Miranda Tapsell is a fan of romantic comedies, but when she realized that there were none about people from the Northern Territory of Australia (where she grew up), she decided to make one herself.
What if romantic comedy is a formula that doesn’t need reinventing, but rather the faces represented on screen in them need some shaking up? That’s what award-winning screenwriter and actress Miranda Tapsell set out to answer in Top End Wedding. Tapsell, an indigenous Lakarrian artist herself, first moved from Australia’s Northern Territory to Sydney when she was 19. After becoming an accomplished actress (who incidentally has used her platform to remind audiences to invest in diversity), she decided to take it one step further, writing a film set in the Northern Territory, or ‘Top End’ of Australia.
The film, also starring and produced by Tapsell, follows a couple who have 10 days before their wedding to find the bride-to-be’s mother who’s gone AWOL somewhere in Australia’s remote far north.
After Tapsell co-wrote the script with Josh Tyler, she shared it with long-time collaborator and director Wayne Blair (The Sapphires). “I have such a strong relationship with Wayne that I felt really comfortable sharing the script with him, and we were able to talk about how he saw it as well,” explained Tapsell to No Film School about the great shorthand they had on the film.
Tapsell sat down with No Film School before the premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to talk about writing the script, building trust with local communities before production, and why no one person should have to be the voice of an entire indigenous people.
No Film School: How did you decide to write this film? When did you know it would be a romantic comedy?
Miranda Tapsell: I met my friend and my co-writer Josh Tyler when we were teaching drama students. I'd developed quite a career in acting by then and Josh had told me that he had been up to the Northern Territory, where I'm from. I was blown away by that, because not many people that I meet in Sydney have been up to the Northern Territory and had loved it in the same way as Josh had.
Because we were working with actors, we were talking about our favorite films and we noticed that a great deal of our favorite films were rom-coms. And that's when Josh said, “We should write a rom-com up in the Northern Territory!” It was quite a tricky thing, because while I immersed myself in romantic comedies, particularly ones with the word ‘wedding’ in the title, it was really tough because other than My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it was really tricky trying to find what my voice was within that genre.
While indigenous film is very celebrated in Australia, I think this was really hard because I haven't seen a film in Australia like Top End Wedding. I’d go, "Well, I haven't really got anything to reference." I've been watching things like How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, The Big Sick, and The Incredible Jessica James, and, you know, Crazy Rich Asians.
The exciting thing was that I was writing Top End Wedding in a climate where a lot of rom-coms are being made by different minorities, particularly in Hollywood, and they were using the rom-com genre to make their experience relevant to the American experience. That was helping me. But it took quite a process to find my voice and to understand how to articulate my gaze within a 90-minute structure.
Tapsell: I'm really glad to have worked with Josh because we had great banter with each other, which really fed onto the page. And Josh experienced the Territory in a way that not many other people experienced it. When people go up to the NT, they just complain about how hot and expensive it is, whereas Josh enjoyed the adventure in all of its glory. He was fine with the mosquitoes, he was fine with the heat, because he was there to see how beautiful it is and he was able to go on that adventure.
NFS: How did you find the right balance to represent these different people and different culture on screen, while still keeping it funny and retaining the banter? Was it a challenge to find the right balance?
Tapsell: The biggest thing for me is that I wanted to make sure that the way I wrote Aboriginal people in the communities that we visited was honest and authentic. We had the beautiful Libby Collins as our guide. She is a Tiwi woman who has grown up within that community, on the islands. She was able to be that bridge for us with the community, so that we could let them know that the way we wanted to speak about Tiwi and that community was to talk about everything that was going right in that community, and what made it so special and unique.
They got that straight away, and the embraced us wholeheartedly. That was what was so important to me. It was hard work, but we wanted to be 100% transparent with not only the Tiwi, but the Mirrar, the Jawoyn, and the Larrakia. With all of these communities, we wanted to make sure that they knew that we were going to be very respectful on their traditional lands, and we weren't making Aboriginal people the punchline like people sometimes can.
NFS: During production, you transitioned from having written the script to now to acting in it. What was your guiding philosophy in juggling all these roles and making sure that it was filmed in the right way?
Tapsell: We did have a lot of meetings with the traditional owners [in the Northern Territory], which really helped. It was also very important to Wayne Blair, our director, and it was also very important to Goalpost Pictures, our producers, that they supported that process. It was tricky wearing many hats, but I was lucky that I had a lot of hard-working, supportive people behind me, that they gave me the freedom to change hats. So we were able to have that. There was an understanding already, that they couldn't ask me writing questions when I was on set, because I was acting. I had to be in a different head space.
I'm glad that we had solved so much of the structure before we went on set. We had many drafts to get through, and so I'm really glad that we were in such a great place before we started shooting. It was really only a few tweaks here and there before I started acting.
"A single person like me can’t have all the pressure to be the one representative voice in Australia."
NFS: It's great to see Top End Wedding feature different indigenous voices and faces on screen. What would be your advice to filmmakers or screenwriters who see how you've accomplished this, and want to get more films like this made in the future?
Tapsell: As a young filmmaker, I'm constantly trying to figure that out. But it's always in the back of my mind to support other indigenous voices. I don't have all the answers. I think that was probably the most challenging thing for me, because a lot of the time I was thinking, "Am I speaking on behalf of all of Aboriginal Australia?" And it worries me sometimes, because that's how people can often take that, they take what they've been given from the film and then they think that's how every indigenous person is. So, that's the reason why I push, because the way Aboriginal people live in the desert is very different than the way Aboriginal people live on the coast, and so I want to support other artists. A single person like me can’t have all the pressure to be the one representative voice in Australia.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.