Australian director Alethea Jones is forging a prosperous career in Hollywood – but the path to success was by no means a straight one.

By Ruby Hamad.

Director Alethea Jones

A woman poses for a portrait photograph with a hedge in the background.
Alethea Jones.
Credit: Alex Vaughan

Alethea Jones’s path to her burgeoning Hollywood career was far from conventional. In fact, it almost didn’t happen. In 2001, when she was 21 and fresh out of acting school, her sister Matina was killed in a car accident.

“It was like losing a limb,” she tells me. “A sibling is such a part of your identity. That’s one of the only people in the world that has the chance of sharing your exact world view because you were raised in the same exact household, the same language, TV, same food, everything…”

Far from her family in a strange city, Jones felt broken. One day a friend took her to Shire Christian Centre, a Hillsong affiliate church, in Cronulla. “I became a full-on born-again Christian,” she says. When she was asked to help direct their Easter play, it opened up a new possibility. “I didn’t want to act anymore. I was so raw from the passing of my sister,” she says. “Directing I could do, and I loved it.”

She ended up directing many plays for Hillsong and started making short films. The church offered her training in media production but, in a characteristically sideways move, Jones opted instead for their leadership course, which drew aspiring pastors from across the world. She left the church soon afterwards to attend the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and no longer identifies as a Christian, but she credits her time with Hillsong for shaping her collaborative directing style.

“I learned just as much there as I did at film school. They taught me about leadership through service. Rather than an alpha leading from the front, you lead from behind. And that is how I direct on set,” she says. “I want to empower people. I don’t consider myself an auteur, I consider myself a collaborator, and I have a very strong vision, but I’m so secure in what I do that I am very comfortable in hearing ideas and recalibrating.”

At VCA, Jones wasn’t a typical film student. “I had seen that Robert Luketic, who had directed Legally Blonde, went to Victorian College of the Arts,” she says. “And I loved Legally Blonde!”

Jones’s affinity with Legally Blonde made her the Elle Woods of her year. “I’d sit at the front and smile at the guest lecturers and my classmates would sort of brood at the back with coffee. I didn’t realise that Luketic was kind of an anomaly at VCA. Students would go to Cannes and Europe and maybe Sundance, but it was very rare, I think, to be a working director in America. It was more common to follow a more prestige, auteur-ish career.

“At the start of film school, my brain was not able to synthesise editing and camera movement and everything. The neural pathways kind of change as you get better at it. The thought patterns, the synapses start to adjust,” she says. “The temptation when you’re scared and overwhelmed is to glue your characters to their mark, to the spot they’re meant to stand on, and to not move them, because then you can shoot faster … But it’s not dynamic. You’re in the edit and you’re like, ‘Ugh, there is no beauty, there is no majesty to this.’ ”

Jones is speaking via Zoom from the Los Angeles home she shares with her sound designer husband, P. K. Hooker, and the two terriers, Rosie and Murphy, she brought with her from Melbourne. Jones’s progression from film-school black sheep to prolific Hollywood director is a trajectory that comes to seem as inevitable as it does unlikely. “I have been rewarded for making bold choices and stepping through those doors,” she says.

Jones has directed and produced a raft of left-of-centre shows, including Jason Segel’s Dispatches from Elsewhere, Lodge 49 and Dollface. Most recently she executive produced and directed Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, now streaming on Paramount Plus, and Mrs. Davis, streaming on Binge.

Jones caught attention with her Tropfest-winning comedy Lemonade Stand (2012). The prize included “general meetings” – noncommittal meet-and-greets that studio executives hold with promising talent. It’s one thing to win a meeting with Hollywood, another to win it over. Jones understood the importance of first impressions.

“The same questions keep getting asked: ‘How did you get into filmmaking? Where are you from in Australia? What do you think about America?’ And [I began] to think, ‘Oh, these poor people, they probably don’t want to be talking to me right now.’ I started shaking up the general meetings, turning questions back on the executives, changing the conversation and not talking about film. I think they liked that.”

Also helpful was that Jones had two more shorts, When the Wind Changes and Dave’s Dead, that were picking up awards on the Australian festival circuit. At VCA, students were trained to write and direct their projects – to be auteurs – but Jones realised she could be more prolific directing scripts written and funded by others.

“That wasn’t strategic. It just so happened that writers were approaching me with a script and some savings,” she says. “All three were writer/actors that wanted to star in their own short … I could see my friends that were writer/directors taking a long time because there is just one of them and they’re doing it all.

“I went down this creative path and suddenly it culminated in me doing Mrs. Davis with [Emmy-winning screenwriter] Damon Lindelof,” she says. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost and Nash Bridges, co-created the series – about an unconventional nun tasked with saving the world from a menacing algorithm – with Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory). Jones asked Lindelof why they were meeting. “He replied, ‘I’ve been watching your stuff for a few years … you’ve made some really weird choices,’ ” she says, laughing.

Jones’s Hollywood career began in 2015 when she directed five episodes of the children’s show Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. She says it was a safe place to learn. “I would have said yes to anything,” she says. “Lucky for me, the offer was this really special, really cinematic kids show.”

But children’s television is also where female directors get typecast. “I wanted to stay,” she recalls. “My agent said to me, very smartly, ‘You can’t stay in that world.’ And I was like, ‘Why can’t I? I’m having a ball!’ ” Even so, she took her agent’s advice and left. “I didn’t even have anything else lined up.”

She wasn’t out of work for long. Her feature film debut, the broad comedy Fun Mom Dinner starring Toni Collette and Molly Shannon, was released in 2017. “That was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, even though I knew that it wasn’t creatively my voice,” she says. Although she enjoyed that collaboration, she does not wish to go down that path again.

“I made a conscious choice that whatever I was going to do in movies or TV, it had to be elevated and it had to be imaginative. Things that aren’t just two people talking in a room; not straight stories,” she says. “An elevated story is more whimsical, it’s imaginative, adventure.” In other words, “anything but normal”. Her timing was perfect: “TV had the weirdest stuff going on. And it was getting made, it was being green-lit.”

Jones’s willingness to pivot paid off. She landed the sitcom American Woman with Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari. “The executive interviewing me asked, ‘Why should we take a chance on you?’ I said, ‘Because I really like actors and actors really like me. Put me in the middle [of the series], put me after your biggest arsehole director” – Jones has not lost her Australian accent – “let me follow up and I will come in [and] will lift the morale and lift the spirits of everyone … And they did! They put me right in the middle and I did the job.”

For Queen America, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a beauty queen guru, she directed all 10 episodes and received her first producing credit. “I cried because it meant I had decision-making powers,” says Jones. “A precedent had been set.”

The more experience Jones gained, the more her confidence grew. She learnt to work faster. “It all becomes a dance. The camera is now a player in the scene. I started to treat the camera as another character … I could have this actor move across the space, I can keep it in a wide shot, and then I can pick up the second half of their movement on that other character’s close-up.”

She now enjoys the challenge. “It’s a puzzle, right? Not only am I trying to tell a beautiful story, I’m trying to do it economically. To get as many beautiful, elevated shots as I can, I have to be smart and economical with how I plan.” Jones applied these skills to Mrs. Davis and Rise of the Pink Ladies. A sci-fi dramedy about the unintended consequences of AI and a nod to an iconic movie musical may seem worlds apart, but not to Jones. “I used to be a choreographer, so I love movement [and] making beautiful, striking images compositionally within the frame.”

Public reception to the shows has been mixed. “There is always going to be intense criticism and anger around female directors and content about young women,” she says about Pink Ladies, which has a female showrunner, Annabel Oakes (Transparent), at the helm. “And then adding [racial] diversity as well. We knew there was going to be shit flung at us.

“Damon Lindelof has a lot of stans [committed fans]. He’s a white dude that people love so we are very safely protected even though it’s also a female-centred story,” she says of Mrs. Davis. “I started reading some tweets when the trailer for Pink Ladies came out and [one] was, ‘Why are they remaking Grease?’ For a start, we are not remaking it, it’s an origin story of the Pink Ladies. Then they said, ‘Plus those people didn’t even go to high school back then.’

“But those people were there, they were having those experiences.” Jones stopped reading tweets. “There is so much ignorance and I think it comes from the fact that most people’s education is from watching TV and movies. Hollywood [has] historically whitewashed so many stories and all we are doing is un-whitewashing it.”

She sees the path to this in television’s collaborative nature. “It’s a writer’s medium,” she says. “Not a director’s medium. Feature film is where the director is the boss. In television, it’s the showrunner. And I love that. I love having a buddy, I love linking arms with someone and attacking it together.”

Jones is the first to admit she is not a writer. “I tried to write my own stuff [again] and I couldn’t. I didn’t have the focus. I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD just recently, over Christmas, and I think that’s why I couldn’t sit down on my own. Everything clicked when I had the diagnosis.

“I said [to my psychologist], ‘I have such a high-functioning job, I can focus for extreme amounts of time.’ And the psychologist was like, ‘Yeah, you do have hyperfocus when you have ADHD. You’ve put yourself in a job where you’re accountable at a really high level.’

“I’ve surrounded myself with accountability in this entertainment system here in LA … You have so many people checking in and so many deadlines to hit – it’s wonderful for someone with ADHD, it’s the perfect sandpit.”

Now Jones has her sights set on directing a blockbuster. “Every choice I’ve been making for the last year has been with a view, does this move me towards a big blockbuster or not? I would love to play with Lucasfilm in some capacity. I would love to do a Marvel movie or a DC movie. But it has to be elevated and genre and imaginative. And hopeful.”

Two weeks after our conversation, Jones learnt that High Potential, a pilot she’d directed for writer Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield) was picked up by ABC. That blockbuster just got another step closer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "A long, winding road".

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