How can you adapt a short story as a play, a novel, and a film, and keep it fresh every time? Leah Purcell will tell you.
Writer/director/actor Leah Purcell seems to have a relentless work ethic, especially with the amount of writing she apparently does. She adapted Henry Lawson's short story "The Drover's Wife" as a play and a novel. While starring in the play, she wrote the screenplay version. The Western tale follows a lone woman in 1893 who is raising her children in the Snowy Mountains while her husband is away. When an Indigenous escaped prisoner shows up on her doorstep, she's forced to examine her past and her origins.
The film is now complete, which Purcell starred in and directed. It will have its world premiere at this year's SXSW.
Purcell is a Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland, Australia, and she brings an exciting new voice and perspective to the Western genre. Her work intentionally examines the racism, sexism, and violence that colors Australia's past.
She spoke with No Film School ahead of the premiere to discuss the importance of giving an Indigenous perspective to one of Australia's most famous tales, the inspiration for the film's look, and more. Dig in!
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NFS: So you've explored this story several times, as a play and a novel previously. What did you enjoy about adapting it as a film?
Purcell: That I could bring the land to life, that I could have the land as another character and that I could also introduce Louisa [Jessica De Gouw] and Nate Clintoff [ Sam Reid] because they're not in the play. And I was looking at how I was going to bring my audience into Molly's world and have foreign eyes, or eyes that didn't quite understand it. I think that's a look at how, when non-Indigenous people first arrived here, the misunderstanding, the alienation in the land, in the harsh land.
So I guess that was the big difference. And then of course, looking at the script to manipulate and take the gems from the play that I used as a guideline. Not all of them made it, which I think was a good thing because it has to be different. And that story has to find its own place for the film, but it kept me on track and gave me a guide.
And then as the director/writer, being brave enough to remove them when I felt that the image was telling the story or the actors were emotionally portraying that or it just wasn't needed for this version, for the film version. So I liked the detective work of diving in and seeing what we're going to survive and being brave enough to rip away, to pull away and let the stories have their own breaths, their own heartbeat and finding their own journey and being truthful to that. Because I think if I were to have tried to kept it too close to the play, I don't think it would have worked.
Although I am a massive fan of Denzel Washington's Fences, where it is almost read verbatim on that script. And that also encouraged me as well, as I watched that and gave me the encouragement that no, I can do this. But then I had to let the landscape speak, and so it became what it needed to be, the story that we needed it to be.
NFS: I'm American, and so I wasn't familiar with the original story, but I read it yesterday. I understand it's really popular and a cornerstone of Australian literature. And you are giving it a post-colonial, feminist, Indigenous perspective. Can I ask about your process of adapting that story?
Purcell: It started with my mom. She read the book to me when I was a little girl. And there's evidence in the book that I was about five years old [at the time] because I was writing "Dick, Dora, and Flop" [in it]. Which was a grade one book.
And so she would read that to me. It was the first story where I used—I remember imagining that I was that little boy [the eldest son], and as I said, Mother was the other person. We had a combustion stove, so my mother cut wood. She taught me how to split logs. She taught me how to stack a wood heap.
As a young child, I was that little boy, and my mother was the drover's wife, because my father wasn't around. So there was a connection with that. And I would always jump up when she'd say the story and say, "Mum, I want to say the last line." And the famous last line in the story that you read is, "Ma, I won't never go drovin'."
So I had that connection with it, but also Yadaka [Rob Collins] is my great-grandfather's story, other than him being hung. He was given to a South African circus. Well, we don't know if he was given, stolen, went for slave labor, or actually got a job there, but it was 1892. And he toured the east coast of Australia for three years. And he was from a place called coastal Cooktown up on the east coast, not quite to the top of Queensland. But it's further than Cairns, if you've ever heard of Cairns. And they left him destitute in Melbourne.
And so that story, everything that Yadaka says actually comes from diaries that were written. Everything the stockmen say when they are around with Molly and what they say to Yadaka was taken from diaries of superiors and how they spoke about Aboriginal people.
I wanted to put that in there because it was important that... Because a lot of time, years ago in Australia, if we were to say something like this, [audiences go], "No, those people didn't say that," but now we've got access to history and files, especially Indigenous people. And we're bringing that to the forefront to go, "This was said." But we need to air it, put it out so that we can move forward and understand the wrong that your ancestors [did]. And let's not make it again. Let's try to make change for our future.
And I'm not a person that, if I sat down and someone said to me, "I want you to write a film about domestic violence, racism, feminism issues," I would run a mile. I'd go, "No, thank you." So I just talk about my personal experiences. I relied on my family's history, history of the country.
My mother has passed now, and I kept that little [Henry Lawson] book.
I was the director of a writers' workshop, but I was so frustrated with the other writers and what they weren't delivering. I went home and I said, "I shouldn't take it out on them. Maybe I'm due to write something again." So I went to my bookshelf and saw the little red cover. It was just poking out a little bit more. And I said, "Maybe it's time."
So I pulled the book out, Henry Lawson's short stories, laid it beside my computer. I didn't reread it. I wanted to remember what my mother told me, and away I went. And thank goodness it was over the weekend, because I just wrote for 48 hours—
NFS: Oh my gosh.
Purcell: Nonstop. Yeah. And then I went back for another week to the workshop. And then I literally wrote act one in five days and act two in two and handed it to my partner and said, "Look, this is probably going to be crap because I think I rushed it." But he said, "No." He said, "We're onto something here. And I can see a film in that."
So that story has been with me for 45 years.
And just one other little angle on that. I did a film in 2006 with Ray Lawrence. And this film was called Jindabyne. And we shot up in the Snowy Mountains. And I think that may have been the first time I'd been up there. And I just fell in love with the country, and said, we just don't utilize this enough in our production.
And so we went up to the highest peak of one of the mountains, Mount Kosciuszko, you can actually walk to it. And I stood up there, and I said, "I've fallen in love with this country." I was just yelling out to the ancestors, putting it out there in the universe. I said, "I think I'm going to come back here and make a film. I think it's going to be Drover's Wife. And I think I'm going to be in it. Echo, echo, echo, echo."
And in 2014, I was fortunate enough to sit down—I won the Balnaves Fellowship for Indigenous writers with the Belvoir St. Theatre, which allowed me to sit down and write. And then we world premiered the theater piece at Belvoir St. in 2016. And to wind down at night, I would go home and write the film.
NFS: Wow. That's incredible.
Purcell: I was influenced by my audience members as well, because women would stay back in the foyer, and be toasting with champagne, themselves, each other, their mothers, their daughters, their grandmothers. And we just got talking about, "Would you come and see a film?" And they went, "Yes, we want tickets tomorrow." So I was actually workshopping at three and four with them. In the play, it stops where Molly's about to go and give her children. And she says to young Danny, "When you're old enough I'll introduce you to Robert Parsens and John McPharlen," who are the two stockmen who had done her wrong. And the play stopped there, and there would always be this uprising, the audience in the dark going, "No. It can't be over." So I knew I had them.
NFS: I want to comment on the way the film is shot. There's so much energy in the camera movements and the way that you were actually capturing the images. I was going to ask about how you landed on how you were telling the story visually.
Purcell: I write psychologically for my audience. So I know when to pull the punches, when to try the punches, so to speak. And I also wanted them to feel physically a part of the journey as well. And, if you watch in Dolby surround sound, the sound we put the subwoofer, you just get hit with the punches. And so it's very stimulating. And I know that I want that when I go to the movies. So I put that in.
For me and the DoP, we just talked about stuff that when we were with Molly, we would have a bit of movement so that the audience feels that they're a part of whatever fight she's fighting or wherever she is. We also looked at a few other films, like some of the classic films. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Just in the sense of how the camera moves in to show the bad guy angles, who's got authority and who doesn't in the scene.
So we would deliver it in discussing that and also paying homage to the Western, which I also wanted to do. We were influenced a lot by The Revenant. We watched that. We looked at a couple of other films and wanted to apply that to The Drover's Wife because of what we saw and how we were moved and how we were physically drained. You know, when he's crawling along the snow. And getting in close when the bear is throwing him around during that scene, [like] Molly's with Joe. And so we were influenced by that because it was what worked for us when we watched those other films together and discuss that.
So I hope we've put out a little flavor on it but I'm not shying away, I'm actually paying homage to the Western genre. I grew up on spaghetti Westerns because we only had two channels in the Bush where I grew up, so Sunday afternoon was always spent watching a Western with my mom.
NFS: Oh, that's awesome. I love that. You are obviously someone who is very prolific in your writing. So as a writer and a creator, what keeps you inspired?
Purcell: I draw my inspiration and my determination to succeed, or at least give life a go, comes from my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation in this country. So she was quite literally forcibly removed from her mother, her family, her country. And they were disposed around Australia. My grandmother, she met her brother again when she was 72. And he might have been 68 is when they first met. And that was from when they were kids to that time, the first and last time, because she died not long after. And she was a woman, on her papers, that was called a "quadroon," an "octoroon" because she had a white dad. And her white dad is actually Daniel Johnson. I gave the character that name because he was one of the good white guys that actually tried to save his children. He actually jumped on a horse and rode into town and tried to save them from being taken. And on her papers she was also called "sub-human."
So I do what I do for her because she never had a voice. And my mother was from the generation where they were the next generation along, where they didn't have culture. They weren't allowed to speak language. They weren't allowed to practice. And they were thrown into this white world and told to survive, but they had less opportunities. I call that the "lost generation," because where does she fit? Where did she fit in society? But in the same time in saying, when she was in her house, she was my mother, she was my father. She was my hero. And she was the boss.
But you saw how she had to fit into society. When she walked out, how she spoke to white people was totally different. And she couldn't tell us much about our culture, and she didn't have a voice as a Black woman, as an Aboriginal woman. So I was born, I believe at the time I was, where I could give these voices and bring about an understanding to a lot of our Aboriginal issues in this country that have got a political tag on them. It's always brought up in the news, or it's always from a politician's point of view. And for many years, when I first came to Sydney, I was with some other amazing Indigenous people. And we were going around the country to give insight into what is meant by land rights, what is meant to be an Indigenous person in this time.
And I would share my grandmother's story. I wrote a song—in another lifetime. I used to sing with a band, and I would sing that song. And they were the political voices. And I was just the voice that gave the heart and soul. That influenced me and my writing. But all I want to do is give a flip side to the coin that's being portrayed to society. I want to get the heart and soul of an experience that is otherwise some political venture or some political point of view. And then what the people, what my audiences do with that, is totally up to them. I can't change people's viewpoints.
If they're really adamant in how they feed Indigenous people or those issues, but at least I can give them—if they come to see my work, they are going to be challenged. They are going to be stimulated. And I hope that it creates conversations in their family, that it opens up to them and they come to their own conclusion of what they've experienced and how they want to step forward in life. And they can be a part of change.
NFS: Thank you so much for sharing that with audiences, because it's such an amazing perspective to come from and to enlighten people. I think those were my main questions. Was there anything that you wanted to mention that I didn't ask about?
Purcell: I just wanted to say thanks to SXSW, because it's an amazing festival, and we're all kicking ourselves over here that we can't be [there]. It's virtual this year, but what a festival to go to with just the music, the culture, and the art side. So hopefully they'll do another one, and the world might be in a better place in another couple of years and come back on time. We miss that live music. I was touched that we were picked up in a prestigious festival. So we're over the moon about that.
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