An interview with Gillian Leahy, conducted by Noel King, at the University of Technology, Sydney, 21st June 1992. My Life without Steve is available for rental on 16mm from the National Library of Australia. Print sale and rental inquiries to Ronin Films, PO Box 1004, Civic Square, ACT 2608, Australia.
King: One of the fllm's opening lines is 'I moved in here hoping the view would pull me out of my misery'. So your central character, Liz, is in a room with a view. What is it a view of and why did you choose that particular view?
Leahy: The view is over Black Wattle Bay which is an inner-city harbour bay of Sydney. We considered other locations such as Palm Beach houses overlooking the surf and found out we didn't want them. We were always driven back to an inner-city industrial view of the harbour, in which life was going on. We wanted layers in the view and what was ideal about that spot was that you had the container terminals and beyond them, Balmain, and beyond that, North Sydney. We never really got this shot but if the rain comes over you lose one layer at a time in different stages and you get the impression that peoples' daily lives are going on in that context. We wanted a sense of other people in their flats or home units with their lives going on, people in their houses, people at their daily work - like the tug-boat operators, people who are working on the boats that come through, the commuters on the bridge in peak hour and during the day, in their bread vans, ambulances or whatever. The idea was to convey a sense that outside the window life goes on, the world goes on, while she is in this other space, seeing it but also in some way cut off from it.
King: The opening camera movement definitely gives the viewer a sense of the layering of the image. You begin on the water and as you go up, the image gets more complicated: there are more sights and levels to it before you eventually pull back. You see the cars washing past, you come around the jetty/wharf and then go in through the window. Was the camera movement also calculated to produce that layering of the image?
Leahy: That shot is one of the shots that took us the most time in the film. That and the closing shot (which probably looks more simple, and is, in some senses). In the opening shot we are on a very long lens and we're on details of the water and, as you say, we come up to the bridge and then we begin to pull back and widen and we come across and also begin to track back into the room (because originally the camera is right slap bang up against the window) and we then include the foreshore in front of the flats, the jetty where the men are working, and then come inside the flat and begin to play round the room. As for whether it was constructed to get that layering, when I first set out I knew I wanted these opening and closing shots that would pull the audience in from the world, into the space and at the end the idea is that the character, Liz, is ready to re-enter the world. When we looked at the mechanics of making this interesting we wanted to include things like the daily activity on the wharf, which is mostly what she sees. It's like when you get up, you look out and see what's going on at the wharf. So there was a conscious attempt to do that and we put little sound effects in there: the man rowing the boat is a post-produced sound effect of the water as too is the men throwing logs. And all the sawing and machine noise is played on the soundtrack and we bring that sound up again, to identify it, when we go past the photograph which is of that view again.
King: What are you wanting to convey with that particu~lar repetition? For me it's playful and signals from the outset that the film will, to some extent, be about modes of representation or discursive systems: the camera shows, in its graceful movement, a photographic representation of a scene it has just represented cinematically for its viewer.
Leahy: It's not easy to be sure what I wanted to convey. Intentionality in this film, and maybe in any case, is a difficult thing. Peter Murphy, a photographer, took the photo and gave it to me because he knew of my fondness for that view. Liz, the character, is meant to be a photographer, so it's there as her photo of the view from her window, and in relation to the first line about 'hoping that the view might pull me out of my misery'. I've personally often wished to take a series of photos of these views out of windows in my house and stick each photo next to its window. I guess that's an interest in the issue of representation. We deliberately faded up the sound effects of sawing etc. on the wharf again to make it clear to the audience that it was a photo of the same view they had just seen. It's there also to signal the use of photographs throughout the film. Because the film has a very restricted view (Liz's flat and the view from its window) we had to have recourse to still photos if we wanted to show more of her life. Paradoxically, though, with this photo we repeat what we have just seen in the moving picture image; a view from the flat, not from her life outside it.
King: The film exhibits a very careful or meticulous sense of mise-en-scÉne, across everything from arrangements of flowers to jars of lollies. For example on one occasion you have some candles, lit and standing to the right of the window, their candlelight set off against the lights playing across the water.
Leahy: That's the "twentieth-century mayonnaise" shot. That was deliberate and in the story-board I always imagined it as one half of the window reflecting the inside and the other half giving on to the outside. It didn't come out in the fllm as strongly as I would have liked but it was a way of indicating that for her, the world was split, she was split. It's where she says 'But then some survive. Many do. Without love. Even starving in India. Birds fly over the rainbow'. So it's her way of saying, 'how can I be so self-absorbed and precious just because my boy friend has left me; people in India survive without love and without feeling like killing themselves'. So the shot there is trying to reflect back her little world at the same time as the other half is trying to open out to the night and those other considerations.
King: On a few occasions in the film the image is calculatedly indistinct, near the start, for instance, when Liz says 'This morning I woke up from a dream about you again'.
Leahy: It's actually the character/actress standing at the window and the sunlight is coming in off the water. It's something I observed about that flat; at a certain point in the morning the sun strikes the water below at such an angle as to reflect a quite blinding pattern up onto the roof. I thought we might have to recreate it with a tray of water and shine a light into it but as it happened we were able to schedule around when we knew that effect would happen - though we did have to move all the shelves and books aside to get it shining onto a clear piece of wall. So what you are seeing in fact is a reflection from the light hitting the water and bouncing through the window. And the big bulbous thing hanging down is the rice-paper lampshade that you see featured later on in the night scenes of that room.
King: The film moves across the seasons of the year that Liz spends in the flat. Is there a particular pattern to, say, the night/day scenes? Are certain things said on one side of that equation rather than the other?
Leahy: It's hard for me to remember. The script, in third, fourth and fifth draft, had nights and days in it with different speeches signifying different things. Some things, like the Gaslight sequence had to be shot at night. Some of the more desperate stuff happens at night - like the Roland Barthes stuff about anxiety ('I pick up a book and take a sleeping pill calmly' etc.). I don't have a ready-made answer but I do think it was so much of the structure of the script that the bits of speechifying that fell into a night pattern went there.
King: And why Gaslight?
Leahy: Gaslight because I think that often the dilemma for people in depression after rejection, and perhaps particularly for a feminist like Liz, who has been educated according to a set of cultural attitudes, is in that state of rejection, to adopt the attitude that wonders (within the ambivalence you feel after a relationship ends or indeed in the middle of one) whether you are the one causing the problems or whether all men are bastards and are doing it to you. And for me Gaslight is a great film for looking at that dilemma because the heroine constantly thinks she is going crazy and that he is being really nice to her. And, at certain times, her suspicions come through and he tries to dissuade her away from those suspicions. It's a classic film for that ambivalence; am I going mad or is someone driving me mad? In Gaslight we eventually know the second formulation to be the case. I chose Gaslight because I knew it well. I think I first saw it on latenight television. It grabbed me because of its ambivalence about that sort of thing. And as far as the viewer of Gaslight is concerned, for a long while you don't know either and that's the sort of state Liz is in. She can't work out whether she has ruined this relationship herself by her own crazy 'female behaviour' - and perhaps that's partly true - or whether he is a "male monster" who has been driving her mad.
King: The film makes much of notions of being "mad" and "bad" and you set up certain analogies - such as when Liz says to her mother 'You use on me the emotional blackmail that I use on Steve that drives him to drive me away'. So the pattern is to be found across other relationships as well.
Leahy: Yes. That section, in particular, is about emotional blackmail.
King: How calculated was it to build up slowly, in a kind of back-story sort of way, the sense of relations and a layered life to do with this particular woman? I ask because, although one impression on watching the film might be that here is one person speaking for a long period of time (droning on, whingeing, monologising or whatever) in fact when we hear her speak we hear about Barbara, Beth, Irene, Phil, her parents, her psychiatrist...
Leahy: Various script editors and people who read the script in the early stages wanted more of that sense of life going on around her, the sense that her life isn't totally isolated. She is working, she is "presenting OK" (as therapists might say) in the outside world. I didn't want her to seem like a total crazy. I wanted it clear that she was presenting OK, seeing friends, doing things and, to most observers, living a fairly normal life, although maybe not as cheerful as usual. So it was a conscious decision to bring a sense of there being various people in her life.
King: To take Phil's letter for a minute and how it functions to build up a sense of Liz as a character. The letter implies a certain age for Liz. For example she would have been at university in the late 1960s, early 1970s (hence Phil's question about where that moment of Marxism has gone). What age is Liz?
Leahy: We thought mid~-thirties. I think we wanted it to be more like early thirties because the actress we cast (Jenny Velutic) was that age. But then we had the problem that we were going to use the Vietnam photos, the Whitlam-sacking era photos. And then there's the three of them in the street with the NLF flag, so that photo refers to the period when America pulled out of Vietnam. So her youth is associated with that period. We figured that would mean she could wear mid-thirties. But I also didn't want to place it so old that it would cut out a total generation of young people in terms of possible identification.
King: We'll eventually come on to the controversy your film provoked within some Australian feminist circles but could you say a little about other political issues in the film, issues of class etc.?
Leahy: Some people think the film is self-indulgent and middle-class and there seems to be a suggestion that issues of romantic love and obsession are the luxury of the rich. I don't think this is so. The statistics on domestic violence seem to suggest that these are issues that confront all classes of people in our society. Depression over love afflicts a lot of women regardless of class. There are a few references to class and politics in the film. Liz's mother says 'We didn't send you out to a factory when you turned fifteen...' and Liz at one point says 'Many survive, even starving in India. Birds fly, over the rainbow'. I had expected this to be read as part of Liz castigating herself for worrying about minor problems (love) when others in the world are too busy trying to eat to worry about such things. ('Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, then, oh why, can't I?'). Liz is asking herself why she is so miserable when it is only love and the lack of it that is worrying her. The film refers to the struggles of the 1970s, around the same time as the anti-Vietnam war movement, and she reads a letter from a male friend talking about his not wanting to become '"one of those hard-working, work obsessed types, the new surviving puritan"', living independently without love. He asks, as she does, 'what happened to the promise of the past?' (a reference to the early sexual liberation movements). 'Is this what we were fighting for?'. Whatever other social and political problems there are in Australia, there are also undeniably many problems to do with the relations between the sexes. Most murders are domestic murders and that alone points to the fact that love and obsession are serious problems in our society. The film tries to address those issues. It carries on the 1970s feminist agenda that argued that the personal was political, that personal, individual problems should be opened up for analysis, should be made public so that individuals would no longer be oppressed by the notion that it was "just a personal problem". At the same time the film is arguing, I think, for an analysis of love and obsession that acknowledges women's complicity, at times, in the power games and power structures that may oppress them.
King: The film obeys very classical symmetries. It begins and ends on the same song, at the beginning we see Steve's photo on the wall and at the end it's been taken down, in the beginning the flat is messy and at the end it's tidied up...
Leahy: For me some things in a short film have to be very obvious. Why confuse people about what you mean? And symmetry feels nice.
King: I was thinking of, say, a Raymond Bellour-style account of the rhymes and repetitions of classical cinema, the insistence with which openings and closings rhyme one another, and so on. Unwittingly or not your film displays some of these symmetries.
Leahy: It's a bit unwitting but that doesn't mean I haven't "osmosed" that classical technique. I'm sure you learn those things over years of viewing. The use of the song was certainly very deliberate. Although that's not entirely true. There were various possibilities available because, in writing the script, I wasn't sure what permissions we could get and so it had to remain, to some extent, fairly open about that stuff. In the end the Bob Dylan fee was quite low. But at one point I was thinking of using Maria Mulduar's "Deep Water" for its lines 'Deep water, I'm caught up in your flow and if I'm in over my head I'll be the last to know'.
Although I think that's a great song, to me it sort of trivialised and summed everything up as just being about a bad period or madness or something. Whereas the Bob Dylan song for me had that sense of 'I'm going to give myself a good talking to'. And to me it can be read differently at the beginning and end of the film. At the beginning it's a sort of lament and at the end you get the feeling that it is now merely a lament rather than that notion of a desperate lament at the start of the film. And come the end of the film I wanted the audience to read it with that different inflection.
King: At a certain point in the film, having watched the camera prowl around producing the minute detail of the flat, you have Liz say or resume something of what the film has shown its viewer up to that point. Her statements echo the earlier camera movements and so on. What's going on with that particular technique?
Leahy: What happened there was that I wrote the script and it included these camera directions or notes like 'a crack in the wall, a curtain blows in the window, a foghorn sounds in the distance'. That was me describing what we would see and hear. When Susan Dermody read the script she said that it was good writing and should be included in the voice-over. It's interesting because I suppose that technique could have led to some of the criticisms about the film being one-to-one and obvious, sound-track with imagery etc. But one of the issues for us had always been to make the voice-over interesting, multi-layered, with different modes of address (to Steve, the world-at-large, her mother, herself). So that the actress (Jenny) would know she was addressing different audiences at different times. And in the same way we wanted to have different styles so that sometimes the voice-over is more poetic, other times more written or more spoken. And so this idea of using what are essentially descriptive pieces of screen direction actually become part of the voice-over. The device is used about three times, I think, though I have the feeling that I used it more than that.
King: At one point the camera moves across her desk. It's not a "clear" shot of the desk in the sense that you don't see everything laid out on it, it's cluttered, but you do see a handwritten transcription of part of page 35 of A Lover's Discourse (with that pagination given in the shot). And later you get the pan along the bookshelves which reveals A Lover's Discourse lying there. One thing that continues to interest me in your film is the way that it presents the paradox of saying, here is an individual emotional grief, someone's been abandoned, it's all very particular, very much about them as a specific person and yet the principal way of expressing this (and this is one of the main points of Barthes' book) is for the abandoniqu to plunder or rummage through a whole range of available discourses, in order to give voice to an "individual" grief. So Liz goes to Barthes, Dylan, Colette, Juliet Mitchell, Hank Williams. (I'd have tossed in Blondie's "Picture This" and Patsy Cline's "She's Got You".) To what extent were you trying to make that point? You have all these citations, quotations, which seem to constitute Liz's way of working through her pain. What do you understand to be the point of it? Sometimes the references are associational, as when she says 'Between the dead and the dying I am one of the walking wounded', and this leads on to Laurie Anderson's 'I'm walking and falling'. Or the way the question 'When does it come, that miraculous morning when I won't need you?' leads to the punning on "morning"/"mourning". So sometimes it's Liz making those associations, thinking aloud in that way.
Leahy: Yes it's to do with the character. The character is presented as a thirties upward feminist who would be reading those books but who is now obsessively reading them in order to come to some sort of understanding of her own situation and intellectualise her way out of it. So that provides a convenient device for something that, as a filmmaker, I wanted to do. I wanted to try to see if those books and theories would help one understand the problems of depression and obsession to do with love. And although some people have said the writings are skimmed rather than fully expounded, and although the film didn't set out to present, say, Juliet Mitchell's views on romantic love, there was a serious attempt on my part as a writer to see what they had to offer on that topic. If it had been a written essay on the question "what do these writers say about romantic love and how people can get over it if they're obsessed by it" then these are the sources I'd have gone to and, slightly longer, these are the passages I'd have chosen. In the film I've distilled down what I think are the essentials of their arguments. So to the extent that it is an "essay film" it is one that is trying to deal with those intellectual ideas about romance and obsession.
King: That's the first time we've come on to the usual way of classifying this, and some other, films: that is, as an "essay film" in the tradition deriving from Godard, Godard-Gorin, Marker, Ruiz etc. When you were writing it, was that the way you thought of it? Did you tell yourself you were writing an essay film?
Leahy: I didn't know about the category then, but I knew Marker's Sunless and liked it very much. And I actually recorded the narration from Sunless to find out how many breaks he had in the narration, what level of narration to non-narration and sync sound-effects you could have and that an audience could stand. Because the ideas in Sunless sometimes get quite complex I took that as a model for what I could manage to deal with. But the category as such, though I know it well now, I didn't know then.
King: So what did you think you were doing? If someone asked you to describe your film, along the lines of "what genre is this film?", how would you answer?
Leahy: I used to think I'd just say it was an experimental film, and I'd thought for a long time that I'd make an experimental film about romantic love. And I knew it would be set in that space. In my mind it was always going to be set in that room it was shot in. And now, in certain contexts, I would want to claim the film as a documentary. Other documentary filmmakers and academics have real problems with that but I fail to see why it's not a documentary. In terms that documentarists use (such as "based on truth or fact"), terms that I might - on some occasions - reject, then this film is based on real letters, real facts, real case histories. In terms of the reality-test relating to documentary it comes through with flying colours. I'm not saying this is the only basis on which I'm prepared to talk about it or sell it but it's interesting to me to see peoples' resistance to calling it that. People seem to feel that its subject-matter is to do with drama. People were much happier for me to call it an experimental drama than to call it an experimental documentary. I don't think most other documentary filmmakers in Australia regard it as a documentary, and I think that represents a narrowness in their conception of documentary.
King: At one point in the film, just after a reference to Marge Piercy, there's a phrase like 'the lost passion of that time' and the delivery is highly poeticised. Is it a quotation?
Leahy: It's part of a poem I wrote as an adolescent that I found in one of my old exercise books. 'They are the lost passions of that time/ Waning white on all the forest fires'.
King: Have you anything more to say about romantic love, given that it comes up so much in the film? About two-thirds of the way through the film Liz starts to explore it explicitly as an issue.
Leahy: It's clearer to me now that it's a film about someone obsessed about a particular break-up, the loss of a particular lover, and that it's a film about obsession. But I think my view at the time was that this is often what happen to people who are romantically in love. So how much was romantic love itself able to be defined as obsession, that's what some of my reading was about. Is it just that Liz is crazy because more obsessed than she should be about the loss of a relationship or is it that anyone in romantic love is crazy or not crazy? Is this a cultural rather than individual phenomenon? I didn't want to look at Liz as a crazy individual, I wanted to look at her as someone who has fallen under the spell of the myth about romantic love.
King: It's intriguing that the only time I can recall the word "hysterical" being used in the film is in relation to Liz's story of herself as a child at kindergarten and her cup rolling away. Yet some feminists have referred to the film as an "hysterical" text. I'm not saying that this invalidates that way of reading your film but it's interesting that the film mentions this once - as opposed to the way it talks about masochism.
Leahy: In a strict sense that's not quite true, because the stuff from Freud at the beginning is actually from his papers on hysteria. So the film firmly begins with that, while the actual word might not be used, the condition is referred to. The reference is to hysteria and women. And the story about the cup is a story from my childhood.
King: Fairly regularly, having established a particular scene, the camera goes in close on a detail - like the lights on the water at night or particular objects in the flat.
Leahy: I think that's just a fairly standard cinematic device. Often you want the close-up for the textures in it and because of the way a close-up will exclude extraneous stuff that annoys you in your framing, and particularly when you aren't able to art-direct things (such as the lights on the water). Then in order to get a decent frame of something you're going to have to move up close onto it. If you do that first, it might be so disassociated that people can't place it. So it's just the standard technique of doing a wide-shot and then doing a close-up. But sometimes it might be more interesting to work the other way in terms of throwing people off balance.
King: The film is beautifully shot and when you do go in carefully on objects in the flat, the viewer sometimes gets caught up in observing little repetitions. It might be the green plate in the stainless steel sink with water dripping on it, and then the tap dripping in the porcelein sink. This density of everyday detail...
Leahy: Like the different kettle and the fact that the sponge is or isn't on the stove...
King: It is on the stove and it's yellow, a dirty yellow and you've got yellow flowers, yellow fruit. You move from fruit to the boiling of the cumquats. Is there a specific thematic going on with this use of flowers? In all of this prowling around a flat and isolating details of everyday objects in that way, holding on them, did you have any cinematic models in mind? Had you seen any Ozu for instance?
Leahy: In terms of the object stuff I'm not sure. I don't think I'd seen any Ozu or if I had they hadn't really registered with me. I had seen David Perry's films, notably A Poem on Abigail's Belly and some of his video work. He's just made The Refracting Glasses which again has some of those shots of curtains and windows and objects in rooms. Originally a mentor, he's since been a friend, a colleague and has been a big influence on my filmmaking career. So that is one possible reference. Another is Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert's Behind Closed Doors, a film about domestic violence. In fact Jan McKay did the art direction on that film and on My Life Without Steve, so there's a direct link then. And Chantal Ackerman's influence was present - as in Richard Key's statement that Ackerman would have no trouble making a room interesting for forty-five minutes. But it was also just a feature of having to make a room interesting for forty-five minutes and only having a room to tell you about the character.
King: So in part it's born of the exigencies of the filmed situation. Talk to me about the flowers.
Leahy: I chose flowers for the section concerning the mother's letter for two reasons. Flowers are traditionally associated with femininity and one of the things we were dealing with here was the mother-daughter relationship. And because they are sweet, and what was being talked about was the opposite of that - it wasn't about light, breezy, airy flowers so much as it was about suffocation, control and manipulation - it had value for that kind of similarity and contrast. But another, more personal reason is that my mother taught me all I knew about gardening - and this is true for many women and I suppose for quite a few men. And one of the great pleasures I had from my relationship with my mother is my interest in gardening. Not that anyone would ever know about this, unless they read this, but it was slightly in homage to her that the flower motif was used.
King: Could you say something about Jenny Velutic's performance and how worked-through it was? I mean there was the drama of her having to re-do the voice-over...
Leahy: Jenny taught me a lot about directing actors. She's a NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) student and has a very professional attitude to her work. She wanted to stay in the flat for several nights and given that she only had to appear in two shots, and do the voice-over, that was something no-one would have demanded of her. But she did it anyway, and slept alone in that flat for several nights. I thought that was pretty incredible. We had rehearsal time on the voice-over and she told me what direction she needed. We mostly worked at her place and went through the text word-by-word, scene-by-scene, working out to whom each speech was directed, what each word meant in each "grab", where it was from (whether it was a poem, whether something was being quoted). She knew that, to some extent, the character was based on me and she found out a lot about me. Although she's nothing like me she regarded me as someone to research for background. She would ask questions like 'What is Liz trying to make Steve feel here?' or 'What is she trying to make her mother feel?' or 'Why is she saying this, who is she saying it to?' And to the extent that her narration itself has its own manipulations - it's still seeking to manipulate Steve at times, and so on - she was very conscious of bringing that out in the way she would deliver the voice-over. She wanted the performance to come from within and was very insistent on that but said that if there's something you're trying to get me to say in a certain way, by directing me in that way, and I don't do it like you want, then I don't mind if you insist. I think that happened once or twice and she would find a reason to say it that way. I think it's particularly hard to direct someone through a voice-over when you know exactly how you've written every word and how you would like every word spoken. For that reason it was a really interesting experience and she was absolutely amazing, really excellent.
We had this drama with the voice-over in that when we first recorded it we did it on a sound-recording machine that had worn heads, which meant that the quality would never be good enough. We cut to that voice-over, chopped it up and layed it all and then cut the image to it. (Largely that was the way we worked). And then at the end when we went to mix it we found out its quality was no good and that we had to re-record it exactly in sync as it had been done before. Otherwise the whole pacing of the cutting of the voice would not have worked. To some viewers the film might seem thrown together but there is a lot of work on the pacing of the image and the sound in the film. So Jenny had to do it again with headphones on, listening to her old version, watching a screen. And there'd be rows of lights that would come together when she had to start speaking. So she had to start speaking and finish speaking at the very precise moment in order to get the delivery and timing exactly the same.
King: Why do you use a rocking chair in one of the scenes? It has a diary or booklet on it, a scarf draped over it and it's moving gently.
Leahy: There's something in the song used at that point that for me almost suggests the rhythm of the rocking. However there was the real issue of showing her presence in the flat by a means other than still objects and that's why there are these other shots. David McDougall, one of my assessors for the Austra~lian Film Commission, the funding body, pointed out to me that the point-of-view of the camera was as if it were just over her shoulder. And so you are able to get the sense that she has just got up from that chair and it's still rocking.
King: So it's a space that she had occupied, has now left, and it's a sort of trace of her.
Could you give some information on the budget, the shooting ratio, the format, the assumed release the film would have?
Leahy: It was fully budgeted for a four-to-one ratio and cost $55,000. The crew worked for two weeks at union rates, there was $5,000 for music royalties and $1,000 for art decoration. Initially it was to have been shorter. It began as a 30 minute film, later became 45 and then grew to 55 minutes. It was shot on 35mm with an old silent Arriflex IIC camera which we got either free or very cheaply from Film Australia, and which in fact was Dean Semmler's old camera. You can now get a 35mm print of the film, a 16mm print, a U-matic and a VHS tape. We shot for 35mm wide-screen but when you show it on 16mm it gets shown full frame. When we were shooting Erika Addis would sometimes say 'this one won't look so good on 35mm but will look good on 16mm or vice-versa'. We aimed for film-festival release and we were always hoping for a theatrical season. And we were lucky enough to get one - "lucky" in the sense that it's very difficult to show a one-hour experimental film in a theatrical season in Australia.
King: I saw it first in Perth, at the Film and Television~ Institute in Fremantle, on a double with Camera Natura. Is that the way it circulated in Australia?
Leahy: It circulated all over the countryside with that film accompanying it; and in Sydney it also showed with two other short films, The Lead Dress and Leigh Whitmore's animated film, Ned Wethered. Overseas, in Canada, it played two weeks with Ivory-Merchant's film of E.M. Forster's Maurice.
King: As I indicated earlier, the film provoked some controversy within Australian feminist circles. What do you think was happening there?
Leahy: For me, two issues have often been conflated; namely whether Liz is a feminist or whether the film/filmmaker is feminist. Some people, I think wrongly, read the character as being post-feminist or as having abandoned feminism. I don't think there's much justification, when you honestly examine the text, for that reading. And even if you were to say that, I don't see that it would make the film non-feminist. As far as I see it the film is feminist in that it takes up a feminist issue concerning romantic love, discussing whether that institution or that cultural notion or constellation oppresses women. The film certainly takes that issue up, even if it doesn't present any clear-cut, simple, answer to it. If we take a "feminist work" to mean something that advances the interests of women as a group in this society, then I think it's a feminist film. It takes up an issue that is a stumbling block to womens' self-realisation and tries to tease out what that's all about. And however the film ends, whatever its conclusions are, it sets itself up as something that is trying to provoke discussion of those things. And it should allow other women to know that they are not alone when they're in these states, that it's a social rather than an individual phenomenon. And I take this to be one of the main projects of feminism.
King: I said earlier that the film explicitly addresses the issue of masochism. What is going on in these references?
Leahy: You know the line 'What is the nightmare, what is its name?'? That refers to Apocalypse Now where the Brando/Kurtz character says at the end 'Horror has a face and a name'. So it's sort of an examination of pain and suffering, that notion of wallowing in the belly of the beast and trying to understand it from within (maybe always a hopeless task but not necessarily to be abandoned for that). I was once asked whether the thing not named was masochism. Now I wouldn't readily say that, except that it is something that informs the film - that question 'am I doing this to myself, am I being masochistic?' - as is suggested in some of Steve's remarks to Liz and in the lines towards the end, 'I want this powerful, commanding man but he must also be swooning at my feet. The masochist is the one receiving all the attention. She is really the one controlling it, or trying to. This is the way the powerless manipulate. What was this pain about?'. That's me, the filmmaker, at the end, trying to sum up a lot of the issues. I think one of the things the film is looking at is the way some feminists have a ready means of explaining their suffering in romantic love by blaming men for being bastards, and therefore thinking that women don't need to explain their own complicity in things. Now in a general way I think this is interesting in relation to a whole lot of feminist issues like the power of the mother in being able to be a fascist towards the children, controlling and manipulating them. And that this is the case because women are denied power in the world-at-large, so that this sort of manipulative behind-the-scenes control of people personally is their only field of power. And it's distorted because they aren't able to exercise power in the world-at-large. So all the stuff about the mother's emotional blackmail of the daughter and the daughter's visiting that blackmail onto her lover is on the same terrain as the stuff about masochism. The line 'this is the way the powerless manipulate' originally was going to be a question but I remember Sasha Soldatow, one of the script~ editors, saying to me 'you're summing up now, you have to stop asking questions and say it'. And so I'm saying it, and it relates to The Cinderella Complex - 'I want this powerful man etc.' - and all the Barbara Cartland novels about romantic love. They always have that model where there is a strong unapproachable man but the woman controls and tames him and he's swooning at her feet. But it's an impossible model. It's not a model about equality between partners or even any sort of contract about power or differences of power. It's a model in which the woman as romantic loved object will make the whole world swing around her. And I think if women are ever to change their situation or get themselves out of these situations then they need to address this question of their complicity in that situation. What they have to gain from it and how much easier it is either to idealise or demonise men rather than deal with your own contribution to the situation.
King: The film is used in a lot of teaching contexts and your opinions are regularly sought in relation to it (as is happening now). How do you feel about the film now, six years on? Are there things you'd want to change?
Leahy: On the whole I pretty much still stand by it. Sometimes when I watch it I want to shake Liz for being so pathetic and other times I get swept up in the emotion of it, as I would want audiences to be, I suppose. Sometimes I find the whole section about dependency, with the photos of her and her mother, her and her father and different people, a bit scrappy and visually uninteresting, and I wish I'd made it more interesting there visually. But on the whole there isn't a lot I would resile from. Some people have problems with the tone of the film and are completely alienated by the woman in the film. One of the overseas distributors even said they disliked her voice. Sometimes I wonder whether in making the film so closely from her point of view I've forced viewers either to go with her or not and that this has made the film less popular than if might have been. But in the end I don't think I would have done it differently.
New: 22 November, 1995 | Now: 24 March, 2015