There are only a handful of filmmakers in Australia whose careers share the longevity of director Nadia Tass. In collaboration with her writer-producer husband, David Parker, Tass has produced some of Australia’s most classic works to see the big screen over a thirty-year period. Transcending the local (as well as international) box office, Tass’ career has always naturally extended to television and theatre, where some of her most popular works included an acclaimed Australian touring production of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2002, and a multitude of UK and US produced telemovies and series.

Rising to prominence with the 1986 release of Malcolm, the award-winning comedy starring Colin Friels and John Hargreaves took over $3 million in Australian cinemas alone. The debut feature told the story of Malcolm (Friels), the shy but brilliant inventor who loses his job and takes in two criminal lifestyle-inclined roommates to help pay his rent. It went on to win an unprecedented eight Australian Film Institute Awards (including Best Film and Best Director), 23 international awards and Tass was subsequently awarded the prestigious Byron Kennedy Award for Pursuit of Excellence by the AFI.

Nadia Tass interview

Colin Friels in Malcolm (Nadia Tass, 1986)

Malcolm made the director a desirable asset globally, and even when she insisted her projects continued to be made in Australia, Tass and Parker were able to receive backing from Stateside company, United Artists for their subsequent project Rikky and Pete (1988). Next up was the release of another memorable Australian cinematic gem, The Big Steal (1990). The film saw Ben Mendelsohn in his breakout role as Danny Clarke, a character straight out of John Hughes’ own imagination, who with the help of his best friends plans to get revenge on the dodgy car dealer who sold him a dud Jaguar. The Jag was, of course, purchased to impress a girl, played by Claudia Karvan (her first leading role following her performance in Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987) starring alongside Judy Davis). A joy-ride through Melbourne suburbia, the film was a coming-of-age masterstroke for the director whose films were becoming recognisable as absurdly unique but personal stories, mixed with the widespread adoration of the most accessible of family-comedies.

Nadia Tass interview

Rachel Griffiths in Amy (Nadia Tass, 1997)

Tass developed a knack for finding new, shining talent, as she did again in 1997 when she introduced Alana De Roma to the world as the title character in Amy; the story of a young girl who becomes mute after the traumatic death of her rock-star father (played by Australian rock legend, Nick Barker). Amy saw Tass working again with Mendelsohn, and also co-starred Rachel Griffiths as Amy’s mother. Much like her earliest Australian-based productions the film proved to be an enormous international success, winning 28 international awards including three at Cannes. The international success was echoed 14 years later when Matching Jack, starring James Nesbitt, Jacinda Barrett and another youthful Australian talent, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, received Best Director, Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Milan International Film Festival, as well as the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Overall, Tass’ films have received eight Australian Film Institute awards (including Best Film and Best Director), from a total of twenty-three nominations – something the humble filmmaker describes as a “nice confirmation” but more importantly, “another measure of communication”. Communication is imperative to Tass and is something she believes comes from her undying passion for storytelling. By putting her heart into every project she can manifest the connections with film audiences that have made her a beloved Australian filmmaker whose screenings still draw full houses.

So much of Tass’ life revolves around learning. She’s always continuing to learn about her own industry internationally and locally, but also spends time teaching as often as she can at VCA and AFTRS to pass her craft on to future generations. Pair this with her obvious passion for home-grown talent and it’s irrefutable that despite the on-the-road lifestyle she leads, Tass will still always call Australia home.

Nadia Tass interview

Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990)

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Senses of Cinema sat down with Tass in May 2017 shortly after she found out The Big Steal was being programmed at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival as part of Pioneering Women; a section of the programme dedicated to the women filmmakers of Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s.

So, the Melbourne International Film Festival is what we’re here to talk about – in part – at least.

MIFF! One of my favourite festivals ever! I’ve been to so many festivals around the world and I always enjoy and find new stuff at MIFF, whilst there are many festivals you can go to and you’ve seen everything in the earlier festivals.

I totally agree. Michelle and the programmers are really incredible in the way that even though MIFF is one of the later festivals in the year, they still pull together so much incredible ‘new’ content.

They’re definitely doing something right.

You’ve been a guest at MIFF previously with Amy and Stark (1993), but the last time you were there was in 2010 for Matching Jack, is that right?

Well, yes, in the capacity of our work being shown at the festival. But I make sure that I’m here [in Melbourne] to go every year. So my trip from Europe and the States is planned so that I come back in time.

You must be so excited then to again have something of your own in the programme this year.

And it’s The Big Steal! That was Ben’s first role I believe, and he was so excited to get it. When Ben and I are together, we still talk about The Big Steal. He sent a beautiful note when he got the Golden Globe award [nomination, for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Netflix’s Bloodline] and in it he referenced his character, Danny. That’s where it began for him and he really does always keep it with him. So it’s just great to have it at MIFF.

Nadia Tass interview

Mendelsohn and Karvan in The Big Steal

How do you think Australian film festivals are integral to building our country’s film culture?

I think they introduce the participants to the possibilities that are available. They really introduce young people to the idea that maybe they have a story to tell, or maybe that filmmaking is a place where they can forge a career. When people fall in love with films it’s very difficult to get out of it.

Film is the art form of today. Of course, going to the art gallery and looking at fine art on walls is fantastic. But I think film speaks to everybody. And it doesn’t separate us from the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. I find that is the case all around the world. Film is an important part of our current culture, and international culture. A film also doesn’t really stop with the boundaries of its country and that shows us that as human beings we have a lot in common wherever we come from.

In light of that, do you feel that Australia still has a National Cinema?

I think it depends on what you define as ‘national’. What is ‘national’? Is it Australian content? Is it Australian content of a previous world, or generation, or time? Or are we defining it as something that embraces a current Australian world as well? Because this current world that we are talking about is so informed by global elements that you then have to ask is it still quintessentially Australian? Or is it simply part of a global world?

There’s a lot of film that’s coming out now and being planned by young filmmakers and the notion is not necessarily that they’re working within a national landscape. They’re working as filmmakers and a lot of their sights are to reach audiences. Particularly, Hollywood’s audiences. The idea of going to Hollywood and working over there is so enticing for the young filmmakers. There’s quite a few Australian filmmakers or directors who end up in Hollywood and are doing the meetings and maybe even getting on the film set for at least one American film. But then whether they do a second one is when it gets questionable.

Is it easier or harder to make the transition today?

I think it’s been difficult all along, and I don’t think people in Australia understand how difficult it can be.

It’s a ‘dream big’ industry, but it also forces you to quickly recognise your own reality.

Yes, exactly. It’s an industry where even when somehow a film that you’re making ends up working because you may have a particular producer, a particular executive, or the writer has just got it right, and you have a collaborative team around you, it hits the international market, and suddenly you’re elevated to a position with the kudos of having a success on your hands. Then that film gives you the opportunity to take meetings, to see where and how your next film will take place. But there’s a disconnect here. A huge gap between how they made their first film and what the expectations are of the next film that they’re making. And the landscape of that new world – of the Hollywood world and the position of the director – is not necessarily the same. So they might succeed with that second one, but the likelihood is that they won’t – the majority won’t.

What we are at the end of the day is storytellers and we need to know our craft, and our art. We need to know what we are doing and how we are doing it. So we need to be very strong with our voices in order to succeed in subsequent projects.

Is that something you feel you need to reveal to the young filmmakers you teach? That you need to refine your skills and passion but be wary of being overly enthusiastic?

I love enthusiasm. I think they can embrace the enthusiasm but they need to have the skills. It’s the skills at the end of the day that will carry them through.

Where did you develop your skills, and consequently your passion?

It was a lot of work. I did do film school. I did a lot of theatre and then after directing in the theatre I went to film school so I could learn the technical side. Some of it was at VCA, but the majority of it was at AFTRS. And then I also went to a film school in New York.

Nadia Tass interview

The Big Steal

So the key is to always be open to learning?

Yes definitely, and not just then but all the time. So when I go to New York now, I’m always doing things like auditing certain classes, learning new material, and looking at new ways of doing things.

Perhaps that’s where the longevity of your career comes from – the open-mindedness.

I think so, yes. Having an open mind and seeing differences and embracing differences. There is not just one way to do something. There are so many different ways. And travel introduces you to all these possibilities.

One thing that I love, and which I’m fascinated by, is the way in which you and David work in all aspects of your productions. You write, you cast, you produce, you direct, you film, I know David is very involved in even more technical aspects like lighting, and you’re bound to be involved in editing too I’m sure. What drives that all-rounded approach?

Well, as a director, you’re a filmmaker. You need to know how to do everything. But you also need to know how to find the person with the expertise that you don’t have in your particular bank of knowledge. Whatever that might be.

With one of the films I’m currently working on set in Germany between the World Wars, that period is a landscape that I really need to become familiar with and so I need to find the people who really have the knowledge and who can enlighten me because that gives me the strength to tell the narrative. I’m not likely to get [the knowledge] from here. And then to just speculate and not really do the work is not in my interest. So it requires a lot of dedication and hard work and no holidays.

When you’re doing what you love, do you need a holiday?

[laughter] No! I come back from these trips and I am always ready to work. I go to Europe and I’m working. I go back to the east coast of the US and I’m working. But every time I land anywhere, it’s a feeling of this feels fresh. It’s not travelling that’s a problem. I don’t know how to lay on a lilo in the pool. That’s not me. Being overseas is looking at the world from a different window, and that in itself is a holiday.

Nadia Tass interview

Melbourne’s Chinatown in The Big Steal

Often a filmmaker’s early work is one of two things, incredibly cringe-worthy to revisit, or their absolute favourite work. What is your relationship to Malcolm and The Big Steal like today?

I really do love watching these films with a new audience all the time. I see how it still communicates and how it works on people who have never seen it before. Three nights ago at Cinema Como, there was a screening of Malcolm that was organised by the tram operator and there was so many people who had never seen it. So to just stand at the back of the theatre and have these younger people who’d never seen it absolutely connect with it, and gain so much joy from the film at the end of it, that’s where it’s at as a filmmaker. That’s my true intention.

So when The Big Steal screens at MIFF I will be there. I want to see the audience’s reactions. It’s a piece of work that really represents me at that period of my filmmaking life. The choices in the narrative and in the technical side, well that is all a part of who I was then. And I’m not looking at that from a cringe-worthy perspective. I’m looking at it as the truth to what it was.

We still get a number of emails from people saying “The Big Steal is my favourite film ever,” and it feels so good that I’ve done something right in my life. It’s so special to have touched so many lives because that’s what film does. Primarily it’s a piece of entertainment, but it’s a combination of different things – and by ‘things’ I’m hesitant to call it a ‘message’ because I don’t talk about it as “this is the message of the film”. But it [The Big Steal] is about relationships and observing the relationship between the father, and Danny Clarke, the lead and seeing how that relationship begins and how it changes. What the obstacles were in the relationship and how they were able to overcome them. All of that is an experience for the viewer. It’s not necessarily that the viewer is conscious of that but viscerally that’s what is happening. I’m not looking for people to suddenly become critics and analyse it, I don’t think I should be looking for that. I’m looking for people to connect with it, be entertained, and then at some point in their lives, there will be something meaningful that comes to them from the film. I’ve watched The Big Steal with audiences all around the world and it transcends national boundaries.

Nadia Tass interview

The Big Steal

Is there another country that really loves it?

America did. I think because they were exposed to all those John Hughes movies so it pretty much slotted into that demographic so easily.

Potentially one of the biggest compliments you can receive for a coming-of-age story is to be compared to a John Hughes film.

It definitely was, but it was interesting to watch unfold.

And the other place that loved it was England. It has a quirkiness that appeals to them. And perhaps also because of the North England accent of Danny’s parents. It was such a familiarity, and the nuances that they bring from that part of the world are quirky and funny.

I love the parents! They are so normal but also eccentric. They want to throw him the birthday dinner with the cake and the car as his gift, but they are also so hilariously odd, with their scrabble playing and their yoga!

[laughter] I love them too!

Nadia Tass interview

Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) and his parents in The Big Steal

Were you drawing from anyone in particular?

People in our lives definitely! We go through life and we mark certain moments so then when planning a particular narrative, David writes it and it is inevitable that some of these moments come back to him. And then I read it, and I too can bring that moment back as well in the direction. It’s very collaborative and I think we’re open to similar aspects in life.

Last year we finished shooting a film in South Africa, and the experiences that we had there have remained with us, so that when we’re actually telling another story that is set in South Africa, the moments will come back to us and we’ll be able to use information that is real, and not necessarily just manufactured.

Life experiences.

Yes, life experiences! And wherever I go I’m open to it. I love meeting people. I love new and old experiences. There’s always something new to be learnt from an old friendship and that makes me really happy. When I sit down with Ben [Mendelsohn] in Los Angeles and we’re having a cup of coffee it can be so very special. We go back such a long way.

How did you first come across him?

I saw a photograph of him and I was just fascinated by the presence that I saw in the photograph. He was doing a small part in a Simon Wincer film, and I knew Simon so I called him, and said “you’ve got a young lad working on your film, and I really want to see him.” So we arranged so that I could meet with Ben and for me it was love at first sight. He was such a beautiful, vibrant, wonderful human being.

Nadia Tass interview

Ben Mendelsohn in The Big Steal

So the script for The Big Steal was ready to go?

We just needed the right person! The first moment came from that still photograph that I was looking at, and then meeting him I knew. This is the boy that can be Danny Clarke.

Have you had many other moments like that over your career?

Oh yeah, my life is full of those moments. When I was casting for an American Girl movie, I was casting for the lead character Felicity, and the moment I met Shailene Woodley I knew. So I said to the studio, “This is the girl,” and there was a lot of reticence at that point, because she wasn’t high profile, she was just another girl I was auditioning, but her presence was such that I just couldn’t move away from her. Another moment was AnnaSophia Robb, who is a phenomenal actress. And then there was Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who was extraordinary. She came into the audition with her mother and she was only seven. I remember the first meeting with her and there was no question that she was Helen Keller.

So what I’ve learned is that being open in this world, it gives me so much privilege to make contact with new experience, new people, and find new actors. There are so many stories like that. Another is Colin Friels and casting him as Malcolm. He was the only one that could really do Malcolm. I was so emotionally involved in the character, because he was based on my brother. I tried to be objective, but did I succeed? I don’t know. I was just thrilled with what Colin was able to do with the character.

Nadia Tass interview

Colin Friels in Malcolm

For Amy, I was looking for girls at an elementary school in Sydney and the moment she [Alana de Roma] came to audition all she had to do was walk through the door and I knew. But I asked her to sing something, something like Baa Baa Black Sheep or Jingle Bells, just because I needed to hear her sing. And she sang the song from The Bodyguard. How do you replace that experience? So there is tiny little girl with all this dramatic black hair and a voice from God, and then on set, the relationship between Ben Mendelsohn and Alana was exquisite. When I cast Ben, he asked me, “Are you sure you want me to do this?” but there was not an ounce of question or doubt in my head. The only person that could do that relationship between that little girl and the character was really Ben. These are the qualities that I saw in working with him in The Big Steal. Doing The Big Steal gave me such an amazing awareness of what Ben was capable of. Those people have gone on and had incredible creative careers.

You must be incredibly proud.

I’m like the Mother Hen. I’m hugely proud.

Through your entire career you’ve moved so effortlessly between directing theatre and directing film and screen, what excites you about theatre, and what skills have both industries given you that you find exchangeable across mediums?

It lies in the absolutes of telling a story. That’s where it changes. The story is one thing, but then what changes is how you’re going to tell it. I can take a narrative and then tailor it to the respective medium that I’m working in, but at the end of the day the intention is that it connects with an audience, and it must also entertain so that I’m not actually preaching to an audience because I don’t think that’s my job.

The theatre work is quite wonderful, and the way it’s respected and embraced and being able to be in one of the big theatres in New York was just wonderful. I love working in theatre here as well. There are so many stories that can be mounted on the stage that are not necessarily the run of the mill. They’re about looking at the world from another perspective. Looking at a human circumstance. It really pleases me to be bringing stories to the world. I love my work. I love it so much. And I love the knowledge it gives me. Not only about the industry or about the way to do things which is constantly changing but about the human condition how we can really mark the human condition as it evolves into what it is today. What’s going to evolve further in my lifetime and how to communicate that through a narrative on the screen.