Actress Anna Lindner hadn’t necessarily planned to also become a screenwriter, yet felt she had “no option” but to turn her own painful and profound experiences with caring and loss into a dark comedy, A Beginner’s Guide to Grief.
The 6 x 10 minute semi-autobiographical series – written by and starring Lindner as Harriet ‘Harry’ Wylde, who is navigating the deaths of her two terminally ill parents in the one week – premieres on SBS this Sunday.
It was the second project to go to commission via the broadcaster and Screen Australia’s Digital Originals initiative, following on from Iggy & Ace, with another comedy, Latecomers, also now in the works.
Lindner hopes her series will provide a window into grief for those who have not yet had to go through it, and connect with those who have. What she went through with her own family made her feel at times invisible and alone.
“As I’ve started to speak openly about the death and dying process, and what that grief journey can be, I’ve learnt more about what other people’s experiences are,” she tells IF.
“I wanted to create a story that would resonate for them and make them feel seen and valid in what is a very dismissed experience; we don’t hold the space for it when it’s happening for people.”
In A Beginner’s Guide to Grief, Harry returns home to regional South Australia from New York following her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis, only for her mother to also soon receive the same fate.
Losing her parents isn’t helped by her devout father announcing moments before his death that he and her mother never believed in God. Harry’s then left to navigate fulfilling his puzzling last request – to be cremated – when surrounded by her strict Christian extended family. Fortunately, her mother left her the worst gift ever: an old Walkman and some vintage cassette tapes about grief.
Starring alongside Lindner are Cassandra Sorrell, Georgina Naidu, Rory Walker, Carlo Ritchie, Caitlin McDougall, and Glynn Nicholas, with Ted Lasso‘s Brett Goldstein the voice of the grief expert.
A Beginner’s Guide to Grief marks a move behind the camera for Lindner after working as an actor for more than 15 years, with screen credits including The Hunting and Wolf Creek 2.
She’s grateful for the experience of creating her own work, noting that while working over in the US, characters she’d been offered to audition for frequently felt two dimensional.
“I felt this growing frustration and almost anger in the end: ‘Why do I keep reading the same kind of roles for women again and again?’ But feeling powerless in it, because as an actor – in the scheme of how a film is made – you’re just someone’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” she says.
“When I came back to Australia, I really needed a break from it. I never imagined that I would start writing in this capacity as a screenwriter, but it really came out of necessity – a need to maintain sanity, as we as a family were diving further and further into this absolutely horrendous rollercoaster. I needed to document everything that was happening, partly so that I wouldn’t forget it, but also to stay grounded.
“In the process, I got to write female characters that I would want to play myself or I would hope that other actors would feel excited about.”
Lindner then put her script forward to the Digital Originals initiative as she felt in her gut that it was the right platform.
At that stage, it was just her developing it, so Screen Australia and SBS gave her advice about seeking out producers. After meeting with with KOJO Studios’ Linda Ujuk and Kate Butler, Lindner knew almost immediately they were the right fit. Julia Byrne also came on board, and the project progressed further again when they then all connected with director Renée Mao.
Lindner noted she and Mao had a symbiotic relationship from the start; Mao understood that this was a specific, personal story and that Lindner wanted to be unapologetic about depicting the realities of death and dying.
“She was completely on board with it and very excited to go on that adventure with us,” Lindner says.
While Lindner had been open to someone else playing Harry, the producers encouraged her to own her own story. When she got to set, she realised she was reliving as an actor some of her darkest moments, but is grateful for a supportive crew that allowed her space to go there.
“When we got to the end of the production, it was a strange moment. The crew did that final pack up – they do it so quickly – and suddenly I’m standing in the location that we used as the family home on my own. It felt very similar to what I’d been through, that feeling of, ‘Oh, suddenly that’s all over, another chapter closes’. It was also a chapter closing in terms of the story that I had to keep living in for such a long period of time. Finally, I had to release that; I had to let it go. Of course, then you step into the edit suite and you start it all over again.
“But it has been an extremely cathartic experience, and I feel very grateful that I got the opportunity to play that role myself.”
It was while driving to the edit suite, listening to Brett Goldstein’s podcast, Films To Be BuriedWith, when she realised he would make the perfect voice of the grief expert: “not for a second thinking that it was ever possible. The brief was not: Can you find me an Emmy Award winning actor, please?”
Ujuk challenged her to do something about her idea. So she sent Goldstein a video, speaking to her experiences and asking him to lend his talent to the project, not expecting anything.
“I got a phone call at 6.30 in the morning a few days later; I wasn’t even out of bed yet. It was Linda calling me to say, ‘Have you checked your email?’… It said in bold print. ‘Brett said yes’.
“He was very generous with his time and getting the context of the project itself and asking me questions about it. He was just beautiful to work with.”
Writing remains something Lindner wants to continue to do; she also wrote for Stef Smith’s It’s Fine, I’m Fine, which premiered at Canneseries and will soon screen on SBS.
With Ujuk and Butler she is also in early stage development on a project that tackles another culturally taboo subject.
Across all her projects, she hopes to use comedy to help people “laugh at darkness”.
“Laughter is our greatest weapon, I truly believe that. It’s the best medicine; it is a survival tool. It is a life buoy when we are drowning in our own chaos. That’s the human condition. So I plan on making people giggle as many times as possible in this lifetime while not running from the hard subjects.”
A Beginner’s Guide to Grief will premiere on September 4, 9:20pm AEST on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand.