AACTA Member Spotlight: Sunny Grace and Katie Shearer from CHARGING talk creation and the creative process.
We caught up with AACTA members Sunny Grace and Katie Shearer to discuss their past work, current work, and the process of staying creative amidst lockdown. Their 2020 film CHARGING is now available to view on AACTA TV!
In 2020, AACTA and MINI came together to support the next generation of filmmakers with AACTA Pitch: CHARGING Creativity presented by MINI. Five emerging film makers participated in a live and virtual event which saw them pitch their short film concepts.
Sunny Grace’s winning concept CHARGING, a piece about creatively rising to the challenges of an isolating household, earned her development funding and invaluable mentoring opportunities with the judging panelists.
We spoke to Sunny and producer Katie Shearer about the last twelve months to find out what challenges they’ve faced creatively and what they’re working on next.
CHARGING explores the struggles of staying focused in lock-down and the power in a shift in perspective - how have the restrictions of the last year affected your own creative perspective?
Sunny Grace: When lockdown started I thought I could write my Magnus Opus, however I found myself unable to concentrate for long periods of time. Luckily, the WIFT mentor/mentee programme coincided with restrictions. With Michelle Offen as my mentor we worked on my ideas and how to tell a compelling story. While working with my mentee I realised I have been successful as a producer helping others reach their creative goals. Now to apply the same principles to my own projects.
I entered competitions and did pitching workshops on zoom with Holly Lyons. When the AACTA Pitch [development initiative presented by MINI] came up, I wanted to enter but felt stuck, until the day before the deadline when it suddenly struck me. CHARGING. Creativity. Surfing. Last year was a huge learning for me and a time to focus on my own career, to make my creative goals the priority. To keep going. You just never know what can happen.
Katie Shearer: 2020 I was laser focused, taking advantage of all the artists with time on their hands! Liberty Street came from that opportunity. The restrictions actually gave way to a whole new feeling of creative freedom. These strange times have reinforced my belief that we all need creative outlets to express ourselves and not feel alone in our experiences.
Lately I've found it harder to keep positive with the world in such humanitarian need - you wonder if you are making a difference. However, there are many ways to live creatively and allow it to enrich life, so I try now not to be as focused on the outcomes as I was previously. Mindset shifts and personal empowerment is such a fluid thing, it can come and go in the most unexpected moments.
Has your relationship to & understanding of your film CHARGING changed since it premiered?
SG: My relationship to CHARGING since the premiere hasn’t changed a great deal. I am still very proud of the film. There are things I would change if I could but that is the creative process, and I am learning to let go of the idea of perfection as it is unattainable. This was my second attempt at directing and I learnt an incredible amount about collaboration and the balance between trusting your instincts while listening to others’ opinions.
Some viewers reached out to tell me how much they loved the characters. Someone even said they would love to see a series about them. That is the best reaction I could hope for. My fascination as a storyteller is about human relationships. Those are the stories I like to watch and tell. If I have achieved that with CHARGING, I am a happy woman.
KS: Yes, I think that's a natural part of the process. Once a film has premiered, I let it go, learning from the process for the next one. My relationship is one of relaxation now, enjoying the characters finding joy in the moments. You always want to capture the drama that's in the script - but it's hard to force that and make it natural, so now I view it as a really sweet film with feel-good vibes.
What are you most hoping viewers will take away from your film?
KS: I had a male colleague write to me out of the blue to compliment the film, and I was surprised that he of all people connected with it. I think it's beautiful to see a positive relationship on screen with Dad and daughter. I hope that viewers are inspired to connect, particularly fathers with their daughters.
SG: Lockdown was such a unique moment in contemporary life. My hope is viewers will come away feeling uplifted and joyful through the characters' experiences and story arcs. This is a story for my husband and sons, who all struggled with the school system. I hope they, and other viewers, will feel empowered by the portrayal of a different kind of masculinity. I also hope the viewers come away looking for little moments of magic in everyday life. And relate to the power of nature to teach and heal.
The film also looks into the idea of being adaptable and thinking outside the box to achieve a goal. How do you apply this in your own creative practice?
KS: Being adaptable is the biggest strength you can develop. Rigidity kills opportunity. I wouldn't survive without being adaptable as every project is vastly different; from the creatives I'm collaborating with, to the limitations each project presents, especially with small budgets. That's where thinking outside the box is very important for an indie producer. I always say ok 'how can we?', not 'we can't.'
SG: I find problem solving in the creative process happens away from the page or the problem at hand. When stuck I find going for a swim, a walk or even hanging out the washing often results in breakthroughs. As a writer this is easier to manage than as a director when everyone is looking to you to solve a problem on the spot.
My learning from making CHARGING is to apply this principle when directing also. Take a break, a moment to myself to connect with the vision, the essence of the story. Then come back with a solution. To trust myself even under pressure. I will definitely take this with me into my next directing role.
What was your biggest pre-production worry when creating the short and how was it resolved during production?
KS: We certainly had our fair share of worries or challenges as I would call them. But it's certainly part of the problem solving that I enjoy as a producer. Luckily our HOD's were very good at adapting and offering solutions within our small budget when these challenges arose.
Without the kindness and generosity of a lot of people, shorts like these are almost impossible. For example, all our catering was sponsored by a local cafe in Annandale, Fez & Co for the two-day shoot. The location was also very generously supplied by one of Sunny's friends who was very patient and understanding for us to shoot in her home. Small budgets being swallowed by location fees isn't fun, so that was a huge bonus.
SG: My biggest worry was getting the message across that Jasmine learns how to do her assignment from her underwater experience. Firstly, we had to make sure Mariah was comfortable with the surfing. I knew her acting ability was strong enough to carry the role but she had never surfed before. Luckily, we had two great surfing instructors who donated their time to teach her. Mariah is also an extremely brave and determined actor. Not only did she learn fast but she almost learnt too well, because when it came to the shoot day she had to pretend to fall off!
I was also worried about the weather conditions for the shoot day, but we were blessed with a magical Freshwater day. Another worry was getting the footage for the assignment using my son’s go pro. Firstly I had never used a go pro and secondly, I am afraid of waves. Down to Bondi Beach I went and jumped in trying to get the shot. There was more footage of my frightened face than the waves. I tried again a few days later and by concentrating on getting the footage I found my fear had disappeared. It was almost like I went through Jasmine’s learning myself. This helped me to direct the water scenes with more confidence, even though I was way out of my depth having never directed water scenes before. I had to trust the process, my cinematographer Velinda Wardell, the underwater cinematographer, Roger Buckingham, and the surfing cinematographer, Tim Bonython.
The underwater scenes were so vital to the story that if they didn’t work we wouldn’t have a film. When Margi Hoy, the editor, showed me what she had brought to those scenes I was initially surprised as she had taken it on a more magical journey than the script, but I came to love it. When we added the colours and magical sparkle in the grade with Sam Hayward’s sound design and Felix Watson’s composition at Spectrum Films, I had goosebumps.
These scenes are the true example of how your biggest fear can be your biggest achievement if you trust your collaborators and open yourself to other interpretations while remaining true to your own vision.
Can you speak to the importance of development initiatives in creating opportunities for upcoming creators?
SG: Development initiatives like the AACTA Pitch are vital for upcoming creators. To have access to mentors such as John Molloy and Michelle Bennett was invaluable. To have your work seen by and promoted to Industry professionals increases visibility to the decision makers in the Industry. Since CHARGING I have secured representation with an agency, The Collective Management. Screen NSW are working on getting me an attachment on upcoming projects. I am more confident in pitching and pestering people to give me a meeting. It has allowed me to be more confident in putting myself forward as a writer & director.
KS: They are so important. You can go out and create your own content but without some level of support and encouragement along the way it's a long hard slog. For emerging creators to be given a budget without having to raise or pay for it yourself, and to have professional mentoring opportunities is very hard to come by. It's important for newbies to feel some hope, when you land these initiatives, that a career in the industry is more than a dream. It's very encouraging.
What is the importance of short-form work? How can the industry be more supportive of short-form creators?
SG: There are few opportunities for short film making these days but it is so important as a director to make shorts. This is where you learn to hone your craft and work out your voice. I would like more funding for short form projects from the funding bodies to help filmmakers build the confidence to attempt long form projects.
After CHARGING I have the confidence in my ability to direct actors and work with crew. Sure, I made mistakes along the way but I will take these learnings into my next projects. This is why we need short form.
KS: Without shorts you can't practice your craft. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Shorts are so important in the development of longer forms for filmmakers. I love watching short films and the catalyst for what they become as features. I think the industry is pretty supportive, but a lot of people are too busy to watch your work even when it's short-form. You just have to keep turning up and proving yourself with another short until people finally sit up and take notice!
Who have been your greatest mentors (in the conventional sense or otherwise) throughout your career? What is one lesson from them you will never forget?
KS: I'm currently part of WIFT 'Gender Matters' being mentored by Kym Melzer. It's been fantastic to have the opportunity to speak to Kym, who has been able to pinpoint exactly what areas I need help in. Kym has been so encouraging. She's a wealth of knowledge and honestly it relieves a lot of my stress having a conversation with her. Jo Dyer has also been a fantastic mentor to me and has never failed to give advice when I've reached out to her.
I look at someone like Jo and the biggest thing I am inspired by is her integrity as a person in her work and life. I'm currently at Causeway Films on an internship and I'm learning no matter how successful you are, you will never stop working incredibly hard to keep achieving.
SG: Barbara Leane was one of my greatest mentors. I worked for her in the nineties as an actor's agent but our relationship continued until she passed away last year. She taught me to believe in myself, never give up. I can hear her legendary voice down the phone line whenever I achieved another step on my journey to being a filmmaker from graduating from NIDA to my first play to Trigger Happy; “You did it. That girl. I knew you would. What’s next Sunshine?” I wish she could have seen CHARGING. She would probably find it a funny little film but she would love the performances, and the ending.
Other mentors include Zoe Carides. She may not think so but she is so supportive. She is actually my muse. I can’t wait to direct her in something substantial.
My WIFT mentor Michelle Offen was instrumental in keeping me on track with the development of my ideas last year. One lesson she taught me is to read my writing out loud. Especially as it is written to be said. I still find it difficult to do but find it useful in hearing where there are problems and where it is working.
Velinda Wardell, who I met through my friend and director Sam Rebillet, has been a massive supporter of me as a director. She always tells me to trust myself. I am getting better at that.
Finally my Dad who was also a writer. He died just before his first book was published. His Dad said to him before he died - never give up. My Dad said the same to me as he was dying - never give up.
What is your top piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers + producers?
SG: Filmmaking is not easy. Especially in Australia where there is not a lot of funding. I recently turned fifty and have only just started on my path as a writer/director despite it being my dream since childhood. Somewhere along the way I lost my confidence and my voice. But it is what I love doing. It is my life's purpose.
If it is what you really want to do and you can’t live without doing it, keep going. Never give up. If someone gives you a chance…take it. I had a chance in my twenties and I didn’t take it as I lacked confidence in myself. I had this quote from Carrie Fisher on my wall last year: “What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow”.
Action is vital. It is through the doing we learn and get better at our craft. Also be truthful to yourself and your voice. CHARGING came from a place of my truth and it is this truth that shines through and makes me proud.
KS: Don't do it unless you are obsessed with it. And surround yourself with people who understand the obsession.
What are you working on that we should keep an eye out for?
KS: I have so many projects in the pipelines. The Home Team - a proof of concept for a TV show which we shot last year about a suicide space cult starring Tara Morice and Paul McDermott. Hard Luck which is a gangster feel good comedy, and Dysfunctional Gardening, a 6 x 10 minute series which I've been applying for funding such as Digital Originals, Fresh Blood etc. No luck yet but we'll crowdfund if we have to and find a way!
I've also shot another short recently, No Dawn which is a very subtle and contained film but very powerful. And Baltasar, which is a short I post produced in 2020 - it was shot in Spain. Baltasar will be playing in some festivals this year which is very exciting. It's beautifully made and I loved being able to pull on creatives to that film I'd worked with before like Felix Watson and Sam Hayward. And for something different I'm also working on my first doco project which is about the renovation and restoration of 198 Australia Street, Newtown called 'The Bakery.'
SG: Currently I am working on two feature film scripts. Never the Bride, a finalist in the AACTA Screenworks Regional Pitch competition, about Skye, a commitment phobic wedding planner based in Byron Bay whose life is turned upside down when she discovers she is in the middle of planning the wedding of her ex, who is now a Hollywood star. It’s very funny and timely.
Also working on a rewrite of The Bower Girl, the screenplay I wrote while completing my MFA at NIDA. A short film I have written called Hallow, I would like to make in South Australia if we can get funding. In addition, also working on an adaptation of my play The Angelica Complex for the screen. We are looking for producing partners and funding. Feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for further information on any of the above.
CHARGING, sees a young girl named Jasmine being home schooled by her father during COVID and he comes up with a creative way to help her complete a school assignment. Sunny was inspired to explore the idea of humans using creativity to be more innovative and to make us more sustainable. Watch now on AACTA TV!