Rachel Griffiths’ first feature is quite something: a touching coming of age film, a glorious sports story, and, above all, a tale of an underdog beating all odds. The film depicts Michelle Payne, and her unforgettable Melbourne Cup win. It highlights the struggles of a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated industry, something that truly resonated with Rachel. Here, Rachel opens up about resilience, grit and tenacity.
Photography by Will Braden.
So Rachel, why did you choose this film to make your directional debut?
“I always thought my first feature would be a coming of age story for girls. Growing up, all those types of films tended to be about boys. The moment Michelle crossed the line it was like a light bulb went off in my head and I knew this was the story I had to tell. I called my producer straight away and said, ‘This is the story we’re doing and it’s going to be called Ride Like A Girl.”
“I think to have men walk in the shoes of a girl trying to make it in a man’s world is really the best way to make men understand the barriers we face. The biggest message in the film is resilience, hard work, not letting anyone else define you and to follow your dream with tenacity, all of which is so inherently strong in what Michelle achieved.”
Michelle is portrayed as strong and resilient, but she also has a softness to her, which I think is bought out in the family:
“You have to be this warrior on the horse, but then you are still the youngest of ten. Family, your community and your relationships is what truly nourishes you. Michelle’s dad Paddy only ever saw the abilities in his children. He didn’t define them by their gender or any preconceptions, he only saw his children’s ability. I think he is such an amazing and inspiring figure in his own right. And then there’s Stevie – having an intellectual disability is actually not a barrier to being an incredible focused and brilliant performer. Rather he works from a place which is quite extraordinary and wonderful.”
One of the biggest messages I took from the film, was family, in particular the strong bond of family. Was it after meeting them you decided to highlight that?
“As soon as she won the Melbourne Cup, I knew she was one of ten; that she had lost her mother; that her sister had died after a fall; that they were a big Catholic family. Coming from that myself, I understood. It’s also very positive about what faith does, without preaching it. And when you do something every day that’s so dangerous like Michelle, she always had that sense that her mother and her sister were watching over her.”
Was the switch from acting and producing to directing natural for you?
“I did direct short films right before I had a family, but I really didn’t think it would be ten years between my short and my feature. I think that kind of exemplifies the choices that women make in their forties. I was late to start a family, and directing is so all-encompassing. It’s a very selfish thing to take on in a lot of ways, it doesn’t leave much over for anyone else. It took an incredibly important story for me to me to think it was worth it.”
And do you think that was the biggest challenge, juggling it all?
“There were so many challenges. Raising the financing was very challenging and to do it without a massive international star was even harder. It was a big budget film, because of how it’s set, it sprawls over time, over place, over tracks and horses and children and a really big cast – it was a family of ten. There was no part that was inherently difficult, but certainly the easiest part was maintaining my passion and belief that this story is a story for all Australians and that it needed to be told. That’s what kept my momentum and engine going; my utter faith that this story has a place, has a purpose, and has an audience.”
Moving onto women in film: the past few years have seen strong, much more complex female characters on our screens, which perhaps weren’t there before. What do you think drives this?
“I think that television has led that. We’re now used to seeing these amazing women on television, but then you go to the movies, and you don’t see that degree of complexity. I think women began demanding more, and now with data, it shows how committed women are to going and seeing certain stories. Particularly positive and inspiring stories. Women want to support women.”
“I was very lucky to have women like Katie Page-Harvey who invested in the film, my first angel investor. She’s passionate about the advancement of women, both in business and in sport, and to have her backing I think gave confidence to a whole bunch of other women to come in. It was mostly female investors, although I did have the support of several very generous, supportive men, who are champions for change.”
What do you hope to pass onto your daughters?
“That it’s fantastic to have a dream, and to follow it, but then to get gritty, be resilient, be tenacious. You need to find the support you need when times are tough, because you need it. It’s very hard to do anything extraordinary alone. You have to learn how to explain your value.”