How to Please a Woman is one of the most refreshing, entertaining, and exciting Australian films to arrive in recent years. Jam packed full of joy and entertainment, Renee Webster’s feature film debut is bolstered by fully realised characters that feel grounded and real, while also giving way to the natural comedy of day-to-day life. Telling the story of Gina (Sally Phillips), How to Please a Woman follows her journey as she revives a struggling removal company, turning it into a cleaning service with a bit more for women.
In this interview, Renee talks about crafting comedy on set, working with Sally Phillips and Erik Thomson, and more.
You’re must be excited to get it out into the world. What’s your mood and vibe right now with the release date coming up?
Renee Webster: I’m super excited to bring this to audiences. We’ve had a really strategic release where we’ve begun obviously at the Somerville season. We’re having a slow lead in, and every screening we keep selling out and people keep trying to get to the film but missing out. So it feels incredibly timely. I can feel audiences are really hungry for it. And I just can’t wait to bring it to them.
It’s a real crowd pleaser. I’m curious about the process of how you manage to get the comedy down on paper and then when you’re on set and directing, how do you know that you’re creating something that’s going to resonate with the audience?
RW: With comedy, you create something on the page, and then you really hope you can get it on the day and that will translate onto the screen. One of the things to do in the writing of it is to keep it really lean so that you’re not having to describe on the page a lot to make funny. It should just read on the page in a way that feels funny. I keep the writing as lean and non-descriptive as I can, so there’s a kind of energy in it, coming from the dialogue and very simple sentences. In the writing, I think that’s important.
On the day with comedy, I really try and sort of protect a space onset where things just can feel a little bit loose. So there’s room for the cast to step in and own a moment. You have to be really careful directing comedy because sometimes when you have a crew standing around and it’s funny and the crew laugh, you can start creating theatre, something that works for the stage. But that can often feel too big onscreen. I described myself on this set as completely the fun police. Sally Phillips used to tag me as not the fun police. But I squashed the comedy all the time. All the time, I was stepping in and taking it away. Because I felt that it was already there and if we just kept it understated, it would play. So I stopped a lot of fun on set, basically.
Was that always the intention to make something that felt real and grounded so people could relate to it that little bit more?
RW: Absolutely. I even didn’t like describing the film as a comedy because there’s this particular genre where you go along and everyone’s expecting big laughs and as soon as you’re playing a scene for the laugh, I feel that it’s less funny. So I really tried very hard to never play a scene for a laugh, but to always build it into the character’s intentions.
For the men, they either felt undermined if there was another guy, ‘he looked better with his shirt off than them’. I really didn’t want people to try and find the gag or the funniness. A lot of television is written with gags, and gags are protected in television. But just go the opposite way and let the characters stay really true to their own experience within that moment, with absolutely the view to finding humanity and relatability. When that happens, it starts to feel at once kind of specific, but universal. Which is the sweet spot you’re going for.
Let’s talk about the casting process, too. Sally is just wonderful here. She’s given a great character to work with. How did you go about casting Sally?
RW: There’s two ways to cast this movie: you can either try and bring in an actor who works more in drama, because we wanted to have emotional weight and there is a lot to carry in the film. Or you can someone who works in comedy. I wanted to work with Sally because I knew she would be fearless. And she is absolutely fearless. Actors who work in comedy have the ability to drop in. And she really did. So it was that fearless quality. And also Sally’s very lovable and very relatable. It was so exciting when she really loved the script and connected with it really deeply. She had a lot of fantastic observations to bring to it. Sally was like my perfect storm.
And you’ve got Erik Thomson there too who is just wonderful. He plays a very charming character that kind of reveals himself as he goes along as this beautiful silver fox character. You’ve worked with him on Aftertaste. What was it like working with Erik in a feature film capacity?
RW: Oh, it was fantastic. So that was the first time I worked with Erik. I didn’t direct the first season of Aftertaste. Erik arrived in the second half of the shoot. That’s quite hard for an actor. Everything’s already underway, you can’t really do rehearsal time because you’re already shooting. So we had to work very fast together. And because Erik is Erik, he was just immediately straight off the bat fantastic. He brings a lot of preparation to the role which is really good when you have to drop in and work fast. So it meant the magic when it occurred between he and Sally, I didn’t have to find it. It was right there.
He’s quite the natural, isn’t he? He manages to own the screen quite well. And he is very generous too. In fact, a lot of the actors that are in the film are very generous in giving their co-stars the time and the space to own their scenes. Can you talk about that ability to make the set feel comfortable enough for people to share the same with one another?
RW: Some of this came down to comedy. Some scenes I would let people do improv and others I wouldn’t, depending on the nature of the scene. I think what happened is Sally Phillips arrived, she’s our international cast member. She was incredibly connected to the film, and she was also very generous to all the cast, she was so excited by the casting. Sally set a really great tone. The reality is a lot of the vibe onset you want to control as a director, but your cast will set that. And Sally was terrific.
Everyone brought a very generous, positive openness with them, and we could feel ourselves discover things and then land on it. So I have a thing that first time I work with an actor on a scene, when we go through a process together, I really try very hard and hope for our first scene together to work and work well. Because when you have that, then people feel safe and they can trust the power of the script and that the work is good. The more positive something is, the more people can relax into it and allow space for each other.
Which comes across on the screen. A lot of this film is about discovery, and one of the things which I really must applaud you for is the organic way that you put into the script the discovery of sexuality later on in life. Can you talk about writing those scenes and those characters?
RW: I thought about this a bit in terms of… you just said discovery of sexuality later on in life. I decided that I wouldn’t dwell too much upon the fact that this was about sexuality after forty. I just made it about sexuality and people who are over forty at the center of the story. Other films who do casting over forty get very caught up in themes of ageing. And that’s incredibly relevant because there are complex stories that go on, and those particular stories that live within marriages that are ten or twenty years or thirty years down the road.
I think often what we see – or maybe there is this common misunderstanding that people have their sexual journeys and explorations and that there is a time when that stops. I don’t think that has to be true at all. These are very intimate details within a marriage. So you don’t always hear about [them]. And it’s hard to find ways to bring them to light on the screen that can still be entertaining. So again, it was just about putting these people at the center of sexual story.
RW: It was terrific. I’ve known Tania Chambers for a really long time. And when I wrote this film and when I was coming up with the concept of this film, I knew that I wanted to take it to Tania. It feels like a Tania movie. And I think I was right. (laughs) Tania had seen and loved my short film work, so there was a good creative connection, and I also know how much integrity she has.
Tania then introduced Judi to the project, and Judi produced The Sessions [which] is one of my favourite films and in fact a reference for this film. That was such an exciting connection to make. Having two producers was terrific because we worked really well in our triangulations between ourselves because it meant sometimes one producer would lean in more than the other. And that can actually be really helpful in your creative process.
Can you talk about the best day that you had onset? Because this feels like a film where the set would have felt like you’re hanging out with friends.
RW: Yeah, it was. (laughs) There were lots of great days on set. The reality of filmmaking is you don’t always know what you’re going to get. And I often think of it a little bit like cooking. You have your recipe and [even] if you have very good ingredients, you’re never quite sure how it’s going to come together on the day. We had lots of great ingredients, and so much of that is about your casting. There is a scene in the film between Sally and Erik that involves an exercise bike. And that was something we had to find on the day. And that was one of my best days onset. That’s all I’ll say. I can’t spoil it, can I?
No. No, not at all. Gotta wait until people get to see it. But as soon as they do, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. So what do you mean by finding on the day? What does that mean in practice?
RW: I think it is watching what happens when it comes to life, when an actor takes on the dialogue and breathes life into it. There are so many different ways of doing it. And as a director, I just really like to pay attention. So I watch. I don’t come in and say to everyone, “This is how we’re going to do it.” We’ve all talked about things, there’s been some rehearsals, there’s plenty of scenes you don’t get the chance to rehearse. So you watch it come to life as in you watch everyone jump in and inhabit it and then work out which bit you would change or tweak, and then work out what the words are you have to say to get yourself to that place. So really, it’s about the performance, when something comes to life,
I like to cover both short films and feature films because I feel that shorts don’t get the celebration that they deserve. But there are a lot of filmmakers who obviously go from shorts to features and back again. Can you talk from your experience about having moved from short to a feature film? What kind of things did you learn along the way?
RW: I went from shorts to feature but in between shorts and feature film, there was a lot of other filmmaking. Commercials, documentary, and television drama. What you work out is how important your instincts are. So as a director, there’s a craft to learn, and there’s all this practice and everything. But I worked out that what made my short films work and kind of feel like they came from me were my instincts. So it’s about learning how to listen to your instincts, pay attention to them, often in the heat of the moment where things are very busy and there’s a lot of pressure to go a certain way. And to not be afraid to lean into your instincts, even if they are kind of counter to what you think or the expected way of doing something. I think a director’s instinct is what defines their tone.
From my perspective, I cover a lot of Australian films. I like to embrace Australian films as much as possible. And I know that other Australian filmmakers and other Australian film lovers like to find out what it means to be an Australian filmmaker to those who are creating Australian films or Australian TV here.
RW: I think being an Australian filmmaker is very challenging. I’m really driven by the story that I want to tell, and that will culturally always feel like an Australian story. I want to answer this politically, Andrew.
Go for it.
RW: It’s a harrowing time in the Australian filmmaking landscape. I look at the incredible opportunity that is out there at the moment with the amount of really high end television and streaming content and the commerce that can come with that. And I see a failure of our federal government to capture the opportunity that is there for Australian filmmaking to get our stories onscreen. We need to see Australian children’s television so our kids are growing up looking at our own stories and our own culture, not trying to be like a different culture.
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