Joy Hopwood is an indie powerhouse, working as a writer, director, producer, and sometimes even as an actor in her films. Her latest film, Get a Life, Alright! is currently screening at Dendy cinemas with a theatrical run extended to June 1st. Get a Life, Alright! tells the story of Nick (Satish Kala), a part time florist delivery person, a part time waiter, and a full time aspiring actor. On a chance delivery to the studios of the popular music TV show Get a Life, Nick meets the stars of the show Tessa (Abril Tolnay) and Sarah (Aileen Huynh). Quickly, a romance between Nick and Tessa blooms, all the while the gaze of paparazzi and the pressures of fame add tension in Nick’s life.
Joy talks about her vision as a filmmaker, her desire to increase diversity on screen, and her cinematic inspiration in this interview.
For indie films, it is so hard to trying and get films out there. You’ve done a good job in having not just this film, Get a Life, Alright!, but having Rhapsody Of Love last year as well. Congratulations for not only getting one out there, but having two features out there into cinemas.
Joy Hopwood: It’s good. And this one’s attracted more attention overseas with festivals. And also, we will be able to make an announcement on the 30th of May, where the license is going to a network.
Awesome. Congratulations. With the cast for Get A Life, Alright!, are they all Australian actors? Or did you manage to bring some Indian actors across so you can have that cross-country appeal?
JH: Yes, I have Indian-Australian actors. Sukhraj Deepak, he was [featured] in Here Out West. And everyone loves him as Ballu in the film. I think he makes the biggest laughs in the film, as well as the music videos. I think that’s where the comedy comes in for this romantic comedy.
What is your interest in working in this particular genre, in the genre of romance and comedy and the lighter fare?
JH: I’ve always loved the work of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, when I grew up. I just loved their films, but it wasn’t diverse. I couldn’t relate to them as much. But I’ve always wanted to be the version of them. I dedicated my life to try and be the best I can, making romantic comedies in that vein. I think my inspiration came from those two female filmmakers.
And it shows in the writing. You’re very keen on showing that kind of positivity and a lighter side of [life], which is quite refreshing because the films that we get in Australia are often quite dark. [You take the role of] producing, creating, directing, and with Rhapsody of Love, there was the writing and the acting there as well, how have you found the ability to get these films off the ground in Australia nowadays?
JH: With this latest film, I co-wrote this film with Shamini Singhal to make sure it’s authentic and culturally correct in terms of the Indian audience. And she was really good for all the Indian scenes that I created and amended them accordingly. To get them off the ground, I always audition actors and I see if there’s chemistry between the leads and we have script readings. And then I go to my female entrepreneurs who have always invested money into my films, and they’ve seen me progress. This film, they put in a little bit more, and they’re really happy. When they came to opening night, they were really taken aback by the audience laughing quite a lot in this film, and they can see how much I progress from my first film.
I’ve made four now. The last two I’ve been able to get a theatrical release, and I’m really happy to have distributors. I’ve got Bonsai [and] Jonathan Page on this one. He’s been wonderful to get me certain deals in place, which we’re not allowed to announce till the end of the month.
I think I’ve seen a progression of my films. And I think just to have that belief in me from my female entrepreneurs who have backed me and my peers just propel me. My fight is for diversity and change, because this is my first film that is led by a team of women and we were all in sync. My sound [mixer/recordist] Lara Cross, DOP and editor Linda Ung, and Valerie Iastrebova who is Russian – she did the set design – all of us were in sync.
We did pre-production six months before the film, so we really knew where we all stood, and we’re all on the same page. And I think it’s really important to have people who move the same pace as you and are on the same page as you and follow all directions to the tee. Otherwise, if people are all over the place, the film is not going to get off the ground.
When did you shoot it?
JH: We shot it last year when there was high restrictions, I think it was in January last year.
How did you find that, directing with all the restrictions and the difficulties of social distancing?
JH: I had to do a lot of script readings with the lead on Zoom. We had like thirty minutes every day, and he would read his part, and I would tell him how to interact, how to [behave], “You have to be this mood and what have you.” It was hard because he was in the northern suburbs, and they weren’t allowed to come down to Sydney until the week before the shoot. We were lucky. Otherwise, I’d have to find another actor. Everything fell in place, but it was hard for him being the lead and I had to do a lot of Zoom directing.
Everyone else we were able to have [within the restriction of] under ten [people] within my office. I have a studio in the city in Ultimo. So only ten are allowed in the office social distancing. It was very hard because I had a very minimal crew during that time. Everyone had to multi-task, including myself. It was really challenging, but it was good at the same time because I have to be very clear with my directions.
What have you learned and found about yourself as a director throughout the years from your first film to this one?
JH: I’ve discovered [the importance] to have patience, empathy, and also always look for actors who are not only talented, but they have kindness and work together as a team, and also the vision. It’s not just on the set that you have to come up with the goods, but also after the film has been released, you have to promote [it]. I have to look for actors who have the whole package.
I prefer to work with an actor who is talented but have no ego rather than having a big name who has an ego and tantrums and what have you on set. I go for really humble actors but who are talented and hardworking. They’re the three things that I look at for an actor now, they have to have all those three elements.
With Get A Life, Alright!, one of the key themes and subjects is the push for diversity on screen. You’ve worked in Australian film and TV for quite a while now. How have you seen it change both on screen and behind the scenes over the years?
JH: I think it’s only in the last three or four years I’ve seen rapid changes, and they always say, “Be the change that you want to see in the industry.” That’s why I employ a lot of female creatives behind the scene and I always make sure my cast are diverse because I want it to reflect the multicultural Australia that is today.
I think it’s in the last three or four years since #OscarsSoWhite, there’s been rapid change. And thanks to Crazy Rich Asians because that led to box office success. It doesn’t matter what skin colour you have, it’s the stories, and my stories are always going for the underdog. A lot of it has to do with mental health issues and trying to be empathetic and walk in someone else’s shoes, all those things. And the female friendships in this film are really important to me.
I really liked that bond between the two main characters, Tessa and Sarah. They grow [together] over the film, they’re talking about relationships, they work together, they have that bond. It almost feels like it’s written from a personal perspective. Was that the case?
JH: Yes, it is. And even what Nick went through, some of the feedback he received is what I received when I started out in the industry, “Go back to where you came from, we don’t need an Asian person on screen.” Some of the influences of my past have been reflected in this film, what Nick has gone through.
Like you said, I really championed the two female leads, because I think the importance of female friendships are really relevant in today’s society. I see so many scenarios where women are competing with each other for the job or for the boy. I really think it’s time that we work together and pat each other on the back and have respect for one another rather than see everything as a competition.
Definitely. One of the key elements is the songs in the film. How did you go about writing the songs and the music? Did you get somebody to assist with the actual music writing or was that all you?
JH: Three of the songs I actually wrote in the late Nineties and Noughties. I was actually in the [process] of getting signed with a music publisher and a small record label. But the record label wanted me to be in a girl band, and I didn’t really want that. So that’s when I withdrew from the industry. And I just thought, what a shame all these songs that I wrote are going to be wasted.
That propelled me to write this film based around a music video show so I could use the songs that I wrote. The theme song I wrote last year with Roy Nicolson who I was teamed up with in the late Nineties with the record label and the music publisher, and we kept in touch ever since then. It’s really good that even though it didn’t work out during that time that I was able to call upon him to do the theme song as well as the score. Anisha Thomas wrote the Indian parts of the music.
What was that like, revisiting the past and making it new again? That must have been pretty exciting.
JH: It was. I thought, “These are really catchy songs, I’m really proud of the songs and I’m going to rehash them and make them more vibrant for today.” And I have, I think they’re suited. They do have the Nineties and Noughties style, but I made music videos that are entertaining for today’s audience, and I’m really proud of that. A lot of people said that’s one of their favourite part of the film, they get a real chuckle out of that. Also, some people have asked me to have [the songs] uploaded so they can download it and have it on their podcast and things like that.
I want to talk about Ana Tiwary as well who you produced Rhapsody of Love with. She’s got an upcoming talk at the Sydney Film Festival. I was hoping you might be able to talk about your working relationship with her on Rhapsody of Love. How was it having her as a producer on that film?
JH: Ana is very experienced in television, and this was her first feature film. We both learned from each other. There’s things that she didn’t know and she was really happy to learn from me. And there’s things that I appreciate from her from post-production, she’s very cluey on post-production. We were able to work off each other there.
It sounds like a good relationship. As you’re saying with Get A Life, Alright!, you’ve got a great line-up of women both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Is that something that you intend to take going forward with your next films?
JH: Yes, I do hope they’re available. My team have gone on to bigger and better things. Lara Cross just finished Interceptor, which I’m going to [see] tonight. This is her big blockbuster film, and she rang me and said, “Thank you, Joy, for allowing me to work on two of your indie films because those credits allowed me to work on this film, Interceptor.” I’m really proud of them, they’ve gone on to bigger and better things.
Is this something you’re going to continue, building up a filmography with these kinds of stories? Or do you intend to move into different styles of filmmaking like drama or documentary?
JH: I might do. I’ve been approached to be a writer and director on a comedy similar to Seinfeld, and I’m investigating that at the moment. I have also written a six-part series comedy, so I’m either going to ride with someone on their comedy series, or I’ll have my own. But I’m also willing to do my next feature. It’s all in first draft stage, and it will be aimed at the forty to fifty age group. So I’ve got two things that I would like to work on straight after this film.
Lovely. I’m looking forward to hearing about them and seeing them in the future. Certainly, more diversity on screen is what we need. And more of these kinds of stories is really what Australian cinema needs.
JH: That’s what propels me to continue with my filmmaking because the more I can help the industry, the bigger it will grow.
Exactly. There’s one question which I like to wrap up interviews with when I’m talking to Australian filmmakers: what does it mean to you to be an Australian filmmaker working today?
JH: I like being an indie filmmaker because it gives me creative freedom to write stories that I have experienced, and also to move people. It gives me freedom to choose actors and a creative team that I can see potential in their futures [because they’re] highly talented in their craft. It really warms my heart when there’s so much passion and drive to make our product the best that it can be and the fact that we can work together to make a product that we can stand back and everyone can be proud of.
It’s good to find little gems in the industry, I just love discovering unknown actors and giving opportunities for filmmakers and producers who have never done a feature film ever, like Linda and all these women that I’ve discovered. I’m hoping to work with them again. But if they’re not available, I’ll just have to find the next gem. I really, really love to find them.
Definitely. I think the more people that you help out, the stronger and different and grander the film industry in Australia becomes, and that’s exciting.
JH: That’s my vision, exactly what you said. I’m really proud of them. Shamini Singhal is the next generation. She’s in her twenties, I’m really pushing her out. There’s some people who I also nurture from film schools and emerging writers that I take under my wing, and I just want them to succeed. I do spot the gems that I can see have a good future, a promising future. The more people I can help, I’d like to help them. I’m not a materialist. I just want to see you succeed. The best gift you can give me is for you to follow your dreams and make it happen.
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