It’s hard to catch Steph Westwood. These days, the young - albeit, well established - film producer is juggling a full time job at Seven Studios, as well as independently producing her own projects.
Our first scheduled interview date was postponed because Steph was imaginably exhausted by her workload and apologetically confessed she needed a day off. We meet a week later, and, despite arriving early, I find Steph already at the café seated with someone. I approach the table unflinchingly; Steph Westwood would be just the person to arrange back-to-back meetings early on a Sunday morning… She stands and greets me, perky after her first coffee, and introduces me to her friend; a filmmaker and acquaintance. Swiftly but politely she wraps her prior meeting and, feeling late, I slip into the warm seat occupied moments earlier by her friend.
“I guess I approached you because… in all honesty: I am not exactly sure what a producer does. In the more prosaic sense of the job, that is. And I feel that many people don’t truly know what a producer does…” Steph confirms my hypothesis with a knowing laughter and proceeds to break it down for me.
“There are two types of producers, essentially: creative and non-creative. Creative producers are driven by their own ideas and seek out their own projects. Non-creative producers are approached to work on projects… I am a creative producer.”
“And what, essentially, is the role of a producer?”
“Producers are extremely important in tying everything together… They oversee the practicalities of the film like financing, scheduling, budgeting. They are also heavily involved with the script, the editing and the casting. Producers are also critical for emotional support and morale. The producer has to keep believing in the film, even if the director stops believing- which they will, because things get difficult”.
Not only is the producer-director relationship critical, Steph explains, but if the Assistant Director is unable to support the scaffolding the producer has put in place, this can make the producer’s work negligible. “On the first film I ever produced, I was also an AD. I wanted to have control on set to make sure that the outcome of my production ran smoothly. But it can’t always be that way… It’s a collaboration in more than one way.”
“So would a producer not usually find themselves on a set?”
“In more commercial settings, the producer doesn’t even reach the set- it’s completely separate from the production stage; the director, crew, lighting and sound, build the set. But it’s a machine that the producer has enabled to run on its own. With indie films, it’s definitely a responsibility of the producer to be there on set, making sure it’s a safe and good space.” She is stern here- not in a punishing way, but it is clear that Steph has a passionate inclination to right the wrongs of what has always been a corrupt and unfair industry. This determined streak led to her creation of Flicka: an online ‘space for non-binary and women filmmakers based in Melbourne to connect, support, and share resources, advice, job opportunities.’ She describes this page as having ‘zero-tolerance policy for any kind of hurtful behaviour. This includes racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and ableism.’
"Steph has a passionate inclination to right the wrongs of what has always been a corrupt and unfair industry."
“…Sometimes I go on set after all the work I have done and I do feel quite useless. But that’s also really amazing. You see all the other people in their respective roles, and the reason they are working and doing what they are doing is because of the work you have done. You get to see your idea come to life, because you have set it in motion.”
“What are the different working lifestyles and working spaces that a producer can occupy?”
“There are sort of three pathways a producer can take. You can either be employed fulltime by production companies to produce the company’s projects, or you can work as a freelancer- in this case you have the freedom to work on your own projects but you could also be hired intermittently by production companies to work on their projects. Like Beth Frey did, collaborating with Matchbox for Nowhere Boys. The third option is running your own production company,” as she speaks, Steph decisively draws boxes and lines upon the table between us, conveying her ideas with concise confidence. I have no doubt this ability to tightly knit information together and lay it down for her subjects is what makes her film productions so seamlessly organized and successful.
“What would arrangement would be ideal for you?”
“I wouldn’t want to do only free lance- it’s hard to find a safety net. And I wouldn’t want to run my own production company. I think I would be overloaded with the business of just running the company and I wouldn’t get to do what I love, which is the actual producing. But I also wouldn’t want to just be with a production company. I think this industry is always a balance of having security and doing what you love independently”.
"I think this industry is always a balance of having security and doing what you love independently."
It seems that her current set up works well for Steph then; a full time Associate Producer at Seven Studios, but additionally producing an array of projects on the side, she is earning her bread and butter whilst satisfying her own goals as a creative producer.
“So as a creative producer, what is it that you like to see in films?”
“I want to produce films with certain people, certain sensibilities, certain themes… It’s more about what the film is absent of and what it isn’t promoting or including that will determine if I want to produce it.”
“And what are those themes?”
“Queer, gender…I am really interested in horror. I want to make films that make people think differently or make people uncomfortable about things that are normally accepted in society. “
“So, as someone who wants to oversee the production of such films, are you hoping to expose these themes and perspectives to a wider, commercial audience?”
“Yes; it’s always good to start a conversation, but I’m not just doing it for the sake of having a social agenda- it’s because I just find it more interesting to create stories about those people, than to create stories about straight white males. It’s like when a standup comedian makes a joke about rape – my resentment towards that isn’t about me being offended. Who cares if you are offended? Politically incorrect, or correct, or whatever. It’s just like, ‘be a better comedian; write something better.’ Along with the fact that it just is problematic and unethical. But it’s the same with producing queer stories; it’s not because they’re queer, it’s because I just find them more interesting. I don’t create queer stories for straight white males. I’m not interested in producing films for straight people, I am interested in producing films for queer people.”
“I think that’s important as a creator- making films not to be well liked or to appeal to anyone, but because you want to. That being said, do you think that it is imperative to the film industry that producers focus on delivering films that appeal to mainstream audiences, or is it important for producers to give attention to films that may not appeal as widely in order to challenge and diversify the market as well as represent marginalised groups?”
“I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. Look at Black Panther, or Crazy Rich Asians. We have shown time and time again that people respond to the representation of marginalised groups in TV and film and that these groups actually make up more of the ‘typical’ audience than we perceive.”
I am refreshed and reassured by Steph’s convictions. And also somewhat embarrassed by my perhaps skewed and un-researched understanding of what ‘audience’ and ‘audience demand’ actually means…I resort to an obvious question for someone who seems to be a born mover and shaker: “Did you always want to be a producer?”
“I actually went to film school thinking I wanted to be a writer and a director! It wasn’t until I did this summer intensive at the end of my second year that I realized I wanted to produce. It was at METfilm- the oldest film school in England- but it ended up being a train wreck. They were teaching us how to line up a shot, although the course was filled with professional filmmakers. But the lack of assistance and strategy meant that I ended up helping everyone make their films. And I realized I enjoyed giving people the bureaucracy to make their films… It was better than directing. I wasn’t a bad director, but I’m not good with actors, and I thought: there are so many other people who can do a better job than I can.” She returned to Melbourne and spent her remaining years of university producing other people’s films.
But she didn’t quite make it to graduation… “I dropped out of my film degree,” she says pursing her lips together to stop a smile from slipping out. With her chin slightly lifted, she gives a knowing nod that reads: ‘yep.’ “It is ironic because I go back to my university to give lectures to the students, and the teachers hate when I say, ‘you don’t need a degree to work’”. Steph left in her fourth and final year of film school after applying for a job as an assistant producer for a television program and landing the gig.
She admits though that she did gain a lot from film school. “It taught me that who you choose to collaborate with and finding your people is so important in this industry. I still work with a lot of the people I went to film school with.”
Learning to make mistakes was also a crucial part of her university experience. “People can get nasty with graduate films, because there is so much pressure. It shouldn’t be that way… Like your graduate film is not going to get you into Cannes and launch you into the world. It’s just a graduate film, its just film school! It’s the place to learn and make mistakes. I’m very much like that. I don’t think any idea is too valuable. I believe in killing your darlings. If Screen Australia doesn’t give you the grant, then throw away the idea and come up with something else. You make one film and you learn from it, so you can make another and another and another.”
It’s easy to bank your future film career on your graduate film, but Steph insists that you have to ride the wave of absolute uncertainty. “It’s never going to work out how you imagine. When I left film school I had this idea of how my career would look like. I said to myself: ‘I will do my graduate film, I will get a job at Matchbox, I will work my way up from there’. The year our graduate film got into Byron Bay festival, I approached Tony Ayres from Matchbox at the after party, wanting to be his assistant, and he told me to speak to his husband; Michael McMahon- who also works at Matchbox. I didn’t end up getting the job, but ultimately that moment turned out to be hugely significant. Michael McMahon ended up being a great mentor for me and has been responsible for getting me to lecture at my university. And my first job- the job that I left uni for- helped me in getting the job I am currently in; I was referred to Seven Studios by my first-ever boss from that television show…
What I tell students when I lecture is that it’s not a linear pathway and you can’t control how it will go. Everyone is building their own mosaic in this industry, and they add little pieces to it along the way. But it builds unevenly, and at different paces, and each mosaic looks completely different to the next. You can’t compare where you’re at with someone else.”