The unstoppable Vonne Patiag returns with part two of a deep dive discussion about his work in the Australia arts scene with Nisha-Anne. In this part, Vonne talks about how the highly acclaimed new anthology film, Here Out West, came into fruition, what it means to present the geographically specific area of Western Sydney on screen, writing Tagalog, and so much more.
This is a continuation of the extensive interview that Nisha-Anne did in 2021 with Vonne, and you can read part one right here.
Here Out West will be available in cinemas February 3 and will air on ABC later this year.
Here Out West is a film brave enough to choose tenderness over grittier modes of narrative. Equally, it could have fallen into mawkish cliches, taken the candy superficial way through all these stories. But it never does. The care shines through in the depth of the writing, in the time given to small moments and quiet moments, in the dignity of characterisation, in the beauty of its cinematography and score, in the unshakeable unpretentious quality of the acting.
I want to ask you about the theatre performance you did earlier this year, Write Me A Story. Because I read about it on your website and I was like, “That sounds amazing.” What was the genesis for that?
I studied acting at [Victorian College of Arts] and it’s a very different school because it’s very big on ensemble and rigorous theatre work. It’s not about freaking becoming a leading man or something like that, it’s about Theatre. So I really love visceral theatre, anything with a body. I find film sometimes very cerebral, there’s a lot of thought. That’s why I love performing for theatre more than – I never direct theatre, I’m always on the ground, writing, performing, and I think it’s a side of me that obviously doesn’t get as much attention but is as big as anything.
With Write Me A Story, there’s a tradition of live performance that I really love that has its roots in queer theatre, like queer live performance which is definitely based on kind of clubhouse performances where you come as you are. You might have a character or something but you come in and there’s a really big call-and-response audience component to the performance. So with Write Me A Story, I was staying at Bilpin in a residency, so I was working on the Tomgirl second draft while I was staying at this arts commune – it was beautiful – for a full month. And they have open day where they invite the public to look at the work of the artist, and I had Tomgirl and Halal Gurls screening on a loop in my theatre room there.
The curator there, Rae [Bolotin], knew about my performance background, like she had done her research and looked it up. And this was in April-May so Covid had really decimated the enquiries of artists to go to this art centre because of 2020. So she [said] “We haven’t had a performance here in so long, a live performance, and I know you have that background. Would you be interested in presenting something? Like maybe you read out your screenplay or you do something?”
And I was like (sigh) “Yeah. You know what? Like I’ve had a really banner year last year, like obviously Unusual Suspects and Here Out West in production, I did [a one-man play called the life cycle of] blanco as well. Like I’ve done a lot of writing, I would love to do something fresh and terrifying again.” So I told her about queer live performance where it’s come as you are. And then more conversations started happening very quickly around developing that idea, and it became this – I wanted to do a performance piece about writing because one thing that’s really powerful about the Blue Mountains – because the arts centre was in Bilpin – beautiful, beautiful scenery.
I just really was, as a writer, infused and inflected with the natural environment. For me, if I could, I would have performed the piece in nature, you know? Obviously I wanted a screen so I needed a dark room. Yeah, so I want to do a performance piece that speaks to the natural environment, that honours the tradition of writing. Because for me, anything I write is infused with the environment around me.
So Write Me A Story essentially was a performance piece where I live-write a screenplay with audience participation and reaction but that helps recount my time in the Blue Mountains.
Was that just one night or a series of nights? How long was it?
Yeah, that was one extended performance. I’ve done this multiple times. I have another show called karaokie that I’ve performed three times but in a similar way. I really love this idea of a really thought out developed idea that’s performed instantaneously. That production is just for the hundred people in that room. It’s a bit unreplicable because it’s like – well, if I were to do it again which I can and fully intend to, it would involve a fresh engagement with the material, a new screenplay, a new audience. And I think that’s the beauty of being open to that. My artistic juices get flowing when I [have] that call-and-response aspect.
How was the call-and-response in that extended performance? It was great?
It was great. When you’re in nature, I feel like a lot happens. Oftentimes when we’re in cities – and maybe it reflects a lot about our metro and our country relationships with land. And there’s oftentimes this preconception when you’re like in a metro area, your collisions with people are paramount, like you put more importance in who you’re meeting. Whereas I think when you’re in nature, your collisions are with nature or a sense of god or something, and just really being able to really reflect on those experiences was incredible. I think in a good way, my intention was to give the audience an experience of what that infusion in the area feels like. Because, you know, they’re coming in for a six hour, eight hour period whereas obviously I had weeks to call on.
That’s a perfect segue into Here Out West because Here Out West is so geographically specific. And I know that the process for that was again, Emerald Productions and Co-Curious got together and they put out a call for writers, and you had to apply. What did you apply with?
I’m pretty sure it was the Tomgirl sample.
Yeah, that good ole script. (laughs)
I know! Like Tomgirl has given me so much.
What was it like walking into that room?
You know, it was interesting again because the first room we did in 2018. I’m pretty sure it was 2018, I could get this wrong.
I’m pretty sure it is, I think Arka [Das, another writer on Here Out West] told me it was.
Our first room in 2018. Yeah, you know, I hadn’t done Halal Gurls yet. I had pitched Halal Gurls and it was around that time I was entering Here Out West. It was interesting because I had never really met the other writers. Like I knew some of them by proxy, obviously just being filmmakers ourselves. And then also to be – obviously prior to any of my bigger credits, but to be in a room at the inception point of an idea was really fascinating. There was no – it kind of was like a come as you are, what are you interested in kind of experience. The project obviously had a lot of seed funding to cover development so it did feel like a bit of me having to challenge my own expectations of what a project could and should be. I was like, “We don’t have an idea coming in? Like this is kind of weird.” No, actually.
Blake Ayshford who is such a talented writer and showrunner and exec producer – and I’m very good friends with him now – but for him to really foster this space of listening and had this really powerful level of enquiry where it was “What are you interested in? Why are you interested in that? That’s a great image. Let’s pull from that.” You know? And seeing his story mind work in that room with potentially eight very fresh writers was super fascinating.
I think what a lot of people don’t understand about Here Out West is that the stories that we ended up writing were what we pitched on the first day. The eight of us were all asked, “What would you be interested in writing?” And I think at the time, we were circling this idea of doing a web-series, like each episode was maybe ten, twenty minutes. So you know, if you have a ten, twenty minute idea, it can be like short film-y but what’s an idea that you wanted? And what’s in the film, we all ended up pitching that first day.
Like Nisrine [Amine] went first. She was like, “I have an idea of like a Polish grandma neighbour who takes care of a Lebanese young girl. And you know what’s really funny? I have this image of her stealing a baby from a hospital.” That was literally the first thing that was said in the room. Nisrine went first and she opens the film exactly with that story.
I can’t speak volumes of praise enough about Sheila [Jayadev] and Annabel [Davis] the producers, and Blake who is also a script producer, exec producer on it. But to foster that level of care from the beginning and that safety to really share our own stories inbuilt from the inception point really shines through. Because that’s how we ended up with such a powerful film that still honours our initial impulses. I think it’s so fascinating.
What did you say when Blake said, “What are you interested in?” What was your answer?
See, what was really funny was because I had done Tomgirl and obviously everyone had seen Tomgirl, I was like, “You know what I’m really interested in is a Filipino nurse.” Because I really feel like in Tomgirl, I kind of shafted that character. (laughs) I never got to see her workplace and it was fascinating to think about the inspiration I was drawing from my mum but also divorcing it from Tomgirl. The resilience that my mother has to last a working day in the hospital – because I was one of those kids who – my parents worked a lot so I sometimes would get babysat in the hospital. I don’t even know if you can do that anymore. But I’d run around the hospital and “He’s fine, it’s my child, just leave me alone” kind of thing. (laughs)
So just seeing how tired my mum would be after each shift was – something clicked in me and I was like, “You know what, I want to see – why is this woman so tired? What gets her through the day?” And my mum is always such a professional. She’s like, “Whatever happens, I will get through the day. We will always snatch small snippets of joy, like devouring chocolate cake on my lunch break to get through the shift.” She’s like, “It’s so important because you’re not only honouring yourself and your family but you’re honouring the patients.” And you know, my mum’s lucky now to be an educator so she kind of infuses that into her students as well.
So yeah, my initial pitch was I really want to track one really hard day in a Filipino nurse’s life and see how she survives.
Are you looking at issues of – obviously race – and?
I think I’m very drawn to this idea of a character who can survive the tiny aggressions of a workplace, not just from a race perspective but also from a care perspective, from patients who are demanding so much of you emotionally, and what she’s going through as a woman. And I was really big on having a few twists and turns in my piece, and having a migrant story that honours the idea of a woman migrating and leaving her family in the Philippines as well, so not having the support network but working so hard for them.
And that’s something my parents did as well, like my parents spent almost a decade of their lives before I was born, working in the Middle East. So that whole journey of leaving kids behind, and I really wanted to capture that from the nurse’s perspective.
That sounds so fascinating. What’s it’s called, your chapter?
“The Long Shift.”
That’s a great title!
The looong shift. (laughs)
What are you doing in terms of Tagalog?
When we were first writing it for the first initial drafts, obviously we all wanted to be on the same page. It’s a movie that has nine different languages and we all delivered in English just so we all knew what was happening, but it was beautiful to be able to jump back in, especially in pre-production – and that’s the beauty of also the writers being associate producers on this because we could help infuse some of that cultural practice and decide on the best practice for Tagalog.
I did it on Tomgirl, I fostered that on The Unusual Suspects, and then – okay, a lot of people don’t know this. Unusual Suspects and Here Out West overlapped. I was in the final weeks of pre-production for Unusual Suspects and I was still scripting on Here Out West. And I would basically go to pre-production meetings on Here Out West and then drive to set to Unusual Suspects. So my last year, I wrapped Unusual Suspects. The next day, I was on lifecycle of blanco, two week season. And then I jumped to Here Out West for my production dates. So I don’t even know when I fit in the translation for Here Out West. (laughs)
I worked with my same team, I worked with the same translator that I always really love because he understands my story sensibility. And it was just a matter of talking to Annabel and Sheila and being like, “Hey, what’s the Taglog process on this project? I know that obviously there are seven other writers who have their own processes so what’s happening?” And I think it’s really beautiful because we all used a very different process to translate. It’s very singular to what we wanted.
For me, I had the same processes I’ve always been working on. Worked with my translator, knew the proficiencies of the actors. Handed the script to Julie Kalceff, the beautiful director who I loved collaborating with. And she really fostered this very open very authentic and inclusive development process with the actors. So through her rehearsal process, she would actually develop the script, like she would talk through the script, and the actors would be like, “Ooh, I think I should say this” and then they’d write it all up and then I’d sit with my translator and be like, “Mm, no on this because I think you need to say this word but oh my god, this line – so much better how she came up with it.” You know?
And send those back to Julie and have conversations with her. So yeah, just such a beautiful process, so collaborative. And really, again like what I said before, the producers really taking that time and money, the resources, to actually do this right to the point where all of us were satisfied.
What did you do with the subtitles? Did you get to do the same thing that you did with Tomgirl in terms of the colours and the design?
Yeah, so I was involved with – Here Out West was an incredible shoot. I was there for all days obviously that I shot. I’m a prominent featured extra. (laughs)
I was going to ask you about your cameos. (laughs)
Yeah, I always kind of feature in every project I do for some – Unusual Suspects, I know. Hilarious. So I was on Here Out West for my production dates that we were shooting my thing. And also to be a valued resource for Julie and the cast and for the producers as well. Obviously it’s such a different cast and such a different script and such a different environment to feature films. You get to run a lot slower and take a lot more care with things which is a really different – it kind of gave me a bit of whiplash coming from Unusual Suspects.
And then to be brought in through the post-production schedules for both, actually. I did Unusual Suspects and Here Out West at the same time, post. But in terms of Here Out West, really getting to see all the cuts, getting to sit in with the editors, sit in with Julie and look over the process. It was a beautiful process.
I remember this one day, it was Julie, myself, and Destiny [Maylas], one of the amazing actresses who is fluent in Tagalog, all coming together and watching the chapter at Spectrum the post house, and debating every line. Literally. Like we have this word ateh, like “hey sis” kind of thing. “Okay, are we going to capitalise that?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because you kind of say – it’s like hey sis, what’s going on?” I guess sis is like an S so. “Destiny, what do you [think]?” Literally we were there for hours. This is a fifteen-minute film essentially for me. And every line, it’s like ooh capitalise that, ooh comma there.
It was really important for that collaboration, my meaning is across, I love it. For Destiny, she’s like, “Filipino audiences are going to bawl at this. They’re going to love it.” And for Julie who is obviously the director overseeing everything, it’s holding that audience perspective, being like, “Let’s put a full stop here and start that next line in the next [bit].” Because that gives them time to process that and that’s important because we can hold that tension. It’s like, “Look at the three of us, just fucken doing beautiful work here!” I love all of that.
But it’s just your traditional white text or did you get to do colours and stuff?
No, I think it’s all yellow again. It’s funny because Unusual Suspects, we worked with the SBS subtitles obviously which are that beautiful standard yellow as well. And Here Out West is a very similar aesthetic. Didn’t get to play with subtitles this time.
So here you’re focusing on the Filipino female experience. And I love how you said in The Unusual Suspects that you really liked the opportunity to show a variety of Filipino femininity. Having said that, any queer content in your chapter in Here Out West or you didn’t feel the need?
I guess in terms of the full project, in the development process, it was an interesting negotiation. Because obviously we’re always instructed and encouraged to hone our chapter really tightly. But then there’s a larger story to service. I think when it became a feature as well, it became more pronounced. “Okay, guys, we have to operate as a feature as well.”
Shout out again to Blake Ayshford, our script editor, our producer, and exec producer who really helped oversee the narrative arc. It did mean that there were some elements of ourselves that I put in that didn’t make it across the line because they kind of detracted from the story. But there’s definitely queer characters in the feature.
Oh good, I’m glad to hear that. Especially in Western Sydney, queerness in Western Sydney is something that really needs to – I know we’re out there but we don’t see ourselves.
Yeah, in terms of the casting process, it’s again like the power of every department in order to foster these really beautiful visions of real life. We worked with Allison Meadows at Mullinars. And I worked closely with her on the casting brief, and it was like, “Do we want to say looking for Filpino women? Or do we want to say looking for Filipino female-identifying?” And I was like, “Ooh yes. Yeah, do that. I would love that.” Because – and again it’s up to everyone individually and intrinsically to identify themselves but a lot of trans women and a lot of bakla people can identify as women. So what’s the most inclusive way to advertise this casting call?
And what’s beautiful about having Julie Kalceff at the helm who is also a queer filmmaker is that she naturally gravitates towards – you know, she’s the director and creator of First Day (2017) which just won an Emmy which is so incredible. She shortlisted our cast and [said] “I just jumped into a meeting with the producers and this is our cast.” Julie was like, “I think these women are beautiful.” Lena Cruz who is also from The Unusual Suspects.
Oh awesome! I liked her!
I worked with her again. She was like, “I’m acting so much of Vonne’s writing,” it’s hilarious. She’s in the film too. And Destiny is a trans Filipino woman and was completely cast based on talent. It wasn’t a conversation about “We need a queer character” at all. Julie was like, “If you watch Destiny’s self-tape, it’s so funny and incredible and like a breath of fresh air.” And for me, I [said], “Well, how do the women look all together? So put them all together. Oh my god, I love this cast.” It’s naturally diverse and relies on the actors to bring their own backstories and how they want to interpret [the characters]. I think at production point, the writer’s prerogative is to let go and just say, “Julie’s got this covered, I love everything, I love every choice.” And you know, Destiny is such a fantastic performer, I’m so excited for everyone to see [her work].
Oh my god, opening Sydney Film Festival – did you think that would happen?
I mean, to be honest, yes. I’ll claim that. Like why wouldn’t they? Honestly, why wouldn’t they? We had so many conversations about being a web-series and being an anthology short-form thing. And kudos to the producers for really pushing to be a feature because I think it just elevated the material so much in a way that we never imagined was possible for a project like this. I hope they don’t get weirded out by me saying this but I definitely took it a lot more seriously when it changed to a feature. You know?
I was like “Oh my god, it’s a feature now. (clears throat) Okay, here we go.” Obviously Covid was such a question mark in terms of release, and I’m just really proud that, yeah, it’s been able to find a really powerful home opening Sydney Film Festival.
I just really hope that the film inspires. I think the one thing I’m really proud of and we spoke a lot about this was that obviously as migrant communities – you know, eight different stories, eight different cultures – we have things in common. We’re all migrants, we’ve all migrated to Western Sydney, we’ve all settled in Western Sydney. There are going to be common themes of belonging and home and family. You can’t undo that, you know? And I think leaning into the commonality was really important.
One thing that we always were really conscious of was making sure the film is really hopeful. Obviously it’s so easy to get drained [by] the drama and the sadness and the woe is me vibe. But hope is really powerful. Especially in feature films, for the cinematic experience, to see these characters struggle with the everyday but remain hopeful in the end is something we owe to the resilience of everyone living in Western Sydney. Because if you’re living in Western Sydney, you love living here, your day is full of ups and downs and hope and happiness as well. And I’m really proud that we could create a testament to the everyday lives as they are.
For sure. And I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. And I’m really looking forward to watching it and reviewing it. And hopefully we’ll see more of the really specific stories and the production model with writers as associate producers. It’s really an exciting time in Australian film!
Totally! I think so.
And oh my god, congratulations on the AWGIE nomination!
Yes! A lot’s happening. I really hope the film inspires more creatives to pick up the pen or pick up the camera and tell their own stories too. The one thing I really hate in some of these discussions is the scarcity model. [People] kind of become fearful that “Oh no, he has an opportunity so I don’t.” No. I always hope the work I do can inspire people to run parallel beside me. The way I put it is I call the film industry a highway. We’re all trying to get to the same destination, we’re all trying to go forward. But unfortunately there’s the traffic. And if you’re caught in a car behind a traffic jam, yes, you’re probably going to be yelling at everyone in front of you but it’s not really going to help. (laughs)
The best thing we can do is rethink the infrastructure of the road and instead of having two lanes, let’s create four. That way, we all move forward together. And I hope Here Out West can create more lanes.
Can I just say I think that’s an idiom your mum would be very proud of? (laughs)
Yeah. Well, she’s very prone to road rage so I’m pretty sure she might have given me that sometime. Like “They need to build more roads! Less red lights!” I’m like, “Yeah, okay, mum.”
(laughs) Thank you so much, Vonne.
Here Out West will be available in cinemas February 3 and will air on ABC later this year.
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