News 23.11.22

FIRST NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: NEW SOUTH WALES WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER DARLENE JOHNSON

Award-winning Writer, Director and Producer Darlene Johnson hails from the east-coast Dunghutti people of NSW. Darlene is the inaugural recipient of the Deutsche Bank First Nations Creative Fellowship presented by the Sydney Film Festival in 2021. She has worked on many iconic Australian screen productions for film and TV including Stolen Generations, Stranger in my Skin, Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Gulpilil – One Red Blood, The Redfern Story, Home and Away, The Heights and Neighbours.

Darlene recently directed TV shows for Australia’s National Broadcaster, ABC, including Aquarius Films’ Born to Spy (2021) which was picked up by the BBC, and was 2nd Unit Director, as well as doing a Director and Producer placement on the new TV series Savage River (2022)

Screen NSW caught up with Darlene to learn about her career, her original TV and feature film projects in development and where she’s headed next.

How did you get started in the screen industry?

My career as a Writer and Director started with the internationally acclaimed short film Two Bob Mermaid (1996) which was part of the From Sand to Celluloid Initiative. The film deals with the effects of racism on a fair-skinned Aboriginal teenager, and it struck a chord both nationally and internationally. It was nominated for the Baby Lion Award at the Venice Film festival and took out Best Australian Short film at the Australian Film Critics Circle of Australia and Best Dramatic Short at the Asia Pacific Film Festival. It’s used frequently as a standard teaching resource in primary and secondary schools as well as universities both here and abroad.

A few years later I wrote and directed Stolen Generations (2000), which was nominated for an International Emmy Award. It was the first documentary that looked at the whole issue on a national scale and provided an Aboriginal perspective on the history through the eyes of the survivors who lived it. It’s also used as a teaching resource nationally and internationally.

And for the next few years I continued to build my skills and hone my craft as a writer and director working on a large slate of projects including, Stranger in my Skin, Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Gulpilil – One Red Blood (2002), a biography of the actor David Gulpilil, and a supernatural fictional drama Crocodile Dreaming (2007) featuring the first-time pairing of legendary Aboriginal actors David Gulpilil and Tom E Lewis. 

Next, I made River of No Return, a poetic portrait of Frances Djulibing that explores the complexities of becoming an actor and living in a remote Top End community. It was chosen as the opening night film at the 2008 ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto.

You have also had a lot of success as a documentary maker including working for Australia’s National Broadcaster, ABC. Can you tell us a bit about that?  

Making the Message Stick doco’s for the ABC led me to direct and produce my own independent documentary, The Redfern Story (2014)for which I was nominated for an Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Documentary. It went on to win Best Social Political Documentary at the ATOM Awards and was a finalist in the Walkley Awards and The Documentary Australia Foundation Award at the Sydney Film Festival.

Tell us about your award-winning film Bluey and your plans to turn it into a feature film.

My film Bluey was fully financed by Screen Australia, premiering at the Sydney Film Festival where it won the Event Cinemas Award for Best Screenplay. It also won Best Direction in a Short Film at the Australian Directors Guild Awards, going on to acclaim, winning 14 awards at numerous Australian and international festivals, including the USA, Montreal and Mexico.

I am now working on the theatrical feature version. It is a story inspired by my Aboriginal mother’s feisty temperament and tent boxer Aboriginal grandfather, combined with my own experiences growing up in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney. I’m looking forward to expanding on the short and bringing it to life on the big screen soon.

And you worked as a writer on Irreverent, a new series for Peacock premiering internationally on November 30. Tell us about that.

It was so fantastic to be in the story room and brainstorm storylines and characters for Irreverent. I just loved it. I came up with some characters and then I went on to co-write an episode with the showrunner Paddy Macrae. I really enjoy working on other people’s shows. It is a great opportunity to grow your skill set and to dream up ideas as well as gain some international exposure which is very exciting.

The drama also stars Kylie Bracknell, Briallen Clarke, Tegan Stimson, Ed Oxenbould, Wayne Blair, Russell Dykstra, Calen Tassone, and Jason Wilder. All 10 episodes dropped on Peacock on November 30.

And you have just come back from New York City – what were you doing there?

In 2019 I won the Inaugural International Screen Scholarship in New York City, awarded by the Australian International Screen Forum and the American Australian Association. Because of Covid I was only able to commence the scholarship this year.

It was great to live in NYC for a couple of months and take the time to navigate the international landscape there. I was able to meet producers and production companies and better understand the US market and learn how one might get their projects off the ground. It was lots of meetings and pitching.

While you were in NYC you attended Gotham week with your film Obelia – can you tell us about that?

My feature film Obelia was accepted into Gotham Week.  It was great to meet all the main industry leaders and players in the industry and pitch to them. Also, it was exciting to physically get the chance to talk to industry people in person in the US and let them know about Australia, who we are and the kinds of stories we want to share with the rest of the world.

First Nations storytellers really haven’t had a chance to shine or be seen and heard internationally.  We have a unique voice and point of view which the marketplace seems to be interested in and I believe audiences will respond to.

And what else did you get up to in NYC?

It was fantastic to participate at the AISF at the Lincoln Centre and be exposed to various movers and shakers in the industry and learn about the current trends and movements facing filmmakers today. It was exciting to be there for the 20th Anniversary of Rabbit Proof Fence, for which Phillip Noyce did a masterclass to a packed theatre. He also showed quite a bit of footage of Following the Rabbit Proof Fence the doco I made on the ‘making of’.  Not only did it showcase the amazing cast of characters in the movie and their journey from the audition process to playing the real-life characters on the screen, but also, it was made as part of a marketing strategy to help get the word out and bring an audience to the movie. It was special that Phillip Noyce showcased my work and honoured me in that way. I’m also proud to learn that the doco is used a lot in filmmaking courses around the world about the audition/casting process.

And you have ambitions to go overseas and work as a director. Why is it important to you to work overseas as a director?

It would be great to make high-concept movies that are culturally specific but with strong universal themes that have the power to reach a broad audience and resonate in the global market. We need to build on what we’ve made thus far on our home turf, and to keep growing in the international arena. It would be an absolute dream to cross over into the US and build a pathway to working over there. A lot of first-nations filmmakers are yet to make the leap. My passion is to become a director of long-form narratives, working across all styles and genres. My ultimate ambition is to be able to eventually work internationally.

How can people and potential collaborators get in touch with you?

I would love to connect with international partners and collaborators who want to come on these adventures with us and help us to realise our stories. If anyone is interested in talking further and exploring ideas, I would love to hear from you. Don’t be shy, get in touch!

Contact Darlene: [email protected]


Feature image: The 2021 Deutsche Bank Fellowship for First Nations Film Creatives Award presented by the Sydney Film Festival