What I do
I’m a film director with a documentary background, specializing in stories based on real life.
I’ve built a reputation for eliciting excellent and credible performances from non-actors while pushing seasoned actors to uncover new dimensions.
I started making films when I was 3. My dad was the cameraman and my mum handled the props. I’d act out sketches which I hoped would eventually air on ‘New Zealand’s Funniest Home Videos.’ These sketches usually ended with me planting my face in a birthday cake or getting hit in the privates with a tennis ball. This was my first stab at directing and acting. I’ve never stopped.
To get closer to the film industry, I became a journalist for Film Ink magazine when I was 15 and living in Australia. My first assignment was interviewing Anne Hathaway. After a nervous start, I quickly learned that I had a preternatural skill for interviewing people, eliciting honest answers to difficult questions, not through force but by inspiring trust. I won an AACTA (formerly AFI) Award for Young Film Critic of the Year. In addition, I was nominated for The Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year award. This was an enlightening time; I was interviewing the A-list actors and directors I’d always admired, as well as watching two or three movies every night to discern my taste in cinema.
Eventually, I realized that I was ready to create something of my own. When I saw South African entertainer and activist Pieter-Dirk Uys perform at the Sydney Opera House, I knew that my first film would be about him. Upon meeting Sydney producer Jonathon Green, with whom I continue working to this day, I found the vital missing element: an experienced hand to guide me.
I negotiated with my high school to give me 3 days off per week while I began working on the documentary that became Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story. I traveled all over South Africa with Uys (and his drag alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout!), who had dedicated his post-Apartheid career to educating millions of young people about HIV/AIDS. The film won the IF Independent Spirit Award and was Runner Up in the Panorama Audience Awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, as voted on by 20,000 cinemagoers.
A theatrical release in South Africa followed. The film was raw, often shot with a shaky camcorder, but it was straight from the heart and it featured a great subject who had opened his soul to me. I realized that though I had to hone my technical filmmaking abilities, nothing would ever trump the primacy of story and character.
Darling! was followed by Cup of Dreams, a portrait of New Zealanders’ collective obsession with their national rugby team, the All Blacks. The year was 2007 and, despite perennially being the world’s number-one-ranked team, the All Blacks hadn’t won a World Cup in over 20 years. This was a source of profound psychological shame for Kiwis, comparable to the chagrin of Cubs or Red Sox fans who had endured long title droughts. I examined my own lifelong obsession with the All Blacks, which led me to realize that, at its root, was my troubled relationship with my father. This epiphany, captured on screen, attracted the attention of people who might not have cared about rugby but who still took away, from the film, a powerful psychological insight.
Cup of Dreams revealed what lay behind the intense emotions of fans like myself. Our feelings had little to do with sport; rather, they stemmed from our hard-wired need to belong to a tribe, to feel like we would always have a place to call home, whether literal or imaginary. Ultimately, in a perfect storm, the All Blacks won the 2011 World Cup, creating the happy ending we all craved, and I re-established an authentic relationship with my dad – a relationship which is now stronger than ever. The film sold in all territories, but I was most proud when it played on NBC Sports stateside. Cup of Dreams strengthened my passion for digging into human behavior until I had discovered what really makes people tick.
By this time, though I was only in my early 20s, I was burnt out from having made back-to-back feature documentaries, each of which had taken four years to complete. I felt that I had gone as far as I could on my own, and I risked becoming dangerously isolated. Not only did I have to find a group of peers with whom I could collaborate, I also had to start translating my documentary skillset into significantly larger-scale narrative work.
I honed my craft by obtaining a Master of Film and Digital Image degree from Sydney University, then a Graduate Diploma in Directing and a Master of Screen Arts in Directing, both from the national film school AFTRS. I found kindred spirits with whom I still collaborate. Several of them went on to hire me as an actor, helping me see that my calling as a performer is as strong as my calling to direct. I’m now lucky enough to be making a living working in both Australia and the US, including having acted in the feature film San Andreas, the TV series Portlandia, and many shorts and commercials. Directing makes me a better actor and vice versa. For me, directing and acting are two sides of the same storytelling coin. For example, my acting experience has given me the ability, as a director, to communicate efficiently but deeply with the actors in my projects.
After film school, I co-produced and acted in a short film called ‘It’s Time,’ created by Stephen McCallum in support of marriage equality. It was made for little money but with plenty of heart, and its message was urgent. ‘It’s Time’ went on to win the AdNews Viral Video of the Year Award and to rack up more than 16 million views on YouTube. It was even shared by Stephen Fry and Madonna. Oh, and I got my own float in the Mardi Gras that year!
I continued making dramatic shorts and was encouraged when I won Best Young Australian Filmmaker of the Year from the Byron Bay International Film Festival. My short films have screened at Cannes in Cinema Des Antipodes, the St Tropez Film Festival, FLICKERFEST and the Melbourne International Film Festival.
In this time I also directed commercial work including campaigns for WWF, Earth Hour, the Wallabies, Sum of Us, GetUp! and Goodman Fielder.
I recently finished my first narrative feature, Use Me. It’s a hybrid movie that began as a documentary about online humiliatrix Ceara Lynch, then morphed into a scripted thriller. Audiences don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, but they’re hooked by the story, the characters and the emotion.
The dichotomy that Use Me exemplifies is key to my work. My strength lies in making the documentary form feel cinematic and in making fiction feel viscerally real. I love behind-the-scenes stories, I love fourth wall breaking, I love the dichotomy of private lives and public personas. These days, I’m most obsessed with stories involving a protagonist on an urgent mission to uncover the truth. My jam, if you will, is to keep peeling away the onion layers of a character through dramatic conflict until I arrive at the hard core, at which point going deeper is impossible. That’s where emotional catharsis is. That’s what makes an audience walk out of the cinema feeling like they’re floating on air. That’s why I do what I do.
My areas of expertise are sports/entertainment (especially Rugby, American Football and Pro Wrestling), human rights, law, biopics and technology.
I’m developing several features as well as a TV mini-series. I’d love to meet you and tell you about these projects.
Maybe one day we’ll get to work together.
Mollison Keightley Management
139 Cathedral Street,
Woolloomooloo. NSW 2011.
Australia Phone: (02) 8302 2800
Fax: (02) 9332 2382
From outside Australia
Phone: +61 2 8302 2800
Fax: +61 2 9332 2382
Los Angeles, CA
+1 310 858 3200