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  • Writer's pictureBéatrice Barbeau

Depression, Friendship, Self-Doubt and Making a Feature Film at Twenty-One

Five years ago, I was getting ready to catch my first flight to America. Three years earlier, I had started writing a film with my friend Imogen McCluskey. We were at film school, in our early twenties and had a lot of ambition.

We wanted to make a film that was a delayed coming-of-age story, one that resonated with Australian audiences. Most of the coming-of-age films we grew up with were American and would portray the final months of High School as the most formative moment that defines the rest of your life. This made sense with the American higher education system, people often move out of their town which forces growth and maturity. The friends you have in High School would probably not last if you were to move to another city.

This would not be our experience upon leaving High School in Australia, and I know that I was not prepared for the next three years at university to be just as confusing and hard as the last three I had spent in school. In big cities like Sydney or Brisbane, it's more common to stay in your "home town" than I believe it is in America. If you live in one of these cities with many universities, you're probably not going to move away. The friends you have in High School are probably going to bleed through your university experience. Not everyone has the big transformational growth of a detention class months before graduation, or a virginity pact that finally pays off and makes you a "man". Everyone's growth is staggered. We wanted to make a film about the final moments of a High School friendship group. When they realise they're never going to be friends in the same way anymore.

The film was going to be beautiful and meditative, inspired by movies like Mustangs, American Honey, Ghost World and even Good Will Hunting. Imogen and I would write together. She was set to direct, and I would produce. The main challenge for making this film was going to be funding. We were two twenty-something film students who had little to no money. During this time, the main government funding body - Screen Australia wouldn't accept applications until you had proper credits. We were in our second year of film school and still would be a few years out from working on films and TV shows with an actual budget. Now, Screen Australia have great programs for emerging creatives who might not have credits. Things like GENERATE and DIGITAL ORIGINALS have really helped young creatives get their projects up. But back then, all we had was crazy ambition and we figured we’d work out the money stuff once it was written.

I'd like to think we had the urgency to make this film because we thought only people in their early 20s could make a film like this. It is more likely that we had the urgency because we were two young women who just wanted to make something amazing and wanted our careers to start right away - without waiting for approval from someone else. Sometimes I miss having that energy of just getting up and doing everything yourself, no matter how foolish -  just because you could.

So Imogen and I started writing. We combined elements of different short films that we had drafted but never shot and started to create a narrative. I should mention here that I don't really remember parts of this process as much as I'd like to. At twenty-one I started taking anti-depressants, I was diagnosed with chronic depression at fifteen and going to therapy wasn't working. My first year out of High School I had convinced myself that I wasn't depressed or suicidal anymore - I was out of High School, I was at my dream University studying my dream film course. I thought High School was the reason I wanted to end my life - not just some weird shit going on in my brain, and when the thoughts came back when I was in a relatively happy state, it made me feel broken. But I got on anti-depressants and focused on making this film - it gave me purpose. For those of you lucky enough to have never experienced depression, it can really fuck up your memory, especially when it comes to positive events. Your brain remembers the negative events much easier but overall, it can be difficult to recall much if you’ve been undergoing a depressive episode. You can read more about the Mechanisms of Memory Disruption in Depression if you’re a science nerd here. But of course, there are things I do remember. I remember Imogen being a gun. Watching her in the writing process was incredible, she was so smart and knew so much. She had passion that would bounce off every corner of the room and I would match her energy and enthusiasm. I could see that she was going to be a brilliant writer and a fantastic director one day. She had the brain for it and it was so awesome to collaborate with her. We'd go away and write scenes and come back and share them, it was so inspiring and exciting seeing our film come together. 

This was probably my favourite part of the whole process - when we were just creating, not knowing where it would end up. Sometimes we'd share our writings for other projects. I remember her being concerned about some of the heavy suicidal themes in some of my other projects and thinking about them now I cringe at my openness to explore these feelings in short film scripts. At that time I was still grappling with understanding what my depression was and I thought everyone felt the way that I did. As a twenty-seven-year-old, I appreciate how intense and traumatising it might be to read some of those scripts and am even more thankful to Imogen for being very graceful with her feedback.

When all our scenes were done for the first draft, Imogen compiled it and made it flow. We made adjustments together from what Imogen had effortlessly sewn together. We talked about character motivations and clarified what had emerged as a queer narrative. It was all so exciting and before we knew it we were getting ready to actually make this thing. Over New Years, I came up with the title "Suburban Wildlife" whilst my High School friend group drank outside on the porch of an Airbnb. Imogen and I agreed that "Suburban Wildlife" perfectly encapsulated the feeling of our characters, wriggling around trying to be free in the suburbs of Australia.

Making a feature-length film started to become a reality and as we recruited our classmates for different roles and decided to bring on another producer on board. There was no way I could do this solo. I'm not sure if it was my low self-esteem, my unrelenting depression, adding another person to the mix or it becoming real but I felt myself slipping away from the project. I had gone on a family holiday during casting and when I returned and met all the cast - no one had any idea that I was the co-writer. I convinced myself it was because I wasn't as good as Imogen - she was a star compared to me. She was so smart and switched on and seeing her with the actors was amazing. It was like witnessing a young Greta Gerwig, and I was just the depressed twenty-one-year-old who was hanging around.

As the shoot went on, I found myself less involved as a producer. The other producer had "hired" people to help out with production, leaving my responsibilities to some menial roles and being responsible for marketing. I poured my heart and soul into the crowdfunding campaign, I wanted to help this film get made - I didn't want Imogen's work to go to waste. I wanted to help to prove that I was still important. We crowdfunded around 4000 AUD and the producer secured equipment for 14 days from our film school - something that would have cost double our budget. To this day, you can't borrow equipment for that long at AFTRS, because of Suburban Wildlife.

Pre-production was strange. There were meetings I found out later I wasn't "needed for" and slowly my role became less of a 'producer' and more of an "on-site production manager". I didn't mind this change - I thought I was lucky to even retain a production role on the film. I didn't go to location scouts or rehearsals because of my own schedule or because they only needed a "skeleton crew" and by the time we were ready to shoot, I felt like a production runner who had gotten a fancy title. But I was grateful to still be included. Over pre-production, I had barely spoken to Imogen and our friendship suffered for it - she was stressed and overwhelmed and I didn't feel comfortable voicing any of my concerns - they felt silly anyway. We were making something bigger than us and feeling pushed out of my own film didn't feel important enough to bring up.

Assistant Director Steph Stretton and I on the first day of shooting

So for fourteen days in February 2017, I drove my car and other cars (whilst mine was being used as the car in the movie) around Sydney, Wollongong and Kangaroo Valley. I picked up and coordinated extras, and got them to sign their releases. I got water bottles for the crew, kept watch over equipment, and helped the over-worked Assistant Director write call sheets. I didn't question when the producer would send continuity home or schedule something tightly. I felt like a ghost whose presence everyone felt and was annoyed about. 

The producer wasn't on set for personal reasons, but showed up in the middle of the shoot, bringing custom printed hats for the cast and crew. They were celebrated, I felt small. my hat said "Suburban Wildlife - Producer": my heart sank. This felt fake - “I wasn't the producer. I wasn't even the co-writer”. My mind raced “Did I make up that I wrote this film with Imogen? Maybe I didn’t? Maybe I dropped the ball and Imogen wrote it all herself and I'm just a little hanger-on because it's easier to give me a vanity role than remove me out of fear I'd try and pursue legal action”. A simple gesture became a mental mindfield for me. Every time I wore the hat I was ashamed, I felt like people took to be me bragging about how I was invovled in a film I wasn’t “actually” a part of. 

Imogen, Lucca Barone-Peters (cinematographer) and I on the final shoot day.

Post-production I tried to live up to the name on my hat - I tried to put myself forward as a strong post-producer. I was told Imogen was busy with the edit - on top of our final year film school commitments. I would have barely seen her for the rest of 2017 if it weren't for the internship we both worked at. She was so busy, she was doing so much. She was going to be a star. I was encouraged to only talk to the producer about what to do production-wise with the film. I asked if the producer needed help chasing up contracts, or creating an Electronic Press Kit for festivals and media - anything I could think of I asked if I could do it. I was told not to worry about it and so I awaited my next orders.

That didn't come until 2018. I'm not sure what happened but I think I had decided to check in with Imogen because I hadn't heard anything from her for a few months. We were barely friends at that point and had assumed that she didn't want me to have anything to do with Suburban Wildlife so I had kept my distance - not wanting to push her out of fear of getting my ‘vanity credits’ taken away from me. Imogen called me and told me that the producer had left months ago and she was basically dealing with finishing Suburban Wildlife alone. I immediately asked her what she needed help with and she gave me tasks - finally, I got tasks! I chased up signatures that weren't received from our primary cast and heads of department (luckily they were all still friends so it wasn't hard or painful). I committed myself to Suburban Wildlife's social media and web presence as Imogen worked hard finalising the edit - which had some continuity issues. The old duo were back together again, but things were different. We were working together and thankful to have each other, but I felt an underlying tension. I felt like I was a father that had walked out and was only coming back when the kid was a teenager. I suggested we pitch Suburban Wildlife as the debut film from Imogen McCluskey because it was easier and streamlined the marketing, and also because at that point, I believed it was Imogen's film - she had put so much of herself into it. She would often joke about how the film ruined her eyesight and her knees - needing corrective stuff for both now. 

We managed to get the film together and screen it for our friends and family. I can't hold onto the feeling of seeing it for the first time because it was such an emotional whirlwind for me. I had such a complex relationship with this film. It was mine but it wasn't. There were parts I don't remember because I wasn't included, or was my depression messing with my memories again? The High School friendship group I had based the friendship group on didn't even show up to my screening, that hurt me the most. I didn't feel connected to any of the cast and crew because I felt like they still saw me as the glorified runner. That I was riding off the coattails of Imogen. Imogen was the star and I was kind of  there.

Imogen and I with the main cast at the cast and crew screening.

When Imogen told me that Suburban Wildlife was selected to be part of Cinequest 2019, I was over the moon. None of the big festivals seemed to want the movie, but San José, California wanted us. We applied for CreateNSW's funding which helps Australian Filmmakers travel to premieres in other countries provided they attend meetings, network and show CreateNSW that they are using the trip to advance their career. Imogen showed me the list of people she was set to meet up with in LA and it was so impressive. But I was never jealous of Imogen because she was just better, she worked harder, she was smarter and she deserved it more than me.

Cinequest felt amazing. Imogen and I would go to local businesses and distribute flyers that I had made on CANVA advertising our "Australian Coming of Age Indie Feature”. We went to the red carpet opening night - we met other filmmakers - and we tore up the dance floors together. To this day - Cinequest was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. However, things still felt off. Imogen and I were spending nearly 24 hours together, we were getting along but there was unspoken tension and it was driving me crazy. It took me snapping about where to eat when Imogen took me aside and asked me what was wrong. We ducked into a jazz bar, not too far from the festival hub and I ordered a toastie and tomato soup. She offered to lend an ear to what I was feeling and everything spilled out - how I felt like Suburban Wildlife wasn't my film anymore, how I felt like she wanted nothing to do with me, how I felt so isolated and alone. Imogen had no idea I was feeling this way and opened up about how she felt like I didn't want anything to do with the film, that she felt abandoned and left to do all the work alone. We realised we wanted the same thing and she told me Suburban Wildlife was MY film as much as it was HER film and I cried. 

We cried listening to jazz in San José and I felt so close to her and realised that we had a special friendship. We had been through so much and to be able to come back together despite everything and celebrate the crazy feat together was so special. Imogen had given me the confidence to take ownership of what was mine as well as hers and the rest of the trip was a blast. We went to Los Angeles and San Fransisco, we talked about handsome boys and interesting films we saw at the festival. We even saw some bad stand-up comedy and talked all night about how gross, sexist and misogynistic it was and how lucky we were for the comedy scene in Australia. 

We went on to premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in Australia, something that was a dream come true for both of us. I had so much fun hustling to fill out our two screenings that we ended selling out. It was an amazing experience. It was a dream. I was so glad I was hangry one night in San José and that Imogen was kind enough to check in and see what was going on. I don’t think I would have been able to feel ownership over the film again without her.

Five years later and in many ways I’m still recovering from Suburban Wildlife. I often joke about how I was traumatised from it. Many people who have worked with me and asked me if I were to do a feature film again know the visceral reaction I give. It’s sometimes crazy to me thinking about how at twenty-one I did this massive thing, it feels like something from another life. But the scars stayed there for a long time; the self-doubt, trust issues and not ever wanting to be on set stayed. They still come up to this day, which is why I wanted to write this. I feel like in a way I never processed it, I had stayed relatively quiet because of my experience but I wanted to document it. I am a writer and I had denied myself that title again and again. 

I haven’t written a script since 2020. Countless rejections from countless grants, applications, scholarships and one particularly unfair tutor during my Masters further chipped away at my confidence. Luckily I found something that gave me opportunity and something that I was kinda good at - stand-up comedy. Now I feel like I’ve crossed over and more people know me as a stand-up comedian than a writer who once co-wrote an indie feature, and to that I say - I’m still a writer but I’m very fragile. 

I still believe Imogen is Australia’s Greta Gerwig and I hope in the next five years she sees heights that haven’t been reached since Jane Campion tore up the directing scene. I am so proud to have written on Imogen McCluskey’s first feature film. 

As for the characters in Suburban Wildlife, I'd like to think Alice and Kane met up once or twice. I don't think Nina and Louise ever spoke again, out of awkwardness. Both of them unable to have that chat in a jazz bar whilst eating a cheese toastie over tomato soup.

You can rent or buy Suburban Wildife on Apple TV here

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