15th ÉCU Film Festival | 2020
"The great discovery was the beautiful cinematography of a French cameraman who is based in Belle Île. Stephane Mauger had captured the wild storms that Russell so loved (and when we were there the sea was calm) so that gave the film its authenticity."
Australia's Lost Impressionist - John Russell
Who was John Russell and why has he been largely overlooked by mainstream art history?
Hi Catherine thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
For me it is a time to finish some short films as there is now more need for content on Australian television. Filming new productions is on hold for the moment but it is a great time to do some research and reflect on what films I really want to make next.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspiration?
I am generally in a rush to start the next film so it is actually an important time for reflection. I feel there is more time in the day which is rare thing.
Your film Australia's Lost Impressionist - John Russell has been selected for the 15th ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
The way I make films is on a very modest budget with a small team so it is great to feel connected with a larger community that approaches filmmaking with a similar ethos. I think this is a very special festival and it is a privilege to be included with such a great selection of films.
What has the experience been like for you making Australia's Lost Impressionist - John Russell?
Making this film has probably been one of the best experiences of my life as an independent filmmaker. It’s so rare that you get to tell a story about a significant artist who is largely unknown in his own country. And I went to France to film some of the most important aspects of the story so that was great!
Did you expect to get such a remarkable reaction to this film?
I hoped that people would discover this artist and then go in search of his work. There was major exhibition of Russell’s work on at the same time in Sydney so there was the opportunity to do this. It was really exciting to see the long queues outside the gallery after the film was broadcast.
When did you first discover John Russell and his incredible body of work?
I first saw an exhibition of his work about 20 years ago and just assumed the work was by a European artist. I was amazed to realise that he was in fact born in Sydney but spent about 40 years of his life in Europe.
What was it about his work that inspired you to want to tell his story?
Just the fact that Russell was a man who dreamt of being a painter and he followed his dreams. And he was a man of great generosity who shared his knowledge and his home with many visiting artists.
Can you tell me a little bit about Australia's Lost Impressionist - John Russell, how did this documentary come about?
The film was made possible by the first major exhibition of Russell’s work in Australia in many years. All those works he left with his daughter in Paris which ended up in a small museum in Morlaix in Britttany were finally going to be seen in Australia. With work like Russell’s you need to film the actual paintings rather than just working with still images.
Then I decided to take two mid-career artists with me to Belle- Île to walk in Russell’s footsteps. One of those artists, Luke Sciberras, had been following Russell’s work since he was a teenager.
The great discovery was the beautiful cinematography of a French cameraman who is based in Belle Île. Stephane Mauger had captured the wild storms that Russell so loved (and when we were there the sea was calm) so that gave the film its authenticity.
What was the most challenges part of making this film?
As ever, the budget! But therein also lies the freedom and independence.
Do you have a favourite John Russell painting?
I love all his work painted on Belle Île in Brittany and the work he did in the South of France especially “In the Morning, Maritimes from Antibes” painted in 1890-91.
"I always hoped that actor Hugo Weaving would be the voice of Russell and he too became smitten with Russell’s story. "
Why do you think a talent like John Russell could become so largely forgotten?
When he returned to Australia in the 1920s he left his work in Paris with this daughter. So the best of his work was not seen in Australia until recently.
Looking back what would you say has been the biggest lesson you've taken from making this film?
I think if you can find this voice of your subject that makes it so much more real. Having access to his original letters he wrote to fellow painter Tom Roberts which are held in the State Library of New South Wales was the great discovery for me. And then to find the letters he wrote to Vincent van Gogh and the letters Van Gogh wrote to him was fantastic. I always hoped that actor Hugo Weaving would be the voice of Russell and he too became smitten with Russell’s story.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I My passion has always been for the arts - sculptors, painters, architects, and writers. My job is to tell their story. And in Australia I don’t think we always treasure our great artists.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film?
Follow a story in which you believe. That is the only way you can do it.
What are you currently working on?
I have many stories in pre-production, production and post-production. I want to update a film I made on Australian architect Glenn Murcutt who at 84 years of age is doing some great work. And an Australian sculptor called Bronwyn Oliver who died at a young age but left behind a great body of work (and many letters).
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Australia's Lost Impressionist - John Russell?
Again, just that idea of life is short so you have to follow your dreams and be true to yourself. If you have a talent and a passion, pursue it at any cost.