Charlotte Mars produced Gayby Baby alongside director and friend Maya Newell, a feature documentary about 4 children growing up with same sex parents in Australia. The film premiered in 2015 at Hot Docs Toronto and went on to screen at the Sydney Film Festival and BFI London, to name a few. Set against Australia’s ongoing marriage equality debate, the mostly crowd-funded film was briefly banned by the New South Wales state government from screening in local schools.
Charlotte was a 2013 Youth Award finalist and received the first ArtStart Screenwriting grant in her native Australia. Before Gayby Baby, Charlotte made several short films, including writing and directing Awake and producing From Here. Charlotte cut her teeth at Matchbox Pictures, working for greats such as Australian television producer Penny Chapman and was part of the development team behind such productions as Family Law and Foxtel’s Devil’s Playground and Deadline Gallipoli.
She is a graduate of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) film program and divides her time between Australia and Berlin.
New Machine spoke to Charlotte during a recent trip to Australia.
Tell us about your background. How you came to be in this profession?
I studied media arts and production at UTS with dreams of making movies, but was a pretty hopeless film student. I ended up focusing on subjects completely outside the film area, like philosophy and poetry. During that time, I worked for Kristina Ceyton (who recently produced The Babadook) and when I finished uni I was lucky enough to land an assistant job at Matchbox Pictures. I was 21 and running around making coffee for writers in Penny Chapman’s ‘basement’, which was our office at the time.
Matchbox in Sydney was an all-female place back then, and I owe so much to those formidable and fabulous women; Penny, Helen Bowden and Helen Panckhurst. They pretty quickly realized I was itching to write and direct, so guided me into the role of development manager. I stayed with Matchbox for four years and got to work on the film slate and tv projects like The Family Law, Secret City, Deadline Gallipoli, Glitch, Nowhere Boys, Devil’s Playground and Maximum Choppage.
By the end, I was spending every day with the divine Debbie Lee and developing my own projects as well as getting to brainstorm with some of the best writers in the country – it was incredible!
Who or what influences you as a young filmmaker?
More than the films or shows I watch, which are far too varied to list anyway, what inspires me most is my environment and the people in it. Family and friends are a constant source of inspiration and I’m always drawn to thrilling and bizarre situations… sometimes to my own dramatic ruin. My friend and playwright Lally Katz says she constantly finds herself in strange scenarios which inevitably become fuel for her stories – I can really relate to that.
As far as film influences go, I’m definitely a fan of the transgressive women of the world: Sally Potter, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion, Alma Ha’rel etc. I also admire the work of Ulrich Seidl and Jacques Audiard. In Australia right now, Cate Shortland, Jennifer Kent and Tony Ayres are doing incredible things and Stephen Page is an all-round artistic genius.
What was the genesis of Gayby Baby. How did you get involved?
Maya Newell (Director) and I went to uni together and a couple of years later we reconnected and discussed a short film collaboration. At that time Australia was in the midst of its first big ‘marriage equality’ debate and we listened from the sidelines horrified… the conservative argument always hinged on,“think of the kids!”. But nobody was actually thinking of the kids and they certainly weren’t talking to them. Maya’s got two mums, it felt personal. We thought, let’s go out and find the voice that’s missing in the debate.
How was Gayby Bayby funded?
Gayby Baby was a bit of a mix and match. It was our first film so we had to be resourceful… First we crowdfunded, then we secured some private philanthropic funding via Documentary Australia Foundation, and Screen Australia completed the picture. We didn’t have a pre sale or a distribution advance. It was very low budget, we had to maintain other jobs while we were making it. But you know, the flip side of that is when it came to releasing the film, we owned it 100%. We didn’t have any equity investors because the finance was all grant-based.
At our first cinema screening, in a funny turn of events, Maya and I were handing out the pre-bought tickets at the box office ourselves, and someone wanted to buy one with cash. I held this $20 note in my hand thinking: oh my god, we actually made money from the film! We really didn’t go in expecting that.
Was participating in Good Pitch important?
Being part of Good Pitch drastically changed the release and distribution plan for the film. When we finished making it, there was very little money left and we were physically and mentally exhausted. Good Pitch then brought a whole coalition of supporters around Gayby Baby, some funders and some influencers, who gave us the confidence, backing and renewed drive to pursue our wildest hopes for the film – as a piece of cinema, a political campaign tool, an education resource and as a cultural artifact, increasing the visibility of LGBTQ families in the media. I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of it and I think the documentary landscape in Australia is a more exciting place thanks to Good Pitch.
Tell us about your shorts, Awake, From Here. How was that experience? What did you learn?
Shorts… They are such a great test of whether filmmaking is for you – you either love the madness or never go back for more! Awake was a really simple little film about a mother and son each having their own sexual awakenings. We went back to my childhood home, in the picturesque Blue Mountains, to film it. I loved making it, but I also look back and see many things I wish we did differently. What did I learn? To trust my gut… nobody else’s. I think I tried to please too many people with that film and ended up not quite pleasing myself. The kind of mistake you only make once.
There has been plenty of discussion about women in film. Is it just talk or do you feel we are making meaningful change, both in Australia and overseas?
I think the conversation is where change starts. We are definitely seeing an increased awareness of the gender gap and that’s inspired new funding opportunities for women. It feels like a positive time to be a woman in the industry. But you only have to look at what’s playing at the cinema or on television to see that we’ve got a long way to go.
For me, it’s not just about balancing the gender disparities or breaking down stereotypes, it’s about demanding diversity in all forms. Film and television is much more than just entertainment, it’s also an incredibly powerful reflector of the world’s value systems – maybe the most powerful of all. Right now we’ve got this really select group telling a majority of the world’s stories and while there are lots of great filmmakers amongst them, just imagine all the incredible stories we are missing out on!
If our films showed a greater diversity, on and off screen, it would certainly trickle down and have an impact on how people view the world and each other. It can only be a positive thing. Why not be radical? Let’s have diversity quotas in Australia! Even better, America.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing a young Australian filmmaker starting a career in Australia? How you do challenge the status quo?
I think the biggest challenge is finding the collaborators, mentors and supporters who can help you crack the seemingly impenetrable industry walls. Filmmaking is not done in isolation, we need people around us to make films, and you only get better by making. Yet it is incredibly hard to find that support when you’re starting out. It’s one of those catch 22’s: you need help to make a film, but you can’t get help until you’ve made a film…
Today you can crowdfund, you can pick up a camera and edit a film relatively cheaply, and the platforms for releasing that film are numerous. Making a film to get your foot in the door has, ostensibly, never been easier. However, as these points of accessibility have increased, formal funding for new filmmakers has decreased – and that’s a problem. I think we could do a lot more to foster new and early-career creatives. A lot of it comes down to funding but not all. Sometimes it’s about finding mentors to guide you – that has been significant for me – but other times you can achieve so much by simply turning towards each other and pooling your resources. When a group of young people get together to make something, there is nothing more exciting.
Where do you write? Tell us about your routine, if you have one?
I really don’t think I am someone whose routines are to be recommended, but here it is… most days I start writing in bed. Then I’ll be writing at my desk, on the sofa, in cafes… all over the place. I take a lot of walks but try to stay put in each location for at least 2 hours. It’s not a tap, I can’t turn it on and off, sometimes I’m really productive and other days it’s like trying to shovel shit. I once asked my friend Blake Ayshford (who is an incredible writer) if it ever gets easier. He smiled sweetly and said: no.