Dani Pearce on her YDA-winning short and the 'wild process' of directing
Sydney-based director Dani Pearce likes to explore narrative in unconventional, original ways and her experimental short film Backpedal, based on a poem by Olivia Gatwood, is a case in point. She chats to shots about wolf pack research, pushing boundaries and why winning gold at this year's YDA was a career-defining moment.
How did you get into directing?
I studied Film Theory at university, and always thought I was going to be an academic. That was my plan - I love understanding the world critically and knew that was a valid passion with longevity for me. I had two incredible professors that encouraged me to write/direct. It’s only now that I realise how pivotal they both were.
Having been a Creative Assistant for a long while and learning mainly through symbiosis, I have gone about directing in a pretty traditional way. I started right at the bottom, and worked my way up - from runner to director. (I spent most of that timeline as a Creative Assistant.) I am extremely lucky to say that in that process, I’ve worked with some of the world's most lauded directors both locally and internationally - writing, researching and designing treatments.
Once I had a strong handle on who I was, what I wanted to say and the work I wanted to make, then I began directing.
As a Creative Assistant, you are being employed to watch, read, think and refine your taste. If you’re switched on, you’re getting an unparalleled on-going education in film, art and photography. I don’t think there is a more holistic way to learn than from the masters - it’s the ultimate. (Big ups to Tim Bullock, Christopher Riggert and Paola Morabito.)
From there, I started finding my feet - spending time writing and developing ideas prior to shooting anything. When you decide you want to direct, there tends to be an insatiable hunger to just run out and start doing it. While I felt it, I definitely didn’t do that. I spent a huge amount of time thinking and finding my voice. Once I had a strong handle on who I was, what I wanted to say and the work I wanted to make, then I began directing.
ABOVE: the trailer for Backpedal.
You were both the writer and director on this project – what was the inspiration behind Backpedal?
What initially attracted me to the poem (written by Olivia Gatwood) was its literary interrogation of the female psyche and the powerful mediation upon being a young woman. That is inherently inspiring and of interest to me. Olivia is American and wrote Backpedal about her teen years; a personal, coming-of-age story that unfolded in New Mexico. I reached out to her when I first heard the poem, asking if she’d be interested in adapting the poem to screen and having me flesh out the narrative in a screenplay. In this process, we ended up talking about how many ‘Australianisms’ can be felt in the story too - and how in fact, it does speak to a more to a universal experience of womanhood. That was the catalyst for the piece.
I am always keen to explore narrative in unconventional, original ways. I had never seen a film like this before. That is always a huge motivating force for me - pushing boundaries and challenging form. All of my favourite directors, photographers and artists are those who are able to traverse genre effortlessly while still maintaining a clear sense of their identity - that’s just what I’m inspired by generally.
ABOVE: writer/director Dani Pearce.
What was the casting like for the film and did you know what characteristics you wanted the protagonists, particularly the main female character, to have?
I hold strong perspectives on the ways that I want women presented in film texts and in many ways, the lead female character was an extension of that. There was a huge risk that these characters could fall into rigid, two-dimensional archetypes, so I was always extremely conscious that our female lead needed to tonally carry the gauntlet.
I had a clear idea who she was psychologically, but not physically. That part of the casting brief was very open. I was looking for a sharpness, a sense of autonomy, strength and wit. Her psychology was always going to be unique, and I didn’t want to try and push that into someones brain - it needed to already be in there. Brenna Harding is all of that and more. She is an impressive critical thinker with such depth - somehow both delicate and intense. Meeting with her initially, it was clear she understood what I was trying to do with the piece and felt comfortable with the level of abstraction. I knew that Brenna would naturally unfurl in each scene and her intuition would be guiding for the audience. You need an unshakable anchor at the centre of any experimental narrative - there was no question for me that Brenna could carry that weight.
I did lots of reading into alpha and beta tendencies in the animal kingdom and found that compelling.
Otherwise, I find groups of young men fascinating - they are sociological gold. Based on that interest, casting was more about finding the right ingredients for the ensemble. I did lots of reading into alpha and beta tendencies in the animal kingdom and found that compelling. Like wolves, I wanted the boys to take on a pack-like unity and explore base level intuitions. Due to the intently visual nature of Backpedal’s narrative devices, I needed all of the cast to be able to elicit a tone, emotion or story beat in what would essentially feel like a still frame, so that level of intuition was key. When the three male cast (Michael Sheasby, Josh McElroy and Tom Wilson) walked into the room, it was clear they all had a congenital talent for eliciting hyper-specific emotional cues. It was mind-blowing to find that in all three individuals for the same film.
ABOVE: Behind the scenes on Backpedal.
What have you learned during the process of making the film?
Negotiation and patience.
Also, right before my shoot I watched an interview with Jonah Hill (who is one of my heroes.) He had just finished making Mid 90’s (which I adore!) and had said, prior to shooting the film, one of his mentors (I think it was Scorsese but I can’t recall exactly) reminded him to enjoy the process.
The essence was “it gets stressful, intense and overwhelming but what you’re doing is incredible and you’re so lucky to be in this position. Take a breath, look around and appreciate this wild process. You will never get these first experiences of filmmaking again.” I took that with me into Backpedal and focused intently on savouring every single moment because directing your first couple of significant works is a very special thing.
In the film, the main female character says: ‘I’m not one of the boys, but I am the next best thing’ – as a female director, how do you feel the playing field has changed since you started out?
Women are becoming increasingly fearless - that wasn’t the tone when I started out. I entered the film industry a few years before the gender debate really burst open and sure - the landscape is different now, but it is definitely no where near legitimate equality yet. There is still an immense amount of education necessary to understand and further, correct the the gender bias that functions at an institutional level (especially when taking into account intersectionality.) It is obvious to me that an inordinate amount of progress is still to be made.
[Creative] currency comes in a multitude of forms, it just so happens to be that mine is my gender.
In regard to the quote from the film, I tend to believe that not being one of the boys is my absolute asset. Being a strong-willed outsider, in a male dominated industry means that my perspectives and world views are different and ultimately, challenging the norm. That is a valuable creative currency that I am so grateful for. That currency comes in a multitude of forms though, it just so happens to be that mine is my gender.
Ultimately though, my idea of equality is when an interview question about my experience of gender isn’t consistently connected to my filmmaking. At this moment in time though it is such a relevant question and the social discourse is key - I’m just excited for, and working towards the time when it isn’t.
What does it mean to you to win a YDA and what can we expect to see from you in future?
It’s such a defining moment in my career. It means everything. There is an insane team of Australian talent behind Backpedal; I love that all of their skill and work is being recognised by such a prestigious, international jury. They are all experts (especially my incredible producer, Sarah Nichols) and I definitely stand on the shoulders of giants. It is also very cool to finally feel an industry-granted level in legitimacy in the title of Director.
I just finished my first exhibition of photographic work (in collaboration with Rob Farley) here in Sydney titled All Our Strains. I’m in the process of making another short and I have two feature concepts in development. Although a filmmaker first, I am always frothing to experiment and pivot into the unknown. My Australia rep is FINCH and their support of that approach has been insurmountable. My main priority is just continuing to make original work that is true to my perspectives and my voice.