Shannon Murphy is the name on everyone’s lips. From an eight-minute standing ovation at Venice in 2019 – where she was the only woman with a film in competition (Babyteeth starring Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis and Eliza Scanlan), to directing one of the hottest shows on TV (Killing Eve), alumna Shannon Murphy (Graduate Diploma in Directing, 2013) is making serious waves. In this warts-n-all interview, recent alumna Hattie Archibald (Master of Arts Screen, 2018) – who has just been signed to Cameron’s, the agency that also represents Shannon, and had her first series Gut Feeling premiere on ABC view – finds out how Shannon got her start and what advice she has for filmmakers following in her footsteps.
HATTIE ARCHIBALD: You’ve just premiered your fabulous film, Babyteeth at Venice Film Festival in September, which wowed critics – and apparently had an eight-minute standing ovation – and then propelled you over to London to film two episodes of season three of Killing Eve, which everyone can now watch on ABC iview. That is just the most amazing couple of things that have just happened in your career Shannon and this is only, by my calculations, seven years after you’ve graduated from AFTRS, which was I think in 2013. On behalf of all the other graduates who are making our way out into the world, how the hell did you get to where you’ve recently got to?
SHANNON MURPHY: I graduated from NIDA as a theatre director in 2007, so by the time I went to AFTRS I’d directed about three plays a year, every year, since graduating from NIDA. So directing was already my profession but I knew that I needed to get the technical skills in order to cross over into film and TV. So that’s why I went to AFTRS and look, it’s funny, thinking seven years is a short amount of time to achieve those things because I reckon seven years is quite a long time considering I was already a director.
I was really fortunate because when I left AFTRS, I got a Screen Australia grant called Talent Escalator, which was quite a hilarious title, but it really did what it said. It escalated my talent. I got to be attached to Imogen Banks, who’s an amazing producer, and she gave me my first job directing Offspring, and because Offspring was already such a successful show and had a history of female directors and female writers, they gave me a chance. John Edwards and Imogen were really generous in surrounding me with this amazing, experienced team of people, and so that really set me on my path.
I think that’s the beautiful thing actually about being on set any time too. You are surrounded by so many incredible crew members and artists and head, HODs, who elevate your ideas, and supply ideas a lot of the time, so the more you can mine what they’ve got to offer, that makes your job quite easy.
HA: There’s so much you’ve just said there that I’d love to dig into and unpack. To start from the beginning, you mentioned you wanted to go to AFTRS to refine your technical skills. Going into AFTRS, did you have a very specific idea of what you wanted to get out of it? And did you get out what you wanted, or did you get something else?
SM: I thought I would learn to edit and I thought I would learn more about lenses than I did, but what was fabulous was that it was just an intense immersion into film and television as a whole. I remember so many brilliant film history classes with Karen Perlman. Or that guy with the American accent, is he still there?
HA: Matt Campora. He’s still there.
SM: I loved him because he’s so kind of negative and grumpy, but also honest and funny. I just loved having all the different lectures that we had. For me, my favourites were Jess Hobbs and Warwick Thornton, and we were so lucky to get so much of Sam Lang. And Nell [Greenwood, now AFTRS CEO], her writing classes were always so inspiring, but no – I still can’t edit anything. I can’t even edit on iMovie! I’m shocking, but what I can do is really know-how, through the form of image-making, you can tell a story. And that was something that I could only really do in a wide shot before I got to AFTRS because my training was all in theatre. So, I learned a lot, and I learned the language that you use on set with crew members. I didn’t want to be on set going, “I’m just a theatre director, so I don’t understand what’s going on.” I wanted the language. Then, of course, I learn so much more every time I go on set, but AFTRS actually gave me the headspace to work out what kind of film and TV director I wanted to be. And I think that’s more important than any specific skill. It’s more about giving you the time to really develop what kind of artist you’re going to be.
HA: And what was that for you?
SM: I think it’s reflective in your graduating piece. We were all given a short story and we all had to take the same short story and make a short film. A lot of my classmates took a more dramatic approach because that is what the story was, but I felt like I just wanted to blow that up a bit, and make it a really dark comedy. I also wanted to focus on a topic I was interested in, which is parents who push their children to be famous. That actually came from watching Candice Breitz, the same woman who’s at MONA who does the Madonna room, years before that I saw her in the UK, in an exhibition she did with little kids auditioning. It was so stark and haunting and desperate and funny that I thought, I want to take the essence of that and put it into this film. I had a wonderful, very entertaining writer from that year called Kim McCreanor, and so I made this short film Kharisma, which I did feel was really reflective of my tone, which is taking deeply disturbing material, but also injecting it with a lot of humour because I think that’s what makes it super realistic.
HA: It’s funny then, in terms of how you’ve just defined your tone, to look at your more recent work. There’s such a parallel, isn’t there?
SM: Yeah. And I think the wonderful thing about talking to journalists and reviewers is that they reflect back to you what the themes of your work are. I feel like people start defining that for you before you even realize yourself.
HA: So, I guess the next question is how, on coming out the other side of AFTRS, how were you feeling, then, about the next steps? Did you have much of an idea about what to do next?
SM: Well, I got shortlisted for those scholarships that are at the end of the year. I think I got shortlisted for almost all of them but I didn’t get any. And I remember the moment I didn’t get any because I was sitting in front of a panel and the last question was, “If you were stuck on a desert island, what film would you watch over and over again?” And I just automatically blurted out About A Boy because it’s a fucking brilliant film. It’s funny and so dark, and I love the soundtrack. I thought there are very few things, if I genuinely had to be trapped in a room, watching something over and over again, that wouldn’t make me mad. And so I said that, and I could just see all their faces. They asked, “Who directed that, was that the director from American Pie?” And, I said, “I don’t actually know who directed it to be honest.” I just saw all the dollar bills just flying away, and knew I’d lost it.
So, I knew that I didn’t get that. Then Warwick Young, who was a Masters’ student at the time said to me, “That idea sounds great to work with Imogen Banks for six months and shadow her. Why don’t you just turn that into an application for Screen Australia?” I thought if I didn’t get it here, why would they even look at it? But he said, “Honestly, just change the title and turn it in!” and I listened to him and I turned it in and they called me saying, “We really loved this pitch for Talent Escalator. We’ll give it to you.” In fact, they even gave me more money than I asked for because they knew that I’d slightly undersold how much I could live on, as I think sometimes we do. And it was amazing.
I got to go and be surrounded by brilliant people like Michael Lucas, Jono Gavin, Alice Bell, Emma Freeman, Shirley Barrett and Glendyn Ivin, who making Gallipoli at the time so I got to watch his special effects sessions. I got to help brainstorm for the Beautiful Lie. They were also shooting Party Tricks. There was just so much was going on and I got to watch all these different things and then help out in any way I could. They gave me a camera to shoot some news reports that were in the show, and I’m shocking on the camera! I’m pretty sure they didn’t use any of that footage, but I had a really great time and I remember thinking when I walked away from it – you know, I also made cups of tea for everyone and all of that – afterwards I said to my agent, “I don’t care if I never get a job there, I had the most incredible time.”
I also had such joy just getting to be a student. I had already been a theatre director so I knew what it was to lead and to have all the pressure of the work on your shoulders, and I loved that, but it was really nice to step away from that. I think it’s important to not go into a mentorship desperate to get the job because that doesn’t make anyone feel relaxed. Actually, if you can stay really open and present, you’re going to get more out of it.
HA: I think you’re right. If you’re constantly trying to force an opportunity, there’s something not right about that approach.
SM: It happens a lot though. It’ll be interesting, you’ll be in a room and someone will keep throwing their idea forward, and I get it because I know you want people to register that you’ve got talent, but if that’s not what your role is there, don’t push it.
HA: The idea to go and do the placement with Imogen Banks, was that something that you’d come up with while you were at AFTRS?
SM: Yeah, you had to come up with a plan for why you were going to ask for any of the scholarship money and it had to involve where you saw your future and what you wanted to do. I wanted to be attached to a producer rather than a director because I had watched directors on set and didn’t ever find that as rewarding. I would get really bored, to be honest, and feel like I was in the way. I did it once on Tangle, which was quite fun because I spent a lot of time talking to Matt Temple, who was the B Cam operator, and also the Steadicam operator. He took a lot of time to talk me through things, which was really nice. I think if you can find someone like that who takes you under their wing and can see what you’re there for, it’s really lovely but otherwise, you feel a bit in the way. John Brawley is someone who always really pushed me to move into film and TV. He’d seen my theatre shows and he’s a DP that I really respect, so I knew them, and Imogen had worked with them a lot. I really loved theatre so it took me a while. But with the plan, I thought, “Who would I like to shadow because they make the kind of work I’m most interested in?” And Imogen had done Tangle, Love My Way, Puberty Blues, Offspring and Gallipoli. There was just so much range in the work that they were doing. I had known about The Beautiful Lie and I thought that sounded amazing. So that was really it.
HA: That was you reaching out to her, by the sound of things?
SM: Yes. I said, “Look can I make coffees for you? I’m putting in a grant application,” She said, “Yes, but let’s not define what your role is. Just come and we’ll start to work out what it is.” I liked that approach because it meant that you filled in anywhere that they needed. You might be doing research one day. You might be taking notes the next day. It’s just whatever felt right for them.
HA: It sounds like such a fantastic thing for Screen Australia to support. Just wonderful. I guess that’s often the question that people ask, I think, as they’re coming out of film school is, “How am I going to get the experience that I need as a stepping stone to the next thing, but also get paid for it?” Were there other things that you did along the way, or was that the main ‘stepping stone’ for you?
SM: I feel like I went pretty much from graduating straight to that internship, but I did the same thing when I graduated NIDA. I know what that feels like when you graduate and you don’t know what’s coming next, but I’m a hustler. I read so many plays at NIDA and I found a play and I said, “This is the play that I’m going to do next year.” I thought, “I’m going to buy the rights to it myself so that people can’t just dismiss me.” When I said, “I want to get this play.” A lot of people went, “Well, Neil Armfield tried to get that play a few years ago, fat chance.” I was really annoyed because I wrote to the agents – it was called My Name Is Rachel Corrie – and they rejected my application for the rights. I got up at three in the morning and was really frustrated, and I wrote this rant to them about, “How could they keep this story from people, it’s so important and why do they think I’m not the right person for it? They don’t know anything about me, anyway” – I just went off, and sent it and didn’t even hit spell check. I thought, “Oh, at least I feel good now.” I went to bed and I woke up and they said, “We sent this to Rachel Corries’ parents” – because it’s a true story – “And they said they’d be delighted to give you the rights to the play.”
SM: So that was amazing. And so I had that, and I pitched it to Belvoir St Theatre and Griffin Theatre Company. When Belvoir said that they would program me in their downstairs theatre, I was just beside myself because I love that theatre company and I knew this would be a great stepping stone for me, and luckily the show did incredibly well as well. It was the beginning of my relationship with Belinda Bromilow, who’s an amazing actress that I continue to work with and who’s in The Great, which is currently on Hulu. But I think I knew that If I didn’t get something happening, I was just going to be stuck. I think that’s really important. You have to always be thinking ahead and I’ve always had to, as a theatre director at least, have six things on the boil because only one thing will get picked up in the end. I think that’s a huge part of the job and it is a really exhausting part of the job, but it’s essential.
HA: Do you think that requires more of a producing skillset? As a director, do you need to have that kind of hustler producer in you as well?
SM: Yeah, totally. Half your job feels like it’s producing a lot of the time. I mean, you’re not a producer unless that’s your credit, but in many ways, you are doing that a lot. You’re in all the same meetings with them, but I guess it’s what a director does. You have to put yourself out there for a long time. It’s it takes a lot before people are knocking on your door. You’ve got to prove and understand how to sell what makes you different. I’m not really into that in some ways, I don’t think I’m necessarily an amazing pitcher but all I do is I focus on the fact that, this is who I am, these are my beliefs, this is what I care about, in terms of a project. They’re either going to like it or not. You can only offer up what you have to offer and you cannot second-guess what they’re looking for, because I think that’s when things stop being creative.
HA: It sounds like you’ve been really good at forming some amazing relationships with Imogen and the DOPs you mentioned, and others. Do you have any general advice on how to go about making allies – and who not to ally with?
SM: It’s gut instinct really, and it’s also all about chemistry, the same with actors on the screen. You have chemistry with people or you don’t, and then it’s not only about that, but it’s also about whether they elevate your work. I remember Imogen Banks telling me years ago, it’s like you’re constantly in this process of sifting. You’re sifting through so many people every day, but it’s also trying to work out the ones that you’ve got to catch and hold on to and they’re different for each project, so just because they’re perfect for one, doesn’t mean they’re right for the other. That’s a big part of your job and a big part of the producer’s job is making sure they’ve got the right combination, and they never quite know that they do until you start kicking off. But that’s what you’re aiming for.
I remember John Brawley saying to me years ago, it’s like the triangle of death: the first AD, the DP and the director, and if at any point those people are fighting, that ship is sinking really fast. You have to keep that triangle intact. It’s not to say that you can’t have arguments with each other because that’s part of the process too, but everybody else on set can’t feel that because otherwise, everybody starts to worry about what’s going on. I think as well, I put so much faith in my DP and in my first AD. We really work together so tightly and they have to be people I respect massively because when things are getting really tricky, and if you’re ever feeling vulnerable or wavering in a choice, they are the people that are going to remind you of what you’re making and they’re going to always a hundred per cent have your back, and that’s a wonderful feeling.
HA: Have you been able to work with your triangle of death across other projects?
SM: Yeah, I actually had a tricky experience after graduating NIDA where I was getting offered work at major theatre companies but being told I couldn’t bring my people with me. I remember in one particular situation, I felt that that was really unfair because I felt that you don’t just hire me for my choices, you also hire me for the people I choose to surround myself with. I’ve been stronger as I’ve gotten older in this industry, in film and TV, where I have really pushed for people that I know are very much responsible for my style.
One of those people is Steve Evans. He did Sisters with me, he did On the Ropes with me, and Babyteeth and Killing Eve. He’s the editor that I really love working with and Imogen actually introduced me to him. This is becoming an Imogen love-fest but she did, she was like, “Look, I’ve got this guy who I think could either be the perfect match for you or really terrible. I’ve got no idea!” That’s what I love about her. She just goes, “Have a crack!” And it was an amazing combination. We have really similar tastes in music. We get very excited about the same things and styles of editing and films. He’s very inspiring to me.
And Andy Commis, who was the DP for Babyteeth. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. I met him at a MIFF Accelerator program a few years ago and we just talked and talked one night at an event, after he’d done a lecture about his work that day. I remember thinking, “I really want to work with him.” So, when I met him for Babyteeth and he agreed, I was ecstatic.
First ADs as well, there are so many beautiful people in my life who have really helped me. John Magee and Tony Gilbert for example. It’s interesting because a lot of them are men, but we’re still short on females in a lot of those areas, but I feel very supported by all of them and they’re great feminists.
HA: Was it interesting then skipping over to London for Killing Eve? Was it a whole new crew to navigate? Did it feel like a big step, or did it feel like the next step?
SM: It did, it actually felt like a bit of a natural progression because we’d just gone from the high of Venice, and then I literally got on a plane and went to London to start Killing Eve. The day I arrived, they said, “You’re on a plane to Romania tomorrow.” And I was like, “Great!” So, I got on this plane, it was called Blue Air, quite a special airline, and we went to Bucharest, which I’ve never been to before. We then drove four hours up to Comandău, which was a tiny village on top of a mountain where they’d never shot anything before, and we walked through the village looking at locations and there are all these Heads of Department that I hadn’t met before. We were just getting to know each other on the plane and then talking about the locations when we arrived. You hit the ground running on a show like that because even though we have more pre-production than shows in Australia, my gosh, there’s no shortage of work to do!
The wonderful things that I got to do on Killing Eve that I hadn’t done before were having a professional storyboard artist for some of the technical sequences – that was a dream. We got taught that you can have that in AFTRS, but it’s never been available to me until Killing Eve. I really enjoyed that.
Also when you have American producers and British producers you can think, “Oh, that’s a lot of people that I’m answering to,” but I have to say, Sid Gentle, who make Killing Eve, are so in control and on top of what they’re making and just such playful, delightful people to work for, that it never felt like that. They still always felt like they wanted to honour your vision, which was really fabulous for a big smash TV show.
There wasn’t a lot that was different, other than of course that you’re in a completely different city and every location is exciting to you. It felt like an Australian crew in the sense that there was a lot of camaraderie. The crew wasn’t too massive, which I liked. It amazed me because Killing Eve is just such an incredibly massive show, yet it’s made by quite a small team, which is really impressive.
HA: So here we are in lockdown and I saw in an interview with Sydney Morning Herald recently that you were saying that you were planning on using 2020 to develop or find your next feature. Have you found it?
SM: No, I thought it would be easier. I thought there’d be something that really popped up like a novel or a pre-existing script, but actually what I’ve found is my relationships with writers has been nice in that I’ve been talking to them regularly and just gradually finding a way for us to come up with something that we’re both really excited by. So that’s what we’re doing at the moment. No, I haven’t found it yet and if I did I would definitely say so.
HA: How do you know when you’ve found it?
SM: I think you just get excited. You just feel it straight away. You get a feeling like you’re the only person that could make it and whatever those reasons are, you hope that other people get, but you just have that feeling, “This is mine. This is mine.”
It doesn’t happen a lot, and I’ve got a particularly unusual tone and vibe that I’m looking for. It’s not the only kind of work I do, I’ve always had a real range even in my theatre work, but I have to be almost quite challenged in the reading of it. I see things really visually if I’m responding to it, but also more so that I have to be afraid of something in it. Something that I think is going to be really hard to achieve because I like that challenge of not knowing how to do it. If I read something and I know exactly how it will look and what I would do, I wouldn’t do it.
HA: So, is that a visual challenge for you then, or are you also talking about the ideas that it’s speaking about?
SM: Yeah, all of the above. With Babyteeth, I think the topics, the tone, I just knew that was going to be really tricky to get right, and so did the writer Rita [Kalnejais], and so did the producers, and that’s why we were really close knit during the making of that. With Rita, we hung out a lot so we could get each other’s sense of humour. Jan [Chapman] and Alex [White] had been attached to the project for seven years so they all knew those worlds; they all knew those characters really well. It was fun running everything by them because they had great opinions on it all.
HA: I honestly cannot wait to see it. When can we see it? It sounds like it’s going to be released this year.
SM: Definitely this year. It’s coming out in America on June 19th, but I think they’re still trying to nut out the date for Australia.
HA: Excellent, well we can all look forward to that. There are so many things I’d still love to ask, but I guess I should probably wrap up. One final thing is about resilience because I feel like you need to have a hell of a lot of it, both in-between projects and then when you do eventually get a project up. Do you have anything you want to say about what keeps you sane, and how to stay rational and humane through this process?
SM: Resilience, endurance – you’ve definitely got to have. You’ve got to have really good stamina because shoots are so invigorating but also incredibly taxing on your mind and body. You’ll notice that the crews in Australia, at least the ones I’ve been working with, they are fit. They are super healthy. There’s a DP, his nickname is Nitrous [Nick Owens], and he does a Pilates class in the morning before he arrives on set. They are ready to go, and you have got to be as on top of your health and fitness because if you’re not in a really solid place with your health, and with your mental health, and being present for everyone else, then you’re not going to be able to get the best out of them, and that’s what they’re expecting from you. It’s your job to have dealt with whatever’s going on in your life before you get onto that set because everyone is looking to you, and they need your emotional stability and your leadership. That’s what you’re there for.
HA: Fantastic. Any parting advice for a fledgeling director or any other graduate leaving AFTRS? Some final words of Shannon Murphy wisdom?
SM: I think just definitely don’t try to make work or pitch an idea that you think is what people want, versus what you actually want. That’s all.
HA: I think that’s great! Certainly, when I went through the Masters, Nell gave us an opening address at the beginning, and it was all about authenticity and just how important it is that you just find your authentic voice and stop worrying about what anyone else thinks because people see through anything that isn’t authentic so easily.
SM: Because I was a theatre director for years, I did do that. I was uncompromising in many ways about the kind of work I wanted to make and it wasn’t what the major companies were necessarily always wanting. It wasn’t always commercial at times, but it really helped me develop my voice. It’s not like I was short of work, but I was not going to direct things I didn’t believe in. And even though that would cost me the big job sometimes, I’m glad I did do that because now my body of work is a true representation of the artist that I am.