Deadly stage and screen legend Leah Purcell is firing on all cylinders
Leah Purcell is a multi-award-winning and self-made author, playwright, actor, director, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, showrunner, and deadly legend of the stage and screen. Leah brings an urgency, heart and drive to the female and First Nation themes, characters and issues that she has brought to life in 30 years of show business. With her first feature film set for its World Premiere this month, we spoke with Leah about her incredible career and the story behind The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.
As a multi-award winner, you’ve become a pioneering role model for all women that demonstrates how to give a voice to race and gender equity in the industry. Have you always set out to challenge the status quo and to be a leader?
I don't really set out to go into battle. What I try to do is make sure that the story I tell is going to entertain and move my audience, and I do have a voice, this is an opportunity that has been given as an Indigenous woman, a First Nations woman, at the time I was born.
And where did you find your voice and the drive to tell your stories?
I get my will and determination from my grandmother, who was part of the Stolen Generation, and also my mother who came from what I call a lost generation. My mother wasn’t allowed to have a voice; as a black woman she wasn’t allowed culture, and she wasn’t allowed language. In her time, they really wanted to assimilate [Aboriginal people] into the rest of the world, but she always voiced her opinion, and she’s a great storyteller. I get my will from them.
What makes a good storyteller?
To become a good storyteller, you have to be a listener first.
I was a good listener. If you don’t hear the stories they don’t stay in your memory. You know you can sit two kids down, and one will be engaged and listen, and the other one doesn't. The one that can listen to stories and retain them is on to their path to become the storyteller.
You’ve mentioned that you prefer to educate with authenticity and truth rather than wagging the finger and being overtly political in how you tell a story, and your new film, The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson deals with heavy content of racism and sexism. How do you find a balance between the politics of a story and taking the audience on a journey with you?
If I set out with all that in my headspace, I’d run a mile, but if you are born black in this country you are political anyway, and it’s taking a viewpoint that I often saw from a white male perspective, those leading the country and not knowing anything about Aboriginal people, and I saw an opportunity that if I could share my family story and bring about understanding to people and give them my side of the story, and I love to tell stories.
I want to tell stories and I culturally need to tell stories because I come from a long line of storytellers. It’s in my DNA to take that gift and do something with it. It comes from an emotional place, a place of truth, a place of experience, and that’s what drives me, that’s why I do what I do, and I guess this is where I get my gift from and my love of telling stories.
The film centres on the Aboriginal perspective and story of Molly Johnson that was marginalised in the Henry Lawson original; it’s a story that you’ve had on the boil for many years, first as a stage play and then as a novel, and it’s one that has a deep connection to your family. How does it feel to finally take the director’s chair for your first feature and to show it to Australian audiences and beyond?
I've been in this industry now for 30 years; for 15 years I’ve been directing and producing my own little shorts and it was time for this story to be told on screen. I had tried to go earlier with the film, but the powers that be obviously wanted me to get more runs on the board, and the wait is over and it’s worth it. I’ve given it everything, and I'm not going please everybody, lovers and haters, but I know that I've worked so hard. And I believe in it.
I believe in Australian audiences and Australian people will love it. We want our own stories, we want our identity to be put up there on the screen and that's what's exciting about this new world as we all come out of COVID. There is more of a community feel around things now and that’s going to enhance our support for who we are as Australians.
I hope that extends to the arts because it's been the arts that have kept people sane through these crazy times, and I hope people remember that support from the industry – that they support the industry in return and support us.
You’ve had a few screenings already. How have people reacted – did anything surprise you?
We've had a few investor screenings and with a few friends and some strangers. What's been really beautiful is that young men have really connected to the film, which was very, very surprising. The title of the film is about a The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, it is about a woman, and it might not appeal to that audience, but it's not just a chick flick, it’s action packed and has a real thriller element to it.
As you know, you go on a heartfelt journey when you’re in the cinema. I’m also so excited about the soundscape of the production that will blow people away, because what we did with the music is unexpected. People are going to love it or hate it. I love it!
Tell us about the dream time theory or storytelling song line theory you weaved into the production.
I’m proud about the dream time theory, the storytelling songline theory in the film - the black culture - and I'm not talking about dreaming stories that I made up. The storytelling and songline theory in the film are about the structure of how someone's experienced something, how someone's witnessed it, how someone's told it, how someone receives it and retells, these stories are generational stories. I’ve had a few lecturers on Indigenous Film view my film already and they got what I was doing and that was really exciting. Yes!
That element is there for Indigenous mobs, because they will know that cycle within circles of the story, and it’s an opportunity to break it down for other people in the audience of what that means, the Blackfella way.
Everything from the character to the music is someone’s songlines, the essence of them. It’s like a weaving, like a blanket, where all these stories are woven together. This story comes from an Australian classic, from my mother, to my reimagining of something that looks into an Indigenous woman's eyes, which gives you the other side to what was told by Henry Lawson, and giving women, and this particular woman, a voice. I can't wait.
As part of sharing this story you wanted to educate people who may not have heard the loaded terms ‘octoroons’ and ‘quadroons’. Can you share the significance of these words to you with our readers?
In the film and the novel there is a very big point about the word octoroon and quardroons, and those words were on my grandfather, grandmother and mother’s paper – Aboriginal people were very documented in those days and those are the word the Government of the times used. They used to belittle people because of their ‘mixed blood’, to say you weren’t a real black or a real Aboriginal, ‘why bother with that side?’ and they were used to divide. When you have people using those terms it comes from Stolen Generation days when children were taken away to schools to be taken away to assimilate and forget about their blackness.
For me when that word appears on screen that is my grandmother, that's my grandmother's story. She was Stolen Generation and that's what she was, and it certainly builds up to strengthen determination. When you've got people saying, ‘you’re quadroon or an octoroon’, it comes from the Stolen Generation, because what they wanted you to do is to forget your identity and become white, to assimilate, and to forget about your blackness, but thank goodness for that culture and families, because you're always pulled back into it!
What is beautiful is all of us fair skinned blackfellas, who should pass over to be white, is that we hung on tooth and nail to our Aboriginal culture, and we did because that’s our foundation. When I was sorting myself out at fifteen, it was my culture that gave me my foundation, strength, spirituality, a belief system, and which filled me up with strength and determination.
I am not a cake mix; I am not a piece of ingredients. But if you need me to say that I am of Aboriginal descent and that is pleasing to your ears if that's more pleasing to you…. I am a proud black woman!
And a legend!
In your film, a real moment of character development happens for Molly in the film where she voices her pride in her family history and her identity against people using these terms to belittle her. Can you tell us a bit about it?
There is not a big explanation in the scene where Molly takes up a fight in the film, but if there are any Blackfellas in the cinema when it plays on screen they will cheer, they will jump off their chairs when they see this scene.
Prior to the moment that moment where Molly finds her voice and takes action, she has come up with that understanding and the audience will be taken along with her on that journey, and I hope people will research it further after watching the film, to understand that those words, and these were used on my grandmother. She was also called subhuman on paper, in 1910. That’s ridiculous!
What this speaks to is truth and authenticity, to my family story. I don’t want to finger wag or to judge, and what’s beautiful in the arts is you can tell this story, tell its truth. I never set out to write a film about all the issues I could think of, I did it based on my stories, and this is the story of Molly Johnson.
With its World Premiere at the prestigious South by South West (SXSW) Festival in March, how does it feel to engage global audiences with your Australian story?
It's a bit surreal. You think about these, you know world domination, and then the opportunity comes. The film comes to fruition and then it's, okay, we got a few thumbs up. To be selected in competition is so bloody good. Like, I can't wait to get this kid out and away and if the world loves her, I will be relieved.
And when can audiences in Australia see the film?
I can’t wait until we release the dates because it's like being pregnant with this kid! Having been in labour for so long and I want this kid out. I just want audiences to appreciate the hard work that goes into the film and I hope that they enjoy the performances and hear the truth in the film, anything else is a bonus after. I'm happy to be out there and shared.
I hope people like the film. It's important that we back each other’s stories and be proud of who we are and listen to each other’s stories.
What advice do you have for any females who have a dream and a story to tell?
Try to find a way to tell your story if you believe in it. Whether it's for the screen or stage or a novel, if you have an idea, write your story down.
It’s also about having the belief in yourself, and then you've got to have the passion to write it and help you bring it to fruition. It's not easy and finding the right team and having and trust and faith in everyone's ability is a big thing, and when you find those right people and they allow you to have a voice, you only get one chance in life to have a go for it.
You attempt, and attempt again, and sometimes when people realise the hard work that’s going to go into it, they might realise it’s not for them, and there is nothing wrong with that either. But as we say in Australia, give it a good hard crack and for all those women reading for International Women’s Day give it a good go. Give it a go!
As you have mentioned it’s taken 30 years in the biz to finally get your shot at directing this feature film. How do you keep pushing up this mountain?
Because I am crazy – you have to be a bit mad to be in this business. I’m a workaholic. This is all I can do. This is all I want to do. I’ve had to sacrifice so much to get here, and I hope that if everything goes well my next project won’t take as long as I’ve earned people’s trust. The proof is in the pudding. And even if it did take me another 30 years to get another film up, if that is my journey, and that is my path then that is how it has to be. Whatever has to be will be. You have to keep going. But yeah, it’s probably because I am slightly mad in a creative way.
I’ve put the hard yards in, and I have learnt along the way and I am still learning, but when I see what I have learnt come to fruition, and I see how I have developed on the page and screen, I have to acknowledge it. And to see all the young people I have worked with and mentored succeed and go forth in quicker time is awesome too, to see them blossom with something they might have learnt from me is a great thing too. As long as they put the hard yards in it’s ok.
I love the Australian industry and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. With that in mind I want to give a huge thanks to Create NSW for all of their help and support of my film. We have great storytellers and crew, and now we just need to get our audiences backing us.
What role are you dreaming up next?
I do have a lot of people showing me scripts and asking me to consider projects and that is really nice.
Now I want to focus on writing and directing and performing and acting for good roles. First, I have to birth Molly Johnson. Until she is out of that stockyard, I am responsible for her, and I haven’t been able to feel anything about writing something new with Molly still in there. With The Drover’s Wife, I still have a follow-up novel and TV show to do. So, when Molly is born my next role is to lay down on a beach and be a lady of leisure 10 or 20 years down the track.
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is coming to Australian cinemas 14 October.
Image: Leah Purcell. The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. Photo by John Platt.