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Five Questions with Nadia Tass

30 September 2021

Director Nadia Tass on the set of Pure Luck (1991)

Nadia Tass is one of Australia’s most respected and unique filmmakers. Known for directing Australian classics such as Malcolm, The Big Steal and Amy. Nadia has directed films for major studios in Hollywood and her film work has garnered 68 international awards including some at Cannes Film Festival, Milan International Film Festival, Busan Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, BFI London.

1. Was there a specific film or event that inspired you to become a director?

I was going to be a director from when I was a child. There was a lot of storytelling and theatre work in my family, so I was introduced to storytelling on the stage from very young. As an actress I was learning the craft of what my future actors were going to be doing, and I was earning money to put myself through directing school. Since I was 4 years of age, I knew I wanted to bring the stories to life, I wanted to direct the story on the simple structure of a stage that was in my backyard.

2. Malcolm was the first features you directed and went on to win the 1986 Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film, and seven other AFI awards including Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Did you expect Malcolm to be a roaring success?

What I was hoping for was that Malcolm, which was a very important film/story for me, was going to communicate clearly to an audience. I was hoping for maximum appreciation of the film. I didn’t expect that it would connect with so many different cultures and individuals around the globe. Yes it has interesting gadgets that I love, but at its core it’s a human story, I guess that’s why it both entertained and connected so widely.

3. Malcolm has been described to have ‘offbeat Australian humour’. What do you believe makes Australian humour so unique and even more fantastic on screens?

This is the fascinating thing. We in Australia see that it’s very Australian, we see ourselves in the character’s behaviour and in their decisions and we recognise that the situations are funny. We laugh at how real, and absurd and at how clearly we are depicted with the characters and in this story. The whole tapestry of the movie is reflected in the mirror that we hold up and see ourselves in.

Because this is an Australian film we can say its quintessentially Australian humour, however, the French see it as very French humour, and very French characters and situations. In my travels around the world, I found that wherever the movie was playing the people of that culture related to it. The Japanese said it had captured the ‘Japanese spirit’ and the English said it was like their Ealing Comedies. Malcolm has a cinematic language that communicates beyond its cultural boundaries. I’m really happy that people recognise the Australian humour, but I am also thrilled, that it has been appreciated as a comedy beyond Australian boundaries.

Watching the movie play around the world, I realised it represents everybody, people see themselves in the narrative and the characters because it is not about a culture, but it is about the human condition. The humour comes from the situations and the intersection of the specific characters in each scene. The humour is never at the expense of the characters.

Of course, the landscape is Australian and the characters can be identified as quintessentially Australian, but it’s kind of amazing how comedy that’s human based and authentic to the human condition can reach many diverse cultures. The humour is not pushed, the humour is based on each character being fully focussed in their own orbit.

4. The Big Steal is the perfect coming-of-age tale. What do you believe can make or break a coming-of-age tale?

It really depends on each individual case. With The Big Steal, it is important to recognise the truth and the individual desire of each of the characters, and how they pursue their needs. The humour comes from the intersections of the individual characters needs. Even though there are many coming of age stories, their styles could be very different, and the downfall or asset for each movie can come from a different place.

The young actors in The Big Steal are hugely talented. It’s clear from the way each of their careers has blossomed on an international scale that the assembly of actors in The Big Steal is extraordinary. They gave what this movie needed to work. And each actor in this movie was wonderful to work with – Sheer Joy.

5. What is the most useful lesson you have learnt in your career?

To keep pursuing my vision, and not be dissuaded by momentary fads. Throughout the various stages of making a movie, many people will have opinions about the work as it’s being created, some opinions will be relevant and some opinions not. At the end of the day what matters is the movie is made and it works. It is testament to the whole creative team and the actors, when the audiences understand the movie and are entertained by it.

Nadia Tass is currently working on her latest film OLEG, a Russian / American co-production which is playing the International festival circuit – and also shooting an American film in Italy.

The Big Steal (1990) and Malcolm (1986) are both out on Blu-ray and part of Umbrella’s Sunburnt Screens collection – with 4k restoration and never before seen extra features.