The late bloomer

"Magic is in the blooming grass,"writes Sunny Grace. Photo: Sunny Grace.

Sydney writer, producer and director Sunny Grace – a self confessed ‘late bloomer’ – outlines her path to filmmaking, in this piece for the Sentinel. 

One of the reasons I fell in love with Sydney when I first began visiting this city, in my early twenties, was the spring and summer rain. That out of nowhere drenching, followed by clear skies and clean sidewalks, and a certain smell of frangipanis freshly laundered.

I have missed those rains over the past few years of drought. Our frangipanis didn’t even flower last year.

This morning I woke up to spring rain. It reminded me of being twenty-two and visiting a boy in Sydney when I was living in Melbourne. He would go to work and I would wander the streets, marvelling at Sydney Harbour and the Royal Botanic Gardens. It really felt to me like the City of Dreams, with its dramatic views from every sudden hilltop and the equally sudden storms.

When I moved here a couple of years later, I was chasing a dream. Of writing for film and stage. My dream to become a director began when I saw two films. One was Superman. The other was High Tide. There was something about being enveloped by darkness, drawn into another world and transformed through story that electrified my imaginative young brain.

It was also seeing these complex female characters on screen. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is still burnt into my psyche, like a modern-day Katherine Hepburn. Complicated. Smart. Career driven. And literally aiming for the stars.

And High Tide, where I saw myself for the first time on screen. Claudia Karvan as a teen girl. Awkward, cutting herself shaving, often alone, dreaming.

Official trailer for the 1987 Australian film, High Tide. Video: Sydney Film Festival/YouTube.

At the age of fifteen I said it out loud: “I want to be a director.” I won a competition with a short script I wrote to attend a course called ‘Women Applying to Film School’. It was an initiative to try to get women into film schools as there was such a disparity in gender numbers.

I wanted to tell similar stories to High Tide and so the script I wrote for the workshop started with two girls in a bath and the opening line was: “I’ve slept with you”. They work out the six degrees of separation of their sexual activity. It was the height of the AIDS pandemic and I wanted to make a film with a message about staying safe by using protection.

Being my first attempt at filmmaking, I chose a shot in the final bedroom scene of a condom. It was sledgehammer filmmaking at its finest. The judges, two women now very prominent in the filmmaking community, commented offhandedly that perhaps there was space for me as a commercial director. I was mortified. I had imagined winning Oscars for arthouse films. Little did I know then that Oscar winners are not often arthouse anyway.

And with that, I started to doubt my talents. I decided to focus on acting and writing instead. Harassment was rife in the acting world and before long I decided to give that up too.

Then life happened and I went to university and studied literature and media studies. I got a job at a film company as a production assistant. Worked my way up the ladder to become a producer and start my own production company, ironically producing advertising shoots.

With two young kids, time was scarce. I kept secretly writing but lacked the confidence to show anyone. Eventually, I joined a writer’s group and felt safe to share with them but was always disappointed with my own work. However, I never gave up on my love of words. Of Writing. Of reading.

At the age of forty-three, I went to NIDA to study the Master of Fine Arts in Performance Writing to try to kickstart my dormant goal. Since then my stage play The Angelica Complex has been staged. I wrote directed and produced an award winning short film called Trigger Happy. A bit of a drought followed as I went through some personal and mental health issues. Sometimes I felt like giving up. Then as I was gaining momentum, Covid hit.

I am grateful it was winter when we went into lockdown. After my operation and recuperation (see ‘Alexandria Skies’) I hunkered down and got back to work. Writing, developing ideas and doing online workshops about pitching.

Last month, it all paid off when I won a film pitching competition presented by AACTA and Mini. The prize is money to make my short film Charging. Of course, now I have to make the film. The pressure is on to make it as good as I can. Redemption for the short film I made in that workshop all those years ago. Although now I am not so hard on myself. I have learnt if you aim for perfection, you will probably not try at all. I am aiming for a mix of arthouse, beautiful, commercial and uplifting. Something Australian filmmakers are not renowned for.

The sun is out again and the colours of the streets and plants are more vibrant. The dust of the past few dry weeks washed away. The scent of jasmine in the air. Even the grass is flowering this year. Hopefully the frangipanis will bloom again. I’m not giving up and neither should they.

Magic is in the blooming grass. And that’s not a reference to being a hippy kid. Although there is a story about that – for another time perhaps.

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