Three Chords and the Truth Director Claire Pasvolsky Talks About Creating Powerful Bonds with Her Characters in This Interview

At the core of Claire Pasvolsky’s stunning feature debut film Three Chords and the Truth is a phenomenal performance from singer-songwriter Jackie Marshall. As the character of Angie Cowper, Marshall stuns, amplifying the grounded and true-to-life experience of an artist who once reached great heights, but now due to illness and the frustrations of life, finds herself knocking on deaths door. As Angie is determined to record one final album and pour her emotions into her work, she has a chance encounter with a young girl, also down on her luck.

This is Ruby, triumphantly performed by newcomer Maisie Owens. She’s grappling with her own demons, having run away from home after a fractured relationship with her father. Walking the streets at night, Ruby makes a chance discovery of an open car which provides a safe place to sleep. That car belongs to Angie, and soon enough Angie becomes a mentor for Ruby, showing her the path to becoming a singer-songwriter in her own right. Together, the two navigate a fractured, male-dominated world, ultimately crafting some of the finest music you’ll hear in an Australian film this year.

In discussion with Claire about Three Chords and the Truth, ahead of the films launch at the Sydney Film Festival on Friday June 16 and 17, she talks about the inspiration for this story, and the harmony that she finds between herself and the characters she’s brought to life on screen. This remarkable feature debut has been called ‘rebellious’ by the Sydney Film Festival, and honestly there’s no better word to describe it. Claire’s career in theatre has helped provide the foundation to explore the pain, struggles, and joys of humanity, often all at once, within this moving tale of redemption and hope.  

Three Chords and the Truth will be also screening at the below locations.
From October 5:

Dendy Canberra, Gala Warrawong, Event Macquarie, Regent Murwillumbah, Yarraville
State Hobart, Dendy Coorparoo, Dendy Southport, Event Indooroopilly, Reading Angelika Brisbane, Luna Leederville, Event Innaloo

From October 12:

Cowra Civic, Glenbrook

October 20, 26, 28:

Riverside Parramatta

October 25, 30, November 1

Darwin Deckchair

From October 26:

Majestic Port Macquarie, Majestic Nelson Bay, Majestic Nambucca, Majestic Sawtell, Majestic Wynnum, Majestic Nambour

Lismore Starcourt – October 29, November 1, 2
Launceston Star – December 9, 13

This interview contains slight spoilers.

Where the idea for this story come from?

Claire Pasvolsky: I wanted to make a film about music. I was inspired by a real-life singer, who I won’t mention, but it was someone I was pursuing making a feature documentary about, and that wasn’t panning out. I had this idea for a character, but it was a very loose framework [where] she brings in a younger girl and [teaches them] music.

I then started making a documentary called Big Sky Girls (2021), which is where I met Jackie Marshall. That’s [a film] about young women in regional and remote areas of Australia who were selected for a national programme where they’re taken in and mentored for 12 months, and they learn about the music industry, and nurtured through those 12 months with an ongoing relationship.

I had literally met Jackie on the shoot for about two minutes. There were about 40 people on the shoot for the documentary. There was just something about her. I’m not even sure what it was because she certainly she was quite reserved on that day because she was teaching, but there was something quite ethereal about her and her style and her approach to communication that I was drawn to. When you’re editing, you feel like you’ve spent years with these people, but actually they wouldn’t know you if they passed you in the street. I felt ‘there’s something about her that really stands out.’

My husband, Steven, and I collaborate on films, so every morning over coffee we’ll say “Okay, do you have any ideas? What are we working on?” And this idea was something we had both been working on loosely, and he had this idea, but it was the male counterpart story for that. And I said, “Well, I think it should be about girls, and I think Jackie Marshall should play the lead role.” He said, “Great, but let’s talk about it more and don’t ring her or anything.”

So, I rang her. I sent her a text message saying “Random question. Have you ever acted?” And she’s like, “Well, not really.” That was on the 13th of October, and we were on the phone, and before I knew it, by the 3rd of December she was at our house rehearsing. It was also about her availability, so it happened really quickly. Steve and I were developing the story, and then I’d go away and write it. We’ve never made a film in this way or approached making a film this way. We were just gung-ho, we didn’t do anything that you’re supposed to do. We just went for it.

I’m curious if you can talk about the choice of country music. Was it just because that’s the similar kind of music that Jackie plays?

CP: What I’ve found out on my journey with Jackie is that she’s known as genre defying, so she can flit across genres. She does rock. She does folk. She’s also trained as a jazz singer. If you think that when you go to see Jackie Marshall that you’re going to hear a song one way, you will not hear the same song twice. When people say to me about the country stuff, I guess I don’t consider it to be country. I guess I consider it to be Jackie Marshall’s style. I would say it’s folk rock, rather than country, but the ‘three chords and the truth’ analogy, I think links you to the country scene. Of course, some of her style is country. But she plays with all those different styles.

I’m a music junkie, I love all kinds of music. I love singers like PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, those kinds of voices that are so emotional and raw, and there was something about the emotions that went into her performances that I went, “Ah, there’s something there.” She wrote some of the songs for the film. It was just like a gift. She just opened up her whole self and her heart. As corny as that sounds, but she truly did. It’s very personal as well, the stuff that she’s sharing on stage with her own story. Elements of her weave into it. It is essentially a work of fiction but inspired by elements of her.

I want to talk about that personal touch that Jackie brings. I keep on wanting to call her Angie because she does inhibit the character so well. That personal touch and vibrance when she sings those songs, you feel it. You mentioned PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, they’re musicians and singers who bring their heart out in their music so vividly. I’m curious what it was like to sit there and capture those moments. What kind of direction did you give her to get into that space?

CP: I often feel that singers do make naturally great actors because they’re always tapped into the emotion of that music. Cher in Mask gives such an extraordinary performance. With Jackie and Maisie Owens, who plays Ruby, I think we had five days to rehearse. My background is stage direction so there was a lot of talking and a lot of feeling things out, and working the scenes, there was a lot of let’s just find ‘the place.’ There’s an element of coaching but an element of letting go.

It’s gonna sound really tossy, but it sometimes was quite a spiritual experience, like the scene in the bath. She said, “I feel like I have to get in the bath.” She’s had a mastectomy. The day before, [she said] “I think I need to do this,” and we were watching it going ‘wow.’ There were moments of witnessing greatness. The moment when she’s in the studio, and she’s in the red shirt and singing; she is transcendent. I think it’s one of those moments you’re just taken away.

[You’re] also supporting her as well, because she is going through so much. The shoot was crazy. It was going from, “Okay, we’re doing this, and now there’s the death scene,” which didn’t make it to the film, and then she had to play the piano. It was this element of supporting her as the director, which is the kind of style that I use of wanting to get actors to feel safe and loved and appreciated the whole time. That ‘let’s try something out’ feel, so that they feel safe to just let it rip.

With that in mind, is Maisie a singer too?

CP: She’s not a singer, per se, but she’s an actor who sings. She’s done a lot of musical theatre. I think she was going down that route of ‘I just want to be known as an actor.’ She came in and auditioned, she’s that little bit older, but she still had that baby face, and she sang for us. She’s trained as a singer, but there’s a certain difference in terms of Jackie is a full musician, whereas Maisie is an actor who sings.

She’s great. In the same way for Jackie, how did you get Maisie to the emotional spot that she needed to be to kick off her characters story. Both start in very dark places. Her character is out on the streets, is effectively estranged from her father and is going through a very difficult moment in her life. How did you get her to that point where she was able to reach that vulnerable place on screen?

CP: It’s the same thing of creating that safe place to form that relationship for the actors to be able to trust me, that I’m looking out for them and have their best interests at heart. [There was] a lot of talking about backstory. She’s very gifted in the fact that you can have a conversation with her and she’ll go, “Okay, I need to go away and find it,” and then she’ll find it and bring it [to the scene.] I’ve worked with one actor like that, and that was Yvonne Strahovski from The Handmaid’s Tale. I directed her first in her first lead role many, many years ago. [They have] that kind of natural born talent of being able to have that conversation, give them space, and then they find it.

Going out in the streets and doing those shoots with Maisie, that was pretty intense as well. Newcastle at night is not the most savoury of places. Again, it was that sense of ‘okay, we’ve got the crew here, nothing’s going to happen to you, you focus on your performance,’ and we’ll [protect] you. She’s also going to those [unsafe] places. We would talk that through, and then she’d go for it.

With that in mind, I imagine that it’s the inverse to when they’re coming out of those kinds of scenes. What kind of support is there for them to come down from those emotional moments?

CP: I think they both handle it a little bit differently. One thing I talked to Maisie about was creating boundaries on set. When you’re a young actor starting out, or anybody on set, it’s so fun and exciting. You just want to chatter away. [But] you have to preserve your energy. If you need to go and have a lie down on the couch over there, just close the door, just say “I need to be on my own.” [It’s good] to have that boundary up there.

Masie, for her young age, is incredibly wise and self-aware about things. She would talk it through a lot. I’m big on check ins with actors. “Is everybody feeling okay? What do we need here?” With Jackie, it was also about preserving her energy because she was thinking about the musical performance she was going to do and then the dramatic scenes too. It was monitoring each moment and always being there for them afterwards, [providing] that element of protection.

For Jackie, I think the second week of shooting was completely exhausting. By the time we got to that stage, we were shooting in live pubs, we were doing live gigs with real sailors and truckers and goodness knows what, it was intense stuff. We really threw them in the deep end, but both were all in from the first minute, so was our team, which was great. It was just a lovely, amazing experience.

I want to talk about the character of the sound technician guy. He’s there as this counterpoint where he almost has no sympathy for Angie. He’s there to run a business, and she’s here not paying him for his time. I’m curious where the decision to push that character into being the emotional counterpoint to the other characters where he does care about Angie, but he is looking out for himself. He has a business to run. What was the decision to push that character into that point?

CP: I think there’s an element of the audience making those decisions for themselves, because that’s the way he comes across on many levels. There are moments when he gets tears in his eyes, as well. The idea is that he has had a long-term relationship with her that has maybe [been] romantic in the past, and that he has had enough of her schtick. He’s been through this whole journey with her, and he is shutting off his boundary for himself.

I think his character is layered as well. It comes across as the harder character, but I think she needed to have that opposition, because it is quite a small story. That character changed from the moment we developed him. Leigh Ivan is the real deal, he’s Jackie’s long-term friend and former record producer. He’s a musician and a sound engineer, so to have that level of authenticity when you bring in someone, who again hasn’t acted, and say, “Okay, here’s the stuff,” [means] he was just at home in that world. He and Jackie have this relationship where they could snap at each other, and there’s this banter, but they’ve known each other for 20-something years, so they already had that, which was really cool to work with. It was like art imitating life imitating life again.

What does that do to you as a filmmaker, seeing art imitating life imitating art?

CP: I think so. My influences from early on were filmmakers like Ken Loach, so I’ve always gravitated in my [work] to that ‘let’s tell a real story’[mindset]. Let’s layer this story with some facts. I guess it’s that doco-drama thing, the crossing of the worlds. What I really get excited about is people saying, “Is that real?” I want it to feel real, but also beautiful. That’s the hope. It all happens very quickly. It was that ‘go with the flow’ thing. The elements of these truthful bonds were very powerful.

With that in mind, you create a legend on screen, and you organically build this world around who she is as a person, showing the audience why we need to care about her before we even get to hear her music. Organically, we know that she’s an icon with clips from RocKwiz and Richard Wilkins too. Can you talk about the importance of the organic creation of the myth and the legend of this character?

CP: I think that was the extraordinary thing. When I first met Jackie, it was like, why doesn’t everybody know about this woman? She is unbelievable. I Googled her and she was called by The Age the next female Bob Dylan. How is this right that we don’t know who our greatest artists are in this country? Because the truth is, it is so hard to be an artist, right? The plan was, let’s set this up as someone who was on the precipice of greatness and everybody knowing her name, but then something happens. It wasn’t just the illness, there are other things that are layered into that, things that come out with her altercations with the men in the film. She’s argumentative, she’s combative, perhaps there’s addiction problems. It’s not just this one thing. I think that was important to say, “This person achieved a level of success, and she was known.” I think that was important to set up early on, to also give her that drive to keep going, where she walks out of that gig at the beginning of the film, and then she comes home and plays the concert for one, because this is what it’s about, it’s about the music. She just can’t help herself.

It is hard to be an artist in Australia, and it’s hard to get your work known, especially for musicians. There are some hard truths in this film, too, in the sense that the industry has been so pushed towards commercialisation. It talks about that need to have an algorithmic hit, which her music doesn’t fit that bill. I’m glad that you mentioned that only because I know in my discussions that I’ve had with filmmakers, that it is something that they personally deal with. I’m curious if you can talk about that from both a theatre or a filmic perspective in the sense of the journey to telling stories. How hard is it in today’s day and age to do that and be noticed?

CP: I would say I strongly relate to Jackie as a character, because I’ve never felt like I’ve had a seat at the table. I’m now in my mid-40s, and I’ve finally got my first feature coming out. I’ve been at this for 20 something years, selling screenplays, putting theatre on. I would say for me at acting school, and maybe even before that, I had this instinct of, ‘I’ve got to create my own content,’ because I don’t want to sit around for the phone to ring. There seems to be this select few, not just in Australian culture, but let’s just call it that, but you sort of look at them sometimes, and you’ll say, “Why does that person keep getting this and that?” And it’s such a little club and a little niche group that I think for me, I’ve been constantly creating my own content. That was also in the theatre where it was like, “Okay, I’m just going to keep going, just keep going.” That’s how I relate to the Angie character where you keep going because you have to, and then you decide you’re not going to do it anymore, [but then] you keep going.

For me, it was all about creating my own work. I went to acting school in the UK, and I had a writing partner there. We had some almost-successes with some projects we were working on, and then when I came back, I felt like I was starting from scratch. Nobody cares about what I’ve just done a week ago in London, nobody cared about that. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to start my own theatre company in Sydney. I’m going to create a home for people like me who’ve just graduated, and they’ve got all these great ideas.” I think that’s always been my through line where I couldn’t ever give it up.

It’s also about the grit of creating the content and to keep putting it out there and to make it for yourself. That’s kind of what this film was about. As I said, every morning, Steve and I sit with our coffee, and every year would flick by, and it would be around the October mark, and we’d be like “We still haven’t we haven’t made a feature! Another years gone by.” He said one day, “Should we just do one?” It was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Then came that conversation [where] he had this idea of the boy and the man, and then it turned into Three Chords and the Truth. It was that decision to keep pushing and to keep creating, and I’m still doing that.

To have the film be seen at the Sydney Film Festival is huge for us and very affirming. I’m glad they’ve seen it because it’s a very rebellious piece. They’ve described it as a ‘rebellious music-driven drama,’ and that’s exactly what it is. I think it’s saying a lot as well. I’m writing my next screenplay and hoping [to do the] similar thing again but hoping that goes bigger as well. But again, there’s no guarantee. It’s still that ‘just keep going, just keep going.’ Jackie is the same. I’ll have conversations with her, “How are you doing today?” She’s like, “Oh, you know, I’ve got this gig coming up.” She just keeps going. It’s not easy.

What does it mean to be able to screen this for a hometown audience where they get to see their streets on screen? You’re presenting the back streets, the suburbs, the houses that we don’t usually get to see on screen.

CP: It was shot in Newcastle, so not Sydney. The other thing is that I deliberately didn’t say where we were. I sent it to someone, and they said, “Is this Melbourne?” That was great. Unless you’re from Newcastle or hadn’t been there, you probably wouldn’t know where it is. It’s part of the Travelling Film Festival as well, so it’ll be very interesting to screen it in Newcastle. They’re seeing their city, the beauty and the not so beautiful, up on screen. In terms of having it screen in Sydney, it honestly means a lot.

In your work, do you like exploring these kinds of stories of humanity? Is that what interests you or draws you in as a storyteller?

CP: Definitely. I love seeing characters alone in their own space and being with those characters for that time, where they were dealing with themes of isolation, trauma, and creativity. The other thing I’m working on at the moment is also along those lines, but it’s a much bigger film. It’s a psychological thriller, also music based about musicians on tour. It’s Thelma & Louise meets Martha Marcy May Marlene, with the DNA of Black Swan. It’s going into a more heightened realism, but still really wanting to explore those raw emotions.

The first time Three Chords screened was at the Brisbane International Film Festival, I heard the audience gasping, I was like, “Oh, people are crying!” And it was like, “Ah, that is so cool.” I always cry in it too. There’s also that element of hope in the end. I think that’s important, too, to not all have that doom and gloom, that there is beauty in tragedy. Life is so nuanced and heartbreaking, and so many things.

We had a test screening in December, and people hung around afterwards. We weren’t giving them free drinks; they were hanging around to talk. Everybody has lost someone to cancer and if not, they’ve usually lost someone. Someone said to me, “I lost my mom at 17. Nobody does that right on screen. You guys did it.” In those conversations, that means so much that you go, that’s what filmmaking is about, it’s supposed to touch us in our memory and make us think bigger, but also reflect on our lives and our experiences.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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