Cherie Nowlan, Introducing The Dwights
Australian director Cherie Nowlan grew up in the small town of Singleton, New South Wales, and segued from a brief career as a journalist to working her way up the ladder in television and film. Her first film, God’s Girls (1991), about the nuns who taught her in high school, won the Best Documentary prize at the Australian Film Institute Awards, and prompted her to go to film school to study screenwriting. After making the short Lucinda 31 (1995), Nowlan directed her first feature, romantic comedy Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997), a film which helped launch the careers of two unknowns, Cate Blanchett and Frances O’Connor. Since then, Nowlan has found considerable success as a director for Australian television, most notably on the cult series, The Secret Life of Us, in addition to award-winning work in commercials.
Nowlan’s second feature, Introducing the Dwights, was written by Keith Thompson as a vehicle for Brenda Blethyn over a decade ago. It stars Blethyn as single mom Jeanie, a wannabe stand-up comedienne on the Australian working men’s club circuit who is trying to keep her two sons – Tim (Khan Chittenden) and Mark (Richard Wilson), who has special needs – well and truly under her thumb. Tim, however, falls for pretty girl-next-door Jill (Emma Booth), and their romance not only undermines Jeanie’s much-needed control, but threatens to create a serious rift in their tight family unit. A bittersweet comedy drama, Introducing the Dwights is an acutely observed portrait of familial tension and features a typically impressive virtuoso performance from Blethyn, as well as very promising turns from its young stars, Chittenden, Booth and the excellent Wilson. It was an audience favorite at Sundance this year, where it was acquired by Warner Independent Pictures.
Filmmaker talked to Nowlan about why Brenda Blethyn is “a freak,” not knowing Frances O’Connor from a bar of soap, and filming herself asleep in bed at night.
Filmmaker: Before we started the interview, you were telling me that Brenda Blethyn is “a freak.”
Nowlan: Brenda Blethyn is a freak. Of nature. I just don’t think there’s anyone quite like her. Quite apart from the fact that this role was written with her in mind, I could not picture anyone else in it. She’s so happy to explore the unpalatable truths about life. She’s happy to play flaws, and she’s not concerned with not being liked – and as a result I think she’s enormously likeable on screen. I always say characters don’t have to be likeable, actors do. When you look at her body of work on film, there’s such a variety of characters and a huge scale, from passive and vulnerable to quite indomitable, and every kind of variation on that theme. When you watch her, you think you’re watching Brenda – she’s nothing like any of those characters, but she somehow manages to be all these people completely believably. There aren’t many actresses who can do that: Meryl Streep can do it, Brenda can do it; of the younger actresses, Cate Blanchett can do it, Kate Winslet.
Filmmaker: What special qualities did Brenda bring to the role?
Nowlan: When you get to work with Brenda, you’re working with a woman who’s also a fantastic writer. And then you consider Mike Leigh’s method, and you think about Secrets and Lies and then Grown-Ups, that every word she uttered she wrote. When she comes to a role, she brings with it that incredible method that she has. On Clubland, she contributed to the script, she wrote most of the stand-up. So with her, you get all these other amazing skills, and for me and particularly the younger cast, to be able to sit back and watch and learn from her was a privilege. I just adore her.
Filmmaker: You just referred to the film as Clubland, although it’s getting released over here as Introducing the Dwights. How do you feel about the title change?
Nowlan: Um, I can understand it because they don’t have working men’s clubs like they do in Australia and England, so I can appreciate they don’t want to confuse the audience and have them thinking it’s a film about rap music or nightclubs. The film is actually about performing, but it’s also about family so… It’s a little inconvenient, because sometimes I say Clubland and no one knows what I’m talking about! But it’s pretty common, to be honest, to have a name change in different territories.
Filmmaker: For the role of Mark, Tim’s brother who was brain damaged at birth, did you ever consider casting an actor with the same condition as the character?
Nowlan: I did, but as it happens with films, I took forever to get it funded, but then when I did get it funded I had very little time to do it. I had to cast and shoot it before Easter, which is a major holiday in Australia, because we couldn’t pay them [for that period]. I didn’t find [someone to play] Tim until the second last day of casting, and I knew how long I had to shoot the film. In a way, it was a practical decision that I made, and in an ideal world I would have scoured Australia and found the person. But I knew how good Richard Wilson was. You might know him from The Proposition, but most people think he has special needs.
Filmmaker: He is fantastic in the film.
Nowlan: He’s just a brilliant, brilliant young actor, and very nearly steals the film, I think. When we went to Sundance, he wasn’t with us, and everyone assumed that it was because it was too difficult for him to travel because he had special needs! He was a great playmate for Brenda – they got on like a house in fire. He’s very clever, which she appreciates. He spent a week in Disability Services, where we filmed, in character, [because] he didn’t want anyone to know that he was pretending to have a disability. He worked on it with therapists to get it all right. We were forever massaging his hands, because it was quite painful to be in that kind of spasm all the time.
Filmmaker: I read that you didn’t expect to be accepted at Sundance.
Nowlan: No, I didn’t, but I thought that it was the one festival that we were ideally suited to. Geoff Gilmore, the director of the festival, saw the film and he didn’t know what country it was from, so that was a good sign. I said, “OK, maybe it does have a universality.” The fact that it happened so quickly – we were literally trying to finish the film to make [the festival] – was a good thing [because] I didn’t have any time to think about it. When we turned up for that first screening, there were 1200 people there – I honestly thought they were at the wrong movie! There’s nothing better than a surprise; if you kinda don’t expect anything, sometimes you’re rewarded. It’s been wonderful.
Filmmaker: This is only your second feature, but on your first film, Thank God He Met Lizzie, you also worked with some wonderful actresses, Cate Blanchett and Frances O’Connor, both just as they were about to become famous.
Nowlan: Yeah, yeah. How lucky was that? What a gift! Frances I didn’t know from a bar of soap, so that was really a discovery, and Emma Booth is my Frances in Clubland. It was the same thing – walked in, knocked me out. I was like, “Holy mackerel, this girl’s going to be a rocket!” I was convinced somebody in Hollywood was going to discover her before I would get to make this film, and indeed she hasn’t stopped since Clubland. Fran was a wonderful actress, and I had the benefit of knowing all of Cate’s theater work, but she had never made a film. She’d made one 50-minute short when she auditioned for me, and she’d just been cast in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road. Two days after she saw me, and she was coming back to audition for Frances’ role, she got Oscar and Lucinda. And then we went on a bit of a holiday, and then Shekhar Kapur chased Cate around the world to get her to audition for Elizabeth. It was a great privilege to see the beginning of her international career, but I knew how good she was. When she walked in to audition for that role, I just said, “Jesus, this girl’s amazing!” She didn’t need to read the scene. It’s a cliché, but with casting you know instantly if the actor is going to work. It’s just chemistry.
Filmmaker: In between doing Thank God He Met Lizzie and this film, you did a lot of TV. Does the success so far of this film mean that you’ll now remain a feature director?
Nowlan: I love television, and I’m up for all of it, to be honest. They all have very different challenges and different effects. I like the quick turnaround in television; film’s a very long process. I love directing commercials. It’s all directing, it’s all time on your feet as a director, so it all contributes. I’d love to direct theater – I dunno if anyone would ever let me! That’s the only unknown terrain for me. I’d love the opportunity to refine a performance over the period of four weeks. It would just be really exciting, the fact that it’s a living performance every day. Brenda has said to me you can do a play, say it’s a comedy, and do one performance where you don’t get a single laugh and you can hear a pin drop, and then at the end you get a standing ovation. At other times, they’ll laugh like drains the whole way through. You never know what’s going on in an audience’s mind.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst out laughing on set?
Nowlan: Oh my God, that would be any time with Brenda Blethyn. All the time. Whenever we were doing improv with her, for example all the video stuff, that was riotously funny, and I ruined several takes because I could be heard laughing. And in fact, the cinematographer could also be heard laughing. Any given day with Blethyn, you’ll corpse. I’m a terrible giggler. I have to be out of eyeshot too – I sit at the monitor because I do laugh too much. The further I am away from the actors, the better it is for them.
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received?
Nowlan: I don’t hear them, I really don’t. I’ve been told so many wonderful things, and I block them out because I think, “If I believe that, I’ll have to hear all the stuff I’m not so pleased to hear.” I’ve talked to Brenda about it, and I said, “I really squirm when people praise me, it’s kind of irritating to me. Do you feel the same?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t mind overhearing it!” [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, what keeps you awake at night?
Nowlan: Everything! [laughs] God, what an appropriate question! When I’m making a film, I direct myself in my sleep – it’s infuriating. I think, “You don’t have to direct this scene, you’re just sleeping,” and there’s literally a camera at the end of my bed. It is really annoying when I film myself in my sleep – it’s like, “Get the crew out of my bedroom!” They’re really long days, and it’s very difficult to switch off. As I get older, it actually gets worse, so I’m going to have to go back to meditation, I think, just to snap out of it and leave the work at work.