“It’s incredibly exciting, but I am nervous,” says Sheedy. “I might have to sneak out and make some ice-creams after the lights go down. I can still remember how it’s done.”
1) HATCH THE IDEA
As one of Australia’s leading film producers, with credits including The Tracker, Red Dog and Tracks, Ryan has several key questions she asks herself every time a potential feature film presents itself. First she ask is there an audience, and how big is it? The second is can she stitch together the financing to get it made?
In April, 2017 Ryan was thrilled to find herself giving affirmative answers when she applied her checklist to the script of H is for Happiness, an adaptation of Barry Jonsberg’s award-winning 2013 young adult novel by screenwriter Lisa Hoppe. Hoppe and Ryan had been looking to work together for several years, and the former’s script reached the latter while she was in post-production for the terrorist attack drama Hotel Mumbai.
“By page 40 I thought, ‘this is it’,” says Ryan. “There was definitely an audience, and a big one because it’s such a funny and uplifting story.”
H is for Happiness tells the story of Candice Phee, an idiosyncratic adolescent who marches to the beat of her own drum. With her parents’ relationship fractured by a family tragedy and her father also estranged from her favourite uncle, Candice sets out – with more enthusiasm than experience – to reconnect those she loves. By her side is Douglas Benson, the new boy at her school in the West Australian port city of Albany, who proves to be an ally with his own unique outlook.
Ryan saw a positive tale about a pre-teen girl, which was a glaring gap in the Australian cinema market. The likes of Paper Planes and Oddball had found commercial success with boys as their protagonists, and H is for Happiness appeared to be an obvious female equivalent. With Hoppe joining as a producer, the Adelaide-based Ryan set to work.
2) FINDING A DIRECTOR
In August, 2017, Ryan was at 37 South, a co-financing market held each year in the opening days of MIFF. It was the first step in finding funding, but what the producer needed was a director to attach to the project so that potential investors could get a sense of the artistic vision that would turn Hoppe’s words into images.
Ryan had spoken to several prospective directors, but they saw the material in darker terms. Ryan was adamant that H is for Happiness had to have a PG rating, which would bring in a family-orientated audience of parents and their pre-teen children. Then she spoke to an agent who alerted her to John Sheedy, a director of acclaimed Australian stage and opera works, who was looking to branch into filmmaking.
Sheedy’s first short, Mrs McCutcheon, had just won the award for Best Australian Short Film at that year’s MIFF. It’s a vibrant, open-hearted work about a 10-year-old boy whose wish to have the name and wear the clothing of a 50-year-old woman divides people.
“In Julie’s version, she got halfway through and said, ‘that’s the guy for me’, and I’m happy with that flattering version,” says Sheedy, whose award-winning theatre adaptations of works such as Jasper Jones and Storm Boy demonstrated an affinity with young characters.
A 90-minute phone conversation with Sheedy led to Ryan and Hoppe flying to Melbourne, where Sheedy laid out his ideas in a 30-page document. By the end of the session, Sheedy was attached, and the same month Ryan signed the Australian arm of Hollywood studio Universal Pictures as the antipodean distributor of H is for Happiness. They were on their way.
3) CASTING THE RIGHT CHILDREN
After putting together a coalition of funding bodies and partners including Screen Australia and Film Victoria in “comparatively quick” time, Ryan and Sheedy had a green light to make H is for Happiness by the middle of 2018. Now they needed to find the young actors who would play Candice Phee and Douglas Benson. If they got that wrong, a film that celebrated difference would almost certainly be a failure.
Sheedy believed he had already found his Douglas, in the form of Indigenous actor Wesley Patten, who had appeared in Mrs McCutcheon. But the search for Candice, undertaken by casting director Jane Norris, proved to be widespread. Auditions in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth saw 400 girls read for the role, with further callbacks in Sydney to narrow the field.
“I could always see Candice in my mind. Visually I always knew how I wanted this forthright, hilarious, charming little girl to be,” says Sheedy. “You have such a strong visual picture, but then you’ll get actors in and they’ll do such a great job that they bring in new qualities that shift your vision.”
Perth schoolgirl Daisy Axon was a huge fan of the book and presented her own take – “bright, smart, funny,” recalls Sheedy – on Candice Phee at the first of what would be five auditions. The clincher came when Axon and Patten tested together as Candice and Douglas, to see if they could embody the relationship between the two characters.
“They laughed, they giggled, they were a little bit shy together,” says Sheedy. “They got along great and looked perfect together.”
4) A HEIGHTENED LOOK
“Australian films don’t do romance well. We do gritty realism well, but we do too much of it,” says Sheedy. “And I don’t mean romance in terms of two people falling in love, but in the visual sense of the word. Beautiful pictures, beautiful textures, beautiful colours. A heightened world.”
The text of both Barry Jonsberg’s book and Lisa Hoppe’s screenplay gave Sheedy a blank canvas to work with visually, and he set out to fill it with colour and movement. The Albany seen in the film comes with a stylised look and joyous flourishes, put in place by Sheedy with production designer Nicki Gardiner and costume designer Terri Lamera during a comprehensive pre-production phase.
“We tried to create a mystical seaside town that kids would want to get on their bikes and find after watching the film,” Sheedy says. “I didn’t want it to be caught up in the Australian landscape. In fact, I banned gum trees. If there was a gum tree in a shot we moved the camera – we never cut down the tree.”
From the first scene in Candice’s classroom, where the great Miriam Margolyes looks like she’s stepped out of a picture book to play teacher Ms Bamford, there are striking tones on display. Candice’s red hair and freckles set the tone, as does a focus on green – “it’s a welcoming back to nature colour,” says Sheedy – that helps tie the film’s distinctive aesthetic together.
“When you’re bringing an audience into a world I don’t take anything for granted. Every single extra has a task and a character that I talk through with them,” says Sheedy. “They’ve got to make the world exist. I like to detail everything so that everyone has a little moment in this kooky seaside town that can be picked up and placed down anywhere. It has a global feel.”
5) SHOOT IT ALL IN 30 DAYS
Shooting H is for Happiness in 30 days was “a squeeze” admits Julie Ryan, but with a below-the-line budget (excluding insurance costs and completion bonds) of less than $4 million, that was all they could afford. Sheedy knew he had to be prepared in advance – there was no time to learn on the job.
“I wasn’t nervous about working with actors, I wasn’t nervous about working with creatives,” he says. “I wasn’t nervous about working with a new script, but I was nervous about not knowing what that thing attached to the side of a camera is called. There’s a whole new technical vocabulary to learn.”
Books and YouTube sessions got Sheedy started, before he linked up with director of photography Bonnie Elliott (These Final Hours, television’s The Hunting). They spent many days together, culminating in test shoots at Panavision’s facility in Sydney, where they experimented with various lens and cameras on studio sets with stand-in actors. Sheedy describes it as “playtime”, but it united their vision for the film
The first half of the shoot focused on the scenes between Axon and Patten, while scheduling meant that the adult supporting cast, including Emma Booth and Richard Roxburgh as Candice’s parents, and Deborah Mailman as Wesley’s mother, joined the production in the second fortnight. The shoot went quickly and Sheedy’s faith in his adolescent leads was rewarded.
“They will come up things you can never imagine that will be right on the money. They have a great suspension of disbelief and you’d be a fool to shut that down,” he says. “You have to allow space for them to question the moment and add their own stuff. Young people don’t have an ego yet, and they work with such a great joy.”
Watching rushes of footage shot the previous day, Julie Ryan was delighted. “I knew what we had straight away,” she says. Now all that remains is to share it with audiences.
H is for Happiness screens at the MIFF Family Gala on August 11, 1.30pm, at the Astor Theatre, with further sessions on August 15, 6.30pm, at the Capitol, and August 17, 1pm, at the Forum. See miff.com.au for full details.
WHAT TO SEE IN MIFF’S FINAL WEEK
Given that it’s spread over 18 days, the Melbourne International Film Festival is a marathon for cinema enthusiasts, not a sprint. With the final week looming, here are five titles that have already made an impression that still have sessions available you can add to your schedule.
Amazing Grace (August 16, 6.45pm, Hoyts Melbourne Central): In 1972, the incomparable Aretha Franklin recorded gospel standards over two nights at a Los Angeles church. The album was a hit, but the documentary footage was abandoned due to technical failings. Now reconstructed, it reveals a vocalist able to tap into and project music’s most transcendent qualities.
Animals (August 18, 11am, Hoyts Melbourne Central): Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays) take a deep, intuitive deep into female friendship and dissolute nights with the story of Dubliners and best friends Tyler (Alia Shawkat) and Laura (Holliday Grainger) whose youthful freedom is coming to a bumpy ending.
Bacurau (August 14, 6pm, Astor Theatre): Is it a political critique? A dystopic action flick? A western? This Brazilian film about an isolated town deliberately cut off from the outside world and stalked by strangers is all of those and more. Anthropological detail mixes with gore for a triumphant genre-jumping delight.
What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (Sunday 18, 4pm, Hoyts Melbourne Central): Shot in lyrical black and white tones and a sensation at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Robert Minervini’s unadorned documentary spends a sweltering summer with members of New Orleans’ African-American community, charting their diverse actions and concerns.
The Wild Goose Lake (Tuesday 13, 9pm, Astor Theatre): Diao Yi’nan’s follow-up to 2014’s Black Coal, Thin Ice confirms his mastery of razor-sharp modern day noir, telling a grisly story of double-crosses and criminal collusion set against the uneasy backdrop of contemporary China.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.