CALLING THE SHOTS
Three young Australian filmmakers, the progeny of our most acclaimed directors, are forging their own individual creative paths in screen.
At the Australian International Screen Forum in New York earlier this year, pioneering director Gillian Armstrong was taking part in a women in film panel, when a young voice in the audience asked what advice she would impart to the next generation of filmmakers. Armstrong laughed, knowingly. The woman was her daughter, Billie Pleffer. And sitting next to her was Alice Englert, the daughter of another pioneering female director, Jane Campion. And the evening before, renowned Indigenous director Warwick Thornton had also taken part in a panel after a screening of his acclaimed feature Sweet Country, accompanied by Dylan River, his co-cinematographer on the film. River also happens to be Thornton’s son.
Pleffer, Englert and River are the next generation of Australian filmmakers – members of a growing family of celebrity progeny paving their own way in the screen industry formed and populated by their talented parents. Unlike some of their peers, such as Gracie Otto and Matilda Brown (the creative daughters of Barry Otto and Bryan Brown, respectively), they may not share the surnames of their most famous parents, but Pleffer, Englert and River share their talents, passion and drive for honing their craft and their individual creative takes on the world.
This trio grew up on film sets and surrounded by artistic communities: Pleffer variously in Canada (where Armstrong partly filmed 1994’s Little Women) and Sydney; Englert in New Zealand (where Campion famously made 1993’s Oscarwinning The Piano); and River in Alice Springs (which formed the backdrop to Thornton’s confronting 2009 feature debut Samson and Delilah).
But nepotism this is not. Each is talented in their own right: Pleffer is a writer and director, Englert an actress, writer and director, and River is a cinematographer and director. They have won awards, taken part in myriad writing and pitch workshops, and had their work showcased at various festivals around the world, including the Berlin Film Festival, where each of them has had a short film screen in recent years. They are also paving their way in an industry at a time when equality and diversity are finally being celebrated and encouraged, enabling these young filmmakers to be role models for their peers – Pleffer and Englert as females in film, River as a young Indigenous man.
Englert, 24, is perhaps the most recognisable of the trio, having starred in Ginger & Rosa, Beautiful Creatures and, most recently, Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, playing the wayward daughter of Nicole Kidman (a family friend). But she has also forged her own career, writing and directing short films, music clips and is
They are paving their way in an industry at a time when equality and diversity are finally being celebrated and encouraged, enabling them to be role models
currently writing her first feature. She says her passion came from watching Campion editing “for weeks on end” and often skipping school to hang out on set.
“I’m very involved with my mother and her work, always have been,” Englert says when Vogue reunited the trio in Sydney. “I’ve never found it to be difficult, because the work was something in a way that we always had a very clear relationship about – we made a lot of sense to each other when we talked about stories and work. She thought I was good – at some point when I was a teenager, I wasn’t really good about being a person but I was good about thinking about acting like being a person – and we just connected over that. So it’s always been … such a strong and important part of my life and it feels very honest and real, and what we have ever done together I’m really proud of. And what I’ve done on my own I’m really proud of too – they really inform each other.”
Asked if it was confronting for either her or Campion during Top of the Lake: China Girl, because of the sexual situations her character goes through, Englert says her mother was probably most affected by it.
“I think it was more difficult for her, because I couldn’t really think like that, I had to get on with it, but, of course, she had to be in charge and be pushing me … she gave a lot of the more difficult scenes that had more sexuality to [co-director] Ariel Kleiman.”
Pleffer has won an Australian Writers Guild award for one of her short films, and been nominated for various others, and her most recent work was the TV/digital series Deadlock, about a car crash in which two teenagers are killed, told in five chapters from the point of view of five characters, which screened on the ABC’s iView. Pleffer’s parents did not exactly encourage her into a career in movies – her father wanted her to be a merchant banker, “but I’m terrible at maths!” – so she chose to keep her filmmaking heritage secret while studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, where posters of her mother’s films lined the walls. It was only after the Australian International Screen Forum in New York this year, when she had her own projects ready to show the world, that Pleffer felt comfortable going public about her connection to Armstrong.
“My parents know how hard it is to make it in this industry,” she says. “So I just kind of hid it until really we all went to New York and then I felt more comfortable with it, because I felt like I had done enough, like I had just done my first TV pilot show.
“Australia has this tall poppy syndrome, which is being really afraid to be cut down – there would be a lot of instances where people would say: ‘You only got this because of your mum’ or: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s who your mum is, we would have employed you if we knew that.’ So you know, I’m just careful.
“I mean, I love my mum and she has been fantastic. She gives me feedback on all my scripts or I’ll send all my edits to her and my dad – my parents are like a team really, they both give me feedback and it’s the most trusted valued feedback that I get out of anyone, so in that respect I’m really lucky, because they are incredibly talented at what they do, so I trust their opinion.”
River, 26, has inherited his father’s exquisite eye for landscape – perhaps born from his homeland in Alice Springs, where he still lives – and recently debuted his feature documentary Finke: There and Back, about the Finke motorcycle desert race across the Outback, at the Sydney Film Festival, and makes a living as a cinematographer on ads
“My parents are like a team really, they both give me feedback and it’s the most trusted valued feedback that I get out of anyone, so in that respect I’m really lucky”
while creating his own projects. He has worked closely with his father over the years, most recently on Sweet Country, where they shared cinematography credits.
“I have been given a lot of amazing opportunities because of who my parents are and I’m not going to deny that I probably got things up or got things done because [of that],” River says. “But that has just driven me to prove to myself that I’m worthy of these opportunities I have been given … not prove worthy to everyone else who is looking in on me and my career and what I’m doing, because I don’t give a fuck what they think, but I think more worthy to my parents than anything. Their blessing or response to what I make is more important than anything else. I’m still the kid who wants to bring home the drawing from school and be like: ‘Look what I did!’ So without a doubt it’s a lot of pressure, extreme pressure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The greatest jobs or sets I’ve been on have been with my dad, they will be the memories that I will cherish and hold forever and I hope there many more to come.”
He says their close relationship helps push both of them creatively. “I think we work really well together in a sense that we have a second hand language, we can collaborate together and not have to speak much about what we’re doing – he trusts me, I trust him – but at the same time we can also fight if we really want to push for something and I’ll challenge his ideas but no-one else on set will challenge him. We’re not afraid to push the boundaries further than just a working relationship on set.”
Englert agrees: “That’s what’s integral to the reason I like working with my mum as well – the value system involves being different … but I definitely don’t say that to my mum – when I’m acting on set my mum’s the boss!”
As for the future, the trio have many projects they are individually working on, and after bonding over film and family when they met in New York, these three young Australians have now decided they could even collaborate together.
“Billie decided we could all work together,” says River. “She could direct, I would shoot and Alice would star in it!” Stay tuned.