Portrait

Artistic director of the Sydney Writers' Festival Jemma Birrell greets the writer, director and creator of Breaking Bad. By Gretchen Shirm.

The personal touch of Jemma Birrell

The green room of Sydney Town Hall is white. The walls are white, the table is white, even the chairs around the table are white. It makes the furniture look thin, as though the things around us are props. 

Jemma Birrell is wearing a black sleeveless dress, with a white collar poking over the top, like a collar worn with a tux. She is standing with Vince Gilligan’s wife, Holly Rice, who is pale skinned and smiling, with a head of precisely coiffed white hair. Birrell stands lopsided, favouring her left leg, and tells me the Gilligans walked over the bridge yesterday. She has that skill of making people feel comfortable, of telling a person a fact about another person to help them ease into the conversation. 

I mention that we have a mutual friend and as I say this, she takes a step back from the other people, as though this piece of personal information does not belong in the room. Here, she is the artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. When we take that step back together, it is a retreat towards another woman, the private woman who isn’t here tonight. 

Vince Gilligan, writer, director and creator of Breaking Bad, walks into the room and meets his interviewer, Benjamin Law. Gilligan is a tall, broad-shouldered man with long arms and a low centre of gravity, like the body of a footballer.

“So, what did we decide on? Grilled or probed?” Law asks. Everyone laughs.

Birrell asks Gilligan if he wants something to drink, as she does when each new person enters the room.

“You saw garbage trucks, at least,” Law says. He’s referring to the truck in Sydney that displayed a quote from Breaking Bad: “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.” Gilligan had his photograph taken next to it.

“That was a really scary garbage truck,” Birrell says, and laughs awkwardly. She had chosen the quote.

Though this is the first event in the festival program, she appears at ease. 

The only sign that her day might have been hectic is the tangle in her long brown hair. The length of it looks Parisian, the way it hangs past her shoulder blades, almost to her waist. In Sydney, most women wear their hair shorter, straightened and fixed into place. 

The Gilligans are talking about their recent holidays, when they went skydiving.

Rice says that for her, the experience was about the sensation of falling; usually when you fall, you only fall for a short time. The conversation drifts to scuba diving in the Caribbean.

“Caribbean reef sharks are like house cats,” Gilligan says.

“You’re standing there in your wetsuit, about to go in,” Rice says, “and then you realise the instructor is putting on her mesh, so she’s protected.” 

“Shark diving is horrific,” Birrell says carefully, coiled in her couch. “I had an ex-boyfriend who did it.” Her voice drifts and she becomes quiet.

There is a lull in conversation and Birrell chooses a piece of pineapple from the fruit platter. She holds it close to her mouth and takes small bites. She is a person who is careful about what she does with her hands. Rather than fidget, they cross in front of her, or she holds something. When she sits, she clasps them around a knee. I wonder if she has trained herself to do this, if she knows about the contagion of nerves and has learnt to erase any sign of them so others won’t catch on. 

I ask her why she decided to bring Gilligan out here and her tone lowers and she moves in towards me as she says this, as though the matter we’re discussing is secret, “I just loved the show.” 

Adam Spencer enters in a hurry and stands in the centre of the room, drawing the attention towards him. He tells Gilligan of the sleep deprivation he endured while watching Breaking Bad. Spencer’s wife takes a photograph of Gilligan and Spencer, and I stand to move out of the shot. Birrell tells me I can stay where I am, taking me by the arm and pressing her thumb softly into my wrist as she says this. She doesn’t want me to feel uncomfortable here, backstage with them.

She tells Gilligan about the French poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, whom she’s excited to have brought out for the festival. “I love the idea of imposing a mathematical formula onto writing; the idea is that the restriction provides freedom.” The height difference between them is vast and her head is tilted backwards as she looks up at him. 

Gilligan hasn’t heard of Roubaud. “He belongs to a crazy, obscure literary group,” Birrell explains. As she speaks, there is an expression on her face that looks like something close to concern – the passion she has for this poet is personal and she wants Gilligan to share it with her. 

The stage manager comes in and tells us they’ve been delayed by 15 minutes. The conversation accelerates as the time to go on stage approaches. Someone comments that the room is cold and it is, though the loud and warm voices have disguised it. Birrell has expertly done this by relaxing everyone and encouraging them to speak. 

I slip out early, passing through layers of old Sydney sandstone, and take my seat. The ceilings in the hall are so high it could be open air. Birrell walks onto the stage, her head just visible over the lectern. Behind her is the organ, the large metal pipes loom above her like the open mouth of a baleen whale. She smiles. She reminds us why we are here, that Breaking Bad  “is an epic parable of pride and power with arguably the greatest antihero television has ever seen”. The packed hall cheers. Her speech is passionate and concise. When she is finished speaking she takes a step back, out of the light, and disappears.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Personal touch". Subscribe here.

Gretchen Shirm
is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.

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