Interview with Poppy Stockell
Poppy Stockell is a multi award winning film and television director, writer and producer with a penchant for stories exploring human interest, identity and humour. She has directed and produced for many of Australia’s major broadcasters. Scrum is her second feature documentary.
Where did you get the idea for Scrum?
Way back in 2006 I worked on a documentary about two teams competing in the Bingham Cup, the Sydney Convicts and the San Francisco Fog and I went to New York with the Convicts for their first ever Bingham Cup win. Fast-forward eight years and the Sydney Convicts won the right to host the 2014 Cup. Andrew 'Fuzz' Purchas asked me if I was interested in producing an hour of 'highlights' from the tournament. I jumped at the chance to work with the guys again but this time round I wanted to push myself as a filmmaker and storyteller. By roping in the best collaborators I could find, I wanted to move away from a straight up sports doc and instead create something visually and aurally immersive. The two main film references were Leviathan, the documentary on commercial fishing, and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.
What was the hardest part of making this documentary?
Working full time at the same time as production and postproduction, it was a bit of a nightmare but a total necessity because the budget was so tight. Apart from the tournament itself, I limited shooting to training and game days only, so Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday. The edit was intense and slightly insane. The editor, Jason Last, flew out from Paris over summer and stayed with us. He’d cut when I was at work and then we’d work together into the night and on the weekend. My girlfriend got completely fed up with our dining table being used as an edit suite.
Did you have a key message you wanted to get across?
The Sydney Convicts are the first gay rugby club in Australia so they are a bright beacon for men in Australia and all over the world who want to play rugby but have been excluded or bullied in other clubs. Naturally.
I wanted to explore homophobia in sport and it is fertile ground! Aki, the closeted Japanese rugby obsessive, Googled ‘gay + rugby’ and found the Sydney Convicts. He saved for two years before booking a one-way ticket to Sydney. He arrived on a Wednesday, started training on the Thursday and played his first game on the Saturday, with very patchy English skills I might add. Each and every player has a story of how they came to be at the club, but as I became more involved in their lives, the documentary shifted focus and the film became more a study of masculinity than of sexuality. 'Sissies' can play as hard and as rough on the paddock as any of the toughest blokey blokes.
You directed and produced this film mostly with funding from the Sydney Convicts. Could you tell us about the production experience of this film – how was it making a film about the main investors?
I knew I didn’t want to make a promotional video for the club even thought it might inadvertently become one. To clarify, the club did a huge fundraising campaign to host the Bingham Cup and big corporate partners came onboard, the money for the documentary came out of that pool. I negotiated before pre production that I had complete editorial control and once I got that in writing I was good to go. Andrew ‘Fuzz’ Purchas, the founder of the Club and now Executive Producer of the film, literally transferred the money into my account and said ‘see you at the sound mix’. It was a bit of a dream, just me and my amazing crew and a wad of cash in the bank. There was a lot of trust.
The score in Scrum is very evocative and composed by Colin Steton (12 Years a Slave), can you tell us how this came about and why you went in this direction?
I saw Colin perform at the Sydney Festival in 2014 and was completely blown away by his performance. If you’re not familiar with his music, he plays the saxophone like it’s a didgeridoo or yidaki in that he circular breathes. He also mics his throat and keys so he’s playing and singing and drumming all at the same time. It’s hauntingly beautiful and became the temp soundtrack to the film before I’d even approached him to score. Luckily he’s a good friend of my Quebecois girlfriend and he had a window of time between scoring another film and touring. Directing him was not only intimidating but nerve wracking. He creates his music in single takes and doesn’t create stems, so any slight change means a whole new recording. It was fantastic lesson for me to be very direct and upfront about what I wanted and not mince my words - a valuable lesson for any director.
Margaret Pomeranz has previously asked you about the film’s “female gaze” as this film gives positions of power to the female crew who, in a way, objectify the male subjects of the documentary – can you talk on this?
Objectify?! That’s a bit harsh! I certainly wasn’t shy in using the camera to explore masculinity emotionally and physically and I was conscious that as a female filmmaker directing and looking through the lens, I was intentionally subverting the ‘male gaze’. As the film explores the vulnerability of the players, I wanted to show them literally in their most vulnerable physical form, naked, free of mouth guards, sports body armour, underpants and helmets, all gone. Also these players are probably in the best physical form of their lives, they are training twice a week, playing at least once a week; I wanted to celebrate that dedication. I also knew who my primary audience are – gay – men and of course they want to see some flesh.
The film premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. How important have festivals been in lifting the film’s profile, and what have you learnt?
Having a festival plan is incredibly important. Of course you’re thrilled when a festival, any festival wants to screen your film, but it’s prudent to choose your premiere wisely. We were lucky to have our premiere at Sheffield Documentary Festival. There we met and later sold the film to CBC and RTE and it was invited to screen at several festivals including the Iris Prize in Wales.
The film also opened the Iris Prize, can you tell us about that experience?
Opening the Iris Prize with Scrum in Wales during the Rugby World Cup was amazing. The festival is like a big family and meeting filmmakers from around the world is always a great cross-pollinating experience. I was invited to be apart of the jury deciding which short film would win £20,000 to make their next short, so for a week with eight other jury members, I was immersed in shorts and discussions and argument, it was an absolute honour and a ton of fun.
Scrum is also screening at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, how do you feel about it screening to its hometown audience?
There’s nothing like a home crowd. Being able to screen your film in front of family, friends and peers is one of the most exciting things I know. Plus the Convicts are in Sydney so the energy in the theatre will no doubt be electric.
Tickets to Scrum at Mardi Gras Film Festival: http://tix.queerscreen.org.au/session_mgff.asp?sn=Scrum&s=79