My first awareness of your work was in the Bicentenary Art Exhibition in Melbourne, 'Australian Spirituality in Religious Art', curated by Rosemary Crumlin. There was a very large, mainly blue painting of your which has stayed in my mind. She chose your work to represent aspects of Australian Spirituality.
Davida Allen: That was 'The Death of My Father'. She also chose one called 'The Priest'. But 'The Death of My Father' is large, very cinematic in scale. Rosemary is now a friend of mine. I don't know why she chose me but I do know that she was the first person in the art world who wrote the synopsis for the catalogue, found my address through my gallery, sent it to me and asked would I please edit this synopsis. And this respect that she had given me, no one in the art world, journalists, or directors of exhibitions, no one had given that trust back to the maker of the art.
Did she say why she wanted you in that exhibition?
No, I'm used to being in exhibitions where the image is direct and tells a story. It's one of the reasons that I've been successful in the art world simply because people generally love stories and my images are fairly clear. They've been said to be childlike, naive, rough, direct but, basically, people can see what they're about. There's a lot of art around where the meaning is ambiguous.
The Death of My Father'?
Everyone, even if they've never looked at a painting before, has had an emotional reaction to that picture, reactions of pain and horror. You have an image of a baby. It might not be a Raffaele baby but everybody identifies it as a baby. And there are crows in the sky picking at this baby, so the images tell a story. For Rosemary the man has a halo, so there's an icon image.
This is interesting because in my movie, Feeling Sexy, the icon imagery that I use to place specific things (and I say that to you and wouldn't bother saying it to anyone else because we're talking on a platform of Catholicism) is when she holds up the pill. That was a specific time that I remember well when the pill was allowed medically but the Pope was condemning it. I was a young Catholic girl in a boarding school. And, when we went out into the world, our parents were utterly frightened that the morality that they had taught us had just been literally sunk because we now had a freedom of choice. Fear of pregnancy was one thing that our parents, our Catholic parents, had in their favour. So, for me, it's a little snippet of an icon that I've used in the film that grounds it in the time of the 60s and 70s. It shows that thirty years later we can still, as with 'The Death of My Father', read the story. You can still see the story no matter what age group is reading the story. It's still the same story.
So, in the movie, when Vicki says to Greg, 'It's okay, don't be worried. You may have a lot of moral problems. You may have a set of moral responsibilities that will happen because we will have sex, but that's okay', it's an icon for her saying that, as a woman, 'I'm free'.
The painting of The Priest?
It was a painting where you have three distinct figures in a dirty reddy, blacky background. There's a woman image. There's a man image with quite African icon genitalia, very strong and very abstract but, obviously, very male. And then there's a non-sexual, non-icon identification figure with a halo. And it's called 'The Priest Picture'. It was a specifically autobiographical picture and I used the idea in a novel that I wrote called 'The Autobiography of Vicki Myers'. In it a woman falls in love with a priest and there are great difficulties. The priest is anxious. While it's a sexual thing, she's actually fallen in love with the priest's power and his imagination that he believes in God. So she's questioning, in fact, whether he has an imagination.
I've been on this imagination thing since I was born. I'm playing the same fiddle but playing different tunes. It's the same instrument for us imagining as women and for you imagining as audience. It's always been for me, 'let's tell a story of things I believe in'. When you tell a story to children, they can't hear it unless they're using their imaginations. We tell the Hansel and Gretel stories, the Cinderella stories, all the Hans Christian Andersen stories and we take it for granted that they're listening. But how they're listening is all up there in the imagination, the wonder of it.
In Feeling Sexy, there's a discussion between Greg and Vicki with the figure of a brain and they ask where imagination is located and they can't definitely locate it.
That's another icon thing. It can't be located. A lot of people won't ever locate their imagination. In my story, there's a celebration of Greg, the husband, who may never be able to imagine. It's a celebration of Greg's respect for Vicki's imagination. That's his great love story.
We can see this in the scene where Greg is sitting in the room Vicki has painted for him and for herself eating his cereal and she looks in through the door and sees his delight.
It's a compliment to him. He wins in this story. He wins. People can be frightened by behaviour like Vicki's. What's going on in this girl's mind? The question is how she can keep loving him in the way she first loved him when she met him at the dance. It's a very rich story. It's not my story. It's been told for hundreds of years. It's a love story. Which partner sees the wealth in being together and how can they find the way to staying together?
A word about Vicki and her imagination and her painting. She dramatises creativity in painting but she is showing us in her painting in the film something that has been, in fact lived by you.
And by every artist in the universe...
But the way she stirred the colours, applied the paint... Don't we have something of you?
There are a few little directorial things which I was probably doing as director using the knowledge of the only way I know how to paint. If I had used a small sable paint brush, it would have been a different story.
Another powerful scene is that where Greg weeps in the toilet after Vicki tells him about her affair. It frees and enables him to go a step further. But Greg has wanted to punish her and brings home a dog?
It was a metaphor for punishment. I wanted it to be a dog that we were allowed to have. As an icon for his punishment of Vicki, it was a practical thing. We had to have a dog that Greg could physically carry, a dog that looked as if it had a capability of being dangerous but wasn't evil. That would have happened if Greg had arrived with something quite savage. I hate dogs but it was a dog that in Australia many people have, a loyal dog, a choice of how to balance it, not to hate Greg too much. And it's a piece of the icon, an Australian thing that people know a blue heeler is a guard dog and it can be dangerous.
You've mentioned that you did not like the editing device with the black space between scenes.
While it gives the audience time to reflect on what they have seen and stay with their emotions, it also gives us time to distance ourselves from what we have seen, to be self-focussed.
I want to seduce you into liking the way I've edited the film. The editing is the way I paint and in the editing I wanted to put a whole lot of paintings together. One of the reasons I moved into film-making is that you do all these paintings, you put them on a wall in an exhibition and people come to see them - and that's been my profession for the last twenty five years. They move from one painting to another and there's a space in between each painting on the wall. A lot of people come, my audience. My utter and total love affair is with the audience. Any artist with any honesty in them would have to admit it. When people come, I'm a bit anxious to know whether they are aware that in this gallery there are twenty five paintings which are all telling a story about the one thing. At the moment I'm doing a series of sea-scapes of a seaside place that I love.
Usually on the third or fourth time that people see the pictures they pick up on the meanings. You can do that at art galleries. People see the exhibition and then tell their friends and bring them so they've seen the pictures several times. You don't usually get a second go at a cinema.
So, the style for Feeling Sexy was completely premeditated. What is the style to use? People kept asking me what's your look? What's your style? But what are they talking about? I'm actually thinking what's the bloody best way of making them feel that each scene is a painting. You might think there's too much black space between scenes in the film but I don't think there's enough. But the black space is also saying that you should move on and look at the next picture because I've said all I want to say. That's it.
The pressbook for the film says something like that, that the running time is the precise time that you wanted to tell your story.
It's only fifty minutes. And yet, because it does affect every sense in your body, it means that you don't feel that you've been given only a short course.
It's also the timespan.
Yes, you feel satiated but you don't feel you've been robbed.
As regards the theme of the film itself: it seems important that it is a woman's story and woman's experience, especially with empathy for an Australian women's audience and for Australian males to respond with empathy.
Hopefully it's not just Australian. They speak Australian because they're Australian actors. If it's only peculiar to Australian then I've failed.
Growing up we used to have plum pudding at Christmas with real money wrapped up in alfoil because you weren't allowed to put the real money straight into the pudding. I used to glutton myself to get the money. I wasn't hungry anymore but I wanted the money. I'd eat another piece of plum pudding to get the money. The money in my particular plum pudding, the movie, is that Greg wins. He is on a winner because Vicki stays with him and their sexual experiences are going to be an incredibly deep rollercoaster. So, when it comes to the question of whether it is a woman's film or a man's film, the men who think it's a woman's film obviously need to go and take a few more pieces of the plum pudding to realise that there's a good fifty cent piece in there for them.
Are you going to make longer films?
No, that's the interesting thing. It's got nothing to do with the length, for me absolutely nothing to do with the length. I may be out of kilter here for the rest of my life, but I refuse to hear people say that your next film has to be ninety minutes because that's the standard we are now packaging. It's like Mc Donald's chips. It's the weight. It has to be.03 kilos of chips because all the packets have been made. But I come along with the most unbelievably spicy chip and there are only three of them and they totally satisfy. They taste better than the packet of ninety minute chips. So, if I've got another story to tell - and I've got a few up my sleeve but I've no idea what the next one's going to be - I'm just going to tell the story I want to tell and I refuse to put a few more trees into a landscape because the art world at large says it's not balanced unless there's three trees there. All I'm trying to do is tell a story about a landscape that had a tree in it. I will not be bottled.
You remarked that you think the Pope ought to see your film.
I think the pope needs to see it because we have great problems with relationships in the world at the moment. I have a tendency to talk about how hot pink patent leather shoes shouldn't be allowed on deck and I've no sooner said it than around me is an entire queue in hot pink!
There is a great sadness for me that people, as soon as it doesn't work out in a relationship, they walk away. It seems an easy way out. Hollywood has said, 'Once you don't feel the butterflies, go somewhere else until you feel them'. There's an evolutionary argument that we always need to feel the butterflies with a heterosexual partner in order to procreate and spread the genes, so the more partners you have... - an evolutionary theory. But there's another theory that I'm aware of - and the Catholics had a monopoly on this theory and the Pope would like to think he still has - where two people are meant to get married, have children, not falter and stay together for the rest of their lives. The cold hard reality of that is that it's hard work. Personally, I don't want and I know a lot of my women friends don't want to wake up every morning and think, 'O my God, this is really going to be hard work. I've got to enjoy this man whose got BO or whose shoes make a mark on the carpet or who has no social grace or who beats me'. So, how can you say you can work on a relationship your own way?
You know, Feeling Sexy is a lovely plum pudding story. It's not out there with a big sign saying that this is the answer. But like all stories you can just get a little taste of 'we could do that'. There's hope and, as a Catholic, I feel that there is hope and I want to tell stories that say there is hope. It's a love story unlike the Hollywood stories which say move on; it's not working here so move on. Feeling Sexy is not a kind of Bible story that says, 'Drat it, this is going to be hard work'. It's just a different angle at looking at a universal situation. It's a celebration of monogamy.
It's very similar to a seed which, unless it's watered, dies. You can want to be a ballerina but unless someone comes in and tells you that they know where the ballet shoes are and that you need ballet shoes, it's not going to happen. It's like that with my moving into movies. Unless I'd met Glenys Rowe, the producer, I would probably still be painting pictures and saying, 'I'd love to make a movie'. Glenys kept on saying to me, 'What is it you want to say?'. For eight years she relentlessly kept on asking this same core question. Having made the movie, I know that if you know what you want to sy, everything somehow falls into place.
It's the people you know who say I believe in you. And that's the importance of family and the family structure. You have people who wake up every day and say 'we believe in you'. That's why you need people to stay together, men and women in relationship and women and women in relationship and men and men in relationship who can say 'I believe in you'. And that's what Greg says to Vicki, 'I believe in you'.
And the Queensland look of shorts and long socks?
In Brisbane it's a uniform!
Interview: 9th September 1999