Landmark Queerscreen opening film stars UTS media grad
For the first time in its 27-year history, the opening night film at the Mardi Gras Film Festival - aka Queerscreen - will be an Australian feature. A local Sydney film, made with a lot of hustle and a ton of love, this crowdfunded indie delight stars UTS film graduate Sophie Hawkshaw.
Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is a joyous rom com about high school girls in love, with UTS film grad Sophie Hawkshaw (B/Communications, 2017) playing the title role of Ellie, "a strong-willed school captain who is seriously crushing on her rebellious classmate, Abbie. Luckily, her aunt Tara, a lesbian activist who died in the 1980s, appears from the afterlife with plenty of old-school advice for Ellie – whether her niece wants it or not."
See the trailer here.
The cast also includes Aussie TV doyenne Marta Dusseldorp (Janet King, A Place to Call Home), New Zealand’s brilliant and hilarious Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnorok), and the impressive talents of Zoe Terakes (Wentworth) and Julia Billington (Starting from...Now, Catching Milat). Opening night is long sold out but thankfully there's a second session screening on Sunday 23 February.
It’s very, very far from easy to make an indie feature. Sophie describes this crowdfunded film with its star cast as ‘young, scrappy and hungry’ made with fierce love and tenacious hustle thanks to the creative talent and savvy producing skills of writer/director Monica Zanetti.
Tells us a bit about the journey of the film and how you got involved.
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt) was originally a theatre play in 2017. Mon (Monica Zanetti) wrote, directed, and co-starred in it and she cast me as Ellie.
Later, after we did the play, it felt like there was more to come with this story.
Mon wrote the playscript into a screenplay and I hung around pestering her to make sure I could be in the film – I know that sounds bad but I did – so the play ended up being a workshop for the film in a way.
How was the film funded?
Hustle and love. Hustle and love.
Mon did lots of social media posting, lots of emailing potential supporters. We shot a teaser promo and with that, and the synopsis, people were able to grasp the vibe of the film. Mon also chased a bit of government funding and some private investment. She fought for a Match grant for $10k and she crowdfunded a lot of it.
Crowdfunding is this beast that can be scary but is actually is a great way to finance films.
Mon really wanted to tell an uplifting, happy, queer story and that’s what got the crowdfunding over the line. People saw that in the teaser, and connected with it, they loved the story and they loved Monica. She really passionately believed in the story and she was going to make it no matter what.
How did you get Marta, Rachel, Zoe and Julia to be in the film?
(With Sophie’s permission, we’ve paraphrased this answer)
It went something like this:
Monica discussed the script with Zoe and Julia and got them attached. Coincidentally both Zoe and Julia worked on Janet King with Marta, and Zoe also worked with Marta in the stage production of A View from the Bridge. Zoe talked with Marta about this great new project, Marta was intrigued, and then agreed to do the film after talking with Monica.
Monica got a gig as a PA on Top of the Lake, which Rachel House is also worked on. Monica and Rachel had great chats, Rachel was wanted to know more about Monica’s script and they planned to meet again to talk further.
Coincidentally, Sophie got a gig as a runner on a web series, and one of her jobs was to pick up one of the stars from the airport. And - what are the chances? - the star turned out to be Rachel. While chatting in the car, they realised that they were both associated with this same project.
Possibly spurred on by the positive cosmic mojo of the serendipitous meeting with Sophie - or not - Rachel later met with Monica as planned, loved the script, and signed on to the film too.
So you networked, leveraged opportunities and had a great story to tell. But even all of these elements combined don’t always get people on board. So what was the vital element here?
When people meet Mon, and they hear her talk about her film, they want to get behind it. They’re inspired to contribute because of her passion. Her attitude is ‘if you don’t get on board, no worries, I’m still going to make it’. As a filmmaker that resonates with me.
In this industry, you have to be scrappy, you have to find ways to do it no matter what. You can’t wait for people to give you permission.
Mon’s a shining example of this.
Any learnings for you through this process? As an actor/filmmaker?
Acting and filmmaking inform each other. I was getting frustrated by the acting roles I was getting and I wasn’t able to explore characters in a worthwhile way.
That’s why I studied film in the first place, to be able to tell my stories, and have more autonomy over the stories I was telling. I love film - it’s such a powerful medium - and I wanted to meaningfully participate in it.
Being onset, I know how to talk to actors, I know what they’re going through, and what their experience can be like. And on the flip side, I know what everyone’s jobs are on set, and I can be useful as actor because I know what the crew needs from me and how to get the best out of myself to serve them.
This project really inspired me. Monica fought so hard to get it made, and it made me think that I can do that, I can go out and make a feature film with very little money and very little support, and do amazing things.
And this was a chance to tell an actual story – I’ve never been able to play a character like Ellie before.
Any learnings for you as an LGBTQI+ ally?
I’ve always considered myself an ally, but being a part of this film has opened my eyes to the diversity of the community, the way the community rallies around each other, the richness of the history.
The LGBTQI+ community have fought for so much and come so far, and they have given so much to get to this point. There is so much reason to mourn –and to be bitter and terrified - about what the community have been through - but the way people rise above it and move forward while being informed by the past is really powerful.
In the film you get a taste of that; of how far the community has come and also an acknowledgement of the cost it took to get to that point. And also that queer stories inherently cannot be simple, because of the world we live in.
In the process of writing this Mon realised that actually the history of the LGBTQI+ community makes it impossible to have just simple love stories, but that doesn’t mean that their love stories can’t be wonderful and make us happy.
It’s been a really important learning curve for me to help amplify these stories - to loudly and actively support the community, and support them to tell their own stories.
How about it being the opening night film huh? Feel good?
It was pure joy and excitement – particularly for Mon. This is the film that Monica always wanted to make for herself as a queer woman and Queerscreen always felt like the home for it. Mon’s been hustling for years to make it and so many people poured love into it.
Queerscreen feels like a perfect festival for this film and the perfect first audience.
This festival is everything that the film is trying to be, and it supports the stories that the film is telling. It’s going to be really special for Mon and I to see it and know that that’s our little story up there.
This is a beautiful film and I’m so excited for people to see it.
Sophie Hawkshaw is a filmmaker, actor and UTS film graduate. Her acting credits include Love Child and Puberty Blues. Filmmaking credits include short documentary Shanghai's Child - nominated for the UTS Golden Eye Award for Best Documentary and her UTS capstone film Fenced won the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) #SocialShorts Drama competition. Sophie is also a film tutor with Bus Stop Films.
Monica Zanetti is a filmmaker and actor. She wrote and co-starred in the feature film Skin Deep (nominated for an AWGIE, and winner of Best Narrative Feature at the Austin Film Festival). She has written for Channel 10/Netflix series Sisters and the CJZ series My Life Is Murder, and was a writer/producer on the ABC Comedy series Tonightly With Tom Ballard. Ellie and Abbie is the first feature she has directed, as well as written and produced.
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