Ithaka Director Ben Lawrence Talks Fathers and Sons, John Shipton and Julian Assange, and Being an Australian Filmmaker in This Interview

As the son of celebrated director Ray Lawrence (Bliss, Lantana, Jindabyne), and with three films under his belt – Ghosthunter, Hearts and Bones, Ithaka – Ben Lawrence is quickly becoming one of the most important directors in the Australian film industry right now.

Instead of resting on his laurels, Ben continues to push himself as a filmmaker, eking out a powerful place in Australian film history. His latest film, Ithaka, follows John Shipton, a retired builder, fighting in the UK for his son’s, Julian Assange, freedom. A 175-year prison sentence looms in Julian’s future, leading John to embrace a life of tireless activism. Ithaka equally follows Julian’s partner, Stella, as she grapples with Julian’s continued imprisonment that mirrors an act of torture.

Timely, essential, and deeply human, Ithaka is yet another sign that Ben Lawrence is one of the great modern Australian filmmakers of our time. Ahead of Ithaka’s debut at the Sydney Film Festival, Andrew met up with Ben via Zoom to discuss how he came onto the project, the complexities of father/son relationships, and the future of the Australian film industry.

Tickets can be purchased here.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

This is really powerful stuff. You’ve already established yourself as a great filmmaker with Ghosthunter and Hearts and Bones, but this is something else altogether. So, congratulations, to start off with. The first question I want to ask you is how did it start? How did you come onto this project?

Well, I got a call from Gabriel (Shipton), the producer in July last year, and he had this idea to make a film about his father. There was an upcoming hearing for Julian at the end of last year (2020), so Gabriel contacted me in July last year, and within a month, I was on a plane to London. They’d already been filming for about six to eight months prior, so there was a routine (with) John and Stella (Moris) in being filmed, and I stepped into that. And we got on a few more support (crew) in London, I was the only one that came out of Australia, and we continued to film. Obviously, the focus was that hearing that started in September, and it took us a year. It was very quick, it happened very quickly. And so that’s the fastest I’ve (had) to make a film in that period of time, (a) turn around in about 12-months, we had-six months of editing as well.

But the entry point was Gabriel’s call to me. And I was pretty hooked from the moment he called amazing.

Did you ever ask yourself, why me? Why? What about me is it makes me the person to tell this story?

Definitely, definitely. And, actually, the responsibility of telling it, the size of the story, the fact that it was very important to me, I knew that was obviously important to others, but also to have that sort of access to John and Stella, and that world, weighed heavily on me in trying to tell a film that I felt that was accessible, emotional, but also grappled with the larger global issues that are obviously at play in Julian’s story. So, it was all of that. Why me… it was more the responsibility, I think, that weighed heavily on me. I felt up to it.

And we had a very small team. And that was really good for just being in those intimate moments and jumping in a taxi and capturing stuff that was just happening and allowing the characters just to live their lives. And I just really wanted to slip into that. The cinematographer, Niels (Ladefoged), had done such a wonderful job. He was very much trusted by the family, and I felt like I needed to own that as well. So that’s what I really wanted to continue on with, and obviously, leading people into that inner circle, there’s a huge amount of a leap of faith and I kind of cherish that and took that on from the very start.

Is there a balance of earning the trust when you initially go across there? How do you manage to do that?

I asked a lot of questions of Niels how the shooting would be going, what they’d established, where I felt I could help, and just support him. What we ended up doing was we duplicated his camera kit system, and I was able to have a second camera which really helped us.

But I think it’s a bit of a balance of earning the trust of John because we were spending so much time together and long hours, we were living together for a period of time sharing a house and stuff like that, which was fantastic for the film, but also raises other issues because ultimately you’re trying to get a side of him out that he may not want to reveal. And present the story in a way in which the audience feels like they’re not just getting the veneer of something, because John would spend a lot of time with the press and I obviously wanted to find a different side to the story that wasn’t just the campaign message.

So, in part, it’s earning that trust, but also just pushing some of the questions and subject matter (was) important (so) Gabriel and John (could) also feel like I’m also trying to push the documentary as well, they don’t want it to be this thing that people don’t engage with. So, it’s a balancing act.

And I imagine that’s going to be very complex. I recall with Ghosthunter, there is that complex relationship in there. And that’s going to be a really difficult thing to establish your career on as a filmmaker to create. All three of the films that I’ve seen (of yours) have really been about complex relationships with other people. And that is a really fascinating aspect is certainly from an Australian story narrative. Is that something that draws you to those particular narratives as a filmmaker?

I think so. Yeah. Look, I’m obviously fascinated by people, what makes them tick, and, trying to reveal that in a way in which they’re comfortable with as well. I think, ultimately, I want the experience for the subject to be worthwhile, but also rewarding and enriching, and not damaging, and that was probably more so for the case of the Ghosthunter.

The other thing I would say is that, growing up, I used to watch a lot of documentaries of wonder how they made it, how did they get themselves in that position where those people were comfortable enough? So, the mystery of that was like watching a magic trick, to me, that I wanted to solve. And slowly over the years I’ve worked out ways of doing that.

It is just a relationship; it is a genuine relationship you have with someone and it goes to the core of what trust is (and) how you earn that trust. And, also, there are also times you want to just disappear and be that fly on the wall and just capture something and you stop breathing, and you’re holding a camera. That something amazing is happening in front of you, you’re capturing those things that you imagined you might; and then there are other times that you know, you want to step in and ask a question, which is sometimes, particularly in the case of making this film, the challenging environment that Stella and John were placed under, particularly during the time that I was with him in that last hearing, the taxi rides were just silence.

You feel like it’s very inappropriate to say anything, but it’s ultimately, it’s your role to ask that question, ‘what’s going on? What are you thinking?’ I mean, there was one interview I did with John that I knew he probably wasn’t going to answer my questions in the way I wanted, but I was happy that at least that he was saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. That’s off limits. No.’ Even his pushback was important to hear. So sometimes it’s not a very pleasant role, but most of the time, I was just trying to sit there and not breathe and not be noticed.

How do you balance being an empathetic human and a director and a documentarian at the same time? There are moments in here where I can feel you wanting to reach out and give them a hug or give them a pat on the shoulder but there’s the camera and the documentary between you. How do you balance that?

There’s a lot that goes on off camera. The time that you spend with those people, I think really simple things like just doing what you say you’re going to do… just following through. I say to documentary filmmakers all the time – and obviously I’m still learning  – but if you say you’re going to be somewhere, simply be there on time. Be there early. It’s really simple in that way.

A lot of relationships fall apart for that and other reasons, but I think… it’s funny, the times when you don’t want to point the camera are the times when you probably should point the camera and capture those things. It’s a real balance. I would say that it probably happens off camera. It probably happens in the time when you’re having dinner or a bus ride or you’re just catching up with (them) at the end of a long evening or you’re just trying to connect with people. And it’s a two-way street; they want to ask about you and you want to ask about them and sometimes you just you do want to sit there in silence.

Ithaka – John Shipton and the media

In the case of Ghosthunter, there were some scenes that were filmed that were really sensitive that took weeks to – both of us, I think – to feel comfortable that we were going to actually put it on camera what we’ve been talking about for weeks. There’s a lot of other conversations that probably happened around those moments that are really important.

I can imagine it’s got to be a little bit difficult. But on the same hand, it’s the building of trust.

With a film like Ithaka, do you go into it with an agenda? Or, (an idea of) what you intend to get out of this? The discussions that occur throughout the film, and has occurred surrounding Julian has always been this very heightened… There is an anger around what he’s done, or there is a lot of wealth of support for what he has done. How do you manage that? Do you balance an agenda, or kind of just focus solely on John, and hope that the narrative falls out from there?

A bit of both. Gabriel and I, when we started talking, he had a vision for the film and an idea of following John, and the timing was really critical that the court case was coming up. So, we kind of had a, I guess, a structure.

And, I was really curious what John was like, prior to having met him, and I was kind of fishing with Gabriel, ‘tell me what he’s like, tell me what I should expect’, just kind of prepare myself, what are the things to keep an eye out for so you can anticipate. I mean, ultimately, you want as much information as you can get going in, so you can be in the right place at the right time, you can kind of anticipate things.

Gabriel, now, we met on similar territory, that the focus was going to be John. It wasn’t long after that, that Stella – obviously because they’re both in each other’s orbit, and had been filmed with Niels prior was going to be part of the documentary as well –, her situation is a little bit different in that she’s so central to not only the court case, and Julian, (and) that they had also existed under a period of a long time of very intense surveillance. And she’d only just come out publicly about her and her family, and the kids that she’d had with Julian only months before. So that environment still had an umbrella over pretty much the environment that we were living in.

What is the entry point? The entry point was John, following him and being with him. That not only opened up the narrative, but also opened up the other relationships and the other stories that were going to occur and the other characters that we also were able to cross paths with. That was the idea, who’s crossing John’s path along his journey?

So, we had a plan in terms of an agenda. I was very interested in Julian’s story in the work of Wikileaks for a long time, and fascinated by the story, but one of the biggest compliments I’ve had about the film is that it’s unhysterical, in that it’s a view of that world, that story, that tries to present it on a human scale. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. So that was my only agenda that I would just… wanted to humanise it through John, and this idea that other global issues were (going to) be brought up was out of that human single story.

I think that is a perfect way of describing the film. It is unhysterical. It feels very grounded, and relatable in a lot of ways. What I was really taken to, and I’m sure that this is probably part of the draw for the film for you as well, is the relationship between fathers and sons or fathers and daughter in laws. Basically, the relationships that fathers have with families and the influence that a son’s legacy will have on the father or the father’s legacy will have on the son.

Obviously, Gabriel being the half-brother of Julian as well. Was that the main thrust of finding out who John is as a man and discussing that kind of relationship, that father relationship? Of course, Julian is a father as well, so getting to see his relationship too.

Definitely. I mean, they’re all presented in in very… I wouldn’t say obtuse ways, but the film reflects John’s personality. I think that was the plan. So it kind of has an intellectual flavor to it. It has also a very human and robust and (is) kind of a tangible in the way that John was a builder and hands on. I describe John as building a rocket to the moon, but he’s doing in his backyard, he’s the sort of guy that’s going to build a helicopter. And he tinkers away, and eventually it’ll take off. It’s kind of that ambition and but it’s grounded in this this very single-family unit.

The idea of fathers, yes, was central to it.

The fact that Julian has children that are similar age to John’s daughter, the fact that Gabriel was a producer, and also steps into the film; I probably would have liked to explore a little bit more through Gabriel as well. John never gave me the answer to questions in the way I expected. He always gave me something else.

And what occurred to me is that John has experienced and has come to understand the world through stories. And literally, he will talk about a novel and say, ‘this section of the book explains this part of the human personality’. And for a long time in his life, the world was very much a puzzle to him, as were other people. But I think, for that reason that they were so puzzling, he has spent his life deeply observing people and deeply trying to understand them. So, in trying to make himself understandable, he reflects in very indirect ways, but leaves you with a thought that you can kind of ponder for a few hours or a few days.

In terms of it being about a father and son story; that was really the core of it. And what was John’s motivations in taking this cause of campaigning for his son, who he was disconnected from for so long? And why was he stepping in now, and all of those things? I think the film offers something of that, but ultimately, it’s too sacred, ultimately that connection can never be described in a sit-down interview. And I say to people, ‘you know, if you were put in John’s situation where you had your son, say to your dad, “I’m being pursued by the CIA, can you help me?”’ Who is in that situation? And what would you do? How do you embark on that journey?

John has taken this one step at a time. Somehow, as this suburban self-taught builder, stepped into this world of being a campaigner. And in part, I see it as noble and heroic, and all of those things, and I would hope that I could similarly undertake something like John has done. But John is unique. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like him. And the story of Julian, in part is the reason why we’re there but I became so fascinated by John, and the way he sees the world that I wanted to investigate that more and in part it illuminates who Julian is, as well. So, there’s a lot going on, but it’s it presents it in a way that is it is philosophical as John is.

With that in mind, there’s a powerful moment where John is sitting in the taxi and he’s retelling a story of a fable. And that led me to wonder who came up with the title, Ithaka? Was it John who came up with it, or was it yourself? Or was it Gabriel? Was it a joint thing that you all decided on the title?

It was something that ultimately Gabriel and I landed on. It came from John. He will often quote poetry and he draws a lot of strength from poems and stories. He understands the world (through poetry) and it fuels it any kind of motivation that he has, and Ithaka was one of the ones that that he would recite. I thought it was a just a lovely way of understanding what it means to be a campaigner what it means to give your life to something, but more so is, how do you do it?

That is the one question that I would have for Julian is how has he managed to do this? And also, to understand it through John is how do you keep going when all of us are happy to sit and watch Netflix and kind of just deal with the complexity of life (which) is difficult enough. But this next level of campaigning for a better world, which I think that ultimately John has done and is continuing to do, where do you draw strength?

Ithaka became a message that when you read it, it’s something that it gave him strength. It’s a lovely poem. I kind of felt like people will take out their own meanings from it, but where we draw strength from and how we get it (strength) was a constant source of fascination for me in watching John day to day go out on this marathon of a campaign.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Where did you draw strength from during the filming?

As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, it was just such a wonderful experience, it was easy for me, I just loved every moment of it, being in that world and having a camera and having that access. And the people we came across spending time with John… very fond memories. The challenge of it is that John and Stella and Gabriel are in the center of this fight, and it’s very hard to point a camera at someone who you can see just dealing with day to day very challenging issues of having, trying to save one of their family members.

I also wanted to do justice to that, and I felt the responsibility weighed very heavily as well, because it’s such a complex story. But ultimately, there’s people at the center of it, who are suffering a lot. And, the balance of earning their trust and being in a situation where they’re willing to give something of themselves so that the rest of us can understand it more deeply.

Ithaka – John Shipton and Stella Moris

There’s something about the Julian Assange story where, outside of the really passionate supporters in Australia, it feels like the Australian media has neglected Julian Assange as a whole. There is this real need for us to support who he is as a person and what his cause is. I wonder for you what it means to be an Australian and getting behind John, and getting behind Julian’s story. Is that a call or cry to the other people working in media to say, ‘let’s focus on this a little bit more’.

Yeah, I do. In some ways, it’s a call to revisit this issue. It’s been going on for a decade or more. I think some people have grown up with it, and are unaware of it. I think some people who were of age and were aware of Wikileaks, when they first came to prominence in 2010, it’s something they’ve followed. But also, I think it’s also been so confused and convoluted, and there’s been so many twists and turns that people need another entry point.

And so, I felt this particular court case was (a) really interesting way of showing what’s at stake and what’s important, and what’s relevant to a general audience as to why they should understand what’s going on. And I think there’s really big issues at play, but I’d hoped that this was another way to enter the story, that they could reengage with something they may have either lost track of in their normal day to day lives, and also just lost the twists and turns as well.

It’s not a campaign film. It’s a film about a campaign.

That’s kind of how I describe it. And in some ways in experiencing what that campaign looks like, you do reengage with it as well. I think it’s really sad what’s happening to Julian, I think it’s really devastating and has really, really solid impact on journalism, a really devastating impact on journalism as well, and also the freedom of information, so, I felt very strongly about it. But trying to convey that to other people is very difficult. It’s very difficult, particularly when you’re bringing on other people who aren’t engaged. Some people, like you say, are so engaged in the story around the world.

And then there’s, as you saying, others who have dropped off, and it’s, in a lot of ways, it’s understandable given the world that has gone on over the past decade: Trump, COVID, all of these things, which you manage to really neatly wave into the narrative as well. Obviously, COVID is an organic aspect of it, but how did you decide on what to actually show from the transition from Trump to Biden?

That was really tricky. I mean, even the COVID portrayal was difficult. In the end, I just thought, look, as soon as you put a new story on about COVID everyone’s gonna be like, ‘okay, I know what’s going on, you don’t have to explain it. We’re into that moment now, and everyone’s wearing masks all of a sudden.’ So, we were filming across that transition.

And then the transition from Trump to Biden was important in as much that, where does this story, this documentary, where does it begin and end, and the court case was obviously a natural structure, but also the transition into Biden, and the capital riots felt like the closing of a decade for me. If the story started in 2010, when Collateral Murder was released, and then we finish at the capital riots and the transition into Biden as a closing out to a very volatile decade, I just felt like that was the right way to do it.

Certainly, when we were in that moment, when (the) Biden transition team was coming in, and he was about to be inaugurated, there was really high hopes that either Trump was going to firstly, pardon Julian, in some form, or the Biden administration wasn’t going to pursue it. So, I needed to see that out in terms of in the story, because the high hopes were there. When they chose to continue the prosecution, that’s when I felt like, okay, it doesn’t matter what side of politics, it just felt like there was an underlying intent to continue this prosecution. And it didn’t sit with the President, meaning it wasn’t up to them.

I think holistically, Edward Snowden really summed up where Julian’s story sits at the moment; that he’s being prosecuted for the best work that WikiLeaks has ever done. I would love people to just to kind of grasp that he faces 175 years for releasing information about the Afghanistan/Iraq war, and also the detainee logs from Guantanamo. I think we’re all better for knowing those things have gone on. And putting everything else aside, that’s ultimately what we’re dealing with just that, and if you think it’s fair or not.

I think that’s one of the key aspects, as of one of the activists says, none of the people who brought around the war crimes have ever been charged. And here he is, the person that’s releasing all the information is sitting there facing 175 years, and that’s mad.

There is a madness to it. There is a madness to it.

And, it’s funny in all of that, and the passion of the all supporters and all the people that devoted so many years of work to this, it’s really easy to get up into that kind of stratosphere of campaigning like that. And I hope that the film sits within a realm in which people can enter it and access it, that haven’t been part of the story. And can still go on John’s journey, and then slowly understand what’s going on with Julian as well. So that was kind of the plan in terms of what’s on the news, it’s really hard to absorb.

And I think genuinely because it is so hysterical.

I want to take a step back and look at your work as a filmmaker, and certainly under the shadow of your father, who has such a great impact on Australian film. It is kind of a rarity to see directors swap between documentaries and narrative features and then back to documentaries, especially in Australian film. How do you balance the legacy of your father and then what you’re working on towards as a filmmaker yourself?

Dad presents his career to me as a cautionary tale. As much as he’s had a lot of success in the three films that he’s made, he would have liked to have made a lot more. I’ve kind of taken upon myself to try and work as much as possible. And that’s really hard in a market like this, I think. Doing documentaries and dramas opens this opens opportunities up more. Obviously, I’m fascinated by both, I’d love to be able to jump between the two. I admire filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom who (are) so prolific and been able to make a film a year for 20 years.

I don’t think that’s gonna happen for me, but I think the most defining factor of Dad’s work is, apart from the amazing creative output, is the short list of films. That’s the shame of the Australian cinema landscape is that we have wonderful filmmakers who can’t necessarily make the films they want to make here. It’s just the nature of economics and things like that. Particularly when you’re making films with your own voice. That’s real rarity. I look at someone like Rolf de Heer, who has a remarkable career and made so many films from his own voice. I’d love to have a career like that.

I’m constantly looking at other filmmakers and what they’re doing and how they’re shifting between mediums and working in other areas to somehow have more volume in what I’m doing. Dad will constantly say to me that ‘I don’t want you to have a career like mine’. As much as I admire the work that he’s done and the success, it’s do more, do more, do more work, engage in other projects. So, when this came up, it was like, ‘Yeah, I can’, this was perfect. The hardest thing was leaving the family for that many months to go to the UK during COVID. But, apart from that, I just jumped at it.

And it is clear in the film that it’s a difficult decision, but it’s the right decision. It’s a powerful, powerful work. I’m very excited for the folks who get to watch it the Sydney Film Festival, will it be released next year theatrically? Or is it coming out later this year?

Early next year, there’ll be a theatrical release limited, as it is, with documentaries. Bonsai (Films) are distributing it. So that’s great to be able to see it in cinemas. The experience of my last film Hearts and Bones, we were scheduled to have 12 cities in the US screen it. And it’s such a shame for so many films, it kind of pales in comparison to what other people are going through, but I was really keen to get this film in front of people in front of an audience.

The plan was that John is going to be with the film, so he was going to do a limited journey with it up the East Coast. I can’t wait for the moment when the film ends, and John walks out, because it’s the understanding of him. And I think the affection that people ultimately have for him in the journey of the film that I would want to see, and he’s been campaigning for many years now, I think the film then becomes just another part of that. Another part of the things that he can send out there when he can’t be there. Part of it was an investment for him in in that sort of time, and also wanted to reflect who he was, and tap into the idea of what a parent may do and all of that. I think we can all relate on that level to our own parents.

Hearts and Bones – Andrew Luri and Bolude Watson

I’ve got a wall of notes here that I’ve written that is oddly, – compared to a lot of films that I’ve watched – is oddly introspective, a lot of thoughts about who I am as a person and my relationship with my father and I was sitting there going, ‘no, this is this is not about me’. But, that’s the kind of film that it is, it forces you to reassess who you are as a person and just look inward, which I think is a really powerful thing to be able to do. And that’s your direction. And it’s John, as a person, too. It’s a testament how powerful it is. It’s great.

That’s so good. I feel the same way, having spent time with John, and particularly in that time in his life, in that he is just being presented with this insurmountable challenge and seeing how he processes it really gave me a different approach to look at things in my own life. And it’s just this very careful(ly) going through it and not being distracted by… he says, hope is not even worth engaging with, but this idea that there’s a faith that he can just work his way through it. I guess the title of the film does speak to that a little bit is that you know, it is about that you’re actually doing it more than anything.

When I first engaged with John and I presented to him my ideas for what I wanted to do in the film, he came back with the Bhagavad Gita quotes, the long Indian poem about accepting noble causes. And I just thought ‘oh, what am I stepping into with this’. This is the way this guy thinks. And so, the film tried to incorporate that, and hopefully in the same way that that energises him, like you said, it can give us some energy in our own lives in the little problems that we have. It’s inspiring in that way for me to have been part of it.

As we start to wrap up this discussion, which has been really fantastic and enlightening, so thank you a lot, Ben, I appreciate it, I’m curious for you how much the Australian identity plays into you as a documentarian, or as a filmmaker as a whole, is that something that is at the front of your mind when you kick off a new project?

Oh constantly! And being in the UK filming overseas, it’s far more exaggerated, you’re identified as an Australian. Telling Julian’s story, as an Australian is very different, traveling through Europe. I felt more connected to his story as well, because he’s an Australian on a global stage as well. And he obviously has support around the world.

It’s also at the front of my mind when I’m trying to tell stories. Even in the drama. Ghosthunter was distinctly Australian, he (Jason King – subject of the documentary) knows Western Sydney, it’s really kind of the working-class, blue-collar roots of Australia, and I really wanted to reflect that because there’s nowhere else like it in the world.

And then the idea of Hearts and Bones, for me, as an Australian, I felt that I was really growing up in a very disconnected country, meaning I felt very isolated from the rest of the world. And I grew up under the flight path. I’d see these planes coming in and out. I just thought about the stories in it, I felt like we’re really the first generation to have had international travel, we’ve just kind of (been) brought up with it. And I think the interconnectedness with the rest of the world is what interested me about the Australian experience and who we are, is what’s changed in my lifetime, so much more in the influx of refugees and migrants to Australia, is what I wanted to explore.

Growing up, I felt so isolated from the rest of the world, I felt like everything happens in the Northern Hemisphere. And I still feel like that to a certain extent. It’s still a place that we need to go to, to make our careers and do all that stuff. With Hearts and Bones, and also with Ithaka, and Ghosthunter, I wanted to tell stories that show other filmmakers and other storytellers and the rest of the world that we have rich and interesting stories here at home, and just create those layers and textures and tapestry of who we are. That hopefully we can further celebrate…

We don’t need to re-voice things; we don’t need to make TV shows that pretend they’re in California and stuff like that. I mean, it’s a shame, I understand it. But it’s important to me those things… actually working with Hugo Weaving, he’s so passionate about those issues that we connected on that level. If I can continue to make films in Sydney, in Australia, or about Australians, then yeah, I don’t want to feel ashamed of that.

And I think that some of us do.

Hopefully we can continue to celebrate it. But it’s a tricky choice to make. It’s not necessarily the easiest one. It’s important, it’s very important.

And I’m glad to hear your response to that. For me, my passion is writing about Australian films and covering Australian films because it is desperately important. It reflects who we are as people. What we see on screen reflects who we are as people.

Talking about that isolation, it’s interesting, I live in Perth, I feel as isolated from the rest of Australia as the rest of the world because we are so far away from everything. And it creates this bizarre feeling, it’s a very unique feeling. Being Australian and feeling disconnected because our personality is so different from the rest of the world in a lot of ways. It’s great to hear you say that.

I also find interesting seeing Hugo’s decision… I remember reading ages ago about his decision to walk away from Hollywood and Hollywood films, and basically just make Australian films going forward. And he’s made some of the best films of his career now, Hearts and Bones, Healing. These are stories that really reflect Australia as a whole, which I think we need a little bit more of, heading towards the new future of Australian film. That’s kind of what we need a little bit more of. Where do you see us going forward? What do you see the future of Australian film being?

I think it’s gonna be two steps forward, a few steps back. There’s obviously a battle going on with the streamers in terms of content. When I was born there was those kind of Vanguard pioneers that really gave birth to the modern Australian film industry. I feel like there’s a generation of directors out there which are just kind of on the cusp.

I look back at the Fred Schepisi’s and the Bruce Beresford’s and people like Peter Weir… where are those people now?

They made a catalog of films in Australia about Australia before they went overseas. Is that possible now? I don’t know. I’m hoping it is. But every time I see a TV show that that’s filmed in Australia, but it’s for America, set in America, and they bring in (American actors), I feel like it’s a bit of a step backwards for Australian content as well. I know the crews benefit from the amount of work that comes in.

And then on the other hand, I feel like we’re probably the biggest and the busiest and the most energetic film industry that we’ve ever had in the history of Australia right now. In terms of what we’re making, so the opportunities (are) incredible. It’s just those voices. I hope that the increased money that there is now in the streamers can recognise that the voices, like the directors, and the writers who are writing those stories you’re talking about, can continue to make things. I think just the volume will increase. But with that will bring up those other little voices.

I’m just waiting for that next generation to kind of step up and step out. And they’re there. There’s some amazing filmmakers out there.

You’re part of it! Three films in what… three years… You’re doing a great job. You’re leading a cause which is happening.

Well, hopefully, and I really want to be part of that. I want to be part of that generation that’s making those films and, I really admire the people like Warwick Thornton, and others that are out there. There’s some that have gone to make their fortune overseas. I hope they come back. I know Garth Davis (Lion) is making a new film locally. So that’s fantastic. The temptation to go and make those other films is quite big and tempting.

Has that been presented to you?

No, no, it hasn’t. I had a bit of a journey back from Toronto, went through Los Angeles, and it was kind of disheartening in a way… it kind of reinforced what I wanted to do. Meaning I wanted to come back and make films here. And it also told me that the type of films I make don’t fit within that system. And that gave me more of an insight into the machine of it, and working within that machine and how it operates. On one hand, it was disheartening, but it was also an education.

It reminded me that making feature films is really ultimately what I want to do. I love the form. I love the world and the infrastructure around it, the festivals. and meeting people like yourself who have a love of it. It’s different to TV. There’s just something that’s nostalgic and affectionate about it that that is far deeper. And there’s a mystique to it as well. I love all that. I grew up in it, looking at that magic, wondering what it was and stepping into it now, it’s still as strong and palpable as it’s ever been. So having that here and connecting with others who feel that way is what I love. Being able make another film now has just been amazing. Amazing. Hopefully we can get back to normal.

That community aspect of watching films and being part of the film community is like no other.

It’s like no other.

It’s crazy isn’t?


It’s really nice to be able to sit down and talk to people like yourself who are passionate about it. Do you talk to other Australian directors about Australian film?

I do. It’s hard. I feel like the culture of Sydney, it probably doesn’t have that community that if we were in a position that they were back in the 70s I don’t know that that would happen. I can’t imagine five or six of us getting together and giving life to this struggling film industry. What would we what would we do now? You know, I don’t know. But look, I think it exists.

I caught up with Sam Zubrycki (director of Miguelito) the other day who is director and we talked about Australian documentaries and Jen Peedom (Sherpa, Mountain) is someone I talk to and also Exit films is a company who I’m part of, and there’s a wonderful team of directors there who occasionally run into each other. I think they all share a passion for it. It is rare, though. I don’t think this is regular thing. The amount there might be an unspoken camaraderie I don’t think it is existed how it used to. The organisations like the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild, I feel like it does exist there. There (are) yearly events that people get together.

COVID probably hampered a lot of that.

Yeah. Meeting Gabriel, I think Gabriel has such a wonderful mind and a passion for films, and such a unique perspective on the world, it’s been wonderful working with him and meeting him, and editing is also part of the time working with Karen Johnson. Those are the times that already relish being deep in, in making films as well. That’s when you really connect.

Well, Ben, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you. Great to meet you, Andrew.

I remember going to Cinefest Oz and watching Hearts and Bones and just being quite astounded by the ending of that film. It’s quite an audacious.

Oh good, I was trying something new.

I’d already seen Ghosthunter, and I was very excited to see what you were doing with that. And I just remember the stunned silence at the end, the whole auditorium was just like, what did we just watch? And that’s what I love about films. I enjoyed watching Ithaka at home, but I’m really excited to be able to watch it in the cinema next year when it comes out.

Great, great. I cannot wait to get into a cinema with this film and just see what the reaction has been because that we’ve all been so isolated, and even making it was really isolating. You couldn’t get test audiences, you couldn’t do any of that stuff. Even trying to get family members to watch it, it was a next level challenge. But you’re right, there’s an excitement around Sydney Festival at the moment that I hadn’t felt in a long time. So I’m so happy for them. And actually people just getting back. We’re collaborative creatures, ultimately. And we’re social creatures. And we need it. And, it’s really shown that to be the case.

Ithaka screens at the Sydney Film Festival on November 7, 13, 14. Tickets can be purchased here.

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