Julie Ryan on the heartwarming ‘H is for Happiness’ and working out of Adelaide

Julie Ryan. 

Producer Julie Ryan was in post-production for Hotel Mumbai when writer Lisa Hoppe’s script for H is for Happiness came across her desk. She loved it straight away – by page 40, she’d recognised it would make a heartwarming, funny family film.

Due to make its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival next month as the Family Gala film, H is for Happiness is based on Barry Jonsberg’s children’s book ‘My Life is an Alphabet’ and marks the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy.

It follows Candice Phee, played by Daisy Axon, a 12-year-old with boundless optimism and a unique view of the world, determined to bring her dysfunctional family back from the brink. Alongside Axon (Judy & Punch) are Wesley Patten, who worked with Sheedy on his acclaimed short Mrs McCutcheon, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth, Miriam Margolyes, Joel Jackson and Deborah Mailman.

Ryan, who produced with Tenille Kennedy and Hoppe, rates the film as among her favourites. It was financed in months, so strong was the script and Sheedy’s name, she says.

Richard Roxburgh, Daisy Axon and Emma Booth in ‘H is for Happiness’. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

From the outset, Sheedy was on board with making a broad, entertaining and family-friendly film, and Ryan argues they’ve pulled it off successfully. “He’s just such a style guru: he’s got a beautiful visual style which is really refreshing.”

Later this week, Ryan, whose Adelaide-based company Cyan Films is features-focused, will talk about her approach to producing at the Screen Makers Conference on two panels: ‘Knocking on the door: How to approach production companies’ and ‘What is the entrepreneurial approach to my screen business?’

While Ryan is hesitant about applying the term ‘entrepreneur’ to herself, she does concede that producing a film is like starting a company from scratch.

“You’ve got a script, and then you’ve got to turn that into a business. You have to go out and finance – and money does not come from one source, it comes from many. It’s a process, and you get a bit better at it over the years too, pitching at markets, etc.”

Ryan moved to Adelaide from Melbourne in 1996 because she wanted to get into the screen industry and knew that Rolf de Heer lived there. She’d never met the filmmaker before but had seen Bad Boy Bubby and knew he’d made The Quiet Room in Adelaide as well. Working with de Heer became her film school, and she ended up collaborating with him for 10 years, producing five features including The Tracker and Ten Canoes. 

However, in 2007, Ryan decided she wanted to expand the kinds of projects she was making. She established Cyan Films, a banner under which she’s made My Tehran for Sale, Red Dog, 100 Bloody Acres, Scare Campaign, Hotel Mumbai and now H is for Happiness. She’s stayed based in Adelaide, arguing it’s a great city to make films from and that with advances in technology, it matters less and less where you’re based.

“My office is at home, actually. I’ve shot in India, Cyprus, remote Arnhem Land – you can shoot anywhere. But it makes sense to me to keep all my overheads low and be at home.”

She notes that South Australia – which recently scored Warner Bros’ Mortal Kombat – is increasingly producing higher budget films, and boasts impressive producers including Closer Productions, SLA Films and Helen Leake.

“I can only imagine how much [money] you need to survive in Sydney. That must force you to make decisions about the kinds of things you produce. Whereas we’re a bit freer here, I think. Of course, I make films for audiences and for the market, definitely. But perhaps if I lived in Sydney, I would have to have a bigger company. Maybe I’d have to do TV or ads, or something else to pay for the overheads.”

Cyan Films’ small size allows Ryan the flexibility to be nimble and collaborative; she says throughout her career she has always been very open to partnering with other producers, such as on projects like Red Dog and Hotel Mumbai.

“I’ve always been open to opportunities to make bigger films with a bigger team, because we all bring different skills to it.”

As for her next project, Ryan has optioned another Barry Jonsberg book, and is working on the sequel to 100 Bloody Acres with Cameron and Colin Cairnes.

The Screen Makers Conference will be held in Adelaide July 26-28. ‘H is for Happiness’ will premiere at MIFF August 11.