This is Going to Be Big Director Thomas Charles Hyland Talks About the Invisibility Cloak of Being a Documentarian

Thomas Charles Hylands’s charming, delightful, and wholesome documentary This is Going to Be Big tells the story of the students of the Bullengarook campus of the Sunbury and Macedon Ranges Specialist School as they work together to put on their bi-annual school play. This year, it’s a John Farnham-focused musical affair titled The Time-Travelling Trio, where a group of students travel back in time and listen to John Farnham singing his iconic songs in pivotal moments of his history.

The group of teens, among others, that we follow along this journey are Halle, a teen who wants to honour her late aunty by singing You’re the Voice, the plane-focused Josh, the eager Elyse, and the hilarious Chelsea who has more than a few comedic moments. Over the course of the 100-minute film, we get to experience what living with autism, anxiety, or an acquired brain injury, is like from a teenager’s perspective. Told with complete respect and support from the filmmakers, teachers, and the students, This is Going to Be Big is an absolute delight and echoes the enduring empathy and charm of Nicolas Philibert’s magnificent To Be and to Have (2002).  

In the following interview, Thomas talks about how he searched for the a school where he could document a student musical production taking place, how the feeling of being behind a camera in a room creates a sort of invisibility cloak, as well as working alongside Augie March’s Glenn Richards for the score. We start the discussion with talking about the cast and crew screening that took place.

This is Going to Be Big premiered at the 2023 Melbourne International Film Festival on August 9, and will screen again on August 12, 15, and 20. Visit for tickets.

Watching the film with the students and their families must have been quite a surreal experience for you both?

Thomas Charles Hyland: It was powerful. I was nervous, just like anyone would be when you wrap yourself up in people’s lives and you’re making a story out of them. I was open to how anyone would react, and I wanted that to be genuine and real. I just wanted to be present.

[The film] finished [playing] and then [we] took a beat, and one after the other, everyone stood up and said what both the film and the process of making it meant to them. It was amazing. I felt like we were all in this together. It can be a weird sort of power dynamic when you’re in documentary or non-fiction storytelling, so it felt like getting to the other side of that power dynamic; “This is our thing.” It was great.

Let’s jump back to the kernel of the idea. Where did this start?

TCH: The idea struck me as a fully formed concept when I was sitting in the theatre of a school production that my sister was putting on at a primary school that she teaches at. She’s a music teacher in a school, and my mum’s a music teacher in a school. This is maybe about five years ago, and I was sitting in the theatre, and I had no connection with the kids or anything like that. I was struck by how funny it was, this is off- off- off-Broadway [event]. It’s wild. It was a really fun experience watching their production.

Whether you’re the confident kid in the middle who’s wanting to springboard into this [area], where this is exactly who they are and what they love, or the kid that slinks on stage as part of the chorus line for 15 seconds, everyone’s on stage. Talking to my sister after, I was struck by the stories that she would tell me about what it means to different kids along the way. She mentioned that just like any production, they start with an audition process. That’s where our minds started to get ticking and I thought this is such a great dramatic structure for human stories to be told. We’ve got an interesting way to introduce characters, and then you’ve got this big kind of event at the end and that can be the set piece.

From there, I got interested in coming-of-age stories. I was starting with the John Hughes high school hangout films. They’re not really tightly wound plots, they’re more about who am I? How do I define myself? I know what I want, but will the world let me get there? Your confidence is such a powerful force, but also, you’re still a bit wafer thin in terms of fully realising how to use your confidence and identity. With some of the modern coming of age films like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, I loved the idea of taking teenage feelings seriously, that you’re only ever at the apex of yourself in terms of your age and development. I didn’t really want any idea of ‘don’t worry, kid, you’ll figure it out later,’ to be present because however you feel is legitimate. More and more, I was transfixed by that idea of being 16, 17, or 18, and how potent the feelings that are in the air are.

How did you decide on the school to use?

TCH: That was luck really. The concept existed there, and then it was just a matter of finding the school that would let me hang around. But also, I was looking for that sort of second or third strain school, something that was more than just a rich school that wanted to show off their music programme, because there were lots of those. I basically got the phonebook out and went through every school in Victoria over about two weeks. I cold called so many schools, “Are you running this programme?” “Yes.” “No.” That immediately filtered out a whole bunch of schools.

I had about 45 schools on a spreadsheet, and I created a criteria with little notes about them that helped filter down for very pragmatic reasons about putting on a kind of production with a narrative. I wanted a narrative rather than a talent quest, which a lot of schools do. This is around COVID in Victoria, and there were about five schools I was talking to, so it’s very speculative about whether this was possible. School was barely happening at that point, with homeschooling taking place, so the idea of ‘what you’re doing next year’ was hard for schools to project. Somewhere along the way, one of the teachers introduced me to Darcy (Nolan), who is at this school.

I met with them, and it just seemed so possible. It was outside of Melbourne CBD, which was attractive to me. I grew up in a regional area, and there’s enough big city stuff on screen. Slowly but surely, I started to test out if it was possible by initially going there once a week without a camera and meeting some of the students, then I brought a camera, but I didn’t film anything, just to see what was possible.

What kind of conversations did you have with the students about filming them?

TCH: I was very open, initially too open. You ask people an open question, and it’s very hard for people to [answer], you’ve got to give them something more. ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ is always a great question because there’s literally an answer to that, it’s in my recent memory. I knew I wanted to meet people as they are and find out what are they really thinking about at age 16 or 17. Some of it was just trying to dig back into what I remember about school, the little social groups and what you do at lunchtime, working out your interests, whether you play music, what do you do outside of school?

I’m trying to build up a picture of the different students that I was meeting and to try to work out what they wanted to talk about. I was struck by how immediately interesting and interested those students were. The ones that appear in the film were pretty self-selected, as in they kind of came to me in a way and they had stuff they want to talk about. There was an exhaustive process of ensuring that this is something that they were actually interested in doing and the consent of it all. I knew the plot of the film. We had an ending, we had a start, we had this sort of narrative structure which kind of meant they can be whatever they want to be in terms of what their personal journeys are.

Halle is the central person that we follow. Her narrative is so compelling with her core goal to sing You’re the Voice for her aunty who has passed. How important is it to have somebody like her who is captivating and engaging to hang the story off?

TCH: It’s huge. There was an event that we were going to actually see. I think that’s probably what solidified me [the drive] to continue investing in this story, because it was pretty speculative for a long time. I didn’t want this to be a talking head documentary. I wanted to witness something happening, and there was such a clear arc that she was going to [along]. I was so interested in ‘how is this actually going to feel?’ Grief is such a wicked power that it’s not a straight line or anything like that. It became quite a compelling mission to follow and a very clear one.

That became apparent early on with the first frame of the movie when we pan down and there’s Halle talking to another kid. That’s one of the first things that we shot. I didn’t even realise at the time the relevance of the aunty that she was talking about. It was a couple of weeks later when the whole picture started to reveal itself.

You’re piecing together the narrative as you’re filming and you’re getting to know the characters in the same timeframe that we’re getting to know them. What was that like as a documentarian capturing and experiencing their stories vicariously?

TCH: It’s really exciting. Documentary is at its most incredible when you’re not sure of what is going to happen. Obviously, in the editing process that can be frustrating. You’re like, ‘In that scene, why didn’t we follow that?’ Well, you didn’t know that that was a thing yet. But when you can capture that quality of accidents, then that’s life. That’s the real benefit of documentary versus the scripted form. If you’re going to control a documentary to the degree that you’re writing a script, then just write a script and get some actors.

I’m always struck by how, sometimes in the weirdest way, the camera can sort of feel like an invisibility cloak. In the situation, in this sort of quiet, intimate space, what business do I have here? Apart from the genuine trust that you build, it’s only because of this camera that I’m in this room. There are heaps of small docs I’ve made over the years where you just find yourself in really interesting situations where it’s just interesting as a person to be there, and it’s only because you’re doing this vocation that you actually get to be there. It makes me kind of wish that other people could step into some rooms.

The teaching practices have certainly changed over time. There is more of an empathetic understanding of what neurodivergent kids and adults require in an educational environment. Getting to see that in play with how nurturing and supportive the teachers are for the kids is quite powerful. It’s interesting hearing them say, “Here’s what we want to give you as an actor. How about you take a week to think about it?”, rather than forcing them to decide right there whether that’s the role they want to play. What was it like capturing those experiences and getting to show a different kind of education than most people might be aware exists in Australia?

TCH: It was powerful. I met the teachers first at the school, and it was so clear how good they were as people. You need to be, in a way, to do that job. I was struck by how that quality was so strong. They clearly knew what they were doing. They were creating this environment where individual people can thrive. If there wasn’t a strong desire to tell this story through the students’ eyes, then making more of a character out of the teachers would have been something I would have loved to have done because they were quite interesting. I kind of found that anytime we attempted to do that in the editing process, it felt like it needed to be this way. This is a coming-of-age film. That’s the way I always thought about it. It’s got to be the students perspective.

What does it mean for the students to be able to see their story on screen?

TCH: I would constantly ask them pretty much every time I was there, ‘Are you still happy to keep doing this?’ And they were. They were such good communicators of their own story, which is such a rare thing for anyone, let alone being young or being neurodiverse or having an intellectual disability. It’s flattering to be asked questions for one, but I know that the reason why all of them would say that is they really wanted to. They loved the idea of seeing yourself reflected on screen, and if you haven’t seen that yet, then maybe that might be you. I guess they saw as a chance for them to be that person to someone else. None of them were trying to do anything heroic, though. They knew what we were doing, which is just trying to tell an honest story. I kind of knew that it was going to be beautiful. I really wanted it to be, as much as you want to be open to reality.

I know with these stories about neurodiverse people that people use the word ‘beautiful’ in kind of twee ‘la di da’ way, ‘Oh, isn’t this wonderful that they’re living their lives.’ But it’s beautiful in the sense that we get to see these students supporting each other in a tender way and having open conversations with one another. There is support from friends and teachers, and a knowledge of what their own limits and boundaries are. That’s where the beauty of it comes in. For me, it’s this space of knowing what they’re each capable of doing. What did you experience when you got to see that play out?

TCH: I became the most aware of it in the editing process. School is a very active environment, and my attention was in every direction. [There were] moments that are little portraits of true friendship, of caring about the person who’s in front of you. It’s amazing how when you highlight or zero in on something, and you see the same thing you’ve seen a million times, you can see it for what it is in a way that’s really quite compelling.

I also think of how Halle’s carrying around this guilt, and her grandma and mum talk to her saying, ‘You don’t need to. That’s not how it is.’ They don’t let her just run away. They [make sure she] doesn’t hang around in this guilty misery. It’s those things that I find are really powerful in terms of a guide to better living, where you’re just being emotionally intelligent and emotionally in control.

None of this should be a surprise, but in some ways, it was a surprise that people have that emotional intelligence people to support each other in that way. I guess it’s mostly because we don’t get to see that kind of empathy very often on screen, at least in an Australian film context. Is that something you’re interested in exploring thematically?

TCH: For sure. My humble theory is that it’s got something to do with if you’re exposed to something earlier than someone else, then you probably have got a pretty good chance of being more of an expert in that thing than them. When you hear Elyse talking very early about how anxiety works, and how it tries to warp your perspective, that’s such a knowledgeable perspective that she’s coming from. She understands something about this that someone else doesn’t yet. It’s a real strength of all these characters. It’s one of the reasons why they’re so interesting to hang out with. They’ve got something to say about topics that are quite universal. Take anxiety for example, that will touch anyone in corner of the world, and here’s this little expert telling you how to handle it.

I want to shift to talking about the music by Glenn Richards. What was it like engaging with Glenn to create this kind of score?

TCH: It’s great. I’ve worked with him once before on a half hour doc, How to See Through a Fog (2016). I’ve always liked Augie March. [He] respects the emotional content, and by respect, I mean, nothing’s 100% happy or 100% sad, there’s tones and mixtures. He’s got a good [understanding] of observations of human behaviour that are funny or interesting. The kind of prosaic silliness of life. That’s also an incredibly hard thing to do musically. Funny music is usually terrifyingly circus or kind of offensive to real life, whether it be getting out silly trumpets or something like that. It was having some humour in there, but also being able to handle the emotions without going over the top.

I sort of wish we had more. The post-production schedule was punishing. I wish had more finished scenes to have handed him, but he was such a trooper working with some unfinished material that you could hand across and say, ‘this is this character, how do they sound?’

What was the post-production schedule?

TCH: The show itself was March 28.

Congratulations for turning the film around in such a quick time.

TCH: This is not a good way of working, but it was a necessary way of working for this project. That was the biggest challenge. We were very lucky that there were these set pieces. There was already a start, middle and a finish. It’s incredibly lucky that that’s how the how the narrative was going to fall. I used absolutely every second until the deadline, and I would have would have loved some more, but that’s okay.

I knew that the students are the best part of this film, so it doesn’t matter what kind of crazy idea myself or someone else would have wanted to do from a filmmaking point of view, the best thing about this movie is those students, so then it was possible to have such an aggressive editing schedule.

What’s the notion for you knowing the this is going to reach a wide audience across Australia via MIFF and the ABC.

TCH: It’s very exciting. I knew that the concept was good, but I never really thought about the idea of it being done and out there or something like that. The ABC is such a great place for it. It’s an idea that that I think could be done with a broad appeal, or it could be done within a very specific kind of niche lens as well, and I love that it’s kind of going to get a little bit of both. I’m glad that it’s getting the ‘beamed into living rooms’ type of experience.

When I was sitting watching my sister’s play, I thought, ‘You’re either a kid in this room, a kid that’s on stage, or you’re a parent in the audience, no one else is gonna go watch this,’ but you might have done this yourself. You might have had or been in this kind of show and you’re probably not accessing that memory that often. It felt like such a universal coming-of-age story, so the ABC getting behind it was huge. I grew up idolising the ABC. It’s such an important part of the Australian media landscape.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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