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Producer Trish Lake talks about her film “Frackman”, and her career as a producer of both documentaries and feature films.
AGL has just announced its landmark decision to cease mining for coal seam gas, but the fight against coal seam gas mining, known as “fracking”, continues.
“Frackman” is the story of Dayne Pratzky, who became an accidental activist when energy companies began fracking on his property in Tara, Queensland – a face for the many communities affected by this destructive process.
Trish Lake is a Queensland-based producer of award-winning documentaries and feature films, one of the four producers of “Frackman”. Beamafilm’s Rebecca Boyle asked her about the making of – and reaction to – this important film.
What inspired you to make Frackman?
I was in the US and I was flying from New York to Los Angeles and noticed this weird pattern of markings ten kilometres below me as I was flying through the desert areas around Colorado, and it really kind of bothered me as to what was going on – that strange pinpricked sort of landscape. That must have been several years before I’d heard about the concept of fracking. Then my daughter, Kelly Hawke, who was a producer for a current affairs show in one of the big broadcasters in Australia, told me that fracking was starting to cause a lot of ructions out in Queensland. As a Queensland-based storyteller, I suddenly joined the dots between what I had been seeing on these vast tracts of landscape in the US, and understood that this has been going on in Queensland – and I had been unaware of it. When my daughter tried to get a story going on one of the broadcasters about coal seam gas and fracking she found a lot of resistance to the topic, and it occurred to me as an independent filmmaker that that was a major issue for our country, so I then started trying to find ways to tell the story that people might listen to…And so there began my interest in the topic.
From there I was approached by WA filmmaker, Richard Todd, who I had done a bit of work with some years earlier, and Richard told me he was chasing a story with producer Simon Nasht on coal seam gas in Queensland. And that was precisely the time that I had said to my daughter that I had to find a way of highlighting this issue. It was a wonderful convergence of several filmmakers seeing an opportunity, and that came through the character of Dayne Pratzky.
“Frackman” has had quite an impact politically and socially. Can you tell us about the responses to the film across Australia and has it achieved that impact you wanted it to achieve?
Richard Todd, Simon Nasht, Kate Hodges, and myself all met with an impact producer, Alex Kelly, early in the story’s development to try to work out what sort of goal we had as filmmakers for this particular film. Our real motivation was to make Australians aware of something that it would seem the majority of Australians had no idea about, and part of that issue was around the notion of not being able to stop mining activities on your land, or as communities not being able to stop mining activities on your land. So we decided that the top impact for our film would be not just to reach a broad audience, but would also be to try to get people to think about legislation that might assist communities to stop mining companies that weren’t doing the right thing. I think what we’ve achieved with the film is certainly on the way to having that very major debate happening nationally that I don’t believe happened when it should have, which was before this sort of mining activity started.
Do you have some stand-out behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film?
There were so many heartbreaking stories of people whose whole lives had been shattered because of believing what they were told about what would be, from their point of view, benign effects, and some money that would compensate for a very small effect. In reality, when this activity happened on their property, it just shattered their lives, they lost everything, and it devalued their property so they couldn’t even leave.
We took a view that in Dayne and his neighbour’s cases, these were real Australian battlers, people who’d gone to find a way of making life better for themselves, and they were targeted by the mining industry, because they were the most voiceless, they didn’t have the family backgrounds of wealth or prosperity. They were the ones who were targeted because they would probably need whatever money was offered to them and be willing to put up with things, and we felt like Dayne’s story exemplified the really worst of tactics of where companies will go in and exploit people’s weak positions. So that’s why we felt we had something so strong with Dayne’s story. But yes, certainly, there were so many other families that both Richard Todd and Dayne met in the course of making “Frackman”, and some of those people are still trapped in very dire circumstances, not just the ones who we filmed.
During “Frackman’s” cinema release, you took the film to many regional areas that were being affected by fracking. What was the response to the film in those areas?
It was very difficult, because you have to understand that an awful lot of people who are hurting, particularly in drought-affected Australia, have been employed by these mining companies, and it’s been good for them. Some of the towns prospered during the boom times of the start-up, when the infrastructure is being built, and so they believed the promises that the industry was going to be an ongoing bonanza for them. Of course, part of the story talks about how that doesn’t happen, that actually after the first phase of construction, which is very destructive to the community – but also brings in a lot of money – after that phase things quieten down again and so many properties lose their value. Those towns are now hurting very seriously, and there’s plenty of evidence of that around Australia, and certainly in Queensland.
What we were finding when we went to those regional centres, was that a lot of those people were still employed in the major start up infrastructure, and they were not very happy about a film that was critical of coal seam gas. It certainly was a very polarising issue particularly in those electorates where the NSW election was fought last March. So yes, it was quite interesting for the filmmakers because it wasn’t just about going out and preaching to the converted.
What we really wanted to do was to get people who were sitting on the fence about coal seam gas to understand where ethics, had been abandoned ,where some land owners had been forced into signing agreements, or how those who held out were bullied, and we wanted people to see that. I think it really did have a big impact on the NSW election, on the issue of coal seam gas, and I think our film was the vehicle for people to have community debates around the issue.
The release strategy for Frackman was fairly non-traditional. Why did you choose this release strategy and did it work well for the film?
The innovation around the release was to do with cinema-on-demand through the digital connection with the people who we were talking to via social media: using social media to engage with audiences and herd them into event screenings, or encouraging them to crowdsource to find screening venues through TUGG.
We had several hundred screenings of Frackman around Australia. In traditional cinema, there could be a lot of people in the room or there could be hardly anyone in the room, and the screening goes ahead either way. What we did was make sure there would have to be a significant number of people in a theatre for the film to screen. So we had many screenings that were sold out, certainly very much at capacity.
The one thing that was very clear to us as filmmakers was that we really needed to be very hands-on with the distribution, and the way that we were able to do that was by being part of the Good Pitch Australia selected films in 2014. By having not just the finance that Good Pitch was able to help us raise to support the distribution, but also the networks and the strategy that we were able to achieve by working collaboratively with partners who were interested in coal seam gas and fracking, which was facilitated by Good Pitch. I don’t know that we would have had the success that we’ve had in reaching this wider audience without that. That is part of how Good Pitch works, and we were very fortunate to get into Good Pitch, which then really solidified our impact assessment and then our marketing strategy all around our impact assessment, with the funds that Good Pitch delivered us, but also with the contacts and the networks that Good Pitch facilitated for us.
Having had your experience with cinema-on-demand, do you think that cinema-on-demand and video-on-demand are more likely to be the future of long-form documentaries than more traditional mediums? What’s your view on where the long-form documentary is going to go in the future?
It’s a very interesting question. These are things that we’re still trying to understand, and I think that there’s a lot of experimentation going on this space right now. I think the most important thing with documentary makers is to reserve the VOD and cinema on demand rights to the producer, so the producer can make these decisions with any regular distributors they might be working with, so that you’ve got the option to be more flexible. And I think as exhibitors understand a bit more about how subscription video and premium VOD and all of these other ways can work to support cinemas rather than destroy cinemas, then I think we will be entering into a much more hybrid way of distributing. And certainly that will benefit long-form documentaries. I mean we certainly can’t look to television like we used to, we really do have to find a way to be more innovative in the way we reach audiences.
As a Producer you’ve made both feature films and documentaries. Are there any particular types of themes and stories that you’re particularly interested in?
I guess I’m interested in what makes humans tick, why they do the things they do, and I’m interested in how power operates in both politics and the corporate world. I have a very strong sense of fairness and equity. I think with my background as a journalist, I certainly am interested in why, some people in corporations and big business feel they can take advantage of or make life miserable for other people. So I guess I have an inbuilt instinct to look for situations that can be improved by drawing people’s attention to them through story. Because I’m very interested in humans, their eccentricities, their desires and their aspirations. So as a filmmaker, I’m drawn to stories that have interesting people and situations where through film, a light can be shone on things that aren’t necessarily just or fair.
Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment that you can tell us about?
I’ve got some very exciting projects that are coming to fruition. Probably the most exciting documentary that I can tell you about is by writer / director Janine Hosking, who’s won many awards for her films. She and producer Katey Grusovin brought a project to me called “The Eulogy”. “The Eulogy” is a film about what it means to be an artist, and whether Australians truly understand and venerate artists and artistic excellence. The role of the artist in our society is a very interesting one, and they’ve chosen a very interesting character, someone who died in 2009, Geoffrey Tozer.
Geoffrey Tozer was an Australian concert pianist and composer. yet he died a very sad and tragic figure in Australia in 2009. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating in the eulogy he delivered at Geoffrey Tozer’s memorial, asked Australians if they had failed their greatest musician.
So that’s a pretty big question. And Janine, as a very talented storyteller, is seeking to respond to that question. Paul Keating will be part of the film, and we’ll have the most amazing archive. So it’s a feature documentary, we’re just financing at the moment, and it will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival through the support of the MIFF Premiere Fund in August 2017. I think it will be very challenging, and I think every music student, music teacher and lovers of classical music in Australia will want to see it. But I hope many other Australians will be challenged to think about artistic excellence and its role in our society. I think that’ll be a very useful film as well as a very beautiful film.
I’ve also got a couple of features on the go. One that we’re striving to get into production later this year is called “Red Earth”, and that is a Chinese-Australian story set in far North Queensland in the late nineteenth century, about a young Chinese woman who comes to Australia to live in the sugar cane fields of far North Queensland. I’m working with another woman writer/director, in that case, Liselle Mei. So I’d like to remind everyone that there are some wonderful woman storytellers out there, and some wonderful stories about women. I’m continue to work fine writers and directors, many of whom are women.
So two projects for 2017 delivery and both with women writer/directors, and hopefully these stories can add to the great wealth of Australian films.
What is the last film you saw that changed the way you saw the world?
There are many films that I see that I think have an effect on how the world is…I don’t necessarily like all the ones that I think will change the world, by the way! One of the stand-out films that I have liked in the last twelve months is “Foxcatcher”. I thought Foxcatcher was a particularly disturbing film about the bubble of the super wealthy, highlighting the unfair distribution of wealth which I think is behind so many of the problems in the world today. It was a very interesting insight to see one of the one percent gone mad in the case of John E. Du Pont, the 80’s character that that film portrayed. So “Foxcatcher” was definitely a very interesting film to me, I also thought “Spotlight” recently was certainly a very interesting film.
An arthouse film that I like and one that might affect how people view their own relationships, is “Early Winter”, by Australian writer/director, Michael Rowe. “Early Winter”, opened in France and Canada this month. I was lucky enough to be the Australian producer on this Canadian-Australian co production. It will be in cinemas in Australia in April 2016.
Thanks for talking to us!