December 5 - 11, 2021: Issue 521
The Pittwater Online News Artist of the Month for December 2021 to January 2022 is Palm Beach award-winning film Director Steve Jacobs and examples of his brilliant photography - something he has been doing since he was a teenager.
As many know, anyone who wishes to work in film must be adaptive, resilient and prepared to great distances for a long time to see any project through to fruition. It helps if you have more than one string to your bow as well.
This week a talk with someone who has gone the distance.
Where were you born?
In Sydney, at Coogee.
You grew up on the beach then?
Sort of – I remember when they used to have fishing boats come in and sell fish right on the beach. My father was a lifesaver there and also played First Grade for South Sydney, a Rabbitohs. The whole family came from that area.
We then moved to the North Shore and I went to Mosman High School and then on to Sturt University at Bathurst. I was studying Communications there, which was a mixture of drama, filmmaking, journalism, and alike subjects. It was a very good school, a very good university and has produced a lot of terrific journalists and people in the arts and media industry.
What field did you want to join after you’d completed your studies?
I was into filmmaking.
So you have always been involved in filmmaking?
Yes – I was into photography when I was a teenager and filmmaking was a natural progression. I was also an actor at Sturt, which was one of those things I fell into and was good at – in fact, when I graduated I was offered a fulltime position as Director of the theatre at the university. But I wanted to move on and went to Sydney and started acting and making little films.
Can you remember the first photo you took and what equipment?
I was using an old Olympus, and had a dark room at home. The first image would have been taken at Cremorne Point and it was a fire escape that was silhouetted against the harbour.
Photography was something I just used to do – sometimes you don’t know why you do things. I just did it and that’s how it’s always been.
How did you progress your interest in filmmaking?
I applied for funding for a short experimental film I had written. The Australian Film Commission (AFC) used to give money to support local filmmakers back then. The subject was an abusive relationship between a husband and wife, concentrating on the wife’s point-of-view. Anyway I made an application to AFC’s Experimental Film Fund - and they said; ‘yes, this is all very good, we like it and everything – but I think, because it’s a woman’s point of view, maybe you should go to the Women’s Film Fund’.
I then went to the Women’s Film Fund and they said ‘it’s all very interesting but it’s a little bit off-beat for us; I think you should go back to the Experimental Film Fund’.
So I went back to the Experimental Film Fund and they said ‘why don’t you do a test scene for us so we can see what it is. So I did the test scene, at great agony and expense, and presented it and they said they really liked it but ‘…it was just too experimental’.
At that point I left for London, it was 1979.
What did you do there?
I was accepted into an acting school there, E15; Richard Wherrett was head of the Sydney Theatre Company and he had gone to the school, which was quite a revolutionary school at that time. As well as English actors they accepted a small number of international students.
I auditioned for Richard and got in. I think they only accepted about six people world-wide.
After graduating I went into the London fringe theatre scene and profit-share. But to get the really good jobs you needed an actor’s equity card which was near impossible because Equity had a policy of trying to stop young people joining the industry. They only gave cards to established repertory companies, and each company only got two cards per year – and this was balanced on the other side by thousands and thousands of students each year pouring out of acting schools.
I had opportunities with well-known theatres in London who had seen me at E15 but they all said; ‘come in when you get a card’.
It was such a rort. Some actresses were forced to do stripping in Soho or dancing tours in Turkey. These were considered Variety acts by the union and cards were available aplenty. It was ridiculous and very unfair.
So I came back to Australia and found work immediately.
What work did you do here then?
Mostly film and television work. I worked for many years for the ABC, did stuff like G.P, A Country Practice, Alice To Nowhere, Dirtwater Dynasty, Mission: Impossible, R.F.D.S., Sky Trackers, Blue Murder (mini-series), Police Rescue, Halifax f.p, All Saints, Medivac (TV series), Wildside (TV series), Stingers, White Collar Blue, East West 101 etc.
In the 80’s I won a AFI (Australian Film Industry) Best Actor award for a telemovie ‘A Single Life’ and a Sydney Theatre Drama Critics Award for "Essington Lewis, I Am Work" in which I played the lead.
Did you have any favourites?
Not really. It was all pretty empty stuff except for the plays. Though ‘Blue Murder’ was important quality TV which I was proud to be a part of. But most of the other shows were basically soap operas, even the high end of it with expensive production values, but that’s because the Australian industry follows trends from overseas and doesn’t take risks. And also, it’s all about money; so it’s ‘quick quick’ and don’t think about it, just get on with it.
How did you meet Anna Maria Monticelli?
On film sets. We first met on Silver City in 1984 or ’85. Anna won an AFI Award for Best Actress for the film. I had a small part in it.
We then did an episode of the TV series of Mission Impossible when they were shooting it up in Queensland. We also did a children’s television series called ‘Sky Trackers’ which went for six months. It was during that time that I fell in love with her and we got together.
You then decided to launch Wild Strawberries Films together?
I was always writing stuff, applying for funding and naturally getting rejected. Then when Anna and I got together she read some of my scripts, saw some of my short films and said, ‘well, let’s just do it ourselves and make a movie’, and we formed our company Wild Strawberries. Anna then wrote and produced ‘La Spagnola’ which I directed. That was a beautiful film. It went around the world and was shown at many festivals. It won 3 audience awards and was nominated for numerous things. It was great fun.
After that we tried to get another film up – but it’s so difficult; even though we had a good track record the film funding bodies are so conservative. I had a project which we were going to do next, a comedy but eventually it fell over.
At the same time Anna was reading the South African-Australian writer John Coetzee‘s book ‘Disgrace’ – it won the Booker Prize in 1999, making Coetzee the first author to win that twice. She said ‘ why don’t we try and do that?’
I was dubious, this was a massively popular book, surely someone must already have the rights. But Anna persevered and contacted the writer’s agent in London. The rights were with Granada but they were going broke. After some time the rights became available again and Spielberg’s company swooped in and got an option.
Mr Coetzee is quite particular about how his work is presented. I believe there was a prolonged negotiation with John Coetzee and the Hollywood company. Anyway, when things didn’t work out the rights once more became available again, and Anna contacted Mr Coetzee. He said ‘well, you can buy the option for a short time, you can write a script and I’ll look at your adaptation and if I don’t like it you will have lost your money and the option to make the film’.
It was a gamble which we took – Anna wrote the script. Coetzee read it and said ‘ok, I approve, you guys can do it’. Anna did a great adaptation which has been acknowledged in reviews and awards. In fact her script is studied at several overseas universities where film writing and adaptations are taught.
Once the rights and script approval were secured we began the long process of finding investors and securing John Malkovich in the lead role.
What was it like working with John Malkovich?
John’s very clever, so you had to be on your toes all the time and meet those challenges. He’s a very experienced performer and he’ll give you difference shades in each take. You have to be at his level so that he has the confidence that you’re not going to stuff it up.
The film was completed and received glowing reviews and had screenings around the world, winning 3 major international awards in competitions.
What was next?
Shortly after ‘Disgrace’ the independent film industry was starting to collapse. Conglomerates and large companies were coming in eating up smaller ones or forcing them out of business which eventually led to the streaming world we live in today. We tried for several years with different projects but basically the business model had disappeared.
We also found that ‘Disgrace’ was a very tough film, it was confrontational in terms of your beliefs and the questions it asked of the audience. It wasn’t a feel-good movie, which the funding bodies love.
Consequently, we had problems getting projects through Screen Australia as they were focused on projects which they felt were main stream and hopefully more commercial, which they weren’t.
So we went overseas because of connections we had through making ‘Disgrace’. We were in Paris for a bit trying to get English-speaking films up in Europe, but nothing came of it.
While in Paris, Lola Marceli, the lead actress from our film ‘La Spagnola’, contacted us and said ‘why don’t you come to Barcelona?’
In Barcelona she convinced Anna to do a low budget comedy with actors in the city. I wrote the script and directed. We shot just before Covid was erupting and finished the post-production in Sydney. And that’s the film we released just a few months back; It’s called - ‘I’ve Always Wanted to Direct’.
We got a really nice review from Stephen Fry (UK comedian, writer) who called it “…a comic masterpiece”
Watch at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/direct
Your photography – you are still taking shots?
Yes I am. I just finished a book on Palm Beach. I focus on subjects that interest me; I’ve done books on - gothic churches in Europe, a tunnel in Paris, fun parks at night, and London’s East End. And I’m working on a series about Ned Kelly.
How did you do that?
That’s a secret! (laughs). I’m calling it ‘Ned Kelly hiding out in Barcelona’. So yes, I’m still doing the photography.
Will we ever see an exhibition of these works, apart from an online version here for December 2021 and January 2022?
I’m not sure – it’s something I do for pleasure between writing and films. I think in today’s stressful world you have to find outlets that aren’t just about money but are about giving you some sense of joy and satisfaction.
They’re available in print and book form should anyone want a copy.
How did you end up at Palm Beach?
Oh, we’ve been here for over 40 years now. We have a little cottage, it’s the old Palm Beach before it became mansionville. It’s really depressing seeing all these blocks with concrete and glass and no trees. The traffic; if it floods here – how do you get out? There’s only one road in and one road out. At the end of the day there are natural physical barriers to development which the State government and the council ignores. The environment is not protected here because politicians and bureaucrats have ensured in the small print hidden in hundreds of pages gobbly gook, that a developer can get away with anything, and they do! What really gets me is that the State government overrides the council and the will of the residents with zoning regulations that allows this outrage to continue while at the same time touting their so-called environmental credentials, it’s all BS. Unfortunately, under their stewardship in a very short time the natural world on the peninsular or what’s left of it, will become a thing of the past and we’ll live in a high rise hell.
What are your favourite places in Pittwater and why?
Palm Beach – I love the beach and go there every day. I love the fact that you are in Nature.
Pittwater is fantastic as well. This is a very unique part of the world and thank God there’s a National Park opposite otherwise we’d all be looking at the Gold Coast.
That’s what I love; the physical qualities, the trees, the angophoras, the birdlife – these are the things that make this place very special. Now, with the pandemic having incentivised people to leave the city, it’s become a free-for-all which threatens the qualities that make it so special.
What is your ‘motto for life or a favourite phrase you try to live by?
Carry on regardless!
Notes - References
I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DIRECT - watch online at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/direct
International reviews: https://wildstrawfilms.com/our-films/disgrace/what-the-critics-said/
International reviews: https://wildstrawfilms.com/our-films/la-spagnola/what-the-critics-said/
Steve Jacobs & Anna Maria Monticelli: https://wildstrawfilms.com
East 15 Acting School | University of Essex: E15 offers undergraduate and postgraduate training in acting, directing, filmmaking and technical theatre to an international student community.
Siemienowicz, Rochelle (June 2009). "Adapting Disgrace: An interview with screenwriter and producer Anna-Maria Monticelli". Australian Film Institute.