Screenwriter Josephine Emery on Strangers, Craig Lahiff, Scott Hicks and more

Josephine (previously John) Emery (19 February 1947-)  is one of a group of filmmakers who was at the heart of the film industry in South Australia when it began to thrive in the late 70s and into the 1980s. She wrote a script for what would become Phil Noyce’s first feature Backroads (1977). She followed this later with a script for the film Freedom (1982) directed by Scott Hicks. She was a frequent collaborator with Craig Lahiff – she worked on Fever (1989) and Strangers (1991) with him. A well-respected author of thrillers and science fiction, Josephine worked in executive roles for the Australian Film Television and Radio School and the Australia Council. She is also transgender and writes songs. Here in an interview with the very well read and talented writer as she discusses her film career…

Tell me about your beginnings as a screenwriter… how you met Phil Noyce and Craig Lahiff…and the formulation of Freedom… and The Dreaming?

I was first and foremost a short story writer and was getting work widely published around 1968 onwards.

In 1972-3 an AFTRS film student, Philip Noyce, contacted me as he needed to make a film based on an Australian short story. He’d selected my story, Caravan Park, which had been rather widely published. This was my introduction to filmmaking. Phil and I discussed how to make the story work as a film. Some time later we worked together on a documentary shoot in Adelaide. He was running the camera and I was Gofer. The producer/director was Frank Shields.

Josephine Emery also makes furniture

Phil liked the way I wrote and what I wrote about and he went through a lot of my stories and selected one, The First Day of Spring, as the basis for what became Backroads. I wrote the first draft script in collaboration with him. His aim was to make, “an existential road movie.” That was around 1975-6. The film was released in 1977. The script went through a lot of changes during production, mostly for the better. It ceased being existential and became a very much-needed polemic.

I met Craig through a script editor/consultant at the SAFC in the late 1970s. Craig was making short science fiction type movies and I was writing some science fictionish short stories as well as more realistic stories. A volume of my stories, Summer Ends Now, would be published in 1982 by University of Queensland Press.

Bill Hunter and Gary Foley in Backroads (1977)

Craig and I hit it off and we began working together. He and I loved the short fictions of the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and we discussed adapting some of them, as well as those of Ray Bradbury. Eventually 2 short films came out of this process:  Labyrinths (Borges) and The Town Where Nobody Got off (Bradbury). These were 16mm shorts.

During this time a group of us – including Craig, me, Terry Jennings, Mario Andreacchio, Scott Hicks, Ron Saunders, Wayne Groom, Ray Bartram and others, became a loose ensemble of film-makers. We often met at Craig’s house in Somerton Park where he’d made a screening room. We’d watch movies and discuss them. Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, &c.

At one stage we all collaborated on a 35mm short, The Jogger, written and directed by Craig, that got picked up by someone like Roadshow as a short feature for cinema screenings. I was an extra/actor on this, not writer. The script called for 4 black-haired, black-bearded men in black tracksuits jogging through a park with a coffin. In those days I fitted the bill. Not any more. 🙂

Freedom (1982) trailer

After the success of Backroads I was encouraged to develop another of my short stories for a possible feature film. The story had been published in a Men’s magazine called Chance International. It was the story of a working-class boy who gets fired from his job in a foundry and steals the car of his dreams to impress the girl of his dreams. That script would eventually become Freedom in 1982. I then adapted the script into a short novel of the same title.

While this was going on Craig and I kept working together on script ideas. He was very taken with Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Don Siegel. We’d moved on from watching 16mm prints to videos – which had the advantage of rewind, slo-mo, &c. Much better for analysing a scene or sequence.

Don Siegel on the set of Dirty Harry. Andrew Robinson is on the left.

Craig took another of my SF stories and suggested a movie based around it. I wrote a script and we got AFC funding for it as a short feature (50 min.). It was called The Coming, with Liz Alexander and Rod Mullinar. It made a TV sale.

By then the SAFC had picked up my Freedom script and we were into pre-production on that.

I did not enjoy the SAFC process of making Freedom. I never hit it off with Scott – and that was partly due to SAFC keeping us apart and only allowing communications via a script editor. SAFC also imposed a new (happy!) ending on what I always envisaged as a darker movie, a la Easy Rider. Scott and I were thrown into it without developing a personal relationship that would have made creative communications possible. I think the film works well for the first 2 acts but falls apart in the third. That is mostly my fault. I didn’t write a character who would propel the chase to its final denouement. And I had to deal with the studio’s demand for an ‘upbeat ending’ to what was essentially a downbeat story.

Soon after its release I saw, Vanishing Point, and thought, “That’s the movie I wanted to write!” 

The seminal Vanishing Point (1971) trailer

I had nothing to do with Craig’s, Coda. He developed that with Terry Jennings. I didn’t like the concept and the script and said so. But it opened doors for him. As a result of its success at American Film Market Craig was approached by JC Williamson’s with an offer of money to finance a 90-minute thriller, ‘if a suitable script were written’. Craig came to me and I wrote a treatment for a thriller based around desperate people in an ugly mining town who would do almost anything to get out.  We called it, Fever. Williamson’s liked it, put the money up, and we were away.

We took the film to AFM in Los Angeles about 1988. On the way back, on the plane, Craig said something about how he never got to sit next to attractive women on planes. “What would you do if you did?,” I asked him. We looked at each other and the idea for Strangers, originally Strangers On a Plane, was born. By the time we disembarked in Sydney we had an outline for, “Strangers on a Train meets Play Misty For Me.”

I wrote the script. Somewhere down the line Craig brought in Bob Ellis to do a dialogue rewrite.

The Fog helped to inspire The Dreaming

Craig also came to me wanting to do a John Carpenter type film like, The Fog. We talked up an idea. I’d introduced him to the tales of HP Lovecraft and he wanted that kind of mysterioso mood. I wanted to push the idea somewhere into Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, territory. Father/daughter on island inhabited by ghosts. I’d grown up on the S.A. coast with the knowledge of aboriginal massacres, of American whalers camped on the islands, &c.  We developed a script that became, The Dreaming.

Tony Ginnane was EP. Much as I loved the films he’d made from Everett De Roche’s scripts (a thriller/supernatural master if ever there was one) I was very upset at his evisceration of The Dreaming’s sub-text and his shaving of the budget (as was Craig who found his big scenes becoming smaller and smaller). Eventually Craig and I both took our names off the picture. Mario A. shot it. A whole bunch of people were later credited with the script.

I’ve been looking at Craig Lahiff’s CODA and Strangers. Strangers encompasses a broad range of sexuality (ed. should have said female) for its day. Was that a conscious decision? Is it just spice?

I don’t remember discussing ‘a broad range of sexuality’ on the Strangers script. That may have come in later as an attempt to spice it up by Bob Ellis. Craig was not a ‘broad range of sexualities’ kind of guy. He was definitely a, ‘ladies’ man’. I was simply confused and trying to hide it.

How long did it take to produce Strangers? Compared to your usual gestation…

Emery’s novel

Fever and Strangers both happened very quickly and easily. Fever was the fastest. Maybe a year from conception to finish? Strangers started quickly. Money was available and the chasing up of money is the most time-consuming thing.  I can’t recall the total time-span as I was also involved in other projects. I was writing for television then, too. Writing a big novel. (The Sky People, published 1984.) Working as a features writer and art critic for The Advertiser. There was a lot going on.

We got 3 feature movies up and made in around 3-4 years! That was pretty good for a couple of lads in Adelaide – plus I did Freedom in 1982, as well as writing and also working on Craig’s, The Coming.  

Are you a Patricia Highsmith fan at all? She has been described as a misogynist.

Cate Blanchett in Carol

I love Highsmith’s work. Love it. A great thriller writer. From all accounts she was a ’difficult woman.’ So be it. Have you seen the movie,  ‘Carol’, with Cate Blanchett? Todd Haynes directing. Based on an unpublished novel/memoir by Highsmith. A lovely movie. I see a link between her and me in that we both struggled with our sexuality/gender and hid it behind writing misogynistic thrillers.  The tension in the work is driven by the writer’s need to both reveal and conceal their inner turmoil.

Ditto Hitchcock. Is Strangers on a Train a favourite? You and Craig must have shared some kind of affinity for the movie…

Craig educated me in writing thrillers by screening Hitchcock over and over. I love the moral ambiguity of Hitchcock’s work and the way he developed his own cinematic language. Strangers on a Train is not up there with Vertigo or The Birds for me. Vertigo, in particular. And Psycho for its bold destruction of an easy and obvious script path. The protagonist dies at the end of the first act!

A negative transgender role to say the least

The business about the villain dressing in his mother’s clothes and killing women is part of the negative portrayal of transgendered people that I had to contend with as I struggled with my issues. It turned me off Almodovar for many years.

We certainly screened Hitchcock’s Strangers (and Misty) many times as we developed the concept. Craig would have ideas for certain key (usually violent) scenes. I would develop a structure to tie them together. But Strangers was a story about characters far removed from the world I’d developed in my own writing. I’m much more at home with regional and rural, working people, the road, people on the edge of inner destruction. I wasn’t happy with my work on the Strangers script. But it paid my bills at the time.

What was Lahiff like to collaborate with? He must have loved Hitchcock…

Author H.P. Lovecraft

Craig and I had a very good superficial working relationship. We talked up ideas from a common base of literature (Borges, Bradbury, Lovecraft, &c). We understood and respected each other’s talents. But Craig was always playing a deep and controlling game and there was a lot going on that he didn’t bring me in on. He could get rather paranoid under the stress of a shoot. We drifted apart by 1990. I got the feeling he came to regard me as someone who had nothing more to offer him. So he dropped me. As I’d thought he was a friend more than a working colleague – and I was going throw some pretty dark times – this hurt a lot. But for those years from about 1980 – 1988 we were a creative partnership. We would take each others’ ideas and build on them. Like the way a band develops a song. It’s hard to remember who wrote which riff or lyric! There must be a half dozen highly developed other movie treatments lying around that we developed that were not picked up.

Are you happy with the end result of Strangers? Its unfair to compare it to Hitchcock except in terms of its ideas.

By the time Strangers was finished my relationship with Craig was fading.  I was struggling to hold my own life together as a man. I’ve not seen Strangers in nearly 40 years. I have no recollection of it.

Director and writer Craig Lahiff towards the end of his life

By 2001 I’d taken up the position of Co-Head of Screenwriting at AFTRS in Sydney. From there I moved to be inaugural Director of Literature at the Australia Council. Two high-pressure, high-profile jobs that ate up most of my creative energy. Particularly as it was shortly into my time at the Australia Council that I did a very public gender change after being outed by the Murdoch Press.

How does a writer like you write? Is it cigarettes and coffee? Or do you get up and just write?

I write. It’s a disease. I used to always be doing it. Sometimes it led to a story, a book, a movie. Often it didn’t.  It was also my job, so I applied myself to it on a daily basis. Particularly when writing movies when I was getting paid. Money is a great motivator!

Emery wrote science fiction so it’s not surprising Ray Bradbury is a favourite

A few years ago – after I shifted to a cabin in North Central Victoria to write – the writing stopped. It went away. I was deeply distressed for several years. I wanted my disease back! I took up carpentry and furniture-making. Then suddenly it came back, but this time as song-writing. Which is what I’m happily doing now. I still apply the same routine, which is essentially treating it as a full-time job.

I also work as a mentor and editor for other writers. A job I enjoy immensely. My advice for them is always: write!

Another aspect of your life is you are a transgender woman. Forgive me if I blow the exact title. There are so many these days… When did you know you were really a girl/woman? I understand you were married with children…

I was 4 years old when I first realised I was a girl. I was in my late 50s when I ‘came out’ and started living as a woman. Then went through full reassignment surgery.

Josephine Emery performs River of Life

How difficult is the transgender experience in Australia today? Do you think it is any easier for someone than say fifteen or twenty years ago?

Twenty years ago it was a fucking nightmare to be gotten through and lucky if you came out alive. There were no positive role models. There was no understanding. It was a lonely, terrifying experience. I saw several suicides up close. I saw a number of highly talented people destroyed. 

It appears to be better now, but the issues of gender and gender fluidity have become political footballs. That makes it hard for anyone caught in the trap.  We still don’t understand what’s at the core of gender and sexuality (maybe because both are human constructs?) and therefore don’t understand gender difference. It’s not just a physical phenomenon that can be treated medically. It goes to the spiritual heart of the individual – and thus the heart of the species.  It’s a wound for the individual that doesn’t heal and thus becomes the well of their creativity.

2 Comments

  1. Gloria
    Permalink

    Great interview Craig. I came to it via reconnecting with Josephine after a hiatus of almost 40 years through a dream of all things. What a life she has led – and still leads! And I love your amazing, creative blog. Obviously a labour of love.

    Reply

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