How Two Punk Directors and a Housewife-Turned-Pornstar Made a Festival Doc

Morgana
Learn how two punk girls made a DIY doc about a 50-year-old housewife pornstar that is premiering at Fantasia.

It took us five years to get here, our feature documentary Morgana is having it's North American premiere at Fantasia Film Festival. It's a surreal experience to see our little independent documentary, sharing the (online) stage with high profile films at the largest genre festival in North America. Hell, we even did a panel with Stoya!

Like many good creative projects, Morgana started as a drunken conversation between friends. Isabel Peppard and I (co-directors) had been looking for short documentary subjects that we could shoot around Melbourne to begin to create a name for ourselves. At the time, Isabel was working on a horror feature that I was doing some script work on, and I was at film school (sorry!), learning how to write and produce.

In 2013, I had started interning on porn film sets, which is how I came across Morgana Muses, our leading lady, and subject. We learned that just a few years before meeting her; she had been a housewife in rural Australia. Now 50 years old, she was embarking on a new life as a sexually liberated porn producer and performer and was inviting us to come and shoot her 50th birthday gift. We jumped at the opportunity.

Her birthday plans were slightly unconventional. She had commissioned shibari rope artist Garth Knight to tie her up in a BDSM installation piece as a phoenix. She told us how she chose the phoenix since it represented her rebirth from the ashes of her old life. We had no idea that this would be the start of our adventure with Morgana. For the next five years, we followed her around the world. Every time we thought we had our documentary about her work out and that we had gotten to the heart of the character, she would completely upend everything by going in a new direction. The film you see today is the result of a lot of editing, a lot of story work, and a lot of dialog between the three of us.

Josie Hess
Still from 'Morgana' production team.

It was around 2015 when we realized the film was a feature, not a short after Morgana decided to move to Berlin. We had no funding, no real gear except our little Canon 5DS, a Panasonic GH4, a RØDE VideoMic Pro, and a small lapel mic. This was seriously DIY for a good few years. Over the 2015 and 2016 summers, we each had a go at cutting the film into a workable edit. We reached a point where we realized that we had an incredible story on our hands and that we needed to do it justice. So we turned to crowdfunding to raise enough money so that we could get an editor to help us cut the film into shape.

We scored our excellent creative producer, Karina Astrup, in 2016. Isabel had initially met Karina at Sitges Film Festival, where they both had films in the program. They met again years later in Australia, and by chance, Isabel mentioned the Morgana project. Karina was all-in from the start. She loved the story and the creative nature of our approach, and so she jumped on board as a producer bringing her experience in feature documentary to the table. 

In 2017 we were able to raise $45,000 AUD from a massive crowdfunding campaign. It took months and months of preparation (and included a psycho biddy wrestling show at our launch party), but it paid off. With that money so generously contributed by our backers, we were able to hire our fabulous editor Julie Anne DeRuvo.

Morgana
The editing board

We shot over 300 hours of footage for this 70-minute film. There is so much we had to leave out, we spent weeks in the edit moving story cards around, getting a workable paper edit into shape before then getting all the files into an order that another human could understand. 

Around this 3rd major edit of the film, we also started to film pickups. We were finally able to see the gaps in what we needed. So I went out in the field, grabbing establishing shots and coverage that we had missed previously. Meanwhile, Isabel began to flesh out and shoot the miniature pickups we needed in order to complete the visual metaphor we had initially begun with Morgana's Phoenix resurrection. We recruited Isabel's long time collaborator Gerald Thompson (the cinematographer of stop motion classic Mary and Max)  to shoot the miniatures. He also set up some very fancy motion control robot arms, which is how we achieved the effects you see in some of the miniature shots. 

To structure the miniature/fantasy backbone of the film, we drew on Morgana's personal mythology around her cyclical death and rebirth. First, as a Phoenix resurrected from the ashes of her life in suburbia and secondly as a more realistic and complete version of herself, in this second iteration of herself, all of her different qualities become integrated into her new life, and she is able to find acceptance of herself as a complete person. 

Morgana 2
Still from 'Morgana' production team

A lot of the miniature sets became emotional landscapes, representing a psychological state of being that we could call back to at different times of the film. The design and creation of each of the miniatures were informed by different periods of Morgana's life, and we even infused them with personal artifacts from the subject, such as the textures and design of her wedding album, which were scanned and used to create different elements of the cardboard suburb. 

Once we had all the pickups in place by late 2019, we were able to finish up the cut.  We went through two rounds of test screenings during this time. Those sessions were incredibly valuable exercises in making sure everything made sense to a wide range of people.

Around this time, Morgana herself had a preview screening of the cut and gave it her blessing before we moved on to the next phase.

We really only had enough money to get the cut to picture lock since we had to leave money aside to pay for everything else in post-production. We had all the special effects, music, and the living hell that is a frame-conform to go (thank you, Sumi Akita, for getting our FPS into shape). Isabel ended up taking on the post-production management, through the summer of 2018- a steep learning curve! With the little money we had left, we scored an incredible composer (Jordan Gilmour) sound designer (John Kassab) and VFX whiz (Louis Nikolovski). Together, we began to polish the cut. 

Things really started to speed up in 2019. Early in the year, we were awarded a small grant from Queer Screen, an incredible organization that supports queer voices in cinema (hey hey pan pride!) That money came just as we were running out of our Kickstarter budget and helped to push us over the finish line for post-production.

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The filmmakers

We submitted our fine cut to the Melbourne International Film Festival in May and found out we had been selected just a short while after that. It was honestly a huge shock. To be selected by a huge festival and to be screened at the Capitol Theatre was honestly like a strange dream. We then had the mad dash to the finish line, where we had to complete all the rest of the post-production before the DCP had to be delivered just eight weeks later. You better believe we walked that DCP down to the film festival office at the last possible second.

We managed to score the Producer Equity Grant from Screen Australia to cover the final post-production and clearance costs, with just enough left over to create a trailer and invest in some marketing. 

Almost exactly a year later to the day, our film launched at Fantasia. Since then, we have hit all the major festivals in Australia and are now excited to be launching internationally on the festival circuit. We also recently signed to Juno films, which we are thrilled about.

When we think about all the work, all the years, all the money we've put into this film is a little bit mind-boggling, but we also wouldn't have had it any other way. We made a DIY, Punk, weird, explicit documentary film about a subject we love, and we now get to share that film with the world.     

This post was written by Josie Hess on behalf of the Morgana Team, Isabel Peppard (Co-Director), and Karina Astrup (Producer). 

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1 Comment

Thank-you for sharing this. It's refreshing to read an article on NFS about filmmakers other than Christopher Nolan, Kubrick, David Fincher or Scorcese. FYI: I could do with never reading about those dudes again and have you focus more on work like this.

September 1, 2020 at 11:51AM

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