Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways – a delicate, melancholy debut exploring the lives (and deaths) of a cluster of interrelated characters in suburban Australia – scooped the AFI Awards in 2005, including Best Picture and Director. CATHERINE BISLEY caught up with Watt in Melbourne during preproduction of her forthcoming feature, My Year Without Sex.

Sarah Watt, photographed by Catherine Bisley

LOOK BOTH WAYS was the debut feature of Australian writer and director Sarah Watt. And boy oh boy, what a debut it was. Set over a hot weekend in suburbia, the film follows an array of disparate characters linked by a tragic event: a man being killed by a train. An imaginative and wryly humorous drama, steeped in death and dying, the film moved me deeply, yet, I left the cinema with a spring in my step.

I interviewed Watt at a cafe by a cinema in Yarraville, a Melbourne suburb on the brink of trendiness. It was November and Watt was in preproduction for her next feature My Year Without Sex. Behind us, trains on the Werribee line clattered past, providing the appropriate soundtrack for discussing Look Both Ways.

“I usually start with the ideas,” says Watt of her creative process. “So the idea [in the case of Look Both Ways] was the different ways of looking at life… I do remember once sitting on the train or bus, I’d just had something really crappy happen and I was looking around wondering whether anyone else had something crappy, or perhaps something fantastic happening, and you can’t really tell. I suppose idle thoughts. Then I made a short film Living with Happiness and it kinda had that thing of what’s going on internally being completely different to what you’re projecting, which is the Meryl story in Look Both Ways. And then taking the idea that two people can get the same piece of news and react completely differently one step further; having two people getting different news, one which appears to be terrible and one which should be good news – one person being told they are probably going to die and the other person being told that are going to have a baby – and then that actually being the opposite… In one way the though of death crystallises someone’s life ‘Oh shit this is what I appreciate and need’ and therefore they might find happiness and the person with the baby going ‘argh – this is the worst thing that could possibly happen.’”

Watt fits into the world of Look Both Ways. She is cerebral and urbane, unaffected and friendly.

My Year Without Sex is probably not a big move away from Look Both Ways in the way it is still fundamentally concerned with people looking for meaning,” Watt explains. “Perhaps not so much because a fear of mortality, maybe more how to function in this kinda weird environment…. Or not weird, it’s normal… but the cult of the individual rather than community that has been growing in Australia.”

It was the Monday following that momentous weekend in Australian politics: not only was John Howard’s Liberal Party toppled from power, but Howard faced the personal humiliation of being ousted from his seat (and was). Given the feel of Look Both Ways, I’d suspected that Watt wouldn’t be pro-Howard. Now my suspicion had been confirmed. “A happy weekend?” I ask, and Watt laughs:

My Year Without Sex is probably not a big move away from Look Both Ways in the way it is still fundamentally concerned with people looking for meaning... Perhaps not so much because a fear of mortality, maybe more how to function in this kinda weird environment... Or not weird, it’s normal... but the cult of the individual rather than community that has been growing in Australia.”

“The only bad thing about that is that my film is going to be less about the now. It’s just a pity films take so long to make and write and… I’d like to think the whole film is completely redundant by the time it comes out. But I’ve got a feeling it won’t be.” She pauses. “It’s not just the political film. I’m making it sound like that but it’s just one thing that runs through it. It’s a personal story as well, it’s about a family.”

Watt’s own family history involved moving from a small town (her father worked on the Snowy Mountains project, a massive hydroelectric scheme in NSW) to Melbourne at age ten:

“I remember thanking my parents profusely… I always find it quite funny when people want to move to the country towns so their children can have this supposed idyllic upbringing. I think it was easier for me in the city to choose to not to partake in certain sort of aspects of teenagedom that I think would have been a lot harder to avoid.”

She describes her twenties as “reasonably confused.” She “gagged around” as part of a theatre company and did a degree in fine arts. But, after 10 years spent “trying to do painting” and working in struggling artist jobs, Watt decided it was time to get a real job. So she went to the Victorian College of the Arts to study animation. Her excitement on discovering filmmaking is still palpable:

“I just did it, and just loved it. Finally it was combining all the things, stories, visuals… Film has such a definite structure. You’ve gotta make it, you’ve gotta finish it, gotta do all these things. The fine art world is so much about how you are perceived and who buys your work as to the worth of you. And I find all that stuff difficult to take on board as a measure of whether what you are doing good or not. And the audience in the fine art world is a strange audience too. In a way investment is more important than actually going along and saying ‘Gee I like that picture’. I find film more satisfying in that you are primarily doing it so people can go along and go ‘Gee I like that picture’. She laughs “But anyway, I still like painting, I like music too, so film is great.”

For all its joy, trials and tribulations are almost always inevitable when it comes to filmmaking. In Look Both Ways’ case, the script was written for Melbourne but ended up being shot in Adelaide. Was it difficult taking a film that was intended for one city to another smaller city? Did it involve a lot of re-writing?:

“The aspects of Melbourne were very much big city aspects… I was really scared of losing the universal thing… the train tracks, trains coming and going was meant to be about… interconnectedness. To go to Adelaide where they have three train lines, and they don’t even have electrification of the suburban trains…. And then they don’t have the big county trains coming into the same station as these three suburban lines. It was so scary. And then you see the trains and there are two carriages usually. You see the ones on our local suburban lines –You can’t even get on the train and there are ten carriages.”

In itself, the film attests to the success of the shift. Cinematographer Ray Argall, an Adelaide local and director in his own right, strikingly captured the dryness and stillness of his city. The Adelaide link has borne further fruit: My Year Without Sex is premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2009 and has received funding from the South Australian Film Corporation and the Festival. And despite Watt’s fear, the universal sense of Look Both Ways endured.

Justine Clarke and William McInnes in ‘Look Both Ways’

“People that liked it as an audience, they usually really liked it…. That started happening right from the start with the script. So actors that came on board tended to really have a very personal investment in it as did most of the crew. It became a really collaborative thing. It wasn’t just “oh my character would like to do this”… people were really focussed on what the film was trying to do. I think that comes across…. one of the reasons I think it worked. So whether we can ever match that again, I don’t know. It’s very hard going back in and… so much is serendipity to be honest.”

With My Year Without Sex, Watt is working with many of her key collaborators from Look Both Ways. Bridget Iken is producing the film and Barbara Masel also returns in an essential role that Watt can’t quite define: “Bridget terms her the third leg of the tripod.” From the list of tasks Watt rattles off “script editor, at rehearsals, at the shoot, at the edit,” Masel sure must be busy. Dramaturge is on the tip on my tongue but Watt pre-empts me: “She’s not really a dramaturge…”

I can’t help but bring up my childhood obsession with Aussie soap Blue Heelers, in which Watt’s husband William McInnes played Nick, an avuncular cop. Watt laughs “Those were the days, a steady job. It was great.” In Look Both Ways, McInnes adroitly played a lonesome photojournalist who is diagnosed with cancer and falls in love with Meryl, a charming sympathy card artist. But he won’t be acting in this next project: “There isn’t really a part for him to be honest, and it was just hell domestically [doing Look Both Ways]… And even though he’d like to put art before domestic requirements it’s actually impossible. We don’t function on that level of nannies and even much babysitting. It’s just too disruptive. It’s easier if I do a project then he does a project. So he’s working now and I’ll be working next year.”

Look Both Ways is filled with acute observations of human nature. A self confessed “Evil Magpie writer,” with a wry smile on her face, Watt warns me to be careful of what I tell her. (When the more-cat-than-dog dog of one of the trendy Yarraville set comes for a walk and relieves itself by our table, I make a note to keep an eye out for this incident in future Sarah Watt productions). Look Both Ways mixed live action, animation and fast-cut photomontages. Meryl’s inner world is revealed as she imagines her many deaths in situations from a train crash to an audacious beached killer-whale attack, giving an immediacy of motivation and emotion that I found more formally akin to prose.

“That’s fantastic that you think that. I think that my scripts read in a more literary way than most scripts. I have to struggle to make my scripts look like scripts and not like books…” Watt laughs, “Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to stop when it’s a script and just publish it as a book. The hardest thing is realising a script on low budget.”

Look Both Ways dominated the Australian Film Institute Awards in 2005, pipping Rowan Wood’s brilliant Little Fish at the post to win best director, film and script. What are Watt’s thoughts on the Australian film industry?

“I think that my scripts read in a more literary way than most scripts. I have to struggle to make my scripts look like scripts and not like books... Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to stop when it’s a script and just publish it as a book. The hardest thing is realising a script on low budget.”

“In far as people like me go it’s a cottage industry. You work from home, you try and get a film up and then for a little while you’re embraced as part of the industry and get invited to the AFI film awards for a couple of years and then you’re gone…. Some people will choose to be more of the person who goes to all the drinks and belong to all the societies and things. I’m not particularly that person either, so I’m not a good person to ask about the industry, because I’m sorta hanging around at home anyway,” she laughs.

And how does she find film criticism?

“You have to take the good with the bad. I must say a couple of times I’ve hated reading the things people have said because I’ve felt it was really un-thought through. Middle-aged, presumably middle-class, women… criticising the film because it isn’t sexy… in that groove. You tend to get blasts from the 25-year-old boy critics too. But then again, I have had some great 25-year-old boy critics. Sometimes you read a really considered review which is ultimately negative, and that’s fine. David Stratton [leading Australian critic] thought the animation wasn’t necessary. I find that sort of stuff really good because I was not sure whether it was necessary during the making of the film either. So it’s really good that people respond to those things. You have to call it one way or another… With Australian films, it’s probably the same with small independent films in NZ, criticism is vital because there is no advertising budget. The audience is completely going on those articles, on the film reviews. It’s just very scary.”

What makes Look Both Ways particularly affecting, is that despite the shadow of death it comes out as life affirming. The ending is unabashedly happy with the girl getting the boy. Does this reflect Watt’s own optimism?

“I do believe that film is a mass medium art form and you can’t get away from that. If I wanted to make really personal things that speak from me as an individual to someone else as an individual, I wouldn’t choose film. Cause for starters it’s not just me, there’s the whole collaborative team and then you want an audience. I’m not going to put it in an art gallery, its going to be in a cinema. I honestly think that the shift in what people want from films has gone through the whole art house market as well. People want some form of entertainment, I guess, and optimism. I don’t know. I’m not saying that I’m going to make films purely on what the market wants, but there is an element also, if you want your film to be seen…. Personally I don’t want to send out things that are too depressing.”

See also:
» Love and Human Remains: Look Both Ways (Reviewed by Catherine Bisley)