizzaca What is the Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson about?

[00:02:19] Leah Purcell The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is about a mother's love and how women do what they do to make sure that their family is safe, and life continues, basically, and her trials and tribulations set in 1893, a woman alone on her property and trouble comes to her.

[00:02:46] Caris Bizzaca And an amazing kind of story about this journey to the screen. Can you tell us a bit of a brief idea of how it went from stage to screen? How did that happen?

[00:03:00] Leah Purcell Yeah, that story The Drover's Wife from Henry Lawson's short story - nine pages. I was about five years old when my mum would read that to me and recite it to me. So that story's been with me for forty-five years, and I think the reason why it's it stayed with me is as a child, it was the first time I used my imagination, whether that was me moving into the performing arts world, but I could use my imagination and saw myself as that young boy in the story, my mum was The Drover's Wife. Then in 2006 I was doing Jindabyne up in the Snowy Mountains, and on my days off I went, you know, as you, do drive around and to the national parks, and I just fell in love with the landscape. And we went up to Mount Kosciuszko, and we stood on the, on the top and I yelled out, "I think I'm coming back, and it's going to be to do with a movie. I think I'm going to write it. I think I'm going to be in it and I think it's going to be The Drover's Wife." And I yelled that out, put it out to the universe. 2014 I decided to sit down and write. I didn't know whether I was writing a play or what it was going to be, I just had to get this story out of me. And I found the little book and I put it beside my computer and I said to my partner, Bain Stewart, I said, I'm not going to read it. I'm just going to see what I remember what my mum said and away I went, for seven days I didn't move and I finished it and I said, look, it's probably going to be crap, but have a read. And he said, look, I know there's work to be done, but we're onto something here, this has got a great premise, and I think you should sit there for another seven days and knock it out in a little bit more detail. So it started and then the opportunity with the Balnaves Fellowship at Belvoir St came up for Indigenous writers, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander writers. So I went, okay, let's put it in, I got more than 15 pages, put that through. And my only note was 'What happens next?' So I won that, which then allowed me to really sit down and have the finances so I could sit down and really write and came up with the drafts, had input from the theatre company, and then we opened in September 2016 to thirty-three shows all sold out, standing ovations, it was crazy. Bain, even before I even hit the floorboards with that play, Bain goes 'there's a film in here.' And I said, yeah, know, I said, let me do the play and then we can do that. So for me to wind down at night, I'd come home and start on the screenplay. And the film came through that and we sort of got a thumbs up to go 'let's develop this, the screenplay further' and you know, got commissioned off a first draft which we thought was pretty special, and here we are waiting for this thing to open up and spread her wings and fly.

[00:05:48] Caris Bizzaca Do you feel like, you know, you obviously, like you said, have such a personal connection to this story, for your first feature, was that important to you to have such a personal connection to the story that you were going to make into your first feature?

[00:06:00] Leah Purcell I think it's really important to have a very personal connection to a script, especially when it's your first feature, and especially that I was directing, writing and acting. And because of the work that I had done through the play, I was very strong in who Molly Johnson was. So I think that was a plus. And I it is really important because you give so much like you, you know, I bled for this thing literally and you just-- I don't know how I did it, but I had lots of planning, we had lots of pre-production. I had my crew, Mark Wareham - DOP, twenty years' experience together, Louise Johnson - Script Supervisor, ten years, Richard McGrath, ten years as a first [AD] on stuff. So we were all-- I knew I had a strong team around me and I think that was really important. But I think for you to be able to do what you need to do, let alone worry about a performance and writing of the piece, you really need to connect, I think you really got to connect really deep within, to get that vision right because it's your first one. I don't know, you know, like a lot of people have asked me to direct films before. They said, 'Leah, we'd love you to direct this and this to be your first.' And I'd go, 'No, I need-- it's got to come from me.' And I don't know whether it's because-- I could say that I felt I had more control, and if I was going to bugger up, then it's my fault. And if it's going to be right, then it's mine. But I don't know. I just, I was really adamant that my first one had to be a film that I was comfortable with, that I knew intimately. I think it's more to do with having the bravery to make the choices you have to do. So something you know, you're going to be confident to step forward and go, this is what I believe in and this is what I know to be right. And I've got to back that. And I do. There's not one thing in that film that has not been thought of or questioned or spoken about. And everything is in there because it's meant to be.

[00:08:07] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, well, people say, you know, part of directing is fielding those hundreds of questions all the time. If you know the material so well, there's kind of an assuredness of like, "Yes, that."

[00:08:17] Leah Purcell Yeah, and, you know, talking about the crew, like Tess Schofield in costume worked on the play and I begged her, I didn't have to beg her, but I really prayed to have her to come and work on the film. And then she had time in her schedule because I knew that she was going to be another voice for me. So when we were in creative meetings or it was wardrobe and costumes, she was all over it because she'd done it before and she'd heard me, you know, regurgitate my thoughts up or put down my vision for the piece. So she already knew that. So I made sure that she was there and she had my back and it was brilliant because she just she'd see me, you know, flagging or about the faint from, you know, the third meeting, and she'd step in and away she'd go. Same with, you know, Mark Wareham was very across what I was trying to achieve, what we're trying to achieve with the film. And it makes for an easier workload just a little bit. But it helps, it all helps. Yeah.

[00:09:18] Caris Bizzaca You were talking about development before, but in adapting it for the screen, what do you feel like were some of the most challenging parts about writing that for the screen?

[00:09:28] Leah Purcell Yeah, with an adaptation, so we had the play and I was also working on a novel and the screenplay. I really wanted to challenge myself and make sure that when you witnessed the three of those, you'd get a different experience. So the novel was more of a spiritual feeling when you read it. In regards to the theatre, it's all about the words and the space. And then for the film, I had the luxury of filling it with the landscape, which to Aboriginal people is almost another protagonist, of what the land meant to Molly, even though she didn't know it at the time, it developed a deeper relationship as the film goes through and she learns her truth. And I knew that area from Jindabyne and in the time that I fell in love with it, from Jindabyne to now, I had learnt that my Dreaming stories are in the mountains. So I knew that my pull to that area was something deep. So I got really excited to be able to embellish the script with that and even the novel, people said, 'Gosh, we felt we were there.' And, I said, but I did - everything I wrote about, I touched those trees, I sat on that bank, I walked through that grass. And that's what was, I guess, the poetry, when you can put that into your screenplay. Of course, I had highlighted various lines throughout the play that I said, I think these are good hooks and something to come back to in the screenplay. But only one line survived. And I love that. You know what I mean? You can't be precious, like I could have been so precious and went 'I want this, I want that'. And I went, 'If it's not right, then it's not right.' And there was one line-- no I won't say because I don't want to give any spoilers away, but there's one line that everyone went, 'Oh, are you sure? Like, really?' And I went, Yep, really, it's got to go. So I loved that, that I was open to what the film needed and wanted. The other thing that I want to bring to everyone's attention is the structure in this film, and it's based on sort of like a Dreamtime song line storyline that probably only mob would see it, will get it when they see the film. It's when I bring back the story about the bullock, that is very much a traditional aspect of Aboriginal storytelling, of someone experiencing an event, someone witnessed it and the stories passed on and then that story is retold and that's how Blackfella cycle goes and it keeps everything alive. So as with the bullock, Molly experienced it, Danny witnessed it, he shared it with Yadaka, Yadaka developed it, and then Danny retold it with his children. So I think when I was talking to Pauline Clague, who's an amazing Indigenous producer, well she's a professor now, you know, in regards to Indigenous storytelling with film. When she broke it down, it was just amazing, and I went, 'You've got it! Yes!' you know. And she said that I think I might be the first Indigenous filmmaker to actually utilise that structure of storytelling. So it's something that I'm very proud of and it was something that I wanted to put out there. And we also as Blackfellas, we tell our stories through five-act structure, and then the land is a big protagonist. So, you know, I hope that people look for that, and I hope that when the mob go and see it, that they feel really proud, that it's theirs. It's our storytelling in its truthfulness as well. So it's not just the surface element of great performance, good music, nice composition in a shot. This is deep, ancient storytelling on just one level. And then you've got the elements of what the land provide, from that very first opening shot of that mist rising, that's all part of Dreaming stories. That's what happens up there. When the mist rises, they come down from that mountain. That is true. That's culture. And that's what I'm excited about, that other level to highlight and showcase that to the world in Indigenous storytelling.

[00:13:24] Caris Bizzaca And with the location being kind of like another character, which you definitely feel, you know, those beautiful time-lapse shots and things like that. What were some of the challenges then though of filming a really location-based piece and with quite a number of exteriors?

[00:13:43] Leah Purcell Yeah, look, being on location for majority of your film is a lot of hard work because you've got elements to deal with. But I never looked at anything as a challenge. I said to a lot of people, it'll be a gift, and whatever nature throws at us will be for the betterment of the film. It's hard work. Of course. We had to look like it was 1893 and not have all the car tires around the place, so a lot of, you know, crew were working extra hard to lug gear up hills. And the heat - at the very beginning of the shoot we were all in-- one day it was ridiculous, maybe nearly 30 degrees, and I was in seven layers of winter clothes with an oil skin over me, you know what I mean? With a fire in a very small room. But that's the industry and that's the challenges. Yeah, I don't look at life or what my art throws at me as a challenge. It's just what is given. So work with it. I think if you look at things as challenges or threats, it's going to stuff everything up, you're going to just tread water, nothing's going to get done, you know. We had--it was a very big wind that came out of nowhere and no one could hear anything, Mark Wareham couldn't fly anything. And they just said, 'What do we do Leah?' And I said, 'This is amazing!' Like look at my hair and my dress in this, like, it looks like we've got all these big wind machines. And then it brought the tree alive and it was like, Bain said, 'this is like nature is protesting against what's happening to Molly Johnson', you know, and like we didn't write that big wind, but it was there and we used it. So I think, you know, I just started the day stepping out on the right foot and going, okay, I've got my shot list, we've got a plan for the day, but let's be flexible in what nature's going to throw at us and make that work. There was another night, it was nearly zero degrees and everyone was a wee bit cold, and I sort of said, I think we might take this into this little hut here and light a fire and do the scene in there and everyone went, 'Oh, thanks.' Half the crew to go home, you know. But it worked out so much better for the film because the film could breathe and grow without being strangled. Because I had this vision in pre-production, you know what I mean? Yeah, I had that. You've got to start somewhere, but at least allow it then to move. You know, it shouldn't be a stagnant, still thing. It's got to be a river and you've got to keep moving. And then you go to the edit. My God, what glory is that? And it becomes something else.

[00:16:14] Caris Bizzaca Well, speaking of the edit, can you talk about working with Dany Cooper?

[00:16:18] Leah Purcell Yeah, me and Dany Cooper have a long relationship. Once again, she cut my first short film, and I was so glad that she was available to be a part of the process. And what I love about Dany is we challenge each other. You know, we were eight days out of completion, you know, completing the edit, and I go 'that second act's wrong' and she goes, 'what are you doing to me?' I said, 'unpick girlfriend.' So I love that and she went, 'Oh, my God, do you know what you--' I said 'Yes, I dreamt it. It's going to be fine.' And I love that, and she said, right, because, you know, she's a master. And away she went and thank God it worked. But, you know, she was up for that challenge. I'm always challenging her. She's always challenging me. And she's amazing at what she does. And it's also allowing her to have the reins, you know, I allowed Mark [Wareham] to have the reins, pun intended - horses, you know - I allowed her and then I'd sit back and I'd watch and I'd take it in. Oh, you know, it's important to be a collaborator, and I pride myself on doing that and hearing their opinions. But I'm also one that will go, thank you for that offering, but I think we need to come back here. So I'd work with Dany in a heartbeat and hopefully we can do some more down the track.

[00:17:32] Caris Bizzaca And talking about that kind of like, juggling acting and directing, you know, as well as all the other roles that you are, but on the set acting and directing - how did you juggle those two roles? Was it difficult?

[00:17:46] Leah Purcell Yeah, I wore many hats on this project, but of course, directing and acting were the, I think the toughest two really. Once again it comes back to pre-production being sorted, a great crew that worked out how we were going to do things. So I'd act and then on cut that I would call, I'd have a monitor and we'd assess and go back and look at--acting/directing is not for everyone. I have had thirty years in the industry. You know, if you got that confidence fresh out of film school, then knock yourself out, go for it. But you're only as good as your last gig and you got to get that last gig right. And because I was on the job, training, I felt that I was ready, that I had the skill and the experience to be able to do the two jobs. Also, I think that having done the play also helped because Molly Johnson, the character, was instilled within me because of that. But, you know, I knew I had chosen to wear both boots-- or the two hats, and I had to make it work because I had a hundred people standing around looking at me every day going, 'What are we doing?' And I also, I love a challenge in the sense, when we realised we had a film, really, was when Sam Reid and Jessica De Gouw did their scenes and we started with them first so that I could just focus on the direction. And they were saying my lines and I went, 'Oh my God, what's this?' Like I literally was watching the monitor and I go look at this and, you know, even Bain popped his head out of his little tent and went 'they're saying your words, kid.' And I went 'I know!' I said 'they sound good. I said, pressure on me and Rob Collins to get the next section right.' But I love that, you know, they brought this A-game and did - I rung Rob that night and went, 'Dude, I just saw these two actors on our set and they smashed it, so we got to bring our A-game.' And I think we did, you know, and then they would see us. So I think that's really-- that's awesome when actors can do that with a lot of respect, there's no ego because it just builds, builds on the drama, builds on the creativity of the characters.

[00:20:01] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, I'm just reminded of you working with Rob in Cleverman, and how was that, moving from television directing into feature film directing? Was there much of a difference for you?

[00:20:17] Leah Purcell Television directing and film directing - there is a difference and its time and money because there's more of it, and well, not that we had a lot, but there's more of it, and you can afford time to allow an actor to find whatever they need to find for that moment a little more. In TV, God bless them, nine times out of ten, you just screaming at 'em, because you got to get on, get over it. 'Just do this for me. Do that. Brilliant. Moving on,' you know? And Robbie, it was so beautiful to see him blossom as a performer like Cleverman was his first TV gig, and, you know, I took him under my wing and trying to teach him the things I knew and giving him, hopefully the confidence to-- because he said, 'when do you go, Leah?' And I said, 'Right now, brother, don't hold nothing back. Go for it, offer, do whatever you need to do.' And then he went away and done other things. And then to see him step on set with such a role that was so demanding, not only just as a character, but the responsibility that Rob and I both had as Indigenous actors in such a very, in such important roles where we're representing our mob on the many issue-based storylines that are within the film. And he had a responsibility because that was my great grandfather. His character was, with the twist of fiction in there. But based on my great grandfather and he knew that and it was beautiful, the research that he had done. And at the same time, with that character, I wanted to show that there are great Aboriginal men out there in our families that, you know, because at the time of writing that there was this thing going with the Northern Territory intervention. There was something else going around on one of the social media is, you know, black fathers not in a good light. So I wanted to show I've got a lot of uncles and nephews that are great fathers, great grandfathers. And so he knew he had that responsibility and he just rose. And it was beautiful to see, you know, and I was tough on him, was tough on him in everything that we had done, you know, from Cleverman, because you've got to earn that right to have that tough skin. And then you're blessed with great roles and longevity in a career. And that's what I hope for him, you know. And he's going to be fine. He's Rob Collins.

[00:22:41] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of like, you know, if you think about each project that you might like, learn something new about directing on each one, what do you feel like The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson taught you about directing?

[00:22:54] Leah Purcell I think my biggest lesson as a director on this, on the film, was to be a good leader and to give your crew and cast a chance to have a voice. I think that was the biggest thing. And the other thing was, it's okay to say sometimes 'I don't know' because there was a couple of days where I went 'I'm not sure about this, anyone got an idea?' And I think it's about not being so wound up with you worrying about whether you've got all the answers. And I think that was the biggest lesson to sit back and go, it's okay to not know. And I think it was really important that everyone felt valued because when they feel valued, they're going to work. And I knew we had night shoot coming up, it was going to be zero degrees and we had to do our job. And knowing that I appreciated their efforts and allowed them to communicate on something and have a say, you know, whether I done it. But, you know, what do you think about this? What would you do here? And they just felt that they were part of a team and they weren't there just doing this little bit over here. Everything they did mattered to the whole process. And what was beautiful was one of them said to me, we've never work with such a hard working director, and when you've got a director in a baby suit throwing themselves on the ground after twelve takes, they go, 'Yeah, she's not bullshitting here, we're in this for a good time and something special is going to come out of it.' And that's when I knew that we were on to something, is when the crew spoke about the film so highly, because there's plenty of those guys that have done film after film after film. You know, we had a top crew. So for them to sort of say that to me, made me even work harder. And I think when your crew likes your film, it's going to be okay.

[00:25:01] Caris Bizzaca That was Leah Purcell, the writer, director, producer and star of The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson. And remember, you can see it on the big screen when it releases in Australian cinemas on the 5th of May. Also remember, you can subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. Thanks for listening.