Tori Garrett on the set of ‘Secret Bridesmaids’ Business’.
Director Tori Garrett is waiting for the local television sector’s answer to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve) to emerge and achieve the same mainstream breakthrough for female, protagonist-driven drama.
“She is the breaker of chains. We need to look beyond the usual suspects and start taking risks with new talent,” the director of the Seven Studios’ production, Secret Bridesmaids’ Business tells IF.
Garrett returned to Australia from the UK in 2011, with the vision to direct drama. Her early influences were forged over a decade of working in London and Europe across eclectic projects at MTV, Channel 4, Filmfour and E4.
Garrett says she has detected a general fear in Australian networks to go too dark in content programming choices. “Because dark is depressing right? Wrong,” she says.
She points to the breakthrough international successes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, Bodyguard and The Bridge as anecdotal proof that ‘noir’ programming which features complicated women, conflates genres and subverts them all at once, can and does attract audiences.
“There’s also a resistance to subvert the formulaic genres of comedy, crime procedural, relationship drama etc, or to portray complexity in female characters as more than just alcoholism or sporadic rudeness,” she claims.
It is precisely for all these reasons that Garrett seized the opportunity to work on the Seven Studio original, Secret Bridesmaids’ Business. The six-part romantic thriller, based on a play by Elizabeth Coleman, debuted on Seven in late September and stars actresses Abbie Cornish and Georgina Haig and Katie McGrath.
“I applaud the Seven Network for getting behind a show like this, which has tonal pendulum swings, is cast for skill rather than type, and portrays real complexity in female characters. It’s a huge step in an exciting direction for all of us who work on drama in Australia,” she says.
Garrett’s television directing credits include Foxtel’s Wentworth, 10’s Wonderland, Nine’s Doctor Doctor and the ABC TV’s Hiding and The Times of Our Lives. She also achieved box office and critical success with her debut feature film, Don’t Tell, released in 2017.
She describes Secret Bridesmaids’ Business as unlike any show Australian network TV has ever made and predicts it will have strong global appeal. “I think the story is thrilling enough to grab an audience by the throat and never let them go for six episodes. It has the rhythm of a feature film and looks beautiful beyond belief. I’m so proud of it. It will pay off for Seven Studios I’m positive. Otherwise, I quit.”
Garratt’s work has been accented by project choices that are anchored in strong, female-heavy narratives. “I approach every job with the same intent regardless of whether it’s female driven or not, but female protagonists are my passion for sure,” she agrees.
In an era when gender parity on and off screen remains an omnipresent battle, Secret Bridesmaids’ Business is remarkably female-centric on all fronts. At the time of the project’s development Seven Studios promoted Therese Hegarty to CEO. Garrett was attracted to the team as much as the material, having worked with series producer Amanda Crittenden on Wentworth. While executive producer, Maryanne Carroll shared Garrett’s passion for cinematic story-telling and complicated, flawed female protagonists.
“They said they’d let me off the leash and allowed me to choose some of my most beloved heads of departments, Tristan Milani DOP, Ben Bengay for production design, Penny Dickinson costume and John Magee 1st AD. So I was beside myself with joy and threw myself into the project.”
Garrett directed episodes 1-3 with Jennifer Perrott directing 4-6. The writers room also featured 50/50 gender balance.
The way to create gender equilibrium and opportunities in the industry is clear to Garrett, “Empowered women empower women. That’s it. Every female director should have a female director rookie on set learning the ropes. This should be part of the budget, or funded by each state funding body. It’s the only way things will improve. It’s a hard slog, no doubt.”
She concedes that there is much work ahead to achieve a healthy industry, “I’m proud to have been the only female director nominated out of five films last year for Best Director of a Feature Film at the ADG awards. My film had the lowest budget, was shot in the least amount of time and was released on the smallest number of screens. That kind of sums up the disparity.”
Garrett and long-time commercial collaborator, DOP Milani, decided to treat each episode like a film from the outset and strived to attain a high production value aesthetic with a strong cinematic visual language that matched international standard.
“The rise of the streaming companies has had a very positive effect on the production values we need to bring to television production in this country,” Milani says.
He adds that the team deferred to productions including HBOs’ Sharp Objects, Netflix’s Russian Doll and Godless for visual inspiration Milani was conscious of bringing his pedigree in TVC and film to lend high-end depth to the series. His feature film work includes Paper Planes, The Boys, The Bank and Balibo.
As a director, Garrett approached the project by grounding the story and the characters in truth. “I want a warm, collaborative set where everyone’s ideas are respected. I want to make everything as cinematic as I can. I want to use old-fashioned screen-craft to give the story another layer of meaning, and not just shoot meat and potatoes coverage with a shotgun.”
Both believe that Australian networks need to be braver and become risk takers in terms of investing in original drama productions with an arresting visual depth.
“I think we have a long, uphill road ahead of us to compete with the budgets of our US and English competitors. But we are up to the challenge, no question. Working here in the US has helped me appreciate the depth of talent we have at home,” said Garrett.
Garrett is currently in the US shooting an original movie for Lifetime in Atlanta, based on the life of lawyer Analyn Megison. “It’s an incredible true story about the woman who changed the law in Florida to stop rapist fathers suing for custody of children born of rape. Another survival story about a real-life heroine, in the wheelhouse of my feature film, Don’t Tell.”