Sarah Legg’s Cherubhead arrives in the world as impressive debut feature film from the 19-year old filmmaker. Creating a purely independent production is difficult for any filmmaker, but for Sarah, she saw the challenge of making her first feature as one she would tackle head on and with enthusiasm. After all, filmmaking is her passion and with the philosophy of ‘go big or go home’ in her mind, nothing was going to stop her.
Cherubhead tells the story of Ellie (Angelina Curtis), an orphan who is invited to stay at Marie Annette’s (Sarah Legg) holiday home with the promise of adoption on the cards. When Sophie Piero (Nicola Kinnane) arrives at the home as part of a research program, the power dynamics shift within the household and complications arise.
Cherubhead launched at the WA Made Film Festival to sold out screenings and received an enthusiastic reception at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival. In the below interview, Sarah talks about her creative influences, the lessons she learned making her first feature film, working with composer Oscar Prosser, and creating impressive production design on a budget.
This is your first feature film.
Sarah Legg: This is my first feature film. I’ve only made a couple of other shorts, but they were all in high school. I really decided to believe in the philosophy ‘Go big or go home.’ I had seen that within the industry, and just within film in general, there’s a lot of fear surrounding making a feature. A feature can seem like this big brick wall that a lot of people can’t jump over. And so I thought, “Well, if I just jump over it.”
Mentally it was a great experience to learn how to overcome obstacles to see that the impossible is actually possible. So now looking into the future when I see a feature or when I see a mini-series, it doesn’t look scary to me because I know that I can do it on basically nothing, under time pressures, just myself and a team of people. I’m really blessed, and I feel really privileged to have that. And I’m very grateful for it.
Where did your filmmaking journey start?
SL: I’ve heard from so many great filmmakers that they started out as a kid. As soon as their parents gave them a camera, they started making stuff. And I’m very much the same. Except with me it was with an iPod Touch. That was the beginning. The iPod touch in like 2011 and I had iMovie. I had just the camera and my room, which I was turning into a studio and I was starting a media company that made content every week. And the content would be putting my phone on one of those selfie sticks, and then putting the selfie stick between the mattress and the bed. And that was my tripod. And then standing up in front of a wall and saying and doing God knows what just came into my head. Unfortunately, dad kept some of those.
So it’s been really funny seeing the journey from those beginning videos, and then going into iMovie, and then after that going into shorts. And then after that going into a feature. It’s kind of beautiful seeing the process. But even when I was a toddler, I always made theater shows. [There’s another home video of when] family would come around, of two chairs, I put a sarong over [them], and that was that was my house. And then I put on a show and I forced my little brother to get him a lion suit. “You’re playing the lion.” He didn’t have a say in it. I think for most of us in the industry, from hearing other people’s stories, it comes naturally. And it comes from a place of love and a place of passion.
It’s fascinating hearing how younger generations discover their filmmaking talents. I’m of the generation where we had camcorders, so I’m not of the super 8 generation. But it’s really interesting how people find a way of telling their own stories or finding a way of creating something with the devices that they have.
SL: And the technology that people have access to, like the fact that I had access to an iPod touch at [about] nine is incredible. If you go even 10 years back and even now, with indie filmmakers being able to get so much access to such great cinema gear for a reasonable price is so exciting for me and a lot of other people in the younger generation, because we don’t have the same sort of barriers that other people were talking about. For example, Christopher Nolan’s first feature Following, he had to get a budget of 10 grand just for the film [itself]. Getting the money to get the film was such a big obstacle to overcome. Whereas for me, I could buy a Blackmagic. And I can use that Blackmagic whenever I want. It’s such a good powerful asset. It’s really exciting to see that more people are getting access to this [equipment] and it isn’t held off to the elites or the top of the hierarchy of film.
Let’s move to Cherubhead. Where did the idea come from?
SL: It came from my year 11 philosophy class, and we were discussing political philosophers. We went over John Locke, and we moved to Machiavelli. I had heard about him, and I had a certain interest in him, because he was such a controversial figure. And I was also fascinated with the idea of taking a philosophical text and turning that into a fictional film. I just found that a really fun activity to do to take these ideas and then say, “Okay, I’ve got a house, I’ve got a backyard, I’ve got a property. How do I make a film out of that?”
And I also really love how even though the book The Prince is boring to read, I’ve heard some of those chapters were pretty hard to get through, his ideas encourage so much conversation. And that’s what I really love about film. I really love it when one person comes out the other saying “I hated that film.” And then another person comes out of theater and says, “I love that film.” And then they have a long, heated argument about why the film was bad, why the film was good, because from that energy arises where you can have many conversations and new ideas can be discussed. And in a way, it’s the most entertaining way to learn, and to be introduced to new ideas. And to have that done visually and done in an entertaining way. It’s just so exciting for me.
Let’s talk about visuals of Cherubhead as well, because it’s a very tactile film. It’s visually striking because of the production design that you’ve chosen. The choice of fabric and the even the tea set, it’s very tangible. And you’re evoking a lot of emotion through imagery. How did that come into the creative process?
SL: That came from a place of desperation. Because I realised, I’ve got a story about a woman that’s meant to be rich and was meant to represent royalty. And then I look at the set, the house I’m meant to work with is a 2000s suburban home, this does not look like something that is rich. And so I had to think about it. And I thought, ‘Okay, how can I convince the audience that this woman is from a place of luxury?’ And I realised that if you look at the castles from King Ludwig the Second, he sort of really understood that it comes from colour. And it comes from the details that have [a] vivid [quality]. It’s striking, it’s unique. You never go into a castle or palace, and it’s just white, right? All the details, all the components work together to create a really stunning visual.
So I knew that in order to convince the audience that Marie has power, we need to be able to see that visually. And for Cherubhead, that power comes through colour. And it comes through that really dark blue with the lace curtain. So again, we went for a mix of royalty with a conservative traditional that should sort of remind you of your grandma’s home. But colourful. You’ve got the lace curtains, you’ve got the doilies, you’ve got the little dolls, but then amongst that you’ve got these really nice dark wooden chests and then you’ve got the lamps. You’ve got the decadent yellow chair, which oh god that took so much time to try and figure out what colour and what style to get. And then we decided to put the little symbol on top. And that was created to make it resemble the throne. So choosing the yellow throne and then choosing the little white chair as a power dynamic. And those were all found through op shops, Gumtree, family and friends. So again using what we had. But I don’t think Cherubhead would have been the film that it was if we hadn’t painted those walls. I think that’s one of the big selling points.
Whose house is it?
SL: It’s my parents. The blue room, the main room where everything happens, that’s my bedroom. I was like, “Look, we have to take out the bed and we have to turn this into a living room space.” And I was like “How can I convince people that this tiny little house is owned by a powerful woman?”, and that was really a big challenge get go and I think we’ve what we had we made it work.
Obviously you’re using limited space, but there’s so many different shots of one room and creating the space within there to make it feel vibrant and different. How did you go about that? Was it storyboarding?
SL: Very much. So the good thing about it being my home was that I knew it really well. And again, because I knew it, when I wrote the script, I structured it around the house. So I knew, ‘Okay, there’s this hallway. And then there’s two rooms on the side of the hallway. That’s fantastic. That’s like the hallways, the battlefield, you’ve got the two sides, and then you’ve got the battlefield as the hallway, we’ve got the bathroom.’ And what I realised from the get go is one of the strengths about that space is that you can make it feel really claustrophobic, which worked in favour with Ellie when she’s on the floor, she doesn’t get the privileges of being in a bed, she’s all hidden up, or she’s hiding behind a wall. And so working with the space really helped us to create that sense [that] all the walls [are] coming in.
With that being said, it was definitely a challenge. The big challenge was to try and keep you engaged in this one space, because you would get bored. You’re in basically one room for an hour, and [to] keep that interesting, we essentially break every rule. So many times, we broke the 180 rule because I’m like, “Look, we need to, by this point know the house so well that we could break every 180 and you’d know where we are, because that’s all that we’ve seen.” The 180 breaks, they were deliberate, but they’re refreshing. It’s like finally we got some new framing. Finally, we’ve got a new way that we can view the room. So not limiting ourselves to those to those rules and being creative with how we can capture the space, I think helped us a lot in pre-production and planning how we were going to shoot all the scenes. But yeah, I got a big file, and I storyboarded all of it. It’s just like 100, 200 pages of shots.
The explanation of how you’re working and creating makes me really excited to see where you go as a filmmaker. It’s going to be exciting to see where you grow and go as somebody who has got a lot of vision, drive and passion for [filmmaking].
SL: Thank you. Look, I’ve got a few projects features in the works. One is an issue that I’ve been really passionate about, which is the spread of misinformation after COVID. It’s been really fascinating and interesting to see how much we are not trusting information now and how disorienting it can feel. So an exploration of that through a rural town in Australia.
And then the other one is Butterscotch, which is my take on romanticism, and romanticism in Western culture, because romanticism was so strongly embedded into our culture and into our psyche that even though people would argue that we are out of the Romantic era, I would say no, no way at all, there is still so much romanticism regarding ideas. There’s a romanticism surrounding devoting yourself to one thing, concerning the hustle and the grind. There’s a lot of romanticism surrounding film, as a text, as a lot of romanticism, surrounding of course, love. So Butterscotch, is a film that explores romanticism on all those fronts. With the idea being about it being sickly sweet, when you consume too much of something that is sweet, it makes your tummy hurt, like it’s too much of a good thing that ends up being bad. And how do we find that balance in a culture that is very romanticised? I’m really excited for those projects. And hopefully with all of the support that Cherubhead is getting, hopefully we can get some we can get some attention, and we can hopefully get some funding to make those projects happen.
Fingers crossed. Let’s talk about the cast because we’ve got Angelina [Curtis], Nicola [Kinnane] and yourself. How did you go about casting the three central people?
SL: I went about it mainly online, I did it myself. Essentially it was sending in video auditions. Angie I really wanted to cast as Ellie because with the lead being [one of] the youngest characters, that’s definitely taking a risk. So I really wanted someone who not only understood film acting, but also was passionate. All of us learned so much on the set. And Angie was just perfect. She has had a lot of success with song writing, but she was really into film. And it was really just the right place at the right time. And of course, her mum, Mel [was] so supportive drove her an hour and a half to get to a shooting location every weekend. They were both really passionate and supportive of them. And they still are to this to this day, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have them on the team. And [with] Nicola, casting Sophie, it was screen presence, it was the certain small details in the facial expressions and the demeanour of the character that I really wanted. And Nicola was able to do that naturally. And so that’s what made me really gravitate towards her.
[What] makes me gravitate towards all the actors [is] ‘Okay, everyone delivers their lines beautifully, what about the moments in between the lines, because you’re still your character then.’ And I think usually those pauses are when you can see the character, and you can really see the actors performances, because sometimes that’s when actors think, “Oh, the audience isn’t looking.” But we are, the camera stays on you, the camera never goes away. And you’ve got to stay in character that whole time.
And then I think myself, I originally want to be an actor. And so I thought, “Well, if I make my own film, I can cast myself as whoever I want.” So that was that was mainly my treat. But what I have learned is that acting and directing is not great, it is so hard to do. And it is not a great combo if you have heavy dialogue scenes. And a lot of the film is based on character interactions. You need someone who is devoted to being the director and devoted to looking at your interactions and looking at those scenes and saying, “Right, did we get the moment?” Because as an actor, when you’re acting and directing, I can’t simultaneously be in the moment and watch a moment. It just does not work. Again, it was a great thing to learn.
What lessons did you take from this that you’ll be able to implement in your next one?
SL: Main lessons, (laughs) don’t act and direct. But I would really recommend directing and producing because being the producer, you learn so much about how the actual film is [made], and you learn about every other role and what that role does, how to communicate with that role effectively. There were times where you do get stressed on film sets, and I [would] need a shot a certain way. But because there was so much stress and so much emotion, I couldn’t communicate effectively with the DOP, little things like that. Where if [I] focus more on the director/producer combo, and less on the director/actor combo, I know in the future that’s going to keep me up [to speed] in terms of taking care of the crew, and making sure that film production is running smoothly.
Other key lessons, I would really suggest making a micro budget feature film. What I learned from making it is how to solve problems creatively. We didn’t have money so we couldn’t solve all of our problems. Usually when there’s an issue, let’s say the lighting for the shot isn’t right, “Oh, let’s buy another light. Oh, let’s get something to hide the light.” “Let’s get something.” “Let’s purchase something.” “Let’s add something.” We didn’t have that. “Okay, we have this thing, we have this thing and have this thing, how do we solve this problem?” And that really stretched my mind creatively and the whole crews minds creatively into problem solving and being able to still make a [film] with the deadlines and with no money. It’s a lot of pressure and learning that from the get-go really demystifies all of those fears, all of those potential obstacles that pop up while your filmmaking and makes it fun. That’s like the most important thing. It’s so fun when you’re like, “Okay, we have some bedsheets and some playdough. Let’s get the lighting right for the day.”
I want to talk about Matthew Parkin in the film as well, because for the majority of it, there’s no men in the film. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is starting to feel a lot like Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ And then all of a sudden, this dude rocks up and you’re like, “Just get out of the film!” Matthew appears and he has such a striking figure and such a visual presence that he’s instantly unsettling and you’re unsure what his place is going to be. Can you talk about casting him and what the joy is working with the character there?
SL: The Man was one of the smaller roles, but somehow one of the most important because casting [Matthew] as the only male was meant to give us that feeling of how foreign the outside world is to Ellie. She’s been in this one house, this one location, it’s all women, and you really get sucked into this mindset. And then when she goes out for that breath of air, seeing a man, it really it puts you off a bit. It disorients you. And that was sort of what I was going for. The world outside her home is an uncertain place. And Ellie doesn’t fully understand it. We don’t fully understand. Is he your friend, or is he a threat? We can’t quite tell.
And I that’s why I really like seeing Ellie’s transition when she comes out the first time and she has that chat with him. And then the second time when she comes out and they just see each other, and in that moment, he doesn’t come up [to her]. He doesn’t nurture her. He doesn’t try and help her. Because sometimes Ellie has that confidence. And she has that self-assertion that she can make her own way in the world. She runs off for her own little adventure, and the world is there to support her. It’s a nice little endearing ending, even though it does stop quite quickly after the climax, which was inspired by Corpus Christi. I really love that ending.
It was a pleasure working with Matt. He’d worked on a lot films over the last year [The Furnace, The Xrossing], which was why it was really a pleasure to work with him because he had a real professionalism about him, which I loved. And because on the Cherubhead set, I really wanted a certain amount of efficiency and professionalism, because it just makes it so much easier to work. It’s so much harder to work when everyone is not focused and laughing mucking about. We really got on the same page.
And look, the beard is iconic. It gave off like a Coen Brothers vibe. [Ellie] sitting down and a dude with a big beard rocks up and they have a chat [is] so Coen brothers. That was definitely an influence.
I want to go to Oscar Prosser’s score, which is just wonderful and really beautiful. Can you talk about the creation of that?
SL: Oscar is such a talented composer, we have been friends for six or seven years. He did the soundtracks for all of my short films. He loves music, and I love film, and so we found a really natural companionship there. When we were looking at Cherubhead, I went over to his house, he has his piano, and he just starts playing some pieces for me. The main Cherubhead theme came just from him playing a piece, and then I would say, “Wait. Stop stop stop. That little bit was it.” And so what was originally a five minute piece comes down to like a 20 second auditory motif, musical motif, which became the theme, which we then started the thread through.
I gave him the instruments that I wanted for the different characters. Ellie was the flute. Marie was violin, and then Sophie was cello, because I want there to be a similarity throughout the whole film. What you sort of realise at the end is that Sophie and Marie aren’t too dissimilar from each other. And the more similar than you are led to think at the start of the film, you think when Sophie comes in, she’s going to be the saviour, she’s going to be the saving grace, she’s going to boot Ellie out, and that does not happen at all. And by the end, the two characters should almost blend together, almost as the same person. And Oscar really did really well was telling that narrative through sound, and keeping you engaged and keeping these themes to reinforce these ideas, whenever a character comes in have that sort of sound.
He saw the film from very early on and watched it several times with me. And he’s like, “Okay, can we have a little bit of music here?” And I’m like, “Yes, let’s get some cello into there, and the nods with the piano.” So it’s very collaborative. And he really is the most talented composer I know. And I’m so excited to see what he does in the future.
As we lead into wrapping up, I’m curious about your influences. This is a two part question. What your influences are as a filmmaker? What kind of filmmakers do you look to [for influences]? And then with that in mind, what it means to be an Australian filmmaker as well, too?
SL: A lot of films that directly influence Cherubhead, were influences because they had similar situations. Reservoir Dogs, it’s just in one location, and so it’s trying to keep audiences engaged in that one location. Another influence is Stanley Kubrick. I really love some of his powerful shots where again, Marie drinking the teacup, that’s all over all the Cherubhead promotional [material], pretty much making eye contact with the camera. It’s very Kubrick-esque breaking the fourth wall but not breaking the fourth wall. So visually, there was inspiration from him.
But from a personal stylistic view, I really love Greta Gerwig’s writing. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, they have a similar style, but I really love their attention to detail and dialogue and creating empathy, which is something that I’m really focusing on for Butterscotch. I see that really being an influence [in a lot of my future work].
Funnily enough, I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire after I made Cherubhead. And I watched it and I said, “That is so Cherubhead, I love it.’ People have said, “Surely Portrait of a Lady on Fire was an influence?” And I’m like, I wish it was. But I didn’t actually get to watch it until afterwards. Celine Sciamma, she’s a fantastic film director. She’s a fantastic director and a big influence.
For me, tying this all into Australian identity. As a young person, I am very conflicted. I’m just gonna be honest, I’m very conflicted as to whether I want to be known as an Australian film director. And if I want to have my identity tied to Australia. Australia is a beautiful country, no doubt, but I’m not that great at creating “Australian films”, let’s just say the typical Outback Western, that’s really not my style. And I don’t gel with a lot of the films and genres that Australians know and love. I’m sorry, I really don’t like The Castle. And I just I get so much hate for that. I find love in the film as an Australian, because it’s certainly tied into identity there. But from a filmmaking perspective, I don’t like that film.
I have had a lot of people say that Cherubhead is a very European style film. So I think it’s going to be really interesting in the future to see how my identity shapes with Australia, if it will be and what the future holds. Because right now, unfortunately, I cannot give a definite answer. Really, it does come from a place of conflict, of course, I do love Australia. But the question is, “Do I belong here?” But having Cherubhead in the Revelation Film Festival, it’s sort of an underground, there’s something brewing, and it’s really exciting. And I think if this growing industry goes more, and I grow with it, I can definitely see myself being tied me tying myself to Australian film and to Australian identity. So we’ll just have to cross our fingers and see how things go.
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