J is for Joyful

Interview with Lisa Hoppe, writer/ producer of delightful family film H is for Happiness

Ahead of the world premiere of H is for Happiness at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) Family Gala we caught up with writer/ producer Lisa Hoppe to talk about the challenges of adapting a much-loved novel for screen, the glorious visual style of director John Sheedy and the impact of being selected for MIFF.

H is for Happiness is adapted from Barry Jonsberg’s acclaimed young adult novel My Life As An Alphabet. What was it about the story resonated with you? What attracted you to the project?

My Life As An Alphabet has a unique protagonist in the irrepressible Candice Phee.  She has an approach to the world that is utterly delightful and inspiring. Her determination to fix her broken family provides such a moving, funny and uplifting a goal, you just want her to win. It’s a story that we could see from the outset had all the elements for a commercially viable film - a contained world that could be realized with a modest budget, great adult roles that enabled us to attract a fabulous cast, plus we could set it in such a stunning part of Australia.

Are there any particular challenges involved in adapting a much-loved novel for the screen?

It’s challenging to compress a novel into 100 minutes for the screen and when you love a novel it’s hard to work out what to give up. Also there’s that additional pressure when you add new elements to help it along as a film you wonder how the loyal fans will feel. You also hope the Author likes it! Fortunately Barry was really happy with it and it was great to have him come to the set and have a cameo role - kind of like an on screen endorsement really. 

Do you have any advice for filmmakers who might be considering adapting literature for the screen?

Distinctive characters and tone can be as important as a compelling story, particularly because quite often the story has to be tweaked to suit the medium anyway. Also a novel’s cinematic qualities and scope should be considered- what are the qualities that will translate to the screen and make people want to see it in that form.

H is for Happiness is the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy. How do you think his background has influenced the visual style of the film?

John has such clarity of vision and style. He has an incredible depth of experience as an award winning director of theatre and the opera and it just translated so brilliantly to this film. He has this ability to bring so much energy to the set…we had a really big day with lots of extras in a hall, a mini horse, a lot of pressure to capture a very big scene in a short time but John just fed off the energy in the room, and amplified it. He was in his element and no doubt this came from his time working with big casts on the opera and theatre stages, with all their colour and movement. He also relishes attention to detail as much as what is going on in a big picture sense so you get the rich colour palette and a really cohesive look but also lots of playful little elements going on, and careful choreography to bring it all together.

The film is an Australian story, set in a small coastal town. What are the universal themes that will make the film resonate with a broad audience?

It’s about a family struggling, so that’s something that people around the world can relate to. It’s also about difference and celebrating difference. And it’s about happiness!

Film Victoria supported the project with production funding. What was the impact of this?

It wouldn’t have been possible to make the film without the support of Film Victoria – it’s a big thing for a Director to be able to do post in their home-town, especially after being away so long shooting in another state. The quality of films that have the support of Film Victoria is very high so you feel your film is in very strong company creatively.

The film is set for its world premiere at this year’s MIFF Family Gala. What’s the impact of being selected for one of the Festival’s Gala slots?

It’s what you dream of as a filmmaker – to be chosen by a festival as prestigious as MIFF when they have so many great films to choose from. The festival brings profile, excitement and ceremony, particularly with a premiere screening.  It’s a real celebration of film and to have that first screening in an environment where people are passionate about films, and they are lining up around the corner and talking about films- that adds to the excitement, it’s an absolute joy.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

 A sense of hope.

The world premiere of H is for Happiness screens at the 2019 MIFF Family Gala. Visit the MIFF website for other session times and tickets.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the individual involved and do not necessarily represent those of Film Victoria.