REBIRTHING A STORY OF MOTHERS AND CHILDREN
It began as a four part play about working class life in Australia in the late 90s and blossomed as a film dealing with the indestructible bond between mothers and children in the first decade of the new century. Blessed took over eight years to make the transition to film – and while it was worth the effort, director Ana Kokkinos admits in this interview with Andrew L. Urban it was a huge challenge to make.
In 1997, the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre marked their ten-year anniversary by commissioning three writers, with whom they had a past association, to pen a play that would acknowledge various political and socio-economic issues prevalent at that time. They also felt that it was important to introduce a new writer to the mix, and so Christos Tsiolkas joined Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and composer Irine Vela , to create a work which evolved into the award-winning play Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class?, first performed at the Victorian Trades Hall Council in May 1998.
The play consisted of four separate but interwoven stories – Suit written by Christos Tsiolkas; Money by Patricia Cornelius; Dreamtown by Melissa Reeves and Trash by Andrew Bovell. Four stories which provided a stark yet profoundly moving portrait of working-class life in Australia at that time.
“Ordinary people dealing with everyday life and adversity with great courage, humour and energy”
Director Ana Kokkinos first encountered Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? during its premiere season and was struck by its boldness and veracity. “The characters were so compelling and engaging,” she recalled. “Ordinary people dealing with everyday life and adversity with great courage, humour and energy. I was deeply affected and saw the potential for a very moving and beautiful film, so I optioned the play.”
In optioning the material, Kokkinos approached the original writers to work with her on adapting it for the screen. But because of the play’s content and structure, which often involved characters talking directly to the audience, it was never going to be a quick or easy process. So throughout the next eight years, Kokkinos worked on the project predominantly with executive producer Marian Macgowan and writer Andrew Bovell.
“With any adaptation,” explained Kokkinos, “whether it’s a novel or a play, there comes a point where you have to dispense with the source material and reinvent the work as a film without losing the richness, texture and essence of what initially attracted. After a number of early drafts, we certainly had a great bunch of characters but the screenplay just wasn’t hanging together. So we took a break and what emerged during this hiatus was that we were really dealing with a story about mothers and children. This certainly resonated for Andrew and he subsequently proposed a fresh structure; tell the story in two parts, starting with the children’s journey over the course of one day and night and then revisit the same twenty-four hours, but explore the narrative from the mothers’ viewpoint. We then created connections between the characters and expanded on the mothers’ stories, whilst maintaining the central theme.”
“a multi-narrative, multi-character piece”
“What makes a good play doesn’t necessarily make a good film,” agreed Andrew Bovell. “Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class? was a multi-narrative, multi-character piece. But we needed to identify a core theme that would carry a feature film. With theatre, you generally need dialogue to convey the meaning and emotion to the audience, whereas with film, which is such a visual medium, you just keep stripping it back, as often a gesture, pause, or even silence will suffice. Therefore we had to ‘bust open the world of the play’ in order to find the world of the film.
And given that the women in the play were such interesting and compelling characters, we gradually realized that it was, in fact, a fascinating study of motherhood. So we broke it into two parts – the first being a story of seven children told over twenty-four hours, with the second being the story of their five mothers throughout the same period. This was a real breakthrough in our cinematic conceptualisation and allowed us to create a clear structure.”
“over the course of one day and night”
The film takes place over the course of one day and night, when seven children find themselves on difficult urban journeys in Melbourne. Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) are street-smart girls, with sharp tongues and attitude. They wag school and are caught shoplifting. Having recently fled his mother’s cloying love, Roo (Eamon Farren) is living on the street. But when he finds himself in a porn film he realises he’s not so tough and just wants to go home. Unfairly accused of stealing his mother’s money, angry Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) attempts a real theft – with unexpected results. Brother and sister, Orton (Reef Ireland) and Stacey (Eva Lazzaro), must flee the mother they love in order to survive. And James (Wayne Blair) is the most lost of all; a young Aboriginal man with no place in the white or the black world. But how does it all look from their mothers’ point of view?
First published September 10, 2009 on Urban Cinefile