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Indigenous Australian actress and writer Leah Purcell is set to debut her first feature as a director, The Drover’s Wife (Legend of Molly Johnson), at SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight this month.
The film, one of three Australian projects screening as part of the annual festival’s online program, in its basic form tells the story of a woman raising her children in the outback while her husband is absent, though its themes of gender, identity and class make it a robust character study. It’s a tale that has been in Purcell’s life for over four decades, as her mother would read the1982 Henry Lawson short story to her when she was a child.
“My mother was my hero,” Purcell, 50, tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that her grandmother and various other woman in her life provided inspiration to expand the story. She wrote a stage play adaptation of The Drover’s Wife in 2016, in which she took on the title role as she does in the film. The play was named best new Australian work by the Sydney Theatre Awards the following year. In 2019, Penguin published Purcell’s novel of The Drover’s Wife.
Set in 1893, The Drover’s Wife sees Molly Johnson fending for herself in the harsh Snowy Mountains landscape with few resources while heavily pregnant. Among those she comes into contact with is a shackled and wounded Aboriginal man named Yadaka — based on Purcell’s great grandfather — who reveals himself to be a fugitive on the run from colonial white lawmakers.
Purcell’s career spans film, television and stage with roles in numerous household TV series in Australia such as Love My Way, McLeod’s Daughters, Police Rescue and Wentworth, as well as films Lantana, Somersault, The Proposition and Jindabyne. Additionally, Purcell has directed a number of episodes of Cleverman, Redfern Now and The Secret Daughter for television.
The Drover’s Wife is co-produced by Bunya Productions and Purcell’s husband and business partner, Bain Stewart, for Oombarra Productions; and distributed locally by Roadshow Films. In the U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films has acquired the North American rights. Alongside Purcell, it stars Jessica De Gouw, Rob Collins and Sam Reid.
When did you come across Henry Lawson’s short story and what were the circumstances?
Fort-five years ago. My mother had a little book of [Lawson’s] short stories, and she would recite to me The Drover’s Wife. But I would stop her before she got to the famous last line in it, and I’d get up in bed at midnight and I’d go, ‘Ma, I won’t never go a’drovin.’ I guess it was the first time I could use my imagination to see, and I put myself in that little boy’s situation. At home, I was the youngest of seven, but there’s quite a large age gap between me and the other six, so it was kind of like I was the only child. It was just me and my mum; there was no father figure; he wasn’t around. She cut wood — we had a combustion stove, and she cut the wood and taught me how to stack it. She would say, ‘Don’t stack it hollow ’cause snakes will get into it.’ I just saw me in her, in this story.
Years down the track, you realize how much of a classic it is, and much loved by Australia. It really touches people in regards to women’s issues and how women were treated back in those days, and how women are still treated today.
There’s a line in the film where Molly references her husband and tells Yadaka, “He’s the boss, I’m just a drover’s wife.” But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that this is really the story of a strong woman making decisions as she protects her children and her home against any and all threats. She’s anything but just a wife. As a mother yourself, did you draw upon any of your own experiences in building Molly’s resilient character?
Absolutely. Her resilience comes from my mother, my grandmother. They were both Aboriginal women. My grandmother was part of the stolen generation [children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were removed from their families by government agencies — the intent was to assimilate them into white society — this practice ended in the late 1960s] and she was considered sub-human on her papers. I call it the lost generation because they weren’t allowed by participate in cultural practices; they sort of lost their voice. My mother was my hero. She looked after her mother for 27 years who was crippled with arthritis and Parkinson’s Disease. She had me at 42 and was in love with a man she couldn’t have, but she had children to him. Molly Johnson is based on those strong women and what they have to do to survive.
You directed this film, you wrote it, you’re also playing the role of Molly Johnson. How do you critique and mold your own performance?
I had an opportunity through theatre where I directed myself in a few one-woman shows, and that drove me absolutely insane, but I learned from that. I’ve always been a tough critic of my own work. It’s experience, and because I’ve always been interested in direction. I’ve sat back and watch how directors handle things. I never went to any performing arts school, [but] I did a lot of on the job training and observation. When I was on Police Rescue, I never went to the green room and sat and did a crossword or read a book; I stayed on set and watched. That’s how I learned.
And I’ve written lead roles for myself in this country because people didn’t know what box to put me in — dare I say we are breaking out of that mold — but I understand; I am a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, people weren’t too sure. Of course, if anyone’s going to write another black role for me, if they’re not another black fella, or Aboriginal person, then how can they tell the truth of the story? That’s why I started writing my own. It’s so important, because we come at it not from a political or outsider’s point of view, but [from] personal experience. I’ve seen my mother cry about issues, I’ve seen my grandmother go through pain, and I’ve personally experienced that. That’s why, I think, indigenous stories that are written by indigenous people — that’s why it’s so engaging. It comes from a place of truth.
Is there an experience on this movie that took you out of your comfort zone?
I had to be afraid every day to get through it. I love fear. It’s something to conquer. I think if you don’t have that fear, that nerve, then you’re not switched on. There’s something not right with you. The night before, I finished doing my shot list and looked at my partner, and I went, ‘what am I doing, let’s go home.’ He’s great, he goes, ‘no, no, no. Let’s get up tomorrow and see what that brings.’ I have that sporting mentality; I’m the coach of a team, I want my team to perform well, and I’ve got to be that example. I come from a family of boxers [and] did my own fight stunts; my poor stunt girl never got a crack. We scheduled it all on the last day, so if anything happened…
Luckily nothing happened, I’m assuming?
No, nothing happened [laughs]. But it’s the scene where Molly falls over and the gun goes off. Our distributors were there from Roadshow and they’re going, ‘Oh my god. This woman flying through the air.’
The scene where Molly is grooming Yadaka’s hair starts off very calmly, but of course very emotional, with him talking about the fate of his family. We then learn that Molly’s mother died giving birth to her, Yadaka says she was a black woman. After that, things get very heightened when a policeman then shows up with his own agenda. Can you talk about how that scene went from script to screen?
That scene was in the play, and I guess it started with that creative license of a little bit of romance. She’s a woman, he’s a man. Take the politics and the color out of it, they are a man and woman. It was a scene that I fought for, because, dare I say it they were men, who wanted to cut the scene, not from the screenplay, but from the play — and I said, this is for women. Women understand what touch means. I said, it’s about the first stroke of a woman that — her touch [has been] violent; there’s no real romance or love in her life, she married out of convenience and had social status because of that. The only love she got was through her children. It was just something that was really important, as being a woman director and woman writer, at the helm of this journey.
When we came to do it on set, all that mist — well, it was actually smoke, they were the [bush] fires that were coming, we had one fire to the south and one fire to the north — and unfortunately people’s land and houses were burning, but it just set the right atmosphere for that scene. I just said to Rob, ‘I don’t want us to perform, I just want us to be in this moment.’ And remembering that he’s a man who has been on the run, and his touch has only been violent; he lost his family to a massacre, is living off the land and trying to keep one step ahead of white authority who had commissioned to shoot him on site, no matter what he’d done. And we just sat in it. I turned to Mark Wareham, the DOP, I said, ‘you need to feel us as well.’ That’s one of my favorite scenes, and it’s one of those moments where we were lost in it.
What are you anticipating that international audiences will pick up about indigenous Australian history and culture? What do you hope they do?
First and foremost, I was just hoping that they enjoyed the emotional journey and that they thought it was a good film and they got their money’s worth. That’s what anyone ever wants.
And then for me, of course who I am and how I was brought up, there’s an undercurrent of many issues in this film. Not that I set out to write a film about issues; this is just personal stories. Yadaka is based off my great grandfather.
I just want my audience to be entertained, be emotionally moved, intellectually stimulated. And if they grasp an understanding of the plight of the Aboriginal issues or the characters that relate to these Aboriginal issues within it, then that’s all I want. A lot of indigenous issues also with the First Nations people in America — it’s voiced by a political agenda; that’s how a lot of it is delivered to the everyday person. But true heartfelt stories and First Nations people giving authentic voices to these films — if they can take an understanding away, then we’re doing our job for change to come. Or that other perspective, [one of] heart and soul: it’s someone’s mother, wife, daughter. We can all relate to that.
View an exclusive clip from The Drover’s Wife below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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