Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison

Co-writers, Picnic at Hanging Rock

Interview by Jaclyn Bethany

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios

Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Bea, hi Alice! Where are you both originally from, and where are you based now?
Beatrix Christian: I was born in Germany and have spent most of my life in Sydney—plus a stint in Chicago—and now live in the tropical far north, in a tiny community just south of Port Douglas. It’s very beautiful, wild, and isolated. Thanks to technology, I can work anywhere.

Alice Addison: I’m from Brisbane, originally. But I came to Sydney in 1999 for film school and have stayed on, as the industry in Australia is very much based here, and it made sense career-wise.

JB: How would you describe your childhoods?
BC: Working class. Immigrant community. Books, books, books.

AA: I spent four years of my childhood in Papua New Guinea. That’s where I started school. My father is an architect and designed lots of big civic projects up there, like a theater in the highlands and a headquarters for the national coffee board. My mother worked at a local newspaper in Lae as a journalist.

JB: When did each of you know you wanted to be a writer?
BC: I suppose as soon as I understood what being a writer meant. Early teens? I was always making up stories, often telling them out loud in my bedroom–to no one. But I didn’t connect my ‘made-up’ stories to being a writer. My first attempt at a novel was an homage to Samuel Beckett. Then I tried to be a poet….It took a while to understand that my own imagination and voice would have to be the source–not other writers. Self acceptance, not aspiration. 

AA: Looking back, I wonder if those early years spent in another culture as an outsider sharpened my sense of observation. Those are the skills you draw on as a writer, I think. Though my parents always exposed me to art house movies –an early memory [consists of] being dragged as a child to a special screening of Lawrence of Arabia. It honestly didn’t occur to me that screenwriting was a job anyone actually held until I studied French at university and watched lot of films as part of that.

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios

Still courtesy of Amazon Studios

JB: I spent six months in university, studying and working in Sydney. As part of our course, we read and looked at the original film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s such a classic in the Australian film repertoire, in terms of establishing ‘Australian gothic.’ When did you first become aware of this story? 
BC: I first met the story when Peter Weir’s 1975 film was released. The images were extremely influential here–figures from English paintings lost in an Australian landscape. I had no formal awareness of genre or of how groundbreaking the film was. It was one of the many beautiful films made in that auteur era. I’m not sure I was even aware the film was an adaptation. I’d never read the novel, as we studied mostly British books when I was a student. E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence–all the repressed, angsty blokes. 

Then two years ago, I agreed to go down to Sydney to do a writer’s room at FremantleMedia. I didn’t know what the project was. I just knew it would be an all women’s room and a week in Sydney would give me a chance to hang out with my daughter. When I heard the project was Picnic, I was totally underwhelmed. Why remake it when the film’s a classic? I downloaded the novel onto my Kindle and read it in one sitting. Within a few pages, I knew why it would make a great TV series. The film is like a poem (compared to the novel, which is brief but capacious). In the film, the schoolgirls were figures in a landscape. They represented something. They had no volition. I wanted to know more about them, about all the characters. 

AA: I didn’t study Picnic at school, but lots of people I know have. I suppose I also became aware of it through Peter Weir’s film, which I probably saw for the first time when I was at film school in Sydney. It’s a haunting evocation of adolescence and my main memory of it were the visuals, as well as the tone and mood of the piece…all those white dresses drifting through the dry Australian landscape, and that ethereal, unsettling soundtrack of panpipes. The first time I read Joan Lindsay’s novel was when Fremantle approached me to see if I’d be interested in adapting it for television….all the ingredients were there, it was just [a matter of] drawing them out and expanding on them.

JB: How did the opportunity come about to create the series, and how did you begin working with Alice Addison on it? How long was the process from conception to production?BC: I met Alice in the Picnic writer’s room. She and the writer Sarah Lambert were already involved in the project. We spent a week unpacking the novel, making sure there was enough material for a series. We all wanted to make a feminist series. Although that wasn’t so much discussed, as taken for granted. Then Alice and I wrote the episodes. I wrote the first three and the final episode, and Alice wrote episodes 4 and 5. We were left very much alone. The executive producers treated us like adults. It was an idyllic year, really–I decided not to juggle other work and focus on this one project.

Alice flew up to the tropics and we worked together for a spell, walking on the beach in the late afternoons to fine tune scenes. Then, toward the end of the year, everything happened in a rush: pre-production, ‘Meet the Directors,’ deadlines: the onslaught of the real world. We had to tailor our pristine scripts to fit a bunch of different agendas! And there was an unexpected setback, because the Australian Directors Guild protested about us having a lead director–Larysa Kondracki–from Canada. A group of Aussie women directors dressed up in frocks and had a protest picnic outside the FremantleMedia offices. The project was briefly at risk, until the second director (Michael Rymer) agreed to give up one of his episodes to an Australian woman director, who happened to be based in LA. It was a confusing experience. To my mind, as women, we all had so much more in common than this ‘border’ dispute. How relevant is geography in 2018? National identity is not the same as nationalism, or parochialism. But how does it work, now, in a global context? Without becoming the worst kind of nationalism? The common enemy is surely governments–left wing and right wing– who cynically dismiss the arts as being an elitist pursuit. 

Stills courtesy of Amazon Studios   

Stills courtesy of Amazon Studios

JB: How does the new series differ from the original film? 
The series is character-driven. We’ve unpacked some of the stories that are hinted at in the novel, like Mrs Appleyard’s mysterious past. Essentially the series is based on the novel, not the film. The novel has surprisingly contemporary elements. There’s true crime and sci-fi. I’d love to know what the author, Joan Lindsay, would be writing if she was around now. It’s also funny, sly, like Jane Austen’s comedy. I can’t recommend the novel enough, really. 

AA: I think viewers can expect to learn about the girls who go missing in a way they didn’t [get to experience] in the film, as well as to understand each of these characters much more fully, particularly the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard. [We also work with] a non-linear style of storytelling–Joan Lindsay was obsessed with time, so in addition to the narrative opportunities this [project] gave us, it’s a little tribute to her.

JB: Who is your favorite character from Picnic (if you had to choose)?
It’s so hard to choose, as Joan Lindsay created so many incredible characters in the novel. Probably because I worked most closely on her story, I would say Sara, the orphan. She’s the one left behind at school on the day of the picnic and has a grit and determination that resists the role of ‘victim.’ I also love the exquisite tragedy of Irma, the heiress–the only one of the girls who was found after going missing at the Rock.

JB: Tell me about working with such a strong, female-driven cast and crew. Were they some of the actors you envisioned when writing the roles?
BC: It’s been a wonderfully female-centric project. The source material, the executive producers, the writers, the lead director, heads of departments, and the actors. The book was a uniting force–this weird story about a group of women in the middle of nowhere. When we were writing, we’d imagined an older headmistress. But that’s the beauty of collaborations. The directors loved Natalie Dormer for the role, and once shooting started, it became impossible to imagine anyone else. Natalie’s a force of nature. And the girls are wonderful, as are the young men. From the first read-through, there was a special energy. It’s a shame we can’t make a spin-off series about the lives of the girls, just so [we could] spend longer with the characters.

JB: Where was the project filmed? Was it actually filmed at Hanging Rock? 
BC: Yes, it was filmed at the Rock, unlike the film. In grand old houses around Melbourne.

JB: The series premiere saw immense success in Berlin and will be distributed worldwide. As a screenwriter, do you stay heavily involved in your projects post release? Or do you tend to move on to the next project?
BC: There’s nothing for the writer to do after it’s released–except sit back and panic. I was involved in other projects by then, and was too busy to go to Berlin or Tribeca. The series won’t be released here until early May, but I’m not so nervous now. I recently saw the completed final episodes and I think they stand up. The ending was a challenge–it had to feel satisfying, but not neat. That’s always tricky.

Storytelling comes naturally. Narratives are rarely original, but the storyteller is absolutely unique. We all have more ideas that we could possibly use in a lifetime, so don’t mourn too long if something doesn’t work out–move on. The entertainment industry is pretty disgusting, but the act of writing itself is what will sustain you. Read everything other writers say, (particularly Jill Soloway). First ideas are often generic–but if we keep working on them, they can become exceptional. I’ve never found a short-cut.

Stills courtesy of Amazon Studios

Stills courtesy of Amazon Studios

JB: What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?
BC: I worked in theater a lot; it’s totally different from film and TV. A collective intensity and intimacy in the rehearsal room–that’s very inclusive. And yet, they’re all collaborative mediums. In film, you’re generally helping a director to realize their vision. There are times when that feels appropriate, but it can be frustrating. There’s a tendency for cinema directors to ask female writers to help them realize an inner vision. But in our mind’s eye, our creations are perfect–they’re unformed, which means they have infinite potential. Once you write them down, gold becomes straw–and then the work begins, to turn straw back into gold. It can be a thankless task, and I got to a point in my career where I stopped agreeing to do it, no matter who the director was. I also found myself wondering if men get asked as often as women, to help realize someone else’s vision? 

TV is more of a writer’s medium, especially in this new era. Working on Picnic was a delight, because both Alice and I felt that our loyalty resided with Joan Lindsay and her novel. We had a very clear North Star. Without that, collaboration can be tricky–especially if there’s a dominant extrovert in the mix. Introverts rule, as far as I’m concerned. 

JB: What advice would you give to the next generation of women and non-binary people in film?
BC: Where to start? Perfectionism is the enemy. It’s okay to slip your inner critic a valium. (I recently read something fantastic about inner critics, written by a psychiatrist–that if we were at a dinner party with our inner critics, they’d be so repetitive, boorish, self-satisfied and crass that we’d leave the room after half an hour.)  

Storytelling comes naturally. Narratives are rarely original, but the storyteller is absolutely unique. We all have more ideas that we could possibly use in a lifetime, so don’t mourn too

long if something doesn’t work out–move on. The entertainment industry is pretty disgusting, but  the act of writing itself is what will sustain you. Read everything other writers say, (particularly Jill Soloway). First ideas are often generic, but if we keep working on them, they can become exceptional. I’ve never found a short-cut.

AA: Well, with writers I would say quite simply–write! It’s a great advantage we have that what we do doesn’t cost anything but time. There’s no excuse for not creating your own work, and from it, opportunities. At first, you might write scripts that aren’t much good, but the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

JB: What’s next for you both?
Larysa and I are scheming with Jo Porter from Fremantle. I can’t be more specific than that. I think I’ll be diving into a long-form series, an international co-production, which will unexpectedly provide a home for a character I’ve been wanting to develop for some years. A remarkable woman, of course. 

AA: At the moment, I’m working with producers on a couple of original projects for television, one for the UK and one for here in Australia.

JB: And finally: what is one spot in Australia that our readers should not overlook if they have a chance to visit?
AA: I would say my number one recommendation for anyone coming to Sydney is the Ladies’ Baths at Coogee. It’s a pool fed by ocean water at the base of stunning sandstone cliffs with the most amazing views out to sea. Entry is a bargain $2 and it is guaranteed to make you happy, whether you swim, or just take in the scene in which all these completely different kinds of women from utterly different walks of life come together. It really reinforces your faith in humanity.

Picnic at Hanging Rock premieres May 25 on Amazon Prime Video.