Director Pete Gleeson first came across Coolgardie’s Denver City Hotel – the setting of doco Hotel Coolgardie – around 15 years ago on a visit to the remote West Australian mining town. Later he briefly worked in Coolgardie as laborer while studying film, and struck up a relationship with the pub’s owner.
The director was intrigued by the pub's regular cycle of bartenders, who were always female and foreign in what was a very masculine place.
“I wanted to make a film about us as blokes and about the outback. And about culture; I don’t remember seeing a documentary about the institution of the Aussie pub,” Gleeson told IF.
“I thought well, it would be interesting to see what it looked like through the eyes of these women who come out for few months and move on.”
In particular, Gleeson was intrigued by the idea of adaptation; the women’s treatment as barmaids seemed to hinge entirely on how well they’d adjust to the place's customs and idiosyncrasies.
Gleeson's film Hotel Coolgardie, in cinemas today, follows two Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph who arrive in town after having been robbed in Bali. To the male patrons of the bar, they’re considered “fresh meat” and more is expected of them than simply pouring drinks. When the two have difficulty assimilating and draw boundaries with the patrons what happens to them is often confronting.
Where Gleeson had expected to capture a subtle observation of the latent expectations placed on the women by the men of the pub, the “latent became blatant.” For the director it was an eye-opener into what it means to have to be always ‘on’ as a woman.
“To have this expectation to be able to duck and weave, be a good sport and save face for people who are throwing comments at you a cross a bar for your entire shift,” he said.
“As blokes I don’t think we fully appreciate how tricky it can be for women in a hyper-masculine environment. To some people it might seem like it would be great to just be pursued or complimented all day, but it’s about agency; it’s about whether or not a person is able to choose who they want in their lives and in what capacity.”
Gleeson directed, shot and edited the film, working with producers Melissa Hayward and Kate Neylon.
In terms of filming, getting access to pub was relatively straightforward compared to finding the film's subjects. Gleeson interviewed and filmed all of the candidates who applied for the role at the pub via a job agency in Perth. “That was pretty terrifying in that it could have been anybody. The story was at the mercy of whoever these girls turned out to be.”
The six week shoot back in 2012 was done on bare bones – around $30,000 – from Screenwest’s old LINK scheme designed for emerging filmmakers to make a short film.
However, Gleeson said that in the back of his mind there was “always a feature there”, which he jokes became apparent to his producers and Screenwest when he presented a three hour rough cut from the some 80 hours of footage he had gathered.
Screenwest later gave the film completion funding, and Gleeson says they were lucky that post company Sandbox came on as EPs and to grade the film.
“We shot it on HDV and then we scoped it, which seems pretty crazy (laughs), but they created this great look for it that actually really suited the film. It’s really kind of grainy and lo-fi… but it adds charm to the film.”
Gleeson said they had a “very long, complicated post production phase”.
Filming in a pub presented technical difficulties, and as is can be nature of ob-doc, the opportunity to shoot came before the team had finished pre-production.
“We had to pick up whatever we had lying around and just go out and shoot. We shot it on a ZD1; that’s the only camera I had lying around and it was probably seven years obsolete then,” said Gleeson.
“Then we had zoom mics and all kinds of things where we’d just be picking up sound and vision in any way we could.”
The hurried nature of things meant the filmmaker had no strategy for syncing footage and managing data, and needed to sync everything manually.
They also had to get a lot of the footage translated into the Swedish dialect that the two women spoke; with no budget for translation the team had to do it in pieces finding by backpackers who spoke the language.
Hotel Coolgardie is Gleeson’s first feature. It debuted at HotDocs and then travelled to the likes of Slamdance, Sydney Film Festival, Cinefest OZ and Amdocs. Gleeson also received a High Commendation for the film at the ADG Awards earlier this year.
Hotel Coolgardie is being theatrically distributed independently through Gleeson, Hayward and Neylon’s Raw and Cooked Media.
“That’s been a real journey of discovery, but a fulfilling one. We deal with the cinemas directly; we know that every effort is being made to get people into the cinemas and get bums on seats. We’ve been really happy with that,” said Gleeson.
Journeyman Pictures is handling distribution outside of ANZ.