What drew you to make Mary, to write and direct it?
It's an interesting question because my background is Greek Orthodox. I found looking at Mary Mac Killop and looking at her as a Catholic nun was a little bit alienating. This is not my background. I felt quite distant from her. I had tried to dramatise something of the Greek Orthodox background (and its supersitions as well as religion) in Loulla (one of the Six Pack collection shown on SBS).
I think what happened was that I started reading about her as an individual and got very attracted to her determination. Her drive and the way that she was able to deal with the obstacles in her life - and there were a lot of obstacles - was quite unique. I thought what was interesting about her, apart from her being a very principled and uncompromising person (which is always attractive when you agree with the principles) and what was different about Mary was the way she did everything because of her spiritual beliefs, because of that incredible calm that she had within her.
She had an ability to really see the big picture beyond the immediate conflict or problem that she might be involved in. Her image of God and of her own spirituality was really large; it was larger even than her own Catholic church. I think that's what makes her accessible to somebody like me.
Are there similarities between your Greek Orthodox background and her Catholic background? and contrasts?
Greek Orthodoxy introduced me to the idea and the power of saints. There's a strong sense of saints in our culture and my parents are very much part of that. My family comes from the island of Cyprus. The patron saint there is St Andrew and I grew up with Mum telling me stories about St Andrew's healing power, so that was familiar to me. Apart from that, when I got very sick as a child, we went back to Cyprus and prayed at St Andrew's monastery. There were all sorts of rituals that were familiar to me.
The thing about Orthodoxy is that the church service is in ancient Greek. It's not accessible or even comprehensible to me. What I see about the Catholic church these days is that liturgy is much more accessible - everyone can at least understand what they're all saying. But for me the Catholic church, particularly in Australia, has always been not so much Anglo-Saxon?, but much more Irish - and very much part of the Establishment compared to our position as Greeks, viewing ourselves still as New Australians, (although I was born here). That was a considerable difference.
But you see, - and I say this to people of the church - I'm not actually a practising Christian. I'm a very spiritual person but I'm eclectic in my spiritual beliefs, and I guess what I found in Mary was that she would accept people. It did not matter what their beliefs were. Because she was generous like that and could accept people for what they were, I was very attracted to her.
The style of the film itself? Did you have the genre and the conventions of films about saints in mind or did you try for your own distinctive style?
I saw quite a few very different religious films. They are a sort of a genre, although they're all quite different. I really used them as negative examples, because I often found that spiritual people, whether they be Jesus Christ or a saint, were often depicted as a kind of ethereal being with glazed eyes, looking up to the heavens and not really connecting with earth. I knew from my research that Mary Mac Killop was not like that. She was very earthbound, very much in the here and now of the circumstances of her reality. But at the same time she was incredibly spiritual. So it was a challenge and a struggle to find that balance.
Are there any particular films that you watched?
One of the strongest influences, I guess, was The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. It actually made a big impression on me. But that was a long time ago. In recent times I saw The Last Temptation of Christ. I saw a French film called Therese which was the life of St Therese of Lisieux. I even watched Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew. I tried to see a wide range not just the commercial films. These were some of the offbeat ones.
With Therese, some Catholics, especially nuns, found it very difficult to watch. They could admire the style of the film with its austere sequences, photographed in a very stylised way on the sound stages, but the spirituality tended to move towards the ethereal and the over-ascetical, something similar to they way you focus on Fr Tennyson Woods and the sisters with `mystical' experiences. Mary was so different in this regard.
Absolutely. And Tennyson Woods was influenced by another mystic saint, Teresa of Avila. I wanted people to have a spiritual experience during the film. I didn't want them to stay at arm's length from someone who was having a spiritual experience, for them to be seen to be having spiritual experiences by themselves without the audience travelling with them. So that was really challenging: how do you represent on screen something so elusive both visually and aurally? I spent a lot of time thinking particularly about, say, the moment when Mary was excommunicated. She said she felt nearer to God than she had ever felt before. I wanted to find ways in which that would work.
Again with the music, we worked really hard with the composer to write music that was very uplifting and ethereal but, at the same time, for it to offer a freeing, liberating experience rather than dominating. The history of church music shows that some of it can be quite dominating; it pushes its ideology upon listeners, whereas I think truly spiritual music is uplifting and open.
What audience did you have in mind when you were making the film? Who you were expecting to go and see it?
That's a good question because Rosemary Blight, the producer, and I always wanted to go for as general an audience as possible, because we felt that Mary's story was for Australians generally. We always wanted to remain accessible. There were times when, because the story was so vast, we tried to tell things quickly or in a slightly more experimental way. But we decided no, we want this to be accessible to, first of all, the Catholic audience for them to get what they want out of it. We knew that they would want to see the story. But we wanted to make the film something that, no matter what their belief system, audiences would be attracted to come along and satisfy their curiosity.
What we have found is that it actually got that sort of response from cinemas across the country - many of the suburban cinemas too. We think this is amazing. We have reached people who would not normally have much in common with this kind of film-making. And we have reached beyond our peers and our own network of people that we normally communicate with. That is what we were trying do as film-makers, to communicate to a wide range of people.
Your decision to include the sequences with the interviewees and intercut them with dramatic re-enactments? What did you want to achieve through this structure?
That was a tricky decision. The thing about doco and drama working together is that with the drama we were able to embody Mary McKillop?. If we had just made a documentary, we would have been stuck, basically, with a dozen photographs of a dead person. With drama we can bring Mary to life, flesh and bone: she talks, she walks, you identify with her. I think you become closer to her as a human being, not just as a remote saint.
If we had just gone with the drama, then we would have lost what we gain with the documentary material. We have these people in the present speaking about Mary's life and bringing it into the relevance of our lives now. We are now able to bring Mary's story from the 19th century into the 20th century, a relevant saint. So we were able, I think, with drama and documentary to bring the past and present together.
Stylistically I didn't want the change from documentary to drama to be tricksy or reliant on technical effects. I wanted the mood to remain in the period of Mary's life so the documentary scenes were designed and lit to match the drama. The interviewees were filmed in the same locations, so that the weave between the past and the present would appear seamless.
Claire Dunne's contribution?
Claire Dunne was carefully chosen because we needed somebody outside the the Sisters of St Joseph to be able to give us a different perspective on Mary's life. I think she's terrific because, apart from her incredible intelligence - she's so well read, she knows so much about Mary - she has a comprehensive overview of Mary's life. Her own beliefs are so broad that she can help guide people to place Mary somewhere that's both inside the church and outside the church.
And the nuns themselves, the interviewees Marie Therese Foale and Margaret Mc Kenna?
They're fantastic because they live and breathe Mary every day of their lives, and they can bring something that no-one else experiences about Mary. She's their constant reference and their understanding and passion for her in their life was something that we had to get in the film. Someone like Sister Marie Foale, who is her biographer from within the order, is unique because she has the sort of gossip and little bits of information that nobody else has, and she has a way of telling them. She feels very naughty that she's telling you something nobody else knows, and we were fascinated by her. We often went to the nuns for advice and guidance on Mary's life, but there was never any sense that they were overseeing our project.
Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel?
Well, we had to get a saintmaker in there somewhere. He was great. We didn't meet Father Gumpel before we went to Rome. We were negotiating about whom we were actually going to interview and, when we finally met him, we were delighted really, because he's a highly intelligent man - he's almost like a scientist in his approach to saintmaking. He's so meticulous. At the same time he's a very spiritual man. I learnt a great deal. He does his job so seriously - and he has been there for 35 years. He's been a Relator or a Devil's Advocate. The saintmaking was fascinating but very strange, and he made it real. He made it understandable, comprehensible.
There has been some comment that Mary is very much a women's film in its subject and in its production, producer, writer-director, cast. Another comment is that the film has a 20th century perspective, even a feminist perspective, on Mary Mc Killop. Neil Jillett in The Age noted that there seemed to be a sub-conscious sub-text on women's ordination.
It's interesting people want to make those equations. We just wanted to tell the story of Mary Mc Killop and so, therefore, it is a woman's story. But I actually get quite annoyed about these comments. If the protagonist is male, it's just a film. If the protagonist is a female, suddenly it's a women's film. So I would like it not to be. That's a point that I really want to make because women are so rarely protagonists that we're treated as some kind of oddity. And I think it's dangerous saying that Mary was a feminist or even talking about women's ordination - I think Mary certainly carved a place for women in the church in Australia, but I think it's silly to say a hundred years after she lived, `Was she a feminist?' It's not a term or an idea that was familiar to her in those days. It's putting words in people's mouths. It's hypothetical to put words into people's mouths. Historically she was an incredible woman from our pioneering days who has left a huge legacy behind her.
Apart from the spiritual focus that the nun's habit gave Mary, she also spoke about about it freeing her from the normal responsibilities of the family. Mary didn't allow anyone's notion of her as a woman to stop her achieving her ends. She believed that we are all equal and she went to any lengths across this country and Europe to bring education to the poor. After all, we are talking of a period when `good' women did not catch the night train, let alone travel through Europe for two years.
Folklorically, we don't have many women in our history as significant Australians. I think it's important to retrieve Mary from the past, bring her into the present and see her work in the context of what she did at the time, but also see what we can learn from her as a human being for our lives now. So I'm uncomfortable talking about her as a feminist.
Would you be happy to see her as an Australian icon?
You bet, absolutely. We don't have enough of them and I'm really happy that I'm involved in the sort of archaeology of bringing her out of the past.
What were some of the criteria for choosing the episodes from her life that you dramatise?
That was really hard and I still look at the film and I think, `My God, we didn't do anything of her work in Bathurst and about the Black Josephites'. And I do occasionally worry about the things that I've omitted as the writer of the film. It was difficult to make those decisions because her story is just vast. I think in the end what I was trying to do - because there was one point when I wanted to say everything, and that was impossible - was to tell it simply, in a way that a scene between Mary and someone else significant would actually speak volumes about the rest of her life. At the times when I was daunted by the scale of the film, I would take out the photographs of Mary and stare at them. There's an intensity in her eyes that had me completely mesmerised. I could see peace and love, as well as strength and determination. They're the eyes of a `wise' person. So I was trying to find the quintessential Mary.
Of course, the excommunication scene is up there on the screen, certainly the alcoholism accusation is up there, but what was tricky was that there were so many conflicts in Mary's life that her life would look like a series of battlefields, which it wasn't. There were a lot of comparatively quiet years where she just did the hard slog of realising the dream of providing education and welfare for the poor. That is very tedious work. I could have included more of the arguments and problems that she had, but then I would have had to sacrifice some of the quieter moments with, say, the other nuns or with the children. A fine balance was needed.
Your budget and what you could actually film on location? Your sets looked small and sometimes confined?
Absolutely. The street scenes were two, and were small scenes. With a period film, in order to create the real period, it's very expensive - particularly the way that Sydneysiders have knocked down most of our heritage. We're stuck with a very small number of choices, really, and that did influence the writing. I could write only what we could shoot. As a director, too, I would get these ideas and my imagination would take off; and then I would think, `No, if we haven't got the money and I'm going to have to compromise so much in doing a big scene that I'm not going to be happy with it, I may as well keep it simple and be proud of what I do'.
The interviewees kept driving on your narrative momentum.
Yes. The documentary people were able to fill in sometimes in two or three sentences what visually would require a lot of time and money. I tried to treat them as storytellers without their becoming too cerebral.
And Lucy Bell's performance?
Terrific. She was just perfect. We looked at a lot of actresses. They came and gave us very interesting auditions, but no-one was right. No-one was right until Lucy walked in the door. It was amazing. You know, we often felt the presence of Mary Mc Killop when we were making this film and we just got to the point where we were pulling our hair out. There was no-one who was going to be right. And then she walked in the door. I say that because, within moments in the audition, Lucy intuitively understood all the qualities that we were looking for, that Mary needed to be very assertive in her way, but she was still a woman of the 19th century, that she wasn't aggressive or pushing of her ideas in any way. Her assertiveness came from her incredible inner peace. That's a very hard thing, a very elusive thing for us in the 20th century.
When Lucy Bell spoke as Mary, the accent brought Mary Mc Killop to life. People see her picture but probably never consider how she sounded, but the broad Australian accent seemed very real.
Mary was brought up around Scottish parents. Some people said she had a slight Scottish accent and others say she just spoke with a broad Australian accent. Mary Mc Killop was very Australian. She was Australian before other people were calling themselves Australian - when others were saying, `I've got Irish background, Scottish background', she was saying, `I am Australian'.
We wanted to include little moments where you saw how she was involved in the rest of the world and not just her own sort of concerns. The urging of the sisters to vote in the context of federation was very indicative of Mary. We used a direct quote from one of her letters to the sisters, `remember, every so-called Catholic is not always the best man for the job', which I thought was terrific because she did have a good sense of humour every now and then. I worked a great deal from Mary's words and her letters. The words put into the mouth of the Pope during her visit to Rome were from her letters, that he wanted to place his hand on the excommunicated one. During the writing process, I was often caught in the here-and-now of Mary's political struggle with the bishops and trying to expand the canvas to include Mary's notion of Eternal Love. It was an arduous journey, but I'm a much better person for it!
Ultimately it came down to a personal connection, did I want to spend several years in Mary's company? Yes. She gives me great inspiration: her fighting spirit, her `never say die' attitude to life.
Interview: 24th November 1994