Earlier this year, Collage had the chance to chat with director Madeleine Parry. Starting with Murder Mouth, a short documentary which explored the ethical dilemma of eating meat from a very personal perspective, Parry then directed a series of documentaries for the ABC called Tough Jobs, the comedy-documentary hybrid series, also for the ABC, Corey White’s Roadmap to Paradise, and viral Netflix comedy special, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. All reflect an interest in capturing the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances and vice versa. We chatted with Madeleine about starting out as a documentary-maker and moving into comedy and scripted, her creative process, and range of experiences working in the industry.
In the lead up to Murder Mouth had you been wanting to do documentaries for a while?
I didn’t come out of my childhood watching films, we didn’t even have a TV till I was 7. I enrolled in law and science and imagined at the end of that double degree I would be a communicator between scientists, policy makers and the public. [The degrees] would have been a really a long away around to becoming a communicator.
When I finished high school, I took a gap year. As a teenager my family had lived overseas so I didn’t feel the desire to travel, and also didn’t think I’d be very good at drinking my way through a gap year in Australia. I wanted to get started building something so decided I’d get into filmmaking. I was in denial, but believed it was just something interesting I’d try for a year.
I spent all the money I saved working hospitality jobs on a tripod, camera, and laptop. I started making mini documentary films for my friends’ charities, and started projects that will never be finished but were part of my learning process. I had a big backpack and used to ride my bike with pre-production through to post-production on my back.
In those four years I was kind of out there alone. I did a one week ‘filmmaking bootcamp’ with the Media Resource Centre straight out of high school, and did a three day editing course at AFTRS Adelaide (which was very expensive for me at the time) and I problem-solved using YouTube or speaking to people I met working on independent films in SA. Slowly I gained confidence technically and in my storytelling. After four years in the industry I had found a story I really wanted to explore, and felt enough confidence to give it a try, and I made Murder Mouth.
During those four years, was the emphasis on trying to skill up in preparation for a communicator’s role, or did you already have stories you wanted to tell and worked towards being able to tell them?
I think I knew I wanted to be in storytelling and communication in some form. It wasn’t that there was one story I wanted to tell, but I think it was a deeper value […] to bridge the gap between people who see the world differently.
I’m driven to understand other peoples’ perspectives which, in hindsight, I realise allows me to understand them but also allows me to understand myself.
That certainly comes through in Murder Mouth, in wanting to understand the personal conflict in regards to eating meat.
I wanted to do the right thing. I’d grown up eating meat with my family and a lot of friends were going vegetarian. It’s a complex area, obviously, but approaching it the way I did [going to kill my own food] meant really facing that question of what is right – it was difficult.
Do you eat meat now?
I do. I have gone for long periods without eating meat but have never labelled myself a vegetarian. I found being a vegetarian cut a clear boundary but there were ethical issues around eating vegetables too, such as environmental complications. So it’s not such a straightforward answer for me.
When I’m cooking for myself and shopping I tend to get kangaroo and some seafood, but I don’t really buy much other meat unless it’s from a particular place or for a particular occasion. I am very human and definitely slip and buy stuff occasionally but most of the time I intend to buy things that are perhaps more expensive but more ethically and environmentally… reliable.
Murder Mouth went on to win a few awards and, no doubt opportunities came up from the exposure. What was it like releasing your first documentary and how did you process, and respond to the impact it had?
It was 2011 when the film came out so it was a little while ago now. But I remember the first screening was as part of a premiere organized by the Media Resource Centre at the Mercury Cinema, as the Media Resource Centre had funded four or five films including Murder Mouth (along with Screen Australia as part of their Raw Nerve initiative).
Friends and family came out in support of all the filmmakers involved and I remember sitting next to my producer and us looking at each other just thinking, ‘What have we done?’ [During that first screening] every single cut felt wrong, everything felt like it was a mistake. Of course I’m very proud of the film now, and the audience apparently loved it. I got some amazing feedback. But my perception was so skewed by nerves – just another example of how powerful and subjective our perception can be depending on how we’re feeling in a given moment.
There were some audience members who walked out of that first screening of Murder Mouth upset, and later there was a debate online about the ethics of the film. I understand the people who walked out were passionate about animal welfare and felt the film was inappropriate, so there was some controversy. We consulted the RSPCA and took all the steps we were advised were responsible in terms of animal welfare.
The next year I spent writing and applying for grants. [Murder Mouth] opened the door for me, but I had to keep working to move through it. But Murder Mouth meant I had something to show for myself, it’s much more powerful to be able to say, ‘Hey this is me, this is who I am and look what I’ve done’ as opposed to ‘This is what I would like to do’.
Did you ever dabble in web series or start a YouTube channel?
No, I made [Murder Mouth] then a half-hour for the ABC as part of their ‘Opening Shot’ program in 2012 (an initiative of the SAFC and the ABC which allowed emerging filmmakers to make a half-hour documentary).
I made a half-hour film about working in an abattoir and the following year had a television series about other controversial jobs commissioned. It was a steep learning curve from short film, to half-hour documentary to a television series. A bit like when I learnt on the job after high school, I’ve kept learning, in incremental steps. I always want to be learning through my profession.
I remember hearing that in the visual arts industry it only takes a handful of people to start a career. You need an owner of a gallery and a dealer, and if you have those people, off you go. Did you find that was the case as a documentary maker?
It’s an interesting question. Film, drama, news and current affairs are all very different worlds. I also didn’t go to film school – so all the relationships I’ve built are with people I’ve met along the way.
A really important thing in my career has been Australian International Documentary Conference. The first thing I did out of school was volunteer at the Adelaide Film Festival, and then at the documentary conference which I’d heard about through the festival.
I’ve been attending AIDC since about 2007, most years. It’s a place I’ve been able to meet other filmmakers, producers and commissioning editors for the ABC and SBS, and Screen Australia face-to-face. I’ve had conversations to understand what they are interested in.
I think in documentary, film and television people in certain roles can change quite regularly so it’s important to have relationships with people who might finance, produce, edit your work. It’s important to be in touch with the community and understand what opportunities are out there, but also important to stay true to what you want to make and say.
Are they open to people coming up and taking the initiative?
Very. In Australia we have government bodies that support film and television. Especially with bodies for emerging film-makers, like the Media Resource Centre in South Australia, it also means that anyone off the street can walk in and receive mentorship and support. That’s a really democratising thing.
What would be the first of port of call for someone looking to start?
First port of call would be the Media Resource Centre. It’s really made for emerging filmmakers. You can walk off of the street knowing nothing (like I did), and they will take you seriously, they have workshops, they have initiatives so you can apply for money, they have seminars and they have screenings. And then the next port of call is the South Australian Film Corporation, which changed its policies recently to be more open to all types of filmmakers. It used to be that you needed to have a certain number of credits to apply to their programs but it’s far more open these days.
Seven years on do you find that you approach the creation of a documentary the same way or do you have a process you now rely on?
I have noticed in myself, as the years have gone by, a tendency not to do the same thing twice. So I made a short film, then I made a half hour, then I made a documentary series. I spent some time in big teams working on other people’s work in various roles to get experience in different environments and then I directed a 10-part comedy documentary series that included narrative and sketch comedy segments – written by a comedy team (with me writing on an episode), and then I directed Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up comedy special for Netflix.
Each of these projects has required a slightly different approach, and that’s why I love this career.
Documentary is constantly evolving. I use whiteboards to structure story but also know that sometimes getting away and going for a walk is when the truth comes to you. Narrative, and emerging technologies like VR, require collaborating in a different way. The script is written early, and the story is decided rather than constantly evolving. Documentary and scripted have different tools.
How did having different tools to work with affect how you interpreted the subject matter?
I think I gravitate to words and particularly in immersive documentary where you’re capturing what you can in difficult situations, story is communicated largely by what people say. In narrative images and audio can be crafted and relied on to communicate story.
For example right, on Roadmap to Paradise, there were 10 episodes in which Corey was trying to solve a different world problem; from environmentalism, to foster care, to domestic violence. Some of those episodes are really personal, and some are more political. Corey’s an amazing man who came through the foster care system. The episodes about domestic violence, foster care and drugs were very personal, particularly foster care. When I read that script, it read as devastating but, there were jokes in there (he’s a comedian) and there was lightness.
Finding a way to tell his story of foster care which respected the gravity of the situation but had room for levity was sensitive. It turned out that Brazillian bossa nova style guitar was a soundtrack that managed to respect tragedy whilst revealing the beauty and humanity in it. We then built the approach to the episode around the music.
Is there a certain level of reciprocity when you’re working scripted? Say you were thinking of using that Brazilian guitar, and then it goes on to influence what could be collected ‘as-is’ in documentary.
There are some very beautiful documentaries. A great example is Island of the Hungry Ghosts, which won the documentary award at Adelaide Film Festival last year. That is a film with little dialogue. It is a poetic, visually told story.
Documentaries can be very visual, but some of the difficult access documentaries I made for the ABC had visual and stylistic limitations created by the requirement to prioritise building trust.
Are you referring to Maddie Parry: Tough Jobs?
I would say the abortion clinic, the brothel, the logging coupe and the abattoir were all locations that took a long time to gain access to. There’s a big responsibility in the way you tell any story.
What I do love about documentary is it’s very dynamic, you go in with a vision but you must respond in the moment to what’s happening around you. You also have to balance respect for the people who are in your film with respect for the audience and respect for the ‘truth’. It’s a constant balance; it’s very dynamic and documentary moves fast. So as much as narrative gives you all these tools to work with, documentary keeps you on your toes – and I just love it. And there’s so many stories in the world I just get so excited about it sometimes!
Does ‘truth’ have a consistent quality to you? How do you recognise in your work when you’ve captured the ‘truth’?
Truth is complex. In the documentaries where I was on screen I’ve had to come to and share my own personal conclusion. But I’ve always wanted the audience to make up their own mind. So to answer your question, I try to deliver my truth in a way where the audience feels free and equipped to make their own judgment. It’s always been important to me to make the audience feel they’ve gone on a journey with me and they’re close by, but they can make their own decision in the end.
Tell me a bit about working on Running 62, particularly the Virtual Reality aspects.
I mentored first time director Zibeon Fielding, to make Running 62 the short documentary and then directed the VR that accompanied it. The short documentary is beautiful and has Zibeon’s personality and energy just bursting out of the screen. The VR is a reflection on the deeper motivations driving him to run so far and to push so hard.
Can you tell me a bit about working with John Safran?
John Safran was an early mentor of mine and is still a friend. One of the most empowering things from John’s mentorship I found was that, alongside him giving good advice, sometimes when I’d ask a question he would admit he didn’t have an answer and that allowed me to understand that I was the closest person to the project – and I had to trust my gut.
What are you working on in 2019?
A hybrid documentary and a dramedy web series. And there are a few projects I’m attached to, so we’ll see what happens.
When was the last time you had time off? What did you do?
I did take 5 months off at the beginning of 2017. I just banned myself from developing any ideas for 5 months and hung out with my family and friends. And then I got into Corey White, did Nanette and now I’m really excited about what I’m working on.
– Tin Do
*This interview was edited for accuracy.