IF checks in with VCA Film and TV alumni as the school rings in 50 years

Gillian Armstrong's 1971 student film The Roof Needs Mowing.

Secret City director Emma Freeman remembers VCA Film and Television School, where she studied for three years in the early 2000’s,  as a place where “a lot of people were really scraping things together to make their movie.”

“That's what I loved about that school”, Freeman says. 

“It taught me about being a storyteller and it also taught me to be resourceful. Never to be limited by what you have.”

VCA Film and TV is celebrating 50 years of scraping things together this year, from its opening at Swinburne in 1966 to the jump to the VCA in 1992 and beyond.

Cinematographer Ian Baker (Japanese Story, Words and Pictures) was one of the first, in 1968. 

 “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I completed the course,” Baker says.

“I didn't really know that I wanted to be a cinematographer, even though I was shooting a lot of the students' films, but I had a lucky break at the very end of that year.” 

“I got this call from some friends who were working for Fred Schepisi, and they wanted to know if I wanted to do a couple of days work gophering film equipment around the CBD of Melbourne.”

That gig became a permanent one when Schepisi offered him a job and Baker became “a studio shit-kicker”.

“At the time Fred was bringing big-name cinematographers from Sydney. The big names were all in Sydney, and he was bringing them down to shoot his commercials. Then if there was a pick-up or a product shot to be done, he wasn't going to bring an expensive cameraman down, so I got to do it.” 

“That was the beginning of me messing around with cameras and Fred Schepisi. I got to shoot his first film and the rest is history. So what I got out of the film school was that lucky break.”

Director Paul Goldman (Australian Rules, Suburban Mayhem) joined the school in 1979, in the same cohort as the likes of Romper Stomper’s Geoffrey Wright, and was chucked out at the end of his second year.

“I then kept coming to classes as my year group were doing their graduation third year, and I shot a few graduation films and co-wrote them, often uncredited. I was escorted off campus by campus security quite a few times.” 

In his first year, Goldman made a music video, Shivers, for Nick Cave's The Boys Next Door.

“I sold the video to Michael Gudinski at Mushroom Records, who to this day I still work for, and I was suspended because the school owned the copyright. A couple of staff members were in my corner but I was eventually suspended.” 

“Then the second year I made a very famous video for The Birthday Party called Nick the Stripper. And I got suspended again because we stole all the equipment and all the film stock from the store.” 

“I was making music videos for Nick's band, and I subsequently ended up living in LA with Nick. John Hillcoat [class of ’82] of course made his first film with Nick as one of the co-writers and subsequently worked with him throughout his career.”

That film, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, was shot by Goldman, co-written by Evan English (class of ’81) and designed by Chris Kennedy (’82).

“It was a golden period”, Goldman says.

“We gravitated around the nascent Melbourne independent music scene. And we were real ratbags. We caused non-stop trouble for the school. So I never graduated. They're claiming me as a graduate.” 

Goldman namechecks teachers like John Flaus and Peter Tammer as “forerunners of indie cinema in Australia.”

“I owe the place enormously, as a meeting place more than a film school. The contacts I made there have resurfaced throughout my entire career.” 

Starting in the same year as Goldman was Richard Lowenstein (Dogs In Space, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand).

“I was there for the three years”, Lowenstein says, “and it was a melting pot of young enthusiasm.”

“I remember a fistfight I got in with Geoffrey Wright over booking equipment at the film store. We had to be pulled apart by friends.”

VCA’s noticeboard proved “lifechanging”, Lowenstein tells IF.

Answering an ad seeking unpaid film crew, he found himself crewing on a short produced by Natalie Miller. 

Lowenstein had been specialising in editing, and the first AD put him in touch with an editor who would introduce the young student to Jill Bilcock (Strictly Ballroom).

“I was Jill Bilcock's assistant for a year or so. And then Jill ended up editing Strikebound.” 

Lowenstein would go on to found production company Ghost with fellow student Andrew De Groot, with the pair making videos for the likes of INXS and U2.

“He not only shot my Swinburne film Evictions, but he’s shot almost everything we've made since, including Autoluminescent, Ecco Homo, Dogs in Space – everything.” 

De Groot would also shoot Hillcoat’s 1996 feature, To Have & to Hold, starring Rachel Griffiths.

For animation whiz Anthony Lucas, an Oscar nominee for 2005’s The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005), VCA was a chance to experiment.

“It was '88 when I came down from Brisbane. It was post-grad for one year, and it was this intense 24/7 year. I basically did nothing but live, drink and breathe film. Worked a lot of weekends and didn't really have a life. I was 23 at the time and it was amazing.” 

One of the highlights was the “cutting-edge equipment that you couldn't get anywhere else, and which set me on the course technically for the next fifteen years. The film I made [Shadowland] formed the technical basis for the look and feel of the film I took to the Oscars.” 

Lucas has particularly fond memories of one teacher, “the legendary John Bird.” 

“I've got a picture of him I keep on the wall. He was one of those people who would just cut through things. He made a few enemies on the way but he raised incredible monies to get specialist equipment for the school.” 

Upon graduation, Lucas formed his own commercials company with fellow students Robert Stephenson and Paul Gehrig. 

“I wouldn't have done that in Brisbane. I just hit the right people and we enjoyed each other's company, probably a bit too much (laughs).” 

Producer Maggie Miles (The Turning, Force of Destiny) agrees that “the great thing about the VCA is the people you meet there.” 

Miles spent nine months at VCA in 2007, completing a postgraduate in producing. 

She met Jonathan auf der Heide there, whose 2009 debut Van Diemen’s Land she would go on to produce,  as well as producer Robert Connolly.

“He came to talk to the whole school about Romulus, My Father, and then subsequently over a couple of years we would chat about things and that led to eventually me working on both The Turning and Paper Planes.” 

Miles is currently hard at work on a Hive project about Myuran Sukamaran with artist Matthew Sleet, who she was introduced to by Connolly, who will executive produce.