In this fascinating interview with Close-up Culture, Sydney-born director and screenwriter Madeleine Gottlieb gives us insight into Snare, her latest short film, and her interest in exploring contemporary masculinity.
Q: I’ve heard wonderful things about ‘Snare’. First, why did you choose the film to be set in 1997?
A: That’s very kind, thank you! Snare is slice-of-life exploration of how unsettling it can be when our parents stop behaving like parents. It raises questions around whose dreams are worth supporting, and whether young people are the only ones allowed to recklessly pursue those dreams.
With that in mind, it felt crucial in story terms that for a father to beg for his son’s help musically, it had to be the only option available to him. He had to be desperate. There was no Spotify in 1997, no real consumer internet. If a 50 year-old dad decided to become a punk musician, he couldn’t just record a demo and drop it online – he had to know someone, who knew someone, who could get that record into the right hands. So what if the only someone he knew was his own son?
On top of that, punk music was huge in Japan in the 1990s. MTV Japan was founded in 1992 and really started taking off a few years later – so it felt honest to us that this scrappy little band from Sydney might garner enough international traction to be offered a tour by the late 90s.
On a personal level, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I have always connected to narratives that use the past to facilitate themes that feel urgent and ‘now’. To me, those stories speak more deeply to the universality of human experience. I was born in ’92 and grew up with Discmans and Razor scooters. I went to old suburban Chinese restaurants with my own dad and knew the chef by name. My whole team and I were excited at the prospect of incorporating pieces of our own childhoods into the aesthetic language of the film.
Q: As in your first film (‘I F***ed A Mermaid And No One Believes Me’), ‘Snare’ involves a father-son relationship. What interests you about that relationship? And what further themes did you want to explore through this relationship?
A: I’m deeply fascinated by the fraught nature of masculine relationships and issues around filial responsibility and paternalism, but there’s this expectation placed on female filmmakers to only tell stories about women. It can be a challenge, I think, to say: “no, what I’m really interested in doing is examining masculinity from a female perspective”.
Through Snare, my co-writer James Fraser and I were interested in exploring the idea of parental and especially paternal sacrifice – and the way that tenderness between men (even those connected by blood) can flip on a dime. James’ dad lost his job in 2017 and saw it as a sign that he should finish the novel he’d started writing in university. James was torn between wanting to tell him to go for it, and the potential ramifications of losing his family’s breadwinner.
We became obsessed with the idea that every person has, at some point, had the troubling realisation their parents aren’t these infallible, mythic creatures – but rather just scared children stumbling around in adult-suits trying to figure it all out with the rest of us. We had long discussions about this and thought there was an important conversation to be had around what it means to support our parents and why it can be so hard to simply return their belief in us.
Q: You got to work closely with two actors from different generations. What was it like collaborating with Steve Rodgers and James Fraser on this project?
A: I mean… unbeatable.
Snare is such a personal story for James and I feel so grateful that he trusted me to tell it alongside him. First and foremost he’s a beautiful actor. He’s been in front of the camera since he was 11 years old so is very disciplined, but at the same time super funny, frighteningly intelligent and a consummate artist. He’s also my partner and frequent creative collaborator, and we have a shorthand that makes working together a real joy. We’d been trying to find a project for me to direct him in for a while and Snare was an obvious choice.
We spent 3-4 months refining the script, and once it was done the challenge became finding an actor to play opposite him who had enough control and technical craft to handle the emotional twists and reversals without losing the audience.
Then we saw an extraordinary play called You Got Older – and we knew it couldn’t be anyone except Stevie Rodgers. He’s the kind of actor who gets straight to the guts of a thing, can have you laughing and crying in the same sentence and leave you reeling long after curtain. We sent him the script and when he said yes I screamed. Stevie’s also a writer in his own right and cares so deeply about story as an art form. As a director all you can hope is for an actor to engage with your work the way he did with ours.
I remember sitting opposite both of them during our first meeting and talking about character. We all felt that the lynchpin of any worthwhile story is a character you can get behind. I watched Stevie and James laughing together so easily and I thought: “Okay. I’ve got two of those. We’re going to be okay. We have a film here”.
Q: ‘Snare’ takes place in a Chinese food restaurant. Can you talk about the setting and working with cinematographer Grégoire Lière to get the most out of it?
A: Grégoire is an extraordinary cinematographer. He has a beautiful eye, is tireless in his commitment and care and always prioritises story. Both he and I also happen to be huge foodies. We love the way rituals around eating reveal so much about people and place, particularly in cinema – so it was a bit of a dream collaboration.
Growing up, my family ate at the same suburban Chinese restaurant with a small group of friends every Sunday night. As I’ve grown older, that routine has evolved to become something my dad and I do whenever we get together: catch up, order too much and eat it all. Grégoire, our production designer Diva Abrahamian, producer Tom Slater and I were determined to find a location with the same timeless, lived-in quality of those suburban family-run joints we’d all been to with our own parents.
We spent countless hours (seriously, countless) driving and eating. I can safely say that I’ve eaten in every Chinese restaurant in the greater Sydney area, but when we walked into Wah Shing and saw the fish tank, the pearlescent mint walls and peach tablecloths – that was it. It was the perfect size; spacious enough to feel empty and run-down, but not so roomy as to feel cavernous, and the little window into the kitchen was ideal for our opening.
We were hyper-aware of the potential pitfalls of making what is essentially a 14-minute dialogue scene set in one location, so were committed to making the space feel like a world unto itself. It had to feel transplanted straight from the 90s, but also as though it might have existed before that, and might exist forever. We shot on vintage Cooke anamorphic lenses to pique the sense of nostalgia we all love, but we avoided flaring or anything too visually tricksy. It had to feel lost in time, but still real.
Diva found these amazing little match boxes and glass ashtrays which she dressed onto every table because 90s. Unfortunately they don’t get their cameo in the film but I had to mention them because she’s a genius. She also spent 2 hours at the fish market on a Saturday morning choosing the perfect snapper for the filleting scene.
Q: Because of the drumming, I couldn’t help but think of ‘Whiplash’ while watching the teaser for ‘Snare’. What is your favourite music-related film?
A: Too many to list but I’ll give it a red-hot go: Control. We Are The Best. The Decline of Western Civilisation. This is Spinal Tap. Ladies and Gentlemen; The Fabulous Stains. Amadeus. Almost Famous. I’m Not There. Singin’ in the Rain (not really music-related, but had to sneak it in). High Fidelity. The Devil and Daniel Johnston. 24 Hour Party People. Breaking Glass. Times Square. Stop Making Sense. Last Days. And… yeah… Whiplash gets a run too!
Q: I also hear that you are a Bruce Springsteen fan. Can you talk about your connection to The Boss and to music more generally?
A: I was raised listening to the greats but I quit saxophone when I was 15 and can’t hold a tune to save my life. I wish I could. I’m fascinated by the mythology of the rockstar – so I figure if I can’t be one, I may as well make films about them.
And, look, I just love The Boss. His music taps into something primal inside me. I’m not sure if it’s the poetic storytelling, or the fact that he is a disruptor of sorts. I think I read somewhere that his great theme is the “self-preserving determination with which people embrace unrealities”. I love that idea – and you need only go watch him play a 4 hour set tirelessly at the age of 68 to understand it.
For me, his music is about hope against all the odds; hope for the individual and hope for society. And yes, that’s totally corny. But I’m a bit corny myself.
Q: ‘Snare’ screened at SXSW and will be shown at Tribeca. What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
A: My hope is that what people take away from the film will depend on where they’re at in life and in their relationships with their own parents. The few friends I’ve shown the film to have had completely different reactions. Some people empathise with Steve, others can’t believe a father would ever be so ‘selfish’.
After our screening at SXSW, we had people approach us saying that they are going through exactly the same thing with their fathers right now. Others told us that after watching it they immediately called their dads just to say hi. I LOVE this.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey as a filmmaker? What inspired you to get behind the camera?
A: I had an extraordinary English teacher in high school – David Montefiore – who really changed my relationship to cinema and how I viewed it. We finished the Grade 11 syllabus a semester early, so he introduced a new unit called ‘Cool Texts’, which was essentially just an excuse for him to show us his favourite films and explain why he loved them. And thank god he did.
I remember sitting in a classroom full of other 16 year olds watching Plan 9 From Outer Space and thinking: “what the f*** is this”. The whole semester blew my mind. It was the first time I’d ever engaged with cinema on an intellectual level and I loved it. He gave us long lists of films to watch, and directors to explore and it changed everything for me.
Fast forward three years to university and I was plodding my way through a Law degree. I decided to intern at a film production company to alleviate some of the boredom, and was lucky enough to be offered a full-time job shortly after. I worked in production for 3 years before directing my first short film with the support of my close friends and producers Liam Heyen & Cyna Strachan.
I’m currently working at a wonderful company called Revlover Films with producers Martha Coleman, Michael Ritchie and Lauren Edwards whilst making my own work on the side. They’ve been so supportive of my writing and directing and I’m incredibly grateful.
Q: What are you up to next? What type of films do you hope to make in the future?
A: I’d like to make bold, character-driven stories – always a little offbeat, always told with heart.
James and I are currently working on the first draft of our feature film adaptation of Snare, and we’re shooting our next short film Laura with Grégoire, Diva and our other regular collaborators right after we return from Tribeca.
I’m also working on an anthology web-series about masculinity entitled MASC with five other award-winning Australian female writer/directors, and I have two other feature projects in early development.