Laura Gordon and Olive DeJonge in ‘Undertow’.
In crafting her debut feature Undertow – in cinemas today – writer-director Miranda Nation was driven to depict a complex and multifaceted relationship between two women – one that wasn’t necessarily romantic or sexual.
Set in Nation’s hometown of Geelong, Undertow follows Claire (Laura Gordon), who is still grieving the loss of her stillborn baby when she begins to suspect her husband Dan (Rob Collins) is having an affair with a teenager, Angie (Olivia DeJonge).
When Claire then discovers Angie is pregnant, she develops an irrational obsession that sees her lose touch with reality and put at risk both of their lives.
Produced by Lyn Norfor and EP’d by Liz Watts, Prue Williams and Sheila Jayadev, it also stars Josh Helman, Martin Blum, Darci McDonald and the late Damian Hill.
At the heart of the film is a complex portrait of sexuality, loss and trauma.
Nation tells IF: “A big theme in this is the body, and our relationships to our bodies – the characters are grappling in different ways with their bodies betraying them.”
Having begun her career as an actor, Nation started writing the screenplay for Undertow more than eight years ago after becoming frustrated at not picking up roles; a friend and mentor recommended she write something for herself to star in.
“As an actor, you just want get those roles that you can really sink your teeth into, that are really challenging. I think there are a lot of great roles for women. But then also so often female roles are the love interest or a bit underwritten,” she says.
Eventually, Nation realised she didn’t want to juggle three hats, and chose to stay solely behind the camera rather than starring. However, working with actors proved to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.
Gordon reports a highly collaborative set, with an understanding between her and Nation that felt easy and fluid. The role of Claire appealed to her on number of levels, particularly the challenge of playing a lead character who is, at times, an unreliable narrator.
“She’s so complicated and there are so many different layers to what’s happening for her. She doesn’t even know quite how how deep it goes. It was a really great opportunity to explore that. And having that dynamic with the character of Angie; it is an exciting opportunity to get to play in that realm with an actress. It was a joy to do,” she tells IF.
The origins of Undertow are in the Screen Australia’s former Springboard program, which gave teams funding to develop a short film project that then would act as a calling card for a proposed feature film. Through that program Nation made Perception, which screened at Clermont-Ferrand and won Best Short Film at 2013 Sydney Film Festival.
Both that short and Undertow were shot by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who is among the many female HODs on the film, such as production designer Penelope Southcape, editor Julie-Anne De Ruvo (with Nick Meyers), costume designer Stacey O’Connor and casting director Marianne Jade.
The decision to have a female-led crew was a conscious one, says Nation, who strongly supports the push for gender parity in the industry. “But at the same time, there’s no lack of merit. There are so many talented females, it’s not hard to find women to fill those roles.
“Bonnie, very consciously, chooses to work with an all female camera crew, which I think is very rare. It’s the only time I’ve encountered it.”
Undertow premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2018; it was supported by its premiere fund, in addition to funding from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
Mind Blowing World is now releasing Undertow on a limited number of screens, taking a tailored approach. “These smaller film rely a lot on word of mouth, because they don’t have the big marketing budgets. I just hope it screens long enough for some people to see it,” Nation says.
After shooting Undertow, Nation was director’s attachment to Jocelyn Moorhouse on Matchbox Pictures/Dirty Films’ detention centre drama Stateless, now airing on the ABC. It’s a project that resonated for her, as she has spent the last 10 years also working part-time in refugee mental health via Melbourne’s Foundation House.
“The themes of it spoke hugely to me, and then getting the chance to work with Jocelyn and Elise [McCredie] – she’s my hero – and Bonnie again, to see her working in the TV field. There are some things that are the same [as film] but it’s different in terms of the pace and the different voices throughout development, production and post-production.”
As for what’s next, Nation looks to continues her relationship with Watts with Aleph, a six part sci-fi series she is developing for Porchlight Films, and has a couple of other features on the boil, including In My Body with Truant Pictures.
However, Nation says she isn’t wedded to being soley a writer-director. “There’s a certain empowerment in being able to create your own projects, but it’s also a long, hard road. Writing is something that takes a lot of time and energy. I’m very open to coming on as a director, or writing for other people to direct. And I’d love to showrun this one I’m developing with Liz, if everything aligns.”
Gordon will be see next in Tyson Johnson’s feature debut Streamline, Playmaker Media series Reckoning, and Nine Network reboot Halifax: Retribution.