Writer/director Renee Webster with Sally Phillips on the set of 'How To Please A Woman'. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

While producers often describe their projects as “market-led”, it is less common to hear the term out of the mouth of a writer-director.

However, when it comes to her debut feature, comedy How To Please A Woman, Renée Webster has put the audience at the centre, aiming right from the beginning for a broad cinema release.

“This was a movie that was always incredibly audience-focused. From the point of idea to every day in my writing, on set, and in post. I’m always thinking about audience,” she tells IF.

Thus Webster was rapt when she sat incognito during an early screening of the film at the Perth Festival and heard whoops, cheers and claps. The festival’s week of sessions for the film, held in the Somerville Auditorium, all sold in advance.

“To sit in disguise in an audience and feel it work for them was really powerful.”

Shot in Fremantle, How To Please A Woman stars British comedian and actor Sally Phillips as Gina, a 50-something who has lost her job and is stuck in a passionless marriage.

While Gina has always lived life on the sidelines, she is met with a business opportunity to convert team of well-built moving guys into housecleaners. Clientele soon demand something more – sex, or better yet, pleasure. Gina and her team launch an enterprise that is all about getting intimacy right between people, but she soon has to acknowledge her own appetite in order to make a new life for herself.

Starring alongside Phillips are Erik Thomson, Alexander England, Caroline Brazier, Tasma Walton, Roz Hammond, Cameron Daddo and New Zealander Josh Thomson. 

Alex England as Tom, Ryan Johnson as Anthony, Josh Thomson as Ben and Erik Thomson as Steve. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

Webster had long had the character of Gina in her mind, with the broader idea for the film developing after she heard of a company offering sexual services for women that was run by two women who described themselves as housewives.

“First of all, was interested in: Who are these women running this company and how did that come about? But then more than that, I became really interested in: Who are your clients? Who are these women who choose to pay for a sexual experience? And the answers were so different to what I expected.”

Producing How To Please A Woman are Tania Chambers of Feisty Dame Productions and Judi Levine of Such Much Films, with whom Webster says she shares “really good simpatico”.

The screenplay first received development funding via Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program back in 2016, under the working title Her Predilection. It later then won Screenwest’s $750,000 West Coast Visions program in 2019, and entered into production in 2021 with the support of Screen Australia.

With her audience focus, Webster always was keen to cast a high profile, international actor in the lead in order to see the film travel, but also found in Phillips an “immense relatability” important to Gina’s character.

“I believe if you work with comedy actors – and Sally has this in spades – is they have a fearless quality.”

Around Gina is a large ensemble. Webster spent a lot of time thinking about cast to ensure they all were relatable and loveable, particularly the male leads.

It was really important to me to give the men stories of their own in this film, and for us to get to know and care about them and see them as real people with their own vulnerability.”

Webster’s prior directorial work has included Itch and The Heights – and she just wrapped as the series director on the second season of Aftertaste.

Compared to the very collaborative medium of television, in directing a film she had written herself, Webster found she had to trust in herself.

“I stepped off that cliff, and it was definitely a freefall, but I really tried to stay true to what my instincts were and trusted that they would guide the film to the right place.”

There is a specific tone to How To Please A Woman, straddling comedy and pathos. Webster says there was “narrow bandwidth” to get it right, which meant on set she was often the “fun police”.

“I would shut down comedy all day long,” she says.

“What happens on a film set when you’re working with comedy and you have a film crew standing around, is there is a temptation to perform for the crew who will laugh and enjoy it; we’re all collaborating and working together. But when you’re doing that, you’re creating theatre. And this is obviously not theatre, and I wanted to have a film that felt a little bit meaningful… If you’re going to write a story like this, you don’t play it for the joke.”

With How To Please A Woman now making its way into the world, Webster is feeling vulnerable but excited.

Variety reports Brainstorm Media has taken all rights for the US and will release the film theatrically on July 22, and pay TV operator Sky has secured all rights for the UK.

Beta Cinema also sold all rights for Canada (Mongrel Media), Poland (Monolith Films), former Yugoslavia (Discovery), Czech Republic (Bohemia Motion Pictures), and Hungary (ADS).

So far, Webster said she was bolstered by the reaction to preview and festival screenings; it seems to be playing broader than even she expected.

“Lots of men are recommending this film to their male friends – heterosexual or not – as a good date movie. I’m also starting to hear about the influence it has in people’s lives; I’m starting to get unsolicited texts of my friends’ husbands vacuuming the carpet and hearing from people that they took something home from the movie, and it opened up some new conversations for them, which was more than I’d hoped for. That’s extraordinary.”

How To Please A Woman in cinemas May 19 via Madman.

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