Coming into Full Bloom: An Interview with Sunflower Director Gabriel Carrubba Ahead of the Sydney Film Festival

Sunflower, written and directed by Gabriel Carrubba is a tender, yet tough coming-of-age queer story set in the suburbs of Melbourne. The film documents a turbulent time in the life of high schooler Leo (Liam Mollico) as he negotiates systemic homophobia and the desire to fit in with his peers. When Leo is outed what does life hold for him? Will he sink beneath heteronormative demands or find a way to blossom and embrace his sexuality?

Nadine Whitney talks to Gabriel about his wonderful debut feature ahead of its launch at the Sydney Film Festival on June 15 & 17.

Nadine Whitney: How did you get Sunflower off the ground?

Gabriel Carrubba: I got Sunflower off the ground through self finance and a lot of private investment from friends and family. It came about during Melbourne lockdown in 2020 when I started writing about my own experiences because I was just stuck inside, working from home at the time, living with my parents and saving money. The money just accumulated so I was in a position where I was able to make a film.

NW: One of the things that I noticed was how exquisite the casting is on the film. You got a great range of emerging talent. Luke J Morgan as Boof, Liam Mollica as the protagonist, Leo, Daniel Halmarick as Tom, and Olivia Fildes as Monique. What drew you to these actors?

GC: I guess the best thing about having a low budget production is that we had quite a bit of time, which gave us time to find the right talent. I previously knew Liam because I’d worked with him before on my university graduate project, so when he sent in his tape it was so great and a no-brainer, so I just had to cast him. With the others what drew me to them was their presence in the room. Just immediately you can feel an actor is right for a character, especially with Olivia who plays Monique, she came into the room and she read the first three lines on the page and straight away my producer and I looked at each other and were “Yep, this is the one for this role.” It’s just an instinct thing that you immediately realise that an actor is right for a role. Any time in the past when I haven’t gone with my gut with casting it hasn’t worked out. I do believe 90% of the director’s job when it comes to directing actors and the rest is just little tweaks on the day.

NW: Liam is so authentic as Leo. It’s so believable that he’s a high schooler going through all of what he does. He didn’t look too old and managed to capture all that inner angst and awkwardness and all the “front” he had to put on to hide his sexuality with great skill.

GC: Yes, I totally agree with that. Liam was so committed to the role. Originally when he came to us, he was quite buff because he does a lot of body building. One of the things I said to him was you’re going to have to lose some of that muscle because it’s not believable that you’re like that at seventeen. It wasn’t just his physical transformation; we spoke about the character of Leo and how he walks and how he sits and how he’s very introverted. Liam is a very confident person in real life and so the character of Leo couldn’t be further from who he is. So, I told him that when you talk to people and are very confident walking into a room, Leo is the opposite. Leo is always quiet, he’s always on the outside looking in and listening. Liam did such an amazing job bringing Leo to life who is a lot like I was as a teenager and as a kid.

NW: Please tell me about the sunflower metaphor.

GC: I’m really glad you asked about that. A lot of people have been asking me about it as well, what’s with the title? Why sunflowers? The metaphor of the sunflower is that when a sunflower has not bloomed yet it can look like quite a sad flower, and quite an ugly looking flower. My experience was like that. I felt sad inside, I felt at war with myself, I felt ugly inside because I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be that person. The opposite side of that is when a sunflower blooms it’s beautiful, and with my experience – coming out to my parents and my family, accepting myself was a beautiful experience. Metaphorically, for me, the sunflower works.

NW: There’s also the connection with Monique who has painted sunflowers.

GC: Yes, yes, so with that scene [that takes place in Monique’s bedroom] with the painting of the sunflowers it was very much about finding something interesting that Leo needs to look at in the room that distracts him from what is happening. Because he doesn’t want to be in that position, he felt pressured to be in that position – so I felt a sunflower field is like a window of possibility for what he could be, but he’s confined in the room, and he wishes he was in the sunflower field, but he is in the room with Monique doing something he doesn’t want to do but is pressured to do by the society around him.

NW: As we are discussing social pressure, I think the character who oddly most embodies that is Boof. His internalised homophobia is so powerful, and he is a product of toxic masculinity. Masculinity that hurts males, how men internalise social norms in a manner that damages them. Can you tell me a bit about Boof?

GC: I totally agree with that statement about toxic masculinity, it’s also about how men treat each other. Boof is based on a lot of people I knew. I grew up in a suburb called Berwick which is about an hour out from the CBD – it’s kind of semi-rural but becoming suburban, it’s a very conservative place to be. A lot of guys that I knew in Berwick were like Boof. Always putting on this front. They always have to be this tough guy and act in a certain way. Boof is an amalgamation of boys I knew in high school, some boys that were close to me as well. The way that Leo and his friendship group talk to each other and treat each other is that they never have anything to say to each other that is nice. They’re always doing dumb things or making fun of each other. That’s what it was like for me with my friendship group growing up – there was always that toxic masculinity brewing under the surface.

NW: Boof’s story is quite tragic. He has a terrible home life, and his refuge is with Leo who he is quite obviously attracted to. Boof, like Leo, is dealing with social pressures. A lot of people probably think that coming out means little in the contemporary period but that’s not the case. It really depends on context. Where you are, who your family and friends are. In Sunflower you’ve captured that struggle so well.

GC: Thank you so much. Exactly, coming out really does depend on the environment that you’re in. And when you are a teenager everything feels like the end of the world. You’re in high school it’s like a bubble and this is your life. If you’re not in a certain spot in that society, in that school, your whole experience can be tainted and tarnished. I think that’s why for Leo it’s such a big deal that he keeps up these appearances, and same with Boof. You have to keep up a façade because you can’t let people see in. And if anyone were to find out could quite literally be the worst thing in the world that could happen.

NW: For a while for Leo it is. Until he finds Tom. Did you have a Tom?

GC: I do have a “Tom” my boyfriend of four years. I didn’t have a Tom in high school. “Tom” came into my life in my early twenties. A lot of the film is very truthful. A lot of the stuff in the film did actually happen to me but in different stages of my life. I wanted to put as much as I could into a two to three month timeframe in the film. Obviously there were things I left out as well because I couldn’t possibly fit everything into 90 minutes.

I do have a “Tom” – he’s lovely. Not exactly 100% the character of Tom in the film, they’re a little bit different because Dan brought his beautiful sensibility into the character.

NW: The character of Tom is so refreshing. He understands he can’t be openly out at school but still has a sexual confidence and leads Leo into the world that he’s meant to be a part of.

GC: Yes, exactly, and that’s very much what “Tom” was for me. He was the first to come out to his family. He was the first to do something and show me that “Hey, it’s okay, you can do this too.” Not just in regard to sexuality but also in life. He gave me the confidence to take my first international trip. He was responsible for so many first things because I’ve always been a person who doesn’t have natural confidence and always holds back. So, I guess, yeah in the same way the character of Tom has been that for Leo.

NW: What is it like being a young queer director in Australia?

GC: I feel like we’ve got it pretty good now. I feel like I’m able to tell my story with no issues. Perhaps even ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been as easy to get a film like Sunflower off the ground. As queer filmmakers we owe a lot to the filmmakers who came before us. I think films like Ana Kokkinos’ Head On did a lot for the Australian film industry when it comes to queer films. Same goes for Holding the Man, I feel like that opened a door to Australian mainstream audiences into the cinema to see a film like that. It’s really good, but it all comes from the people who came before us in telling those stories.

NW: Do you have a few favourite directors? People who influenced you.

GC: I do like Francois Truffaut, he’s one of my top directors. When I saw The 400 Blows when I was about eighteen years old before I started film school and that film really set things up for me. It made me realise maybe I can be a filmmaker. The way he captured adolescence and being young felt truthful. It made me want to make films like that.

I love Barry Jenkins, Sofia Coppola – The Virgin Suicides changed my life. I don’t mind a bit of Terrence Malick as well, I really do like his films. I think they’re not for everyone. I remember watching The Tree of Life pretty late at night and I couldn’t sleep for at least three hours. I was just awake sitting up in bed until 3am. My co-producer told me to watch Badlands because I’d only really seen his recent films, but Zane told me I had to go back and watch the old Malick.

NW: I think people are really enjoying the small suburban queer film. So many people applauded Goran Stolevski’s Of an Age with good reason. It’s such a wonderfully intimate genre that shows that queer people are everywhere – not just an inner-city phenomenon.

GC: Queer people are everywhere. I do like the whole suburban thing. I think Australia gets a bad rap for its suburbs; I think a lot of people think the suburbs look ugly. I disagree, I think there is a lot of beauty to them. I see that in Berwick where we shot Sunflower – I think it’s beautiful. The way the sun comes through the afternoon and splashes across the pavement. I just think it looks so pretty sometimes. I think we need to see more of that in Australian film.

NW: Sunflower is beautifully shot – the dappled light is gorgeous. It is good to see the suburbs represented as only a place of deep depression.

GC: Exactly. And my cinematographer Martine Wolff did such an amazing job in bringing that together. I think I’ll be working with her for the rest of my life. She’s fantastic to work with, a great collaborator, an amazing artist. She’s from Luxembourg so she has this European sensibility to how she shoots things and a lot of people have commented that the film doesn’t really feel “Australian” – it feels a bit European in the way it is shot and it is because she is European.

NW: Why would you recommend people see Sunflower?

GC: I made Sunflower because if it stops one kid from taking their own life, for mainly queer teenagers who are going through what happens in the film, if it is still similar to what they experience in their circles I urge them to just please come and see this film. I want to let them know that it’s okay, it’s going to be okay, you are fine just the way you are.

I also want parents to come and see the film. I’ve noticed a common trend with parents who have queer kids is that as a parent you kind of conceive this life for your child. You map it out in your head – they’re going to get married and they’re going to have kids and it’s the heteronormative expectation. At least with my parents they were shocked when I came out to them and they weren’t ready for it because they didn’t expect that and growing up, I think they put pressure on me without even realising to be someone else. I want parents to see this film and realise that their child might be queer, and they might not be aware of that, and to not put pressure on them. Come and see the film and it will show that even things like Leo’s dad Frank suggesting that Leo could be sleeping with Monique – that automatic assumption that a guy is automatically sleeping with a girl. Little comments like that can really hurt because the conversation is never about dating someone of the same sex so that mustn’t be allowed. I think Sunflower is for parents as well.

NW: Congratulations on Sunflower, Gabriel and thank you so much for your time.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!