Making a movie is an extraordinarily laborious process that generally takes a couple of years or more from green light to the big screen. Throw in the negligible budget that has become almost standard for Australian productions, along with the struggles that emerging directors must endure to ‘prove’ their worth, and the task becomes even more daunting, verging on the insurmountable.
In contrast, it might appear from a distance that Macedonian-born, Melbourne-based writer/director Goran Stolevski’s career has skyrocketed from nowhere. First, his deliriously queer coming-of-age witches tale You Won’t Be Alone premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival; a truly spellbinding debut, it was described in these pages by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas as using ‘the language of visceral body and folk traditions to paint in broad, sweeping strokes something genuinely original, truly captivating and frankly unforgettable’.Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, ‘“New Rivers Spin Inside”: Women and Witchcraft in Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone’, Metro, no. 213, 2022, pp. 8–11, available at <https://metromagazine.com.au/new-rivers-spin-inside/>, accessed 23 March 2023. And then, just over six months later, his sophomore feature Of an Age – shot in and around his childhood stomping ground of Macleod and on Altona Beach, outer suburbs in Melbourne’s north-east and west, respectively – took its bow as the centrepiece of the seventieth Melbourne International Film Festival’s opening night gala. As if this weren’t already ludicrously impressive enough, Stolevski’s third feature in two short years, Housekeeping for Beginners, was completed in North Macedonia just in the nick of time for him to jet back home for the Of an Age debut.
I speak to Stolevski about this apparently magical turn of events, and how it has all come to pass.
Stephen A Russell: How on Earth did you manage to whip up three films in two years?
Goran Stolevski: All I could do [was] make short films and write feature after feature; and, eventually, something connected. It was a sudden flip between basically not existing to, suddenly, people wanting to see my work and going, ‘Oh, it’s really good. What do you want to do next?’
Did it feel surreal when The Babadook [Jennifer Kent, 2014] producer Kristina Ceyton set her sights on helping you bring You Won’t Be Alone to life?
It still does. I wrote thirteen features before I shot You Won’t Be Alone, and now I haven’t written anything in two years because I’ve been too busy shooting three films [laughs]. But I guess that’s okay?
The most surreal thing is going into that folder in my disk drive that is packed with screenplays that need to be made and then actually removing things – because [in the past] I always just added them, making the folder bigger. Now, it’s like: ‘Oh, wait, this one’s made? It doesn’t really belong in this folder.’
Did you ever expect that the strange tale of a shapeshifting witch’s sexual awakening would be the first screenplay to take flight?
Kristina was the first Australian producer that ever contacted me, and it was very weird even just getting her email saying, ‘We’d like to work with you.’ I sent her a paragraph summary of each of the films in the catalogue at that point, and I think You Won’t Be Alone was maybe […] the eighth one down the list. She read it overnight and that was the one she chose, so it’s her fault – I never thought it would get made.
You’re obviously prolific. Can you talk us through your writing process?
I wish I knew how my brain works at times. [The screenplays] don’t usually emerge as stories or even concepts, most of the time – it’s sort of like a feeling I get that then feels connected to a personality, and then the world around them kind of fills in gradually. And then, once I have a sense of the person in the world, I try to shape that into a story. And it happens usually at a time just before I go to sleep, when I’m super exhausted.
Is it true that You Won’t Be Alone came to you overnight on a Megabus while living in Bristol and travelling south for the London Film Festival?See Laura Potier, ‘Goran Stolevski on You Won’t Be Alone, the Importance of Language, and Fluid Identities’, Outtake, 20 October 2022, <http://outtakemag.co.uk/interviews/2022/10/20/goran-stolevski-you-wont-be-alone-noomi-rapace/>, accessed 22 March 2023.
Yes! There was probably urine flowing in the aisle …
When it strikes me, I always grab whatever’s on hand, and I think [You Won’t Be Alone’s premise] was sketched on an envelope […] It was by no means fully formed. I don’t really write much down until the details accumulate in order for me to have a story and a structure. With You Won’t Be Alone, it was a few weeks later that a friend of mine asked me to submit a script for a workshop in Macedonia – I mainly did it just to hang out with her. So I had to write something really quickly; I had, like, three days. My husband and I were visiting a friend from Ireland, so we were driving around Wicklow and I was desperately typing away in the back seat. [They] were trying to make conversation, and I was like, ‘Ten minutes, ten minutes.’
Did Of an Age come to you out of the blue too?
I wrote it literally in the middle of COVID […] I wasn’t feeling very productive, so I forced myself to do this writing exercise, which was to write a small story every day for five days in a row. And on the fifth day […] I was reading [Karen Russell’s story ‘Bog Girl: A Romance’,Karen Russell, ‘Bog Girl: A Romance’, Orange World and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019, pp. 67–94 which is] about a boy that never went to a party […] I got stuck on that, and it inspired me to write [what became Of an Age]. It was June 4, 2021, which I remember because it was the night before my husband’s birthday. And by June 11, I had finished the screenplay, and that’s the first draft I shot from within a year.
What was it like to tell this more personal story, filmed around where you grew up in Melbourne?
To be honest, [it and You Won’t Be Alone are] both actually weirdly personal, in ways that might not be immediately apparent. I think there’s more of my personality in those witches than there is in those guys [in Of an Age]. A lot of people have come up to me and [gone], ‘Oh well, so your love for your husband is up there’ in Of an Age; [but] to be honest I thought there was more of that in You Won’t Be Alone […]
We had to put [Of an Age] together really quickly, because COVID screwed us over and cut pre-production in half; we had to shoot it very quickly, and casting was very complicated. Like, it took a while to get to these three perfect humans.
So there were actually some hurdles along the way?
Yes, but it’s so strange. We finished shooting Of an Age two days early, and we had a four-day wrap party […] I genuinely don’t want to say, ‘hashtag blessed,’ but … you know, whatever the normal human equivalent of that feeling is. I just feel so lucky to have had it. And then, with the finished film, I also feel very happy with it myself: not in terms of I have no objective opinion of it, but just in terms of how it makes me feel – every element of it.
Talk me through the casting challenges that you mentioned with Of an Age. Did you have a fixed idea in mind that you struggled to discover in the audition room?
I was quite flexible in the sense that when I write something, I’m not necessarily tied to making sure the actor matches what’s written. And I often adapt [the screenplay] to whoever I find exciting. With Thom Green, something happens with his eyes that is almost identical to what I pictured when I was writing it […] That was unsettling, because he’s also not that personality at all in real life. But even just in his audition tape, something was happening with his eyes, and [I was] like, ‘This boy read my mind.’
With Elias [Anton], when he came in, it was a complicated process. He looks nothing like what was written, and so even before I saw his tape, I was like, ‘This kid is not appropriate for this role.’ But of course I knew him from [2016 miniseries] Barracuda,See Dion Kagan, ‘Fish in and Out of Water: The Embodied Erotics of Class and Sport in Barracuda’, Metro, no. 191, Summer 2017, pp. 34–41, available at <https://metromagazine.com.au/fish-in-and-out-of-water/>, accessed 23 March 2023. so I watched the tape because I liked him as an actor. And then I was just hypnotised by his vulnerability, and I was like, ‘I have to find him a role somewhere in this film, because I have to have him in my filmography somehow.’ And I kept watching him and watching him and I just found it so much more interesting and worthwhile; so I was like, ‘Fuck what’s written; this is what the movie is about now.’
Watching [Elias] evolve through the rehearsal process and the shoot – becoming a man in front of my eyes – I felt like a parent, genuinely. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Some of the most beautiful stuff in Of an Age is the stolen glances captured between these two young men as they’re thrown together in a hectic car ride across Melbourne. You seem to be fond of shooting in intimate close-ups.
To be honest, I discovered close-ups around my twenty-second short film [laughs]. I remember I was going through a 1940s phase […] I just loved the way close-ups worked in those Hollywood films. There’s no visual-effects extravaganza that can match that for power and immediacy, and that is cinema for me […] Obviously it needs to be from the right angle and in the right moment; but with eye contact, when you’re sparing with it, nothing can match that for electricity.
I think most people start with the wide shot to establish the scene, but I always shoot the close-ups first and then take the wide shot at the end, just in case we need it. And oftentimes we don’t even use it.
Was it important that that intimacy carried through to the eroticism of the car-set love scene, too?
There was a lot of conversation about that, because you want to protect the actors and make sure they feel comfortable. I mean, they’re adults; but, to me, they’re kids. So I put myself in that position, blocking it out. They’d see me doing it so that they understand and everything is very clear. And, honestly, to me, it’s all about the eyes; it’s not about the body at all […]
It was about connection, and they were just really both wonderful to work with, so it was a very easy scene together in the end: very sexy, but very beautiful.
This article is exclusive to the online edition of Metro no. 215.
|1||Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, ‘“New Rivers Spin Inside”: Women and Witchcraft in Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone’, Metro, no. 213, 2022, pp. 8–11, available at <https://metromagazine.com.au/new-rivers-spin-inside/>, accessed 23 March 2023.|
|2||See Laura Potier, ‘Goran Stolevski on You Won’t Be Alone, the Importance of Language, and Fluid Identities’, Outtake, 20 October 2022, <http://outtakemag.co.uk/interviews/2022/10/20/goran-stolevski-you-wont-be-alone-noomi-rapace/>, accessed 22 March 2023.|
|3||Karen Russell, ‘Bog Girl: A Romance’, Orange World and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019, pp. 67–94|
|4||See Dion Kagan, ‘Fish in and Out of Water: The Embodied Erotics of Class and Sport in Barracuda’, Metro, no. 191, Summer 2017, pp. 34–41, available at <https://metromagazine.com.au/fish-in-and-out-of-water/>, accessed 23 March 2023.|