Rachel Perkins (Photo credit: Leon Mead, Blackfella Films).

Rachel Perkins has been spending lockdown working on the scripts for First Wars and wrestling with the questions she will address in the three-part SBS docudrama about Australia’s frontier wars.

“Some of it will be just so confronting,” the writer-director told Penny Smallacombe, Screen Australia’s head of Indigenous, in a webinar today.

Smallacombe asked the filmmaker what she hopes to achieve with the series in view of the Black Lives Matter protests and the issues of slavery and black deaths in custody in Australia.

“This show will go to right into the centre of this,” she said. “So much hideous shit happened on both sides and it’s so vast.

“How do you condense that into three hours of television? How do you not use it as a weapon against non-Indigenous people?

“How do you use it as a force that will bring people together? How do you tell a story that is entertaining and engrossing but contains the chronology of 150 years of history? It’s something I’ve got to make more than anything else.”

Much of the session was devoted to the Blackfella Films’ founder’s tips and tricks for filmmakers. She stressed several imperatives, including being thoroughly prepared and organised, and having high expectations.

When she directed Radiance, her first feature in 1997, she recalled most people around her had low expectations for Indigenous content. Their cynical view was that she would make programs that would be earnest or dull.

“That was a driver for me,” she said. “I wanted to make higher budget stuff that speaks to audiences. I was determined to break through this glass ceiling.”

The director of Bran Nue Dae, Mabo, Redfern Now, the first series of Mystery Road and Total Control cautioned against starting pre-production when scripts weren’t ready. That happened twice to her, necessitating rewrites during pre.

Perkins expressed her gratitude to Screen Australia’s Indigenous department and the Australian Film Commission, which supported her right through her career.


Among the other tips she offered:

– Get an early start on each project, even if you are not being paid.

– Rehearse when possible as that will save time and money during production.

– Be the first on set each day with the DOP before the actors arrive to act out scenes.

– Know how individual actors like to work. For instance, her frequent collaborator Deborah Mailman only needs one or two takes. By comparison, Toni Collette (who starred in Perkins’ Jasper Jones) prefers doing multiple takes without a break.

– Try to avoid too many costume changes, a tip she learned from Shawn Seet.

– Bring the editor on location to get his or her feedback on whether she’s getting the coverage required and whether scenes work or not.

– Prioritise scenes as A or B each day so it’s easier to decide the scenes that may have to be dropped.

– Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. That applied to her on Radiance, when she didn’t know the difference between a grip and a gaffer.

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