Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Interview with Cathy Randall, writer/director of Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger


FilmMatters and Programmer
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger
is a fun and cheeky Australian comedy about a 13-year old girl, Esther (Danielle Catanzariti), who feels like an alien. The girls at her posh private school think that she is a nerd and even her mother pressures her to act “normal”. Esther chooses to break free at her bat mitzvah where she escapes her own party and befriends Sunni (played by Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes), the effortlessly cool girl from the local public school. Pretending to be a Swedish exchange student, Esther starts going to Sunni’s school and spending time with Sunni’s hip and spontaneous mother, Mary (Toni Collette).

Randall directing Castle-Hughes and Catanzariti

The following is a director's statement from Esther Blueberger writer/director, Cathy Randall:

From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, from Ferris Bueller to Napoleon Dynamite, a long line of adolescent outcasts in literature and movies have traversed the grey zone between childhood and adulthood with a perceptiveness and verve that illuminates something true about life at any age. Yet, almost none of them have been girls. With this in mind I wrote Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger, drawing from my own experience as an Australian Jew to create an outsider character that struggles to fit the social norm but through the course of her journey - a series of daring acts and foolish mistakes - learns its okay to be different.

I recently had the opportunity to interview director
Randall by email .

SUSAN STARKMAN: What made you decide to become a filmmaker?

CATHY RANDALL: I’ve always wanted to be a writer so I decided to try screenwriting, thinking that it might be a way to make money. Once I started screenwriting, I became fascinated in directing because I viewed it as an extension of the storytelling process, and another way to challenge and express myself creatively.

SS: Based on your screenplay for Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, you were awarded a scholarship to the Los Angeles Film School’s Feature Development Program. Who did you work with there and how did the screenplay evolve over that time?

CR: The course was fantastic because, although it didn’t teach filmmaking in a practical sense, I was given the opportunity to develop the screenplay and learnt a great deal about so many different aspects of filmmaking—from financing to marketing, directing and editing. The faculty was excellent and, because the school was located in Hollywood, quite often we would have guests – all kinds of industry professionals – come and give us a class. Among the most memorable were producers, Saul Zaentz and Barbara Boyle.

The fulltime faculty included Linda Cowgill (scriptwriting), Harry Clein (marketing), Gabrielle Kelly (producing), Daniele Suissa (directing), Amadeo D’adamo (directing), Donn Cambern (editing)

The screenplay evolved by becoming lighter and funnier and also the story and structure got tighter.

SS: Does the story in any way reflect your own adolescent experiences?

CR:The story is loosely drawn from my own adolescence, but warped and twisted and filtered through my imagination so, in fact, it doesn’t feel like Esther resembles me at all. But I did go to two different schools (private and public), and have a bat-mitzvah. And I do have a twin brother but I have a sister as well.

SS: How much do you think the experience of adolescence has changed from when you were in high school to when you went back to that environment as an adult director?

CR: I don’t think it’s changed very much at all. I think 13, the age I was writing about, is a fascinating age because I believe you experience things more intensely than you ever have before or ever will again. It’s that wonderful grey zone between childhood and adulthood where you start to experience puberty and break away from your parents and form surrogate families with your friends. It can be a time of intense introspection and self-exploration as you start to reform your identity as an adult and gain some autonomy separate to your parents.

SS: The film has a unique aesthetic style that you have referred to as “Esther vision.” Did you have a clear idea of how you were going to approach the visual style of the film when you were writing the screenplay?

CR: The whole time I was writing the screenplay, I was collecting images from books and magazines that I found inspiring or thought would feed into the look of the film in some way, so, quite often, my writing was influenced by the images [and vice versa]. For instance the idea of Sunni having a xylophone doorbell came from an image I cut out of a magazine.

SS: Who do you consider to be your main artistic influences?

CR: I don’t have any specific artistic influences but I’ve always known I wanted the film to have vivid colours and to have a strong sense of choreography. I think I was very much influenced by my love of musicals and dance, both modern and classical. Films like The Red Shoes and Cabaret probably had a powerful effect on me.

SS: The soundtrack is an integral part of the film. How many of the songs were written specifically for the film?

CR: The only song that was written specifically for the film was the title track which runs over the opening credits, “The Only One” by Paul Mac. There was an original score written as well.

SS: As a first-time director, how difficult was it for you to enlist such well-known actors as Toni Collette, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Essie Davis?

CR: It was actually very easy and straightforward. They all loved the script and wanted to be a part of it when they read it.

SS: The relationship between Esther and Sunni feels authentic. How much time did Danielle and Keisha have to get to know each other before filming? Was there much rehearsal time?

CR: We had four weeks of rehearsal, which was a wonderful luxury, and they were pretty intense so Danielle and Keisha got to do a lot of bonding before shooting started.

SS: Was there any room for improvisation once production on the film started or did everyone adhere to the screenplay? I am thinking particularly of the poem that Esther makes up about her name. Was any of that Danielle’s creation or was it scripted exactly like that?

CR: There was practically no improvisation at all once the shoot started—in fact, none that I can think of. Everyone adhered to the screenplay. The poem was entirely scripted although Danielle fed into the performance – for instance the hand movements she does, where she moves the imaginary letters around, were Danielle’s creation.

SS: I understand that Keisha was pregnant while filming. Was the rest of the cast aware of this at the time? How did the other teenage actors react to her pregnancy at such a young age?

CR: The rest of the cast were fully aware of Keisha’s pregnancy and were completely supportive.

SS: Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger takes a refreshingly frank look at teenage sexuality. I understand that the initial cut of the film included a scene in which Esther engages in oral sex. Why was this taken out of the final cut?

CR: It was only taken out of the American cut of the film because of some feedback we got from American distributors that the film would not sell with it. The Australian cut still has the original oral sex scene, which was there to demonstrate just how far Esther will go in order to fit in.

SS: How much of Esther’s sense of alienation is due to her being Jewish in a WASPy environment? Do you see it as being the main cause or just a contributing factor?

CR: I see it as a contributing factor. Esther is an individual in so many ways – she’s got a kooky imagination and way of seeing the world, and when we first meet her, she’s trapped in an environment where individuality isn’t encouraged, where it’s all about being the same in order to fit in. I think Esther would really love to fit in but simply doesn’t know how to.

SS: Recently, two of Sydney’s most elite private boys’ schools were involved in creating an anti-Semitic page on Facebook that received a great deal of media attention. Do you think that Jewish students in Australia experience more racist discrimination than other minority groups in the country?

CR: I can only speak from my own experience and that of my friends and I would have to say no, not at all. I have never experienced anti-Semitism and nor have my friends (that I know of). The Facebook incident was shocking and very surprising.

SS: While there are other Australian films set in state schools or private schools, Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger effectively highlights both systems and the vast socio-economic gulf that separates them. Was this the source of much media discussion surrounding the film? How did the educational community receive the film?

CR: As far as I can remember it wasn’t the source of much media discussion at all, although it did generate a lot of supportive feedback from the general public. And I still get into the private versus public school debate conversations with people who see the film.
The educational community received the film well and there were many teachers keen to teach it at schools.

SS: Australia has produced a number of coming age films, such as the Year My Voice Broke, Australian Rules and Looking For Alibrandi. Why do you think that so many filmmakers in Australia are drawn to the adolescent experience? Is it possible that Australian filmmakers themselves are coming of age in terms of creating a uniquely Australian brand of cinema that does not borrow from American and English traditions?

CR: I think there are a lot of coming of age films produced in every country as filmmakers and storytellers generally are drawn to the adolescent experience because it is such a fascinating time of self-discovery that produces inherently interesting stories.
Perhaps as you say, Australians filmmakers are coming of age, but we also have a strong culture of writer-directors who draw on their own experiences when writing scripts.

SS: What is next in the pipeline for you?

CR: I’m developing a couple of different ideas – primarily concentrating on writing a script (too early to talk about it in detail yet) about a young female protagonist and lots of song and dance!

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