Discovering Ghosts with Donna McRae - May 2013
Interview by: Ronny

Donna McRae's "Johnny Ghost" is an indie flick that has been gaining attention in the festival circuit for being a personal story that many can relate to. Her focus on ghosts in the movie stands out from almost any other film we've seen, but above all the movie makes you think about your past life and mistakes. The idea of interviewing her came early after watching the film, and I finally now got the thumbs out of my rear end to do it.

Thanks for doing this interview with us. You started acting already in the 90's, but never seemed to pursue it as a career. What was it that kept you from that, and instead got you to start making movies yourself?
After I graduated from Drama School I had a few good acting jobs and then it got harder to get roles – so I naively thought that I would start writing them for myself ! As soon as I started I found that I really liked writing so my interest shifted to screenwriting. It wasn’t until I did a residency in Sydney a few years later that a mentor suggested that I direct the work myself. The next year I enrolled in the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) film school and never looked back!

Did you know already as a young girl that you wanted to do something with film or art in general?
Yes. I was just telling my husband this morning that at primary school I would put on performances for my class mates (they would have HATED it) - they were sort of interpretative dances to The Peer Gynt Suite etc. I used to play the piano, do ballet, sing in the school choir until I hit my teenage years and it was punk bands and art. I was in a few bands and one of them was a sort of punk cabaret band where I got to play a character. That got me interested in acting so one thing led to another and I went to drama school... you now know the rest.

Prior to your feature "Johnny Ghost", you made a couple of short films. What can you tell me about these? Do they share any of the themes in "Johnny Ghost"?
My first film at film school was "She Wants to Play" which was about a ghost girl that appears to the kids who live in a house. Then I played with the notion of "long takes" and made a short called "The Usherette" which was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting "New York Movie". I was working in a cinema at the time so it was easy to get the location. It was about a lonely woman whose life revolved around the cinema (autobiographical?). So both these shorts did pave the way for "Johnny Ghost". I have made a few other shorts and I guess, looking back, they were great try outs for cinema form.

What pushed you to make "Johnny Ghost" a feature instead of another short film?
I felt that I was ready to make a longer film. The ideas that I had for "Johnny" were fairly complex and if they had only a 10-15 minute timeframe it would have been overloaded. I also wanted the film to have ‘air’. For the viewer to get involved with Millicent and go with her on her excruciating journey I needed time to allow this to happen. I also love long takes and I knew that the film would just be more effective in a longer form. I also wanted to set myself the challenge of making a more substantial work – I was doing a PhD at the time on "cinema ghosts" and knew that there was a lot of research that would feed into the film to make it believable and to be read on many levels.

Did any film or filmmaker in particular inspire you in the making of the feature?
I looked at Roman Polanski’s "Repulsion", Kieslowski’s "Three Colours: Blue", Francois Ozon’s "Under the Sand", Phillipe Garrel’s "Frontier of Dawn", J.A. Bayonas’s "The Orphanage", and last but not least Jack Clayton’s "The Innocents". These films all featured women who were suffering some sort of Cryptic Incorporation (when grieving is left incomplete). I was also inspired by Ursula Dabrowksy and her film "Family Demons". It is amazing what filmmakers can do on a low budget. There is so much that you can say within the horror genre – it has such rhetorical force. I looked many films in this period but they were the main ones that really inspired me.

In your movie your lead is coming from a punk past. Are you a big music and punk fan yourself? If so, do you listen to music to help you creatively in your filmmaking?
I am a big music fan. I don’t go to live music as much as I used to, but it has always been a big part of my life. When I was a teenager, the punk movement really turned my whole world around. I was very lucky to get that vintage footage of The Birthday Party (feat Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey) in my film. The fantastic soundtrack was composed by Dave Graney and Clare Moore, who are luminaries of the independent music scene here in Australia, which stemmed from the punk scene. Some of the most memorable concerts I have seen have been this year - we went to see Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds a few months ago when they toured here – and they were fantastic. We also saw Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono band in Berlin in February when JG was in a festival there. It was her 80th birthday and her son Sean led the band. It was amazing. We felt very privileged to see this great artist. I also saw Chic last year. That was fantastic also. I have diverse tastes!!

The idea of growing up, never truly leaving your past behind and constantly being haunted by it is very present in "Johnny Ghost". Is this something you've experienced yourself and maybe even drew inspiration from?
I mentioned before that I was doing a Phd – well, one of the things I looked into was Cryptic Incorporation. This is a condition that Hungarian Psychiatrists Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok investigated from Freud’s writings, where grieving is left incomplete. The person cannot move on and process the death of someone close. Miss Havisham in Charles Dicken’s "Great Expectations" is a great example. She was stuck at the time of her lover jilting her before her wedding. I felt that it was a fantastic theme for a film – in fact it set a precedent for many good ghost films. Also, in that post-punk scene that I was talking about before, there were many deaths by heroin. I kind of put the two things together – and asked the question – How would you feel if you accidentally caused the death of someone you knew? When I go past those roadside memorials, I always wonder about the people that were left behind and have to live with themselves – the ones that drove the car, the train etc that have killed someone and it wasn’t their fault. That’s basically how it all came about. It wasn’t my own story – but, obviously, there is some of me in there – I wrote it. It’s interesting how the film affects an audience. After screenings, someone usually comes up to me, very upset, and shares that it could have been about them, or they have lost someone in that way. I wasn’t quite expecting that, but I’m glad it has moved people.

How did the pre-production process go? Where did you look for cast and crew, where did you get the budget from, how long before you finally pushed to make the film, etc.?
I used the scholarship that I got from the Phd to fund the film. It wasn’t much but it was enough to pay for the camera, cast, crew and some post. I wrote most roles for actors I knew, and auditioned for two roles. The Phd was four years so I wrote the film in the 2nd year, shot it in the third year (over ten days) and then edited it in the third and fourth year (while doing the academic writing). That was the main reason to do the PhD – to get a scholarship to make the film!!

What were the hardest parts during pre-production, production and post-production?
Everything was hard! Because I had so little money I had to produce it myself so I had to do everything. Pre-production was stressful, but easier because I knew what had to be done so I just did it. I had deliberately written the film for the locations I knew I could get (usually for free) so that was good. Also I had written a film with only a few characters so that was a plus also! I knew I wanted Anni Finsterer as the lead as I had seen her perform before but I had to track her down on Facebook! She lived in Sydney and we were filming in Melbourne so my production assistant kindly let her have his flat and he stayed with his neighbour! How generous was that? The shoot went quite well, in fact we made up time! Many people contributed to that though, from friends and neighbours who cooked cakes, lent us props etc. The tattoo stamp we had made up that Millicent has didn’t work though – so Michael Vale, the Production Designer had to draw it on Anni every time it was seen. And other little things went wrong like the mannequin wouldn’t sink etc. but nothing too bad. In Post-Production nothing really went wrong – again I was editing it myself so it was down to me. It took a year though. That was bad enough. After about 6 months, I left it for two months over the summer, which proved the best thing I could have done. Then I came back and just finished it off – the break had given me a fresh look at it, and things that I thought were important weren’t anymore.

How has the film been received by reviewers, festivals and the audience?
I call "Johnny Ghost" the little film that could. Until now it has had 10 international festival screenings, 6 international awards, 4 reviews that have been amazingly good and the audience seem to be moved by it. I have had really nice comments from people that have seen it. We are ecstatic – for such a very small film, it has gone a long way.

When and how will it be distributed and what festivals can people see it at?
I have just got North American VOD distribution which is very exciting, so it will be available in America, Canada and also Mexico in a couple of months. I am organizing Australian distribution at the moment. I am looking for European distro though... any ideas? It will be shown in Poland on June 16th at Kiloff, and hopefully more screenings to be announced soon.
I will update with all the details as soon as they come out.

You've made a very gripping, personal film on a small scale. Do you have any advice to people interested in pursuing filmmaking and maybe especially about making something out of the ordinary?
My advice would be to keep going, keep doing it. It’s really hard but you have to believe in yourself and know that only you can tell your story. The great thing about ultra low budget and no budget filmmaking is that you can tell the story that you want to tell. In many ways that’s a luxury. I would say find people that want to go on the journey with you, treat them VERY well (if you can pay them something that will make them happy) and collaborate. Collaboration is the key to making something this way. There is no space for primadonna’s in no budget filmmaking. It’s too hard. Everyone has ideas that can make the project better, so listen. You will still be the director, but you will have a team that works well together and will do the next one!

What's next for Donna McRae?
I am working on a film with my husband Michael Vale called "Le Chien qui Fume – A Smokey Life" ( which is an art project of his that has developed over 10 years into a feature film. We have just shot the trailer for that one. And I am writing a Ghost Western! I am very excited about that.

Finally, do you have anything else you want to say?
Thank you Ronny for seeking out "Johnny Ghost" and writing so eloquently about it. You do such a great service to independent films and filmmakers.

Our review of "Johnny Ghost" can be found here.

Other interesting links if you want to keep track on Donna McRae:
Johnny Ghost on Twitter
Johnny Ghost's Facebook Page


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