Beck Fenier

Kate Dennis

Bachelor of Arts in Communication (1989)

Filmmaker, trailblazer, Emmy Award nominee

A tale for the times

“I think when you’re working on content that is so profoundly affecting, it resonates with every fibre in your being and you’re able to bring so much more to it.”

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the dystopian future depicted in the critically acclaimed television series The Handmaid’s Tale has struck many as highly relevant in today’s world. For Australian director Kate Dennis, who was nominated for an Emmy for her work on one of the episodes, The Bridge, the timeliness of the material presented an opportunity to bring an urgency and truthfulness to the storytelling.

“The show rails against racism, sexism, bigotry and ignorance and that’s something that clearly hits a chord right now,” she says.

Before she hit the big time in the US, the UTS communications graduate first earned her stripes as a clapper loader, focus puller and script supervisor on the sets of homegrown classics such as Babe and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Working alongside film and TV greats including Bryan Brown, George Miller, Amanda Higgs and John Edwards, she went on to direct episodes of some of the country’s most beloved television series, including Offspring, Rake and Love My Way.

Alongside her Emmy nomination, Dennis was this year awarded the Create NSW Annette Kellerman Award, which honours trailblazing women in Hollywood, at the Australians in Film Awards in LA. And after the “rollercoaster ride” of the Emmys, it looks like there’s no slowing down for Dennis, with directing projects including GLOW, The Tick and Heathers on her slate.

Before she headed to Belfast to film for the big budget sci-fi show, Krypton, Dennis took the time to share some of her breakthrough moments, inspirations and advice for budding UTS filmmakers.

“The Handmaid’s Tale rails against racism, sexism, bigotry and ignorance and that’s something that clearly hits a chord right now.”
You’re regarded as a ‘trailblazing female filmmaker’ – was there a breakthrough moment for you, or a mentor that guided you’?

I’m not sure I deserve that title! There have been many female directors before me who have done well here in TV here in Hollywood – Kate Woods, Cherie Nowlan, and more recently Alethea Jones. I was always inspired by Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong's paths, but was never lucky enough to be mentored by them.

After UTS, which in itself was a very inspirational period (I remember how emotionally struck I was by Gill’s [Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Associate Professor Gillian Leahy’s] film My Life Without Steve), I began working in the camera department under directors of photography like John Seale, Kim Batterham, Brian Breheny, Andrew Lesnie, Geoff Simpson and Peter Menzies Jr.

It’s hard to pinpoint a breakthrough moment. I think, creatively, being around [film director] George Miller on Babe was a key thing for me. His rigour and creative focus was really something to see up close. In terms of TV directing breakthroughs, I would have to thank [Australian television producer] John Edwards. He has always championed my work and been the most incredible sounding board and creative provocateur in my life.

You’ve recently been awarded the Annette Kellerman Award at the Australians in Film Awards, and nominated at the Emmys. How did it feel to be nominated’?

It felt pretty surreal. I had no expectations of a win, which in a way was a relief. It was just incredible to be on the same list as the Jonathan Nolans, Lesli Linka Glatters and Vince Gilligans of the world! And then frankly, after I got used to the idea, it just felt like a great week of parties! Sadly I was shooting Heathers at the time, so I had to be at work early each morning. But that week leading up to the Emmys on the Sunday really is a fun rollercoaster ride.

Was there something that particularly resonated with you in the story of The Handmaid’s Tale?

We were lucky with how timely the material turned out to be. The show rails against racism, sexism, bigotry and ignorance and that’s something that clearly hits a chord right now. That said, there is nothing in the show that hadn’t already happened somewhere in the world. I loved Margaret Atwood saying that her favourite sign at the Women’s March in Toronto in March 2017 was one held by an older woman that said, “After 60 years, why am I still holding this f—ing sign?"

UTS alumni are often using their skills learnt during their studies to improve the world around them, sharing tools and ideas (and film!) that bring around change and inspiration. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of this. What was your vision for directing the show, and impact you wanted to make?

The way we approached the show was to make the main character Offred’s experiences as personal and subjective as we could. We kept the camera up close to her on a 28mm so you could almost feel her breathing. We hoped to allow the viewer an opportunity to really get inside her decisions, her claustrophobia, her fears.

Though the show as a whole is disorienting and oppressive, my second episode was one which gave the audience at least some sense of catharsis. It was challenging to manage that narrow glimpse of hope, in the context of the show as a whole.

Next up you’re directing something very different in tone in the superhero series The Tick starring UK comedian Peter Serafinowicz. Do you find there’s a difference between directing drama, comedy and action, and do you have a preference?

I love to move around between genres. Much of the work I did in Australia was comedy/drama so I have an affinity with that. It’s easy to get pigeon-holed here in the US. I’m trying to avoid that.

“Stay true to yourselves and the stories you want to tell. Don’t be afraid to persist or take creative chances.”
Thinking back to your time at UTS, what were your fondest memories? How has the practical experience you gained here been valuable?

I loved my time at UTS. There were only 12 of us studying film and we all knew each other well. I remember taking everyone away to the coast to make my final film. The process turned out to be somewhat fraught as the Nagra [audio recorder] had a faulty flag and wasn’t running to speed, so for six weeks after making the movie I had to sit on the Steenbeck [flatbed editing table] night after night cutting frames out to try to make the words fit in the mouths. For a while I thought it would just be easier to turn the sound tape around backwards and pretend it was Swedish and just subtitle it. Looking back that seems like a kind of sad story, but I really believe it taught me a strange sense of tenacity. I was even more determined to make my next short.

Next month when I go to Ireland I am looking forward to reconnecting with fellow UTS writing graduate, Lauren MacKenzie, with whom I spend many long nights on Steenbeck, eating Lebanese dinners and editing into the wee hours.

What would you say to Media Arts and Production students who plan on embarking on a career in the film/TV industry?

Stay true to yourselves and the stories you want to tell. Don’t be afraid to persist or take creative chances. There is nothing to be lost in putting your vision or taste on the line. But always be considerate of your collaborators. They are the ones working to make your vision a reality. They will work harder for you if you let them into your process and respect their contributions.

And finally – don’t do it if you can’t find a way to have fun doing it. The hours are too long and the pressure is too great. If in doubt – laugh!

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