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3 tips to make it as a WA director

Alumni News

It’s an exciting time to be a lover of the big screen. Studios are churning out monolithic film franchises and breakout indies in equal measure, with online streaming services revolutionising how fans discover new film favourites.

Dr Michelle Johnson, Grant Sputore, Alison James, Zak Hilditch
Three accomplished graduates returned to Curtin to share their tips for success. L-R Senior Lecturer Dr Michelle Johnston, Grant Sputore, Alison James, Zak Hilditch.

Breaking out from Western Australia, our hometown heroes are making it as directors on the world stage. Curtin graduates Zak Hilditch, Alison James and Grant Sputore have all celebrated success as film directors hailing from our humble state. We asked them to share their advice on how to succeed in the international film industry.

Tip 1: “Expect a lot of noes along the way. But that means, when you get that yes, it will be much more powerful and meaningful.”

The cast and crew for the film These Final Hours

Five years ago, you might remember a film that came out asking Australian moviegoers, “What would I do on my last days on Earth if I was stuck in Perth?”

The movie, These Final Hours, was directed by Curtin graduate Zak Hilditch.

It followed a group of characters, played by Nathan Phillips, Curtin graduate Jessica De Gouw (of Arrow fame) and Spider-Man: Far From Home actress Angourie Rice, who have 12 hours to live until a firestorm from a meteorite collision wipes out all life on the Western Australian coast.

The film was a long time coming for Hilditch, but the positive Australian reaction to his self-described “movie about the bogan apocalypse” made it all the more worthwhile.

His message is to stay determined.

“If you truly love what you do and want to succeed, then you’ll get there”, he says.

Hilditch graduated from Curtin in 2004 with Honours in Screen Arts, and says the networks and skills he developed at university were invaluable, especially during his early career.

“Immediately from first year you’re making film. The tutors and lecturers are really passionate and knew what they were talking about.”

Since These Final Hours was unveiled at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, Hilditch has gone from strength to strength directing several Netflix Original films. His upcoming psychological horror film Rattlesnake is set in rural Texas, and follows the story of a mother who makes a desperate deal to save her daughter bitten by a rattlesnake. In return, she is forced to take the life of a stranger.

Hilditch credits his strong start in Western Australia as a springboard into his current US filmmaking career.

“It’s important to make a splash with your work if you get given the chance, as you might only get one shot at it. Luckily I made just enough of a splash!”

Tip 2: “Filmmaking is a collaborative industry. You can’t make it on your own.”

Silhouette of camel wearing a judas collar

The haunting notes of a cello, the beat of a helicopter’s propellers and the distressed faces of a herd of wild camels in the harsh remoteness of northern Western Australia.

They’re ideas that you might not immediately think would work together, but for Alison James, they were the perfect instruments to tell Judas Collar, a short drama film based on the actual process that occurs in the Australian outback where hunters fit a tracking device to a single feral camel, follow its movements to a herd, and cull the herd but leave the tracked animal alive, for it to lead them to the next herd.

James, a Curtin graduate, was affected by anecdotal accounts that described some of the camels as being aware that they were being used to find and kill other camels, and choosing to isolate themselves.

The film has had an amazing reception around the world, winning the St Kilda Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival, which resulted in it being longlisted for the 2020 Academy Awards short film category. James also received a special mention for best director at the Sydney Film Festival.

With some unique challenges, James needed to ensure that her small crew of 12 was a tight-knit unit.

“It was a crazy adventure. We shot in the remote desert around Mount Magnet, 500 kilometres north of Perth. There were flies everywhere. It was dusty. I was four and a half months pregnant. We had eight camels and a helicopter.

“I think in your career it’s important to know how to work with all sorts of different personalities and resolve conflicts. The way you learn is working with others.”

James’ experience in working with people from all walks of life was also helpful in her previous work directing documentaries. Meeting an eclectic mix of different people, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, Aboriginal elders and outback truckers was a rewarding aspect of her work.

James graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Television, minoring in Psychology, and said that university provided her a good start in developing the people skills required on a film set.

“You’re thrown in the deep end with a bunch of people from really different backgrounds, and that can be an important learning experience to take into your career.

Tip 3: “Have a complementary skillset that gives you an edge as a director.”

Grant Sputore

In addition to being a director, Grant Sputore is a skilled designer. So, when it came to working on his first feature film, I Am Mother, starring Hillary Swank, Rose Byrne (as a voice actor) and breakout young Danish star Clara Rugaard, he was well able to contribute with his own art concepts of some of the film’s sci-fi environments.

The post-apocalyptic film, set after a near extinction of mankind, follows the journey of a girl raised by her robot “mother” in a bunker, who is the start of a new generation of humans.

“Getting to realise a completely imagined world was an incredible gift that not a lot of filmmakers get the opportunity to do, especially with their first film.”

The film was launched to critical success in June this year. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received a 90 per cent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The I Am Mother screenplay, written by Sputore and collaborator Michael Lloyd Green, gained global attention after making The Black List, an annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays in the world. Rather than just focusing on being a director, he encourages budding directors to branch out and develop new skills to gain a better understanding of filmmaking as a whole.

“If you are an incredible actor as well as a director, you are going to have better insights into the craft of acting and getting performance. Having experience in other areas, such as writing and music, can be a big strength when you go into making films.”

Reflecting on his time at university studying film and television at Curtin, Sputore noted that it was a great opportunity to try new things and learn the craft of filmmaking.

“Spending three years thinking about only storytelling and filmmaking, and just trying stuff was great. It was about making terrible short films, making good short films and working out what separates one from another. It gives you the opportunity to work out how to improve your skills and then do it.”

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