Leah Purcell

In August 2002, singer, actor (Lantana [Ray Lawrence, 2001]), writer (Box the Pony, Black Chicks Talking) and now director, Leah Purcell, spoke with Rose Capp and Fiona A. Villella about her debut directing effort, the documentary Black Chicks Talking (2002).

Q: Let’s start with a pretty obvious question: what was the inspiration for the book and then the film of Black Chicks Talking?

Leah Purcell: Everything in my life is a challenge, I had no inspiration to write a book, but someone said to me after they saw Box the Pony (Leah’s semi-autobiographical one woman play), wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could find nine other ‘Box the Ponies’ out there in the community for indigenous people. They wanted all successful, professional people, and I thought how boring, and I’d really like to have a variety of women in there, successful in their own right. And away I went trying to find those women, people I knew and admired…

Q: You are in the process of adapting Box the Pony for the screen; can you tell us about that project?

LP: I’ve written a first draft, but I’d like someone to come along and write a really groovy script for the feature, there are a few people interested. My partner was the one who suggested a documentary version of Black Chicks, and we actually ended up finishing the doco before we finished the book. Part of the technique for the book in the interviews was to get them out of their comfort zone, and he said wouldn’t it be great if we had a doco where we went to them, saw them in their country and with their families, and speaking about the same issues, and would they be different women—and they were.

Q: Did you have the same approach with the book as with the film?

LP: I had one question, and if they said no comment, I would have been in a lot of trouble. I wanted to interview with not so much “Tell me about when you were born, and what happened next”, I wanted something more interesting, because I’ve been interviewed to death, and it’s as boring as buggery after a while. So what I came up with, with Scott Rankin who helped me write Box the Pony, is to ask each woman: “Out of the five senses, which one do you relate to and what is your first pleasurable memory of that sense?” It became so descriptive, and their stories would just unfold out of that, and basically I didn’t have to say very much, just prompt things, or they’d flag something and I’d write it down and come back to it later. And then through all of that, and it wasn’t until I had the book, and you edit and go through it all, that I realised what it was about— identity, and reclaiming their culture and reconnecting to their Aboriginality.

Q: How did you decide on the locations for each Black Chick interview?

LP: All of those girls were in their favourite spots. Because of the book, I knew where I wanted to go, so I could really go in hard, and the girls knew that because we had spoken previously. Because they were in their favourite spots, they went deeper. It was something that I just went with.

Q: Why did you choose only Aboriginal women to interview?

LP: Well, protocol culture, it is not my place to sit down and talk in depth with the men about issues, that’s men’s business. If the brothers came up and said Leah we would like you to do it, I might, but I still wouldn’t feel right. But some men who have read the book want to know if they can do a Black Bucks Bragging!

Q: How did you find your first directing experience?

LP: I loved it! It was like a drug! My crew had to tell me to stop, I nearly killed them. I got a very experienced crew, I was very honest and open with them. I said I know what I want, you tell me how I’m going to get there with the technical side of it. I’m a collaborator, I like to collaborate with people. If I have an idea and someone’s going to help to enhance it, then hey, I’m all for it, because it makes for a better show.

Q: So the shoot itself was a mutually beneficial experience?

LP: Yes, I learnt so much from the other women. I also learnt, in terms of the interviews themselves, to just shut up and listen!

Q: How did you come up with the idea of starting the film with a dinner party?

LP: It took me a while to convince people that the dinner was a good idea. I really believed it would work, but you really had to show them how it could be done

Q: So what are you working on at the moment?

LP: With the Black Chicks project, there is a play at the end of the year, so I’m writing that at the moment. That will be hopefully going national and international, we took Black Chicks Talking to Tribeca (a new, New York-based film festival) and we sold out in 2 hours.

Q: How did New York audiences respond to the film?

LP: They loved it; the African American women were nearly bowing to me! I was amazed; they said to us “You guys are ahead of us with the identity issue, over there, if you’re black, you’re black in the skin. If you’re black in colour, then your black, the rest of you, you sort your shit out”. They’ve still got barriers where in Australia, we’re a lot more open to that now because of the Stolen Generations Report, because of the ‘Coming Home’ and with the acceptance from the top end mob.

Q: How do you feel about some of the films that have been recently made about indigenous issues and themes, for example, Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2001)?

LP: Rabbit-Proof Fence I thought was really good, it was really neutral in a sense. But what would it be like if a black person made it? It would turn it up a notch, because it would be to do with experience. I worked with Phil Noyce, and he wanted to use my song ‘Run Daisy Run’, which is about my grandmother who was one of the Stolen Generations, for the ending of Rabbit Proof Fence. He decided not to in the end because it would have been too heart wrenching, but he asked whether I would have given permission and I told him no because I got my own film! He said you’re saying no to Phil Noyce, and I said, yeah, I am!

Q: Do you see those films by non-indigenous filmmakers as contributing constructively to the debate on reconciliation?

LP: Yes, I think so, it means that they care. With Rabbit-Proof Fence, he obviously felt something, he said he was going for the commercial sale of it; he had to do certain things. And I said, look for the issues in this country; he had to make it neutral. By being neutral, you can get more people coming to see it.

Q: To backtrack a little, how did you first get involved in the business?

LP: From when I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to perform. Mum would have parties and I’d demand that everyone would watch me. Through primary school, I’d always be directing the other kids, and then in high school, I did a three months short course of theatre and sport. It was the short course that made me realise I wanted to do it. I was offered a place in drama school, but I didn’t want to be without my mother. After she died, I decided it was time to pursue my dream and that was in performing. I haven’t had a lead in the acting industry or the TV world. But I’m like a sponge; I don’t let any opportunity go. I’d go up to the cameraman and go ‘Can I have a look?’ and I’d set shots up. I see opportunities and I just go for it.

Q: Tell us about your role in Lantana.

LP: I loved working on Lantana because of Ray (director Ray Lawrence). He talked to me about Box the Pony. He was really keen to help. I’d be psyching myself up to be a character, and he’d be coming up to me saying, “Now if you were the director of Box the Pony, what would you do here?” But it was great watching him work, he trusted his crew, they knew what they had to do, there was no argument. It set the standard very, very high for me.

Q: Given you had a lot of material to work with, was it difficult editing Black Chicks Talking?

LP: I had a great editor in Riva Childs. We were so story orientated, I don’t think I looked at the screen until the last week of our edit. She said, “Leah, you’ve got to look at this thing”, and I said “No, the story is not right, trust me, as an actor”. And in the end she said “Yeah, I should have trusted you a lot earlier with your timing of what an audience feels”. I feel their emotion, where they rest. I am proud of the film for my first gig. But I have learnt, one thing at time, you can’t do it all and that it’s important to get the right team around you.

Q: You have described yourself as a bit of a joker, and clearly humour is a very important part of the appeal of Black Chicks Talking.

LP: I structured it as I did with Box the Pony. It was jokes, more jokes and lull them into a secure place, and then next minute you’re down into this big issue where Deb Mailman says “My dad didn’t allow us to be black”. It naturally developed, just black women together. And then the audience thinks, well if they’re laughing about this stuff, then I can join them.

Q: Given you now have your own production company and you’re developing a number of feature film scripts, do you think your more immediate future will be caught up with film?

LP: I don’t know whether I’m going to stay there forever but at the moment I fell I’m really lucky to take the embryo idea and see it to fruition, and it’s out there as a product. It’s just the best medicine. I’m lucky that people have liked, accepted and financed my ideas. I’m very thankful for that, and I’m really enjoying doing all that. There are sacrifices; I haven’t seen my daughter for four months and that is the hardest bit about it.

Q: Tell us about the multimedia component of Black Chicks Talking.

LP: There is a multimedia component and three exhibitions; there are the portraits we had done for the book, and then there are the stills from the documentary and another one. Then there is this education component; we’re designing educational games around the film. You get them (kids) to think about issues without them really realising it.

Q: There has been some talk about Black Chicks Two, or some sort of follow up film.

LP: One of the girls said we should call it Black Chicks Talking More, or Black Hens Gabbing when we get older! Sort of like the 7-Up Series, and some of the women are keen. Some of the print had run on the publicity material and one guy called the film Black Chick Stalking, and I said, “Yeah, that’s what I’ll call the thriller version!”

Q: There has been some criticism about Deb Mailman’s character Kelly in The Secret Life of Us in that her Aboriginality is never referred to or politicised in any way. How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

LP: I think it’s great she’s just up there doing her thing. I don’t think that every time an Aboriginal person gets up that it has to be political, that they’ve got to be pushing a point. We do that every day of our lives; it’s bloody hard yakka, even if you don’t want to do it, it’s pushed on you.

Q: Will all your future projects deal with Aboriginal issues?

LP: Yeah, because that’s who I am and what I know. I sort of work on the theory that you do what you know. At the moment, I know the stories that I’m doing.

Q: So what sort of a release is planned for Black Chicks Talking?

LP: The film is screening on August 30 on SBS, the ABC Shop are interested in picking up the book and film and we’ve got a theatrical release at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. It has also had a lot of international interest, for example, the Rocky Mountain International Women ‘s Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.

Rose Capp is Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia and a freelance writer on film.