The bearer of stories

Leah Purcell on indigenous voices and The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson

by Jennie Kermode

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson

A blistering exposé of misogyny and racism in late 19th Century Australia, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson is Leah Purcell’s first feature length fiction film as a director but it’s a story she’s lived with for years, from when she first heard the seed of it as a child to 2016, when she adapted it for the stage and subsequently based a book on her play. Now her film is at South by Southwest and the character of Molly Johnson, a woman living out in the bush whose life changes dramatically when her husband goes missing and she gives shelter to an Aboriginal man, is on the brink of being known worldwide. Leah, who plays Johnson herself, agreed to chat to me about how it all came together. We begin by discussing the visual language of the film, and I ask if she always saw it as a western.

“We wanted to do that with it because it allowed us to really push those boundaries,” she says. “Because of the truth of the violence. It gave us scope to play with.”

Was it difficult to adapt for the screen?

“It wasn't difficult at all. I just opened up and it was like a waterfall. It just cascaded out. You know, it was a story that I had with me for 45 years. Because my mother had the little book with the Henry Lawson short story in it. She’d read it or recite it to me at night, I wasn't the best at sleep and I’d always be nudging my mum to tell me that story. And so when the time came, I was actually a director in a writers’ workshop and I was getting very frustrated. And I said, ‘Maybe it's time for me to write my next play,’ and so I came home and found the book and I put it beside my computer, and said, I'm not going to reread it, I'm going to try to remember what my mother had told me.

“And away I went, and I literally wrote the play in seven days, and I said to my partner, ‘This is probably going to be crap.’ And he goes, ‘It's great. There is something in this and I think it’s a film.’ So it was always around, you know, that we will go on to eventually do the film, and doing the theatre piece was a great foundation. I had so much material, so much stuff that didn't go into the play that lent itself to the film or to the novel. When I wrote the character descriptions for my actors for the film, I went, ‘Oh my gosh, I can actually develop this further and put it through the novel.’

“With the play, we were going to get a short run when it first came out, but it was so well received. I just got busy. So you know, they all lend to each other to enhance the story. And we're about to embark on the TV version, which is focused on the children. It’s set 20 years later but we've started the future. So I'm really excited.”

Did she always see herself in the lead?

“I have always wrote for myself,” she says, “mainly because I'm a fair skinned Aboriginal woman but I'm very outspoken, and I guess there was many years where people didn't know how to put me into parts. I've had a great run, a career spanning 30 years. As an actress, that's rare, you know, to sustain. And I also felt that if anyone was going to write indigenous stories, it should be indigenous people, giving us the first chance at our stories, and also putting ourselves in those roles, lead roles, and you know, I probably wouldn't have done this film if I didn’t have the 30 years experience behind me. And putting myself in that role, I've done theatre performances and one woman shows where I did direct myself, so I had that experience and critiquing my own work

“It’s too good of a role to give to anyone else. And I said, ‘I might never make a movie ever again, and I'm going to do one - and I believed this was the one – but the reason I put myself in it is because I went through the journey in the play. Molly Johnson is me. It's my mother, it’s my grandmother, it’s my auntie, and they all influenced me, so right now, I think it was my role to play.”

Is getting easier now to tell stories about Aboriginal Australians?

“We've got great indigenous support units within the government in the film sector. In Australia, there's an indigenous unit, Create New South Wales, there's always an indigenous voice in there. So I think it just took us time to hone our skills and be given those positions. And then the support is there. And absolutely, you know, wider audiences in Australia and the world want to hear some truth telling and an authentic voice. And that's what we do. You know, we've been telling stories forever, and we've always told our stories, but now, you know, the time is right, and people want to want to contribute when the voice is authentic.”

There’s a conversation in the film itself about authentic voices and the importance of that, when white Englishwoman Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) tries to speak up on Molly’s behalf. I found it interesting, I say, because of the way that the film covers an intersectional space concerning race and gender, and the way that experiencing prejudice in one of those categories compounds the experience of prejudice in the other.

That was important, she says. “And it wasn't to shut Louisa's instincts or her help down, just to make her understand that whether it's an indigenous person talking or another woman, that the element of listening is really important. So, you know, everything in that film wasn't quite chance. It was thought through and it was deliberate.”

The film also touches on the issue of ‘adoption’ of indigenous children by white families.

“That's my grandmother. My grandmother was part of the stolen generation,” Leah says. “She was taken from her mother and father. She might have been about five, and her brother was taken too, so that was very important, to put those foreign words, octoroons, quadroons, to make people go ‘What is that?’ and hopefully it creates conversation. And it was paying homage to my grandmother's plight. Most times, it was not called for, you know, everyone was struggling, and it just wasn't right either. There was a paying homage to my name.”

She does a good job of showing the toughness of life in that time and place for everybody.

“Yes, it was it was a tough life, you know, the alienation of Louisa and Nate [her husband, played by Sam Reid] coming into this new world. They’re also new. They're not in the play. But I said ‘How do I get a wider audience to come on this journey, and bring them into the world of Molly Johnson?’ They were making a route for the audience to jump on there and ride through the story.”

How did she go about casting those roles?

“You know, producers and distributors had ideas. I’m a a little bit of a spiritual woman and I went ‘The right people will come,’ and they all looked at me as if they wanted to strangle me. But I said ‘No, they will.’ I was always a fan of Sam Reid – there’s a film he was in called Belle and I love that movie – so I was very aware of him early on, and then he couldn't make it across the table. And I went, yes. And in the meantime, you know, people had got wind of the film being made. And he was looking for me. We went to an award ceremony, we literally sat back to back and we missed each other.” She laughs. “But it was probably a good thing. He reached out and then I reached out, and we both did the same thing: ‘I was looking for you!’

“And then with Jessica, she had read about the play and got in touch. I took them to dinner separately. We talked about the characters and so forth but it was their own personal political point of view and how they got the subtext, and the conversation we had around that – I went ‘These two are the right two for these roles.’

“I needed people that were going to be open to me being the director, the lead actor in front of them but wider. I knew all their lines because I wrote them, you know, but I also made sure that I gave every single one of them a voice and that I said ‘I'm a collaborator. If there's something that's not working for you, please talk to me about it, talk it through some, you know? I can’t promise that everything's going to change to your liking but at least you're questioning me, and it makes me think.’

“They came to play, you know? They worked hard. We all worked hard. And I think it’s the energy between them, it just works, I think, because everyone was comfortable. Especially with the issues and things through that, like, even the guy that played Joe [Molly’s violent husband], you know, he was a beautiful man. And he, he worked so hard. And I said, ‘I know, this is a hard role to play,’ but he was very appreciative of the opportunity.”

So what are her ambitions for the film now?

“Well, you know, I just hope that it goes well, at South by Southwest. We've got a nice number of people that are interested to be watching it so that's really promising. We're with Daniel Goldman for our North American distribution. So that's exciting. I just hope that it triggers people's interest and they go see it, they go on the journey with these characters and they enjoy the film and then they get the subtext to all the other messages in there. And if it creates a conversation, you know, that's what I want to. An awareness and an understanding. And in Australia, I just hope that my Australian audiences embrace it, and that they support our local business as filmmakers in this country and feel proud of our Australian stories. We had such a good run with The Dry and Penguin Bloom. It was great because it wasn't saturated with other films - Australian people want to see Australian content.”

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