Toni Collette talks from Sundance Film Festival about producing aspirations, why Gender Matters, Jasper Jones and working on Fun Mom Dinner with Australian director Alethea Jones, who she’s known since Tropfest in 2012. By Helen Barlow.
Australian director Alethea Jones made quite an impact at Sundance this year where she debuted her film Fun Mom Dinner to a predominantly female audience who hooted and howled at the US film’s raunchy take on partying mums. Toni Collette is one of the mums who lets loose on screen and there are even high profile mums behind the scenes: first-time screenwriter and former publicist Julie Rudd and producer Naomi Scott, who cast their movie star husbands, Paul Rudd and Adam Scott, in the film. This is a high profile production for the Aussie first timer, yet the naturally funny Jones took it all in her stride.
“It’s so special to be here in Sundance,” she told the premiere crowd after being introduced by Festival Director John Cooper, who rallied the mums in the room. “I’ve been longing to be a part of this festival for years. My shorts never got in and I tried to get into the filmmaker labs for two years running. It doesn’t matter; I’ll take this. This is great.”
Jones received a huge amount of praise from her cast and crew, including Toni Collette who, despite rising to the A-list in Hollywood, has kept her Aussie humour and accent intact.
“Why would I lose it?” Collette bellows, when I get her alone. “We’re all raucous in this movie and that’s why it was so much fun.”
Was it a kind of competition with her three co-stars: Katie Aselton, Molly Shannon and the irrepressible Bridget Everett? (The latter also plays the mum of Australian Sundance sensation Danielle Macdonald in PattiCake$)
“No”, Collette replies, “but Julie’s script was fantastic. There was so much room for improvisation and it made it feel very alive. When things happen that are unplanned it becomes quite magical.”
Jones notes: “We didn’t have much money for this film so all we could promise our cast was a good time. We made sure that was the priority. Life’s too short to have a bad time.”
Apart from working with a minimal budget, Jones deserves a medal for shooting the film in 20 days. Incredibly she only had the four female leads for 13 days. Collette knew she wanted to work with Jones from the first time they met.
“I was on the Tropfest jury when we voted Alethea’s short film, Lemonade Stand, the winner in 2012,” she recalls. “It’s like everything has come full circle. It’s really lovely and she was amazing to work with. Her energy is infectious; she gets right in there. She gets everything on a very intimate level. We were working with a lot of very funny women, but she’s also very funny. She’s really generous and is a good communicator.”
So of course is Collette. I’ve been interviewing the 44 year-old, who grew up in the working class western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, since Muriel’s Wedding and in recent years she’s been talking up her desire to produce. She’d love to return to Australia to make it happen.
“I’ll be calling (Screen Australia) in five minutes,” she quips. “At the moment part of one project I’m trying to option shoots in Australia and the others are not there. I obviously always want to work in Australia. The stories there are the closest to what I know.”
Screen Australia research from 2015 showed women made up just 30% of producers, 21% of writers and 16% of directors in local feature films. In response, Screen Australia launched Gender Matters to try and combat the issue.
Naturally for Collette, gender matters.
“Oh my God, it always matters. I’ve started producing because it’s the only way to make a difference really. You have to start from scratch and not wait around for projects to float into your lap.”
I mention the phenomenon of the three feisty Australian women – Jones, director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) and producer Polly Staniford (The Berlin Syndrome) – who are all friends after studying at VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) and have proved such a force at Sundance this year.
“Incredible, right?” Collette asserts. “It’s brilliant. People are aware of the need for change. It’s happening incrementally, but you know, you just have to keep plugging away.”
Certainly Collette has enormous energy. The mother of two recently returned to Australia to play a mum in Screen Australia-supported Jasper Jones.
“It was an incredibly soulful, important, profound experience for me,” she admits. “I find the landscape in Western Australia so powerful anyway, but the story itself is so complex and intense and yet it has a kind of light, familiar, Australian quality to it. It just feels like the world I grew up in. The world has changed a lot, as we all know, so to be able to go back and work with really good friends on a story that I loved, and based on a book that I read when it first came out, was incredible.”
Collette is now about to work with Fred Schepisi on the Australian film, Andorra, which boasts an all-star cast including Gillian Anderson, Guy Pearce and Essie Davis, and also received funding from Screen Australia. Again she is working with some of the best women in her generation of actors.
“It’s a beautiful story, an amazing cast and I’m so excited to work with Fred,” Collette concedes. “I’ve met him, but I’ve never worked with him. I feel very lucky.”
Jones and her two galpals are also rearing to go.
“When all of that gender taskforce thing was happening [with Screen Australia], Kitty and I used to joke – because she lives a lot with me in Los Angeles—‘Let’s call ourselves a gender taskforce in our way’,” Jones recalls. “I’m talking to a lot of American producers on the ground here who want to work in Australia and essentially give Australians jobs. So it’s kind of nice to be breaking that ground over here in LA on behalf of Australia.”
Screen Australia is a proud supporter of Tropfest.