Jessica Redenbach on Girls on Film

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Jessica Redenbach is a writer, director, and producer. Her credits include the award-winning short film Tender (2011), the TV series Rush and the critically-acclaimed Spirited. Find out what she has to say about Girls on Film: Creating Unforgettable Female Characters.

 

You began your career in theatrical distribution and exhibition - how did you discover that screenwriting was for you? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? 

I have always written - as a child usually bad knock-offs of whatever I had just read – and I was always deeply affected by movies and the television I was able to sneak when my parents weren’t around. But everything changed when I was 15 years old and my beloved media studies teacher showed One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I was thrilled by it - shaken to the core - and I thought that was it, what a wonderful experience I’d had watching the film! But then my teacher did a very strange thing. He started the film again from the beginning, and he talked us through every shot in the movie. He talked about mise-en-scène and visual story telling, and what the filmmaker was doing and how he’d constructed the story - how he’d controlled our attention and made us feel certain things. I had this amazing moment of revelation.

Up until then I had been under the misapprehension that films were born, not made - it had never occurred to me that people make movies. From then on it was my dream to make films, but because I was 15 and growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere it took me a long time to actually get anywhere with that dream. 

I followed a circuitous route through the doors that opened to me. The first of those was a job in film distribution. When I had been in that side of the business for about five years - programming cinemas by the end of that time - I realised I was learning so much but at the same time my dream of being a filmmaker was getting further and further away. At that time I applied for the full time producing course at AFTRS and I was amazed when I got in. There I got my next lucky break, because I met Jacquelin Perske, when she taught us at AFTRS, and after that I was able to take notes for her in writer’s rooms. The first day in a writer’s room was my second coming-to! I thought - and still think - it’s one of the most magical places on earth and I did everything I could to get into writer’s rooms and to stay there from then on.

 

What are the challenges of writing great female characters?

I think the trick to writing truly great female characters is to first come to an awareness of all the ways you are unconsciously limiting yourself in your conception of female characters because of the way the portrayals you’ve seen on screen has shaped what you believe - on an unconscious level - is acceptable. It is important to realise that film and television has almost entirely been written by men and that has a monumental impact on screen stories. So much of what I have had to learn over the years is to stop editing out all the parts of my stories that I have never seen on screen before.

I find that a lot of people get anxious when I say this. And I have to say: I am not against men’s stories on screen! Most of my favourite movies are stories about men - and I want to make room for those kind of varied, rich, complex stories about women. I just think it’s so important to acknowledge that if you are telling women’s stories on screen you are at the beginning of something. It has just not been done enough for us to really know what women’s stories really are - yet. So you’re going to have to be courageous, and a maverick, and you are also going to face a lot of resistance - internally and externally. I have found this is why education is so important. You can’t change something you’re unaware of.

 

AFTRS Open feedback from previous ‘Girls on Film’ screenwriting courses has been incredibly position - one student wrote that taking the course “changed her life,” and that your perspective on writing women opened their eyes. What do you think is unique about your screenwriting approach to character creation?

That is so encouraging, thank you. In this course I am trying to distil 20 years of my grappling with the problems and triumphs of women’s stories on screen and share it with people in two days. It is a bit intense. I have always felt that the best writing is about connecting to the spirit of the universe, whatever that means to you - for me, the spirit of the universe first touched me through cinema. When I teach this course I try to share the limitless potential I have discovered in using a spiritual approach to screenwriting. I think it is life changing to get connected to that power and I think that’s what people are talking about when they say it touched them. And I am not talking about something new or hippy-dippy when I talk about this. It’s what Joseph Campbell talks about in The Power Of Myth. It’s ancient stuff!

 

What’s an example of a great female character that you think gets it right?

My favourite female character of recent years is Annie (Kirsten Wiig) from Bridesmaids. She gets to be ridiculous, vain, hilarious, terrible, horrible, vulnerable, terribly misguided, selfish, mean, a failure… In short, she is someone I completely identify with. People often assume when I talk about creating great female characters that I mean powerful women™. I have to say – no! I want to see women who are as flawed and difficult and messy and brave and struggling as all the male characters we’ve ever seen! There’s a place for the tough/strong woman within that - but what I am all about is diversity of representation. So many of my favourite female characters are historically in TV shows. I have theories about why that is - mostly that in television you cannot afford to have female characters that don’t contribute to the story. In film you can actually often get away with it because women almost entirely there as background or supporting characters!

 

What’s your best bit of writing advice to people struggling to write a believable character? 

I think writing believable characters is all about learning to listen. Listen to people on the bus. To the people in the café. To your friends and your family. Observe. Become a detective of human behaviour. Get tuned into the way people don’t talk about the things they really want to say. Then open your ears up and listen to your characters. Just let them talk. Once you can open your ears the right way they’ll have plenty to say, then your next problem will be not letting them talk you around to seeing everything the way they do. That’s when it gets really juicy.

 

Your credits include things like the award-winning short film Tender, and TV shows like Rush and Spirited. What format do you prefer?

Television is a much longer format than film. You can write stories for 13 hours! But you are writing a one-hour piece of that larger puzzle. Film writing is such a sparse and refined form. I have never had a plan really, I’ve always just walked through the doors that opened to me, and the one that opened to me first as a screenwriter was television.

I also realised I could get paid to learn to write if I wrote television. There is something about money and a whole lot of people waiting on your script, as well as the knowledge that it will actually get shot and seen, that motivated me in a way nothing else ever could. Before that I was always thinking about writing things but TV taught me it’s about writing, and writing, and writing some more. Also you improve really fast when you are working with writers as good as those I was lucky enough to share writer’s rooms with. I was probably under the misapprehension that I was a better writer than I really was for a while. You have to grow fast to keep up.

With my short films, they have all been films that I felt I just couldn’t bear not to make. Which is important because they take a long time. Tender turned out to be a four-year commitment - even though it’s a very simple film - when you are self-funding a project like we did on that one, it’s scraping together some money to do the next stage. But there’s a definite distinction between what I write to direct and what I write for other people to direct.

 

Let’s talk about your upcoming film project, Everything Else.

Everything Else is the story of Kate, an alcoholic actress who destroys her career with a night of drunken insanity and her efforts to reclaim her stardom and her soul by turning her life into a one-woman play. It’s a glorious tear-up-the-floor-boards star turn for a very brave actress. At least I hope it is. We have been blessed to work with amazing scriptwriter and mentor genius Meg LeFauve who is touched by the angels. I have just turned in my first draft so right now I love the world and everyone in it. But it is just the beginning of the feature writing process so you can ask me again in a year or two.

 

If you want to hear more from Jessica Redenbach check out Girls on Film: Creating Unforgettable Female Characters

Acknowledgement

The Australian Film Television Radio and School would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bidjigal people and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land we meet, work, study and teach. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.