Magazine article Metro Magazine

Beyond the Crypt: Donna McRae on Art and the Academy

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Beyond the Crypt: Donna McRae on Art and the Academy

Article excerpt

UNIVERSITIES DON'T JUST TEACH THE BASICS OF SCRIPTWRITING, CINEMATOGRAPHY AND EDITING--THEY CAN ALSO PROVIDE FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR CONCEPT-DEVELOPMENT. MICHAEL HELMS SPEAKS TO DONNA MCRAE ABOUT HOW HER EXPERIENCES AS A FILM STUDENT AND ACADEMIC CULMINATED IN HER FILM JOHNNY GHOST.

In early 2014, Melbourne-based filmmaker, academic and horror-film enthusiast Donna McRae had her first feature, Johnny Ghost (2011), released nationally on DVD and video-on-demand by specialist Australian distributor Titan View. This was closely followed by a North American release by US production/distribution entity Continuum Motion Pictures. A commercial release of any kind for a micro-budget feature is an achievement in itself these days--though it's worth mentioning that the film has a few awards under its belt (1)--but the achievement is doubly momentous considering Johnny Ghost is a black-and-white film about the horrors of memory that uses long takes, a largely faceless cast, one death, and no special effects other than a coat with weights in it. A model of how art, economics and education can come together in the creation of a film, Johnny Ghost sees McRae join the growing number of talented women who have directed Australian horror films in recent years--and she is proving herself a leader within it.

McRae's filmmaking experience began at VCA, where she undertook a Graduate Diploma in Narrative Filmmaking. She continued pursuing the craft after completing the qualification and began making short films, which were screened at various local and international festivals. As she puts it: 'By the time I got out of film school, I realised that, if I wanted to make another film, I had to do it myself.'

She explains that her academic background was integral to the process of writing, producing, directing and editing Johnny Ghost.

I was doing my Master's [at Monash] and I really wanted to make a feature film. But I felt that I wouldn't be able to get any support from any funding body because of the nature of what I wanted to make, and also because I had no other feature-film credentials. So I thought, if I could get a scholarship and do a PhD, that would give me enough money to make my film. I wanted to do the PhD on ghosts because I was really interested in the occult. Luckily enough, I got [the scholarship]; they are really hard to get. I was also teaching so I was able to live off the teaching and save everything I could from the scholarship to make the film.

McRae admits that the reason she did the PhD 'was to actually make a feature', and that she was lucky because the Monash Fine Art department's doctorate takes the form of '30,000 words plus the studio thing'.

I had to research my subject and that research is part of my exegesis. Once I knew what angle I wanted to take, then I wrote the script. The script wasn't part of the PhD at all. I couldn't submit that, so all those words weren't counted in the 30,000--it would have been good if they were! I'm glad the process happened, though, because I think it made the film much richer and it worked on quite a few levels, whereas if I'd just done it off my own bat and hadn't done any research, I don't think it would have been as successful.

A central theme in the film is cryptic incorporation--'a theoretical term used in psychiatry [that] is about grieving that is incomplete'--as manifested by the protagonist, Millicent (Anni Finsterer), being haunted by an event twenty-five years after the fact. The phenomenon was investigated by Hungarian psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, and further examined by French theorist Jacques Derrida, but has its origins in the work of Sigmund Freud.

He started looking at this and [research] is ongoing as other psychiatrists took it on and just basically reframed it. What they are saying, in a nutshell, is that if the dead person--the person you are grieving for--is kept in a 'crypt' inside of you, and you can't let them go, then, because you can't let them go [. …

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