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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.

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