A Perfect Match

We spoke to Sarah Hatherley about her director's placement on Halifax: Retribution

Our Key Talent Production Placements provide invaluable opportunities for early to mid-career writers and directors to gain hands-on experience in paid placements. These opportunities can be career-changing - boosting knowledge and skills, honing expertise and helping practitioners take that next step on their career pathway. Fresh from her director's placement on crime drama Halifax: Retribution, we caught up with filmmaker Sarah Hatherley to learn about her experience on set.

Tell us about your background – what drew you to filmmaking?
I have been a writer all my life. My first career was in advertising, working at what was to become Australia’s most successful and creative agency, Clemenger BBDO Melbourne. It was pre-digital so all the famous brands put their marketing budgets into high end, creative, entertaining television commercials. As a writer / creative director I worked on over 100 big brand shoots with dozens of different directors and amazing crews. I was hooked from the start. 

My own scripts were often like little movies. And eventually I started directing commercials for those same big brands which only intensified the desire to break out into long form. Clemenger did everything possible to keep me, including sending me off to work in the Paris office for a year – shooting in Pinewood Studios London, Barcelona, France. While I was in Paris I wrote the first draft of my first feature screenplay. On my return I shot a 15 minute short film Just Do It which did well here and internationally and that was it, I set up La Vérité Films and I was off. 

Jane Campion has had an enormous influence on me, from Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, Holy Smoke, and The Piano through to Top of The Lake – they have each resonated deeply. So too did Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, still one of my all time favourite films. Gillian Armstrong, Ana Kokkinos, Jennifer Kent, I really value those bracing Australian female auteurs.

You recently completed a seven-week director placement on Halifax: Retribution, received through our Key Talent Placement program. What did you do over the course of the placement and what new skills did you learn?
One of the things that defines Film Victoria’s Key Talent Placement program, according to Halifax producers, was the care they took to match the applicants to the production and the individual director’s needs. Developing a compelling shortlist of genuinely matched candidates for each director to interview. I knew that if I was selected and had real access, I would get everything I needed from the program so my priority was understanding how I could help the director. 

Mark Joffe is a highly experienced director who knew what he wanted. Number one was, a strong female voice in the room. “Tick”, I said, “can do”. Then there was research, script feedback, being another set of eyes on the detail each step of the way. Directing splinter unit; drone and bits of 2nd camera work. I also had unique access to an ex-police investigator who could answer questions on police procedural in real time. One phone call when we were on location saved what would have been a huge CGI bill.  

I was really interested in how the production machine worked managing a large-scale high-end TV production. The level of input by the network, competing voices on script / story. Where the set-up director’s role started and ended. How the director broke down the script and communicated his plans to the HODs. What could be achieved in terms of scheduling with a world class, experienced crew and two cameras. I was most interested to see how to get great frames while working consistently with two cameras. And the efficiency dividend in terms of how much quality material could be shot in a day. I was also keen to see how Mark worked with the actors. Time spent with key cast during the rehearsal phase in pre-production was probably a little different given that Rebecca Gibney was highly involved as an EP, knew the character better than anyone, and knew her dialogue inside out.

I was fortunate to have a generous director who gave me complete access during two and a half weeks pre-production, three and a half weeks shoot, and a week of post. Mark’s skill at being able to carry the two episode story in his mind, being aware of the story beyond the first block, dealing with script changes, schedule changes, being over the minutiae as well as the big picture was impressive. Communicating his vision to the actors and HODs and dealing with a punishing schedule was skillful. I didn’t come away daunted but the job is not to be underestimated. 

What was your favourite or most interesting moment on the set of Halifax: Retribution?
I am very interested in visual storytelling and get incredibly excited about capturing exquisite images. Watching Cinematographer Geoffery Hall work with his team was joyful. The dance between focus pulling, grip, gaffer and their teams was deft. The art and the grunt of the process never ceases to impress me. The production manager, Ben, will attest to my own excitement when we splintered off with the drone operator and camera operator for half a day and managed to get some additional footage over the Westgate bridge that looked pretty epic. 

Seeing the lovely micro-moments that great actors bring to their screen performances is really noticeable over the long haul. I am in awe of their fortitude performing at such an intense level, like the crew, over 8 episodes. Two eps seemed like a marathon, I don’t know how they are all still running. Every moment was interesting, and I have gathered an enormous database of knowledge that I will be tapping into on future jobs. And most importantly, have added to my list of talented potential collaborators.

What stage of your career were you at when you applied to be on our Key Talent Placement Register? And why should others apply?
I applied for the Placement Register late last year, I wasn’t sure if the program was more geared to straight out of film school applicants but I was reassured that the list had diversity. And in this instance Halifax were looking for experience. I was deep into the process of developing my first limited crime series and was in discussions with a production company about a directing role when the Halifax opportunity came up. So it was incredibly timely.

Others should apply because no matter what your background is, the program will match you up with a production who will value your contribution and from whom you can learn what it is you need to take the next step in your career.

What are your career goals?
I have directed award winning ads and short films, but I have yet to direct a feature or an episode of drama. So naturally both those things are clear goals. But they are not ends in themselves. 

My passion is to create affecting cinematic screen stories and to do it with agency. I love the process of working with brilliant collaborators, crafting a screen story that really connects with its audience. My commercial background means I naturally think of audience and marketplace appeal. So I’d really like to direct a powerful feature that finds an audience. A challenge in today’s cinema landscape but I do believe the female perspective can offer a fresh new twist on any genre. The new platforms and the audience appetite for quality limited series is an exciting new development to access an international audience.

I have a slate of feature screenplays, not all suited to a first-time director, but my most recent, Domestic – a small town mystery thriller - is ideal. And it’s market ready with a high-end proof of concept trailer to set the scene, shot on location in regional Victoria with the talented Sky Davies as DP.
Over the last 12 months I have also been developing a very exciting limited series crime drama, Use of Force. It is the story of an idealistic young woman recruited into the police brotherhood discovering a world of violence, intimidation and lawlessness, and that was just in the office. I am just starting to talk to producers, looking to find the right production partner to realise it. The pilot script has made it through to the Quarterfinals in Final Draft’s Big Break competition, so hopefully it cuts through.

Applications for our Key Talent Placements Register close 18 November. Visit our Skills/Business Support page for details and to apply. 

Image: On the set of Halifax: Retribution, L-R: Sarah Hatherley, Film Victoria CEO Caroline Pitcher, Executive Producer and star Rebecca Gibney, Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams, Producer and Creator Roger Simpson. Credit: Daniel Asher Smith