Gabriel Shipton is the producer of Ben Lawrence’s Ithaka. He is also the son of the films subject, John Shipton, and brother of the figure at the center of the film: Julian Assange.
Filmed during 2019 and 2020, Ithaka shows the lengths a family will go to support and protect a family member in need, all the while fighting for the freedom of the press. In this interview, fresh from returning from the UK to be at the side of his family once again for the wedding of Julian and his fiancée Stella Morris, Gabriel talks about the power of documentary filmmaking helping push Julian’s story to a wider audience, about how deeply Australian this story is, and the difficulty of seeing John being open in his interviews in the film itself.
Gabriel Shipton: We were very lucky to have him come on board for it.
What was the decision behind knowing that Ben was the right person to trust to tell this story?
GS: I’d watched his previous films, Ghost Hunter and Hearts and Bones, and from those two films, I got an impression of Ben as a human, that he was somebody who really loved people and had great respect for people, even if they were imperfect, and that he was a man of honour, you know what I mean? An honourable person, an honourable filmmaker rather than somebody who’s going to try and get a zinger or try and make some sort of expose piece, something that isn’t really there. So that was the sort of impression I got from watching his films.
When we first spoke about Ithaka, we were speaking the same language, we were on the same page from the very beginning. It sort of clicked really just like that. And then obviously, watching his films and seeing the way he treats his characters really hit it home for me and the rest of us.
Was there a discussion that you had with John, with Stella about getting him on board as well?
GS: Yeah, I think there was. I remember showing John the two films. And I think I sent them to Stella as well. There was definitely a conversation about getting Ben on board and what he would bring to the project. We tried to make it as collegial as possible with Stella and John as we went along.
Congratulations on the great event that Stella with Julian as well over the past week. As difficult as it will be obviously with Julian still being in prison, that’s got to be very hard. What was it like being across for the wedding? I imagine it would have been very good to be supportive for both John and Stella.
GS: Yeah, it was good to be there. There was there was six of us, five of us plus the two kids. So seven family members who were able to attend the wedding in total including Stella. You know, it was like a moment where Julian wasn’t free, but it felt like we were in control of the jail for a change. Usually you go in there and it’s very, very oppressive and it’s definitely made clear that you’re entering their space. But for an hour or so on that day, it sort of felt as normal as it could, being together.
We haven’t been together like that… his visiting rights in the embassy were really curtailed after 2017. And so I don’t think he’s had a gathering like that – obviously outside of a courtroom – there hasn’t been a gathering like that for a very, very long time. So it was a very, very special moment for everyone, especially Julian and Stella.
I think that’s one of the things that really sticks with me throughout the film is that need for human connection for Julian, and the need for familial connection between yourself, John, Julian and Stella, of course. Obviously, Julian’s story is really a very important one, but hopefully as a family member, you can talk about what that meaning of familial connection or the human connection means for this particular film.
GS: Well, I guess [the film] wouldn’t exist to start with. If there was no familial connection, I don’t think anyone else would have been able to make it like this. But I think for Julian, I don’t know if he would be able to survive without Stella and without John and that connection. It’s a very, very, very hard situation to be in, even with the support of the family. I feel a lot of the times that they really just keep him going and keep him alive in there. I would hate to think what would happen.
In terms of the film, because of the forces that we’re up against and all the previous media and films that have been made in the past, it’s very hard to give anyone your trust in this situation. And so because of our involvement, we were able to have that sort of natural trust that we weren’t going to take the story somewhere in a different direction or anything like, that it was going to be truly the perspective of the family. And I think we’ve done that.
I understand that you and Stella were filming prior to Ben coming on board. How long had you been filming before you decided to get Ben help continue on the project?
GS: I think we started filming late 2019. And then Ben came on six or seven months later. So we had done quite a bit of observational style filming at that point, mostly of John traveling around Europe and different things like that. We didn’t stop filming with Stella until after there was a court hearing because she was still Julian’s secret family. She hadn’t been exposed yet. But there was a court proceeding where Stella’s name was in the documents and the judge wouldn’t hold that name back. So she was going to be exposed through the court documents.
And then at that time, she chose to take control of that and out herself on 60 Minutes and other things like that. So we did start originally filming with only John, and then Stella started being more active and turned into this amazing advocate that she is for Julian today. She’s incredible. But yeah, we were sort of split in two at that point, we started following John and Stella. That’s how we ended up with that dual protagonists type story.
Did you ever anticipate where the narrative would go? Like who you were originally going to be following? Was it always going to be John? Was this initially a story about John’s activism?
GS: Yeah, it was always going to be John. Stella wasn’t doing stuff in public advocacy at that time. It was only John. And then she came out, so we started following her. We had quite a large archive by the time Ben joined the project. We had very sort of top line direction. But then Ben came on and really pulled it all together. He started putting together this plan for how we would film around the court proceedings, the four-week court proceedings that were in late 2020. And he launched into these thirteen hours of interviews that he did with John which formed the backbone of the film.
At what point did you know that you were done with the filming, that you’d had all the footage that you needed to tell the story?
GS: It’s such an evolving thing. The persecution just continues on, right? That’s how we leave the story. We sort of planned to film around the court case and go from there. We had other bits that we shot, we even shot back in Australia, we shot a lot over in the US. So we’ve shot all around the place. We’re still shooting some things. (laughs) There’s always something happening, so it’s very hard to stop.
I think probably by the end of the court case, we sort of knew where we were headed. And Karen Johnson, our fabulous editor, had pulled that backbone through the interviews out and had that formulated. I would say it was around the end of 2020 we sort of knew that we had everything we needed. There were particular court dates that we knew we had to cover, and then those went into the new year, 2021. By that time when Julian was denied bail, we knew that we had what we needed to finish a film. And then there were things that came up like the Trump-Biden campaign. We covered a lot of that, slotted that in. There were things like that that we were able to slot in that we thought we needed to do to give the story some justice.
So yeah, I don’t think we’ll be slotting much more in. If Julian gets free, we’ll definitely-
Oh, yeah, that changes the narrative completely. With that in mind, were you feeding the footage straight through to Karen as you were filming so she was able to edit on the fly?
GS: Yeah, she had a whole bunch of stuff to watch. We had like 160 days worth of shooting by the time she started really cutting stuff. And then it just kept coming through. The interviews with John, those were the bits that she was able to start assembling and start putting together. I think the first assembly was maybe four hours, four or five hours or something like that.
There are moments where you feel that John is pushing back against Ben’s questions in a way which really highlights his personality, and it shows his tenacity too. Can you talk about your experience sitting there, watching those interviews take place?
GS: I didn’t sit through any of the interviews. I sometimes was in another room and I could hear them. Even when I watch the film in the theatre, I still feel like – you know, it’s my family on the screen. You have inside this sort of weird feeling like, “Oh my god, how are people going to feel about this? How are people going to react?” I think you get that with every film. But when it’s your own family, it’s much more personal in that way.
I find it a little bit painful to watch personally with an audience. I’m much better watching it on my own or with the team and talking about the story and how that unfolds, and the different sort of emotional points and different sort of information that we convey to the audience. But whenever I’m watching with an audience, I get that sort of scratchy feeling, you know, like “Uh oh.” (laughs)
I can imagine. With that in mind, as well, for Australian families in a political sphere, in a global sphere like this, you’re really putting yourself out there in a way that a lot of Australian families would very much struggle with. As you’re saying, it’s very difficult – this is your family onscreen. How do you deal with that personally? Is it having that recognition that this is Julian’s story that you’re working to get out to a larger audience?
GS: Yes, I think that’s always the intention. How can we get a different narrative about Julian out there to audiences? And that was always the goal behind the film, how can we tell a different side of the story, how Julian and his family experience the persecution that is happening to him. I think what we do in a way as family members, as advocates, what John and Stella are always trying to do is get out there and do media and use your personal connection to tell a different side of the story. That’s essentially what John and Stella do. They have this sort of superpower in their familial relationship with Julian that gives them a platform to be able to tell Julian’s side of the story.
We’re trying to do that with the film as well. But there’s always this trade-off, this balance that you play. Your personal connection is what people want, but you also have the chance to give them some other information that they might not get otherwise. So it’s always a bit of a balancing act and a trade-off. Sometimes I see John or Stella do an interview and there’ll be two or three questions about their personal feelings or how Julian’s doing and things like that, and then there’ll be some other questions about the case and different aspects. And you’ll then go and watch the interview on TV or wherever it appears and they don’t include what we think would be the substance, they include all the personal information and all that sort of stuff, and then use other interviews, other narration or something to include the substance that they believe should be shared with the audience. It’s good to be able to do both and sort of have it rounded and inclusive of John and Stella giving the personal side, but also including their perspective of the case and Julian’s persecution and his work.
As a producer on this, how do you balance that personal story with making an engaging film?
GS: Well, I think the sort of personal story is the superpower, basically the big door, if you will, that we get people in through. That’s how we engage audiences emotionally, through this father fighting for his son, or a fiancée fighting for her now husband. That is the thread that we have running through the film, and it’s balancing that with – we still want to feel connected to these characters and connected to their emotional journey. Even through the editing process, it was always a balance, working with Ben and Karen like “Are we getting too far away from our characters? Are we losing touch with the characters if we dive into the case more?” It was always a back and forth.
But I think it’s that personal story, for me anyway. My background’s more in drama-producing. The approach is always through this emotional journey from our characters that would grab the audience and take them on the journey. And then we’re able to put parts of the case in. But it’s always a balance, that we don’t lose the connection with the characters but get as much information to the audience about the case as we can.
It’s one of the things which I’ve talked to a lot of documentarians and producers and people who’ve worked on docs, and it’s one of the things which I understand is a film term, of course. But talking about the people in these documentaries as characters themselves – when we’re talking about your family, how do you bridge that connection between a character versus a brother, a father, a sister-in-law?
GS: Yeah, it is very hard. But I have a very deep understanding of their intention and what they’re trying to achieve, because we’re all trying to do the same thing, you know, we’re all trying to free Julian. I think I bring that aspect to it: what is their goal? Their goal is to free Julian. So you’re always trying to respect that as well. But oh god, it’s not easy.
How do you look after yourself when you’re going through this? You’ve got the familial support there but personally, what kind of mental health strategies do you have in place for yourself? If you don’t mind me asking, that is.
GS: I guess the usual ones that people have, exercise and things like that. It can be all-consuming. This thing is so big that if you don’t take any time off at all, you become worn really worn down. So you need to take breaks and keep a routine, I think, is the best way for me. I think John puts it well in the film: all the energy you give, if you get nothing back, then we couldn’t continue on. But because all the actions that John does, that Stella does, there is some flow back. You get some flow back, and that gives you energy to keep going as well. All the supporters around the world that are all backing John and Stella. It’s this huge community there that gives you a lot of energy to keep going. We couldn’t do any of this without them either.
Certainly, for me at least, that’s one of the things which I keep on coming back to Julian’s story and this film. It’s that fight for press freedom, that fight for something that is really vital and integral to the structure and the safety of the world, the freedom of the press. Seeing all those supporters there, seeing Julian’s family, you there supporting him and fighting for this is what gives the film and his story so much strength.
The score here is quite beautiful. Having that connection there with somebody as prominent as Brian Eno, is that an act of support and active protest?
GS: I think for Brian Eno, I think it is. Yeah, he wears his politics on its sleeve. His support is definitely an act of his activism as well. I think so.
Thank you so much for your time, Gabriel, I really appreciate it. I know that this is probably very draining for you, being out there and being in the thick of it, trying to balance that promotion of a film and being open. It’s got to be very hard. So I really appreciate you taking the time to not only talk to me, but all the other film-loving people out there who are probably hitting you with some hard questions out there.
GS: (laughs) Thanks. No worries, Andrew.
I just have one last question, which is one of the questions I’ve been asking people quite a bit. And I think that certainly for you, it might be a little bit of a different answer. I’m curious for you what it means to be an Australian filmmaker. Is that part of your identity?
GS: Yeah, I think it is. For me, I grew up around filmmakers. My mother worked for Kennedy Miller. They’re called Kennedy Miller Mitchell now. She worked there for thirty odd years. So you know, I grew up going on sets and looking up to these amazing producers and directors and seeing them work and thinking maybe that’s something that I want to do one day. So it was definitely something that I was drawn to from a very, very early age. Being a filmmaker has been a dream of mine since being a child. That sort of Australian film history, being part of that and growing up around that was – they’ve had great success overseas, but that is a very important part of the Australian film world and, you know, hopefully we can continue it on and make stories about Australians and our experiences and our sort of outlook.
This is an Australian film. It might take place mostly overseas, but we wouldn’t have been able to make it without the support in Australia. We’ve based our whole launch around showing it in Australian cinemas, Australian festivals. I don’t know if the rest of the world is ready for this movie. But Australia definitely is. It’s definitely an Australian project. The support here for this sort of film we couldn’t find anywhere else.
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