His first feature film, Lion, took movie-goers on an emotional journey across the world. Now director Garth Davis lends his visual poetry to the tale of one of history’s most famous women. “If you look into it, Mary Magdalene was a very significant apostle, and was present in all of the key elements, and sometimes mentioned more than other apostles. So she must have been a very significant person, and not the one that we’re learning about in Catholic school growing up. I thought it was amazing that it hadn’t been told.”

By Steve Dow.

Director Garth Davis finds religion

Garth Davis on the set of ‘Mary Magdalene’, far right.
Garth Davis on the set of ‘Mary Magdalene’, far right.
Credit: Supplied

Distant biblical human figures trek steep hills wearing cotton, hemp, wool and linen garments hand-embroidered by Palestinian craftswomen. The finely grained grassy textures fill out film director Garth Davis’s visual poetry, weaving his intimate sense of the human condition with the epic, wind-battered landscape, before an arresting discovery of emaciated bodies strewn through a cave.

This journey of Mary, Jesus and a true-believing Judas is set, naturally, through Jerusalem, and in Cana of Galilee, the place the New Testament says the Christian saviour turned water into wine, although modern scholars debate its precise location. Indeed, Brisbane-born, Melbourne-based Davis had travelled to Israel for pre-production research.

Davis had already directed Rooney Mara in his successful first feature, the Indian–Australian epic Lion, released in 2016, the true story of an adopted boy reunited with his poor family after decades of absence. He cast Mara in the title role in his sophomore feature, Mary Magdalene. Such was the frisson between Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Jesus, that they became lovers off-screen, Davis confirms over a cup of tea in a Sydney hotel.

“I came to those two separately,” says Davis, who is very tall with a thick mass of unruly curly hair and flecks of grey in his beard. “I did need to find a magnetism, a spiritual chemistry. I just thought they would be a great match.” Davis bursts into a wide smile and slightly hoarse chuckle, eyes falling bashfully to his floral-patterned teapot. “Maybe, uh, maybe I was a matchmaker.”

Mary Magdalene was shot not in the Middle East but in southern Italy and Sicily, a part of the world that set the artistic course for the 43-year-old director more than half a lifetime ago, where he painted landscapes and dreamt of a career as a visual artist before returning to Australia to spend many years creating television commercials awarded for their filmic edge. His breakthrough came when Jane Campion had him direct three of the first six episodes of her powerful feminist TV crime drama Top of the Lake, which aired in 2013.

To inspire this cinematic retelling of Mary Magdalene, Davis read about young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the face by the Taliban; to help Phoenix embody the darker screen moments as Jesus, Davis studied the Spanish painter Goya’s bleak oeuvre. Mara brings a stillness and poise to her performance and is adamant Mary was not a prostitute, as many believe. But how do we know who Mary was? “The prostitute that we understand is probably harder to prove than our version,” says Davis.

“If you look into it, Mary Magdalene was a very significant apostle, and was present in all of the key elements, and sometimes mentioned more than other apostles. So she must have been a very significant person, and not the one that we’re learning about in Catholic school growing up. I thought it was amazing that it hadn’t been told.”

Recounting the story of another woman raped and drowned, a villager doubts Mary’s evangelising in the film: “We are not women – our lives are not our own,” she tells Mary. Mary, however, declares she will not stay silent.

To what extent is the film feminist?

“It’s feminist to the extent that it seems women of that time were not free to express their spirituality,” he says. “It was a lot harder for them to act on it, and if they did anything too extreme they would be shamed or called demonic. So it’s feminist in that way: [it shows] they didn’t have the same liberties as men. I love that in the story, how her family struggle with Mary’s spiritual calling and how they try to control it.”

Mary Magdalene was still being shot while Lion was being garlanded in honours, earning six Oscar nominations and taking two BAFTAs and 12 AACTAs and a Directors Guild of America award for best first feature. There were lots of scripts subsequently offered, but Lion’s producers, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, had already decided British playwright and screenwriter Helen Edmundson’s script for Mary Magdalene was right for Davis, whom Canning describes as a “special soul”.

It must have been intolerable for Davis, who tells me he has more female than male friends and prefers women’s company, that one of the film’s key financiers was The Weinstein Company. The disgraced mogul and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, the subject of numerous allegations published in The New York Times 10 months after filming on Mary Magdalene had wrapped in December 2016, had an executive producer credit on Lion, too.

Was this association with his two films uncomfortable for Davis, particularly given the Weinstein scandal had sparked the MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment in the film industry?

“It was devastating to realise that one of the financiers of Mary Magdalene, all these revelations came out about him… that was just not good, in every way, shape or form,” says Davis. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? So it would be untenable for him to represent this movie with all of those revelations. So he won’t be doing that anymore.”

The Weinstein Company announced in late February it would file for bankruptcy. Did the Harvey Weinstein scandal ever mean Mary Magdalene might not have seen the light of day? “Well, the Weinsteins only had North America, and Universal had the rest of the world. So we were well and truly still making the movie.” The film’s producers, Canning, Sherman and Liz Watts, are still working towards getting the film released in the United States.


Garth Davis’s parents divorced when he was 12. His late father, Owen, who worked in advertising, remained in Brisbane and remarried. Davis then lived with his mother, Patricia, a painter who had moved into real estate, on the Gold Coast. “Living with a single mum brought a lot of responsibility and pressure on the family at times,” he says. “Mum was an amazing caregiver, but it was tough for her.”

Davis left home just before he turned 17, moving to Melbourne to study fine art and design. When he graduated with a bachelor of design with honours from Swinburne University of Technology in 1995, he travelled to Italy for a year to pursue his passion for painting.

He met a famous bohemian Sydney-born painter and dancer, Vali Myers, who split her time between an old cottage in a valley near Positano and New York, where she was a habitué of the Hotel Chelsea. He ended up caring for the dogs, pigs and donkeys on her farm.

“She’s an amazing figure in Australia’s history, so I lived with her in Italy for a year, pretty much as a hippie. It was a big valley and I would just work on the land for half the day, tending to the animals. I hung out there, living a bohemian life. I painted and drew and read and travelled from there. I was just an artist, really.”

Returning to Australia, Davis was determined to continue painting landscapes and portraits as well as drawing, but he was already known for making experimental films, and found work in advertising. For his 21st birthday, his father had given him a 16-millimetre Bolex movie camera.

As part of a group of friends making films for a party, Davis first used the Bolex to make a short black-and-white film that would be accompanied in its private screening by a live opera performer singing about birds that live in shadows.

“So I decided to find all these people that society slips under the rug,” says Davis. “I lived in St Kilda at the time and there were all these halfway houses, and the Gatwick [boarding house] and homeless people. I went right into the Gatwick and filmed all these homeless people. The final person I shot was this man who painted birds. So I cut all this together, and played it with the music, and it was profoundly moving.”

Davis went on to make TV commercials for beer and soft drinks, winning numerous gongs. His Schweppes Burst ad took a coveted Gold Lion award at Cannes in 2008. Aided by visual effects, his “nocturnal migration” ad for Toohey’s showed deer dashing through a city at night, playing to his cinematic strength.

“Now that I’ve done [feature] films, I really wish I’d done it earlier, because I really feel completely fulfilled artistically, whereas in commercials I was always frustrated. I gave a lot to advertising, a lot of quality. I really cared about it. A lot of directors don’t; they’re just in it for the money. It can be a bit of a trap. But I will still do commercials occasionally, and I will care about it.”

Davis met his partner, Auckland-born Nicola Lester, when she was cast in one of Davis’s commercials. Lester hates the word “healer” but is a shiatsu and energy therapist. “I fell in love with her straight away,” says Davis. “At the time she was studying politics and economics, and she had about 20 textbooks and a fag in her mouth. She was wild. It was great.

“She’s my soulmate. We spend a lot of time together, and she has a great instinct for the projects I’m working through. There’s a lot of us in this story [Mary Magdalene].” The couple are not married. “We both come from divorced families, and when we met, we had an allergy to and didn’t trust marriages. So we were just going for love.”

The couple has three children: Eartha, 13; Miro, 10; and River, 5. “Eartha is a really gifted writer. Miro is this beautiful artist and has a really spunky quality about her out of left field. She just acted in a short film as the lead actress. River we just call ‘Jolly Pots’, because he’s always happy.”

Davis has been described as spiritual, but is not a member of any organised faith, nor was he raised as such. “I’m spiritual in the sense I acknowledge a god or a connection to something greater than us. It’s just something I’ve always felt, this spiritual intuition. I was born with it. That’s probably why I gravitated towards art.” Davis hasn’t painted or drawn in quite some time. “I’ll come back to it,” he says, laughing.

Losing his father several years ago was profound. “It was sad because he retired, and had given advertising everything, 35 or 40 years of his life, and no ‘Thank you’. So it was very cruel. He retired to live in Melbourne to be near my children, his grandkids, and it was just great. Then he just got sick, almost straight away. Found out he had a brain tumour, so that was awful. I was there with him to the end. It was a ground zero moment.

“In that vacuum, Jane Campion rang me. We’d never met before, she said she loved my work, and would I be interested in Top of the Lake? I read it and really loved it, and then we decided as a family: maybe this is a really great healing for us, to go and live in New Zealand and make this series. It was profound and perfect.”

Campion at first wanted to direct all the scenes at the remote women’s camp herself. “But I said I understood that world pretty well, having lived with Vali Myers. There was a lot of that world that I had lived. She wasn’t a guru [like the Holly Hunter character], she was more of a gypsy. She was very wild. So I could just fall into Jane’s world very easily.”

From this new world, via the same producers, Lion, with a screenplay by Luke Davies, came Davis’s way, and with it, a giddy $US140 million ($A182 million) box office gross.

How heavy is the expectation for success second time around? “I must say I’m feeling it a bit, from people,” says Davis. “For me, I don’t think about it, but I’m starting to feel it a bit now. I’m trying not to.” What’s making him feel that way? “I think people like to pigeonhole people. For me, this movie, I’m really proud of it, I think it’s a really beautiful film.

“I think it’s made with the same love and passion that I made Lion with. It’s still an extension of [Lion’s] themes of unconditional love, but yeah, it’s a religious story,” Davis says. “So people might go: ‘What the hell’s he doing that for?’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 7, 2018 as "Something about Mary".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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