Culture

Director Emma Freeman's filmography includes some of Australia’s best-loved TV dramas, but her greatest challenge came at a much earlier age. By Stephanie Van Schilt.

’Secret City’ director Emma Freeman

Emma Freeman on set.
Credit: FOXTEL

Studies claim cat people are more introverted, intelligent and pragmatic than dog people. Watching director Emma Freeman pause the conversation to tenderly pat one of the four cats that roam her East Melbourne terrace, it’s clear those studies are onto something.

“We’re crazy cat ladies,” Freeman laughs as Olive Cotton, the most fragile of their clowder, snuggles into her lap. Olive’s coat is patchy: she’s unwell and receiving dialysis. “We have to put an intravenous in every night,” Freeman explains, quick to add that “we” is actually her long-term partner Alice Chaston, the less queasy of the pair – Freeman can’t stomach it. Pouncing on the opportunity to laud her significant other, Freeman tells me Chaston’s acting career is a star on the rise. “Alice is in Secret City,” she beams with pride.

Based on books The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, Secret City is the latest original local series for Foxtel’s Showcase. Chaston plays Sabine Hobbs, a student whose story has captured the nation. A self-immolation protester, Sabine is scarred, scared and incarcerated in a Beijing women’s prison. Her actions place Australia in the middle of increasing tension between the United States and China. But Sabine is only the first student implicated in some dense political intrigue that escalates during six episodes, with tarnished journalist Harriet Dunkley, played superbly by Anna Torv, providing the investigative catalyst of the series. Shot in and around Parliament House over nine weeks, Secret City has it all: agency cover-ups, references to Edward Snowden, corrupt national leaders, washed-up corpses and overworked press gallery staff.

The political thriller features some big names, including Jacki Weaver, Alan Dale and Alex Dimitriades, and while Chaston’s face is the first we see on screen, Freeman’s unique style is stamped all over the show. 

“I didn’t really sleep for the whole of Secret City. We worked a lot of six-day weeks. But I loved it,” Freeman says with signature optimism.

“There’s a tendency now to be really technical with political thrillers, with VFX and that whole Bourne Identity handheld camera style. With Secret City, I was obsessed with going back to the movies of the ’60s and ’70s… When I arrived in Canberra – the architecture, the symmetry, the lake at the heart of the city, even the weather – it was like being in Europe to me. It’s an extraordinary landscape. So I feel like we’ve been able to capture a different side to Canberra and hopefully show that, unlike Glitch, which was all about the rough edges, Secret City is all about clean lines and restraint. And mystery, of course.”

Even if you don’t know Freeman by name, you’re familiar with her work. A prolific member of the local television industry, her filmography includes popular shows such as Offspring, Love My Way, The Secret Life of Us and Puberty Blues. Before Secret City, Freeman directed living dead drama Glitch, a hit for the ABC that recently won a Logie for Most Outstanding Drama Series. Unlike previous episode-by-episode jobs, directing the unitary instalments of both Glitch and Secret City permitted Freeman a level of authorial influence over the final product that’s relatively new to Australian TV.

“In the television industry you shoot so much in a day and you’re generally under-resourced. There’s so much pressure to produce the work. Glitch and Secret City were the toughest jobs I’ve ever done because they were so ambitious. So was I.”

At that point Freeman reveals the tome that was her Secret City shooting script. The hefty binder hits the solid kitchen table with a thud – it’s twice as big as her four cats combined. 

“It’s amazing how your brain is this muscle and you can adjust and absorb everything on a job. Normally a shooting script is quite little, but look how big it is, look at all those scenes. Every page is loved.” She flips through to show the detailed handwritten notes of a perfectionist.

“I’m really hard on myself,” Freeman concedes. “I obsess. If I shoot a day’s scenes I’ll come home and read every one of those scenes to make sure I got every single moment, because if I didn’t, I just feel horrible. To survive in the industry you need that kind of focus and you need to deliver.”

Freeman is quick to compliment performers –Weaver is “the most delightful human being and such a professional beautiful woman”. She has praise for crew and colleagues, but is less emphatic in singing her own praises. As a director, morale on set is important to her, especially when shooting consecutive episodes of an entire season.

“I love the process of seeing something through because I know what I’m going to get on set. I want to protect the actors and I want to get the best out of the episode. It’s a very intimate experience when you’re gathering a performance and you know how you’re going to put it all together. I don’t know how I’d go handing it over to someone else at that stage because process is actually more important than the product to me. And whether that’s the feeling that we have on set, creating a space to achieve the performances you want, working with people and having a really positive experience becomes the drive.”

Optimism – “perhaps naivety” – is core to Freeman’s philosophy, personally and professionally. “I think you have to have a greater life perspective. Like, people are offering a lot of themselves. Telling stories is a very raw process.”

After a stint in theatre, Freeman decided she wanted to become a filmmaker at the age of 18. She credits her imagination to the “extraordinary health issues” she suffered during her formative years. Freeman was paralysed from the age of nine to 14. Suffering from polyneuritis, a nerve disorder very rare in someone that young, Freeman was in and out of Melbourne hospitals   – the Royal Children’s, St Vincent’s, the Royal Talbot – for five years. She lost the capacity to sit up, walk and talk. “I had to learn it all again,” she says.

While taking divergent life paths – “my family are not of the arts” – Freeman remains close with her dad and brother but particularly her mum. Choosing her words carefully, Freeman calmly recounts a defining moment from that time.

“I was on callipers and crutches, starting to get a little bit stronger but still learning to walk. We lived in Eltham and had a long driveway that went all the way up to our house. I remember my mother basically dumping me at the end of the driveway and saying, ‘You’ve gotta walk to the house’, and she’d drive off, leaving me to walk up that driveway every night. It would get dark and Dad would come home from work and the headlights would be on me and I’d be crying. And you know, I thought Mum was so tough but in the last couple of years she told me she used to stand at the window and cry. That kind of sums up that experience.”

Freeman considers that period – and her mother’s tough love – the genesis of her artistic vision and general outlook. “Although you can always forget,” she muses. “But it’s out of that adversity I approach things in a particular way. I’m not weighed down by inhibitions. I don’t mind if I look silly or if I cry on set at someone’s performance, or dance around like an idiot; it’s a free space.”

Freeman lives by advice handed down from a lecturer during her time at the Victorian College of the Arts: “You can’t know everything.” Although naturally humble, Freeman is certain she was a born filmmaker. After being “bitten by the bug”, Freeman went on to win Tropfest in 2002 with a bleak but comic short, Lamb. In addition to her extensive work in television, Freeman has produced a number of singular short films and music videos exhibiting the distinctively ethereal aesthetic that haunts all her work.

Freeman’s most recent film clip, for American group CocoRosie, won the Best Music Video at the 2014 St Kilda Film Festival. In a little more than four minutes, “Child Bride” tells the story of a young girl sold into marriage. Shot in the rural Victorian town of Yandoit, CocoRosie’s ghostly vocals complement Freeman’s Gothic visuals.

“I love that music video. I love the little girl who was in the music video. Her performance was astounding. She’d never acted before and she’s only nine.”

 Secret City is not Freeman’s first political drama. She has also directed the forthcoming Gillard telemovie Stalking Julia with Rachel Griffiths, the political comedy Party Tricks, and the biopic Hawke. But Freeman confesses she doesn’t lean towards political work or activism. “Child Bride” changed that, however. The little four-minute story stuck with her. 

“I think it’s probably more about the human condition, about how politics can affect people. The human aspect of politics interests me. ‘Child Bride’ was probably one of those experiences. Just knowing about it and researching it and now becoming quite passionate about that movement.”

Freeman is passionate about storytelling. After some recent meetings in Los Angeles, and acknowledging that in the US television is very much a medium for actors and producers, Freeman is committed to the Australian TV industry.

“I really love working in television here. I love Australian stories. I love Australian actors. I love the stories we tell. So I don’t have an ambition to go over to America in television.”

Movies are another matter. For the past few years, Freeman has been working on securing funding for a feature film called The Circus. When asked whether the struggle has been related to the fact that it’s an all-female creative team – director, producer, writer – Freeman is contemplative.

“I feel conflicted about it, because I think you get work on the merit of your skill and previous work. So is it that women aren’t getting the opportunity? Are they being judged because they’re women or because their stories aren’t as valid as others? I think it’s a really complex area and I know I’m still working it out. I’ve been really ignorant. I’ve been in my bubble of working and have never directly considered it… It feels complicated. But then I have to acknowledge the statistics to say there’s a lot less of us working in the industry. Why haven’t I made a film yet, when so many of my male contemporaries have made two or three?”

Freeman speaks fondly of her “bubble”, the industry she loves full of familiar faces and mutual respect. When asked about working with the same actors regularly, she says: “I think that’s the case with most Australian productions.” For her, it’s Patrick Brammall, Dan Wyllie and Asher Keddie.

Keddie and Freeman are currently shooting two blocks of the series Offspring, back by popular demand. Keddie also appears in Party Tricks and Hawke.

“It’s really a pleasure to go back,” Freeman says of Offspring. “That show has reached so many people and just connects with an audience unlike any other. I will be out for dinner and someone will ask what have you worked on and I’ll be like, ‘Love My Way and Tangle’, and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, okay’, and then I’ll say ‘Offspring’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ It’s so funny. It is a show that people truly love.”

At this point in her career, Freeman is just happy that people, audiences, are beginning to understand what the job of a director actually is. It’s not some guy sitting in a chair with a megaphone screaming impetuous demands to a crew. A director is Emma Freeman: a soft-spoken, introspective artist, striving to create a positive work environment and making some of Australia’s best television along the way.

“It took me a long time to feel like I really was a director,” Freeman admits. “I’ve directed TV now for nearly 15 years and it’s only now that people kind of acknowledge or recognise what I’ve been doing for that time. It’s really nice.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Full focus". Subscribe here.

Stephanie Van Schilt
is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and podcaster.